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The Anecdotes of Ted Gillyatt
Segundo at “Los Algarrobos”

Ted Gillyatt recounts his experiences as a 20-year-old segundo (apprentice) at “Los Algarrobos” during 1928-1929.  His amusing stories and descriptions of the place and people (in particular Jim Buckenham) provide a delightful glimpse into life as it was lived then on a large estancia.  We thank his family, especially Basil & Diana, for allowing us to publish Ted’s stories for all of us to enjoy.


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The very name evokes a haunting nostalgic memory of a way of life which has passed into history.  Speak to anyone who has lived in Central Argentina and they will have had some contact with this prestigious estancia and probably with its two sisters La California and Las Tres Lagunas.

They were founded by three brothers of the name of Benitz, who came to Argentina from California, and whose family had reached that state by covered wagon from the east.

Please click here for clarification.

John, William and Alfred must have landed in Argentina soon after the middle of the 19th century when that country was experiencing a development boom brought about by the railway network, which was being built with British capital.  William bought land in the province of Santa Fe, not very far from the city of Rosario.  He built himself a house and named his estancia La California.  The nearby railway station took the same name.  He married, and reared a large family of several girls and one boy who, following Benitz tradition, took his father’s name.

Alfred elected to settle in Northern Argentina, buying a large tract of land in El Chaco, where he lived on the bare fringe of civilization in a primitive cabin.  When in due course the value of the land rose, he sold out, and bought himself an estancia, not very far from William, known as Las Tres Lagunas.  He chose for his wife a young Miss Horner, who was governess to William’s family.  This union did not have the enthusiastic approval of the young ladies, who saw their erstwhile teacher suddenly elevated to become the wife of their rich uncle.  They had no children.

John Benitz acquired some 10,000 hectares in the province of Cordoba, about 12 miles south-west of the station of Monte Buey, though I believe that branch of the railway had not then been built.  The estancia was called Los Algarrobos, after a species of tree found in those parts.

If my memory serves me, the previous owners were two elderly ladies who lived in a house, as much fortress as home.  It contained a watch tower as a lookout for marauding indians.  Windows and doors were heavily barred with iron grids and the place was protected by a deep ditch surrounding it.  As there was no sign of water anywhere near, I was curious to know what purpose it could have served, and I was told that the indians always attacked on horseback and would not dismount.  As these horses had never been trained to jump, a ditch was an effective barrier.

The house, when I saw it, was in ruins, roofless and overgrown with thorn trees and pampa grass.  Here and there appeared aged tombstones barely visible in the undergrowth marking the graves of forgotten pioneers who had met their death in this lonely spot.  It must have been a life of hardship and constant danger, and though much has been written about the conquest of the North American West, little if anything survives to describe the struggle against indians on the Argentine Pampa.

John built himself an impressive square house of two stories with a verandah and balcony running all round it.  He laid out a spacious park with flower and vegetable gardens, and erected barns and living quarters for a great number of employees, to include administrative staff, artisans and peones.  The land was flat and fertile and without indigenous trees, and the estancia was made up of some 20,000 acres (10,000 hectares).

Wire fences marked the divisions of pastures and agricultural land, which generally consisted of 500 or 250 hectares.  Where four corners met there would be a windmill to draw water for the cattle.  It took me a little time to get used to the size of these fields, as my father’s place, Los Molles, of some 600 hectares, would almost have fitted into one of them.  Most were named; some after members of the family, like the Don Alfredo, the Don Juan, the Josefina etc., while others were distinguished by their characteristics; for instance El Cielo (heaven) for its very sweet water, while another, not far off, with very brackish water, was labelled El Infierno (Hell).  Another that I remember was known as the Ñandú as it seemed to be a favourite spot for the wild ostriches, a few of which still roamed over the land.

The watering arrangements were unlike any I had seen hitherto.  There was no surface water available so underground streams had to be tapped.  This was done by digging an open well, some 15 feet in diameter and 25 feet deep more or less according to the depth of the water.  A windmill drew it up through a pipe into a saucer-shaped earth reservoir, and thence to the drinking troughs.

Sometimes there would be over a thousand head of cattle to be watered, and in the long hot summer days with perhaps little wind, the demand might exceed supply.  To overcome this they had dug two or three wells near to each other and connected by tunnels at water level.

One day the mechanic whose duty it was to maintain and repair the windmills (a tubby, elderly little Italian) had climbed down one of these wells to check on a cylinder, when he was startled by a loud bellow just behind him.  Looking over his shoulder he was astounded to see a large bull, knee deep in water, shaking its head at him in a menacing manner.  He shot up the ladder rather faster than he had gone down, and was still out of breath when he arrived back to report this incredible apparition.  At first no one believed him, “Too much wine,” they said and patted him on the back, “Go” and lie down, old man,” they said “and you’ll soon feel better.” But he insisted until finally a party set out to investigate.  Of course it was quite true.  It seemed that one of the stud bulls, running with the herd, had pushed through the protective fence and fallen in.  The water must have broken his fall for he was not injured in any way, but had wandered through the tunnels looking for a way out.

At the time when I worked at Los Algarrobos the family was represented by John Benitz’s widow, known as “Old Mrs. Johnny”.  Her husband had been drowned some years previously in a disastrous flash flood which had washed through his summer residence at Cruz Grande in the hills of Cordoba.  Though not a big woman, she had a presence, and always commanded respect.  She was of a generation which despised easy chairs and casual clothes, and would not tolerate laxity in manners or lifestyle.

In the evenings she would sit in an upright chair beside the wood fire after dinner, while we of the staff chatted about the day’s events and I, as junior member, selected records and wound up the gramophone.  Opposite her, on a low sofa, reclined her companion, Helen Fea, whose long silk-clad legs were the object of many masculine glances.  A perceptible frown would appear on Mrs.  Johnny’s face every time she crossed them.

When the clock on the mantelpiece struck 10, she would rise and bid us goodnight and go upstairs, followed by Miss Fea.  By six o'clock next morning she would be already astir and directing the work of the household.

A traditional feature of the domestic staff was the Chinese cook.  Actually there were several during my time.  They had such names as Hug or Sag, and were physically indistinguishable, though their characters sometimes varied.  Autocratic, resentful of taking any orders from a woman, they were nevertheless extremely competent and reliable.  They spoke little Spanish and only a minimal pidgin English, but were quick to cotton on.  If they didn’t like, or hadn’t got, what the mistress ordered, they would substitute their own choice.

At any time one of them might appear in the office and say “Today my friend come, tomorrow I go.” There was no dissuading him.  Another Chinaman would arrive on the train, be shown the ropes, and take over next day.  You just had to remember to call him “Sing” instead of “Song”, or “Hi” instead of “Lo".

They were great gigglers, and seemed to find white people very funny; a habit which could be infuriating when trying to deal with them, as I sometimes had to when giving out meat in the butcher’s shop.  Any annoyance you might show, they would find excruciatingly comical, doubling up with mirth.

I well remember one of them holding on to the tail of a tame ostrich which used to hang around the place, and allowing himself to be pulled along by it.  One kick with its spurred foot would have ripped his stomach open, but the more we shouted to him to let go, the more hilarious he found it.

Another character of the domestic staff was Mrs. Johnny’s confidential maid, Chirola - a dark Spanish looking woman, silent and watchful, giving the impression of being involved in some intrigue; one who might well listen outside doors and take advantage of what she heard.

It was rumoured that she carried on an affair with the chauffeur, Felipe, who was a nasty bit of work.

Another shadowy figure whose name I forget, for I had little to do with him, was the gardener.  He seemed to be always wheeling a barrow.  Like most gardeners he was elderly - I have never met a young one - and whenever Mrs. Johnny wandered out to see what vegetables were growing, he would stop, put down his barrow, take off his hat and very politely ask her permission to bring his common law wife to live on the estancia.  This request was always peremptorily rejected, so he would replace his hat, take up his barrow and go on his way.  I think he hoped that his persistence would wear her down.  It never did.

The two sons, John and Alfred were, during my time at Los Algarrobos, scarcely more than weekend visitors.  John was a good-looking man, always immaculately dressed in the best money could buy.  As well as managing Los Algarrobos, he had his own place at Ballesteros, about an hour’s drive away.  He always drove a smart car and seemed to have an expensive lifestyle.  One heard of his playing polo in Buenos Aires and even going to the States with a team.  Even a junior assistant, as I was, could not help overhearing some criticism that he was being a bit extravagant.

To me he was a rather remote figure, inclined to moodiness, as sometimes he would chat quite pleasantly with me, but at other times seemed not to know who I was.  He spoke usually in a very soft voice.  I remember at one dinner party, a girl sitting next to him found difficulty in hearing him, and, referring to a well-known singer of those times, said in a loud voice “So what are you then, the Whispering Baritone?” The family was not amused.

His wife Aphra was a most “simpatica” and sweet person and I never heard her spoken of in anything but the most affectionate terms.

The younger son, Alfred, was a much more outgoing extroverted character.  He lived, with his wife Nancy, some 20 miles away on his own estancia.  On first meeting one saw, with something of a shock, that he carried a steel hook in place of his left hand.  While travelling in tropical Northern Argentina he had had the misfortune to be bitten by a poisonous snake, and only the swift action of his sister, Josephine, had saved his life, but at the expense of his hand.  He did not let this handicap curtail his active life, and managed to drive a car, ride and even play polo.  Looping the reins on his hook and using his stick in the right hand, he was a formidable player.

Nancy gave one the impression of being a little overawed when in the company of the rest of the family but was a good hostess in her own home.  It was a sad blow to all his friends when Alfred, only a few years later, died of a complication of typhoid fever, contracted again in the northern provinces.

Polo was very much a feature of Los Algarrobos.  Every Saturday evening during the winter months would see the ponies of the various players arriving in little groups of 5 or 6 in charge of a “petisero” or pony boy.  It was part of my duties to see to their stabling and fodder.  Sunday morning brought the players from neighbouring estancias.  Usually there would be Johnny and Alfred Benitz, Sydney Brown, Sonny Tansley, Jim Buckenham (who was the manager), several Argentine “estancieros” and myself.  It had been one of the conditions when I was taken on as “second” that I was to play whenever required.  The estancia would provide mounts.  Games began after lunch when a motorcade containing wives and families of the players and sundry friends and neighbours converged upon the field and drew up along one side.  They distributed themselves among the hitching bars and posts, where the ponies awaited their turns.

It was quite a colourful scene.  The men in white breeches, shirts and polished leather riding boots with hard white polo helmets on their heads; the ladies smartly turned out for the occasion and the ponies with brightly coloured bandages on their cannons as some protection against stick and ball.  Even their tails were tied up with ribbon to keep them out of the way.

As a neophyte I had much to learn.  Jim had explained the basic rules to me and had warned me not to take to heart the brutal insults and curses of which I was likely to be the target during the heat of the game.  As well he did so, or I might have slunk away in shame before the end of the match, whereas, over a good tea up at the house, the same men who had sworn at me the most, gave me good advice and encouragement.  We sat round a huge dining room table, tired but relaxed, consuming innumerable cups of tea, bread and butter, cakes etc.  while the conversation swung from English to Spanish and back without a pause, according to who was talking or listening.  The talk was mainly about ponies, which were sometimes bought or sold over the table.  Tournaments of the past and their protagonists were discussed at length, until one by one the guests took their leave and drove away.  After that, a hot bath, leisurely drink and further discussion round the fire in the office living room before changing for dinner.

Sometimes, towards spring, there would be tournaments, and though I was not a tournament class player, and did not go away with the Algarrobos team, I was able to enjoy those that were held at home.

A polo tournament at Los Algarrobos had an atmosphere of carnival about it.  Up at the big house there was much activity.  Bedrooms were fitted out as dormitories for ladies and girls who were expected.  Men might find themselves in strange places such as attics and storerooms.  Surplus furniture was removed from the drawing room to allow room for dancing on the parquet floor.  The bar would be stocked up and extra leaves added to the dining room table.

Mrs. Johnny allowed us of the staff to submit the names of two guests of our own choice, which, if she approved, she would formally invite.  At that time the only girls I knew were Irene Greaven and Maudie Gross, both of Rosario.  They were invited and came.  They were a little upstaged by the more sophisticated lasses from Buenos Aires, but I think they enjoyed it and, at least, it was some return for the hospitality they had shown me.

Of course, I had to meet them at the station and take them back when it was all over, and it was on the return journey that there occurred one of those incidents which one would rather, but cannot, forget.  As a junior I did not have the use of the best car, but was driving an old Vauxhall which had seen better days.  The morning was fine but the road heavy with mud from recent rain.  For reasons long forgotten, we were not heading for Monte Buey, our usual station, but another further off and unfamiliar.  When about 1 mile from the town, the radiator overheated and clouds of steam erupted from the engine.  There was only one house anywhere near, and, with a train to catch, I needed water - now.

So I approached the house and knocked on the door, which was opened by four or five girls wearing broad smiles, but little else, who invited me to step in.  Politely declining the invitation, I made known my urgent need, which was not what they had supposed.  They gave me a large jug of water and watched me pour it in, and as I drove away called after me with a cordial invitation to stop by any time.

My two guests were curious to know if these girls were friends of mine, and speculated as to why they were still in deshabille so late in the morning.  My replies were evasive, and I still don’t know if they ever guessed they had been parked outside the town brothel!

But to return to the tournament party; during the two or three days it lasted, the programme was roughly the same.  In the morning, polo ponies were exercised and groomed.  Male guests got together and showed off their cars, ponies and swapped lies about the speed of both, while the ladies talked fashion and domestic problems, and perhaps strolled around the park admiring the trees.

The girls, of course, wanted to ride.  Why are girls always fond of horses when boys never are?

Now while Jim might have been ready enough to escort one young lady on a quiet ride he was certainly not going to be seen dead among a “giggle of frippets” so the job fell to me.

Having lent to the five or six girls all the tamer horses which I usually rode, and got them all mounted, stirrups adjusted and reins put into their hands, I turned to what was left to me.  It was a creature of dubious reputation, brought in from the fields for the occasion, had not been ridden for some time, and bore the name “Pangare”.  No sooner had I climbed on than he went straight up in the air and threw me off.

Not a very auspicious start.  Everyone thought, quite wrongly, that I had been trying to show off.  However, having made his point, his subsequent behaviour was more compliant and the ride was uneventful.

The afternoons were taken up with polo, but the evenings were reserved for dancing and games.  Drink flowed freely, but was consumed more by the older than the younger men.  In the little bar off the dining room I was kept busy mixing cocktails, measured in jugs and poured into a bucket, from which it was ladled into glasses.  One elderly guest, Greenshields by name, stopped by to sample my brew, and downed nine, yes nine glasses on end and declared “Not a bad mixture, Ted, keep at it.” He showed no sign of inebriation either then or later!

What with serving drinks, winding the record player, dancing with “wallflowers” and being generally at everyone’s beck and call, I had little time for consuming much myself.  I had in fact only had one cocktail, and was therefore justifiably indignant when Johnny Benitz said to me, “Ted, you're drunk, go to bed.” The boot was on the other leg, but I could hardly say so to my boss.  Jim Buckenham made him apologize the next day.

On the last evening the party really got going until, about 1 a.m.  Mrs.  Johnny collected all the girls and sent them off to bed.  The boys were not happy about this, and plotted to wait a few minutes and then raid the girls' dormitory via the back staircase.  Guessing what would happen I watched from below as, wearing grins of anticipation they crept up the stairs, only to come straight down again looking very sheepish.  Mrs.  Johnny had been waiting for them at the top! She was not born yesterday.

But I must not speak only of the highlights which came now and then.  Our working days were long and the “siesta” had not reached to farm work.  It only did so when Peron made it obligatory.  It was part of my job to ring a bell at first light every day except Sunday.  Even as I rang it, heavy blows which were struck on the anvil of the blacksmith’s shop came back like an echo, to show that Luis Guzman was ready to start work.  A great deal of his time was taken up with the sharpening of ploughshares and with the repairing of farm machinery.  He was an Austrian by birth and he told me he had escaped from Austria during the last hectic days of World War I by jumping onto a railway engine, just before it crossed the frontier, and passing himself off as a fireman, and then working his way to Argentina.

He was a steady reliable man and knew his work.  I often stopped by his shop to watch him and pick up a few tips on iron work.

Having rung the bell I would walk over to the big barn in order to feed, groom and saddle my horse for the day.  At the far end of the barn a stud bull and two stallions were housed, and these also were being attended by their keeper, a man who rejoiced in the name Felix Cordero, which translated means Happy Lamb.  He was neither.  Lean, elderly, more than half indian, he was clothed always in black.  Hat, jacket, pants and shoes gave him a sombre appearance.  When he had finished his work he would turn out all the lights, leaving me in darkness.  No amount of remonstrance would move him.  He simply said “My duty is to turn out the lights when I have finished my work.”

After breakfast of a little cold mutton with bread and butter and tea, I would set out on my horse on a round which would take me till midday.  It was my general duty, unless required elsewhere, to keep an eye on the number of share cropping tenants, known as “colonos” who were responsible for most of the agriculture.

They were a mixed lot and included Italians, French, Yugoslavs and some blends of Central European origin hard to define.  Things I had to watch for were that they used the land for the purpose for which it had been allotted to them, and not for the raising of livestock.  Sometimes too, excessive flocks of chickens would be a lucrative sideline for the women of the family, but at the expense of several acres of cropland.  A lot of corn too could be channelled into pigs which paid no rent, and some were very lax about weeding their crops.  There were no chemical sprays in those days and keeping the land free of weeds was a heavy chore.

When the wheat was ripe it was cut and stacked to await the arrival of the threshing machine.  This was usually attached to a great steam engine whose whistle might be heard very early on a summer morning, calling the gang to work when steam was up.  The machine was a huge ungainly construction of wood from which sprouted a great number of spinning wheels, flying belts and choking chaff and dust.  It was powered by a big flywheel on the steam engine by means of a leather belt some 30 feet long.

Four or five men would climb to the top of the stack with pitchforks and toss the wheat down to a long conveyor placed alongside which carried it to the machine.  This work was not particularly heavy for a man with experience, but the hours were killing.  From first light until it was too dark to see, might well be fifteen hours, with only a short break midday and brief pause for a snack in the late afternoon.  The summer sun was hot and there was no shade, and they often had to work continually in a cloud of dust; but the money was good, and if a man had a good harvest season he could bank a fair sum to last through the winter.

Meanwhile the grain poured out of the side of the machine into jute bags which, as fast as they filled, were sewn up, put on the weighing machine in lots of eight, and then stacked up for transport to the railway station.

It was here that I usually played my part.  As the bags were unloaded and carried one by one on the shoulders of the stevedores into the station warehouse, the buyer’s man would pierce each bag with a “calador", a sharp pointed tube which allowed a trickle of grain to fall into his hand.  Skill, gained from long practice, enabled him to feel if the grain were damp, and a glance revealed the proportion of broken grain, weed seeds or shrivelled wheat.  If the bag was rejected he would give a sharp tap on the bag with his calador and the bag would be put aside.  He would then pass the sample on to me to justify his decision.  A steady stream of stevedores passed before us and each deposited his load where the stacker indicated.  The stacker bore the responsibility of building a stack as high as the roof permitted.  A single misplaced bag could threaten the stability of the whole pile.  He worked from inside, building a wall of bags round himself and then filling in the centre in order to rise.  The bags had to be interlocked like bricks in a wall, and kept vertical for as many as 25 to 30 rows.  Broad wooden steps enabled the stevedores to reach the higher levels.

A bag of wheat weighed between 60 and 65 kilos and was carried over the shoulder.  Sometimes they would challenge each other to feats of strength and skill by carrying the bag in one hand held up at arm’s length over the head.  I have known them carry two bags in this way and toss a sack from one to another as though it were filled with wool.  The warehouses were made of galvanized iron sheeting, and heated up like an oven when the sun was high.

The men who did this work were stripped to the waist, and wore baggy cotton trousers, rope soled shoes and usually an apron, ankle length, and embroidered round the bottom with some rude or boastful statement.  This apron gave them a curious oriental dignity.  A wide neckerchief protected the neck from chafing.

At about 11 o'clock the daily train drew into the station on its way to the city of Cordoba.  It included a restaurant car, and stayed about 10 minutes.  Just time for a cool gin and tonic with ice and lemon.  After a day or two the waiter would see me coming and slap the drink on the table as I climbed on.  I would pay for it and then sit back and sip it slowly till the whistle went and the train began to move.  Then I drained the glass and dropped off, returning to my work refreshed.  One bright spot in a long tedious day.

During the lunch break I would climb up the bags, rather like a human fly, and enjoy the much cooler temperature on the top.  I confess that I was rather proud of this feat.  At lower levels it required no great skill, but getting over the top bag did, because if you pulled it loose you could fall some twenty feet to the cement floor with a 60 kilo bag on top of you.  I wouldn’t care to do it now!

Another duty for which I had little enthusiasm was to receive potential polo ponies from the tamer when he considered them fit to be ridden for ordinary work.  Julio, the horsebreaker, was a professional and good at his job, while I was still inexperienced and was not a natural horseman, so our opinions of when that point was reached were apt to differ.  I well remember one little chestnut filly that was wished on me in this way.  She was not vicious, just wilful, and inclined to give me a lot of trouble at gates.  One morning coming back from my round of the sharecroppers, we had a little trouble at the last gate before the home stretch.  When we finally got through, both of us were a bit out of humour, and so when the gate shutting behind us hit her on the rump, that was the last straw.  Taking the bit between her teeth, she bolted for home.  Never had I ridden at such a speed.  Had there been a horde of wild indians pursuing us we could not have gone faster.  No tugging on the reins had the slightest effect; even when, collecting my scattered wits, I had the bright idea of pulling on one rein and so persuading the creature to go round and round the field till exhaustion pulled her up.  She was too close to home to buy that one.  In all, we had about a mile to go, and as we approached the farm buildings which stood round a central grass forecourt, I noticed that the gate, which usually stood open in the daytime, was swinging in the wind, sometimes nearly shut, sometimes wide open.

At times of crisis one’s brain goes into a sort of overdrive and time itself takes on a different dimension.  Even while, with thundering hooves and steaming nostrils, we converged upon the gap, I had time to assess the alternatives.  If the gate shut, the mare might try to jump it.  Neither of us being trained, there would be a very nasty, and possibly fatal, spill.  If she crashed the gate at full speed, the gate would splinter, injuring her, while I should be thrown over her head to fall in a heap on the further side.  Neither of these possible fates appealed to me at all, so a quick and very urgent prayer went up, and most mercifully was answered.  At the last possible moment the gate swung open to leave a gap of about 3 feet.  It was enough, and without slackening speed, we shot through it.

She finally stopped before the stable door, but not before galloping in a big circle round the forecourt, drawing a crowd of peones, washerwomen, children and dogs to gawp at the extraordinary behaviour of the mad English boy.

Jim was not amused, and took a very dim view of my adventure, pointing out that my carelessness might well have resulted in serious injury - to the mare!

I had once told Jim, in a fit of irritation, that fools tamed horses for wise men to ride on, and he had replied, with that twisted smile of his,  “You're absolutely right, Ted, isn’t that just what you are doing?” So as I sat on a bale of straw recovering from my experience,  I was constrained to reflect on the truth of the saying.  (N.B.  The original proverb runs “Fools build houses for wise men to live in.”)

A little poem which I once cut out of a Buenos Aires newspaper began like this:
    In the Argentine Republic
    Where the country’s called the camp,
    The winter’s dry and chilly
    While the summer’s hot and damp.

And so it was that one sunny afternoon in late August I was strolling towards the office, wondering if it was too early for a cup of tea, when I noticed a very faint smell of smoke in the wind which was blowing from the north.  Looking up to the sky I could see a certain haziness which was certainly not mist.  A few seconds later my fears were confirmed when the “capataz” followed by two “peones” came galloping up shouting “Don Carlos, ring the bell loud and long; there is a bush fire heading this way and we’ll need all hands if we're to save the house and buildings.”  While I was hanging on the bell rope, he despatched one peon to alert the team of ploughmen who were working not far off, while the other was given a pair of wire cutters and told to open all fences in the path of the fire, to allow the cattle to escape.

Alerted by the bell, we soon had a sizable body of volunteers and a plan of battle was drawn up.  Jim, who had now joined us, ordered some empty drums loaded on to the truck and filled with water.  A man was sent running to collect 50 or 60 empty sacks, which he was to take on the truck and soak in water.  While this was being done the team of 4 ploughs, each with 6 horses, arrived at a fast trot.

By now an immense cloud of brownish smoke was floating over us high in the sky while the smell of burning was unmistakable.  We knew that a tenant farmer had been burning corn stubble with insufficient ploughing for a fireguard.  The strong wind had enabled the fire to jump into the pasture fields full of dry grass and it was now driving down-wind towards the estancia.

The capataz set off with the ploughmen to plough a line of defence across the path of the fire.  With 4 ploughs, totalling 8 furrows, or say 12 feet wide it should be enough to make a barrier.  The rest of us, arriving in the truck, armed ourselves with a wet sack and awaited behind the newly turned earth to beat any sparks which might cross.  Fortunately the grass was not as long as it might have been earlier in the year.  There was just time to set a small backfire on the other side to give us a little help at the point of impact.  A bush fire with the wind behind it burns in the shape of a V with the most rapid progress in the centre.  The lateral spread is much slower and more easily dealt with.  The heat was intense and the smoke choking, but between us we managed to beat out any sparks which the wind floated across.  Our faces were black and sweat-stained, and our clothes filthy, but we felt we had won the first round.

Now we had to tackle the sides.  Leaving the ploughmen to patrol the fireguard, we divided into two parties at the point where the fire had started, and worked down the sides of the V towards the point.  The truck shuttled between the two gangs renewing our supplies of wet sacks, and bringing bottles of cool water for our burning throats.  It was hard gruelling work, but before sunset we had put out the last smouldering remnants, and were able to go home.

I think that one of the most attractive features of estancia life was the variety.  There are many who are content to follow a nine-to-five existence, sometimes referred to as the lunch pail gang.  Their course is planned from novice to retirement with assured pension.  Risks are avoided.  Security and comfort in old age are paramount.  Whereas in farming there is never any certainty what the next day will bring.  I have only to think of the year spent at Los Algarrobos to be able to recall innumerable vignettes, as varied as the patterns in a kaleidoscope, and to me, just as fascinating.  Let me try to recapture something of the atmosphere of a life, now so far away and long ago, with a few random selections.

A hot summer day.  A dusty earth road wire-fenced on either side stretches ahead and behind us for as far as we can see.  Here and there in the distance a small clump of trees marks the existence of some habitation, none of them close to the road.  Julio, the horsetamer, and I are driving a troop of two or three hundred cows and calves from Alfred Benitz’s place, where they have been on pasturage, back to Los Algarrobos.  The air is filled with the lowing of cows and bawling of calves, and dust is everywhere.

A cow has suddenly died, there in the road, and we have the obligation to skin it.  Having received so many cows, we must deliver that many, or the hide which represents it.  The problem is, with what? Julio has a weapon some 18 inches long, more like a small sword than a knife, while I only carry a penknife, of which only the little blade, about one inch in length, is really sharp.  There is an astonishing area of skin on a cow, and many joints and angles.  The situation was ridiculous, but inescapable; rather like some mythical labour required by ancient kings.  It took us about an hour and a half, and I am sure Julio must have remembered it all his life.

A character who remains very clearly in my mind is “Pablo, the dead man.”  His name derived from his work, and not from any specific physical features.  He wore on his head a battered, broad-brimmed khaki felt hat, and appeared to be clothed in sackcloth.  His figure was squat and broad and his face, at least what was visible under the hat, swarthy, with a droopy moustache.  Every morning and every afternoon except Sunday, he harnessed two mules to a low flat cart and set out on his rounds.

I should explain that in the normal working of the estancia every field was checked out by a peon to make sure that the watering arrangements were working, the fences intact, and to report on the state of the cattle.  The death and approximate position of any animal found dead had to be reported to the capataz who in turn, every evening, relayed the information to the office.

It was Pablo’s work to locate and skin the dead animal.  Then, letting down a little ramp at the back of the cart, he would winch the carcass up and into the cart and drive it away to the animal cemetery, where wild dogs and other predatory creatures consumed the flesh, leaving only the bones to whiten in the bright sunlight.  The hide and any fat he could separate from the meat was taken back; the hide to be salted, and the fat rendered in a vast cauldron to be sold to the local soap factory.

Sometimes when I had been out on my horse for as much as three hours, I had seen nothing but cattle and the occasional little flock of ostriches running with characteristic long strides in the distance.  Then, out of nowhere, would appear Pablo, sitting fatly on the seat of his little cart, bowling along behind his two fast trotting mules on his lawful occasions.  He would solemnly raise his whip in salutation as he went by, and I would wave an arm in reply.  It was rather like passing another ship on the high seas, kind of comforting in the vast solitude which surrounded us.

Then there was “Vizcacha".  I have no idea what his real name may have been.  He was an old man clad in tattered remnants of clothing which had long since lost all colour and shape.  His long grey hair was never cut, and his face almost invisible behind whiskers and moustache.  His head was crowned with a battered felt flower pot of a hat, a type fashionable in colonial times.  When he spoke, it was in a high falsetto with a querulous tone.

He was alleged to have worked, sometime in the distant past, but no one remembered what he had done.

At the time I knew him he fed and tended the fattening pigs, living in a shack adjacent to their pen.  I believe he also used to boil the fat which Pablo delivered to him.  He got no salary, but as much food as he needed, which he cooked for himself, and a ration of tobacco.  The highlight of his day was at sundown when he would amble over to the administration and be given a tumbler full of neat rum.  This he consumed slowly, while emitting a few high pitched cackles of appreciation.  We used to watch his return journey to see if he stumbled or wandered off course, but he never did.

He got his name from a character in the narrative poem called “Martin Fierro” written by Jose Hernandez and famed in Argentine literature.  In it he describes a person of similar appearance.

This ritual tot of rum in the evening was often extended to John Benitz’s groom, Jim Anderson, who also presented himself at sundown, ostensibly to report on the condition of his charges, John’s polo ponies.  He was very deaf, but never failed to hear even the whispered question “Would you like a drink, Anderson?”  To which he would always reply “I don’t mind if I do, sir.”  One evening, when Robo had had a heavy day and was feeling browned off, he said “Well, I don’t mind if you don’t,” and packed him off with thirst unslaked.

Another feature of the life in those days was a small general store which was owned and operated by the estancia.  It was combined with a butcher’s shop where the home killed meat was hung and despatched.  The storekeeper combined this charge with the duties of chauffeur and courier to the town.  Sometimes, when he might be sick or on leave, I would be called upon to assume his work.

The wages of all workers included basic rations on a daily or weekly scale.  These were drawn from the store, either by the cook, or in the case of married men, by their wives.

As an example each man was entitled to 1 kilo of meat and a half kilo of bread per day - half kilo yerba (green tea), 1 kilo of sugar and 1 kilo of noodles per week.  It was a generous allowance and later on, due to the rising cost of living, was reduced, though not without protest.  Besides these rations there were for sale a variety of household goods and working clothing and rope-soled shoes.  I rather enjoyed my role of storekeeper and salesman.  The rations were clearly stated and the prices plainly marked; but when it came to the butcher’s shop, that was another story.

The fresh carcass would be brought in, weighed and hung up.  From then on I was responsible for its cutting up and distribution.  I knew nothing about cutting up meat, not even how to sharpen the knife, but soon found that there were plenty of people ready to show me - usually to their own advantage.  To begin with the Chinese cook cut whatever he wanted for the table at the big house.  He had his own key to the shop, never weighed the meat, and usually came during my absence.  The men’s cook also cut his own, but in my presence.  Then came the families.  Who decides whether a ploughman’s family is entitled to a better cut than a horse peon’s? Does a mechanic rate higher than a blacksmith? What percentage of bone can reasonably be included in a kilo of meat?

Most of the women were firmly of the opinion that meat meant flesh and no bone and no nonsense.  Some would even try to brush me aside and peel the meat off the bone before flinging it onto the weighing machine.  At my age it was not easy to deal with a pack of angry native women, but somehow a compromise would be reached without too much loss of face - or weight.  Even so, my figures at the end of the day often showed a bigger shrinkage than officially permitted.

Anyone who reads historical novels must be aware that our forefathers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century often indulged in a taste for port wine.  It was, in modern parlance, a “macho” thing to do, to consume a bottle at a sitting.  Some boasted of two bottles a night and to hell with the gout which plagued them afterwards.

Well, one summer night when the Benitz family had taken themselves off to the cooler clime of the hills of Cordoba, Robo, Jim Buckenham and I were sitting round the supper table in our pyjamas.  We had just put away a good meal and were feeling relaxed, when Robo, the senior member of the trio, said, “I believe there are just one or two bottles of Sandeman’s Port left in the cellar.  I'm going to have a look."

When he came back he carried no less than three bottles - “The last three,” he said, “and who deserves them more than we do?” So saying he placed a bottle in front of each of us.

Outside, a warm velvety darkness was full of the sound of a thousand frogs croaking.  “Begging for rain” the natives call it.  Fireflies cruised in the air, their little lights winking in search of a mate.  There was no wind.  Inside, insects danced round the light bulbs or crawled over the table, while we, even in our pyjamas, perspired freely.  No fan, no airconditioning, just a typical January night in Argentina.  Slowly the level of wine in each bottle lowered as our discernment rose.  We became very philosophical.  We discussed and solved all the problems in the world, and recognized what splendid chaps we were, patting each other on the back with unstinting praise, until at last not a drop was left in any bottle.  Beaming at each other, we agreed that a drive round in the car would be just the thing to cool off and crown a perfect evening.

Suiting action to the thought, we climbed into the estancia Chevrolet and, with Jim at the wheel, set off into the night.  I cannot pretend to have total recall of the journey, but I know we reached a town, though what we did there, if anything, remains a blank.

I came to, still in pyjamas and feeling rather chilly, as we drove into the estancia when dawn was coming up.  A cold shower and dressing into working clothes brought us all down to earth again; but as I rode out on my horse, I kept telling myself with wicked glee, “Ted, you're a “One Bottle Man"!"

The long hot summer gradually gave way to shorter days and cooler nights and our thoughts turned again to polo.  But my father had written to say that he and Selmira would be taking a trip to England and that he hoped I would look after Los Molles while he was away.

Though I was sad to leave Los Algarrobos, I could hardly refuse such a request, and at the same time I realized that I could never be more than a second if I stayed on; whereas if I returned home I could put into practice many of the things I had learned.  Also at this time my father, after considerable delay, (I suspect largely on account of Selmira) had finally given me title to a section of Los Molles, which I had legally inherited under the terms of my mother’s will.  It consisted of some 50 hectares, divided into several fields and with an enormous brick barn and windmill in the centre of the lot.  The prospect of developing this land was an added incentive.

So the day came when I had to say my goodbyes.  It was a more emotional business than I had imagined, for in one way or another all our lives had touched in the many facets of estancia life.

Hilario Diaz, “the Little Man", the foreman who had taught me so much about farm work and of the handling of men.  His keen perception of character, his impartiality and concise way of giving his orders were to be a model for me for many years to come.

Luis Guzman, the Austrian blacksmith who had shown me the satisfaction of shaping iron, red hot on the anvil.

Teofilo Bustos, coal black horse peon, whose ferocious appearance really scared me when I first met him, was in reality a tireless worker of irrepressible good humour.  Whereas his co-worker and constant companion, Pachi, with his quiet and sober mien, made a marked contrast.  Poor Pachi was always dominated by his forceful and voluble mother-in-law Doña Tomasa, the washerwoman.

Then there was Julio, the horsetamer, loyal follower of Jim, Pablo the “dead” man, stinking to heaven, but with a wide smile of farewell.

To many of them I had acted as pawnbroker, advancing them money on the security of a diversity of objects, ranging from bridles and bits up to saddles, and even the odd revolver and knives of many types.  They were mostly gamblers and some of the things were never redeemed.

Among them too was John Hall, the coloured man from the States, who spoke English with that soft slurring tone so typical of his race.  Once when he was deep in wine and brawling, I had been obliged to dispossess him of his demijohn and send him to bed.  He bore me no grudge.

Finally as we left for the station I stopped by the lodge at the main entrance gate to ask Carlos Juarez how he had fared with my pony, which he had won in a raffle.  It had proved a useless animal for anything but polo, and not much good at that, so I had no desire to take it home.

Jim had suggested a raffle for $1 a ticket, and that had seemed a good idea.  It was not without some trepidation that I enquired about it, fearing that he might feel he had been conned.  But no, with a broad smile he replied that it was just the horse he needed as he was sending his two small children to school on it every day.  I had to laugh.  Neither Jim, nor the tamer, nor I could handle it, but two little kids could scramble all over it and do what they liked!

So the gates of the lodge and an unforgettable chapter in my life closed behind me, but any sad feelings were soon diffused in the eager expectancy of what lay before me.

—— B ——


During the polo season of 1929 I was able to get over to Los Algarrobos most Sundays and so kept in touch.  It must have been about 40 miles of earth road which was sometimes heavy going.  The return journey had to be made in the dark.

There was one stream, near an indian village, spanned by a wooden bridge.  Some joker would occasionally remove a couple of planks from the middle of it, which could be a hazard to the unwary.  To avoid having to make a considerable detour, I used to carry in the car, two boards which, laid down in front of the wheels, allowed me to cross the gap.

Many years were to pass before I saw Los Algarrobos for the last time.  It must have been in 1952 that I went to the final liquidation sale of all the machinery and stock.  I did not go to buy anything, but to interview the people who had bought the estancia in the hope of getting the job of managing it.

Everything had changed, and I knew no one but an older and more gloomy Johnny Benitz.

I did not get the job but settled for one at an estancia called Santo Tomas at Saldungaray.

—— B ——


His real name was Robertson, and when I first met him he must have been in his late forties.  He was the resident accountant at the estancia Los Algarrobos.  Cockney by birth and very English looking, he never really seemed to fit into his surroundings.

He had held his present post for many years and was the confidant of all the members of the Benitz family who owned the estancia; in fact very little went on about the place that he was unaware of.  Beyond the family he seemed to have no friends and never ventured far from the administration building which housed the office, living room and three bedrooms.  However, three or four times a year he would take a week off and catch a train for Buenos Aires, where it seems he indulged in a brief but colourful holiday.  He would return, penniless and grumpy, to his books and pay sheets.

When I joined the staff of Los Algarrobos at the age of 21 as assistant manager, commonly known as a “second”, I found myself responsible to him and to Jim Buckenham - Buck to his friends - for most of my work.

At the time I was first offered the job, a salary of $100 a month had been suggested, but my father, rather unkindly I thought, had said it was too much and that $80 would be quite enough, so eighty it was.

Robo thought this a great joke and always had some crack about it when he handed me my pay envelope.  He was indeed a great “kidder” but always in a quiet restrained way so that it was hard to tell when he was serious.

Our meals during the day were served in the administration living room, but at night we were expected to dine, complete in tuxedo and stiff shirt, with Mrs. Benitz (old Mrs. Johnny) and her companion, Miss Fea.  The meal was preceded by cocktails mixed by me in the pantry, and when the other two arrived we each downed one, or sometimes two, before I carried the tray into the sitting room and handed it round to the company, when we also chipped in again with an “official” round.

At the sounding of a gong we would troop into the dining room and take our places round the table.  Old Mrs.  Johnny would say grace before we began.  White linen cloth, table napkins and silver cutlery enhanced the atmosphere of formality which our dress suggested.  A maid in uniform waited upon us.

Conversation was generally subdued and polite unless Robo, in puckish mood, but deadpan expression, came out with some piquant bit of local gossip, which would be met with a frown of concern on the face of Mrs. J. and barely suppressed amusement on ours.  Most of the topics referred to the many families living on the place; their faults and virtues, marriages and births.  It was still a very feudal setup without much contact with the outside world.  Almost the only link was the daily truck which travelled the dirt road for some 12 miles to the nearest town of Monte Buey.  It took and brought mail, stores for the home shop, and any person of the staff who needed transport.

At first I understood very little of the allusions, but as I came to know them personally and even to be involved in this game of innuendos and veiled suggestion, it became very entertaining.

Robo had a pet monkey, brought to him by John Benitz from the river Pilcomayo in tropical Northern Argentina.  It was named Pilco and lived in a sort of kennel raised above the ground some 4 feet.  It wore a collar to which was attached a length of wire allowing it freedom to climb a tree outside the office.  I never knew it to get caught up.

On my first day at Los Algarrobos I had arrived in time for lunch of cold mutton and afterwards, fired with enthusiasm for my new job, made a careful copy of the official plan of the estancia, some 10,000 hectares, so that I should not lose myself.  I had just finished when Robo called me out to introduce me to his pet.  So, tucking the folded plan into my pocket, I submitted to this ordeal.

The little creature, chattering and gibbering with excitement, leapt onto my shoulder, seized and pinched my ear, ruffled my hair and then with wicked glee, snatched the plan from my pocket and jumped into the tree.  Scrambling up to the highest branch, he then tore the paper to shreds which he contemptuously dropped down upon me! Although we subsequently came to tolerate each other, no warm friendship ever developed!

On another occasion while Robo was playing tennis, he was informed that Pilco had slipped his collar and was perched on the roof of the office.  He came to recapture his pet and was trying to induce him down with food, but the only response was a well aimed pigeon’s egg which splattered on his white shirt and streamed down to his pants! I only wish I could have captured on film Robo’s expression of anger, sorrow and disillusionment.

Shortly before my arrival at Los Algarrobos there had been an armed robbery on the office block and Robo, hearing a commotion, had left his bed and gone outside in his pyjamas, carrying a flashlight to see what was happening.  This was unwise, because one of the thieves took a shot at him and caused a painful, though fortunately not fatal, wound.

This was very much on my mind, when a few weeks later I found myself sleeping alone in the main house.  I had a little room on the ground floor under the stairs.  The family had gone to spend the summer in the hills of Cordoba, as all well-to-do families did in those days.  It was a hot still night and probably I was sleeping lightly, when the silence was shattered by the noise of a heavy object falling on the floor of the hall outside my door.

Thieves again? was my first waking thought.  For some seconds I just lay there, all ears, and scarcely breathing.  Then, hearing nothing, I crept stealthily on bare feet and put my ear to the door; still no sound.  “So,” I thought, “the rascal is playing a waiting game to see if anyone is awake.  Well, two can play at that,” I said to myself and stood by the door.

After about 5 minutes of this I became a little bored and furtively opened the door just wide enough to shine my flashlight through.  No shots - so, bolder now, I looked out.  Nothing to be seen at first until I noticed, lying on the floor, an African assegai and shield.  Slowly it dawned on me that these had been hanging on the wall as trophies of some ancestral safari, and that the wire on which they hung had finally rusted through.  Such is the power of suggestion.

Some two years later when I had given up my job at Los Algarrobos but was still in touch as I used to play polo there on Sundays, Robo heard that I was taking a holiday in England.  It so happened that he also was visiting his native London, and he insisted that we must meet so that he could show me something of that city.  We were to meet at Paddington Station, but when I arrived, there was no sign of him.

After waiting for some little time I took a taxi to go to my hotel but, before going very far, I recognized him walking towards the station.  Smartly suited, cane and gloves in hand and a light grey homburg slightly on one side, he looked every inch the city gent.  I stopped the taxi and hailed him.  He climbed in and we continued to the hotel.  There we had a drink.  To do so we had to order a plate of sandwiches, as for some reason it was illegal to consume alcohol unless with a meal.  The sandwiches constituted a legal meal, though nobody ever ate them.  They were just dusted off and used over and over again!

After that he took me to a music hall close to Victoria Station, where Gracie Fields was to sing.  She was at that time the most popular and best known singer in England, and a great box office draw.  Two of her songs impressed me, one a comedy “The little pudding basin that belonged to Aunty Flo” and the other, tragic, “A cottage for sale.“

Afterwards we had supper at Frascati’s, a very fashionable restaurant at that time, where one might see celebrities.  We said goodnight and parted.  We both returned to Argentina; he to Los Algarrobos and I to my home at Los Molles.  I never saw him again, as The Depression of the 1930’s had begun and polo was out.  He died soon afterwards from blood poisoning caused by a cut while shaving, but he will always be part of my memories of Los Algarrobos.

—— B ——


When I took my first job away from home at Los Algarrobos estancia I came in contact with many, to me, exotic characters.  Among them was John Hall, a coloured man.  He was employed mainly as houseboy.  He cleaned the shoes, swept the patio, disposed of the garbage, etc.  But having rather more education than most of the “peons” he could stand in for other jobs, such as keeping tally on a threshing machine at harvest time, or entertaining visitors when the house was full for a polo tournament.

I believe he came originally from the U.S.A. and had drifted down to South America, as so many people did, after the first world war.  He had made a niche for himself at Los Algarrobos which was still an almost feudal establishment.  He had a deep soft voice, fertile imagination, and a long repertoire of songs which he accompanied on a guitar-like instrument.

I well remember one night during a polo tournament a number of guests, all decked out in tuxedos and formals, sitting in a big circle round John and his guitar.  Duly primed by his boss with a generous glass of wine he began with a few rather sedate pieces, but as time passed he demanded, and was given, more wine - more gasoline he called it - and the songs became more dramatic, exotic and ribald; some in English, some in Spanish.

As the evening wore on some of the ladies began to exchange glances, and it was felt that perhaps it was time to wrap up this impromptu concert before the audience began to walk out.  John was handed the still half-full demijohn of wine, thanked, and despatched to his own quarters.

Meanwhile, the rest of us strolled down to the big shearing barn where there was a dance going on for all the work people on the place and to entertain pony boys who had come with the visiting polo team.  Music was enthusiastically provided - an Italian with an accordion and a tall cadaverous looking man with a violin.

For a time we watched colourful dancers as they swam past us in waltzes, tangos etc.  with every now and then a pause for the performance of folkloric native dancers.  The men for the most part wearing short black jackets, broad belts (decorated with silver coins) and dark “bombachas” tucked into black riding boots.  The women in brightly coloured full skirts contrasted sharply with their more sombre partners.  Sometimes the men would “zapatear” or break into a form of tap dancing in their boots, which, on a wooden floor, can have a surprising resonance.

I was sorry that we did not come in for a performance of “Relaciones” in which two guitar players sit down opposite each other and sing alternate verses to their own accompaniment.  Sometimes it will be two men, sometimes a man and a woman.  The object is to score off the opponent with some shaft of wit or insinuation.  Let us suppose the man will lead off pointing out some well known feminine foible which will evoke an indignant rejoinder and a provocative reference to some male folly.

They usually begin with generalities but as the contest warms up, get down to very personal thrusts which, if the participants are well known, can be very funny.  Theoretically these couplets are assumed to be made up as they go along, but I suspect are frequently memorized or rehearsed.

Before leaving, the boss, John Benitz, following tradition, invited the foreman’s wife to partner him in a waltz while I, driven like a lamb to the slaughter, was morally obliged to take out his daughter, a raven haired Spanish looking beauty in her teens, named, if I remember correctly, Carmen.  Dancing was never my strong point, and with the eyes of many young gauchos upon me I felt distinctly pink about the ears.  Halting might describe both steps and conversation, as we solemnly gyrated around the floor.  It was with heartfelt relief that I finally led her back to her mother and, bowing low, expressed in my still rather uncertain Spanish, my enormous pleasure in the dance.  The call of duty can take many forms, as I was about to find out shortly.

As our party of guests was returning to the main house we had to pass in front of John Hall’s room.  He occupied one of a row in a building set apart for the artisans, as distinct from field workers.  As we drew opposite these quarters, loud shouting broke out and, silhouetted against the light of a suddenly opened door, appeared two struggling figures.  Curses and oaths split the night air as one of the disputants was thrown bodily off the verandah into the dust below, where he lay motionless, while the ejector, whom we now recognized as being John Hall, demijohn in hand, continued to growl and menace him from above.

While we all stood gawping at this sudden eruption of violence, my boss put a hand on my shoulder and bending down to my ear said in a voice which was definitely an order, “Ted, go and take that demijohn away from him, and tell him to go to bed and stop making a fool of himself.”

So once more that evening I pulled myself together, squared my shoulders and set out to do my duty.  As I came up to him he continued to mutter and raised the demijohn in the air.  Using my best prefect’s voice (I had not long left school) I said “John, give me that wine, you’ve had enough and you're being a nuisance, so go to bed.” I fully expected the demijohn to come crashing down on my head but to my amazement and relief he handed it to me, saying “Yes suh, Mr. Charles, suh, you're surely right suh,” he went in and shut the door.

His recent victim, no doubt sensing that he was now safe, pulled himself upright and went lurching off into the darkness.  When I rejoined our party I confess I was walking a little taller than when I left it.

Poor John, like many others in those days, was a lonely man and although accepted by his fellow workers, never formed any close friendships.  Now and then he would feel the need to escape into the outside world, and would seek permission from Robo for a day or two off in the local town.  It was then that his powerful imagination came into play.  Robo would listen fascinated by the extraordinary parade of reasons for his excursion.  These frequently involved his old mother whose birthday it was, and how he had never been a good son but owed everything to her.  He would launch into descriptions of his old home, his brothers and sisters, in fact all the “ole folks at home.”  Tears would come into his eyes, and his voice would choke with emotion.

When Robo could bear it no longer he would pat him on the back saying “There, there, John, go along in the truck tomorrow and come back when you’re sober.” I often wonder what happened to him.

—— B ——

Jim Buckenham (brief)

I have no room on this tape for an appreciation of Jim Buckenham, the manager of Los Algarrobos during my time there.

We got on well together, due, I think, very largely to the fact that unless given specific orders I just cleared off and did my own thing.  There is nothing more irritating than a subordinate who is continually asking “What shall I do now?” From later experience as a manager myself, I know too many unprintable answers.

—— B ——


As the train drew into Monte Buey station where I was about to get off on my way to my first job at Los Algarrobos estancia, a young man swung himself into my coach.  He was wearing a cloth cap, polo necked jersey under a check tweed jacket, jodhpurs and leather shoes.  Everything about him said “horses”.  English horses, hunting fields, polo matches, race courses would have formed a perfect background.  Here, on a wayside station in the middle of nowhere, he stood out as a prominent figure, but was totally unaware of it.

“Hello,” he said, “are you Ted?  Fine, just get your luggage together and wait on the platform.  I’m going to get a gin and tonic in the restaurant coach.” With that he disappeared until, as the train began moving on, he jumped down, collected me and we stowed the bags in a waiting car.  It was a brand new Chevrolet 1928 model similar to one my father had just bought.  Heavy rain had fallen overnight and the roads were soft and slippery with mud, but he drove with a careless abandon and complete disregard for the running-in period which was mandatory for new cars at that time.

I should learn later that machinery counted for very little with Jim, though horses rated highly and were handled gently.  As we skidded and lurched our way over the 12 miles to the estancia conversation languished and soon ceased.

We arrived in time for a late lunch of cold mutton and beer, consumed in the administration dining room, warmed by an iron stove in one corner.  After meeting with Mr. Robertson and “Pilco” which is described elsewhere, I got unpacked, changed and explored the various barns and outbuildings, trying to remember those I had seen when I first visited Los Algarrobos with Sandy Storey in 1921, seven years ago.  Jim had vanished, but Robo (Mr. Robertson) invited me to share a pot of tea with him to which I added some bread and jam.

At the age of 20 I had a fearsome appetite and was very fond of afternoon tea, bewailing those days when work made it impossible to get back for it.  At about 7 o’clock Jim reappeared and the three of us helped ourselves from a demijohn of caņa (native rum).  We sat around and chatted for a bit while Tommy Sympson and Howard Webster came in for the mail, which we had brought out from Monte Buey.  They were the two sons-in-law of old Mrs. Johnny whose daughters had inherited part of the property after the tragic death of old John Benitz in the flood at Cruz Grande.

It was soon time to bath and change for dinner up at the main house.  Before the meal Jim explained to me how to prepare the cocktails which would be offered round in the drawing room.  This was done in a small anteroom off the dining room, which served as a bar.  I soon realised that an unofficial round would be tossed off in passing, just to test the mixture, so to speak; sometimes two trials were necessary to be quite sure the brew was fit to be presented!  We then trooped into the drawing room and I was introduced to Mrs. Johnny and her companion Miss Fea.

After a few moments of small talk, a gong summoned us to dinner.  When the meal was over we returned to the drawing room where Mrs. Johnny sat in an upright chair by the fire with Miss Fea opposite on the sofa.  The rest of us scattered around wherever there was room.  It was my duty to wind up and change the records on a gramophone.  I don’t know who bought the records, but there was a wide selection for me to choose from.

At 10 o'clock Mrs. Johnny would announce that she was going to bed; whereupon we all rose to our feet and wished her goodnight.  She and her companion went upstairs, while we three repaired to the bar for a little nightcap of Younger’s Ale.  I believe at some time an order had been placed for a gross of bottles but had been misinterpreted as a gross of cases.  Whatever the reason, there was never any shortage during my time there.  Jim then explained to me my duties for the morning.  I was to rise before dawn, go down to the office, (I slept in the main house) and when I could see the white gate of the horse corral, ring the bell which hung high up on the outside wall.  This was the signal for work to begin.  The blacksmith struck the anvil with his hammer to show he was present; carts began to roll out to their various duties, horse peones rode out to begin working cattle or sheep, and I had to groom and saddle my horse before having breakfast.  This was usually cold meat followed by bread and marmalade.

By this time Jim and Robo would have risen, the latter usually in a dressing gown.  Conversation was not encouraged and my well-meaning efforts were nipped in the bud by a curt “Shut up, Ted” from Jim.  I got the message.  When we had finished and he was feeling more relaxed, he took me over to the corral behind the stud barn and introduced me to a troop of horses which had been set aside for me to ride.  With this began a series of lessons on equine lore which continued through all the year I worked with him.  Jim knew more about horses than any man I met.  He had ridden almost before he walked.  He had hunted, taken part in steeplechases, bought, sold and trained horses and played polo, whereas I was very far from being a natural horseman and knew next to nothing about them.  I had once watched a polo match at Cowdray Park.

Of course I had ridden at home with my father, steady well-trained creatures with no tricks, but now I was faced with a motley collection of unknown dispositions.  Some were destined to carry me on the polo field.  About these I was warned of two things, not to hit them on the legs with my polo stick and never, but never, get the stick caught under the tail, because if I did the horse would clear off for the horizon and nothing would stop it!

One mare, called Ņata, the tamest of the lot, had a splint, which I was to foment twice daily with hot water.  At least two had just been released by the horse tamer as being fit for general work, provided, as the saying went, that you gathered the reins up short and mounted quickly!  Yet another had learned the trick of opening gates, so that I was to be careful to chain up the one opening into the field at night.

Jim also gave me a great deal of advice on saddles, bridles, bits, stirrups and girths; much of which went over my head at the time but sank in later.  I got the impression that if I drove the estancia car into a ditch it might be a joke; if I couldn’t add up a column of figures in the office, too bad; but if any horse in my care went lame, got a sore back, or was allowed to run away with me, or throw me off, then I would be in very deep trouble and probably get sent home!

When at last the lesson came to an end I was left to my own devices.  Feeling somewhat subdued, I saddled what seemed to be a tame animal and set out to explore the estancia with my plan – the second I had made, as Robo’s monkey had torn up the first.

Lunch was at 12, mutton and beer as before; afterwards Robo retired to his room for a siesta while Jim and I relaxed in chairs and dozed until 1.30 when I rang the bell again for work to resume.  This was a pattern repeated most days.  Sometimes he would invite me to accompany him in the car.  Not, I soon discovered, for the pleasure of my company, but to open the numerous gates!

However, as we came to know each other a little better his initial suspicion of me thawed.  I was not after all a snobby pretentious public school boy, (the Benitz boys had also been at Malvern) which apparently he had expected to be foisted on him, but a very ordinary young fellow very much aware of his ignorance in a new world.

He began to tell me something of his own background, his family, his home and life before his arrival in Argentina.  Nothing could have been more different from my own.  He drew a picture of his father, a shrewd man of strong and independent character, who made a good living by farming, dealing in horses, polo ponies or indeed any product of the land.  A man who hunted, played polo; equally at home with landowner or labourer.  A mother whose time was filled with feeding and caring for a robust young family of his brothers and sisters, strong-willed and eager for life.

I cannot remember now his many adventures and accidents but I think he mentioned 11 bones broken, some on his motorbike, some in hunting and racing.  The most serious occurred when he was knocked unconscious by the branch of a tree when hunting, nearly lost his sight and was forbidden to study for some 2 years.

If he ever told me why he chose to go to the Argentine, I have forgotten, but I do know that he was given a letter of introduction to someone at the English Club in B.A.  There he met Sydney Brown, a rough but good-hearted man, who owned an estancia not far from Los Algarrobos.  Sydney invited him to stay at his place while looking for a job, and it was here that he began his camp life.  He learnt his first Spanish words from the horse tamer, Julio, with whom he rode out every day, and who afterwards became a devoted follower.

Meanwhile at Los Algarrobos Johnny Benitz had recently taken over the management from his uncle (mother’s brother), but his young wife Aphra was not finding life too easy under the kindly but stern eye of mother-in-law.  So, Johnny had bought himself a place in Ballesteros, where he made his home, travelling to Los Algarrobos about once a week.  This was not working out too well, and it was plain that there was need for someone on the spot.

During the winter months, weekly polo games were held, and Sydney Brown was a regular player.  So it came about that when he mentioned that he had a young fellow with him who could play polo, was something of an expert on horses and was looking for work it all seemed to click, and Jim took on the job.

Not very far from the main buildings there still existed the ruins of the original pioneer settlement.  The house was surrounded by a plantation of indigenous trees, twisted, thorny and rugged, and beneath which had sprung up a thick undergrowth of tall grass and prickly shrubs.  Protected by this formidable wilderness there lived, in mud huts, various families of squatters.  Many of them were still on the payroll and collected food rations, but did no work.  It is difficult to understand from our point of view today how such a situation could have grown up, but one must remember that at that time estancias were only just emerging from feudal life.  The old idea of an estancia as a way of life where there was plenty for all, was beginning to give place to a new conception of the estancia as a family business, for which taxes had to be paid and a profit shown at the end of the year.

Obviously then, the squatters must be evicted, but who was to do it? Johnny, as the heir of the old Patron, declined, feeling that it would be too emotional.  So the finger pointed at Jim.  Although new to the country and the language, he never hesitated.  Backed up by the also recently appointed capataz or foreman, Hilario Diaz, and ignoring tears, threats of death and the risk of a knife in the back, he went right ahead and cleared them out, levelling the huts when they were gone.

All this took place a few months before my arrival, by which time he had formed a very close alliance with Hilario (known as “The Little Man”) based on mutual respect.  Every evening after work Jim would walk down to suck mate with him in his house and discuss the work done and the work to do tomorrow.  Such close cooperation translated into very efficient management.

One day at lunchtime Jim said to me, “Ted, this afternoon I want you to shoot some old horses, they are too long in the tooth to feed themselves and have to be put down.  But they are all old favourites of the Benitz family, and Mrs. Johnny will be listening.  Five horses, five shots.  More than five shots you will be in trouble.” With that he handed me a large loaded revolver and told me to get moving.  Now I had never fired a shot in my life, and to say that I was nervous would have been the understatement of the year.  The condemned victims were shut in a corral some way from the main buildings, and when I reached it a young peon had already placed halters round their necks, so no excuse for delay.  With the first one I made the mistake of standing directly in front of it and nearly got knocked flat as it fell.  With the rest I was more wary and managed to keep within my ration of bullets.

Gradually we fell into a sort of elder-younger brother relationship and I often went along with him on trips in the car to open gates and for company.

One evening we went over to have dinner with Sydney Brown.  He lived at that time with a common law wife, and the atmosphere was relaxed and convivial.  We may have been a little less than cautious over the whisky consumed.  Whatever the reason, we got lost driving home and found ourselves in a field of grass with no exit.  “We have to go south, don’t we, Ted?” “That’s right.” “How do we know which is south?” “Southern Cross,” brightly.  “Can you see it?” Pause.  “No.” “Well then, what now?” “They do say lichen grows on the south side of posts.” “Well, get out and find a post.” When this was done, not without some delay and difficulty, we set a course and held to it.

After bursting through the second fence we found ourselves on a familiar road which led us home.  It was still dark when we arrived but a light in the milking shed banished any idea of sleep.  There was just time to get changed before the dawn came up.  Oddly enough the only damage done to the car was one headlight cocked up a bit.  They built them tough in those days.

One day at breakfast Jim said to me, “I've got to go and see an old chap near Monte Maiz, you'd better come.  But before we start, cut a wooden peg to fit into the hole where the oil dipstick goes.  Then find an old inner tube, some string and a sharpish knife; oh, and bring along an old sack.” It sounded like the start of a scavenger hunt, but I did as I was told and we set off.

After about twenty minutes we reached the bank of a river and stopped.  Jim got out and lifted the bonnet (hood) exposing the engine.  Taking out the dipstick he jammed the wooden peg in the hole saying “One can generally ford the river round about here, but in case it gets a bit deep we must keep the water out of the oil sump.” Meanwhile, following instructions, I was cutting pieces off the inner tube which he wrapped and tied round the distributor and coil.  Finally he hung the sack across the front of the radiator and got behind the wheel.  “Can you swim?” he said.  I allowed that I could.  “Well then, we've got nothing to worry about.” And with that he drove into the water.

We had to cross about 20 metres and it looked pretty daunting, but it never occurred to me to doubt that we should emerge on the other side.  Jim inspired that sort of confidence.  In first gear, like some giant turtle, we crept slowly across, gurgling, hissing and emitting clouds of steam.  As the water got deeper it began to burst in through the doors and one spark plug began missing.  Quite unperturbed, Jim drove on steadily, and in due course we climbed out on the other side.  I have no idea what his business was about, but almost certainly it would have been a horse.  After a good lunch we returned, but took a longer way via the bridge! One should never push one’s luck too far.

Not long afterwards we were coming back from somewhere by night when a youth by the roadside made signs to hitch a ride.  There was quite a lot of Mafia activity going on about then, which made one a bit suspicious about giving rides at night, but Jim stopped.  As the boy was coming up to the car he said quietly to me “Get hold of that big wrench on the floor, and keep turned half round so you can watch him.  If he looks like pulling a gun or a knife, conk him on the head quick.” The young man quickly sized up the situation and sat upright and motionless in the back seat until we reached his destination when he lost no time in clearing off.

Being so much in the company of a clever horse dealer like Jim it was not long before I had to try my hand at it.  These efforts afforded him a lot of amusement, particularly one which I recall very clearly.  I had gone back for a brief holiday to Los Molles and had there been offered and bought a small dark animal on which I had hoped to play polo.  It had not much class, but then I had not much money.  They must have kept it short of food when I tried it out, because when I took it to Los Algarrobos it revealed its true nature, which, to say the least was non-cooperative.  Docile while being saddled, directly you put your foot into the stirrup to get on, it would dash off at full gallop.  If you were lucky enough to get a leg across and sit in the saddle, it would calm down, if not, and the odds were against it, you were in trouble.  Much advice was offered.  Jim said “Get on inside the stable.” But what do you do when you have to get down to open a gate? I was able to use it for polo because my pony boy could hold it still for me to mount, and it was pretty fast in the field.  Seeing this, Jim made me the following proposition.  We would have a race.  I was to ride my horse against any horse of the foreman’s troop which I chose for Jim to ride.  The race was to take place on a Sunday morning in the presence of all the estancia hands and staff.  Even old Mrs. Johnny was driven out in her car to see it.

The great day arrived and we rode out to the starting point about half a mile off.  I had chosen Jim a large, rather heavy, animal known as “El Comisario”, which was a bad choice, because as any Argentine could tell you, the Comisario’s horse has to win any race it takes part in!

When the starter’s flag dropped, my little beast shot off like an arrow from the bow and soon left Jim in a cloud of dust.  The course was a section of the earth road leading up to the estancia, and was lined with spectators many of whom had laid bets.  The shouts of encouragement for Don Jaime or Don Carlos were about equal and I thought I had it in the bag.  How naive, how foolish to have underestimated the craftiness of such an experienced horseman as Jim.  Near the end of the course my horse began to weaken and run out of steam, and I could hear the thundering hooves of his great charger creeping up and finally passing me about 20 metres before the post.  Jim had estimated the stamina of my horse far better than I, and had set a course whose length was just too much for it; just one of those things to write off to experience!

During my time at Los Algarrobos we played many games but very, very seldom did I win any of them.  I had to content myself with honing my skills on his experience.  There was an excellent billiard table on which he and Robo taught me to play pool and snooker.  Sometimes we tried “bochas”, a type of bowls, but it always seemed to be the same story; after a promising start I would fall behind.  Even throwing hats onto a deer’s antlers, which I had secretly practised, the result was the same.

Jim was a man who inspired loyalty in men, respect in horses and affection in dogs.  He was also attractive to women.  He was very male without being “macho”.  He had a keen sense of the ridiculous but his humour was not so much expressed in loud laughter as in a wry smile and a chuckle.

Unflappable, he had a cool head in a crisis.  I remember an occasion when the estancia truck was driven into the four car garage, backfired and set alight to the engine.  The driver jumped out and yelled for help; one or two of us ran up and made noises about extinguishers and buckets of sand, until Jim appeared, immaculately dressed and with his characteristic limp, got into the truck and backed it out, got down again and opened the bonnet, saying “Now throw sand on it” and walked away.

Many, many memories come to mind of episodes crammed into one year; such as the big grass fire which threatened to engulf the whole estancia, buildings and all.  Jim and Hilario organized teams of horse ploughs (we had no tractors then) to plough, one behind the other, fireguards in the path of the flames.  While the rest of us, armed with wet sacks, went along to beat out any sparks which might cross them.

Or another time when, in the middle of the night, a messenger arrived to say that the old Clydesdale stallion had fallen down a well.  I was sent to wake and muster a gang of “hands”, while Jim and Hilario with the blacksmith assembled a tripod of 4" pipes and block & tackle.  When we reached the scene, we had only the headlights of the truck to work by, but the tripod was erected and Jim was lowered into the well to attach a harness to the stallion - a daunting task for anybody.  We all hauled on the rope inch by inch until finally, first the head, and then the body of the vast creature appeared, staggered out of the well and - fell dead.  A very disheartening night’s work.

On the drive back we all climbed into the back of the truck and I had the misfortune to put my foot right through the old wooden floor.  I sustained a painful graze from ankle to knee and was complaining bitterly about it, until Jim said quietly, “Shut up, Ted.” He never complained himself and expected others to conform.  Fair enough.

Rather naturally in such close companionship we often teased each other.  He with sly digs at my lack of riding skills.  He often said he could tell a mile off that it was me, by the way I sat in the saddle.  For my part, I would refer by innuendoes to his misadventures in the car or occasional amatory ventures.  It once happened that a widow and her attractive daughter, friends of the Benitz family, were spending a few days with them.  The name was Riddel, and it seemed that the daughter would like to ride.  “Perhaps,” said Mrs. Benitz to Jim “you or Ted would have time to take her some afternoon?” Jim (the wretch) explained that Ted was pretty busy right now, but that he himself would be free and delighted to escort her.

While they were out, I remembered a book I had seen in the house library called “The Rich Miss Riddel”, so I borrowed it and placed it on Jim’s bedside table.  At breakfast he seemed a little worried and then came out with it.  Where had the book come from? What was going on? Robo, of course, played along and did his best to mystify and puzzle poor Jim, while I feigned complete ignorance.  We kept it up till the end of the meal when, as I was leaving the room, I confessed.

One of the “characters” of the estancia was the woman who did all the washing for the Benitz family and managerial staff.  She went by the name of Doņa Tomasa.  She lived in a cottage with her daughter and son-in-law, and was the purveyor of all gossip and scandal of the estancia.  Nothing moved but she saw it.  Nothing was said but she heard it.

Now it was summer time, and Jim had been spending a fortnight’s holiday in the hills of Cordoba, and on the night he was due back I was to meet him at the station.  As we drove back he recounted the wonderful time he had had, the glamorous girls, the bathing, dancing, picnics etc. etc.  A wicked thought struck me and knowing his ill luck with motor vehicles, I drew a bow at a venture and said “What a pity about that little trouble with the car.” The answer was more than I had hoped for.  He was dumbfounded, “How on earth did you hear about that? It only happened last night.” Quite seriously I replied, “Oh, Doņa Tomasa told me this morning when I took my washing.” He was hopping mad.  “How in heaven’s name could she know? I was coming back from a party last night, missed a turning and ran into a ditch.  Did someone send her a telegram or something?” “You know,” I said solemnly, “I sometimes think she has psychic powers, because she described it just as you've told me.” Enjoying myself hugely, I kept it up all the way home, but on arrival, seeing he was about to have it out with Doņa Tomasa I 'fessed up.  He gave his familiar wry smile and said “OK, Ted, you won that one, but watch it, I'll get back at you.”

About a year later he did.  I was no longer working at Los Algarrobos but we had joined forces to go to a polo dance at Venado Tuerto.  Driving back in my car we had a long journey on earth roads and very little traffic.  Both of us were pretty sleepy, but I drove for the first stage.  Jim wrapped himself in his poncho and nodded off.  After some half hour or so I was practically asleep myself when in the middle of nowhere the engine cut.  I stumbled out to find the cause, checked the gas, the battery, the gas pump, radiator, distributor, fan belt and every piece of the engine.  Feeling despairful as there was no house in sight and no other vehicle on the road I climbed into the car again.  It was only then that I noticed the ignition key was turned off.  As I reached to turn it on a sleepy voice from under the poncho murmured “Doņa Tomasa”.

They were happy days, but time was running out on us.  In 1929 I left Los Algarrobos and went home to look after Los Molles while my father and Selmira took a trip to England.  We kept in touch because nearly every Sunday I went over to play polo.  The Wall Street crash did not perturb us.

In 1930 I went to England for a holiday and to spend some time with my Aunt and Grandmother who still lived in Malvern.  Jim had pressed me to visit his parents at Frith Farm in Essex, an invitation which I fully intended to follow up as I was keen to meet his parents and family.  However, things turned out differently.  I met Rosamund and became caught up in a wonderful sequence of social events; tennis, dances, theatricals, river picnics, and was invited by her family to join them at Montreux on the lake of Geneva.  As by this time we were engaged, other plans tended to be shelved.

By the time I returned to Argentina the Great Depression had already struck.  Blissful dreams were out, and belt-tightening was in.  Jobs were scarce so I stayed at Los Molles with a nominal salary helping my father.  About this time Jim left Los Algarrobos and entered into a partnership with a flamboyant character named Backhouse, with a view to dealing in polo ponies.  As far as I could judge, this did not turn out well, and Jim lived rather precariously at a small camp known as La Cheltonia Chica, later named El Mirasol near Venado Tuerto.

As Los Molles was not very far away we kept in touch for a couple of years.  By this time I was the proud owner of a small 2-seater Chevrolet (1926) which I had bought second hand for 600 pesos.  Sundry bachelors out of work found a refuge with Jim; among them one, Wolfenden, who had been my successor at Los Algarrobos.

One Sunday morning when I was there, Jim suggested that Wolf and I could do him a favour by despatching a pony for him by train.  It was to be loaded at 9 o’clock a.m. at the station of Chaņar Ladeado, about an hour’s drive.  The pony would be there already but we could sign papers and see it on to the wagon.

Not bothering to prepare breakfast we promised ourselves some coffee and rolls near the station.  So after following the road Jim had indicated for nearly an hour we reached the town, and finding a small restaurant just opening, we sat down to a leisurely breakfast.  When I was paying the bill I asked the owner how far to the station.  “What station?” he asked.  “The railway station.” He looked puzzled, “We're not on the railway here.” “Isn’t this Chaņar Ladeado?” “No,” he said, “this is Cafferata; Chaņar is about 15 kms.  further on.” Panic!  Leaping into the car, we pressed the accelerator to the floor, and rocketted over the 15 kms.  of earth road, and drew up at the station as the train was coming in.

It was another Sunday morning in the middle of the summer when the three of us were bathing – skinny dipping, as there were no neighbours – in an artificial lake which was stocked with fish.  These were being preyed on by some large predatory birds, so Jim and Wolf had armed themselves with shotguns.  Nothing happened while we were in the water, but when afterwards we lay out in the sun, some birds began circling overhead.  At this Jim and Wolf got to their feet, still naked, and seized their guns to try and get a shot at them.  But as the sun was hot overhead, Wolf placed a pith helmet on his head, while Jim clapped on an old felt hat.  Thus arrayed, they strode out across the wheat stubble!  I shall not forget the picture they made.  What a video to have had today!

A frequent visitor at the Mirasol was young Freddie Webster.  He and his sister had inherited quite a sum of money recently which, of course, made him a very eligible bachelor.  He had a small house in the town of Venado Tuerto, but seemed unable to decide what to do with his future and was beginning to get a reputation for being something of a playboy.

So, when one evening the V.T. Polo Club put on a dance, he was one of the first guests to arrive.  Meanwhile, Eve Storey and her family had come in from out of town with a view to taking in the dance.  She had, however, a small problem; what to do with the current infant? Passing Freddie’s house she had a happy thought; he wouldn’t mind letting it stay there for a couple of hours, surely.  Knock, knock... no answer.  Try the door – open – to find house empty.  “Oh well, what the hell, I shall see him at the dance,” and she puts the carry cot with sleeping child on his bed.

For reasons not clear to me, as I was not present, she did not meet up with Freddie, who returned later on with a few cronies to wind up the night at his house.  Their noise woke the baby who started to bawl.  As they crowded round the bedroom door the atmosphere was charged with innuendo; overt glances were exchanged.  “What have you been up to, Freddie?” “Looks like your indiscretions are catching up on you.”

”Look here, I swear I know nothing about it.  I've no idea where it could have come from.  I can’t ...”

”Come on, Freddie, you’ll have to face up to it you know, it looks very like you, too.”

”But I tell you it can’t be anything to do with me.”

And so it went on until the arrival of the baby’s mother who bore it away, blissfully unaware of the anguish she had caused in a young man’s mind.

In 1933 the Depression showed no sign of going away and I was lucky to get a job as Mayordomo with Julian Parr in Ballesteros.  This was a good long way from V.T. and though I continued to play polo at the Fraile Muerto Club which was founded at Sonny Tansley’s estancia at Morrison, I saw little of Jim.

In fact I think it was not until about June of 1937 after Rosamund and I were married that he came one Sunday to a polo meeting, and was introduced to her.  Very soon after that he and Lorna got married too, and we lost touch again.  I gave up the job with Mrs. Parr, now a widow, as, in spite of promises to the contrary, we had to share a house with her.  After a brief stay at Los Molles I sold my inherited share (from my mother) of the land and bought El Carmen in Saladillo.

The five years which followed were quite the poorest of all our married life.  Floods devastated the land and we lived mainly on a small allowance Rosamund had from her father.  Nevertheless we were happy.

In 1943 we were back in a job again, this time in Cavanagh quite near V.T. but Jim and Lorna had gone down south to Huanguelen.  When Basil was about 7 years old, he and I took the Rosario - Puerto Belgrano line and paid them a visit.  I remember that on the journey Basil and I took our meals in the restaurant car, and were astonished to find ourselves the only ones to pay for them.  All the rest were employees or families of employees of the company and had free passes.  So much for the recently established state ownership of the railways.

While we were there Basil was lent a tame horse to ride and I was amused at Jim’s indignation when he referred to it as “a sort of cart horse”.  It was a pardonable mistake.

Looking back with hindsight I can see now that neither Jim nor I was aware of a trend in the social structure of Argentine life which was to have a great influence on our lives.

The old class of hereditary landowners who knew what they wanted to do with their estancias and employed a manager to get it done, were being displaced by a new breed of industrialists, with surplus cash from their factories, which they invested in real estate.  These new owners knew nothing of farming and only cared about profit.  Distrusting individual managers, they tended to place the control in the hands of firms who acted as agents and administered a number of estancias from a central office in Buenos Aires.  They would place a foreman in each “camp” with precise instructions and keep a check on his work by a periodical inspection.

In the last job I held I worked as Manager/foreman under this system.  I was reduced to little more than a glorified bell-hop – meeting and seeing off an endless stream of “experts” sent down from head office to “advise”.  They never agreed, and the result was an unmitigated disaster.

I was lucky in that I had as a refuge my modest little “camp” in Saladillo so that I could opt out of an unsuitable job.  Jim was not so lucky and, after a terrible accident at polo, suffered a lot of disabling pain as well.

As he and Lorna moved around from one job to another we were seldom close enough to see much of each other.  Although he never complained and often joked about it, his health was deteriorating to a point where he was physically unable to work or to ride.  Under these circumstances I think the decision to move back to England was the only possible one.

Whenever we did meet our thoughts and talk would always drift back to the old days at Los Algarrobos; the people we had known, and what had become of them.  During our last visit to them in England he and I watched a lot of T.V., mainly horse racing and jumping.  He seemed to know the name of every competitor and of many of the horses, never taking his eyes from the screen.

I realised then the truth of what I had long suspected that, for Jim, life without horses was like soup without salt; insipid and lacking in savour.

Many of his letters are still in my possession and re-reading them is like hearing him talk.  In one of the last ones he wrote to me he says, “Looking from our front windows I get one of the best views in England, and in the house I get the best view in the world; my beloved spouse who is as charming and beautiful as ever.”

I have tried to depict him as I knew him.  It is not perhaps a complete picture, but as near as I can get to the image in my mind.  He was essentially English, having scant patience with the pompous or insincere, wary of showing his deeper feelings, but ready with a joke in times of stress.  I never knew him to do a mean thing, nor to evade a challenge.  May God rest him, and give him a horse.

—— B ——

© Peter Benitz (Benitz Family)