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Author: Subject: Chapter 4---The Cantina
Baja Bernie
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[*] posted on 12-2-2006 at 02:36 PM
Chapter 4---The Cantina

The CANTINA! That’s all anyone calls it and everyone knows exactly what you are talking about. It’s just the “Cantina” that’s it

It started out life as a simple adobe house with a kitchen, bedroom, and a living room with a great fireplace. Nothing fancy, just a bunch of windows that let in the ocean, and an uncovered patio facing the dirt road out front. There was a low wall around the patio and the still in use hitching post was just in front of the wall. Yes! The cowboys would come down off the mesa after a hard days work, tie their horses at the post, and relax in the shade of the Cantina with a shot of Tequila. Salud! After a few beers you suddenly noticed that there was no bathroom. There was an outhouse located near where the horseshoe pit is now. After a few drinks on a dark night the outhouse was anything but convenient.

Bertha Kline, an American, was the original owner of the home. She had it built in 1947. We know this because as a young man Gus Arrellanes helped build the house. He says that even before it was finished it became a great party house. Bertha and Lolita Kelly would buy a couple of cases of tequila, a case of gin, and a few other things. Then they would invite people for miles around to ‘drop by’ and have a drink. These parties would last as long as the booze held out. I’m told that not much work was done during the week following one of these parties.

Lolita Kelly lived in the large white house on the eastern edge of the lagoon. In places like Huntington Beach it would be called the ‘back bay.’ The street Calle Lolita is named for her.

I guess you could say that this was a pretty good start for a place that evolved into THE CANTINA. This is the only restaurant and bar in all of Baja that is known simply as “The Cantina.” Think about it! All of the others have names such as, La Gloria’s, Rene’s, the Half Way House, Hussong’s, etc.
Señor Benson bought the house in the early 60’s and turned it into Rancho Benson, a small cantina. The first thing he did was to have an ‘indoor’ bathroom installed in the area where the kitchen is now. This cuarto de bano was just for the women. Men still used the outhouse. It was only much later that the current men and women’s restrooms were installed. It was about then that the bar doubled in size and the room where we all dance was added. The Cantina is like a living thing—it just keeps growing—the second floor “Hotel Rooms” were added in the early 80’s.

Señor Benson was a very dignified Mexican man with snow-white hair. He always wore a sleeveless brown sweater over a long sleeved flannel shirt. Summer or winter, night or day, it didn’t matter that was his uniform. His son “Petie” tended bar. More about him later.

A young man, Eddie, worked as a bartender, janitor, and general handyman. Early on the Cantina was only open Friday night through Sunday afternoon. No food was served. During the week the Cantina was closed but still open. No one was there to work as the bartender or anything else. The doors were unlocked and the vodka and beer were available; you just had to help yourself. As you did you were expected to ‘pay the box.’ The box was an old cigar box that was left behind the bar. As you drank you paid the box…Sure, It was the honor system but I never heard of anyone violating it. If you drank the last of the booze it was up to you to take all of the money and go to either Ensenada or Rosarito and buy as much vodka and beer as the money would cover. You really didn’t want to take the last drink because it was a twenty-mile drive up or down the old road to either town.

The system didn’t last long because Eddie was soon hired to work and live in the Cantina all week long.

What most of us might call the modern conveniences were non-existent. There was no electricity and thus no ice to cool the beer or booze. Hurricane lanterns, filled with kerosene, were scattered around the bar to provide light. Eddie complained that it took a whole day to clean the chimneys after a busy weekend. Water was trucked in and pumped to tanks on the roof. Gravity was the force that delivered the water. Oh! Yes, all of the houses had the same system until about 1984 or was it 1985?

I started coming down during the week. Eddie and I would normally be the only people in camp. He didn’t speak any English at the time and I didn’t speak much Spanish but we soon became very good friends. He would come down to the “A” Frame in the morning and I would fix coffee and eggs. As I worked on the house he would tell me stories about his early life and I would tell him about myself. His life was much-much more interesting than mine. As a teenager he worked for a retired Mexican Army General—that’s really close to God in this part of the world. He was the General’s driver and they toured all of Mexico and Latin America between 1959 and 1962. He really told some great stories.

In the afternoon I would wander up to the Cantina. Eddie would go in and get us each a warm Corona (only one, never more). We would sit back with our heels over the hitching post and talk. I talked more with Eddie than any other person, except my wife, in the world. Like I said we were friends.

I’ll never forget one afternoon when a real honest to God cowboy came riding down off the Mesa. We could see him as he started down then we lost him in the canyon. About a half hour later he rode up to the Cantina, tied his horse to the hitching post, and walked right by us.

He was wearing Levi’s, a dirty-coulda been white cowboy hat, and grimy, worn, old leather chaps. We followed him in and watched as he pulled a stool up to the bar. Acting like he owned the place, he ordered a shot of Tequila, paid and slowly sipped it. He sat ramrod straight and was definitely in no hurry to go anywhere. He ordered another and then he started to talk. The three of us talked about a big rattlesnake he had just killed on his way to the Cantina. Eddie would tell me a word in English here and there and the old guy would use an English word every now and then and of course I would understand about one word in ten. All of us used our hands quite a bit. It was a great way to spend a late afternoon. That was the only time I have seen a real, working, cowboy and his horse. No! He didn’t carry a gun, but there was a .22 cal rifle tied to his saddle.

As the years went by Eddie got a lot better at understanding and speaking English and I got better at just understanding Spanish. Eddie was good looking and outgoing. He became friends with many of the Norte Americanos. Unfortunately, he picked up a lot of bad habits from them. The large amounts of money he was making in tips spoiled him. He began to drink heavily. Remember when he and I would only have one beer a day. He had a lot of Indian in his blood and when he got drunk he would get very-very nasty. Toward the end when he got mad at a customer he would start screaming in English and Spanish, grab a machete and wave it over his head. Screaming at the top of his lungs he would slam it flat on the bar. Usually, the offending party would take ‘one’ step from the bar and be out the door. The door was fifteen feet away. Eddie would laugh, glower at the rest of the customers, and go right back to whatever he was doing. His behavior got so bad that he lost his job and ended up wandering from bar to bar in Ensenada.

I miss my friend the ‘young’ Eddie very much. He was a wonderful person, he always had smile on his face, and a laugh in his voice. Until the end he was a man who genuinely liked people AND was liked in return.

My smidgen of a claim to fame is that I have had so many really good friends. By Bernie Swaim December 2007
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[*] posted on 12-2-2006 at 03:07 PM

Thanks, a somewhat sad story this one.
So - now I can switch off the light and have a nights rest.:yawn:
Became a saturday eve/night routine your stories Bernie.

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