Thursday, January 28, 2010

Interview with Elfego Baca
(I was updating "Two Years Before the Mast" and needed to find pictures of well-off Mexicans, as the chapter I was editing involved Dana's first impressions of the locals. While poking around, I came across a reference to Elfego Baca (1865-1945), a lawman, gunfighter and attorney who was born in the US, in New Mexico, and thus completely wrong from both a geographic and temporal point of view. But so what? I began to read about him and was led to this interview done by Janet Smith for the WPA Writer's Project in 1936. The gunfight to which he alludes was an occasion when 80 cowboys surrounded a house he was in and poured lead into it for two days, at the end of which someone came and negotiated his surrender. He was unharmed, four of the cowboys were dead. He was an interesting chap, even more interesting than the fictional version of him that Walt Disney created. And if anyone would like to re-create the WPA as part of our economic recovery, I'd happily go out and get some oral histories like this for the next generation to enjoy.)

"I never wanted to kill anybody," Elfego Baca told me, "but if a man had it in his mind to kill me, I made it my business to get him first."

Elfego Baca belongs to the six-shooter epoch of American history. Those were the days when hard-shooting Texas cowboys invaded the territory of New Mexico, driving their herds of longhorns over the sheep ranges of the New Mexicans, for whom they had little liking or respect. Differences were settled quickly, with few words and a gun. Those were the days of Billy the Kid, with whom Elfego, at the age of seventeen, made a tour of the gambling joints in Old Albuquerque. In the words of Kyle Crichton, who wrote Elfego Baca's biography, "the life of Elfego Baca makes Billy the Kid look like a piker." Harvey Ferguson calls him "a knight-errant from the romantic point of view if ever the six-shooter West produced one."

And yet Mr. Baca is not a man who lives in his past.

"I wonder what I can tell you," he said when I asked him for pioneer stories. "I don't remember so much about those things now. Why don't you read the book Mr. Crichton wrote about me?"

He searched about his desk and brought out two newspaper clippings of letters he had written recently to the Albuquerque Journal an local politics. The newspaper had deleted two of the more outspoken paragraphs. Mr. Baca was annoyed.

I tried to draw Mr. Baca away from present day politics to stories of his unusual past, but he does not talk readily about himself, although he seemed anxious to help me. Elfego Baca is a kindly courteous gentleman who is concerned to see that his visitor has the coolest spot in the room.

He brought out books and articles that had been written about him, but he did not seem inclined to reminiscing and answered my questions briefly. "Crichton tells about that in his book" or "Yes, I knew Billy the Kid."

Finally I asked him at random if he knew anything about the famous old Manzano Gang which I had frequently seen mentioned in connection with Torrance County.

He replied that he broke up that gang when he was Sheriff of Socorro County.

"There were ten of them," he said, "and I got nine. The only reason I didn't get the other one was that he got over the border and was shot before I got to him. They used to go to a place near Belen and empty the freight cars of grain and one thing and another. Finally they killed a man at La Jolla. Contreros was his name. A very rich man with lots of money in his house, all gold. I got them for that. They were all convicted and sent to the pen."

Mr. Baca settled back in his chair and made some remark about the late Senator Cutting whose photograph stood on his desk.

I persisted about the Manzano Gang. "I wish you'd tell me more about that gang. How you got them, and the whole story."

"Well," he said, "after that man Contreros was shot, they called me up at my office in Socorro and told me that he was dying. I promised to get the murderers in forty-eight hours. That was my rule. Never any longer than forty-eight hours."

Mr. Baca suspected certain men, but when a telephone call to Albuquerque established the fact that they had been in that city at the time of the killing, his next thought was of the Manzano Gang.

Accompanied by two men, he started out on horseback in the direction of La Jolla.

Just as the sun was rising; they came to the ranch of Lazaro Cordova. They rode into the stable and found Cordova's son-in-law, Prancasio Saiz already busy with his horse.

"Good morning," said Elfego, "what are you doing with your horse so early in the morning?"

Saiz replied that he was merely brushing him down a little.

Mr. Baca walked over and placed his hand on the saddle. It was wet inside. The saddle blanket was steaming. He looked more closely at the horse. At first sight it had appeared to be a pinto, white with brown spots. Mr. Baca thought he remembered that Saiz rode a white horse.

"What happened to that horse?" he asked.

The man replied that the boys had had the horse out the day before and had painted the spots on him with a kind of berry that makes reddish-brown spots. "Just for a joke," he added.

"Where's your father-in-law?" asked Mr. Baca.

Saiz said that his father-in-law had gone the day before to a fiesta at La Jolla and had not returned.

"I understand you're a pretty good shot," said Sheriff Baca. "You'd better come along, and help me round up some men I'm after for the killing of Contreros in La Jolla."

Saiz said that he had work to do on the ranch, but at the insistence of Mr. Baca, he saddled his horse and rode out with the three men.

"About as far as from here to the station," went on Mr. Baca, "was a graveyard where the gang was supposed to camp out. I rode over to it and found where they had lunched the day before. There were sardine cans and cracker boxes and one thing and another. Then I found where one of them had had a call to nature. I told one of my men to put it in a can. Saiz didn't know about this, and in a little while he went over behind some mesquite bushes and had a call to nature. After he came back I sent my man over, and by God it was the same stuff -- the same beans and red chili seeds! So I put Saiz under arrest and sent him back to the jail at Socorro with one of my deputies, although he kept saying he couldn't see what I was arresting him for."

Mr. Baca and his other deputy proceeded in the direction of La Jolla. Before long they saw a man on horseback coming toward them.

"He was running that horse like everything. When we met I saw that he was a Texan. Doc Something or other was his name. I can't remember now. But he was a pretty tough man."

"You a Sheriff?" he said to Mr. Baca.

"No," replied Mr. Baca, "no, I'm not a Sheriff. Don't have nothing to do with the law, in fact."

"You're pretty heavily armed," remarked the man suspiciously.

"I generally arm myself this way when I go for a trip in the country," answered Baca, displaying his field glasses. "I think it's safer."

"Well, if you want fresh horses, you can get them at my ranch, a piece down the road," said the Texan.

Mr. Baca figured that this was an attempt to throw him off the trail, so as soon as the Texan was out of sight, he struck out east over the mountains for Manzano. Just as he was entering the village he saw two of the gang coming down the hill afoot leading their horses. He placed them under arrest and sent them back to Socorro with his other deputy.

It was about two o'clock in the morning when Mr. Baca passed the Cordova ranch again on his way back. He roused Lazaro Cordova, who had returned from La Jolla by that time, and told him to dress and come with him to Socorro.

"The old man didn't want to come," said Mr. Baca, "and kept asking 'what you want with me anyhow?' I told him that he was under arrest, and on the way to Socorro I told him that unless he and his son-in-law came across with a complete statement about the whole gang, I would hang both of them, for I had the goods on them and knew all right that they were both in on the killing of Contreros. I put him in the same cell with his son-in-law, and told him it was up to him to bring Saiz around. They came through with the statement. I kept on catching the rest of the gang, until I had them all. All but the one who got himself shot before I caught up with him."

"If you ever go to Socorro you ask Billy Newcomb, the Sheriff down there now to show you the records. You might see the place on the way down where they buried a cowboy I shot. It's a little way off the main road though.

"That was a long time before I was a real Sheriff. In those days I was a self-made deputy. I had a badge I made for myself, and if they didn't believe I was a deputy, they'd better believe it, because I made 'em believe it."

"I had gone to Escondida a little way from Socorro to visit my uncle. A couple of Texas cowboys had been shooting up the town of Socorro. They hadn't hurt anybody that time. Only frightened some girls. That's the way they did in those days -- ride through a town shooting at dogs and cats and if somebody happened to get in the way -- powie! -- too bad for him. The Sheriff came to Escondida after them. By that time they were making a couple of Mexicans dance, shooting up the ground around their feet. The Sheriff said to me 'Baca, if you want to help, come along, but there's going to be shooting.'"

"We rode after them and I shot one of them about three hundred yards away. The other got away --- too many cottonwood trees in the way.

"Somebody asked me what that cowboy's name was. I said I didn't know. He wasn't able to tell me by the time I caught up with him."

I asked what the Sheriff's name was, and when Mr. Baca said it was Pete Simpson, I said, "The one you were electioneering for the time of the Frisco affair when you held off about 80 cowboys for over 36 hours."
This is the one of Mr. Baca's exploits that has been most frequently written about.

"Hell, I wasn't electioneering for him," he said. "I don't know where they got that idea. I couldn't have made a speech to save my life. And I didn't wear a Prince Albert coat either. They didn't have such things in this country in those days."

"Is it true that you ate dinner afterward with French and some other men who had been shooting at you, and talked the affair over," I asked.

"I ate dinner with some men afterward but I don't remember who they were now. I don't think that man French was there at all, although he must have been in the neighborhood, as he seemed to know all about it. But I don't remember him. Jim Cook was one that was shooting at me though. He was a pretty tough man, but he came near getting it."

He showed me a photograph which Jim Cook had sent him recently. The picture showed an old man who still looks as though he could not be easily trifled with. It was inscribed "To Elfego Baca in memory of that day at Frisco."

"Did you see the letter that Englishman wrote to Crichton? He wanted to hang me. 'Why don't you hang that little Mexican so-and-so?' he asked. I said, 'Why don't you be the one to do it?' and pulled my guns, and wooo, he wasn't so eager. You know I surrendered only on condition that I keep my guns. They placed six guards over me, but they rode 25 steps ahead of me all the way to Socorro.

"Those were great old days. Everything is very quiet now, isn't it?" said Mr. Baca looking up. "I think I'll run for something this fall, but I don't know what yet."


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Abandoning the Creeping Meatball

Having little to risk, and still less to be grateful for at their hands, I recently began the process of transferring my banking from a large, interstate, TARP-gobbling megabank into a small community bank.

When the housing market first began to go into the tank, 18 months or so ago, I happened to be in Farmington, Maine, the same town as a fellow who sits on a national board of bankers that advises the Fed. He was a good source to interview as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac began to fall into chaos, but he really had very little doom-and-gloom to talk about for the local Maine banks. They had not behaved foolishly and had not exposed themselves to extraordinary risks with subprime loans and the like.

"We lend money to people who will be able to pay it back," he said, and it seemed like a good policy to this old business writer.

It was not just his bank that stayed aloof from the more speculative mortgage ventures, but the bulk of small community banks. A year later, when TARP funds were being distributed, I was in New Hampshire and did an article on that. Of four local banks, only one had requested TARP funds and they had apparently done so to make sure they could get them if they needed them; they almost immediately assessed the situation and turned them down as unnecessary. Again, a lack of speculation on their part had left them on relatively solid financial footing.

Of course, we're all subject to the effects of the overall collapse, but I've seen minimal impact on community banks. Is that a reason to transfer your money to them? Not really. We're all protected by FDIC, and you're not anymore likely to lose your life savings at one bank than another.

There is an issue of passing the whiff test and of whom you choose to do business with, however, and after viewing a few documentaries on the financial collapse, I decided I'd rather not be in bed with the people who had not only created the subprime mortgage debacle but whose credit card policies were geared to exploiting the lower middle class.

I like to choose with whom I do business. I also went years without eating table grapes and I stopped drinking Coors before I had developed a more sophisticated taste in beer anyway. My reasons aren't as good as the Rotarian who, during a discussion of foreign automobiles, remarked, "I don't buy Japanese cars. They used to shoot at my airplane." But they're good enough for me.

I will admit, however, that, just as nearly any beer made is better tasting than Coors, there are benefits to dealing with community banks that go beyond the warm glow of having abandoned the creeping meatball of heartless capitalism.

For instance, I maintain two bank accounts at Bangor Savings, more than a year after leaving Maine. Why? A big reason is that I can use a Bangor Savings Bank card in any ATM in the country and never pay a fee. Okay, I sometimes pay the fee. But it is instantly credited back to me by my bank. This negates the disadvantage of working with a community bank -- not having a branch available when you're out of town.

But I do have to deposit checks, and it's a pain to mail them to Maine. So a few days ago, I opened an account at Mascoma Savings Bank here in town. It was a Thursday morning, which I mention because I walked out with the little folder of starter checks, but, the following Tuesday, I received my debit card in the mail. And then my printed checks arrived on Saturday, nine days after I opened the account.

In the same mail was a hand-written note from the customer service rep who had dealt with me when I opened the account, thanking me for my business.

As I see it, I'm making a statement, and, in so doing, I'm also getting to work with efficient, responsive, personal bankers who appreciate my business. Oh, and I'll apparently be able to move money back and forth between New Hampshire and Maine easily because Mascoma Savings offers free online bill paying. The larger banks charge fees for that.

It's a little hard to find the downside to all this.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Chamber of Commerce Express

The upstairs bathroom in the rented home I'm sharing with my son and his family has wallpaper with a pattern of old advertising posters, several of which I've been able to track down. This is one of them, and, until I got a large version with no overlapping posters, I hadn't seen how many commercial plugs it contains. If you click on it, I think you'll see what I mean.

The Hamilton plant of the Mosler Safe Company, which was headquartered in Cincinnati, can be seen through the window of the dining car, but there are plenty of plugs within the car itself, most of them wildly irrelevant to the theme of travel, unless they are suggesting that people will choose a train not just for the comfortable Pullman cars (a common and sensible thing to promote), but for the fact that it serves Cabinet Whiskey and Peebles Perfectos, both by the Joseph R. Peebles' Sons Company of Cincinnati, though apparently the chap with the Burnside sideburns would prefer to sip an Aurora Export beer from the Crescent Brewing Company of Aurora, Indiana (less than 40 miles from Cincinnati).

And there is more, as you will discover. This 1894 poster is a feast of product-placement, which makes me wonder if the good old Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton Railroad paid anything out of pocket to have it printed.

And you thought it all began in 1982 with that trail of Reese's Pieces.

Monday, January 04, 2010

The story's written. I just need a quote.

Wish I had a link to the video, but Houston Texans' Coach Gary Kubiak's final press conference of the season was live on-line, and live for an undisclosed number of reporters who attended in person. I don't know how many people were in the room because it's pretty bare-bones -- a single camera trained on the podium, with Kubiak taking questions from off-camera writers who don't bother to identify themselves because they cover the team all season and he knows who they are.

What I found funny in today's conference was the way one or two reporters phrased their questions. It was clear that they had already roughed out their season wrap-up and simply wanted the coach to provide a quote that would validate their central thesis. It was something like, "Coach, would you say that the third-and-down run by X___ in the sixth week was the turning point of this season?" or "Coach, did the passing game finally fall into place with the addition of Y-factor?"

I'd love to have the video because I can't remember the actual questions -- they were so precise and convolutedly pointed that they defied off-the-cuff recall. But they were similar to those English exam questions that force you to agree with the instructor's point of view: "In what ways does Turgenev depict Uvar Uvonovich as an out-of-date, irrelevant remnant of Russia's old guard, pre-1848 social order?"

Given that we're talking the sports section, this was pretty funny. In the newsroom, sports is referred to as "the toy department" and given little credibility. Sportswriters work different hours and, at many papers, they don't attend the meetings, briefings and trainings that other reporters come in for. There is a general sense that they aren't really covering "news."

On the other hand, sometimes the comic view is simply a clearer view. A clumsy sportswriter fishing for pre-determined quotes is funny, but, having been on both sides of the interview, much of my laughter comes from experiences that didn't provoke giggles.

I've been interviewed by reporters who already had the story written in their minds and only wanted quotes to flesh it out. The first few times, I was horrified when I saw the story that resulted, but, after awhile, I began to recognize it when it was happening. Unfortunately, even staying relentlessly on message doesn't always thwart a reporter who isn't listening, who is only scribbling down the parts he wants to hear, and use.

This is not an issue of "the mainstream media," a foolish phrase used by conspiracy buffs. But it is something you kind of wish you could leave behind when you climb from small papers and tiny TV stations into the Big Leagues. You would like to think that it all stays in the minor leagues, along with (no joke!) the local TV reporter who, at a murder scene, asked the lead investigator, "How was the perpetrator able to get through all this yellow tape?"

Not so. Watch the next time a more important coach, Coach Obama, has a press conference. Listen for the questions that are based on what the reporter has already decided to write.

(Addendum: They have posted the press conference, though I can't imagine anyone who isn't a Texans fan sitting through it. However, it did allow me to find one of the questions I had in mind: "Gary, if you had to point to one thing with regard to (quarterback) Matt (Schaub), would you say that the way he came back from the shoulder injury in that Jacksonville game propelled this team and showed them what leadership is all about?")