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
“It has been my experience that folks who have no vices have very few virtues.” —Abraham Lincoln
As a new partner and manager without restaurateur experience, I had a lot to learn. It was not just managing but coping with the characters and the bizarre incidents which happened as well. Just a couple of days after being installed in my new venture, Brian and I were in the club garden when he spotted a passing Ecuadorian who he claimed, had stolen from him. Physically dragging the poor man from the street into the bar, he took the .45 calibre pistol from behind the bar and apparently kept there for events such as this. He handed it to me, explaining he would go and fetch the police and should the petrified villain move as much as one millimetre, I should shoot him in the right foot. Fortunately, I did not have to. Bryan cornered a passing policeman who, for a small sum, carted the man off to jail.
Apart from two hotel cocktail bars, In those days there were only four places which you could call international bars: the Wildcatter Club; the Town House; the City Bar and the Silver Slipper discotheque and the Wildcatter Club. Since its inauguration in 1968, the Wildcatter had developed its own character. I inherited the regular customers and welcomed new ones, many of whom were characters in their own right.
George White, a Texan, known to the locals as Jorgé Blanco, worked for the petroleum company TEXACO. He had not been long in Ecuador before he fell for a young Columbian girl whose parents did not approve of the twenty-five years age difference between them and were compelling her to become a nun. On the day the bus was taking her to some far away convent, George decided to impede her removal. The driver refused to stop so George had no choice other than to shoot out the four tyres. The two married, later to open a BBQ joint with an ancient Galapagos turtle crawling around its garden as one of the main attractions.
We had our own eccentric Englishman as well – Sydney Lewis. He had been in the country for many years and along with his Columbian wife owned the Hotel Columbia, on the calle 9de Octubre in Quito. Following one of their frequent but this time more violent squabbles, he attempted to kill her by driving his car at her. He missed, only succeeding in damaging the car and a tree. She, in retaliation, threw him out of the first-floor window of their hotel luckily only breaking his arm. Drunk or sober, Sydney was an argumentative type. Being skinny as a bean pole, he knew better than engage in fisticuffs but had the disturbing tendency of pulling a pistol one anyone in disagreement with him. One time, misunderstanding a man on a neighbouring table had insulted him, Sydney went for his gun. Luckily Dick Mapelsden, a friend and customer you will hear more of later, wrested the weapon from him, bundled him under the table and pinned him to the floor with a boot on his neck until he calmed down.
Considering I had hardly seen a weapon close up since I left the army I was surprised to see just how many of our customers, – chiefly the locals and the military element – carried weapons. One of these, Francisco (Chino) Holguin, dealt in small calibre weapons and when Jorge Blanco opened his American BBQ place on the Avenida 6 de Diciembre, Chino supplied him with a 22 calibre rifle to gun-down the numerous mice who cavorted in the restaurant’s sawdust, covered floor. This sport became a part of the regular entertainment.
Prior to my arrival Chino and his partner Guido had t taken over a small distillery, only to discover the previous owner was on the run for selling and poisoning half the population of an Andean village with booze made from industrial alcohol. They learned from his mistake; their whiskey being prepared with water, less lethal alcohol, saccharine and a soupçon of brown shoe polish for colour and flavour.
Don Schaeffer, an American treasure hunter, when not with his lawyer attempting to get the Ecuadorian Navy to release his illegally confiscated boat, spent a lot of his time in the Club. At the same time trying to obtain permission to search for the English pirate, Francis Drake’s silver rumoured to be in a ship which sank in the 16th century, off the Ecuadorian coast and near the Isla del Plata. He was also kept busy defending himself against a North American newspaper which was accusing him of piracy on the high seas. He gave me a beautiful intricately, hand-carved bed in Lou of his unpaid bar bills. His wife, Irene Borja, one of the Minister of Government’s attractive daughters had only recently divorced him. She arrived at the club shortly afterwards, claiming the double bed was legally hers. Without a fight, I surrendered it to her. I had already learned it was better not to argue with a woman, especially a government minister’s daughter?
Another North American working in the oil fields was Jimmy Hannah, He was proud to call himself oil-field trash and was always good company. When not in the bar or working in the Oriente, he could be found with his pretty, twenty-year younger Ecuadorian girlfriend at a small farm he owned on the eastern slopes of the Andes. He called her snaggle-tooth because he claimed, his pubic hairs kept getting stuck in between her teeth.
Jimmy was a canny old fox who had saved a lot of money over the years he had been in the oil business. On one of his rare visits to the USA, he attempted to hire a car but not having a credit card found it impossible. He was extremely upset at this but spied across the road from the rental company stood an up-market car showroom. Jimmy went over, bought a Cadillac for cash and had a few moments of satisfaction driving around and around the rental firms, car park. Before returning to Ecuador he left the vehicle at his brother’s house in New Orleans. He gave permission to all his drinking buddies, myself included, to borrow this car should any of us be in New Orleans. the only stipulation being we returned it washed and fully-tanked.
The Wildcatter Club itself was in a large attractive house off the Avenida Amazonas and on the corner of Avenida Cristobal Colon y Juan Leon Mera. It has since been half demolished to make way for a new high-rise but part of the house has been incorporated into the new building. The bar on the ground floor was built with the help of the oil-field workers. Along with a few colleagues, Leonard Schwartz and Brett Warey, a pair of very original Texans, they constructed an excellent replica of a western bar, complete with swing doors. The bar top was made of lacquered Guayacan (Brown Ebony) from the Oriente, and I have yet to see a bar top to beat that one. Brett, the American Community’s self-styled BBQ specialist, also built us a grill and smoker from out of a meter long, sequestered piece of the oil pipeline. The first time, I was invited to the annual, formal US Marine Ball which was held in the Hotel Quito International, Brett turned up, resplendent in white tie and tails, a black Stetson and a holstered, silver .45 magnum. He was accompanied by his American lady-friend, known only to him as the skinny legged widow woman.
Two prospectors, Dave Hanoy and Chasmo (Charles Morrissey a former Pitsburg Bull’s player) arrived in Ecuador in search for gold which, like many before them, they never found. Dave, being an engineer moved to Portoviejo to work on the Poza Honda dam project in the Manabi province, where for a short time he was jailed, being the only person the police could arrest after the project manager disappeared with the company funds. Chasmo a nice brute of a man, stayed on, doing odd jobs in the oil fields. He and Brian Currie, a young American Peace Corps volunteer, were a couple of hell-raisers.
Brian was the first and I believe still the only person to streak the Avenida Amazonas, Quito’s principal shopping street. It was Chasmo, with his American footballer’s build who held the irate policemen at bay until Brian had time to get back into his clothes. Eventually, Chasmo returned to the USA where he knew he would have to do some jail time for some infringement of the Florida gun laws. Last I heard, sorry to say, he dropped dead one day in a Miami street
If you turned right on leaving the club and crossed the ave Amazonas before reaching the 9 de Octubre you would arrive at a police station which housed a couple of large, holding cells to accommodate drunks, criminals and prostitutes. It was a lucrative location for the servants of the law on duty there to add a little extra money to their meagre wages by ripping off the hookers who illegally worked the Avenida Colon.
I had no need for the law as what little trouble the club had was handled by Patricia, the club’s secretary, whose boyfriend was a police lieutenant. Problems in the bar were dealt with in-house but it was also an advantage that members of police and military hierarchy frequented the Wildcatter with friends and mistresses.
Customers leaving the club and unlucky enough to get stopped for drinking and driving and refusing to pay off the police could end up in one of the appalling holding cells. One such was Dieter Hamer, a friendly drunk of a German who worked for a Swiss chemical firm. One night, shortly after leaving the club, he sent a message to say he landed behind bars for causing a traffic accident and refusing to pay a bribe. He sent a policeman to the club to order a steak sandwich and a couple of bottles of beer? We spoiled him. A group of local musicians were performing in the bar that evening, so we took them, along with the steak sandwich, a case of beer and an extra bottle of rum for the guards. The visit became a lively party; the guards letting the hookers out of their cell to dance with us.
In an attempt to elevate the standard of the club, I decided to adopt a dress code. In future, I made it known only well-attired members would be admitted; suits, jackets and ties were now the order of the day. It never occurred to me a roughneck’s wardrobe consisted of only two or three pair of blue jeans, a stack of white T-shirts, the obligatory pair of snakeskin boots and a belt with a large silver buckle. I was made aware of my error one night when two of the toughest arrived in T-shirts with ties printed on them to test my new statute.
Despite the rednecks and roughnecks, we were beginning to attract more regular patrons. Ex-pat Brits and their wives, many who worked in agricultural, forestry and mining projects throughout the country, took to dropping in when they came to town. Peter (the planter) Wilson was one of these intrepid folk. Weather permitting it would normally take him two days to travel from the Sangay tea plantation, which he managed, to get to the Wildcatter and a decent meal.
Peter and I were soon good friends and a couple of years on, we became partners in a bar called, El Pub Inglese. Another friendship was formed when I met Simon Mennell, the British ambassador’s son. He introduced his parents to the club and with their patronage, diplomats from the American and other embassies began dropping in. During their time in Ecuador, the Mennells were a sort of surrogate family and I consider myself fortunate to still have Simon and his family as friends. I shall never forget the kindness they showed to me, not only during their time in Ecuador, even to the time of writing this book.
Little by little a different type of clientele began frequenting the club. Junior diplomats from the Ecuadorian Foreign Ministry came to enjoy the drinks and to play music. We had a resident male guitarist and a female singer who would entertain us, sitting by the bar’s stone fireplace. There was always audience participation as it seemed every Ecuadorian could either sing or play the guitar. We claimed to be the first bar in Quito and for all I know in the whole of Ecuador, to create a bar with live music.
I should mention that years later at least three of the young Ecuadorian diplomats went on to be their country’s ambassadors in Chile, Geneva, London and Washington. Two other up-and-coming diplomats who later became US ambassadors and more were John Negroponte, and Edwin Corr, were at different periods, Wildcatter customers. (1)
Through Ambassador Mennell, an Ecuadorian landowner and breeder of fighting bulls, Jose Maria Plaza became a regular and would fascinate us with his wonderful stories. José Maria’s father Leonidas, was twice president of Ecuador (1901 – 1905 and 1912 – 1916). In 1948, Jose Maria, taking a page from Dickens’s, Tale of Two Cities impersonated his brother Galo, who at that time was imprisoned for anti-government activity. Their deception allowing Galo to escape from the jail and ultimately into the palace where he becomes the President of Ecuador (1948 – 1952) and later, Secretary General of the OAS. Jose Maria’s son Leonidas, an aspiring bullfighter and generally spoiled lay-about at that time was a friend of mine, albeit, an impetuous one. It was Leonidas who introduced me to Lisetta, my future wife.
The bar, for that part of the world, was considered smart, the food excellent, the atmosphere congenial and the drinks expensive – at least for the locals. No doorman was required. Infrequent bouts of inclement temper and chest wrestling within the bar came to nothing. Occasional incidents of guns being drawn; usually by could-be, obstreperous Ecuadorian officials passed without casualties. Apart from the following incident, which I admit being in part to blame – there were no serious punch-ups in my place.
That specific night, an alcohol-fuelled altercation over the delayed delivery of Leonidas Plaza’s lobster order got out of hand. In a tantrum and in an effort to impress his guests, he stormed into the kitchen, threw things around, cursed and threatened to castrate Patricio the chef. Refusing to be calmed, he followed me upstairs to my office still looking for trouble. We traded blows and in grand Hollywood style, we tumbled headlong, arse over tit, down the broad staircase into the entrance hall.
Staff and customers quickly separated us but honour remained unsatisfied. A still furious Leonidas, in a most out-dated, Latino way of settling grievances, challenged me to a duel. Eight the following morning was to be the hour and the club’s front garden the venue. As we did not have swords. Pistols were suggested (we both had them) but common sense prevailed and fists were to be the only weapons.
Despite the confidence of Gladys, the waitress and wife of the abused chef and my self-appointed second for the dual, who said I would easily “matar al matador”, the next few hours were some of the longest ones I have lived through. I had not a hope in hell of beating him and I knew it; unless I put him out of action at the start by kicking him in the family jewels. But duels are about chivalry and besides – we were friends.
My inflammable temper had dampened considerably as had the alcoholic high and drinking more before a fight was not a clever idea – except to dull pain. Customers had made bets – odds-on against me. Someone suggested charging admittance to the garden but I was adamant, no one would be welcome to witness the carnage.
Quito, being only ten miles south of the equinox line, the sun sets at six in the evening and rises at six in the morning and that morning I was still wide awake to greet it. I made a half-hearted attempt to limber up, ready to pack some power into the punches I hoped to throw. I prepared a macho breakfast of a large rare steak with two fried eggs, only to find my appetite had disappeared. In the front garden, I surveyed the little patch of gentle, green grass where blood – mine – would soon be spilt. I checked the possibility of secreting a hammer or club in the surrounding bushes but had second thoughts about this.
Seven forty-five and there was no sign of Leonidas. The tension mounted in me. Was he as nervous? I doubted it. If he could face an angry 300-kilo bull without flinching, I could not imagine him worrying about my 145 pounds lunging towards him. Two minutes to eight and the street was empty. Back inside the bar, I approached the telephone. To hell with it, I would apologise. It was not altogether my fault but who cares at moments such as this. Eight o’clock and the moment of truth arrived. As I reached to pick up the phone – it rang.
It was Leonidas and he had sobered up as had I. “Were we – and if so – why were we, going to fight a dual. Would I remind him?” Thank goodness, as so often happens following ludicrous, alcoholic episodes such as ours, common sense in the light of day won through. All bets were off, it was business as usual, Gladys’s services as my second were no longer required and the garden’s virgin patch of grass would remain unsullied. Later that morning, rather than attempting to break each other’s heads Leonidas and I met – he wrote a cheque for the lobster dinner – I tore it up – we embraced. Our differences reconciled we repaired for a late breakfast of Ceviche and a couple of cold beers. Curiously though, the older I get the more convinced I am that I could have bettered him.
It is normal, especially in the gastro business, things do not always go as planned. Our really difficult customers were not the tough oil-field boys but on occasions their wives, some of whom could be quite frightening. While their men were at hard at work in the jungle, a few of these women, who could out-drink any man I have known, would be out prowling the few American bars. One particular crazy bunch of six no-gooders, all from Bakersfield California, and all of them large enough to have qualified for the World Wrestling Federation, liked to parade around town, wearing cardboard bowler hats and T-shirts with the Silver Slipper Drinking Team blazoned on them.
As we now had a name for being the smart Limey bar in town, we became a target for the SS-DTs as they were known, They enjoyed making surprise visits to the bar, usually at the most inconvenient of times and as we had no doorman, they were at the bar before anyone could stop them. Getting them out could be more difficult.
On the occasion when finally I managed to permanently bar them from the premises, Jean Clarke, the then American Consul, who had had past problems with one of the SS-DTS, was in the restaurant having lunch with two female colleagues. The largest Bakersfield broad, now quite drunk, spotted Jean from the bar. Leaving her teammates she went through to the dining area and greeted the consul.
Obviously, they were surprised by this apparition at midday but she apologized explaining she only wanted to show her and her companions a clever trick. The consul ’s protests went unheeded; without further warning, the would-be magician gripped two corners of the tablecloth and whipped it from under the crockery. Well, that was the idea. The trick, as you may no doubt know, is to leave the plates and glasses intact, in place and on the table. As far as I know few have ever managed it. She too failed – as she probably hoped it would – and the three females got their wine, steak and tail tipped over them.
In the late sixties and early seventies, drug cultivation and international trafficking were becoming major issues on the American agenda. The first DEA officer in Quito was Ron Kimble and he would often found in our bar. A particularly unpleasant American had taken to frequenting the place and was continually pestering the staff and Ecuadorian customers for drugs. I introduced Ron to him and the idiot, not knowing who Ron was, asked for his help in obtaining supplies of cocaine. The local police were kind to him. All he got was one night’s experience of a South American jail and kicked out of the country the following day. Such stupidity would not be treated so gently these days.
Shortly after this incident a third secretary at the US embassy and another embassy member; both regulars at my place approached me. They asked if I would be prepared to rent a furnished apartment or office in my or some other name. They explained it would not be for furtive, romantic assignations but for a private and discreet way of interviewing people of interest to them.
I agreed to help and rented a small office in a busy block, just off the Avenida 10 de Agosto. I was not to know that was the beginning of twenty-three years, mostly enjoyable relationship with the CIA.
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