During my first year of college at Trinity University in San Antonio, I went through Rush, where fraternities interviewed me to decide if they wanted me to join them. I was beyond thrilled when the Triniteer fraternity extended a bid to me to go through initiation along with ten other pledges. Like most freshmen, being alone away from home was an exciting time, probably the best time of my life. Some studying and lots of parties, beer, girls, and fraternity life. What more could an 18-year-old boy want from life? The first semester flew by in a flash as I learned to make a fake Canadian driver’s license to buy beer, attended fraternity parties most weekends, and made friends with football players in my dorm. Unlike many of my fraternity brothers, I made good grades.
One of our rights of passage as a pledge was a mandatory Triniteer journey to Mexico that spring of 1973. Upperclassmen talked the trip up for a month, telling stories of drinking, clubs, fun. When Friday afternoon rolled around, pledges and brothers alike were stoked for a road trip. We met in a parking lot at 6:00 to board a rented Greyhound bus. A keg of beer in an overhead rack foretold a wild spree.
Our bus hit Interstate 35 for a journey to Laredo. As pledges, our duty was to imbibe our share of beer to ensure an empty keg upon return to San Antonio. A three-hour ride went fast as we prepared for intense partying.
The Triniteer President, Emilio, gave us advice, “This bus will stop two blocks short of our border. We’ll get off in a park and walk to the border bridge. As long as you don’t smart off, Immigration Agents won’t bother you on either side. Hear that? Don’t bother the Agents.”
Silence. This sounded serious.
“No matter how hungry you get, don’t eat food in Nuevo Laredo. Eat before you cross into Mexico. Over there, they'll feed you dogs and cats, and you’ll be sicker than you’ve ever been. And don’t drink the water or ice. Only drink bottles with pop tops. This bus will leave at 3:00 a.m., with or without you. He paused. “3:00.”
I got the message. Party hard, but don’t be late.
“Federales will be watching us, so don’t cause trouble or they’ll throw you in jail and charge a $500 fine for disturbing their peace. You‘ll sit in a rotten cell with thieves for days until your parents come down here to bail you out. Does anyone want to call their parents for bail?”
Silence. None of us had money to bail ourselves out, much less a brother.
“Federales will randomly stop and search you for weapons. Their favorite item is a pocketknife of any size. Off to jail you’ll go for a $1,000 bail. Take your pocketknife out now, even a tiny one on a key chain.”
I dropped my knife into a bucket passed around. That was okay. I knew if I pulled a knife, so would the other guy. I did not want to be in a knife fight.
“Another trick they have is taking a polaroid picture of you inside a club then demand you pay $5 or $10 for the picture. If you don’t pay, they call the Federales and say you tricked them. Don’t let them take your picture! Now it’s possible you will spend or lose all your money tonight."
"If that happens, you won’t be able to pay a cab to bring you back to the bridge. Put a $10 bill inside your sock and forget about it. If you get in trouble, use that money for a cab ride back.”
Most of us put extra money in a sock.
I told John sitting next to me, "Don't bother the Mexicans, or they'll bother you back."
“Yeah, yeah,” replied John, a fearless linebacker on the football team.
“Last of all,” Emilio said, “stick together in a group and have lots of fun.”
A cheer went up with saluted beer cups. I was pumped up for fun.
We entered Laredo and our bus made its way to the park. Thirty of us filed off into the park. It didn’t take long to walk to the bridge. Border Patrol agents waved us past the checkpoint, and we walked over the bridge to a different country. On the other side, Mexican agents passed us through, and we entered Nuevo Laredo.
A rowdy night ensued as we wandered through town checking out as many bars as possible. Federales rousted us several times searching for weapons. Fortunately, we’d left them on the bus. Some of my brothers who had not been in Mexico before broke down and ate street tacos from filthy carts. They paid dearly with Montezuma’s revenge for several days.
As 3:00 a.m. approached, groups of Triniteers straggled back to the bridge and made their way to the bus.
John, Randy, Scott, Mark, and I were crossing the bridge. Mark and Scott couldn’t walk too well, so we carried them between us in a line. As we slowly walked on the bridge’s sidewalk, a car full of Mexicans pulled up next to us and yelled Spanish obscenities. Boys being boys, a couple of us gave vivid replies and sign language. The car honked a few times and drove ahead to the U.S. side. We forgot about the encounter and made our way past the U.S. Border Patrol agents.
As we walked and stumbled to the park near the bus, a car spun around a corner, its occupants cursing us as they raced past us.
“Randy,” I said. “Isn’t that the same car we saw on the bridge?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
I watched car lights speed around the park. I perked up.
“Hey guys,” I said. “That Mexican car is coming back.”
We turned to watch the car squeal around the last corner and slam to a stop in front of us. Bad news. Five Mexicans jumped out and strutted toward us, obviously looking for trouble. Through semidarkness, I saw two of them swinging baseball bats while two others swung wide leather straps. At least there were no knives drawn.
I turned to Mark and Scott. "Hey guys, sober up. We're gonna get in a fight, and we can't carry you anymore."
They straightened up and tried to focus.
A tall, muscular Mexican, obviously their leader, approached us with his chest swelled out and yelling to pump up his courage, “What did you call us?”
“That was nothing, man,” I replied.
“What do you mean that was nothing? You called us #$&%.”
“No, no. We’re just drunk,” I pleaded. “We’re not looking for trouble. Right, guys?"
My brothers nodded. We exchanged a few more words, taking a downward spiral to violence. I looked back, and my brothers had retreated five feet behind me. They weren't fighters and knew I was on the karate and wrestling teams. They left the fight to me.
The Mexicans formed a semi-circle around us, brandishing their weapons. Damn, I might end up in a hospital tonight. I shook my head, trying to straighten out enough for a serious fight. Their leader yelled in Spanish and stepped toward me as his amigos egged him on. He brought up his hands. I brought up mine. Wrestling wasn’t for a brawl like this. If I went down to the ground, the others would kick the daylights out of me. I had to stay on my feet. He stepped forward and swung a windmill right. I stepped away and saw the other Mexicans close in on my brothers. The leader rushed me with fast rabbit punches. I blocked a few, but one landed and knocked off my glasses. The heck with fighting, without my glasses, I was doomed. I dropped to my knees and felt around in the dark. A kick smashed my ribs. I rolled over and kept looking for my glasses. There they were. I grabbed them and dodged another kick. I looked up and saw Scot raise his arm to block a hard swung baseball bat. He screamed. Mark took a home run swing into his elbow hanging by his side. Another yell. Randy and John took thrashings from leather straps.
I jumped up and yelled, “Run!” I dodged a swing from the leader and took off running, leaving my brothers who scattered like rats. The Mexicans stopped and laughed at us, but we kept running in terror. Mark and I arrived at the bus. I pounded on the door while he held his arm and moaned in agony. When the door opened, I was relieved to see some of my brothers already inside.
“You gotta help us,” I screamed. My adrenaline pumped full speed.
“What’s wrong?” Emilio asked.
“A bunch of Mexicans attacked us. Mark and some of the guys are hurt.”
Brothers poured out of the bus as the others in my group made their way back.
“Who hurt you?” Emilio asked.
“Mexicans over there,” Randy pointed.
Some of my brothers ran that direction looking for the guys chasing us. They returned shortly, reporting no Mexicans in sight.
I came out of my fight rush and slowed down. Emilio checked wounds on the fight survivors. Though Scott’s arm looked black and blue, it didn’t feel broken. If he hadn’t raised his elbow, the bat would have hit his head and probably killed him. Randy and John sported nasty welts from leather straps, but nothing serious. My wound was the lightest, just bruised ribs. With no medicine on the bus, we carried out our obligation to finish off the beer and retold our story many times on our ride back.
I learned my lesson and didn’t go back to Mexico until 40 years later at a cruise stop. Stepping into the streets of Cancun, that night in Laredo came back to me in full force. I turned around and returned to the ship.