Last updateSat, 22 Jun 2019 1pm

Newspaper folks: Gritting teeth, learning to burn books and make it all make sense

Many habitual, devoted readers wonder how “book burners” manage their destructive habit.  

In the 1970s, the annual Easter time ritual at the Reporter wasn’t an easy-going or nimble habit at this newspaper, which was then called the Colony Reporter.  The founder and owner of the Reporter was Robert Thurston.  And, for both him and for me, it was a time of raw destruction.  I have another good friend, a gringo, who burns a batch of his books whenever the calendar edges toward this time of year. 

Both Thurston and I were book addicts who came to this practice reluctantly – actually unhappily.   Thurston had business records that theoretically could be destroyed – or could they?  And I’m a collector of books I find exceptionally outstanding.   The various issues of Octavio Paz’s marvelous “Labyrinth of Solitude” – as it grew with “new additions” over the years, for instance.   I and other friends of his would kid Paz that he was adding new additions to the original issue so he could boast about how the sales of “Labyrinth” kept growing with time.  But after a time the humor in that “joke” disappeared for Paz. 

Book burning was usually a Sunday ritual with Thurston.  And one he – and his helpers, my wife and I – grew to dislike as the Mexican government became more strict about forcing businesses to keep more and more proof of outgoing business expenses.  

Thurston swore mightily regarding the bound books of records he had to keep – and then eventually burn.  The government insisted that one keep records for five years, after which time you were free, at least from persecution for some mindless error you might have made while treading the labyrinthine pathways of either the IRS, or in Mexico, “Hacienda.”   

So, in Guadalajara we went out into the field below the Thurston home to burn the newspaper’s old “books.”   We carried jugs of kerosene and a lot matches.  We were able to build a good-sized fire but usually it was a hot job of ripping and tearing because  even with a lot kerosene the books would not burn in a solid state.  That was why Thurston swore at the moldering chore.  Thurston would tell friends of how tiresome and hot the job was, with bound business books refusing to burn.  Took a lot of hard tearing.   Also this chore attracted Doña Maria, a Thurston neighbor down the road, who came to see the fire and spend time to gossip.   She would compliment Thurston and his luck to have “young” assistants for such a “dangerous” chore.  We did know the dangers of heat this time of year!  This lead to her own dangerous adventures.  

“I was poisoned only last month,” she said in her unique form of Indian formed Spanish.  “Jose brought those hot dogs to the house, and we were all sickened.  Did you know they are made from horses that can no longer work?” she asked raising her dark brows and adjusting the folds of her red and gray rebozo a bit back from her accusatory brows. 

The three of us agreed with her, saying so in unison.  

“Precisely,” Thurston would say, hoping to bring the conversation to swift end.  My wife and I would agree.  No hot dogs, which tended to be questionable in those days.  And Maria warned about the local birria.  Her eyebrows rose indicating danger.  Birria actually is properly made from barbecued kid.  But she warned us to, “watch out.”  Maria told of a large black dog that was recently hit by a car:  “They butchered that creature, some workers down the road … some workers,” she said.  “And they cut off the body and sold it to that man who makes ‘birria’ at the charreadas.  He asked them for the head of course, but they said that the patron had taken the head for himself.  Imagine that!”  Maria laughed hollowly. 

She was full of wisdoms last weekend.  “Do you like nopales,” she asked us.  Nopales are the new de-thorned flat leaves of the large Mexican cactus, and they are indeed good to eat.  Maria promised to bring us some from her kitchen we all had visited and avoided since.  “Uncooked, if you please,” Thurston carefully said.  “I have a delicate stomach and nopales must be cooked just right for me.”

“Indeed,” Maria declared.  “Nopales are full of calcium. It is that what you lack.”

As Thurston’s books smoldered, we all poked them with sticks and discussed the properties of calcium in our diets.          

A while later, that man who wheeled a cart selling homemade potato chips came by our healthily burning site.  He gladly stopped, and removed a well-used straw sombrero and wiped his leathery face and grinned.  He is a friendly person, always full of good cheer and fitting sayings.

That day he grins and asks why we don’t do our book burning on a cooler day.  A gusty breeze catches Thurston’s carbonized books, and sails a profit-and-loss statement into the trees across the road.  “Lo que vuela, para cazuela,” the potato chip man says.  (Everything that flies is for the cooking pot.) “But not your burning paper, eh?” he laughed.  

“Well,” my wife said, hot or not, we have to get rid of these old government papers.  They’re old and no longer any good.” She paused, then added, “If they ever were.”

The potato chip man laughs hugely at this.  “If they ever were.  Si, señora. Government waste, no?”

We all found this humorous, especially Thurston, who fed more bound books into the flames.

Grinning, the potato chip man said, “Those who work are said not to have time for sinful thoughts.” He grinned.  “You work at your burning,  I work at my potato chips.  Our thoughts surely absolutely pure, no?”  The three of us laughed at that.  Nodding, the man shook his head, said “adios,” and moved on with his rickety push cart.

A workman came by with some mason’s tools under one arm.  He squinted at our fire, then turned toward us and asked if we needed help.  The three of us grinned at the man and shook our heads.  That offer made the three of us pleased, and we ripped books apart more vigorously.  We spoke of the man’s friendliness and called it “marvelous.”  It certainly made the pointless government-provoked  chore somehow less ridiculous.

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