To prepare for the field trip, I had to call back home to get a copy of my birth certificate from my parents (this was back before you needed a passport to go to Mexico). The night before, I prepared a bunch of sandwiches, packed up my sleeping bag (I didn’t know if we’d have tents or not. Typically on these field trips, we simply lie out under the stars. Generally, the only time it rains is for a couple of weeks in the winter, when it rains every day. As an east coast, Brooklyn-born guy, I had always assumed that the desert would be hot all the time. I’m used to the humidity, where the air holds its heat. I learned the lesson quickly on my first couple of field trips that it actually can get quite cold out there. Shivering in your sleeping bag all night will do that. So I packed some warm clothes for the evening. I also knew that I had a French exam due on Monday, but the schedule said that we’d be back early on Sunday, so I didn’t think there would be a problem.
If you don’t know much about Caltech, you may be confused by that — having an exam ‘due’. Caltech has an honor code (I’m not sure that anything has changed in that regard). The Honor Code states, simply, that “No member of the Caltech community may take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community.” That was, literally, the only rule. That rule has a number of implications. One of them is that exams were nearly always of the ‘take-home’ variety. The rules for each exam would vary — if there was a time limit for the exam (and god help you if there wasn’t one, because those were the nastiest kinds of exams), you’d be on your honor to time yourself and stop at the end. Rules might state that you could use your textbook (or not), a calculator, the CRC (Chemical Rubber Company handbook, which was this massive tome filled to the brim with almost every physical or mathematical constant, equation, tables of derivatives, etc.). Often the only restriction was that you could not get help from anyone.
I know that I’m going off on a tangent here, and you can just skip the next couple of paragraphs if you wish to, but there were other implications of the honor code — one of which was that the school really didn’t concern itself with anything else you did that was not against the honor code. Back in the 1960s, while there was a great deal of unrest and problems at nearly every other university, involving protests and drugs and so on, Caltech was one of the quietest of schools. There was one incident where students from Dabney house ‘kidnapped’ a job recruiter from Union Carbide and tried him in a mock trial for crimes against humanity, found him guilty, and then honey and Team flaked him and ran him off campus. But, for the most part, things were quiet.
But while people were busy protesting and dropping LSD at other schools, Caltech had a hidden mushroom farm in the crawl space between two floors in one of the student houses. Apparently, they were supplying magic mushrooms to many of the other California schools. It wasn’t against the honor code though, so no one bothered them, until the administration got a tip of a drug raid. And at that point, they warned the students, who promptly made that farm ‘disappear’.
Getting back to the subject… I wasn’t worried about my French exam. I brought my textbook to study in my spare time, and I’d get back to my dorm with plenty of time to take the exam.
The morning of the exam came and we all met in a campus parking lot. There were about a a half-dozen of these rugged off-road vehicles — each could carry up to 6 people comfortably, with room in the back to carry our food, water, and gear. Going to Mexico, of course, legally the driver would need to have an international drivers license, and we had enough people that could drive. But, if you are on a school field trip to Mexico, students are NOT supposed to be driving. Well, the teachers were not going to lower themselves to drive with students. So, all of the teachers crowded into the lead van. Because one of the Grad students had dones this same field trip previously and knew his way around, he drove the van I was in as the last one in our convoy. If anyone would lose track of the van ahead of them, at least the car in the back could (theoretically) fix things.
We had a pretty uneventful time until we hit the border. As it turned out (and this wasn’t just true for me, but for everyone else), Mexican immigration gave me a hard time because my birth certificate was a certified copy, and not an original (my parents, not wanting to lose the original, had gotten a certified photocopy, which probably should have been accepted). But they wanted to be tight-assed about it, so , they demanded an extra ‘fee’ because it didn’t meet their requirements. No joke, they did not block me from entering the country — they merely charged me a bribe (they called it a fine, but we all know what it really was).
We drove into Tijuana, which at that time was a very busy town, with lots of traffic, and it seemed like every other road was having construction done. We were warned to be careful because, with all of that construction going on, it was easy to get lost. But we got through without incident. The further south we went, the less people and buildings we saw. The paved roads we were following turned to dirt roads. We all stopped at this small convenience store along the way, where I got some snacks and drinks for the road. Dr. Silver, and maybe a couple of the students and other professors, picked up some bottles of Tequila. I’ve never been much of a drinker — back then, I’d have a drink or two at a party — mostly wine or maybe a white russian. But I certainly didn’t drink straight Tequila.
The first sign we had of the effects of that winter’s harsh rainy season was when the convoy stopped in front of a wooden bridge to cross a narrow river. More specifically, we stopped in front of small piece of the bridge. Everyone got out to take a look. The road sloped up to this narrow wooden piece of the bridge, and there was a similar piece across the river. The middle of the bridge lay in one big, but damaged piece, about 30 feet downstream.
The river bank was a little bit steep on the other side, but the water looked pretty shallow, and most of the drivers agreed that we could drive through the river and up the far bank. And we did so, with only a bit of engine revving to get up the slope. It was a surprise, but nothing serious. I was wishing, and I bet others did to, that I had brought a camera along. I knew I’d have a story to tell.
As we continued on, one odd thing that everyone noticed was that there were lots of these rivers that weren’t on the map. Obviously, these rivers had been carved out of the dirt. And there were a lot of them, and not all of them were as narrow or shallow as the one at the bridge. But we kept on going.
Now remember how I mentioned that we were the last car in the convoy, and the reason was that we had the most experienced (non-faculty) driver. Well there we were driving south through a still partly flooded Baja. A large river was ahead of us, and it did look pretty deep. But all of those cars ahead of us were driving through it without incident, so of course, we just followed. And then when we were in the middle of the river, everything just stopped. The wheels got stuck in the mud in the deepest part of that river. None of the cars ahead of us seemed to notice, and they just kept on going. I looked out the back and saw that the water level was above the height of the rear of the car, and water was pouring into the car through the back, and through the side doors. And our car was just getting no traction whatsoever.
We were stuck. Everyone was convinced that the guys ahead of us would have to notice pretty soon that we were missing. Our driver then had the brilliant idea that maybe he could get out of the car and try to push, while someone else pressed on the gas. He managed to get the door open, stepped out of the car, and nearly got washed away downstream. Thankfully, the water was flowing towards the drivers side, and he had a good grip on the door handle. We knew that that wasn’t going to work. There was no safe way for him to get behind the car to push. The current was just too strong. One thing we did realize from the experiment was that although the water was about 4 feet deep in the front and rear of the car, it must have been closer to 5 feet deep in the middle.
There was nothing we could do but wait.