We're over the Pacific, just off the coast of Southern Brazil. I see lots
of tall green mountains, covered in jungle. There's also no shortage of white
beaches and palm trees. I'm thinking, this part of the world would be easy for
a guy get used to.
Twenty-eight hours and over six thousand miles is a long stretch to be up
in the air, so I had passed some time playing Gin Rummy with Wanda. She was
supposed to get off at our Mexico City stop. Seems the dame who was gonna to
relieve her came down sick, so she had to stick it out for the whole run.
That's good news for yours, truly, 'cause the dish offered to show me some of the
local sites, plus some sights she brought along with her.
While we played cards, I pumped her for some dope about the place Iím about
to be dragging for Roberta Mason. She told me that Rio de Janeiro means, River
of January, on account of the explorers who parked their ships in the area,
January of 1502, mistook the deep bay for the mouth of a river.
That put me in mind of a lost sailor named Columbus who landed in North
America, thinking he was in India. Next thing you know, he's got the folks who
live there calling themselves Indians. I guess back then, you could just sail
off and land about anywhere, flashing mirrors, beads and a few trinkets around
and make the locals suckers forget all about who they really were.
As I'm gazing at the scenery, the sky-jockey up front comes over the P.A.
"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is Captain Mallory. We will be
landing at the Santos Dumont Airport in approximately five minutes. Please have
your personal articles packed and ready for departure. The airport is only two
kilometers from the downtown Centro District and there should be no shortage of
cabs waiting to take you wherever you desire. For those of you who are first
timers, Rio de Janeiro is both the name of the capital city of Brazil, as well
as one of the twenty-six states which make up this beautiful country."
The pilot's golden tones comes back over the horn. "Please remain in
your seats, ladies and gentlemen. Those on the port side of the plane are in
for a treat. If you will look out your windows, you will see the famous statue
of Christ. This modern marvel is called, Christo Redentor, meaning Christ, The
Redeemer. As you can see, his arms are stretched out in welcome over the bay.
The famous monument sitting atop Corcovado Mountain is ninety-eight feet tall,
weighing over one thousand tons. His arm span reaches an impressive ninety-two
feet. Welcome to Rio folks and thank you for flying Pan American Grace."
Back in my Army Air Corps days before the war, we pilots used to refer to
the DC-3 as Goonie Birds, on account of the way they tend to look when they're
landing. The old silver bird starts to bank left as we swing around the massive
stone figure and start our descent for the landing. I spy a gaggle of tourists
on the stone steps at base of the statue, smiling and waving us in.
Another thing I notice is the city of Rio, itself. The business district of
the city is close to the beach and full of fancy domed buildings and green
parks. It took a lot of cush to slap all that marble and alabaster together.
There's enough statues standing around to populate a fair-sized burg. Things
don't look so rosy for the slobs stuck living on the surrounding hillsides,
though. From the air, it looks like a sprawling city dump, but I know it's just
thousands of shacks crammed together like cord wood.
I'll tell you one thing about this south of the equator tourist trap. The
well-heeled haunting those swell haciendas and fancy hotels facing the beach
don't have to peer too far out their back windows to see what might have been
if they'd been born on the wrong side of the tracks. The hillsides leading up
to the steep face of the mountain where Christ welcomes the world are just
littered with makeshift tin roofs and some pretty ugly poverty.
I hear the rubber squeal as the tires touch down. I straighten my tie. Before
takeoff, Iíd booked a fancy suite overlooking the beach. Iím thinking my
employer can stand the financial load. I figure it serves her right for giving
me the run-around right out of the gate. The plane rolls off the patched-up
runway over to the terminal building. I spy Wanda coming out the door to the
galley section in the tail. I motion her to come over. "Hey doll," I
say as she leans over, "I'll give you a jingle when I get settled into my
new digs. I was just wondering about the dough situation. Where's the best
place to exchange Yankee green for whatever the locals spread around this
"Make sure you do call, Jim," she winks. "I have a lot of
interesting things to show you. About the money; the monetary units in Brazil
are called rias. You can get two to one at the airport banks, but I wouldn't
recommend it. Just about any club will convert your cash at three to one if you
act like you know what you're doing. You don't have to exchange it all if you
don't want to. Most of the local shops, cab drivers and businesses are happy to
accept dollars. They usually get a better deal on it than you can,
"Thanks for the heads-up, kid." I give her bare arm a light
stroke with the back of my mitt. "I noticed a trolley going through town
while we were landing. I'm just nuts about those things. How about a guided
tour by rail tomorrow?"
She smiles in a way that gets my pump racing. "It's a date."
I hear the hum of the passenger door being lowered. Wanda gives my shoulder
a gentle squeeze. "I have a three-day layover before I have to go back,
but I've got to go play stewardess to the others right now if I want to keep my
On the sorry road in front of the airport, I spy three beaten-up hacks the
tourists hadn't already glommed. Of the lot, I decide on a little yellow
British Hillman Minx with the black letters, T-A-X-I slopped on the door with a
paint roller. I have to settle for leftover wheels, mainly because I'd spent
too much time jawing with Wanda in the lobby, and it was the only one left that
looked like it had a fighting chance of making it the mile and a half to town.
After I toss my bags in the open trunk, I pile into the dusty back seat. I get
the cabbie's attention as he pulls away. "Do you savvy the English,
The brown-faced kid of about twenty turns and flashes gold caps at me. He
bobs his head. "Oh yes, many people speak English here. I, Ramon Phillipe
Diego Cordova Johnson speak English, French, Portuguese and even a little
Spanish. There are many languages spoken in Rio de Janeiro."
Jeepers," I chuckle, "that long handle sounds kinda funny with a
name like Johnson tacked on its tail."
Ramon scatters a bunch of screaming chickens off the dirt shoulder before
recalling that he's behind the wheel.
The kid glances back at me in the rear-view mirror. "My papa was
American. He was killed fighting the Nazis in Sicily when I was boy. My sainted
mother still lives. She is mulatto. How you say...a mixture of many peoples?
She is very ill and I must work very hard to tend to her needs."
"You can skip the rest of the sob story, Ray," I shoot back.
"I won't stiff you for the cab fee, word of honor. You might even get a
tip if you can manage to stay on the road all the way to a dump called the
Copacabana Palace Hotel."
His peepers get wide and greedy. "Ah, you are very wealthy American
"I am very wealthy American tourists, no, is right," I answer.
"My poor sainted mother is spending her last remaining days cheating at
roulette in that dive. I must work very hard to tend to her needs, see?"
The cabbie starts laughing. "I think I like you, American tough guy. Ramon
is most happy to be at your service."
So, we tool through what must be the Centro district, past night clubs,
stores and a million street vendors hawking food and every useless trinket you
can imagine. The traffic rules seem to be strictly on a first come-first serve
basis around here.
I'm a little surprised to see that almost half the locals on the street are
white, with quite a few Negroes sprinkled into the mix. It looks like the most
part of the darker folks I see range from golden-brown to black, with every
brown shade in between. The mixing of the races sure has produced some
swell-looking people. A joe could fall in lust pretty easy in Rio.
I'm guessing the black folks are left over from the glory plantation days
Wanda told me about. Seems like wherever the Europeans landed around the world,
they always felt God gave them the right to own the work force that did their
"How much farther to the hotel, Ray?" I ask the cabbie. "Iím
not springing for a merry trip around this entire burg, pal"
"Not far," he grins at me. "Copacabana Beach is very close.
Your hotel is on last street up ahead. Basteao Bahiano Road is where many fine
hotels look out over our beautiful waters. The Hotel Copacabana Palace is the
most beautiful of them all. Charles De Gaulle and Eva Peron have stayed at the
Palace; Queen of England, also. You must be very wealthy to afford such a
No wonder the kid got that cash-register gleam in his peepers when I told
him where I'm hanging my hat. Roberta is going strictly first-class on that
heisted two mill.
When we pull in front of the hotel, I see the kid isn't just talking
through his hat. To our left, on the far side of the street, the beach is lined
with palm trees with a sidewalk full of goofy-looking suckers by the busy
street. Past that are a lot of happy locals and tourists in various stages of
undress, soaking in the warm sun on the endless stretch of white sand. To our
right is the biggest darned hotel this shamus has ever laid his baby-blues on.
The Hotel Copacabana Palace looks like it's a city block long if it's a
foot. It has nine regular stories, at a quick count. Right in the center of the
Spanish-style red, clay roof, some sort of penthouse sticks out to make a tenth
floor. The mansion-sized level sports marble pillars between each of its five
tall, arched windows. I'm supposing that's where Eva Peron cooled her heels.
The ground floor of the white building seems to be for the restaurant,
bars, shops and such. I get the notion you could live in that joint and never
have to send out for a thing. A sprawling, stone plaza keeps the riff-raff on
the street from loitering too close to the posh digs. Various trees are growing
all over it in brick-lined planting areas.
"If you wish, American tough guy," Ramon pipes in, "I will
carry your bags inside."
I climb out of the back seat and lean over his open window. "That's
OK, kid, just tell me what the damage is and I'll carry them in myself."
The driver is grinning like a shark. "For you, Ramon charges only three
I take out a fin and hand it to him. "Keep the change, pal. Even
though I'm guessing your normal fee is a buck for guys who aren't me, I did
enjoy the little yarn about your dear, sainted mother."
That's when I see this tomato breeze in off the plaza and crawl into the
cab in front of us, with a fuzzy mink coat draped over her arm. She's styling
with one of those ridiculously large-rimmed straw hats. I can't get a clear
shot of her mug, but that long platinum-blond hair and curvy frame fighting to
pop out of that tight red dress sure looks all Mason to me.
The tomato slams the door on the older Hudson. As the brown bucket pulls
away from the curb, I scramble my pins back inside the taxi. I tap the kid on
his sweaty shoulder. "Hey Ray, there's another ten clams in it for you,
if as they say in the movies, you follow that cab!"
The kid cranks the small four-banger over and jolts it back out into
traffic. He turns his head and flashes his gold-studded choppers. "I knew
I like you, American tough guy! I will stick to him like the glue, or my name
is not Ramon Phillipe Diego Cordova Johnson!"