Intrepid Optimist is the place where I can share my stories; fact, fiction and thoughts from the past and present. It’s Written by myself for people who believe adventure knows no age
How all the elements came to together for the perfect punch-up
No one in their right mind would have called TC, Tea Cup but I suppose Sparky wasn’t in his right mind that morning. TC, on observing the small English electrician huddled over his drink at one of the tables, announced to all those in hearing, that his three pet aversions in this life were, tea with milk, wet toilet paper and smart-ass Limeys. Sparky, being not just a smart ass, tea with milk drinking Limey, from Doncaster but when hung over, a mean bugger who had no time for loud mouthed Texans however large and TC was, by any international standard L.A.R.G.E.
The outcome of TC’s politically incorrect and untimely statement and Sparky’s UK, coal mining background, was two broken knuckles, one fractured jaw, one equally fractured table and enough broken glasses covering the floor to conduct an exercise in management bonding, although at the time I am recalling, management did not require bonding. They were hired or fired.
Earlier that morning, as on most mornings in JJs bar the conversation had turned to the subject of women. The majority of customers in JJ’s being oil field trash – and proud of it – did not hold the female sex in high esteem. The boys were competing as to why they had divorced. “I wouldn’t say that my ex was a nymphomaniac but the last time I see’d her, she was running after a troop train, with a mattress strapped to her back.” Nathen had commented. Long winded Lenny boasted that his second wife “Wore a bikini like a saddle on a sow”. Not to be out done, in his slow southern drawl, Zack complained that he could have “Sprayed four picking-up trucks with the paint scraped from her face” in her defence he added, “but she could suck the chrome of a trailer hitch.”
The day had started pleasantly enough, as did most unplanned drinking bouts at JJ’s. But that morning, just as elements in the atmosphere can meet to cause inclement weather and the horoscope align the stars to produce a good or bad day for someone, that day all the factors coincided.
Generally, oilfield hands on R and R in Quito, were not looking for trouble at eleven thirty in the morning but Sparky was an exception. Sparky had been looking for trouble most of his life. Eleven in the morning or eleven at night was of little consequence to him, even more so when suffering from a bad hangover or about to being confronted with a plate of burnt bacon and two cold, fried eggs.
Sparky’s belligerence was not tempered when Swamp Smith, another of our local oil field legends, from his own undisputed stool at the end of the bar and next to the toilet, began to sing. Swamp had a good voice and he often entertained the us with his never ending repertoire of western ballads or what some of us usually referred to as shit kicking music. But his choice that day, as probably was his intention, wound up an already tightly sprung Sparky another notch.
‘We fired our guns and the British kept a comin’,
There was not as many as there was a while ago.
We fired once more and they began a running,
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.’
Swamp was a Coonass, a detrimental handle bestowed on the Creole citizens of Louisiana, where apparently there is an abundance of these Coons and Swamp, being also of French Canadian descent, never missed a chance to stir up a little provocation against the Brits. The song – libelous to us Anglo-Saxons – was written by one Jimmy Driftwood to commemorate an insignificant battle in the American War of Independence in 1814, when the British were defeated by General Andrew Jackson served his purpose. So it was a good indication that things were warming up as he raised his voice and continued,
‘In 1814, we took a little trip,
Along with Colonel Jackson, down the mighty Missisip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans and
We caught the bloody British in a town near New Orleans.’
I should explain the event which I am recalling was a typical one and similar proceedings happened with some frequency during the 1970/80s, when the American big name companies were exploring for oil in Ecuador.
JJ’s Bar was in a converted house on the calle Ignacio de Veintimllia. JJ were the initials for Jesse James and Jim Frank who ran this place, claimed a kinship to Cole Younger, one of the infamous Jesse James gang who, in the 1880’s, were robbing the rich and keeping the proceeds and not sharing with the poor as was widely rumoured. –
JJ’s bar was perhaps one of the best custom built bars I have known and I admit to have known a few in my time. By custom built, I mean that it was adequate for the frequent knockdown, drag-out, punch-ups that occurred on the premises. The interior could be described at its most flattering as minimal rustic. A four meter long bar, with an equally long brass footrest, ran the full length of the premises. Both these had been constructed from materials filched from the various oilfield companies who employed the majority of the customers. Ten sturdy wooden tables with chairs, too heavy and unwieldy to be used as weapons, formed a circle which, depending on the occasion, was utilized for either eating and drinking or dancing on, sometimes all three simultaneously. The walls, a grubby, pale green, were covered with an assortment of framed, glass photographs, depicting oil field workers posed in front of their drilling rigs and of clients, both past and present, in various stages of inebriation. The glass in most of the frames was either cracked or missing, demolished by flying missiles.
Behind the bar were three metal shelves, on which a generous assortment of hard liquor had been placed to tempt. Fake shrunken heads, alongside Indian beads and carved wooden figures in varying erotic positions, filled what remaining space there was. Above the top shelf a very primitive oil painting, immortalizing the death of Jesse James being gunned down by Robert Ford, was surrounded by a further assortment of artefacts spears and blowpipes, bought or stolen from the Ecuadorian Indians. Beneath the lacquered bar top were the barkeeper’s tools, a baseball bat and on the occasions when Jim was not carrying it personally, a .45 Magnum. His pocket was the cash register.
It was true what was said in those days, the breakfasts at JJ’s were renowned. Bacon rashers, home fried potatoes, two or three eggs as desired, Heinz baked beans, grits, toast and as many free cups of coffee as you could drink, were available from eight in the morning until whenever Jim became to drunk to hold a frying pan. This could be by midday if he decided to drink along with his customers, or it might be late afternoon if he was pacing himself. When this happened It was Pilar, his long suffering but canny Columbian girl friend who cooked most of these wonderful breakfasts, would then take over the running of the bar and her pocket became the cash register.
Joe Sheldon, another legend from Hyde Park, New York was also there that particular morning. Joe did not come up to Quito very often. He complained of feeling out of place in civilization. His unease with society in general and the trouble he had when putting on his rarely worn, worn pair of boots accounted for his sparse appearances. He lived on the other side of the Andes. Oilfield trash in the eastern Amazonia – beach bums on the western Pacific coast. Joe lived by the beach or more precisely, on the beach in a covered boat dock. He had long since forsaken footwear and his feet became as much used to fresh air and freedom as he had himself. Forcing them into his only pair of boots was becoming more difficult with each journey.
Joe’s possessions were meagre. One pair of worn out jeans, one pair of equally worn out shorts, two shirts, a leather sombrero, his pair of well worn boots and a fully equipped metal toolbox, which he guarded more zealously than the Ecuadorian Central Bank looked after their customer’s money. The boat dock was furnished with drift wood, which he had artistically incorporated into the furniture. Motor parts, rusted and half covered with sand added to the rare but not disagreeable decor.
Money had he none but he never lacked for anything. The motor parts belonged to the village fishermen and in taking their engines to him for repair, they kept Joe supplied with his daily necessities; cigarettes, rum, coffee and fish, in that order.
He was an avid reader of paperback westerns, supplied infrequently by female backpackers who had passed through, fallen for him and become devotees. In those days Joe was a Clint Eastwood look alike and acted out a marvellous but unintended imitation of Clint in his Good, the Bad and the Ugly days. There were occasions when he over acted the role play and his reputation in Bahia was only equalled by that of El Matador, a local worthy who was reputed to have killed seventeen men. During the course of his forty years he had been a US marine, a dirt bike rider, a motor mechanic, gold miner and a street fighter. Apart from the latter, which he still occasionally revelled in, he had abandoned them all to live in Bahia de Caracas, then a scruffy and dusty fishing hamlet and unless aroused, he was the most easy going and contented person I have come across. I for one always welcomed his visits to town. One was never bored when he was around. You would not have called his company, intellectually stimulating but listening to him over a few beers, life did take on a new dimension.
The evening prior to all this Jim Frank had been on his way to another but better class version of an oil field bar when someone ran into his Jeep. As was to be expected in Latin America, where only the foreigners and the stupid few had insurance, a discussion started between the two drivers – both it seems under the influence of alcohol – as to who was to blame. The verbal argy-bargy ending with Jim giving the other driver a smack across the side of his head. Unbeknown to Jim the other person was an off-duty policeman. Jim ended up in the local transit jail, nursing a black eye, bruised ribs and a split lip, administered by the policeman’s colleagues. Pilar did not get to hear of his misfortune until this the following morning while she was preparing the first breakfasts. Being a highly excitable Latina, she dropped everything and shot off to the police station to rescue her man.
Joe Sheldon who cooked some of the best Chili-con-carne I have had the good fortune to eat, was in the bar and insisted in taking over until Pilar returned. Of course there is a vast difference between casually hashing up a bowl of chili for friends on a pleasant Sunday morning with a glass of Bloody Mary in hand, than tending a bar full of thirsty and starving oil field boys. Men such as those who frequent bars like JJs have been known to patiently queue at the bank counter, at the cash desk of a supermarket, when filling their vehicles or even at the airport check-in desk, but in a bar, they do not expect to wait longer than thirty seconds for their booze. Sparky, who had been chugalugging whisky for the best part of two hours, was no exception. . He was also nursing a horrendous hangover which later, during the after-fight post-mortem he cleverly used in his own defence.
To the fug of cigarette fumes pervading the bar room was added a fog of burnt fat as Joe struggled to cope with the kitchen and the bar simultaneously. All the elements for a perfect punch-up came together when Joe thrust a plate of three skinny strips of blackened bacon and two cold, fried eggs in front of Sparky who was most unhappy and verbally and most profanely chastised Joe’s culinary achievement. Hearing this TC intervened on Joe’s behalf and Sparky turned to him and in no uncertain terms told him “Keep the fuck out of this Tea Cup.”
Someone should have taken the trouble to remind Sparky that six feet eight inch, pillars of oak like TC – real name unknown – had an aversion to provocations casting aspirations on their masculinity. For a Texan, who believed any man who took bath instead of a shower had to be gay, being compared to a tea cup was an instant call to arms.
For some days after that morning’s main event it was heatedly debated who hit Sparky first. Through the mist of smoke and the flash of flying fists it was difficult to say if it was Joe who leapt over the bar or TC who came in from Sparky’s left. What surprised me and all those others privileged to witness the ensuing mayhem was that Sparky did not go down. For one moment he just stood there shaking his head rapidly from side to side. Some say he yelped with pain; I thought he just grunted but for Sparky, reared on Doncaster’s Friday night pub brawls the fight was just starting. However, Joe and TC were not the types to do a two on one. Their problem was quickly solved because Zack and Nathan sitting at the bar as Joe vaulted over it, had their breakfasts destroyed by one of his worn out boots. It was no longer a question of one on one but who on who.
I could go on about the merits or disadvantages of those involved as the fight raged; the right hooks, the blind punches and the Doncaster kisses – no boots were made use of those days – but I will be boring you. Let me say that all involved handled themselves well. The conflict would have gone on longer if Pilar and a still bruised Jim had not returned home to quell the unrest by Jim taking the baseball bat from under the bar and giving the protagonists one second to cease fire.
Calm was restored, friendships also. Hands were shaken and doubles were called for all round. Swamp Smith got back up on his stool by the toilet, picked up his guitar and another day at JJs was about to continue.
“Yeah, walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.
Runnin’ down the way of life,
Our fightin’ men have fought and died to keep.
If you don’t love it, leave it:
Let this song that I’m singin’ be a warnin….”
We have all moved on, some never to be forgotten. The last I heard, Jim Frank expired somewhere in Missouri due to access alcohol. At 75 Swamp Smith was still Wildcatting in Texas, TC retired to Dallas, Texas to watch and bet on football games. Joe Sheldon gave up his tropical paradise for a home on a container park, near Sanford, Florida and Sparky was doing time in Doncaster for GBH. Bless’m wherever they may be.
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