Discovering ethnic diversity, circa 1954
by Leon Satterfield
"It's kind of scary," a Lexington resident says about the ethnic diversity attracted by the meat packing plant out there. "There's a lot of new people in town."
That must be the way Dolores Sanchez felt when Billy Don Hofferber and I blew into Clayton, NM, in the summer of 1954. She lived there and we were new people in town. She was Hispanic and we were Anglo. She was cashier at the Hacienda Cafe and we wanted to eat without having the money to pay for it. Here's how it was:
I'm 20 years old and about to go into the army. The little town in southwest Kansas where I've been trying to grow up is too respectable for a proper sendoff, so Billy Don and I drive 260 miles west to Raton, NM, for a weekend of wickedness. We're going to drink beer and bet horses.
There's more ethnic diversity there than we're used tofunny names on everything, including the race track, La Mesa Park, where a lot of people in the stands aren't speaking English. So we feel pretty smug when we win nearly $100 on Friday, but we lose most of it back on Saturday, and that night we drink our last warm beer in our scuzzy $4-a-night motel and plot our way through Sunday's Racing Form. It doesn't work: going into the last race of the day, we haven't cashed a ticket.
We have $2.53 between us, just enough gas money to get home.
But in the ninth race we see a horseManifest Destiny IIwhose odds are way too long. He's 4-1 to win and he was closing fast last time he ran a mile and half. We're pretty sure we've handicapped this one more carefully than the others in the stands, and we know that's when you should bet. Even if you have only $2.53 and you're 260 miles from home with less than half a tank of gas and you haven't eaten since breakfast.
So we buy a $2 win ticket on Manifest Destiny II. He runs a good race but comes in a half-length behind a raggedy 22-1 longshot named Speedy Gonzalez that shouldn't have been on the track in the first place.
So there's nothing to do but start driving east. We figure we'll go until we get to the last town we can get to without running out of gas, then see what happens.
It turns out to be Clayton, 105 miles down Highway 64. It's 9 p.m. and it's been ten hours since our eggs and hashbrowns, so we slide into a booth in the Hacienda Cafe, order four hamburgers with fries, and two chocolate malts.
We consider just running out without paying. But we'd have to go by the beefy guy eating the banana cream pie at the counterthe sheriff for all we know. And our car's parked under a streetlight bright enough that you can read the license plate from inside the cafe.
So we decide to rely on the kindness of strangers. I had a speech class in college, so I start.
"I'm going in the army next week," I tell the girl behind the register. "We're about out of gas and we don't have enough money to pay for this and I'm going in the army next week."
She's about our age, maybe a year or two older, black haired and dark eyed, pretty, I think, in an ethnically diverse way. She looks at us and doesn't say anything. I wonder if she speaks English.
"We had $2.53," Billy Don explains, "but we bet $2 on the last race at Raton."
"Let me guess how your horse ran," she says, like she's talking to two kids.
"He lost," I say. "And I'm going in the army next week."
"I bet you are," she says, "but what are you going to do now ?"
She looks at our $2.60 bill. The beefy guy has finished his banana cream pie and is looking at us over his coffee.
"I'd write a check," I say, "but I don't have one. If you got one for your bank, I could cross out the name and write in my bank. It works. I've done it before."
"Not here you haven't," she says. "We don't take out-of-town checks."
I don't say anything. Billy Don snorts the kind of laugh guys in my hometown snort when they don't know what else to do. The beefy guy is grinning now, but it's not a friendly grin.
"Well, shoot," I say. "I don't know."
"I suppose I could make you a loan," she says. "Is that what you're asking?"
I try to think of what John Wayne might say, but I can't.
"Well, yeah," I say. "Okay."
"It'd be real nice," Billy Don says. "We'd appreciate it."
So she pulls a coin purse from under the counter and takes out three wrinkled ones, four quarters, and two halves.
"Take five," she says. "You need gas. Standard's supposed to stay open till ten, but sometimes they close early. You better hurry."
We take her $5, pay the bill, and get her lovely nameDolores Sanchezso we can send her the money tomorrow. Then we back out the cafe door, grinning and thanking her and saying if she's ever in trouble in our town she should look us up.
We drive in silence down Highway 64, digesting it all.
"I'll be damned," Billy Don finally says.
"Me too," I say.
Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.
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