LA CASA NUEVA AND OTHER EARLY HOMES
by Martin Ough Dealy
Childhood memories are patchy, irritating things….. and yet precious because they are so personal. Some stand out clear and unequivocal. Others are like peering through a mist with some details clear like a ship’s horn in a fog and others tantalize for the lack of definition and certainty. Yet others are just shadowy quite indefinite things but like all the rest are of some apparent consequence because they have remained in my mind for as far back as I can remember.
My first conscious memory was of the shadowy frustrating kind. There is the distinct shape of someone’s head…a person bending over me. I guess the person must have been female because the hair is long and in the style reminiscent of those in pictures of older women photographed in the early 1930s and the face is smiling and feminine. I have a distinct impression of lying on my back in some kind of cot with a net over it. I guess that recollection came from the first awakening of an active mind and might have been when I was about two years old.
The house at San Lunes was what in England I suppose would be called a semi-detached bungalow. Its partner next door was the identical mirror image. Both looked out onto an area of grass and flower beds interspersed with large evergreen trees many of which were the Pirul tree with its distinctive smelly and sticky gummy sap. Dirty hands covered in the stuff are a distinct memory.
There were several other houses in the hacienda that were grander in the sense that they were detached and larger. The hacienda was surrounded by the high thick stonewalls typical of that ancient part of Mexico. The walls were topped by broken glass embedded in the cement surface of the coming as a deterrent to thieves and other unwanted visitors. Access from the dry dusty rough road running past the hacienda was through a large two-part gate standing as high as the wall itself. When opened cars could go through. For pedestrians there was a small door in one of the gates and one had to use the knocker to get the attention of the Portero to gain access and he was more often than not either not there or asleep.
I guess Dad, at that time being relatively young and junior in the hierarchy of mine and mill employees was only entitled to a semi detached. This small house had a veranda looking out towards the centre of the hacienda made pleasant by the greenery of the trees the complementing green of the grassed areas and the flower beds.
San Lunes was set at the entrance to a steep valley surrounded by the arid hills and stony dry land of the semi desert of that part of the State of Hidalgo. The road passed the hacienda was unsealed and twisted its way up the dry valley to the head shaft and mill of the Santa Gertrutis mines. The clouds of dust kicked up by vehicles using the road are a clear recollection. So are the peons with their strings of burden laden donkeys, struggling to somehow earn a living and survive in this harsh place. From the road above the hacienda presented the only spot of relieving and pleasant colour in an otherwise forbidding and desolate countryside. It was like a green jewel encased in the variegated light and dark grey ring of its old stonewalls.
I learnt to ride a bicycle there and that memory is very clear, probably I suppose, because of the pain associated with falling and grazing knees and elbows in the cruel gravel that surfaced the road and drives in the hacienda.
Dad taught me to ride. He would put me on the bike, give me a shove and after steadying my wobbling attempts to keep upright left me to carry on until the inevitable happened. After several crashes I finally got the hang of it. Dad’s encouragement and help in this made him my hero. Charmian also learned to ride a bike then and there was great rivalry as to who would succeed first. That sibling rivalry was to persist for as long as we were children.
My remaining memories of this otherwise unremarkable house are hazy but I have four vivid pictures of parts of it because of what happened in them.
The veranda was the place where I first experienced the physical pain and mental anguish of a blow from Dad. I must have deserved it, but it all came as a cold shock and a taste of what the real world was going to be like. It all happened so suddenly…..Dad was leaning over the veranda talking to the next door neighbour. He had been giving me boxing lessons previously and his rear end presented an inviting target. My using him as a punching bag produced a swift and harsh reaction in the form of a blow that sent me reeling back against the veranda wall winded and completely deflated. What is a sharp recollection was that he simply turned round and continued with his conversation ignoring my deflated and winded state and left me to recover as best I might.
The kitchen evokes a very different memory. Mum and Dad were with friends that traumatic evening and Charmian and I were left in charge of Ottilla. In those days it was the common custom and practice for all families who could afford to, whether semi foreigners like us or true Mexicanos, to employ servants. Ottilla was one of several that Mum and Dad employed over the years but one of just two that I remember best. She was a good soul and Charmian and I spent much time in her care. But she had problems in controlling two obstreperous youngsters. On this occasion she had banished me out of the kitchen and in a fit of temper I hit the glass door with my fist. The shattered glass fell everywhere and a shard left in the frame sliced open my right wrist including the main artery. There was blood everywhere, but I cannot remember any pain …… just surprise. It was Dad who saved the situation and me. My passport bears the words "cicatriz en la muneca derecha" recording the fact that the jagged scar remains a distinguishing mark to this day
I seemed to have been particularly prone to doing stupid things at that time. Mind you many who know me would say that I have not really lost that habit. I guess I was on a steep learning curve, and I often got into trouble by applying the lesson of one experience inappropriately to another situation to produce a disaster. I had seen Ottilla use a damp cloth to pick up hot pots from the kitchen wood-burning stove to save herself getting burnt. For some reason I wanted to remove a light bulb from its socket above my bed and I thought that I could use a damp cloth to avoid burning my fingers on the hot glass. Of course the inevitable happened and the bulb exploded in my hand. I must have been born under a lucky star because that time I escaped any injury…the cloth must have absorbed most of the explosion and by the grace of good fortune I made no contact with the live wires of the socket. But I did have a lot of explaining to do and Dad was not best pleased.
The grass area in front of the house was where I remember watching a partial eclipse of the sun. I must look up the actual date of the event from the appropriate astronomical tables, but my guess is that it would have been in 1937. Dad had explained what was about to happen and the importance of avoiding looking at the sun without protection. He provided a piece of glass to each of us on which the smoke and ash of burnt cork had been smeared … in those days I suppose dark glasses were hard to come by. Anyhow his keenness to ensure that we learnt something from the experience was typical of him and the pieces of glass proved very effective. The fact that things happened exactly as he had explained them to me increased my awe of Dad….he seemed to know so much. The passage of the moon over the sun’s disc did not seem to last very long, but I do remember how weird it was that the sun lost a large part of its disk and night seemed to descend in the middle of the day. Everything became so quiet too.
I have other recollections of the hacienda but not associated with the house. One involved the watchman who lived with his large family in a small hut near the main gate. The hut backed against the stone wall and led into a small patio where he kept a few chickens and a goat or two. I was forbidden from going there but I was drawn to the place one day by the loud terrified bleating from the goats and other noise. The horrifying picture that remains with me to this day was of a goat with its throat cut thrashing out what remained of its wretched life against the stone wall. It had been hung by one hind leg on a sharp hook set into the wall. Another goat was standing on the ground underneath, it too about to be slaughtered. I watched what followed with horrified fascination. It was not until the second goat had died that I ran home terrified. It was another introduction to the realities of life, especially as it was then in semi civilized semi savage often cruel Mexico.
Dr Cravioto and his family lived in the mirror image semi detached house next door. His two sons were a few years older than I was. I was constantly trying to make friends with them and join in their games…not surprisingly they were not terribly interested. On this occasion I suppose they thought they would teach me a lesson and have some fun at the same time. They had erected in the yard at the back of their house a small canvas tent rather like a teepee….the inverted cone shaped homes used by Indian tribes further north. They spent a lot of time inside making preparations of some sort and of course I wanted to join in. They held me off for a time but then when they judged the time was ripe they called me over and told me that the tent was very special and that if I wanted to see in side I had to perform a war dance around it and then I was to rush in and stamp around. Of course I performed as instructed I was so eager to please and to join in! But it was all a practical joke….they had dug a large deepish hole in the middle of the tepee and covered with a thin layer of sticks, grass and leaves. I fell into this trap to the glee of the two brothers and emerged dirty, angry and chastened. Oh how I hated their laughter at my expense and I still remember that cruel joke with impotent frustration.
Dr Cravioto worked as a senior medic for one of the mining companies and he was to come into my life again several years later to create a debt I can never repay. Regrettably I cannot remember the names of his two sons. I got to know them better later on at the English American School in Pachuca and they surprisngly proved to be staunch allies in the inevitable schoolyard battles.
San Rafael was one of several mining companies still working in the Pachuca region. German owned, its workings were to the north in the hills above Pachuca. Its main mineshaft was on the valley slopes opposite its single small mill on the other side. I have especially clear recollections of the ore transfer bucket line that ran on cables from the head of the shaft to the small mill lower down the valley on the opposite side. There was a clear view from the bedroom window looking out over the valley of this line the end of which could not have been perhaps more than a 100 yards away. When running the line was fascination for me and I must have spent long periods just watching the laden buckets swing up on the cable across the valley to reach the end, tip over and dump their load of ore with a great crash and then to straighten and proceed back down again in an endless chain for another load.
Dad’s job at San Rafael did not last long. But whilst there he had been given use of a largish two story stone walled house set in a copse of coniferous pines on top of a knoll near the mill. You could hear the sough of the wind through those trees…a peaceful and beautiful contrast to the racket of the mill when it was working. The altitude here was something over 9000 feet, not quite as high as the British American cemetery where Grandpa Ough is buried in Real del Monte, but certainly higher than Pachuca at something over 8000 feet.
The house was in a fairly remote place. In fact it stood alone in its own small piece of ground. There were no high stone walls to protect it as those of the hacienda at San Lunes. And of course the inevitable happened and we were robbed at least twice whilst we were there. I remember Mum complaining about all the things hat she had lost. I do not know the details and recall only things that she told me later, but evidently the first robbery was a particular fright for her…it had happened at night whilst we were all asleep. Mum and Dad discovered the burglary the next morning and it seems the thieves had the nerve even to make sacks out of the bed sheets they found in the out door laundry to carry their loot away.
Not that Mum and Dad had much to be stolen. Much of what was taken was food, but Los Ladrones also got away with things given to Mum and Dad when they were married and that must have been a blow. But the thieves did not get away with everything they had grabbed. Evidently some items had fallen out of one of the makeshift sacks and included the silver mug that Mum had won in the Pachuca Tennis Club tournament that now stands on a shelf at home. It was found in the vegetable patch below the house along with some other items where the burglars left their trail.
Things must have been particularly hard for Mum and Dad then, because the job at San Rafael fell through after a few months and Dad had a really hard time trying to find work in Pachuca. 1938 was not a good time to be out of a job. On top of that Dad and I had contracted malaria and that apparently nearly did for the two of us. I have no recollection of that whatever, but there is no doubt that it happened as both parents harped on the difficulties of that time long afterwards.
Apparently Dad was on his last few dollars plus a car when he finally was offered a job at a mine in the northern state of Chihuahua. It was at a place called Los Azules. A remote and lonely location in the wilds of the Sierra Madre. Dad went up there on his own to start the job and find a place for us. It took him eight days to drive there. He had set off in the hurricane season and just before he got to Torreon on the main state highway a storm had come in from the Gulf of Mexico and caused widespread devastation and chaos north of that city. Several bridges on the highway had been washed out and the rivers had to be negotiated either on make shift bridges, or driven through on a wing and a prayer.
Dad arrived late for his job and almost lost it as a result. It was a worrying and difficult time, made the more so by the need somehow to get the rest of the small family up to Los Azules. I have no memory of that trip nor do I know how we made it. I believe that Mum took Charmian and I and our belongings by train to Torreon or Chihuahua where Dad must have met us in his dilapidated old Ford (check car make).
The accommodation for employees at Los Azules (translated it means literally "The Blues" and in the circumstances probably an appropriate name) was set on the slope of a heavily wooded hill. A series of small houses and buildings in a line on above another to the topmost occupied by the senior managers.
The mill itself was located below near the valley floor with its tailings dams in close attendance. The dams were unremitting in their ugliness…dead, yellow and dusty the dams were like huge, flat depressing cakes…an intrusion on an otherwise beautiful place. They were dangerous too because they contained cyanide and the mines were constantly having to pay local farmers compensation for the cattle that died from drinking the water leaching from the dams.
Close by the tailings dams the company had set up a small tennis club that consisted of two or three clay courts and a small club house. This club provided one of the few amenities for recreation and socializing in this forsaken place and Mum and Dad played there as often as the could taking Charmian and I with them. We both got into fearful trouble once when we wandered off to explore the tailings dam (quite without permission as the dams were naturally a forbidden area) and got lost. Poor Charmian fell as we were negotiating our way down the steep sides of the dam and got a nasty cut from the barbed wire that was supposed to prevent anyone from gaining access….she bears the scar to this day. We did eventually manage to find our way back to the club and to our frantic parents, but that was more by the grace of incredibly good fortune than anything else.
I do not remember much else about Los Azules, but I have another distinct memory of the soughing of the wind through tall trees that surrounded the employee compound and the machine gun like sound of woodpeckers hammering their way into tough bark to get at the insects and grubs they survived on.
There was also the mine manager’s dachshund dog. A friendly animal it was an appropriate companion for the manager because he was also German.
Some months after starting at Los Azules, Dad received offer of work back in Pachuca and this time it seems his luck had changed, very much for the better. The job was as a foreman at the Loreto mill of the Cia Real del Monte y Pachuca, the oldest and largest of the mining companies in the area which was then owned by an American company. This must have come as a huge relief not just for Dad but especially for Mum. She poor soul had put up with much in her life in Mexico but Los Azules must have been the worst place of all. No social life, living on the smell of an oily rag and nothing to occupy her apart from the chores of motherhood and the rather drab house we lived in. We stayed in Los Azules for less than a year, but even that relatively short time must have been like purgatory for her.
The prospect of going back to Pachuca was itself not the brightest….Pachuca was in those days very much a dirty, noisy, at times violent and poverty stricken (for most) mining town. But at least there was a sizeable colony of foreigners. There were perhaps 500 expatriates in the town of about 60000 inhabitants and many families of foreign extraction had been there for several generations.
Also there was family. There were several relatives from Dad’s side in Pachuca and those on the Rule side were numerous. There was also Granny Ough (Dad’s Mum) and his crippled brother Sydney. Sister Amy had married Cecil Rule and in those days lived the life of a wealthy landed family with the hacienda at Chavaria and many hectares of land given over to the cultivation of the maguey cactus and the production of pulque.
Amy had married Cecil Rule n 1930 (?), whose family had been established in Mexico for over four generations. Cecil’s grandfather "old man Rule" had made and lost several fortunes from mining and farming interests and had raised two families…one via a wife, like himself from Cornwall and later with a second wife of Mexican descent. Old Man Rule left a total of 17 children when he died.
Cecil’s father had inherited much of the wealth created by the old man and that included the hacienda of Chavaria and so Cecil and his brother Gordon (who never married) stood to inherit all this in due course.
Pachuca was also reasonably close to Mexico City…just some 70 miles away to the south. The City was a beautiful place then with the sophistication, shopping and services that Mum needed, indeed must have craved for. So the return to Pachuca must have been for her like elevation to Nirvana after the constraints, loneliness and primitiveness of Los Azules.
La Casa Nueva
This house on the hill next to the largest silver producing mill in the world was for me a real and much loved home for 6 years during which I guess I experienced one of the happiest times of my life. I was not to appreciate that fact until after I had left but that period was unquestionably a happy one….not that there were no problems…..those I had in plenty and most of my own making, but in retrospect there was more fun and progress and sheer joy than anything else.
I guess this sense of happiness was as much the result of the greater sense of stability and the feeling that Mum and Dad were less harassed and worried than anything specific. Those six years coincided almost exactly with the whole period of the second World War and that generated other and greater uncertainties and fears especially for relatives still left back in the UK. But I was too young to understand that and Mum and Dad somehow managed to provide a shield from all this and a sanctuary. Anyhow the UK was a remote and unknown place that Dad constantly referred to as "home" but which meant nothing to me except that there were people like Granny Dealy and Uncle Arthur who lived there but whom I knew only from hearsay and some old and faded photographs.
My memory is crammed with recollections of life at La Casa Nueva and it is difficult to know where to start and what to describe. But the memories are vivid and will remain so I am sure until my last conscious thought.
The house was hardly new; it had been built perhaps some 15 years before we moved into it in 1939. It was a single story with a pitched corrugated iron roof and was made primarily of brick. It stood in a small piece of ground hard by the huge stone and concrete wall that surrounded and protected the Loreto Mill. It was placed on a shelf cut out of the steep hillside and separated by a wire fence from two other houses built on the same shelf that became for us "next door". These two houses were also for RDM employees and were more modern being joined together as semi-detached houses, single story with flat roofs. They were made of concrete and had a concrete patio running the full length in front of them ending in a large green gate that together with a high stone wall surrounding the three houses on the remaining sides shut all the houses away from the outside world.
La Casa Nueva was really nothing special as houses go. The front door was accessed via a concrete stair case of some twenty steps from the small front yard. This door was more or less in the centre of the front wall forming the short side of the rectangle that was the basic shape of the house. The entrance gave access to the dining room with its rarely used fireplace above which there used to hang an oil painting of Grandfather Ough. Opposite the front door into the dining room was a corridor that led to the kitchen past the bathroom and a cupboard on one side and the doors leading to two bedrooms on the other. On the right there was the "sala" or living room and that with the two bedrooms completed the house as it was in 1939. Between the house and the high stone wall of the mill there was a concreted area divided into two platforms one above the other. On the top platform opposite the exit from the kitchen on the side of but separated from the house was the accommodation set aside for the servants. This was pretty cramped and set hard against the mill wall. It consisted of two rooms, a shower and toilet. One of the rooms was used as a part store for boxes suitcases and other paraphernalia that hinted at a temporary stay. This part was also set aside as a workshop that Dad used occasionally.
All the windows in the house were the old fashioned sash windows with weights attached to cords over pulleys on either side to help open and shut the lower portion. In additon to the heavy wooden doors from the kitchen and the rear bedroom there were screen doors, presumably to keep the flies out….but for some reason the front door did not have this feature. Perhaps the flies were well trained?
The front yard and the small strip of land between our house and next door were the only places where there was anything green struggling to grow from the rather poor soil. Everywhere else was covered by concrete or stone. But the front yard was the place to be because there, somehow, a tall pine tree had managed to grow and survive. Exactly what the doctor ordered for young kids hell bent on climbing everything in sight because it must have been over 30 feet high and its trunk split into two separate ones at a convenient height. The lower branches were strong enough to support a small platform. From there you could just see over the wall into the mill….you could also get a good view of the town of Pachuca in the valley below.
One of the things that characterized La Casa Neva was the seeming unending noise. Most of this came from the roar of the Symonds ore crushers situated just on the other side of the mill wall. The process of reducing the chunks and small boulders of hard rock ore to a fine powder went on ceaselessly day and night for every day of the year. Only when there was a power failure or a breakdown did the process stop and then the silence was like a ghost…eerie, unnatural with no right to be there. The starting up of the crushers after such a silence often and perversely brought a sense of relief, the mills were working again and normal life could continue!
But there were many other noises to add to the cacophony of sound that as so much part of the house.
Occasionally, perhaps once a month, there would be the crash and rumble of steel balls being unloaded into the storage chambers near the crushers. These balls were about the size of those used in the French game of Petanque. They would be brought in by truck and dumped into a chute that carried them into the hoppers next to the house for use later in the grinding mills. The racquet they made as they rolled down the chute was loud, distinctively metallic and exciting. They created a sense of something happening and whenever I could get away with it I’d climb to the top of the stone mill wall to watch the process. That wall was at least 2 feet thick and much more in places where it was buttressed, with a curved cemented top and a wire fence on top of that. So I could never fall over into the mill, but that was still possible on my side of it although I never did. Of course whenever I was caught on the wall there was a price to pay. The misdemeanour would be added to others reported back to Dad at the end of each day and the debt cleared by some unpleasant means or other. Sometimes banishment to the bedroom, sometimes a spanking, and sometimes later on, as I grew older, a caning.
Every day there would also be, regular as clockwork the noise of the hooters of the Loreto Mill and San Juan mine. These, day in - night out, signalled the intervals between working shifts. But they were also used to signal emergencies and other events of note. Like VE Day in May 1945 when they hooted for hours on end signalling the end of the war.
For some reason the mill shifts differed from those of the mine by one hour and so the deep throaty noise of the mill hooter would sound at 6, midday, 6 again and midnight. The higher pitched mine hooter sounded an hour later. So the day and night were punctuated by this regular hooting and that governed the ebb and flow of humanity that worked in this energetic place. These hooters governed Dad’s working days and his comings and goings went on like clockwork to this seemingly never ending daily rhythm. But for me the noise of the hooters was, like the rumble of the crushers, part of normality and somehow were comforting and reassuring for that reason.
Another source of noise was the family dog Jumbo. A black water spaniel of uncertain mood and character, he was Dad’s dog. A feisty beast, ready to pick a quarrel with any other male dog and to defend his patch. But also a good family pet who withstood the constant petting and teasing foisted on him by Charmian and myself with patience and forbearance for most of the time. Occasionally he would growl and snap to indicate he had had enough but for the most part he was a lovable pet.
The problem was that Jumbo hated being shut up in the kitchen at night. He also hated the mine hooter. For some reason it was only the mine hooter and only when he was shut up in the kitchen that he gave vent to his feelings. Almost like clockwork when the mine hooter went off at night, Jumbo would start to howl and he’d go on howling long after the hooter had stopped. This often ended when, with a cry of rage, Dad would wake up, climb out of bed, go into the kitchen and chastise the dog. No doubt Jumbo did it to get attention and to protest about the unfairness of banishment but he never learnt and the routine was often repeated…sad really, because I had a certain fellow feeling for Jumbo’s woes and the pain of rejection.
The sound of clapping was another distinctive noise I always associate with La Casa Nueva. This happened once or twice a week and signalled the coming of a special Mexican dish…ah….. Mexican food…there is nothing anywhere to compare with it, especially when home made and with genuine ingredients including the sweat of the human hand. When the clapping started I knew that Julia, our "criada" for over 30 years, was making tortillas, a basic part of nearly every Mexican meal. In those days you could buy the corn masa already prepared, including the lime, in packets from the local shops. So she did not have to use the traditional stone pestel and mortar (get the right Mexican names) to crush the corn meal and to add the lime and salt in the traditional way. Nonetheless even with the masa already prepared tortilla making for Julia was very much a manual process.
She’d grab a handful of masa about the size of a baby’s fist and then press it onto the tabletop to form a thick round pat. She’d then proceed to clap this into shape between the palms of her hands as a thin round disc about 6 inches in diameter, literally clapping her hands together with the masa in between until she was satisfied it was right. Then the flimsy disc (by this process only about an eighth of an inch thick) was transferred onto the hot surface of either the wood burning kitchen stove or a large pan set on the top of it. She’d turn the cooking tortilla over several times with a flat wooden spatula until it was ready…still flexible, but hot with scorch marks on its off white surface and giving off the special aromas that only a well made tortilla can. Julia would go on with this routine until she judged the pile of tortillas as sufficient for whatever dish she had in mind. That could have been enchiladas, tostadas or simply tortas. Often she simply placed them in a straw basket in cloth and covered over to keep them warm for a les exotic meal.
The rainy season created another source of noise I always associate with La Casa Nueva. Violent thunderstorms with heavy rain and hail were a feature of the season and when the hail hit the tin roof of the house the noise was such as to drown every other, even the background racquet of the crushers beyond the stone wall. These storms would bring slashing, frightening bolts of lightning with crashing thunder that seemed to shake everything in the house. As a small boy I often felt somewhat threatened, but always secure inside the house and it was all exciting and noisy, especially when the wind caused the branches of the small tree outside the sala window to crash against it. You could almost sense the old house resisting the onslaught with self confidence in its own strength to turn the storm aside……..
La Casa Nueva was on a steep slope perhaps 100 feet higher than the main entrance to Loreto Mill. The mill wall that separated the house from the mill extended all the way down this slope and as it reached the bottom it increased in height to about that of a two story building and the entrance to the mill was through a large gate way where the slope started. Beside the gate way was the entrance to the technically renowned Geralt mine tunnel which ran directly under La Casa Nueva. This was part of the extensive Pacchuca and Real del Monte mine workings giving access to tunnels that extended for hundreds of kilometres at varying levels and mainly running in a northeast/southwester line . The road to Loreto the mill entrance continued steeply on up the slope between the mill wall and that of another older and now derelict mill hacienda on the other side until it reached a sharp right hand turn. It continued for another fifty yards before reaching the end of the shelf on which Casa Nueva and the two neighbouring houses was built, and then it went into a series of sharp, left and right zig zags to reach the San Juan mine and other places built above the house before going onto into the hinterland of hills old mines and struggling local hamlets including eventually San Rafael.
That road past the house was roughly made with a metal surface and quite steep to. Trucks and other vehicles used it frequently and, of course the noises they made became part and parcel of my memories of that place. Most distinctive of all and the one sound that my ears were particularly eager to hear was that of Dad’s old 1939 Chevrolet. Dad would walk down the hill to work most days and collect the car if he needed it from its garage within the mill compound to do his day’s business. But often he’d drive it up the hill to come home for lunch or for various other errands and as it ground its way up the hill it created its own distinct noise….and Dad always changed gear just before the first right hand turn half way up. If he missed making the gear change the car would not make it and would have to be backed down the slope until it reached the flat part at the bottom before another attempt could be made. But every time I heard the car making its way up the steep road I knew I had something to anticipate, especially because it involved the old man. He was just coming home and that I almost always anticipated with keenness, except on the days when I knew I had to pay for misdemeanours and mischief. But I must say that Dad was my hero then and I almost worshiped him. He was often the source of something interesting and the instigator of things that led to good fun or were new.
Sometimes a company driver would bring the car up the hill for Mum to use for shopping or other errands. Strangely you could tell that Dad was not driving it. The technique was quite different because the driver almost always put the car in first gear to start with and never had to make the gear change at the turn. Somehow it seemed a tamer way of doing it, but then again it was probably a better technique that Dad’s.
Occasionally a really unpleasant and threatening noise would occur. Surrounded as it was by stone walls and wire fences the house and those of the two neighbours were reasonably protected from unwanted access. Never once in all the years that Dad lived there was the La Casa Nueva robbed. And only once was the next door neighbour’s place broken into. The stone wall on the hill above the house was particularly high and it was topped by broken glass so making it impossible, except for the most determined thief, to get over. However, from further up the hill you could get a sight over the wall of the tin roof of the house and this occasionally became a tempting target for the local boys and mischief makers. With a plentiful supply of stones and rocks….these were everywhere in this dry almost treeless place….it was too easy to throw them over the wall. The result was a crash, extremely satisfying no doubt for the thrower but threatening and terrifying for the people underneath. Fortunately this did not happen often and only became on just one occasion a real problem. That was when a gang of local boys took a dislike to the gringos living in the compound and resorted to not just rock throwing but also trying to pick fights with us whenever we appeared outside the gate. Thankfully this was soon stopped, but I dare say the fault was as much mine and that of my friends next door as that of the local lads outside.
La Casa Nueva was certainly a noisy place, the mill being the main source of most of the racket. But it had other noises that I associate particularly with that much loved home. These included the noise of feet on the wooden floors; the sound of records being played on the gramaphone player that Uncle Syd had built; the crackly, coming and going noise of shortwave radio tuned to the BBC news; and the noise of drums when Dad took into his head to practice.
The wooden floors were a source of pride and irritation for Mum. They were kept highly polished, but were also covered by mats of various sorts to reduce the noise and protect the surface. The only place without wooden floors was the bathroom and that had some sort of tiled surface.
The BBC news was listened to with great faithfulness and regularity. At times it was almost like a religious rite. Everyone had to be quiet whilst Dad turned on the old fashioned vacuum valved radio, wait for it to warm up and then search for the right shortwave frequency. The very British voice of the BBC news reader would come and go as the reception conditions dictated, but for the most part we could hear what was being reported. This ritual was repeated almost every evening after Dad had got back from work. I am not sure exactly the time of the broadcasts but associate the activity as that following the evening meals and just before being sent off to bed.
It is extraordinary in a way to think of the small community of people of British origin living in this completely foreign land, a community made up mainly of people who had been there for several generations, yet still sticking stubbornly to the notion of "home" being in England, and maintaining loyalties and customs so out of kilter with the surrounding environment of Mexico. Dad was of the second generation ….he was born in Guanajuato and I consequently was born as a third generation Anglo Mexican. Legally he, Charmian and I were Mexicans first and British second, but that fact was never allowed to be recognized in our staunchly loyal family. Listening to the BBC was just one of the many things used by Mum and Dad, and the rest of the family to maintain the links and memories (theirs then) of "home".
However Mum’s position was very different. Born and living in Hong Kong for the first 8 years of her life she was legally British, there being in those days no recognition of Hong Kong citizenship. And then in the extended parts of the family the situation was even more complicated. Dad’s sister Aunt Amy was born in Lynmouth in Dorset, so legally she had no Mexican connections. Uncle Syd dad’s eldest brother however had been born in Mexico and so could claim to be Mexican first and British second. Similarly Amy’s children, my cousins Audrey and Noel could also claim to be Mexicans first and British second. But not uncle Cecil, Amy’s husband or his brother uncle Gordon who had both been born in the Uk but, apart from school years had lived almost all their lives, like Dad in Mexico. (Family tree chart here might help explain !). But it was the link with Britain that was the common and strongest thread for all members of the family. It was this link that governed our family culture and which was to influence the future course of the lives of all members of the extended family but especially members of the third generation, Charmian, Audrey, Noel and I.
Mum and Dad were very much of the generation of flappers. They were young in the 1920’s and exposed to all the "new fangled" ideas and modes of those years when the shackles and constraints of the Victorian/Edwardian era were fast being thrown off. A period of exploding exciting new possibilities, new styles of music and dance, new machines and inventions. It was then that Mum grew to love dancing, night clubbing and generally trying to escape the inhibitions of her strict upbringing. Dad was also part of that scene and took up the drums. I do not know when he learnt to play them but the drums were certainly part of his life during those first six years in La Casa Nueva. He was a member of a local jazz band and that provided music for local dances and for events organized to raise funds for the "war effort". I always associate La Casa Nueva with the noise of those drums when he practiced. When not in use they were kept in a large cupboard in the "sala" of the house, along with his golf clubs , old trench coat and sets of jig saw puzzles. The drums have long since disappeared, but I still have the trench coat and at least one of the 1000 piece puzzles that he had made.
Charmian and I started off life in that house sharing the bedroom at the back, next to that of the parents. Our bedroom had three doors, a large built in cupboard with its own door and two sash windows. One door led to a small yard outside and faced the next door house., The other two provided access to the inner passageway and the other bedroom with its large brass framed double bed. One window looked out over the small strip of sad soil and sorry looking plants to next door; the other looked out onto the small yard between the back of the house and the very high stone wall separating it from the road to the San Juan mine above. The yard was a dismal place, mainly used to store fire wood for the kitchen stove, sometimes to keep the odd chicken or two and every year the Christmas turkey. The latter would be bought several weeks ahead of time and spent its last days in this yard. So the sound of these occasional feathered occupants of the yard was another to be associated with the house.
Eventually, I graduated to having my own room. This was actually in a separate shed in the yard opposite the kitchen on the upper of the two concrete platforms and backing against the mill wall. It was built two or three years after we had moved in and was wooden framed with plaster walls and a corrugated tin roof. It was quite a large room with plenty of space and became a great place to play in. The floor was large enough to accommodate my first electric train set (an American Lionel, not a British Hornby….that was unobtainable during those years). It also later on accommodated a contraption I had built as a part of my lessons in carpentry. This was a box set up on a frame some two feet above the ground to simulate the cockpit of an aeroplane. There was a seat in the box and a joy stick and an instrument panel. I spent many happy hours in this thing pretending to fly. I don’t know what inspired me to build the contraaption, perhaps it was all the talk of the war and aeroplanes, but it proved to be a source of a lot of imaginative play and I did get a preliminary inkling of the basics of flying that stood me in good stead later on.
I must say though that the electric train set did not last long in my room. Shortly after the Christmas I was given this toy it disappeared into the train room set up by Uncle Syd and Dad in the old house at Progresso. There the train became part of an ambitious and complicated system that occupied almost the whole of the room. Trains (mine was not the only one to be used, Noel had also been given a train set that Christmas and that suffered the same fate!) ran around on a series of platforms, bridges (including a massive ingenious electrically powered draw bridge that Uncle Syd had designed and made himself) and viaducts leaving only just enough room at the room door for the controllers to operate everything from a central consul (also made by Syd). I was allowed occasionally to try my hand out as a controller, but somehow it wasn’t the same as having set up the smaller train set myself on the bedroom floor.
Progresso House was nearer the centre of Pachuca and the Plaza with the old but famous land mark the town Clock tower. To get there despite the short distance we almost never walked…..nearly always went by car. The drive took us down the sharp right handed bend above Loreto Mill entrance onto the start of the main road to Real del Monte and then forking right on the western bank of the old river bed that ran through the town. This was almost always dry and in those days stank of human excrement. The locals were not the most fastidious of people and anyway there were simply no facilities for relieving oneself and so many of the miners going home after a hard days work would take recourse to the river bed……an unpleasant noisome place.
The road ran past derelict mine properties characterized by the usual thick stone walls that had been too strong and well built to be completely destroyed, then past the Pachuca Tennis Club that had by then been set up in the old Progresso mill grounds until the next road junction. On the left (eastern corner of this was the Methodist Church built by the original Cornish miners in the late 1800’s and on the right was a Government school built of red brick with access through wrought iron gates. Turning right was the last but part of the short drive to Progresso House. The road was steep again but straight and with a cobble stone surface. Narrow with Spanish style flat walled houses on the left side, with on the right yet another high stone wall that at one time protected the now derilict Progresso Mill of the Maravillas company. This wall still stood protecting the occupied houses built for mill staff from various companies thtat still operated. Whoever was driving the car and it was usually Dad, had to honk at the double green gates to gain access, and on driving through we parked in the cobbled courtyard fronting Granny’s house. To get into Progresso House there was a steep staircase that gave way to a small patio and the glassed wooden framed door to the "sala". That patio arouses poignant memories for me in that distributed around its edges were various flower boxes, all kept by Granny Ough whose choice of flowers and plants was particularly nostalgic for her. There were snap dragons, sweet peas, roses, begonias …all the sorts of things that you’d find in an English garden. Poor Gran……she had last visited England in the early 30’s and was never to see her home country again. She lived on in Mexico for another quarter century. She died in 1957 (check). I never heard Gran complain. She was always good humoured and a special source of comfort and love especially at times when I seemed never able to get out of a cycle of trouble and escape Dad’s physically administered justice. Gran was always secretly giving me sweets and comfort and she was always a soft touch for something to eat. Her sandwiches were something else…. home made bread and especially those with a filling of flavoursome sliced beetroot with salt and butter. And she was always offering a "nice cup of tea".
Of course nearly all the adults seemed to smoke in those days. Pretty well everyone of my parents generation certainly did. Dad smoked very heavily and would consume up to two packs of "elegante" cigarettes a day. These were Mexican cigarettes made with a rank dark tobacco and had no filter. They had a really pungent odour reminiscent of the French Gaulois. Mum’s brands were milder, yet she too smoked quite heavily and never really gave up. Yet she remained pretty hale and hearty until her death at 94.
And of course there was the train room and Uncle Syds workshop. Uncle Syd was a clever man whose interests ranged widely and included model trains, photography, radio, physics especially that involving fooling around with electricity and high voltages. He was always doing or making something that fascinated my young mind. He could make sparks fly and simulate lightening. One way was to apply high voltages to the filaments of a light bulb and a sheet of silver paper spread on the glass inside.
His workshop consisted of a work bench beyond which was a wall against which were drawers in rows going up almost to the ceiling rather like an old fashioned apothecaries shop. These drawers containing all sorts…. screws, nails, fasteners, hinges, metals, chemicals tools and lord knows what else besides. His work bench always had something on it and most of the time that something and countless wires and other bits hanging onto it. Everything was arranged so that he could get at most things without having to resort to getting up and moving around on his crutches. In his quiet shy way Uncle Syd was a most resourceful character. But I never fathomed how he earned his living. I know that he did spend time in company offices at both Maravillas and RDM, but he was not doing this consistently as he would have done on a permanent job. And now of course with Mum and Dad also gone there is now no one of his generation to ask so I shall never know…..like so much else in life one must take the opportunities and ask the questions at the time and not let things slip by…..
© Copyright M.& M.M.O.Dealy
This page last modified on Thursday, July 10, 2014