The Bullet Meant for Me

by Jan Reid
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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1825

Jan Reid and three friends were in Mexico City in April, 1998, to watch Reid’s friend, a young Mexican boxer named Jesus Chavez, fight. On the evening following the fight, they visited a bar in a rough part of the city, the Plaza Garibaldi. When it was time to leave, they got into a taxi to take them back to their apartment. This was when their nightmare began. The driver took them on a detour, after which they were tailed by another car. Having taken them almost to their apartment, the cabdriver stopped unexpectedly in the middle of a block. From the car behind emerged two gunmen who jumped into the taxi, which sped off onto the freeway. One gunman demanded all their cash and one of Reid’s credit cards. Then the taxi stopped and the four men were ordered out of the car. One of them, David Courtney, made a run for it, while Reid angrily threw off the grip of one of the gunmen, whom he calls Honcho. Furious, Honcho advanced toward Reid. Reid, who had had some boxing training, aimed a straight left-handed punch at him, but the punch fell short of its target. Honcho took aim with his gun and pulled the trigger. Reid felt searing pain in his abdomen and spine and as he fell to the ground he cried out, “I’m killed.”

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This is the opening episode in Reid’s engaging memoir, which then goes back in time to describe his childhood and youth in Texas, his later interest in boxing and his friendship with Chavez, and his marriage to Dorothy Browne. This leads to another, more detailed account of the shooting and of his long period of rehabilitation, during which he was convinced, correctly as it turned out, that although diagnosed as a paraplegic he would eventually be able to walk again. During his rehabilitation, he examined what led him to throw that failed punch at the gunman: Was it courage or recklessness? Bravery in the face of mortal danger or a mindless machismo that had been ingrained in him since childhood?

Reid was born in 1945 and grew up in small Texan towns. His family was blue-collar middle class, but Reid went to school in Wichita Falls with the children of oil millionaires. A skinny boy, unsure of himself, he was teased because of his first name. He was not athletic, but even at the age of eight he was fascinated by boxing. However, his mother would not allow him to pursue it. A stint in the Marine Corps reserve toughened him up, and he later got involved in a fight with some local toughs, which he lost. Vocalizing a theme that runs through the book, Reid comments on the futility of the redneck macho culture that equates manhood with hooliganism. Many young Texas men never grow out of it. “But if you’re lucky,” Reid says, “you become someone else.”

In his mid-thirties, Reid was still unmarried, unsuccessful in relationships, and living alone in a rented cabin on a hill overlooking a valley. He worked out on a heavy punching bag, grew marijuana, and hunted rattlesnakes. Then, at a party in Austin, he met Dorothy, who was twice divorced and the mother of one girl, Lila. Courtship and marriage followed, and eventually, after seven years, a move to Austin.

It was in Austin that a friend took Reid to a boxing gym owned by a former boxer named Richard Lord. An old interest was quickly reawakened; Reid sparred and worked out regularly. Thirty years after his mother had banned him from boxing, he was finally learning to fight. At Lord’s gym he met Chavez, a twenty- two-year-old Chicano boxer from Chicago. Chavez was an illegal immigrant who had served a prison term for armed robbery. After completing his sentence he had been deported by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) back to Mexico City, but he had quickly made his way back, unauthorized, to the United States.

At the gym, Chavez directed the workouts. He was a hard taskmaster and an excellent teacher for Reid; they became good friends. In spite of his prison conviction, Chavez was a decent young man who wanted to make an honest living through boxing. He also represented all that Reid had wanted to be as an athlete, and gradually Reid came to think of him with affection as a surrogate son. Chavez fought regularly in Austin and became a contender for a world superfeatherweight title; he was well known in the community and was commended by the mayor for his work with youths who were in danger of getting involved in gangs.

However, when Chavez applied for a Texas driver’s license, the INS caught up with him. Immigration law in the mid- 1990’s was harsh and ruthlessly applied, especially to Mexican immigrants. Chavez managed to work out a deal whereby he would be allowed two more fights in the United States before “voluntarily” returning to Mexico. Thus, in October, 1997, Jesus returned to Mexico to live with his grandparents in Chihuahua. In Mexico, Chavez boxed for a fraction of the pay he was used to receiving in the United States, and his chances of a world title fight receded; no one would fight him for a world title in Mexico because there would be no American television money.

When Chavez arranged a fight in Mexico City, Reid and his friends Mike Hall, John Spong, and David Courtney decided to go down to see it. They were unaware that the U.S. State Department had recently added Mexico City to its list of most dangerous foreign destinations. Even had they known this, Reid doubts that it would have stopped them. For male Texans, heading down to Mexico was a ritual they were born to; it was part of a long tradition in the violent relations between the two countries. The danger was part of the appeal.

The night following Chavez’s victory, the four men ended up back in the Plaza Garibaldi where they had celebrated the previous night. This was in spite of warnings about the danger of the area from local residents and despite Reid’s own misgivings. After the shooting, Reid was rushed by ambulance to the emergency room of the American British Cowdray Hospital. He was in agonizing pain and believed that he was dying. At the hospital, Reid received excellent care, especially from Dr. Roberto Casteñeda, who led the first team of surgeons. Next, neurosurgeons discovered that the bullet had fractured Reid’s twelfth thoracic vertebra and had come to rest in the cauda equina, a bundle of nerves at the base of the spinal cord. Reid was paralyzed but, because he could move his toes, there appeared to be some hope. Family and friends rallied around him and soon he was transported from Mexico to Houston Medical Center.

The media got hold of the story, which came at a time when interest was growing in violence against Americans in Mexico. Reid even conducted a press conference from his hospital bed, clips from which were included in ABC’s 20/20 program on Mexican violence. Much of the media presented the incident as a case of a brave Texan standing his ground against the gunman, but there were other views. Reid’s friend Mike Hall told him that he had been brave but stupid, a view echoed by many of the women in Reid’s circle of friends.

Over the following months, Reid underwent unrelenting physical therapy and lived his life from a wheelchair. His greatest fear was not that he would never walk again but that his disability would destroy his marriage. This did not happen, although not surprisingly, given the sudden demands placed on it, the marriage went through periods of great strain.

Step by step, Reid moved from wheelchair to walker to crutches and then to a single crutch. Richard Lord urged him to get back to the gym. At first he resisted, but he eventually went back and got used to punching the heavy bag again. The crutch gave way to a cane. Reid pushed himself hard, ignoring the pains that would shoot through his legs. His goal was to walk down the aisle with his stepdaughter Lila at her wedding.

He was also thinking of his friend Chavez. They talked on the phone and by e-mail. Would Chavez ever be able to return to the United States and fight for a world title? It did not seem likely. Chavez did have one success. In Mexico City he took on the Mexican superfeatherweight champion Julio Alvarez and won a unanimous decision from the judges. This was in defiance of the conventional wisdom that Chavez, who was ridiculed in Mexico City as a gringo—he had grown up in Chicago and spoke Spanish imperfectly—could never win a decision against the popular Mexican.

Keeping up their friendship, Reid made a solitary trip to Mexico to visit Chavez in Chihuahua City. He watched him win another fight, held in a provincial town against a mediocre opponent. In being willing to go back to Mexico, Reid answered in the affirmative a question that had been vexing him: Would he ever be at ease in Mexico again, after what had happened?

The trip to Mexico was the first of a number of healing events that were soon to take place, giving Reid’s memoir a happy ending. On New Year’s Eve, 1999, he and Dorothy traveled to Paris and watched as ten thousand flashbulbs were set off on the Eiffel Tower at midnight. Meanwhile, a new lawyer had taken up Chavez’s case, which paved the way for him to receive permanent U.S. resident status. He had a homecoming bout in Austin (another victory) and hoped for a world title fight. Reid relates a telling incident as he and Chavez walked to his car after a dinner with friends:

I could tell he debated whether to take my arm as I stepped down from a curb. All the prohibition born of being told what it was to be a man fell away. Beside my car, we stood for a moment hugging each other. He loomed so large in the ring that I often forgot how short he was. I sighed and rested my chin on the top of his head.

Finally, at the invitation of Roberto Casteñeda, the surgeon who first attended him after he was shot, Reid and his wife returned to Mexico City, where he visited the exact spot where he had been shot. He found that he had no regrets about what he did at that fateful moment and realized that in his own way, he had won that fight with the gunman Honcho. It is a fitting reflection on which to end a touching, honest, unpretentious memoir.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 98 (February 15, 2002): 976.

Kirkus Reviews 70 (January 1, 2002): 35.

Publishers Weekly 249 (January 28, 2002): 278.

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