Harlee Lassiter was still a teenager when a judge offered him the choice of going to jail or enlisting in the Marines. Harlee chose the latter, ending up in command of a platoon at Chosin Reservoir as the highest ranking surviving soldier at age eighteen. After the war, he went to work for the Los Angeles Police Department, often talking with a young officer who scribbled stories on a tablet during his lunch break. The officer was Joseph Wambaugh, and they developed a lifelong friendship.
Harlee reached the top of his law enforcement career as the chief of police in a small Colorado town. After retirement he trained thoroughbreds, winning 333 races and a part in the movie, Seabiscuit. He was a prolific writer of short stories, which he read to our critique group. He didn’t want or need much critiquing. His stories were just about perfect. If one of us wrote anything about guns, he’d tell us what we got wrong, from the make to the specs to the sound when fired. Tough but gentle, I saw him almost lose it one time, when he read a story about having to put down a noble and beloved stallion. Harlee died in September, 2014.
When the Diamond Valley Writers Guild was formed in January, we made him an honorary member. His wife has given us permission to publish his stories. We’re including the following one so you can get a sense of the Harlee Lassiter we knew.
While chewing one of the widow’s tasty pork tamales, I pondered the impoverished woman’s confused logic. Did she seriously believe her line of reasoning? Had the pour soul become so used to doing without that any sort of improvement seemed futile? Or had she simply applied a little “native logic”, which I often encountered while living in Mexico.
Socorro Lopez and her children lived in a single room adobe, one of many lining the cobblestone streets of Ajijic, each house connected by a common wall. The humble abode had a dirt floor, sprinkled daily with water and swept clean. A pair of dilapidated double beds stood against opposing walls – one for the widow and her two daughters, the other for her three sons. When conditions called for privacy, Socorro draped a tattered sheet over a wire strung across the center of the room.
A tiny rear addition, barely large enough to hold a rickety table with a propane two-burner camp stove, provided a place for Socorro to do her cooking. The family’s meager living came from the sale of the widow’s savory home-made tamales. Socorro kept her recipe, handed down for generations, a guarded secret.
Her husband, hoping to earn money in the states and send it home, had lost his life in los estados unidos. “It was a horrible death. I begged Reynaldo not to go north,” Socorro told friends and relatives. “He gave all the money we had, money it took us four years to save, to some coyotes. And look what happened! Those heartless rateros abandoned my husband, along with twenty-three others, in the middle of a blazing desert, locked in a truck without food or water and left to perish – a slow, tortured death.”
On my way to Socorro’s house, to pick up the few dozen tamales I had ordered, I swatted my way through several swarms of “bobos”. In September, at the end of the rainy season, armies of the pesky gnats would invade the villages on Lake Chapala’s shores
Seated in her doorway on a cement step, sipping a bottle of Coca Cola, Socorro spotted me and waved. “Buenas tardes, senor! Your tamales are ready. Two dozen pork and two dozen chicken.”
“Buenas tardes, senora. Ay carajo! The bobos seem thicker than usual this year, don’t they? And much fiercer too! I had to fight my way through them in order to get here.”
Grinning Socorro spread her plump arms, palms up, a classic Mexican gesture for ‘I take no responsibility for anything past, present or future.’
With a sigh she declared, “As sure as cucarachas keep multiplying, no matter how many we step on, the bobos appear following the rains. It is their time of the year, nothing we can do will change that.” She wore a frayed white ‘peasant’ dress – faded from being laundered with harsh lye soap – and a pair of worn leather sandals. Her finely sculptured Indian features and long, raven-black hair, always pulled back and tightly braided, were illuminated by a lone sixty-watt bulb that dangled from the ceiling.
Throngs of bobos, attractedby the light, circled the bare bulb, darting about in what appeared to be mass confusion. I studied them through the open doorway, covered by a piece of old carpet during inclement weather, and wondered how the tiny creatures managed to avoid mid-air collisions.
A thought occurred to me – if Socorro’s entrance had a door and screens in those small windows on either side, her bug problem would pretty much be solved, at last vastly improved. Here am I, a gringo expatriate with adequate means, without a care in the world and enjoying the ‘good life’ in the poor woman’s country. The least I can do is help her improve her living conditions.
Socorro got to her feet, went inside and brought out two plastic shopping bags. I handed her the correct change and took my tamales.
“May I make a suggestion, senora?”
She smiled and nodded, folding her arms across her chest.
“I have what I believe is a fine idea,” I said. “If we were to install a door and put screens in those windows, the bobos would find it difficult to get inside. A few might make it, but at least you wouldn’t have to deal with so many. And don’t worry about the cost; I’ll be happy to take care of that for you.”
Socorro wrinkled her forehead, obviously mulling over my proposition. “I appreciate your offer, senor,” she finally blurted. “You are very kind, but I believe adding screens would complicate matters.” And then, with a shrug of her ample shoulders, she made her eyes wide and added, “For me, the bobos do not present a problem. When I turn off the light they go away immediately. If screens were to cover my windows and doorway – how would the insects be able to leave my house?