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THE FISHERMAN WHO WOULD CONQUER SORROW

     It was the first night of the fiesta. Down by the sea the streets of Mazatlan were alive with celebrants. Many had come in from distant villages wearing the distinctive and traditional clothing of their region. Many had come from the United States and countries abroad, all eager to experience the mysteries and delights of this last opportunity to find joy, and perhaps mischief, before the onset of the somber Lenten season. In those days, Mazatlan was not nearly as large and sophisticated as it is today. It was more like a weary old village brought down from the mountains and placed by the sea. Even so, the fiesta crowds were huge and lively, partly because the famous bullfighter Manuel Benitez El Cordobes had come from Spain to fight the brave bulls in the Plaza de Toros. Here and there Mariachi bands wove through the crowds, vying for space along the seawall with children selling Chiclets and old men selling puppets of Poncho Villa and his esposa. Among the street venders was Gaspar Ruiz, a fishermanduring other seasons, but a familiar sight along Avenida del Mar during the fiesta. The celebrants were intrigued by the little helicopters Gaspar sold, toys that bore a striking resemblance to the sketches Leonardo da Vinci made of a flying machine. It had a propeller mounted atop a cylindrical device encircled by a string. When Gaspar pulled the string,
the cylinder revolved, the rotor spun, and the little helicopter leaped into the air and hovered high overhead to the delight of the crowd.

The first night of the fiesta was reaching a climax. The beautiful gringas from thenorth dared the streets now to dance with dusky young fishermen and imagined matadors. Sailors from freighters anchored in the harbor flowed into the streets in pursuit of virgins and harlots with equal fervor. Confetti stormed down from high windows and Mariachi bands cast decibels into the streets. Rockets exploded into the night sky, sometimes into the crowds, and Gaspar could hear the crystal crashing of tequila bottles upon pavement. It was a time of great physical friendships and quick, careless hatred. Here and there, fights broke out and strangers became lovers.

As he watched the fiesta unfold, Gaspar realized what he saw and felt was not an expression of joy or celebration. The fiesta was a cry of pain. Everywhere he looked there was desperation and sorrow. It is the earth, Gaspar thought. He considered all the things near the earth, the peasants sleeping on the seawall, on the beach, too poor to afford better. He considered the hovels at the foot of the hills,
the people in the street too drunk to know they would soon be victims of thieves. There is little joy down close to the earth, he thought. But high above, in the hills where the rich lived and in the high hotels and in the moonlit clouds, things were different. It is only when you rise high above the earth that you escape sorrow. As he sent his little helicopters high aloft and watched them soar free in the onshore wind, he wondered what it would be like to rise above the earth like that, how it would feel. If a small helicopter could fly, why not a large one, a helicopter big enough to carry him high above the fiesta and the harbor and the offshore islands.

When he had sold his last helicopter, it was morning. Gaspar moved up a winding cobbled street to the carpenteria of his friend Alejandro Buenaventura. He had always admired Alejandro’s skill as a carpenter. When he entered the shop, his friend was shaping the lid of a coffin.

“Gaspar, my friend!” Alejandro exclaimed. “So you are back again for the fiesta. It is good.”

“The fiesta and something else. I have a favor to ask.”

Alejandro laid his cutting tool down and wiped his hands on his loose trousers. “How can I be of service to you Gaspar? You do not look as if you need a casket.” The shop was filled with a great number of coffins. Some were quite ornate and all displayed obvious good workmanship.

Gaspar laid one of his little helicopters on a workbench. “I would like you to help me build a helicopter. Like this, but much bigger. Big enough for a pilot. Big enough to take me into the sky.”

“A helicopter?”Alejandro extended his fingers and drew little circles in the air above his head. “I have never constructed a helicopter.” He appeared to become very thoughtful, perhaps considering the challenge. “These days I work for the dead. The living cannot afford my skills. The dead are eligible for government money, so they are my best customers. But a helicopter?” He caressed his mustache and looked down at the little toy.

“Can it be done?”

“It has been done. The famous Italian Leonardo da Vinci designed a flying machine like this
five-hundred years ago. Yes, there is no doubt I could build a helicopter, but I could not promise it would fly.”

“If it does not fly, it is not a helicopter. Just as a bird that does not fly is not a bird. Did
that Italian’s helicopter fly?”

“No. His design was way ahead of his time. He had the right idea, but they didn’t have the technology. They didn’t have the means to power the rotor.”

“Do we have the technology now?”

“Maybe in the big helicopter factories. But not here in Mazatlan, not here in my carpenteria.”

“So you won’t do it?” Gaspar was devastated. He hadn’t realized how powerful was his dream of flying above the fiesta, of perhaps being a symbol that others could also rise above the misery in their lives.

Alejandro placed his hand on Gaspar’s shoulder. He wondered if his old friend had become a little crazy in his old age. They had been close for so many years, had shared their thoughts about politics and women and life. What would it hurt to play along for a while, until Gaspar came to his senses. Then, he said, “Maybe we could make the frame from the fresh white pine I harvested from the mountain slopes. It was for the coffins. But it is better to soar with the birds than to be buried with the dead.”

Gaspar was jubilant. He embraced Alejandro. “I will pay you. By the time the fiesta is over I will have earned thousands of pesos selling my toys.”

“We shall see, my friend. Let’s see how it goes.”

Alejandro had a vague memory of the famous helicopter da Vinci had sketched. By evening, he had constructed the first frail skeletal beginnings of the flying machine. At first, Alejandro thought it resembled the dead remains of some prehistoric flying insect. Then as he walked around it, he compared his work to the helicopter da Vinci had sketched, and he found in this design the aesthetic grace that the master inventor had breathed there. He began to feel the pride and exhilaration he always felt when a chair or a table or a casket began to take shape. By the time Gaspar returned the following day, Alejandro’s enthusiasm for the project knew no bounds, except for a small, troubling seed of guilt, the half-buried awareness that he was leading his friend on a fool’s errand. On the other hand, the project was the culmination of a five-hundred-year-old dream. At long last, Leonardo’s flying machine might fly. He decided to call the helicopter Leonardo’s Dream.

“It is beautiful!” Gaspar was overjoyed. He traced his fingers along the smooth, fragrant pine. “But shouldn’t the frame be enclosed?”

“I have the perfect thing,” Alejandro said. He brought from the workbench a stack of colorful cardboard posters announcing that Manuel Benitez El Cordobes would fight the bulls in the Plaza de Toros during the fiesta. “They will be displayed where the entire city will see them. The name of the greatest matador in the world will be written in the sky.”

During the next few days, there was a storm of activity in Alejandro’s carpenteria. Alejandro clamored over the emerging flying machine, his hammer tapping and pounding here and there on the pine salvaged from the coffins. The El Cordobes posters were nailed in place and a seat was fashioned forward for the pilot.

“How will the helicopter be powered?” Gaspar wanted to know. My toy is powered by the pulling of a string. Will we need a long rope? And what will pull the rope?”

“No rope,” Gaspar answered. “We will need a motor. And I have just the thing.” He took Gaspar outside where a large truck was parked. It belonged to the local Coca Cola bottler. On its top was a huge Coca Cola bottle. Gaspar remembered seeing the truck the night before leading the fiesta parade, the big bottle spinning atop the old truck. “This is our motor that will turn the rotor just as it turns the large bottle.”

Alejandro’s friend Pepe, a mechanic who worked for the city, helped remove the motor from the Coca Cola truck and mount it forward on Leonardo’s Dream. When he examined the drive mechanism, he reported that the motor just might transfer enough power to turn the helicopter’s rotor.”

“But we have no rotor?” Gaspar lamented.

“Ah, my friend, but we have.” Alejandro showed Gaspar the huge fan that had turned for the greater part of a century high in the ceiling of the great old Belmar Hotel. “When they found out da Vinci designed the helicopter and it carried the endorsement of Manuel Benitez El Cordobes, all the city decided to help. The Coca Cola Company and the managers of the Belmar Hotel loaned us the motor and the fan without cost. The flight will be an important moment in the history of the city.”

“And in the lives of all who are enslaved by the earth,” Gaspar added.

One morning, as the rising sun began to wake the city and the shops were opening and the tourists were beginning to drink in the bars and in the cool hollow hotels by the sea, Pepe and Alejandro began to mate the Belmar Hotel fan to the motor. But Alejandro found no joy in the work, only the growing feeling that he was doing something terribly wrong. When he could no longer remain quiet about his concerns, he called Gaspar aside. “I know you won’t understand this,” he said. “But I don’t want you to do this thing.”

“But you know I must.”

“I’m not trying to talk you out of anything. I want to see it fly, too. But I’m not sure it will.”

“Pepe says it is sure to fly.”

“Pepe repairs garbage trucks for the city. He is not an expert on aeronautics.”

Gaspar thought about this. Mariachi music and the scent of burning corn was broadcast on the wind. A child complained about the world and then was comforted. Below, the city began to accept the first shy celebrants who tested the state of the fiesta, cautiously, as a swimmer would test the temperature of the water with his toe. The people spilled out into the streets, blinking into the sun and they gathered on the seawall around full, clear bottles of tequila. Gaspar glanced over at Leonardo’s Dream, this comic construction of mismatched parts, and for a brief moment, he accepted the absurdity of what he was about to do. Then he turned back to Alejandro. “I don’t know why,” he said. “But it is clear I have been chosen to do this thing.”

Alejandro looked back at his old friend, saw the conviction in his eyes. And he realized, against his better judgement, that miracles do happen and maybe the damned thing might fly. But he was torn. At first, he had feared that it would not fly. But now he also feared that it might.

It seemed everyone in Mazatlan had heard about the flight. Children pressed themselves against the carpenteria window, peering in at the strange mechanical bird. Groups of men recently sobered stood in groups watching and scratching their crotches, making small wagers that Leonardo’s Dream would not leave the ground.

By mid-afternoon, a fifty-gallon drum of gasoline had been brought aboard and a fuel-injection
system consisting of enema tubes and an aquarium pump had been installed. Pepe had attached flight control cables to the control surfaces and he was now briefing Gaspar on the rudiments of vertical take off, a skill uncommon among dump truck mechanics.

There was a spirit of keen expectancy in the air. Spectators pressed into the shop and a concession stand materialized and soon everyone was drinking tequila, sucking limes, and waving paper birds on strings. Then a bandstand was assembled by stacking coffins side by side, and a group of caballeros began singing love songs in close harmony. It was as if the fiesta itself had been compressed into the carpenteria of Alejandro Buenaventura.

Then it was time to ground test Leonardo’s Dream and all its systems. As Gaspar climbed into the pilot seat, a hush fell over the carpenteria. Gaspar pushed the starter button and themotor made the sound of a small boy trying to sound like a motor starting. The great old Belmar Hotel fan began to turn, slowly, its blades groaning and creaking and casting thin swift shadows across the tense watching faces. Then there was a hollow explosion, a frenzy of raucous coughs, a belching of blue
smoke, and the motor caught, roaring majestically, the rotor flinging its wooden arms in wild and windy circles. A huge cheer escaped the crowd and sawdust rose from the floor and danced in the air. The flying machine trembled and strained as if anxious to rise after its five-hundred-year sleep. Feeling joy he had never known before, Gaspar throttled down. And maybe for the first time he actually believed in his head, as well as his heart, that Leonardo’s Dream would fly.

The night fell like a fantasy upon the city and the sea. A great foppish old sun loafed for a while on the horizon and then flopped into the sea splashing crimson and purple and lavender and deep, dark gold against the West. The sea led away, deep and brooding. Gulls swept low above the water and the high lighthouse cast its Cyclops eye toward China. There was a light chill wind from the sea and on it was broadcast the jubilant voice of the fiesta’s final night.

The procession climbed Ice Box Hill toward a high place where bleachers had been built to accommodate those who would witness the historic flight. Leading the procession was the Coca Cola truck towing the flying machine that lumbered up the rocky slope with graceless docility, its wooden rotor turning slowly in the breeze. Gaspar, wearing World War II goggles beneath his sombrero, rode in the pilot seat.

They arrived at the crest. Below, the city throbbed and surged and exploding fireworks filled the sky. The people settled upon the hillsides. They sang the traditional songs of the people while others shouted praise and encouragement to the fisherman who would soon challenge gravity. Brass bands blared and bleated, tequila flowed like nectar and there was the scent of limes and the sea in the air. The Coca Cola truck ground to astop and Alejandro’s labor crew moved Leonardo’s Dream into a place before wooden bleachers sagging beneath the weight of celebrants and dignitaries. The little
aircraft, that had looked so formidable in the crowded carpenteria, now seemed frail as a dandelion. Alejandro saw it there, perched timidly on the rocky hilltop and he felt terribly afraid. The helicopter was so small and silly. There’s no way the crazy little thing could fly, he thought. But it was too late to back out now. The bands were wailing, the crowd cheering, speeches being made. The Mayor and his wife and family were seated. Delegations were introduced and applauded. Gaspar was praised as the most dynamic figure in the history of Mexican aviation.

How the crowd cheered when the brave little machine leapt to life and began flinging its rotor around and round. Gaspar pulled the throttle back and there was a roaring and rushing of wind that made the very earth tremble and blew the sombreros from the heads of peasants and tax collectors. It blew the skirt of the Mayor’s wife high over her head, rustled the mustaches of the gathered municipal officials, passing gulls fell down disoriented from the sky, and fish in the sea became skittish. Gaspar pulled the throttle back further and it began to rain mushrooms and the rotors pounded the air and Leonardo’s Dream began to rise crazily above the cheering spectators. Gaspar was beside himself with transcendental joy and he flew as one possessed. He dove and swooped over the crowd like a barnstormer.

Then, as he passed over the harbor on a course for the offshore islands, he suddenly, inexplicably, disappeared. One moment Leonardo’s Dream was there, the next it was gone. For a moment, the music stopped, the crowd grew silent as everyone on Ice Box Hill contemplated the meaning of what they had witnessed. But the moment passed and the bands began to play again and the crowd flowed back down the hill to resume its celebration having already forgotten the flight of the fisherman who would conquer sorrow.

Alejandro was devastated. He wept without sound, without tears, without cease. He grieved for Gaspar, for himself, for angels and demons, for the world and all its wandering pilgrims who, like
Gaspar sought the impossible. He grieved for God and he grieved for Satan. He grieved that consciousness must end, that even the universe was coiling toward oblivion. At first he thought the helicopter had been shot down by the fireworks and rockets that had filled the sky on that last night of the fiesta. He borrowed a fishing boat to search the harbor for debris, perhaps a damaged El Cordobes poster or an enema tube from the fuel system, but he found nothing of the flying machine or its pilot. It was as if Gaspar, the fisherman-dreamer had never existed.

Alejandro Buenaventura returned to his shop where he busied himself fashioning coffins for the deceased poor. For a long while he abused himself with thoughts that he had killed his old friend Gaspar Ruiz. Then, in time, after a long time, he began to know that he had not killed him. He had given his life purpose. And now that life was performing miraculous aeronautics somewhere among the stars.