Saturday, December 25, 2021

Christmas 2021 - Not A Christmas Story (Ferreira Family Stories Series)


Gas Truck (Circa 1930s Brazil)

Gas Truck - "Cascavel"

That’s what my grandfather (Jose) called his gas truck that he drove throughout the interior of Brazil dung the 1930s. That was his work. He delivered gas in a truck similar to the one pictured here.

At the end of 1930 (during the world wide depression) Getulio Vargas had lost a presidential election and several months later took over the government in Brazil (holding power off and on up until 1954). Power in Brazil was brutal and the economic devastation led many to find what they could in their lives and scour out an existence.

This is what my grandfather came to find as a young man of 30. He was able to obtain a used truck that he nicknamed “Cascavel.” (Means rattle snake in Portuguese)

I also thought, “if I named my car, would it be rattle snake?” What was the insinuation of the name. I wanted to think it meant it was something one should not mess with. In those later days of his life, he had found a rubber faux coiled rattle snake and he glued it to the rear deck of his car with a row of penny’s circling the snake.

When he told us stories about that truck when he was 70 years and older, they seemed to hearken to gone by days and a sentimentality that made us all think he truly missed that truck.

Perhaps this was emblematic of his state of mind. After all, the states in Brazil were vying with the federal government for power and control. There were violent bloody outbursts in bigger cities of those states that ultimately led Vargas to total control in the mid 30s resulting in a powerful central government. By the end of the 30s, that “New State” had worn away all trappings of any local power and shifted more power to the federal level.

Or perhaps it was symbolic of the Masons (my grandfather was a 33 degree Mason). Years later, I found that George Washington had inaugural buttons with a coiled snake with what appeared to be little round penny like circles surrounding it. I am told that it was a timeless design.

The truck (here on after I will refer to that as Cascavel) was his livelihood and he lived out of it for the long stretches that he would take in to the “mato” or interior of the country delivering fuel to service stations that ranchers used as a life line for equipment, supplies and of course, fuel.

I imagine two lane dirt roads that he described with long stretches of tropical growth that was often swamped with rain and wash outs. Sleeping in the cab of the truck with some gun he always alluded to but never wanted to say to the children. I remember him as strong and vibrant well into his 60s often picking my sister and me up with one arm as we dangled with our hands to hold as he lifted his arm into a brace.

This is what I believe the symbol of Cascavel meant to him. He was strong and survived on his own and carved out a rough hewn life in the central parts of Brazil. Just him and his Cascavel. Did I mention my grandmother?

Jose and "Santina"

After their married, she often travelled with him. My grandmother (Geralda) who was petite and somewhat demur. She had come out of a school convent that often prepared graduates to be a nun. In fact, my grandmother was nick named, “Santina.” Meaning little Saint. As newlyweds, they talked about traveling at night when the weather was tolerable. They would stop at service station for long periods during the day napping, playing cards or just chatting with the service station’s attendant. My grandfather liked to chat and tell stories.

The road to Mato Grosso was two lane and flat. In fact the rancher who had laid out the road some 70 plus years earlier had apprenticed with an engineer prior to acquiring the land and he worked diligently to have as straight a line to his property. The railway had only been available the last 20 years however; ranchers had settled portions since the late 1700s.

This particular stretch of road also had an average rain fall of over 50 inches a year. I believe that the term “Mato Grosso” means thick and wooded. The road was narrower than today’s roads and since it was late in the summer season, my grandparents were driving mostly from dusk till dawn.

They had been on the road for about 3.5 hours and my grandmother had fallen asleep with a rosary in her left hand. She said the rosary numerous times per day and as she was a passenger on the road, the time seemed well invested for her and my grandfather’s souls.

In driving hours at a time, my grandfather often talked and told stories of his encounters and mostly of his 16 brothers and sister growing up on his father’s ranch near Tres Rios, Brazil. He spoke most fondly of his brother, Alvaro, who had died tragically swimming in a river while in his teens.

He pulled his hair in a front to back motion that he had since adolescences. He had shared that he combed his hair in this manner so his parents couldn’t tell if he had been off swimming during the day when he was supposed to be working or at school. He thought again to his childhood and how he would swim. His older brother had taught him and was always thinking of ways to shorten the work day and head for the river. It was one of those days that his brother had drowned.

Having heard some stories multiple times; often times as he told those stories, my grandmother nodded off. The heat of that day had not yet worn out of the night and the sweat was just enough that he swept his hair back in his calming fashion.

Back on that road and in that truck, he would drive with a bit of intensity in his body. The angle of the steering wheel had him leaning forwards towards the wheel. It gave him a look of ferocity as he held on with both hands to control the truck and manage the dirt and gravel roads.

 He was watching the straight and narrow of the road and his head lights on Cascavel lit up the darkness directly ahead and the glow bounced a bit off the red hewn dirt and onto the thick growth on the sides of the road. It had been just a few days since a solar eclipse and the waxing moon had already shown its thin crescent before midnight.

1934 roads in that part of Brazil had no road lights and only had rancher’s rail borders in areas that had been cleared near the roads. The growth on either side often looked thick with no lights for hours at a time unless another truck heading in the opposite direction shown from some 20 miles out and until they passed.

When the glow of the light first appeared, my grandfather had to think if there was a full moon or not. He had not seen any truck lights approaching from behind that would have such a startling glow so directly near to his Cascavel.

He drove on with the light shining at the top of his rear mirrors on both sides of the truck. The small round mirror on the passenger side was high up above the door and there were moments when the light hit it just right that it seemed to flash back on the door window and into the truck on my grandmother.

Continuing on, he was beginning to be annoyed at the other trucker following so close behind and he knew it must be a new truck from the brightness of his head lamps. Perhaps it had come out of the previous ranch driveway that was some 50 kilometers back and my grandfather had just not noticed the trucker. My grandfather also knew that there were times he had succumbed to a bit of road hypnosis or what is commonly known in the United States as “white line fever.”

This form of hypnotic dissociation happens to many folks driving on long stretches of road or familiar parts that sometimes one suddenly realizes that they are nearly home and have little recollection of passing or even turning on roads. He knew that the 179 kilometers he wanted to travel to the next station would put him there just before 4:00 that morning. It was just after 2:25 am and he thought there was no way he would want this other truck traveling that close for that long.

His trusted Cascavel traveled well doing 45 kilometers per hour and he would often run it up over 60 kilometers when he felt a burst of energy. So, he did. As his odograph showed he had marched up past 60 as he thought about that metron in trucks. He knew that the word meant path in Greek and how silly that the speed was really a path as he moved on through the thick overgrowth on the sides of the road. He thought how it did look path like and as such he glanced up towards the sky that he could see to determine stars or if there was rain coming.

The sky above had a glow that he thought was unusual and he was having a tough time judging if he could in fact see any stars. He realized at the moment that the truck lights must somehow be beaming up higher than normal. The light seemed to be near the top of his Cascavel and obscuring his vision more than he wanted.

He did not notice that the road was heading downward on the road grade that allowed the truck and his lights to beam in such a manner. He had travelled this road several times in prior years and he was confident about the location of the service station ahead where he would deliver the fuel load. He thought about the drive back in the other direction and how they would stop at his sister’s home to have supper with her and her family that coming Sunday. He thought if he could make good time, they could be there so his “Santina” could attend mass and how pleased she would be with him.

“Santina” and Cascavel were his life. He would take care of both and wanted to make sure they were both tended for by his work. He knew that if he established these runs with Cascavel, eventually he would have a mapped pattern of service stations that would count on his deliveries and he would be able to save up to purchase their own property that he could also have some small harvest and animals that would sustain a family.

It was somewhere in these deep thoughts that he realized the truck lights behind him had not curtailed in the least bit. He swerved the steering wheel a bit to see if he could tell how close the other trucker was to him. The dually rear tires hit a patch of sandy dirt road and made the truck swerve enough to startle my grandmother awake.

He slowed by lifting his foot off the accelerator and was preparing to downshift if need be. He regained control quickly and glanced towards his wife with a smirking smile as if to say. “I got this.” My grandmother made an “hhmmpph” sound and closed her eyes again while crossing her arms and clutching her rosary just a bit more.

He paced down below 60 kilometers and once again tried to look back into the other truck lights. He thought if I slow enough, they would be able to perhaps pass him. For the next few kilometers, the other truck slowed their pace as well.

My grandmother at this point had closed her eyes and was wide awake from the shaking of the truck on the rough road. She kept her eyes closed since her brief awakening; she had the glow from the mirror right in her face. She peered he eyes in a squint and looked at my grandfather asking about the lights. He told her that he had been following from at least 15 minutes or longer and he did know when they had turned onto the road to follow so close.

As they slowed a bit more, my grandfather decided that he would in fact try and slow enough to allow for the other truck to pass. My grandmother started to look to her right on the passenger side and she told him that the light was very bright and she could see how close they were on the side of the road where the growth was extremely thick. She mentioned that she could see the curving branches of the thick overgrowth almost like it was early morning day light.

As Cascavel slowed, so did the truck lights behind them. My grandmother sensing that my grandfather was slowing to a stop said to him, “Jose, don’t stop, you need to keep moving.” As she said these words, she tightened her clutch and began a new decade on her rosary.

Those words were highly uncharacteristic of her and my grandfather knew it. He sensed a worrisome tone that alerted him in a way that he had felt when his brother was struggling in the middle of the river and sank below and was not seen again until hours later and the body was found several kilometers downstream.

It was a nervousness that he was not going to ignore and he decided to get back to his 45 kilometers an hour pace.

My grandmother at this point had rolled the window down a bit to try and catch a look behind her. The dust from the road made the light look disturbing and she noted that the glow came from well above Cascavel. The dust also began to come in waves through the window making her cough slightly and she quickly rolled up the window again.

As she thought about what she could see, she noted that the water containers that were strapped to the back right rear of Cascavel were covered in dust and she noted the ring near the top had a glow as well. The more she thought about the light, the harder she clutched her rosary. “Jose, how far until the next service station?” Her voice had a decisive and yet shaken tone that made him look at her again.

He shared that they were still just less than 100 kilometers away. “We could be there well before 4:00.” His anxiety rose again and he recalled how he felt that morning his brother had drown. It was the waiting that made him anxious and not the actual event itself. Knowing made it almost give him a sense of relief. It was the not knowing and the light from the truck behind them gave him that same feeling.

His foot also rested with a greater heaviness on the accelerator.

Some 10 kilometers passed in silence. And Santina had already completed the additional decade on her rosary. As the road pressed on, there was less dust from a recent rain in the area. My grandmother slowly rolled the window and noticed the light seemed to be on top as well as behind them.

My grandfather decided that he would slow down again and as he double clutched into a lower gear he stalled the engine. My grandmother immediately started another decade. “Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. Hail Mary…”

“We’re not going to die!” He shouted at her. The Cascavel continued to slow and my grandmother once again rolled her window down and looked back…and up.

It was this time as Cascavel began to slow to a stop that she noticed the light nearly above them. She also noticed for the first time in between Jose’ attempts to restart the engine a low thrumming noise. It seemed to be all around them. “Hail Mary…”

Cascavel came to a near stop when on his 7th time trying to restart the engine that the engine caught and he slipped Cascavel into gear again and had a sudden lurch forward at the slowest pace. He moved on and began the shifting to the fourth gear where he could try and maximize Cascavel’s speed.

The light continued on them and they both realized that there was no other truck behind them. My grandfather said, “We will be at the service station soon.” My grandmother had already raised the door’s window for the last time that evening.

When they were about seven kilometers away from the station they were able to see the light in the distance. “…fruit of thy…” My grandmother prayed on. On any other moonless night, they would have seen the light over 15 kilometers away. With the light above them that seemed to glow at the same rate, the station lights were a bit obscured.

The closer to the station the increasing anxiety continued to grow and the more she prayed. My grandmother told me years later that she thought it was some sort of message from God. She had read about these in her bible. It was a Erich von Daniken book and subsequent movie that led to the conversations and re-telling of the story.

As they pulled closer and closer to the station, my grandfather said that he would pull in and they needed to hurry into the station building.

The road curved out slightly wider as they approached the service station. There were two lights on the outside wall facing the road and a faint light coming from inside the station. The back of the service station were the station attendant lived in these rural stations. Some had an entire home for a family of an attendant. The road expanded and a driveway of sorts went to the storage tank and the roll up door for vehicle repair. As was the case with many of these stations in Mato Grosso, the overgrowth was thicker than usual.

My grandfather had been planning in his head that he would pull Cascavel right up to the side of the building where the door had a light. He intended on pushing Santina out her door which would be closer to the entrance.

He thought through the motions of stopping, taking it out of gear, pulling the brake and then opening the passenger door from across the middle of the bench seat. The light above and behind never wavered other than the time sit hit his rear mirrors. He counted off time in his head as he got closer to his plan. He had hidden under the driver seat a wooden mallet that he carried if he encountered trouble. The trouble he anticipated was from those meaning to do him harm and perhaps take away one of his prized items.

Thinking each step and how many seconds that it would take. He would reach 42 seconds of time elapsed as each variable or in case Santina was slow or perhaps even tripped as they would emerge from Cascavel.

With less than two kilometers, the time seemed to slow to a crawl. Jose kept thinking he was not thinking clearly. He was sweating and pulling back on his hair in that calming front to rear manner. The lights on the building seemed softer and further as it juxtaposed form the light above and behind Cascavel. He felt himself drifting towards the side of the road a bit anticipating that the road would be widening. Again, he hit some dirt that mounded on the rut and Cascavel wavered on its rear duallies.

My grandmother looked at him again and he could tell she was still praying.

“When we pull up, I will open your door and we are both getting out and heading into the station door, okay?” She nodded enthusiastically glancing back and up over her right shoulder at the light.

The road finally opened up more than he anticipated and with a few hundred yards to go, he down shifted and applied the brake. There was some dust that started to come up behind them indicating that there had been no rain during the warmest part of the day in this area. The dust cloud lit up from the light and he shifted Cascavel towards the building in an attempt to judge how far the door would be. He came to a complete stop about 6 feet past the door.

He stopped and looked back with the dust lit up from above and how he had miscalculated the stop all while wiping his head in that familiar motion.

Reaching across Santina, he opened the door and said in a commanding voice, “Move now!”

Santina spilled out of the truck, rosary in hand and he was right behind her. He started to yell, “SERVICE” as was the custom at the rural stations for the attendant to come out. “Service, service!” He shoved Santina towards the door trying to see through the dust cloud. He reached for the door knob and it turned and he had sighed with relief that it was not locked. “Service!”

He closed the door quickly behind them and yelled into the hall of the station again saying, “Service.”

He heard a door open in the back and a young voice as if peering from a corner saying, “I’m up.”

My grandfather turned back towards the door and the transom window above the door was dark. No light at all.

“I’m up. I had dosed off for a bit.” The attendant looked like he had been sleeping a great deal with his wrinkled shirt and hair askew. My grandfather and grandmother must have had a crazed and fearful look in their faces. The attendant looked at them and relaxing his face, said, “come in, you look a fright.”

As they entered, further into the hall of the station my grandfather asked, “Did you see the light?” The attendant said, I told you I dozed off, I heard you knocking and shouting. They looked at each other and felt a small sense of relief that the light was gone. The attendant made coffee and slowly they eased up on their anxieties of the situation.

What I know now about the entire occurrence is what they told me and I imposed the emotion I would have felt into the situation. The historical context is from research of the era. As I grew and heard and reheard  this story told over and again, I was always amazed that they ventured out after that night; never to see those lights again.

Service Station Brazil (Circa 1930s)

POST SCRIPT: My father passed away this year, and I have been collecting stories about our family - this is just one of those stories. MERRY CHRISTMAS

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