“Piñatas and Gringos”
By Gracie K. Harold
I was seven years old in the early 1980’s when my family moved from the Lakeshore living of the Midwest to the Southwestern Desert of Arizona. To say that we had culture shock is an understatement. We had driven cross country, towing a car behind us while the moving truck transported all of our belongings. I remember my parents waking me up around 11:00 pm to show me the view from the mountainside gas station as we reached the “valley side” of the mountain range and began our descent into the city of Phoenix. The lights from below us were a magical panorama of adventures to come. Above us, the stars were breathtaking. The scent of desert sage and citrus trees greeted us in the night air; and suddenly we were all wide awake with excitement.
We arrived at our new home just before midnight, and my brother and I barely contained our excitement when we discovered an in-ground swimming pool in our backyard. Our parents jumped up and down as they squealed like children, “Time for a midnight swim!” We had our swimsuits on in a heartbeat and ran out to the backyard, where celebration ensued in the pool.
Simultaneously, like a cheesy horror film; three things happened. The floodlights turned on, blinding us with brightness. The underground sprinkler system turned on in the little yard adjoining the pool, showering us at full pressure with cold water as we stared stupidly from the pool. Next, we heard the creepy sound of a whirring motor and turned to see a mechanical floating thing emerge from the shadows under the diving board. It started zipping through the water, with tentacles whipping back and forth underwater like twin anacondas. The round part that was above water looked to be the same dimensions as my brother’s head; and the tentacles reached underneath at least 5 feet in each direction. We thought we had all fallen into a science fiction nightmare in the middle of the desert. My dad yanked me out by my arm as my mom screamed to my brother to “Get out! Quick! Swim to the side!” I had never seen a little boy swim like a cartoon character until that moment. His little arms went over his body as if he were a windmill; and both of my parents were waiting at the side of the pool to pull him out of harm’s way. We grabbed our towels like they were combat helmets and made a hasty retreat into the house; where the sliding door was locked down like Fort Knox. We changed into pajamas and huddled together on the living room floor until we fell asleep.
One minute after the realtor’s office opened the next morning; my parents were on the phone.
The realtor came over and showed my parents where to find (and also how to reset) the timers for the sprinklers and floodlights. She adeptly redirected the spray from the sprinklers; and then she had the oddest smirk on her face when she heard my parents’ description of the motorized pool beast that almost ate my brother. It turns out “the pool beast” was in reality a “pool porpoise”, otherwise known as a “pool sweep”. It was designed to be a self-propelled pool cleaner; and would automatically move around obstacles in the pool while it cleaned. In other words, it would never eat anyone, but would adjust its route around us. In the weeks and years to come, my brother and I actually grew comfortable enough with the “monster” that we would race to grab the tentacles from underwater and drench each other with the pool spray.
Our next adventure happened when we were outside later that day. Some old railroad ties were stacked on each other to mark our property line; and my brother and I went over to them to investigate the little creatures which dotted our makeshift “fence”. We were overjoyed to watch the lizards of all sizes as they sunned themselves. It was only a matter of time before we dared each other to pick one up. On the count of three, we both courageously grabbed a lizard by the tail and grinned at each other in triumph. The lizards unceremoniously snapped free of their tails and scampered away as we stood in shock staring at each other. A split second later, we screamed in horror at the sight of our sibling holding a flailing tail which was somehow broken off of a lizard. Realization sunk in, and we each looked at the flailing tail in our own hand; screaming in bloodcurdling yelps. Our mother came running out of the house, certain that her beloved children were being kidnapped or stung by scorpions.
Instead, she opened the door to find us shrieking and waving our hands as the lizard tails convulsed between our fingers. “Drop it! Drop it! Drop it RIGHT NOW!” she commanded. Neither one of us had thought of that. We obliged, and ran to her as the tails finished their writhing on the ground. We didn’t know what was worse; thinking that we had killed the cute little lizards, or being so freaked out by their tails moving in our hands while disconnected from their bodies. Once again, my parents were relieved when their local source of truth assured them that the lizards would indeed grow new tails; and that they were harmless little animals.
One of the most interesting places to visit was the local supermarket. We had never seen piñatas in real life before. Our hometown in Michigan had been largely influenced by European settlers; and the largest cultural experience that we had was once a year at the local art festival when we sampled egg rolls from the food booths.
I remember looking over our heads at the piñatas as they danced in the breeze of the air conditioning unit. My dad asked a sales clerk, “What are those things hanging in the air?” She explained that they were piñatas, and that children hit them with broomsticks to get candy out of them for their birthdays. My brother and I dropped our jaws and widened our eyes in amazement! What a great idea!
My dad thanked the salesclerk, and the whole way home, my brother was quietly plotting something. I didn’t have to wait long before he pulled my parents aside at home. “Hey, my birthday is coming up; and I really want one of those candy things from the store!” My dad answered, “Oh, you want a piñata? (It is very important at this point in my recollection to tell you that my father, and eventually everyone in my family pronounced it “PIN~a~teh”, as in a straight PIN, “a” as in the A in hat, and “teh” like the t sound. It was said through a Midwestern nasally voice; but with the arrogance of all of us who thought we were accomplishing assimilation with the locals.)
Weeks came and went, and my brother’s birthday was upon us. With much pomp and carryings-on; the store bought piñata was hung up on our back patio amid whoops of celebration. My parents decided NOT to blindfold my 5 year old brother, reasoning that giving a healthy boy a broomstick was close enough to living on the edge. A quiet hush fell over us as he recoiled and swung, hitting the piñata. His hits became more fierce and determined until he knocked the thing off of the hook; and proceeded to pound it on the ground. Still wielding the broomstick, he looked up from the tattered mess of crepe paper and voiced what we had just realized, “This PIN-a-teh has NO CANDY in it!!!!” My dad cussed under his breath, my mother scooped up the battered remains into a bag, and took off in the car.
We later learned that she drove to the supermarket, marched up to the service desk; and refused to talk with anyone less than a manager. When the hierarchy of the store arrived, mom recounted our story; demanding a refund because our PIN-a-teh was missing its candy! Mom came home with a new PIN-a-teh, which she had stuffed with newly-purchased candy. The birthday was redeemed; but I overheard mom telling dad that the salesgirl and manager actually giggled as she walked away. “And they said something about me obviously being a ‘gringo’. I wonder what ‘gringo’ means?”
Years later when I was enrolled in Spanish class, I recalled that conversation and laughed at how aptly that described us. (If you don’t know what “gringo” means, it’s a Spanish slang word for a non-native; it can be also taken like the term “Rookie”). We were the epitome of a family of gringos. We wanted so badly to fit in and acclimate well; yet we had done a comically horrible job. Our family’s missteps, however; are minimal compared to the experience that my father’s co-worker had.
The co-worker and his wife were out for a peaceful weekend walk along one of the irrigation canals that ran around town. As they strolled; the wife noticed a bedraggled, matted, soaking wet little animal that appeared to have been in a fight. Their hearts went out to the poor creature; and the wife wondered how someone could abandon such a helpless Chihuahua. They tried to call a veterinary clinic, but they couldn’t locate anyone in town that offered weekend hours.
They brought the animal to their house, gave it a bath; used their blow dryer on low heat; and let the pitiful critter sleep on their bed. Monday morning, they brought their found animal into the vet clinic. They were astonished when the veterinarian started laughing uncontrollably. He finally caught his breath enough to explain that they had found an overgrown Mexican sewer rat!
Yes, literally, a Mexican sewer rat!!!
I have to say it…..EWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!!
Can you imagine?!
As realization dawned on them, they were horrified! Their sheets! Their towels! Their house!!!! They had unwittingly brought a wild rodent into their home! I think that their experience deserves the “Gringo Trophy”! From that point on; when we would misstep in the name of acclimating; we would laugh and say, “At least I didn’t bring home a sewer rat!”
Eventually, we relaxed enough to really enjoy our new surroundings. The car that we had towed behind us on our cross-country move was a Classic convertible. Some of my favorite memories are of the Sunday afternoons we would spend exploring Route 66 and the other back roads of Arizona.
We also learned that if we were going to the bank, it was wisest to bring a book because the wait with just one person ahead of us would easily be 15 to 20 minutes. This was because Arizona natives never seemed to be in a hurry for anything. We learned how to slow down and enjoy the people around us.
Our favorite epiphany involved the beauty of simply sitting and watching the sunset; whether it was sitting on our patio or atop South Mountain. The desert silhouettes provided the perfect foreground for the most gorgeous skies we had ever seen.
We still had misadventures along the way, and we still laugh at the mistakes that were made; but our experience taught me that when you are getting used to a new place or a new situation, things will probably go awry. In our new life together, as in Arizona; things go smoother when I can laugh at myself and learn from my mistakes. Honestly, I think that slowing down to simply enjoy one another as we discover this new life together will be the best part of our journey.
Below is a link to an Arneson pool sweep ad:
and here’s an image of our “pool monster”: