Touching the Past
Back in the late Forties, a trip to Palomas meant "restocking."
by Phillip Parotti
As one's age and possibly one's aches advance, it can be stunning — sometimes staggering — to look back and realize how much has changed, how far the journey has carried our bones. Human experience in this regard seems universal; only an individual's particular perspective on his or her time can seem unique. In my own case, for example, I still remember standing on chairs during the war (that would be the Second World War, if anyone can remember that far back) mixing food coloring into margarine in order to turn it from white to yellow. We called the stuff "butter," but in so far as I can remember, owing to rationing, we never once saw real butter at the table during the whole of the war. In the same vein, in those days, people often thought olive oil detrimental to one's health, so invariably we cooked with pure unadulterated bacon grease.
I knew that I was about to inspect, up close and personal, my first genuine half-track.
On visits with the grandchildren, as I watch them perform electronic feats that would once have dazzled a NASA scientist and that still dazzle me, I am forced to remember that in the Sixties I went through an entire engineering curriculum doing such courses as advanced physics, thermodynamics and naval architecture armed only with a slide rule. Later, when I started teaching, my own college students had never so much as heard of a slide rule and imagined it to be some kind of yard stick.
And then, of course, we come to the automobile. My grandfather once told me that he certainly intended to buy one, as soon as vehicles could be purchased "two for a quarter." My parents, throughout the length of the war and my first eight years, didn't own a car; instead, like a majority of people in Silver City, we walked — no matter what the weather. So by the time 1948 rolled around and Dad sprang for our first car — a sleek, two-door Chevy Fleetwood — I had developed a sturdy little pair of legs and enough endurance to go with them.
(Last week, I mildly suggested to my wife that to improve our health and in recollection of the good old days, we might like to walk to town for our morning coffee, two miles in, two miles back. My wife said that she thought she could achieve the same result by feeding me raw beets on a bed of uncooked kale or, perhaps, by eliminating my meals altogether. I went straight to the garage and backed out the car. At our house, I found, progress has been embraced.)
In the Chevy Fleetwood, "Old Betsy," running on incredibly cheap gas (occasionally as low as six cents a gallon during a "gas war"), we discovered "the Sunday drive" and the road to exotic adventure. That meant that for the first time ever we drove to mysterious, heretofore unseen magical places like Cliff, Gila, Glenwood, the Catwalk, Mogollon, Willow Creek for camping, the Sapillo for more camping, the Mimbres Valley, Lordsburg, Las Cruces, the White Sands, Deming, and that most exotic spot of all, located in an actual foreign country, Palomas, Mexico.
For anyone who arrived in New Mexico after about 1965, mention of Palomas is going to require a bit of explanation, so first, some preliminaries, and then, some description.
In 1948, Silver City had just seen the opening of its first radio station, KSIL, an AM station that carried various news, variety, comedy and suspense programs as well as local public-service broadcasting. Television, something we had vaguely heard about, remained almost a decade away in our future. Downtown, in 1948, only the El Sol and the Silco theaters were running full tilt. The Gila had yet to be built; the site upon which it now sits held several large cottonwoods and three tiny stuccoed offices, one of which housed our doctor.
Dining out in Silver City meant "going for a meal." The food was good, but aside from The Dix Club, the town's single key club (now the Moose Lodge), one couldn't find anything that resembled "fine dining" or a big-city restaurant. New Mexico State Teachers' College (now WNMU) provided occasional concerts and plays at Light Hall. For evening entertainment, that was pretty much Silver City's limit, save for one thing. With a population of only around 7,000 at that time, Silver City remained truly a small town, which meant that our most basic form of entertainment, then as now, involved visiting with our friends.
Sometimes, certainly, people used the telephone to extend invitations or mailed notes to generate a visit, but by common consent, in the Forties, most people simply "dropped by," un-summoned, unannounced, and no one I knew found that in any way unusual. What this meant is that on at least two or three nights each week, we had visitors in the house. If I'd been out to a school event, a baseball game or the movies, I would often walk through the door to find every chair in my parents' living room occupied, 4, 6, 8, 10 or 12 people conversing avidly, talking about everything from politics, business and finance to art, literature and music.
Social stratification was not observed: Republicans and Democrats sat together without gridlock. I can remember an Anglican priest sandwiched between a Roman Catholic priest and two rock-solid agnostics, all of them going strong, talking about the new highway project to be built between Silver City and Central (now Santa Clara). I can remember plumbers, carpenters and electricians talking with bankers, lawyers and college professors, without divisions between the men and the women, everyone taking an equal part in the conversation.
Depending on the subject, two, four or six kids might be sitting on the floor, listening, learning something. But if the conversation turned to issues our parents thought sensitive, we were all dispatched to my bedroom or my sister's with instructions to see to our own entertainment, and we did, usually with a board game of some kind.
Did the adults share a drink on these occasions? Of course they did. Grant County in the Forties and Fifties registered the highest liquor consumption per capita of any county in the United States, and the adults were not drinking white wine. We had bars and liquor stores everywhere in those days, and the only wines sold in town were port and sherry; outside ethnic enclaves located elsewhere in America, table wines hadn't yet been much discovered in the United States. So beer, Scotch, bourbon, gin and rum were standard, and social drinking was considered a social grace that people had better know how to handle without embarrassing themselves or anyone else in the process. I never saw my father serve anyone more than two drinks in an evening, so people sipped — not very much — and talked, and enjoyed themselves in the company, and after two or three hours and always before 10 o'clock, they were perfectly fit to collect their kids and drive home. And hence, Palomas.
Back in the Forties and Fifties, people went to Palomas for two reasons. If one had visitors from "back East" (that would have been St. Louis and Southern Illinois, in the case of our family), driving them down to see Mexico always proved a major adventure. The first time we saw the place, Palomas constituted a big adventure for us; thereafter, it was a big adventure only for our visitors. But the other reason people went to Palomas was to restock.
I can't remember when the law changed, but during the Forties and early Fifties, once each month, the law permitted each adult to bring back one gallon of hard liquor and one case of beer from Mexico without having to pay customs duties. As a result, before people left for Palomas, in the event that more than one adult happened to be going, they invariably called their friends and asked, "Do you need anything?," which meant, "Can we bring you a gallon or a case of something?" Oso Negro gin and Bacardi rum both came in wicker-encased gallon jugs, and the Oso Negro jugs also came equipped with a little keychain sporting a black plastic bear, Oso Negro's logo. At some point, nearly every kid in town could be found carrying one of those in his pocket.
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