In Search of Spring Break: Then and Now

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My own most memorable and fateful Spring Break took place in South Padre Island and Matamoros in 1989. At that time I was a freshman and well on my way to flunking out of UT. I'd uncorked a 0.5 GPA my first semester, and while I more than tripled that in the spring, it was only half what I need to continue my stay on the 40 Acres.

So I knew I was a dead duck going into that break. And I had no money. I did have the longest two-door Cadillac ever made – a 1976 Coupe de Ville with no back windshield – and a Phillips 76 card. And you could get an "emergency student loan" of $100 from UT. My buddy Steve Uecker and I both availed ourselves of these, piled in the Caddy ("Billy Clyde") and pointed it south to Padre. We planned to sleep on the beach for the whole week, and we had a half-gallon of tequila to help see us through. We figured the gas card would provide us with microwave burritos and Doritos, thus leaving us healthy cash reserves for booze, and with such low overhead in all other areas, we felt surprisingly well-off.

Though I had no plan other than mindless hedonism to take my mind off the mindless hedonism that my life had been back in Austin, that week would end up changing my life forever.

Uecker and I slept on the beach that first night. And then the next day, after spending some time on the beach amid hordes of kids from places like the Dakotas, and trying and failing to pick up girls, we headed over to Matamoros.

While there I got a funny feeling that I would be seeing Kelly, this girl I used to seriously crush on in high school at Strake Jesuit / Saint Agnes. Weirdly, though I had scarcely spoken to her back then, while on a religious retreat as part of the senior year of my Catholic education, I had this vision, perhaps the only true vision I've ever had.

As I was drifting off to sleep, in front of my eyes, I saw two glasses of champagne fizzing away. The view cut away and I could see one was being held by a man's hand, the other by a woman's. The view cut back further and I could see that one was this beautiful, warm-eyed embodiment of grace I'd long admired, and the other was me, and we were sitting on a beach house balcony in the moonlight, the waves softly crashing on the shore across the beach.

And a year later, she was at A&M, and I was at UT, and I don't know why I thought I would be seeing her in Matamoros.

But a couple of hours later, there she was, with a pack of girlfriends, crossing a street towards the border. Without further ado, I walked up to her and literally picked her up off the ground and threw her over my shoulder.

She was a good sport about that, and she introduced her friends to Uecker and me, and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon and evening drinking and dancing to such late-'80s wonders as Bobby Brown, Debbie Gibson, Tone-Loc and Paula Abdul in the Matamoros clubs.

There was an extremely ugly vibe on the streets of Matamoros that night. Despite our tequila- and sun-addled states, we all noticed it. At one point on our way out of town, some locals tried to trip us with a rope they had snaked across the sidewalk, but that was just a nuisance compared to a sense of evil and impending doom we all felt.

Our fears were increased when Uecker, who had gotten separated from the rest of us, came running up and said some locals had tried to push him into the back of a pick-up truck. We congratulated him on getting away and thought little more on it.

Because even that was not enough to stop me and my new girl from making out in the little park between Calle Alvaro Obregon and Calle Las Rosas, just south of the international bridge. And we pretty much didn't stop making out the rest of the trip.

Uecker and I moved into the girls' sprawling, beach-house like room in South Padre's old purple-icious Sea Grape Motel. It was the best week of my life up to that point and there have been few if any that could match it since. Kelly and I had such a great rapport, and she was so beautiful and sweet, and I got to wake up next to the woman who was literally my vision of beauty every morning. I told her I loved her before we parted ways at the end of that Spring Break.

And by then we had heard that we were not mistaken about that ugly vibe in Matamoros. It had been March 13, 1989, a date that lives in infamy in borderlands lore to this day. That was the night that UT student Mark J. Kilroy vanished without trace from the streets of Matamoros during the same night of revelry we'd enjoyed with such abandon. Weeks later his mutilated body was found alongside 14 Mexicans, all buried in shallow graves on a rancho south of town.

All had been killed at the orders of drug-runners Adolfo de Jesus Constanzo and Sara Maria Aldrete, who ran their weed-smuggling ring using bastardized Santeria principles, which in their interpretation, included ritual human sacrifice. As they felt the dragnet closing in around them, they believed that they needed the blood of a blond, blue-eyed American to placate their angry and cruel god, so they waited for Texas Week at Spring Break and pounced on poor Kilroy. It now seems very much likely that Uecker had been an earlier target.

All that would come to light several tortured weeks later. My romance with my Kelly started to fall apart. She was still involved with her old high-school beau – I knew this from the start. (He was at Tech, and they had a "we can see other people" arrangement.)

And as I mentioned, I was no prize at the time. I did indeed flunk out of UT at the end of that semester, and I wouldn't have a job of any real consequence for 12 more years. I was still seeing her toward the end of my time in Texas. Over the course of hours-long, very expensive, in-state long distance calls (totaling about $700 before I was done) I begged her to elope with me to Tennessee once I was done at Texas. Then as now, she was more sensible than I was and demurred. Still, though I was crushed with sadness, I held no anger towards her over the end of our affair. We never really broke up, because outside of Padre, we weren't really together. We just drifted apart.

"Ninety-nine percent of the world's lovers are not with their first choice," Willie Nelson once said. "That's what makes the jukebox play." And for decades, I played jukeboxes. "Blue Eyes Cryin' in the Rain," "Angel Flyin' Too Close to the Ground," "Marina del Rey," "These Arms of Mine," "Dreams I'll Never See." All these took me back to she who got away.

Twenty years passed. We both married. I had children. We both traveled the world, crossing paths (though not seeing each other) in places like England, Prague, Israel, Egypt and Spain. She had also grown up two blocks south of my great-grandparents house in Briarcroft, in a home with the same street number as theirs. So after I moved back to town in 1997, I did see her from time to time in Houston – we tended to live in the same neighborhoods, and I would run in to her in bars every now and then, and it would always take me away to that happiest – though the most jinxed and most heightened and scariest – of Spring Breaks.

Kelly got a divorce in 2008 and I followed a year later. She found me on Facebook, and we picked up right where we left off back in Padre. She was still as gorgeous as ever and now, we had both lived our foolishness apart and were ready to live out our wisdom together. To the strains of "You Can't Always Get What You Want," I popped the question I had been wanting to ask since 1989.

In November of 2010, we got married at Avant Garden and danced holes in the floor until the wee, wee hours. This time, courtesy of the El Orbits, the music was a hell of a lot better than Tone-Loc and Debbie Gibson.

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