Far West Texas Hindsight

By David Smith

Assuming the frontier closed in 1890, as most historians say, El Paso made the transition from rough, rowdy frontier town to a highly progressive small city easily and quickly.

Fort Bliss first was nothing more than a place where for years, we could go watch a polo game of First Cavalry Division soldiers and their horses vs neighbors.

El Paso has always gone its own way from the rest of Texas economically and culturally. I would say that the as an emerging city it was probably most influenced by New Mexico to the North and Old Mexico to the South. An economic element lending strength to El Paso was free trade with Mexico, the “barriers” which were as easy to negotiate as the Rio Grande was easy to broad jump. The structural underpinnings of the Cordova Island experiment today might serve as a model for further Mexico – United States border cooperation. Texas might lead the way out of Red Bluff Lake and maybe a half dozen more free trade islands along our thousand miles of the Rio Grande. Surely the United States has a lot to share with Mexico in the area of crime reduction technology.

In my memory, the high quality of life in El Paso was the result of the effective quarantine of vice, tacitly accepted. Across the river in Juarez, there was more than a little prostitution and drug traffic fueled by marijuana, while Juarez was off limits to soldiers at Fort Bliss to the north in New Mexico there was open gambling, especially slot machines which are without question psychologically addictive. I remember vacationing El Paso ladies at Cloudcroft, New Mexico throwing away handfuls of rolled quarters as long as their respectable husbands could or would fund and fuel them. In those days “working women” got limited respect, teachers and nurses excepted.

In the 1940s, officers’ wives stationed at Ft. Bliss were quite rank conscious. My mother was a member of the Military Civilian Club, which met regularly at the Women’s Club of El Paso, on Mesa Hill. The ladies would get together to push cookies, sip sherry, and socialize with the Army officers’ wives, who tended to cluster around the wife of the current Fort Bliss Commanding General.

Though I was not an “Army brat”, I grew up with several of them. My first impression of Army life was that it is boring. I remember once driving through Fort Bliss watching two soldiers with nothing better to do than throw rocks and kick tumbleweeds. There were sure plenty of rocks and endless acres of tumbleweeds on the desert, plus sandstorms to make them tumble.

Things changed dramatically Sunday, Dec. 7th, 1941.
I was nine at the time, and our family was at Nannie’s house for Sunday dinner when we began hearing newspaper boys on Montana Street hawking the news. “Extra! Extra! Read all about it. Japan bombs Pearl Harbor!”
Reading the headlines, my dad told my brothers and me, “You boys will never forget this day. What has just happened will change all our lives greatly.”
Almost immediately El Paso came alive as Fort Bliss surged with soldiers, activity, and growth. Much of what was formerly empty desert became endless rows of well-ordered temporary barracks. On our minds, in the newspapers, and on the radio daily was news of the war ─ for some months mostly bad news.

But we were going to win this thing. We pre-teens became part of the war effort when Dudley Grade School set up a staging area for a paper drive, and then an aluminum drive.. Aluminum was used to make P-38 fighter planes which our boys flew to shoot down Jap Zeros. During the aluminum drive, some of us kids made decisions that weren’t ours to make. I for one left maybe one aluminum pot for my mom to cook the family dinner. This was war. If as a kid you couldn’t buy a War Bond, you could at least put back some of your allowance and buy savings stamps.

During that time my banker Dad was chairman of El Paso County’s war bond drives. We kids in Kern Place asked almost every shopkeeper downtown if we could stick up a war bond poster that was taller than most of us. One poster that I distributed showed a resolute farmer wearing overalls in his wheat field with the caption, “Good Earth, Keep it Ours, BUY WAR BONDS.” In my archives, I have a personal letter from Secretary of the Treasury Morganthal thanking us Kern Place kids for our part in promoting war bonds. While my Dad was too old for fighting the war, he headed all seven El Paso County war bond drives, each of which well exceeded its assigned goals.

Less successful were our Victory Gardens that were created to answer the question, “If Rio Grande Valley farm boys were off to war, what from our Rio Grande Valley would we eat?” To this day I simply don’t believe pictures or statements on seed packages. As a 10-year-old, I read and followed the directions perfectly, planting maybe 15 rows of vegetables. However, I wasn’t about to plant anything as bad as spinach since two of my buddies had eaten some and confirmed that it was as bad as its name sounded or as we thought it was. Still, many of us planted Victory Gardens.

My harvest? Two radishes. Not two rows of radishes but two radishes, period. And as expected, they tasted hot and terrible! To this day I confess to a prejudice against vegetables other than beans, corn, carrots and potatoes. I had never seen any of the other vegetables pictured on seed packages, and just to pronounce the names on the packages made them sound pretty awful!

Take rutabaga. Who would want to eat anything as bad-sounding as “root-a-beggar?” In other parts of the world, rutabagas are primarily animal feed, but in El Paso I never saw any cattle eating it. Why, I can’t even imagine an armadillo dumb enough to eat root-a-beggar, and that’s what he does for a living ─ roots or begs. I’ll pass, thank you.
Or take squash. It just sounds slimy, like if you stepped on it, your feet would go out from under you.

Squash? Sqush! Yuck!
No, thank you.
The worst of all vegetables is one that sounds like the early stages of vomiting, and that’s okra. You really should cover your mouth just to say it out loud. Excuse me a moment but… I have to… uh… okra! We’re into slimy stuff. Don’t tell me it’s good for you.

My Victory Garden in the Second World War was a failure and should have been called a Disaster Garden. But it taught me something, probably not what you might at first think. It taught me how not to like vegetables.

(For more “Texas Spirit” by David Smith go to amazon.com or totalrecallpress.com)