Don’t Judge the Book…
By Jim Kuiken
So…there I was, a fairly junior, brand new “wet behind the ears” Border Patrol Agent, assigned to the Calexico California Station…
There’s always one thing that’s bugged the (bleep) outta me. People judging the book by its cover. Assuming since I’m whatever (not large, not overtly muscular, not assertive (that one’s a serious mis-judgement), etc., etc…) that I’m not capable, competent, etc.
This time, the general consensus was that I was a newbie. Ok, so I was – to the Border Patrol. However, I was previously a Recon Marine (Platoon Sergeant, when I left active duty), a multi-year Correctional Officer, SRT and SWAT member, Sheriff’s Deputy, Immigration Detention Officer (working with the Patrol), etc.
I get it that I had to learn all the Border Patrol stuff, but I wasn’t new to operating in austere environments in small teams, facing armed opponents (successfully), to law enforcement, or even to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
However, I was junior – in rank, time in service, and several other ways – but I’ve never had a problem with starting at the bottom, earning my stripes, and learning the ropes. I actually like that!
In late 1989, I’d been around for a few months, and was starting to get a reputation for a real go-getter, so they had partnered me with “Jim”. He was a salty BP Agent, had been around the block, and had a penchant for getting into situations others might avoid as too “risky” – my kind of guy. We worked well together, and soon had that bond that comes from working closely in tight situations, and knowing that your partner has your back. He was one of those typical desert dwellers…skinny, burnt mahogany and wiry muscles. And he smoked like a chimney…
At this point, with the background laid out I’d like to say “It was a dark and stormy night”, but let’s get real. It’s Calexico California! It’s a desert environment, with a climate much like Baghdad, Iraq. It was a blazing hot (well over a 100 degrees), dry, dusty, eye-wateringly bright day, just before noon.
Jim wanted a sit-down lunch, and we were out in the sector we called the “west desert” (which should be an indicator…a desert within a desert), and there was really only one place out there. The Mount Signal Café, on the corner of Hwy 98 and Brockman Rd. We headed out there, ordered our ginormous Sweet Ice Teas, he ordered a cheeseburger, and I ordered the taco plate – their specialty.
Just like in the movies…as Jim took his first bite of greasy cheeseburger, and I had just picked up my first crispy (except where it was laying in the “salad” juice…) taco, the radios came alive. It was the spotter plane, so high up you couldn’t hear it or even know it was there unless you knew exactly where to look. He called a “group” (of illegal aliens) crossing just upstream from the “check” (a vehicle crossing over the All American Canal – which, although it was technically north of the US/Mexico border, was the functional equivalent of the border).
I could tell by the lazy drawl that it was Wayne Wa. I’d never met Wayne, but you could tell when he was on the radio. He sounded just like John Wayne in some of his old westerns! I could just see the hat tipped back on his head, and a piece of straw in the corner of his mouth. I didn’t know where he was from, but I was guessing somewhere in rural Texas.
“Thur crossin’ up yonder at thuh check by Mandrapa an’ Rockwood road. Looks like a load, thr’s a white van approachin’. Anyone available?”
Jim let him know where we were, and that we were responding, as we dropped our food, ran outside and jumped into our slightly beat up, heavily dusty Dodge Ram 4X4. With the windows down (you couldn’t put them up in the summer because the air conditioner would overheat and start a car fire), we spun a “doughnut” in the gravel parking lot, eating our own dust, and started down Brockman road, when Wayne told us to turn around, and head east (towards Calexico) on the 98, because they had just loaded up the van, and were headed north on Rockwood, towards 98.
We knew if they hit 98, they’d take a left and head west through the mountains, and come out on US 8 by Ocotillo, heading toward San Diego, so we had to cut them off. Jim stood on the gas, and we shot down to Rockwood, turning south towards the border, and both vehicles saw each other at the same time.
We were heading south and they were heading north, when they cut a hard right turn onto Anza Road, heading back towards Calexico. At that rate of speed, if they hit town, folks could be seriously hurt or killed…so we had to stop them before they got close. I got on the radio and called ahead, and several BP vehicles started out from the Calexico Station headed towards us, hoping to get there before they entered town.
As we were getting close to town, we came up on a sharp left turn in the road, and we were afraid the van would lose it and roll, but he cut another sharp right off the road onto a small dirt road beside the cement canal, headed back towards Mexico. In a deliberate act, he veered left and crashed into the cement buttress at the head of the small canal, knowing we would stop and take care of the injured, and he could make it back to the border canal, just yards away…and escape.
Jim cranked the wheel over, and we stopped just inches from the van as I flung open the passenger door, and thoroughly pissed at the driver for endangering a van full of people (a couple of who were pregnant mothers with children, as we learned later), took off after him at full speed. I knew other BP vehicles were arriving, and that they would be helping those in the van.
As I came around the front of the van at a full-speed run, I dove into a flying tackle, hitting him mid-body, and we both went off into the cement ditch, slamming down with me on top of him. As I put the cuffs on him he looked up, and there was Jim, on the other side of the canal looking down with a grin, holding the shotgun to cover me if it had been needed.
I remember hearing “Was that yeu “Kaken”? Damn, that was a hell of a tackle!”, as Wayne started to laugh, and signed off.
After all that got settled out, I got called up to Sector Headquarters in El Centro a couple of days later. Some of the bosses wanted to see who I was, and give me a pat on the back for stopping the guy who didn’t show any human regard for his “cargo”, including the two pregnant women, when he deliberately crashed that van so he could get away.
While I was up there I got a tour, and as I was leaving, I saw a small Asian (turned out to be Chinese) man in a green flight suit walking towards me. As he got close, he smiled, stuck out his hand and said “Yeu Kaken? Dam, boy, that was some (bleep) down thr thuh othur day, wadnit?”
I just stood there for a second, frozen. What my eyes were seeing didn’t match with what my ears were hearing. A small Asian man with John Wayne’s voice!! My brain disconnected, unable to process… I managed to stammer out “yes Sir, it was some (bleep) alright!”
He gave my hand a final squeeze and smiled…and then (I’m not making this up), with his left hand he stuck the stub of a chewed cigar back in his mouth, said “Good on ‘ya boy!”, and clapped me on the back as he turned and headed back down the hallway. I just stood there watching his swagger as he went out the door. It finally connected that I had just met “John” Wayne Wa…
Turns out his family had immigrated, and he had grown up watching John Wayne movies, always wanting to be like him…and had legally changed his first name to Wayne…
And I had been irritated at others who had assumed things about me. Talk about misjudging a book by its cover! A small Chinese cowboy flying a US Border Patrol plane high over a desert by the Mexican border – doesn’t get any better than that!