My father was a good shot, when his gun was working. You have to be if your dinner depends on shooting a four foot iguana that is ambling high in the rain forest canopy. The problem was that sometimes they fell out of the tree and into the river, sinking to the bottom, becoming very difficult to find. It could be several days later that the carcass was spotted by me or my sister, stuck in flotsam along the river’s edge.
The iguana escaped the soup pot but, unfortunately, had not cheated death.
Ever since he came back from iguana hunting empty handed we teased him about missing the shot. He swore that he had not missed, and now he was vindicated. He removed the swollen creature from the water and lamented about the waste of a good meal. Rosie and I we not particularly fond of iguana stew anyway because the meat is very dark and a bit slimy. In fact, we though iguana was pretty gross. We figured the iguana had done us a favor by escaping.
However, we kept this to ourselves because if our father was hunting iguana, it meant that times were tough. Truth be told, neither he nor my mother enjoyed iguana but it was better than nothing and most of the time, nothing was what we had.
Mary Kay Burr was 23 years old in 1973. The daughter of an accountant and a country-club secretary, she had a bachelor’s degree in theater from Wayne State University in Detroit. She was the captain of the cheerleading squad at Farmington High School in Farmington Hills, Michigan. She was Miss Teen Michigan, and went on to compete in the Miss Teen USA pageant in Texas. She sang soprano and starred in several opera productions while at Wayne State. After college, she made a very good living singing jingles for radio commercials and performing in night clubs, including the Playboy Club in Detroit. By all outward appearances, she was successful. She had her own downtown penthouse apartment, a nice car, and plenty of suitors.
But she was restless; something inside of her would not sit still. Maybe it’s the same thing that compelled me to make the agonizing choice fifteen years later to walk away, by myself, from my family. But, then again, maybe not.
After her beauty pageant days, Mary Kay became a back-to-nature flower child. When McGovern lost the 1972 election, she decided to backpack through Central America. Her stated destination was Columbia, South America, but like any free-wheeling non-conformist, the real destination was the journey itself.
I don’t know what made her throw her belongings into a backpack and take off. In the 60’s revolution and lots of pot smoke was in the air and everyone was high off of it. Bras were burnt and armpits were hairy. My mom and her hippie friends dreamt of a new world order where peace and love prevailed. But by 1972 America was waking up from the dream. Mary Kay was not ready for that. She held on to her dreams, packed them in that backpack with her caftans and patchouli oil, and headed to Mexico.
She ended up in Belize by accident. Mexico turned out to be a terrible misadventure that she barely survived. She met a man there who, like all men, was probably attracted to her stunning looks. She had long dark hair, fair skin that could hold a glowing tan, and big doe eyes. And she was, perhaps, a bit naive. The man was wealthy. He took her out, they had fun, and then they went back to his place. He wanted things to go further than she did. When she declined his advances, he took what he wanted.
Afterwards her, he locked her in a room and left her dazed and shaken on the floor. It was something she wouldn’t talk about for 30 years.
She had no idea where she was. The room had a narrow window that looked out onto a stretch of ocean populated with mangrove trees. She managed to open the window and squeeze her body through it, making her way by swimming through the mangroves along the shoreline until she saw signs of civilization. She was helped by a couple of long haired beach bums who were also young American travelers. They were headed to the Yucatan in their VW Bus. In need of the kindness of strangers, my mom went along for the ride.
The Yucatan, with its unspoiled stretches of white sand, was the perfect place to recover from her ordeal. The two travelers were gentlemen who treated her kindly and did not try to take advantage of her. But, like many a tourist in Mexico, Montezuma’s revenge eventually caught up with her. Her companions nursed her back to health but the bout with dysentery took its toll. She did not feel strong enough to continue as planned onto the Pan-American Highway to South America. There was a country she had never heard of just a few miles south. British Honduras (now Belize) was just a days drive away.
And so the Michigan beauty queen found herself on the hot and crowded streets of the British colony, trying to discern the thick Pidgin English dialect as she haggled over the price of a mango.
In steps my father.