Getting to Austin...The Hard Way

The Texas Story Project.

I had spent my last two years of high school living in San Jose, Costa Rica, in Central America. The days immediately after my graduation in November of 1966 seemed perfect: I was free to roam Costa Rica with little or no responsibilities. I had until the following September to play and goof off before heading to the U.S. for college. My small motorcycle carried me inexpensively anywhere in the country, and friends were always ready to get together on the coast for a few days, or trek to the jungles, or go fishing.

Dad announced, "Pack your things, you leave tomorrow morning at 6 a.m." And with that, I was on the road north.

Late one afternoon I returned to our family restaurant, sort of a "Dairy Queen" in a foreign country, where my Dad had introduced hamburgers, hot dogs, and banana splits to Costa Rica. But on that fateful afternoon, I had no inkling of what was about to befall me. I barely noticed the bearded, gruff-looking man talking over coffee with Dad as this was a common sight. Dad frequently befriended any "gringo" who showed up at the restaurant. He yearned for conversation about the States. On this afternoon, however, Dad called me over and introduced us. With little fanfare, Dad told me that the man, who did not speak Spanish, had driven to Costa Rica pulling a small travel trailer behind a pickup. He'd traveled with two California hitchhikers who spoke Spanish, but they had abandoned him here in Costa Rica. The man was an avocado farmer from California, and unable to speak the language required to get him through the borders of seven countries to return to the States. He wanted to sell his truck and trailer to my dad, Jerry, so he could return by air. But Jerry had other plans.

I had applied to college at three U.S. institutions: Colorado at Boulder, Hawaii, and the University of Texas at Austin. All three eventually accepted me. But, just days earlier, the University of Texas had sent a letter accepting me into their engineering school, and stating that I could start in the spring semester of 1967 if I wanted. This was in less than two months. I had ignored this possibility, but Dad had an idea. He proposed to the California avocado farmer that I, who spoke Spanish and who had made the drive between Costa Rica and the U.S. many times, would travel with him if he would deliver me to Austin, Texas. The avocado farmer had immediately agreed. When I walked into the restaurant, the deal had already been cut.

I tried to protest, but to no avail. Dad announced, "Pack your things, you leave tomorrow morning at 6 a.m." And with that, I was on the road north.

The next morning was blurred, things happened so fast. Good-byes were said and we were on the road. We made it to the Nicaraguan frontier late that afternoon. Instead of crossing after hours, which always drew an exorbitant "special fee," I recommended that we spend the night on the Costa Rican side of the frontier and cross the border in the morning during normal hours.

It was that night that I learned why the hippies that had driven down to Costa Rica with the avocado farmer had abandoned him.

This man could snore! Not a normal or even a strong snore, but a phenomenal, deep, horrendous snore. Each breath sounded as if the windows would break in the small travel trailer. It wasn’t hard to bear, it was impossible. Not only could I not sleep, even if I tried to wake the avocado farmer, he did not respond. I got no sleep and lay awake all night frustrated, angry, and exhausted. I didn’t know what to do. When I tried to talk to the avocado farmer the next morning, he denied any knowledge that he snored. My only option was to find a way to cope. We passed through Nicarauguan customs, crossed our first border without incident, and resumed our travels.

The remainder of the trip consisted of me trying to sleep in the cab of the pickup while the avocado farmer rumbled and shook both vehicles every night. For seven nights, I had to listen to the snoring coming from the trailer all the way into the truck cab.

On the seventh night, we arrived at 2 a.m. at the United States border at Brownsville, Texas. Anxious to cross into the U.S., we decided to go ahead at that early hour and ask for entry.

Of course, the U.S. border guards decided to do a thorough search of the entire truck and trailer. It's no wonder, given the strange sight of a pickup and travel trailer with two unrelated males coming from Costa Rica and trying to cross at 2:00 in the morning. Three agents combed through every inch of both vehicles for over an hour, grilling me and the avocado farmer. At last, in the final external inspection, one agent slid under the trailer and noticed a small trap door. He called out to the other agents who immediately went "on point," and told us in no uncertain terms we were to freeze and not move or say anything. I froze, as instructed, panic-stricken about the drugs I was now sure the avocado farmer had hidden in the trap door. No other border guards in six other countries had even noticed the trap door, nor did I know it was there. My mind was racing about how this was going to go down.

The trap door was opened, and a small laugh was heard coming from the agent under the trailer. He reached up into the compartment from on his back, and pulled a small bundle of something out of the compartment.

When the agent finally got up and placed the bundle in the light of the border inspection station, the other agents started laughing. Both the avocado farmer and I had not breathed since being instructed not to move, and only when the agents turned to the avocado farmer and asked "Where did you get the bananas?" did I realize that the bundle was not drugs, but Costa Rican fruit.

The avocado farmer explained that he had bought them in Costa Rica, and since no other border agents had found them he was just going to see if they made it into the U.S.

For some reason, even though not declaring fruits upon entry into the U.S. is against federal law, the border agents decided not to take it seriously. And the five of us ate bananas until none were left. The agents waved us through the border, and I arrived in the U.S.

Later that afternoon we pulled into Austin, Texas. I had never been to Austin before, and thought Houston was the capital of Texas! The truck and trailer made an odd sight parked along Congress Avenue. The Texas capital building was prominent at the north end of the street, and the avocado farmer was clearly impatient to turn his rig west and start on the last leg to California.

Dad had given me a $75 check, drawn on a Costa Rican bank, when I left the week before. Naively, I assumed that I would walk into a bank and cash it upon arrival. As anyone who has tried to cash any out of town check in a college town will tell you — especially one drawn on a bank from a foreign country — this was naiveté beyond belief. Three banks laughed at my request. All I had for identification was a passport, no local address, no local checking account, and no driver’s license. This was a totally unexpected turn of events for which I had no backup. I literally had zero cash. Distraught, and standing on the curb on Congress Avenue with the avocado farmer, I explained my predicament. So the avocado farmer said he would try, and we both went back into the last bank.

To make it work, the avocado farmer cashed a check for $75 from his account in California after a long-distance call by the Austin bank manager to confirm all the necessary information. I endorsed the Costa Rican check over to the avocado farmer, the avocado farmer gave me the cash, and the last time I saw him was as he turned right onto 9th Street to get back to IH 35 and head for California.

Then reality really started to sink in. I was alone in a strange city with a small suitcase and $75 cash. I knew literally not a single person in Austin, and had only the vaguest sense of where the University was. It was cold, and getting colder, this being the early part of January. I had seen the main Tower on the University of Texas campus as we had driven into town. (It was only then that I realized that Austin was the site of the Charles Whitman tower massacre the summer before.) I picked up my suitcase (backpacks had yet to come into vogue) and started walking north. After about an hour, I entered the Main Building at the base of the Tower, and asked for help to find a place to stay and where to register for classes. It was cold and I had no coat, having just arrived from the tropics! I was assisted by a nameless but kind person who took pity on me.

Thus began my years in Austin. I eventually graduated with a BSCE in Civil Engineering and an MBA, living all but three of the next 50 years in the Austin area. I have often wondered if the avocado farmer ever got his money from the Costa Rican check.

 


Paul Thornhill worked as a civil engineer for his entire career. This story relates how he came to be a student at the University of Texas at Austin in 1966.

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