In early 1960, the man who created Perry Mason was introduced to an Imperial Beach resident named Francisco Muñoz. Erle Stanley Gardner had many friends, and he particularly liked Mexicans, but the friendship that developed between him and Muñoz appears to have ranked among the most cherished of both men. By 1962 Muñoz had become a main character in Gardner’s travel books and his abettor in adventures like this one, recounted by Gardner in The Hidden Heart of Baja.
Gardner had hired Muñoz, introduced to the book’s readers as a “quick-thinking, quick-talking aviator, who has been flying long enough to have developed an uncanny skill as well as an encyclopedic knowledge of the country over which he is flying.” The two men had decided to fly along the Pacific Coast, about 180 miles south of Ensenada, to see if the rugged beaches could yield access to custom-designed trailers and dune bikes in which the septuagenarian Gardner hankered to go exploring. “It was great fun flying at a height of 10 or 15 feet over the sand, with the plane throttled down so that we had just sufficient air speed to give the pilot good control,” Gardner recorded.
For “mile after mile,” they traveled in this intimate proximity to the beach, with Muñoz touching down whenever it struck his and the writer’s fancy. They studied coyotes, including one “just preparing to feast on a dead baby whale which had been cast up.” They stopped at fishing camps to gossip with the Mexicans gathering lobster and catching totoaba. Later, realizing they were hungry, and seeing a clam camp, Muñoz “made a quick circle into the wind, came down on the sandy beach, landed, and taxied up to the place where the clam diggers were bringing in the huge clams.”
Receiving abrazos, Muñoz made his and Gardner’s hunger known, and “in no time at all a young lad was forthcoming with lemons and a large soup plate,” Gardner wrote. “One of the clam diggers, at a signal, brought up a sackful...and Muñoz and I stood by while the clam digger cut open the shells with swift skill and stripped out the meat....” The two men gorged themselves, then realized that the afternoon was waning. “It would be touch-and-go to reach Tijuana before dark.” Although Muñoz was unfazed, Gardner felt worried by the deepening gloom, and his alarm increased when it became obvious that the two were flying into a storm.
“[W]e were being borne along by a tail wind which increased until it was blowing at 75 miles an hour,” Gardner later wrote. “Below us the ocean was a churned mass of angry waters, and above us the clouds kept pressing down until we were forced to fly just over the tops of the waves.” Squinting through the torrential rains, Gardner shouted that Muñoz should land in Ensenada, but the storm swept them past the town.
At times “gusts of wind would catch the plane and seem to lift the tail so that it took skillful handling to keep us from being blown over end to end.... We were now flying two or three hundred yards offshore, so low that headlights from the automobiles coming along the highway between Tijuana and Ensenada would dazzle me — darkness above and below, but over on the right there was a faint murky line of surf; a surf which was hitting the shore with terrific fury and sending great clouds of spray high into the air.” Finally Muñoz wrestled the plane down to a landing strip in Rosarito Beach, and the two men made their way, dripping, to the Rosarito Beach Hotel.
Still the adventure hadn’t quite ended. As Muñoz called for a car to drive up from Tijuana, Gardner insisted on ordering stiff drinks and taking a room in which the two could await the ride north in comfort. “Muñoz insisted that as a customer I was entitled to the first shower, and after wasting some time in argument I stepped out of my wet clothes, leaving them in a soggy mess on the floor....” The mystery writer then entered the shower and turned on the wrong faucet, producing an icy blast. Twisting the alternate faucet, however, caused flakes of rust to jam the shower head; after a moment, only a few drops of warm water trickled out. Muñoz heard Gardner’s curses and came forward to help — not realizing that Gardner had already opened the faucet. “Suddenly he had the shower head off, and water...steaming hot, struck me full in the chest. I ducked, Muñoz jumped. We collided with each other and then the stream of water was pouring over both of us!”
Today Francisco Muñoz roars with laughter at the memory. “He was in the nude, and I was dressed. And we both tried to get out at the same time!”
Gardner died about 8 years after this incident, in 1970. But Muñoz, now 76, is still an active man with detailed memories of his life. He and his wife, Leysl, spend part of their time at a beach-front mobile home in the community of Bahía de los Angeles, about 100 miles south of San Felipe on the Sea of Cortéz. But every month or two, they drive to Crest, east of El Cajon, where a second home overlooks rocky vistas.
“See this?” says Muñoz. He is standing in a jumbled storage area next to his Crest home, hefting a chalky white chunk of material. It’s part of a whale skull, including the ear bone, scavenged from Malarrimo Beach, near Guerrero Negro, on Baja’s Pacific Coast. Close at hand, other cardboard boxes, all labeled, are packed with more whale ear bones. Some of the pieces of Muñoz’s flotsam collection are unique. He shows off a wooden tool that looks like an archaeological artifact. Once, some shrimper used it to scrape his catch from the floor of his boat into an icebox. Along one side of his house, Muñoz has built shelves to hold his hundreds of bottles, once-hard-edged and glittering glass made subtle and milky by the work of seawater and sand and sun.