I recently saw a very good movie called No Country for Old Men, an excellent screen treatment of Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name. At the opening scene, there's a voice-over by Tommy Lee Jones' character, Sheriff Bell. He reflects on being a third-generation lawman, and tells about a noted murder case. Later in the movie, the sheriff's Uncle Ellis relates details of a local killing generations before.
All this makes me realize the wealth of personal history available from old timers who led active lives. In recent years, we've seen numerous examples of “oral history” projects, which consist mainly of someone with a tape recorder doing interviews with participants in certain historical events or eras. The researcher then transcribes the interviews or narratives and either publishes them or archives them with a historical society or university. Such projects usually deal with military personnel, but I've read one or two dealing with old lawmen.
I've lately been thinking of the oral history opportunities I've passed up during my lifetime. Most people who have attained age 60 or so have had some experiences which are worth relating. I've maybe seen a few, but my regrets lie in having rubbed shoulders with some truly interesting individuals, and failed to obtain detailed accounts from them.
One afternoon in the late 1950s, I accompanied my mother on a shopping expedition into downtown El Paso. Like most male teenagers, I didn't really enjoy this sort of thing, but I had no excuse not to go along and carry packages for her. Mother was looking for something at the Popular Dry Goods Department Store. I was hanging out, bored to tears, wishing I'd been smart enough to bring along a paperback book. There was a comfortable seating area, but no reading matter or any type.
After a few minutes, an older couple got off the elevator and the man said, “I'll be right over there.” He came over and took a seat. I guessed he was in his late sixties but still active. He wore clean, neat, clothing, but not fancy or “dressed up.” He'd clearly been outdoors a lot in his time. I figured him for either a retired engineer, ranch worker, or perhaps an old soldier. This conclusion required no particular talent or perception. Texas Western College had only a few years before been Texas College of Mines and Metallurgy. Many who had served at Fort Bliss and Biggs Field had retired in the salubrious climate. And there were many area ranches raising cattle, goats, and sheep.
This man could see I was restless and he kindly engaged me in conversation. He asked which school I attended, and if I played football. I told him no, that I was most interested in reading history and shooting guns. The old timer seemed to perk up at this and said he did a lot of shooting in his youth. It developed he was a veteran of “The Great War” and had been to France. I asked if he'd seen much combat and he said yes, but most of it had been in Mexico.
I quickly forgot my interest in World War I and began asking about my new friend's experience in the Mexican Revolution. I'd been vaguely aware that there had been a lot of gringo volunteers in that conflict, but this was the first participant I'd met. I'm ashamed I don't recall the man's name, but let's call him Jack. He and a pal had been adventurous and left their home somewhere in the Midwest (Indiana? Iowa?) and crossed from El Paso into Juarez in late 1914. They had no difficulty in joining la revolución. The only question was whether to join Villa's norteños or go well south and seek out Zapata. They joined Villa as machine gunners and dynamiters. Jack said he'd been friend with a National Guardsman back home, who'd shown him “all about” their early Colt's guns. His total experience with live fire was shooting a single belt on the Guard's range.
Jack said they were paid pretty well, early on. The Villaistas captured some gold bullion and hand-stamped a bunch of irregular coins. They were in the field when rumors arrived of the raid at Columbus, New Mexico. When word came that Pershing was leading US troops into Mexico in retaliation, Jack felt it was time to go home. They had a few hundred dollars in gold remaining, and absolutely no desire to fire on American soldiers.
This was all the story I heard. Jack's wife and my mother arrived at about the same time, and both were ready to depart. Stupidly, I failed to learn how to reach Jack, and I never saw him again. In which specific battles did he participate? What did he do on his return to the US? When did he enlist in the US Army? When did he muster out? How did he come to settle in El Paso? What had he done in the ensuing decades? All those great stories lost . . . .
It's worthwhile to pay attention when you learn of a historical resource with first-hand knowledge. I wish I'd taken more notes or carried a tape recorder over the years.