Tuesday, 26 July 2011

The Good, The Bad and The Mexican Turnover

  Way back in 1896, I was touring Mexico with my world famous escapology act. I had a young kid along as an assistant, Erik Weisz his name was. He was a useful guy to have along, for in those days, Mexico wasn't the safe and stable country we know today! I often wonder what happened to that young man. I'd taught him a few techniques, and he seemed to have the makings of a good amateur. I guess we'll never know.

   It was on a Saturday night in Chihuahua, and I'd just finished another triumphant performance. Young Erik was packing up the handcuffs, when a messenger arrived at the stage door.

"Don Barrios", he said, "My master sends me to ask if you will perform at his Hacienda!"

   I used to get this a lot, south of the border. My fame had spread quickly, and soon I had become known as 'Don Barrios - El Gran Rey dos Culos!', which, in case you don't speak Spanish, is pretty complimentary!!! Anyway, it had been a gruelling week, and all Yours Truly wanted at that moment was a hot meal and a soft mattress.

"Tell your master that Don Barrios send his compliments," I replied, "But, alas, he cannot attend." And I turned to start draining the water tank used in my most death-defying routine, when suddenly I felt a gnarled hand gripping my shoulder,

"Don Barrios, my master will pay many pesos!" said the stranger, in a tone that I didn't altogether like. But I maintained my composure, and spoke reasonably to him. I've always found diplomacy to be the most powerful weapon in these situations!


   Next thing I knew, the stranger had pulled out a gun, and its barrel was now pointed right at my chest. He thrust his face close to mine, and I could smell his breath, thick with cheap tequila.

"My name is El Guapo," he hissed, "A name you would be wise to remember. And my master, senor, is no one less than the indomitable Pancho Villa!"

   At the mention of that name, my blood ran as cold as the Hudson River in mid December. Some called him an outlaw, some a hero. But to me, on that Saturday night in Chihuahua, he was big trouble. Suddenly I felt a very long way from New York City.

"Then let us attend your master, with no further delay," I said, without a flicker of hesitation, "How many pesos did you say again?"

   Soon we were riding, deep into the Mexican mountains, with a string of burros to carry the props. Poor Erik was tied to the back of one of these burros. I was allowed to ride freely, however, as they knew that it would be futile to tie up a master escapologist such as myself. We rode long into the night, and just as my chin was beginning to drop onto my chest, El Guapo gave a low whistle. And somewhere, not far away, we heard an answering call.

"Prepare yourself," said our guide, "And a word of advice, Don Barrios," he leaned across his saddle, "If Don Pancho asks you to play cards, it would be wise not to refuse! But whatever you do, senor, you must let him win..."

   And with that, I was ushered into the Hacienda, and into the presence of the infamous Pancho Villa.

   He fixed me with a gimlet eye, "GET THAT GODAMM FREAKING COCKTAIL OUT OF YOUR FACE!!!" I said. And then I commenced with my escapology act. Needless to say, even without my assistant Erik, the audience was left reeling. (They were Irish Mexicans, you understand, and the reel came naturally to them.)

"Don Barrios," said Pancho, "You have shown us true magic! Now, let us play at the cards, like real men play with one another!"

   Well, folks, how could I resist?  But, of course, the one thing I absolutely had to remember was never to win.... We played for hours. Bezique, Snap, Gin Rummy, even Poker. By dawn, I'd used every technique I knew to make sure Pancho Villa didn't lose. We were on our last game of Snap, and to my horror, the last card in my hand was the Ace of Diamonds, while the face up card on the tabled pile was the Ace of Spades.

   Well now, I tabled that ace face down, and picking up a joker, pulled off the first ever, and totally spontaneous, "Mexican Turnover"!!! Pancho won the game, and young Erik and I escaped to tell the tale. I never had call to use it again until 1932, in Sicily, playing 'Knick Knock Nanny' with Mussolini. But that, as they say, is another story.