Brave Man or Damned Fool
Before Owen Oates chronicles the entire 20th Century history of Presidio, permit me to relate one tale that he may not know or may have forgotten.
First, for a little background, I spent the three years immediately prior to entering on duty at El Paso in May 1956 as a full-time bus operator in New Orleans, operating gas, diesel and electric trolley buses.
Up until that time, the Service had participated in a cooperative program whereby some illegal aliens were repatriated to Quintana Roo, Mexico by boatlift. The transport was handled by Mexican authorities on two boats the
U.S. Navy had sold them, one of which was named the “Emancipacion”. I can’t recall the name of the other ship. In any event, I understand each vessel had a capacity of approximately 400 souls, plus the Mexican crew and one
U.S. Immigration Officer, whose job was to confirm that all repatriates were transported to their ultimate destination.
Some time during the summer of 1956, I understand that one of the vessels had engine trouble and had to anchor 3 or 4 miles offshore short of Quintana Roo. The story was that a number of repatriates demanded that the ship be docked at the nearest port so they could debark. Reportedly, the crew refused, whereupon several of the repatriates dove overboard and attempted to swim to shore. Unfortunately, a number of them failed, and drowned.
Subsequently, there was a congressional investigation of the incident and the boatlift program. I understand that some described the vessel as a “hell ship”, while others described the removal procedure as a “pleasant Caribbean cruise”. In any event, the boatlift was cancelled permanently and El Paso Sector was directed to bus lift as many illegal aliens to Presidio as possible, to be turned over to Mexican authorities at Ojinaga to be transported to Chihuahua City by train.
After my first brief assignment to the sand hills, where I was informed in no uncertain terms that I couldn’t track a bleeding elephant through a snowdrift, (at least I tried) I was relegated to line watch duties. When the call came for experienced bus drivers I jumped at the chance. It fit my dream of a job where the customer was always wrong and I could drive for miles and miles down the highway, instead of stopping every two blocks.
Another unexpected benefit to the bus lift was the fact that the Service paid $12.00 per diem for each round trip. At the time, GS-7 trainees received the princely sum of $4,080 per annum salary. With a wife and three kids, that $36.00 a week, gross, really helped pay the rent and put food on the table.
Anyway, we would leave every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night at 8:00 P.M., usually one P.I. and one detention officer, and take turns driving all night, with coffee stops in Sierra Blanca and Valentine. We would arrive in
Presidio about 6:00 or 7:00 A.M. and flip to see who would drive the bus to the switch track near Ojinaga where the train awaited. There were usually one passenger car and one cattle car. Those repatriates who had sufficient dinero got to ride in the passenger car to Chihuahua City.
In Presidio, there was to my recollection one hotel, owned and operated by a gentleman whose last name was Harper. Mr. Harper was at that time about 75, my current age, while I was 24. His establishment catered principally to hunters, and he had several large dormitory rooms with metal cots, where we would sleep after feasting on the boarding house style breakfast for $1.25. We would be awakened at noon and consume an all-you-can-eat lunch for $1.50. Since the cots we occupied were available to his other guests at night we were only charged $1.00 each to sleep. If we didn’t splurge at the coffee shops, we could salvage 4 or 5 dollars from the per diem each trip.
Mr. Harper frequently regaled us with tales of what to us were the “olden days”, and on one occasion I asked him how he came to be in Presidio. He stated that sometime in the 1910’s he and his drummer partner arrived in Marfa with a horse, a mule and a wagon loaded with pots, pans and other sundries. He and his partner got into an argument as to whether they should continue west to El Paso, or go to closer Presidio. He stated that he bought out his partner’s share of the mule, wagon and merchandise and wound up in Presidio. His partner, he stated, continued on to El Paso and opened up what ultimately became the largest store there, the White House Department Store.
Mr. Harper informed us that every year after the close of hunting season he would drive to El Paso and purchase a large stock of linen and other necessaries for the hotel. He drove an almost new Oldsmobile sedan, his overall health appeared good, and most of the roads were in good shape.
On one occasion during our sumptuous lunch, he casually mentioned that he had been robbed on his last trip to El Paso, a week or so previously. Immediately interested, we all asked what happened, and he stated that while driving west through Sierra Blanca, he picked up a hitchhiker. He stated they drove along without incident for some time, until he stopped for a traffic light in Ysleta, whereupon the young hitchhiker pulled a knife and demanded he turn over his money and his car.
Mr. Harper stated that he told the young man emphatically that he could not have his car, because he was too old and could not get back to his home in Presidio without it, so if he was going to kill him for the car, then go ahead and do so. Apparently taken aback, the hitchhiker then demanded that he turn over his money.
Mr. Harper admitted that at the time, he had a considerable amount of cash in his wallet, intended to pay for supplies for his hotel. However, he stated, he happened to recall that when he stopped for gas he had placed two bills, a twenty and a five, in a front pants pocket. He said he was concentrating hard and trying desperately to remember which way he had folded the bills and which side the five dollar bill was on. When he drew one of the bills out of his pocket, he stated, “Thank God it was the five”. He handed it to the young man, who immediately exited the car. I asked Mr. Harper if he notified the police, and he said he didn’t have time to fool with that.
Since that story, I have often pondered the wisdom of an unarmed man that age risking his life for a twenty-dollar bill in a confrontation with a possibly dangerous criminal. Then again, maybe that’s what men were made of back in the real “olden days”. ---------------