While on vacation in early 1946, my father, Doctor Raymond G. Neubarth and my mother Trudy (Gertrude – a name that her Swiss-German father loved.) were “sort of” honeymooning via automobile deep in Mexico. I question the full value of the honeymoon because traveling via car in Mexico at that time in the last century was not the most pleasant of experiences. It might better be called “a vacation” even though Mom and Dad had just recently married.
On the return leg of their vacation they drove from Acapulco to Mexican City where my mother wanted to do some shopping to provide decorations for their new house in the rural suburbs of Chicago in a community called Palos Heights where they had a house set far back from the road partially surrounded by a forest of fruit trees on several acres of land. It was a beautiful setting that needed a woman’s touch to look like a home right out of Better Homes and Gardens Magazine.
After visiting several stores, they ended up in the Thieves Market. It was an open air market that probably earned its reprehensible name over the course of several centuries. Just the same, it was a legal market and it was to be the one that Mom was determined she would buy the “Perfect Momento” of her first vacation to Old Mexico.
After looking at the artistic wares from countless stands she saw a beautiful sculpted set of half a dozen matching and finely decorated bells that gradated in size from a little over one foot in height down to approximately four inches in height. She thought that they would look beautiful in a little Bell House that she wanted my father to build next to the driveway so that when a car drove up, a pressure plate would activate the bells to let everybody know that company had arrived. Dad was doing very well in his business, so this was not an exorbitant request. Besides, Dad loved to bargain, having learned how to haggle after many vacations in Mexico and Central America.
The initial sales price that was offered was outrageous as expected. (Years later when I was down in Mexico with my father he told me that the initial price offered was the fool’s price. Dad said that only Englishmen and Americans are foolish enough to pay the fool’s price. You were supposed to cut fifty to sixty percent off of the initial price to make a counter offer and then meet somewhere in the middle.) The person selling the bells did not want to come down after the initial offer, so Dad took Mom’s hand and walked away to talk to other shop keepers. The bell merchant followed him and eventually came down to about fifty percent of the initial request, so Dad and Mom walked back to his stand and made the purchase. The merchant and two other men helped carry the bells to Dad’s car which was about a block away.
My mother was very happy. She knew that they could sell the bells as works of art back in Chicago for ten times the price that they had paid at the Thieves Market. That day they started their long drive north on the Pan American Highway to Texas and then eventually, Chicago. Unfortunately, north of Mexico City they were forced off the road in late evening by a Mexican trucker who was taking his half of the road right out of the middle of the two lane highway.
To avoid a head on collision with the truck on a sharp curve Dad swerved to the open right shoulder of the highway that had been carved out of the side of a mountain. Not built to US engineering standards, the shoulder gave way and the car ran off the edge of the highway and cascaded through brush and cactus about 100 feet down the steep slope of the mountainside. Mom, who was pregnant with my older sister, was a little shaken up but not injured. Dad had sore ribs from hitting the steering wheel several times as the car jolted on its downward path.
There were no seat belts back then. Both Mom and Dad were just very lucky that the plants on the mountain side held the car up and slowed its downward progress. In fact, the large cactus that finally stopped them was the last thing that could have prevented them from falling 200 feet to their deaths. The bells were still wrapped and packaged safely in the trunk along with their suitcases. About fifty Mexicans helped pass a tow rope down the mountain side, tied it to the car axel and slowly pulled the car back up the mountainside to the road.
The rest of their journey was not eventful until they reached the border two days later. As they approached the border they first had to go through Mexican customs. They were asked to show all of their purchases from their trip to Mexico, so Dad willingly showed the agents the items in the trunk and was promptly arrested. My mother was allowed to go free, but Dad spent the night in a Mexican Jail just a few hundred yards from the border. The car was impounded and Mom spent the night in a Mexican hotel, also a few hundred yards from the border. So close, but so far away.
The next day Dad was informed that he would have to return to Mexico City to answer questions from the Federal police down there. So, with a Federal policeman assigned to them, they spent the next two and a half days driving south to return to Mexico City. There, the Federales insisted that Dad and Mom show them were they had made their “illegal purchase” of the bells. So escorting a bevy of very serious federal officers they entered the Thieves Market and found the stand and the helpful employees who had carried the bells to the car. All of those people were also promptly arrested.
After a hearing before a magistrate the next day, my father and mother had to sign an affidavit attesting to their purchase and how much they paid which they were told they would be reimbursed if the government could get the money from the shop tender who was probably going to spend the rest of his life in prison once convicted. The beautiful set of bells had been confiscated and were no longer my father’s property. He sort of expected that.
It turns out that my father had purchased the Mexican Liberty Bells that had been stolen half a century earlier. They had been specially cast to commemorate Mexican independence but had disappeared and were feared lost decades earlier.