It sounds a little like a soap opera description: “I was born in a small mining town in the west.” It turned out to be a hole in the ground from which I sprang. Santa Rita, New Mexico. The town had a history behind it. The Spanish, Mexicans and Americans mined copper from this site for over two hundred years, leaving an open-pit gaping from the bottom and side of a mountain called The Kneeling Nun, a rock formation shaped like a religious figure kneeling before an altar.
Mining began in 1799 by Lt. Coronel José Manuel Carrasco under the laws of Spain, and their mining efforts were fought off by the Apaches. The conflict and the mining operations were inherited by the Mexicans in 1821 who did battle with the Chiricahua Chief, Mangas Colaradas until he was murdered by U.S. troops in 1863. The Americans continued with the Apache conflicts and mining until peace settled over the region and the small town of Santa Rita. As a child, Kennecott Copper Corporation dominated the life of my family as well as the rest of the residents. The open-pit copper mine has continued to grow, swallowing up the town which is no longer. All the buildings were moved away or destroyed by the mid-1960’s. There are road signs giving directions to “Santa Rita,” but no one lives there, it is a working open-pit copper mine.It was from this beginning I have my earliest memories. My parents met when my mother, who had just migrated from Colorado, saw my father delivering groceries from the Santa Rita Store Company, the only grocery store in town. It also sold almost everything people needed and employees could charge groceries they would pay for at the end of the month. Dad was the delivery guy for the store. The song “I Owe My Soul to the Company Store” has some meaning for those who lived and worked at Chino, the name of the mine.
Clyde Douglas Thomas and Dorothea Frances Peper were married and lived on Booth Hill until after I was born. Booth Hill had a lower standard of housing than the Ball Park, but still higher than Mexican Town, which testified to the segregationist attitude of both the Company and the Anglo community. To my knowledge, there were no black people in Santa Rita or Hurley, but there were a few in other towns in Grant County. Mexicans were looked down upon and seldom selected for promotion to any job other than laborer. That opened the doors for union activity often shutting the mine down on strikes. While the 1954 movie The Salt of the Earth describes some of the events in a nearby town, Fierro, concerning another mining company, Empire Zinc, the issues were pretty much the same.
Even though living conditions were disparate and unequal, the schools were integrated as were all schools in New Mexico and many of the Hispanic children excelled in their studies, often becoming much more than their natal environment would have predicted, but not at Kennecott. None of the supervisory or other administrative positions was held by other than Anglo employees. It wasn’t an issue, usually, but the thought often underlined the attitude of people living in Santa Rita. Anglo kids didn’t step into Mexican Town and vice-versa. Sometimes rock-throwing incidents would occur, or fist-fights would break out at the slightest provocation. Shouts of “dirty Mexican” and “Gringo salado,” were hurled at each other, but for the most part we got along at school. There was no cross-cultural dating allowed. That was an unspoken rule.
My grandparents and my mother’s sister, Theresa (pronounced THREE-sa by the family and those who were told how to say it “right”) and her family also lived in Santa Rita. My uncle, Jim Saige, had worked in Mexico for a while and learned of the job opportunities in Southwest New Mexico, obtaining a position with Kennecott as the Carpenter Superintendent. My grandfather, Herman Peper was offered a position as a carpenter foreman and they also migrated to the town from Las Animas, Colorado along with my mother in 1938. That was the year of their marriage and I appeared on the scene in late 1939.
My cousin about two years older, Vance Saige, was ushered into the room where my crib was after I was brought home from the hospital and told in hushed tones, “That’s your cousin, Jan.” He relates he was less than awestruck at the revelation. Vance had an older brother, Leon, who died in childhood. He was later blessed with another brother, Gerald (who forsook his real name for “Jerry” after adulthood), the object of his older brother’s pestering as they grew up.
The family moved to Deming for a few weeks while my father tried selling insurance, an endeavor at which he did not excel, and later to Silver City. Although I don’t remember it, I’m told I fell out of the window of the house we lived in while in Deming. I suppose it had no effect on me; however, there are times I wonder if this was the beginning of a strange fear of heights. It wasn’t a bad fall, but I have a fear of being in high places. My family grew, my brother Keith was born in 1941, and Dennis in 1943. We called him “Denny” and he was given a hard time by all of us because he was the youngest.
My earliest recollections of living in Silver City, the county seat, were a bit shocking. My dad’s mother used to gather black walnuts from the local trees which grew wild and removed the nut meat from the hull with a hairpin and ate it. I loved the taste of the nuts and one day, I guess I was about three, I decided the electric plug in the wall looked so much like a black walnut I stuck a hairpin in the holes of the socket and discovered that indeed, it was NOT a nut at all. I appropriated a healthy fear of electricity for the rest of my life.
Dad got a job during World War II at the copper smelter in Hurley, becoming an electrician. I don’t believe it had anything to do with my previous experience with the wall socket. We moved there and most of my earliest memories stem from this location. This change in occupations was in lieu of joining the military during the effort to defeat the Axis. My uncle Gene Peper, my mother’s brother, joined and became an aviation trainer in the Army Air Corps.
I remember being taught a nightly prayer to say before going to bed:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray Thee Lord, my soul to take.
I didn’t quite understand the prayer and I wasn’t sure I wanted the Lord or anyone else to take my soul while I slept. But it was a prayer my mother wanted me to pray, so I did.
Dad didn’t grow up with any brothers or sisters; he was adopted by my grandparents, Marvin and Minnie Thomas when he was three years old. He was the thirteenth of thirteen children and the story goes that his real father went out for a loaf of bread and didn’t come back, leaving the tribe to his wife who couldn’t keep up with it all and put him up for adoption since he was the youngest. The family name was Alman, but dad didn’t talk about this part of his life. His father returned some years later, but dad wanted little or nothing to do with any of the family. When his biological father died, an inheritance of a few hundred dollars was offered to him, but he returned the money. He had some contact with a sister, but she was Jehovah’s Witness and off limits as far as he was concerned. He didn’t talk about religious issues and I never heard him mention the Bible or what he believed or didn’t believe, although he claimed to be a “Methodist.” He would go to church once in a while, mainly to appease Mom, but until later in his life, it wasn’t important to him.
My adoptive grandparents followed wherever my dad went. Grandad Thomas had very little education and had to sign documents with an “X” rather than write his name. He could read a newspaper and I used to enjoy seeing his lips move as his eyes skimmed the pages of the paper. He worked for the U. S. Forest Service in the Gila National Forest and was gone fairly often. I never did learn what his job was, but I suspect it was building trails or other tasks assigned to him. He also worked at Ft. Bayard, a former military outpost later used as a tuberculosis sanatorium.
In their home, which was usually a one-room apartment with a sink, stove and a few pieces of furniture, he would sit in a rocking chair, roll his cigarettes using loose tobacco from a Prince Albert can or sometimes a sack of dried tobacco. For him rolling a cigarette was an art. Holding the paper in his left hand, he poured the tobacco—just the right amount—into the dip in the paper formed by his fingers. He put down the tobacco container and, with one motion of both hands, rolled the cigarette and, bringing it up to his mouth; licked the edge of the paper and shaped it into a nearly perfect cylinder. He would then reach for a match and strike it underneath the arm of the rocking chair, firing up the handmade masterpiece, and deeply inhale the smoke it produced. The look of satisfaction always appeared on his face. He had a chiseled face, somewhat dark, black hair and a knot under his left ear that was unexplained, but probably an overgrown nodule left over from a pimple from his youth. His ears were hairy, and he often smiled and laughed when he talked.
Very often he told stories of his past, laughing at some of the events. The stories would be told over and over again with laughs in the same places. He told about a boy who would spell pie, p-s-y-g-k. To him it was hilarious! He was quarter Blackfoot Indian but didn’t have papers to prove it. He never drank socially, but at night he would take down a bottle of whisky he kept in the top of his closet, fill a spoon once, twice, and then take a swig—for medicinal purposes. He spoke disparagingly of blacks and other people, most of whom he had little contact with. My dad was also disposed to making racist remarks.
Beside the chair was a coffee can which became simultaneously an ashtray and a place to spit. His lungs filled up with phlegm and he had a deep and raucous cough. It was a ghastly sight to look into the can beside his chair on the floor, but it was a part of him. He would smoke the cigarette down to the smallest butt, his thumb and forefinger always black from the experience. Those who visited usually sat at the table in the kitchen part of the room. If there were more than that would hold, the bed became a couch. Early on they had no refrigerator, opting for a window on the north side of the house to keep anything like milk or butter cool by placing a wet rag around it. The toilet was in the backyard, a wooden shack called a “privy” with a seat built with holes cut in the plank you sat on, hoping the spider lurking underneath would remain tranquil. Toilet paper was a catalogue, usually Sears and Roebuck or J. C. Penney, sometimes Montgomery Ward. Baths were taken inside with water heated on the stove either standing or sitting, depending on your age, in a No. 3 washtub.
Marvin Thomas moved his family from Arkansas to the town of Central (now Santa Clara) in Grant County after being told his tuberculosis was not survivable in a humid climate. Ft. Bayard was a few miles from Central and he was able to get work there. This is where my dad grew up, went to school, and nearly graduated from high school in Silver City. He lacked one credit.
Minnie Thomas washed clothes in the same tub baths were taken, with a rub board and a bar of white soap. A thin woman, she would never tell her age, and while she didn’t smoke, she would disappear after meals and return wiping her mouth with a handkerchief she always carried. Sometimes a brownish trickle escaped from her lips, but she would never acknowledge that she dipped snuff—we found out later that she preferred Garrett’s Sweet and Mild. She was usually a pleasant woman but could get flustered easily. When things didn’t go her way, she would express her frustration by saying, “I’m all blowed up.”
Coming from Arkansas they had a number of sayings that flew in the face of the culture they had come into. To close a door, they would say, “pull the door to.” You never pushed a button; you “mashed it.” If you told them something amazing the response was, “Well, I swan.” We never had toys; they were “play pretties.” Marvin Thomas had a wonderful way of eating—with a table knife. He ate peas, carrots, whatever, scooping the food up with his knife. My cousin Vance still marvels at his ability to eat this way.
The Peper side of the family had originated in Illinois. My grandfather, Herman, spoke nothing but German until he was about seven years old. A balding, heavy-set man, he was raised in the German community of Ohlman they were always seeking ways to make a living. His parents were born in the United States, but their parents had migrated from the “old country.” His father died early leaving him and his siblings to fend for themselves, each working to help support the family. By the time I knew him he had no accent and had forgotten most of the German he had learned as a child. He would, on occasion, sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star in that language. Grandad had a job during the early years sorting mail on a railway between Chicago and Buffalo, New York. Lydia, my grandmother was of mixed heritage which included English, Scotch-Irish, and German. Her family with the surname of New came from New York to Illinois, by way of Missouri.
Lydia Peper also had a form of tuberculosis and was advised to “go west.” They moved to a homestead near Las Animas, Colorado and farmed a patch of land. Grandad often had to work as a carpenter to supplement the family income, but he was a hard worker and very intelligent. He also smoked cigarettes, but he only smoked the “tailor made” kind, always the Lucky Strike brand. He was heard to say that he did not trust a man who didn’t smoke. They lived in a Company-provided home in the Ball Park section of Santa Rita when I was old enough to take notice of where and what we were. Jim and Theresa lived about a block away. The earliest and some of the best memories that have lingered with me come from these towns.
Living in Hurley, another Kennecott provided house, a number of events stuck in my mind. I can remember going to the Chino Club, a recreation center for employees of Kennecott Copper Corporation, Chino Division. The mine is still called Chino mine, named for iron pyrite which in Spanish is called “chino” or Chinese. While some have argued that there was a Chinese person somehow involved in the mine, this has generally been discounted.
My father sent me when I was about five years old to the employee’s club, a place where a person could go to play pool, bowl, or have some non-alcoholic refreshment or snack, to buy a pack of cigarettes for him. I set off with ten pennies and as I walked there were puddles of rain water around the bases of trees along the way. I thought it great sport to throw a penny into the water to see the splash. When I got to the club and asked to buy the cigarettes, I didn’t have enough money. So, I returned home and announced this to my father who reacted negatively to my attempt to amuse myself with water splashes. I recall returning with the right amount of money and a reprimand on my heart.
Other memories are laced with smells and sounds, some good, some not quite so good. Like the sound of a steam engine pulling cars from the south, up a continuous grade past yucca, cactus and creosote. The terrain is the northern edge of the Chihuahuan desert that slowly rises to a mountain range known as “the Gila” at the edge of the Gila National Forest.
I would stand in my bed, a boy of five winters, and look out my window westward, unable to fall asleep until I got to see and hear the chuch! chuch! chuch! of the engine lugging those cars by my house, black fumes belching from its smokestack and steam spurting from the wheel cylinders. I could hear that whistle blow, watching while steam from the boiler was forced through its reed as it signaled the crossing of roads, both to the south and north of town. And as it passed, the smell of coal smoke was left in its wake. I was fascinated by the thunder of it all as it rumbled by. It would signal a short chapter in my life later on.
My Uncle Jim had become a pilot and purchased a military training airplane which he housed in a hangar at the Hurley airport, not far from our house on the west side of town on Romero Street. It has since been moved away from the town, but at that point it was not more than a quarter mile away across the railroad tracks. One day we were in the yard and I was hanging on the fence when we noticed a fire in one of the hangars. A drum of gasoline exploded. The building blew up and a huge ring of fire and smoke went up into the clear blue sky, it seemed like miles to me, but the event was, in my young mind awesome! Someone said that my uncle and cousin Vance were at the airport and worry set in. We soon found out that they had escaped without harm and everyone was relieved. I can never hear the Johnny Cash song, Ring of Fire without thinking of this event.
My Great-grandmother, Dora Peper, came to visit and stayed with us in Hurley. She was hard of hearing, but with her “hearing horn” she would listen to the news on the radio about the war and when speeches by Adolph Hitler were broadcast, she understood the German and would pound her knee and say things in German that none of the rest of us understood. I don’t think they were profane sayings, because no one in either side of the family was prone to that kind of language. They were, however, very demonstrative. She was definitely American, not German in spite of her background.
I have another recollection that ushered in a new age. My brother, Keith, and I were sleeping in the same bed and early one morning, the date was July 16, 1945, we heard a loud booming sound, actually two of them.
“What was that?” my brother Keith asked. I replied that I didn’t know. We were dismayed and wondered what it was. Later that day people were discussing the noise and what it could be. A story was released that a dynamite magazine at the mine in Santa Rita had blown up. This was discredited by those who worked at the mine including Grandad Peper and Uncle Jim and knew that nothing of the kind had happened. It was later revealed that this was the test of the first atomic bomb at Trinity Site. Some say the blast was at Alamogordo, which claims the credit, but that is many miles from the point of detonation which was nearer to Socorro and Carrizozo than Alamogordo, but it was about 125 miles from Hurley. Granddad Thomas was working with the Forest Service near Beaverhead in the Gila and actually saw the flash of light in the early morning sky and heard the sound resounding across the hills.
The war ended on August 6 after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan; and Hurley had a celebration! People in cars and trucks were going up and down the streets of the town with American flags waving and horns honking during V-J Day. We all went to the baseball park where a bonfire had been assembled and a post with a straw-stuffed Japanese soldier’s uniform had been placed, hung from a noose. The effigy was set afire and everyone cheered. The war had ended. We had endured, and we had won.
During the war many things were rationed: gasoline, tires, sugar, coffee and so on. Families were issued ration stamps and could buy only some of these items in small quantities. Sometimes we couldn’t go anywhere in the 1928 Model-A Ford my dad had been able to purchase because we had run out of stamps. No gas, no tires, no go. The end of the war began the change toward a more luxurious time for my family as well as most other Americans.