Second Place – “Of Guns and Guacamole”

Forty-four years ago, almost a lifetime, it seems, I had my first taste of guacamole. I was an impressed warrior reluctantly serving my country, and had been joined by my wife as we made a new home in a small apartment nestled in the desert of El Paso. On weekends I threw my uniform in the laundry, slipped on my civies, and with my bride at my side, drove west away from Fort Bliss into New Mexico, once to Mesilla, a sleepy village on the outskirts of Las Cruces, the city of three crosses.

The restaurant La Posta had earned a page in the Time-Life Foods of the World cookbook series that was published serially at the time, and in a spirit of adventure, we decided to sample their Tex-Mex fare. We had come to this cuisine (so different from the roast beef, mashed potatoes and canned corn of the Midwest) tasting warily, cautious of the hidden fire lurking within an innocuous looking entrée.

“This is good,” we’d remark to one another, in surprise, once we had taken the culinary plunge, “this is very good” as we ate enchiladas, chile rellenos, tacos, burritos, and guacamole. But at first, we were babes not in the woods, but the desert.

Guacamole. We had never eaten avocados as children in Wisconsin, and knew nothing of the fruit. When we had been seated in the plant filled atrium of La Posta, our first course was a guacamole salad. “What is this?” we asked the grandmotherly waitress who wore a long calico skirt as part of her uniform.

Earlier we had seen her amble across the atrium with a relish plate, and then laugh as a radish fell from it and rolled across the floor. She set down the dish, and bracing herself against a table, leaned over to retrieve it. This was a woman who would answer our naïve questions without derision.

“Guacamole,” she said, and explained that it was a dip made from avocados, delicious when eaten with tortilla chips.

And it was! The wonderful rich taste belying the suspicious light grassy-green color. “This is good!” we told one another. “This is very good!”

La Posta was housed in a rambling historic adobe building that had originally been a stop on the Butterfield Stage. Billy the Kid had been incarcerated in an adobe building across the street that had once served as a jail.

As someone who saw himself as an impressed soldier, I found myself hoping that his fare had included guacamole. Unlike Billy the Kid, I had not killed anyone, but like him, I had been trained to kill: Gary the Kid, snatched from graduate school and a teaching job, to learn the ways of an M-14 and be shipped around the globe to the swamps of Vietnam to murder Commies for democracy and freedom.

Now, two score and four years later, on this our latest trip to La Posta, Gary the Kid had become Gary the Geezer, and his wife, as grandmotherly as the waitress who had first served us guacamole.

When I had flown on airliners as a young warrior, we wore khakis or dress greens, depending upon the season of the year. Now in airports the young soldiers wear baggy desert camouflage. And times have changed in airport concourses; disembodied public address voices direct soldiers to USO lounges and signs encourage them to proceed to the head of a line.

The difference, of course, was the (in theory, at least) universal conscription of young men who could count days until the end of their service (if, of course, they survived) and then return home to resume their civilian lives. Today’s soldiers are for the most part “volunteers” from the most vulnerable ranks of our society, often young men and women who because of social and economic circumstances were denied entry into college or careers, and opted for military service, hoping for training that might be translated into a civilian career, or for a government-sponsored college education.

The reality for these young soldiers has been repeated deployments to the Mideast in what seems to be an endless war. Thanks to the miracles of modern medicine, many of them survive the horrific roadside bombs, the Improvised Explosive Devises that have occasionally ripped through unarmored Humvees. And some of these fallen warriors come back missing limbs, or wearing medical helmets to protect brain injuries. And others that appear normal at first glance, are pursued by the demons of war that drive them to do terrible things to themselves and the ones they love.

For the most part our desert warriors are forgotten, as they were not wrenched from the bosom of their families by the draft, but “volunteered” to “fight for freedom.” When we guiltily remember them, we graciously let soldiers go to the head of the line in airports, or honor them with yellow Support Our Troops magnets on the rear of our SUVs. As if there might be people in this country who wish them harm, or had a choice whether to support the ongoing war effort with tax dollars.

I wish that I had a recipe for peace, especially for these young people. My eyes fill with tears as I watch news stories of their plight while they rehabilitate in hospitals, learn to use artificial limbs or find comfort with a therapy dog, but then the unpleasant segment is followed by one in which people make a difference by donating pet food to a humane society or teaching underprivileged urban children how to play stringed instruments.

But I do have a recipe for guacamole.

At first my wife and I tried an Improvised Avocado Devise, without success: in the culinary style of our childhood Midwest, we peeled and boiled unripe avocados, mashed them like potatoes, and after they had cooled, stirred in cottage cheese, ultimately a foolish enterprise.

Resorting to a recipe, we learned to select dead-ripe avocados (or to wait patiently for purchased green fruit to soften), peel (but not boil!) and mash them, add chopped onions, red chile powder and lemon juice, remembering La Posta as we feasted.

During the 1970s we joined the ranks of those who planted the pits in flowerpots and raised fledgling avocado trees on their windowsills.

Our recent trip to La Posta was a satisfying experience. Once again we were seated in the atrium, although now it has been renamed the Lava Room. Our grandmotherly waitress was replaced by an obsequious young man with a slicked-back braided queue that hung down his back like a sword. Unable to make choices, my wife and I ordered combination plates and were served more food (including a guacamole salad) than any normal human being could possible consume. We asked for boxes and ate leftovers the next day on a mountaintop lookout in the Gila National Forest.

After the Vietnam War some people rooted their avocados by sticking four toothpicks in the pit’s sides to suspend it over a glass of water, partially submerged. But I found that placing the pit directly in soil worked just as well, and my young avocado trees flourished.

Maybe I’ll start another one. While an olive branch doesn’t always bring peace, I know firsthand that avocados can bring comfort, especially when prepared as guacamole. My wish is that every soldier who carries a gun will not only survive, but thrive, and come home to make the tastiest guacamole that was ever dipped with a tortilla chip.

Gary Jones is a writer who, with his wife of many years, spends summers in Door County and winters teaching at UW-Platteville.

Judge’s Comments:

Wow, this certainly was of guns and guacamole…such a mix, such a stirring, a good moral rubdown it is…somehow the guacamole is the metaphor here and seems to work.