Maybe it was thoughts about Geronimo or the brick smokestack jutting up against the dark Milwaukee night that made me think about the lean times when I was a kid back in New Mexico. I stood outside my parent’s bedroom door and could hear them talking about money, how we’d be lucky to have enough food for the family through winter. My dad said he’d take me and we’d go to California to work in an asbestos factory. A bricklayer friend of his had called the week before telling him about the job.
“It’s easy money. You sit around playing cards on the clock until the asbestos gets too hot and blows out a wall. Then you put on a protective suit and go in the foundry and rebuild the wall. It’s all glazed eight inch block, level work. No speed leads, nothing fancy,” my dad explained.
My mother begged him not to take me. Saying I was too young and my lungs could be damaged.
“Look honey, we’re up against a hard place. I need my son. He’s a good hand and we have no choice.” I could tell by his voice, he was none too happy with the situation. “Just be careful and call when you get there,” my mother said. “We will and try not to worry. Get your gear together, son, we need to get on the payroll.”
I packed clothes, tools, a book of poetry by Pablo Neruda, and a book about Apaches. Our red pickup muscled south, through the sage brush and tumbleweeds. I loved the country we were traveling through. Peanut and soybean farms, cattle ranches sprouted up like goat head weeds through the asphalt. Windmills pumped water from deep underground so man and beast could survive.
We listened to the radio for weather forecasts. Soon we topped a rise and could see Roswell. We bought coffee and tamales there and headed for Alamogordo. We crossed the White Sands, where scientists had exploded the first nuclear bomb.
“You feel anything, dad?” I asked. “What do you mean, son?” “Radiation, do you feel it?” I asked.
“We’ve got more important business,” he answered.
He put the hammer down on the old red truck. The road and tires whined and protested like an old anarchist. Near Las Cruces, we crossed the Camino Real; looking up we could see the cross lit up against the blue hills. I tried to imagine Coronado and his conquistadors looking for The Seven Cities of Gold. The radio was picking up mariachi music from Juarez. My dad sang along. His Spanish was better than mine.
We bore due west along the bottom of the state. My dad told me about Geronimo and Pancho Villa’s daring raid into the United States. We made a fast detour south of Deming to see the state park dedicated to Villa. The thick-walled adobe contained photos of Zapata and Villa and many weapons of Mexican and American soldiers from that time. Sombreros, swords, bullets, and arrows were all mounted on display. The building was surrounded by a garden of desert cacti; cat’s claw with tiny red berries, yucca, Joshua trees, agave, and fragrant mesquite.
The desert was deceptively quiet as we passed through Lordsburg. A dust storm obliterated the line between New Mexico and Arizona. Outside of Tucson, we finally took a rest. We pulled into a motel, like nothing I had ever seen before. Each room was a concrete teepee. Our beds were close together and you could barely squeeze into the bathroom. There was no swimming pool. The stars and moon were beautiful, so I didn’t watch the tiny television in our room. My dad was sawing logs before me.
During the night something felt odd. I thought it was thirst or being in a strange setting. I was too tired to get up and check it out. The next morning I woke up and was surprised to see my dad wasn’t up. He always got up before me.
I looked over toward his bed and saw something brown and thick. It looked like oil. Pulling back the sheets, I saw an arrow protruding from my dad’s chest. His eyes were open staring up at me. Blood was everywhere. The arrow looked like it was Chiricahua Apache. I felt myself sinking to my knees. I was dizzy and nauseated. I held on to my sanity and ran to the office.
We called the police. The cops came and put me in their car and took me to the station. One officer brought me coffee. My hands were shaking so bad I spilled it all over. He wiped it up and later he brought me a soda and a sandwich. A lady came and questioned me. She was very understanding. She let me call home, once I settled down a bit.
My mother answered and I told her about dad. She became hysterical and started screaming. I heard a loud noise as the phone receiver bounced on the kitchen floor. I could hear my older sister trying to find out what had happened and at the same time calm my mother. The lady that questioned me spoke to my sister. After several hours we both spoke to my mother. They kept me in a room all day while they investigated. I read my book about Apaches. I studied the names of Geronimo’s eight wives: Alope, Chee-hash-kish, Nana-tha-thtith, Zi-yeh, She-gha, Shtsha-she, Ihtedda, and Azul. Finally a man in a suit came in and said I was being released. He told me I could go.
I called home and my sister answered the phone. “I know you’ve been through a lot. We can take care of the funeral arrangements. I know you’re young and I wouldn’t blame you if you came home, right now. With dad gone, you are the man of the house. We still need money, worse than ever now. You decide what you must do,” my sister told me.
I got in the old red truck and pointed it toward the land where oranges come from. I concentrated on the yellow line on the highway. All I could see was my dad’s staring eyes.
Banner photograph: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons (Apache shirt – early 20th century, with beads and human hair, Glenbow Museum.)