It turned out that my dad really wanted to become a country gentleman. That is a euphemism for working in the city and having a couple of acres in the suburbs. He found an old adobe house on three consecutive half-acre lots with the house in the middle. I loved it. My younger brothers were traumatized by the move. The previous owner left us a nice little farm with 60 fruit trees, and about 100 grape vines of a dozen varieties.
I spent the summer getting acquainted with the new digs, learning how to irrigate with ditches, entertaining some old city friends for the last time. I didn’t know anyone at my new school, Winchester Cooley; you guessed it, another Alamo martyr. Grade schools in Texas went from kindergarten to eighth all in the same building and I would be in 7th grade.
Things were going great until I jumped into an irrigation ditch barefooted and encountered a rusty pipe which split the bottom of my foot wide open and required some fancy deep sutures. In retrospect, the trip to the hospital was interesting. A neighbor drove a pickup truck and my mother held my foot high and I was freaking out with blood all over the place. Since I had cut some tendons across my arch I could not bear any weight and so I had to use crutches on my first day to school. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about, I had become a cripple and could not swagger as I hoped I could. I had been practicing wearing a straw cowboy hat and walking so that the hat would not fall off and had almost lost the ungainly gait of the early puberty stage. At that age and in that place, how you walk and talk has a lot to do with how people will accept you.
I had come to accept that I was small and was trying to get some advantage back. My birthday was in late October and the cutoff for accepting students for first grade was November 1. On top of that, both my parents were very short and I was to find myself in the shortest one percentile; always. My grandmother, who was even shorter than my mother, had taught me to always make sure the tall girls are asked to dance because they feel very awkward if they never get asked at a dance. I forgot to mention that dancing was very big in my family, and in my Church, and in the community in general. I knew several ballroom dances by the time I was in seventh grade. My first ploy was to befriend the tallest girl in the vicinity and work down to prove I was an equal opportunity guy. It was good advice.
I was to remain the shortest until the winter that the circus stayed in town. That is another story for later on.
If the tall girl thing worked, maybe the advice was good for boys too. Tommy Tolson was to become my best buddy for the next six years. He soon topped out at 6’2”. We got into a lot of stuff together. We became known as Mutt and Jeff, comic strip characters of dissimilar heights.
This was a whole new world for me and I began to consume it with gusto. One of the new opportunities was to accept the responsibility of being crossing guard for about half the school on the main interstate highway, Hwy 80. We were on the edge of town in the area where the speed limit is wide open and some drivers have been driving many hours and are a little bit punchy. The only warning was a ‘Safety Sally’ silhouette of a schoolgirl placed between the lanes about 60 feet before the traffic light at the crossing. We wore a silver sheriff-style badge on a white canvas belt that crossed over our shoulders like the John Brown belts policemen wear. We had to arrive early and leave late. We were allowed to be late for class in order to get the tardy kids safely across. We worked the crossing as a team, but we were still kids who had no real authority over drivers but had the responsibility and authority over the kids at the crossing. One day there was an incident that would give me my first 15 minutes of fame.
The circus had a family of midgets and a couple of their kids were in our school and the kids had an attitude; which was their way of coping. The kids were tough and they didn’t take to authority figures too well. They could do things walking on their hands that I could barely do on my feet. On my morning of fame; Johnny Ybarra, a young local Mexican policeman hired by the newly organized township of Ascarate (sounds like scaredy as in scaredy-cat) was parked about a block away. I had pressed the button and was waiting for the yellow light to cycle before giving the go ahead. I had about a dozen kids to my back and my arms were outstretched to indicate that they should stay back. I noticed that a car which had been about a quarter mile away was not slowing and was going about 65 miles per hour. Things began to happen fast. The light had turned red for the highway and things began to move behind me. “Wait!” I said, but something moved in my peripheral vision. A little person marched right under my arms moving across the highway. I wasn’t going to tell him what to do! I had to run about three steps before I could match his speed and then I grabbed him by the collar and yanked back as hard as I could. He was only 3 feet tall but he outweighed me and almost carried me along with him. I prevailed and we moved back just as the car came through, not even hitting the brakes. Just because the car was through didn’t mean it was over. Johnny Ybarra and his makeshift squad car came through with siren wailing. We were all so shook up at the light that we just waited it out and went with the next cycle. After Johnny did his thing with the careless driver, he came back and talked to me as we were finishing up our shift. To my surprise, two days later my name was in the headlines of our new weekly newspaper. I was the hero who snatched our town’s children from the jaws of certain death! Well, I didn’t know what to do. Remember, I’m this little kid trying hard to get attention, and now that it is here I might not be humble enough to accept herohood with grace. It didn’t do me any harm though. They all knew who I was then.
Ascarate had just come into being as an independent township in a move that prevented El Paso from annexing the area into the city limits. We had our own mayor and since Johnny Ybarra had taken a course in police science somewhere; he was the only qualified person to be the sheriff. I think he was only 19 years old. He might have been a volunteer until the town had a budget to pay him. He did well. He was a friend of the school kids and he took us for rides in his squad car and showed us his weapons and other gear and he helped a lot of people shed their prejudices about Mexicans. He went on to play major parts in El Paso law enforcement and politics.
Back at home, I was acquiring new responsibilities also. Before long there were chickens, ducks, geese, rabbits, and a cow. We were going nuts with the farm thing.
My parents got themselves volunteered to be ‘Irrigation Alcalde’; which meant that they had to supervise the schedule for taking water from the big canal and distributing it to everyone on the street right down to the Mexican border. Something strikes me as funny right now. My youngest brother, Jim, who was two at the time, is now the controller of the Arizona Water Project, the waterway between the Colorado River and all southern Arizona. Now that is a really big ditch.
There were things to water, weeds to pull, fruit to pick, animals to feed, eggs to gather; and my dad was working two jobs, the full time railroad job and he was partner in a welding company. I was six years older than my next brother, John and ten years older than the next brother, Bill. They were all too young to be useful. It was me, Mom, and Dad on the farm; and Mom was getting started selling Stanley Home Products on a party plan and needed help unpacking boxes and bagging orders.
I had two other lives besides that. I went to school and commuted to Church. Now that I lived outside of town, all the things that I was involved in, such as; Boy Scouts, Deacons Quorum, Mutual Improvement Association, Sunday School, etc., were a two block walk plus a two buses trip to town and back. Every bus and transfer had a wait associated with it, lots of time lost.
My dad wanted to do the farm work Saturday and Sunday, and I was trying to be an active Mormon by going to Church and not making him very happy about it. We clashed. We sometimes fought, physically. There was too much going on. I had interests too.
My grandfather taught me a few magic tricks and I really enjoyed fooling people, especially adults. It was my attention getting device. I really needed it. I met a mentor; Bob Workman, shown here. He was two years older than I; and he worked at the Dairy Queen. He could do real slight of hand and he would teach me anything I wanted to know. He introduced me to other magicians and pretty soon I was really hooked. I needed to get some disposable income to support my magic habit. I sold eggs, rabbits, and fruit, and eventually got a milk goat and sold milk. I had income! In the summer I worked at Kiddie Playland running the Shetland ponies and the Merry-Go-Round. One summer I worked for my uncle at his refrigeration business.
I began to have more paraphernalia for magic and soon I was ready for public performance. There are two kinds of magic: stand-up and close-up. In the beginning, close-up was just to amuse other magicians or make bar bets. Stand-up required booking and commitment and opportunity. Soon I had a little suitcase with a stand-up act. I went to parties and began to enlarge my circle of friends.
Since grade school lasted eight years, there had to be a big something to remember; and so, at graduation we had a trip in the big, long school bus. Somehow this school bus was longer than any others in the area and was the school bus that was used all through high school. The driver’s name was Dan Morford and he also owned the Dairy Queen across from the school. The trip we took was to Carlsbad Caverns, a huge natural limestone cave about 90 miles away in the Guadalupe Mountains. The trip was great. We felt so grown up. We had lunch in the big cafeteria, peered into the bottomless pit and saw the ‘Rock of Ages’. We piled into the big, long, yellow school bus and I got a seat on the aisle, two rows back so I could watch the driver. I was prone to motion sickness and knew that if I could see out the front window I might avoid an embarrassing situation. Within about a half hour we rounded the crest of the mountain road and I knew it was all downhill from there on out. Our driver began to shift down and I could feel the bus slow a little. After a few turns something happened that turned my stomach. I saw the driver’s brake foot go down all the way and heard a pop. Then I smelled something I recognized as brake fluid. The driver began shifting and the next thing that happened was the sound of grinding gears. The clutch would not disengage and the driver was trying to race the engine to synchronize the engine with the transmission. It never happened. I knew in my heart we were all going to die a very painful death. Some of the kids began to wake up because of the wild careening of the bus. I didn’t say a thing. I was all white knuckles and sweat. It seemed like forever but eventually we were in the flats and the bus slowly pulled onto the gravel and crunched to a stop. There must have been a lot of prayers said that night. We must have been going 100 miles per hour in the last straight stretch, slowed only by wind resistance. After blocking the wheels with rocks, a party hiked back to a darkened filling station we had passed and made a call home. In an hour and a half, cars began to arrive from home to pick us up in the desert. That was probably the most memorable trip for Cooley Elementary School in history.