When we watched “Cry Macho,” this latest of Clint Eastwood’s movies, memories came flooding back. Some were of his early movies, all set in hot, dusty places where violence was just around every corner. Some were from his Dirty Harry period, when the understated threat of violence was present in his every movement, his every word. Some were from his life as an actor/director, when he warned, “Get off my lawn.”
There is a marvelous scene where he finds himself the acting vet in a remote village that looked awfully familiar. He was taking care of animals by instinct, guided by memories of having cared for horses and cattle on ranches and in the rodeo, when the sheriff’s wife brings him her ailing dog. He turns to the young boy he is bringing back to his father and says quietly, “I don’t know how to cure old.” Nobody does. But everyone senses that he is speaking about himself, and about everyone who is getting old, too.
That’s what sets this movie apart John Wayne’s “The Searchers.” That story, as told by John Ford, was good, but this one is more thoughtful. It’s Clint Eastwood as Everyman, or what Everyman could have been, and how Everyman has one last chance to put it all right.
As I watch the 92-year-old Clint Eastwood struggling to get in and out of cars, I recognize myself. But when I see him on horseback, I can only see what might have been. When I was young, I spent every summer in Kansas. I learned that when you saw more cowboy magazines in the drug store than ones about automobiles, you were really in the West. Since I lived in town and not on a farm, I only got to ride occasionally. Lots of people talked about horses, but the farmers who lived in the valleys raised corn and feed crops — the cattle were on the High Plains, where a few inches of dusty top soil would grow grass but not much else.
The streets were three times as wide as those around here, because long, long ago, the ranchers drove their cattle down to the pens at the railroad. They hadn’t done that in living memory. The practice I remember was trucks pulling up to the stockyard down the street from my grandparents and unloading. The stockyard disappeared at least 40 years ago, and then even the railroad tracks were pulled up and taken away. My childhood practice of putting an ear to the track to hear if a distant train was coming — that can never be experienced again.
The movie also reminded me of the summer I spent in Mexico City to get my reading Spanish up to conversational level. My roommate and I made our way from Texas to Tampico, to Vera Cruz, and finally to Mexico City, where we split up — he went to a Quaker work camp in impoverished Tlascala, I found a place where university students lived. The cost was $32 a month, room, breakfast, supper and laundry. Butter was two dollars more, so I did without.
The room was four walls, three beds, and a door that wouldn’t lock. The toilet was downstairs, but you really don’t want to hear about it. My friends were from Sonora, about as isolated and dusty a region as in the movie. But I understood, since south Texas wasn’t much different. When my parents lived in McAllen we drove down almost every year for 35 years. Jackie’s family were Texans for several generations, Molly from Austin, Chester from a town near Laredo so small that if you blinked while driving through, you’d miss it. (He spoke fluent country Spanish, but rarely used it even when taking us to his favorite Mexican restaurant in Austin.)
My friends taught me about music, movies and food. We couldn’t afford any vices. I went by myself all around the city, then my friends took me to the pyramids, and I took a rural bus out to Tlascala. Mexico City was a much safer city that summer, but within a couple decades it had grown much larger, gangs had becoming stronger, and the police were even more corrupt. The people were still as nice as ever, but helpless to do much. I remember taking my students to the outdoor Mercado Central, which I had known well. Half way in, people began coming up to me, “Señor, es peligroso acqi!” I took my students to another gate, thinking that gangs would probably expect us to just turn around. There was also a memorable run-in with their secret service. Clint Eastwood would have been proud.