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You Must Remember This: Joe Collins

By NANCY GARDNER

Joe Collins, a long-time resident, made his living developing small projects.  Probably his best known was the Jamaica Inn, a popular CdM watering hole in the ‘50s. Development, however, even of successful go-to places, was just a way to make a living. What he really loved was adventure, which must have been genetic because his son Kelly became a race car driver and his grandson, Ronny Burns, was a big wave rider until his premature death in a motorcycle accident.  As for Joe, it didn’t matter whether it was sailing to a new island or participating in an all-terrain motor race, as long as it promised some thrills he was up for it. He was a good friend of my father’s, and often after one of his adventures would come over for a drink and to recount his latest feat. After he left, my father would inevitably make the same lament: “How can someone who has done something so exciting make it sound so boring?” It was a great puzzle to a person who could turn the theft of a manhole cover into a rollicking saga.

At some point in the early ‘50s, Joe and my father went on a fishing trip to Baja. Baja was a very different place in those days. There were no clusters of condos for expatriate gringos. The peninsula was mostly small fishing and farming villages with great swaths of desert in between. Only a couple of places like Tijuana and Ensenada, where they went, were developed enough to have much tourist business. They had fished most of the day, and now it was time for a drink. There were bars in town – Hussong’s among them – but that was not good enough for my father. “Let’s go someplace where we’ll see the real Baja instead of some place with a bunch of tourists.” Joe was immediately on board, his one small concern that once off the beaten path could they make themselves understood well enough to order a drink. “My Spanish will get us through,” my father assured him.

Off they went, leaving the narrow-paved highway and following a dirt road until they came to a small cantina, just what they were looking for. They went in and sat down. “Dos cervezas,” my father said, flashing his Spanish.

The bartender looked at the two of them, and then rattled off a reply in Spanish. It is amazing when you do not know much – or any – of another language, how rapidly a native speaker seems to talk, but my father was able to grasp one word of the barrage: rojo.

“Si,” he said. “Rojo. Red.”

The bartender said something to the several other men who were sitting in the bar, and they came forward.

“Rojo?” one of them asked.

“Si, rojo,” my father said, delighted at how well things were going out in the real Baja.

There was another burst of Spanish between the other men while my father grinned at Joe, happy to be the facilitator of this wonderful Mexican-American exchange, but Joe was looking not at my father but at something behind him. My father turned his head, expecting to see a merry group sharing a moment of international amity, but instead he found a wall of men shoulder to shoulder, all with menacing glares.

After a moment, one of the men snarled something in which my father caught two words, one the now familiar rojo, the other communista. This was the period of the red scare, and the scare, apparently, was not limited to north of the border. Seeing two strangers in a place few strangers came, the Mexicans were instantly suspicious that they were Communist infiltrators, only to have their suspicions confirmed by one of the very men they were accusing. What had my father been thinking? Well, Joe Collins had red hair, and my father, picking up on the one familiar word, had assumed that rojo referred to Joe’s hair. He thought he had been agreeing that Joe was a redhead when he had actually been agreeing that they were Communists.

“No, no,” he quickly said and patted Joe’s hair. “Rojo…hair, no communista.” It took a few repetitions, but the mistake was eventually clarified, undoubtedly helped by buying several rounds for the house, and diplomatic relations were restored.

The only negative result of their little adventure came a week later when my folks went to a party. My father couldn’t wait to tell the story of his misadventure as a translator, and what happened? “Joe was at the party before me and told it first,” my father complained. “Typical Joe. He made it SO BORING!”

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Nancy Gardner, former Mayor of Newport Beach, longtime resident and daughter of Judge Robert Gardner, is a regular contributor to Stu News Newport.