Thursday, November 5, 2009

Contreras man treasures 102-year-old lifetime of memories

First Person
By Gary Jaramillo

Sometimes in life you get the chance to get and feel a real win in your life. Wins come in many different ways, shapes and forms. Most of the time the wins in life are few and far between, but this is one that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. My win had absolutely nothing to do with money but everything to do with good fortune.
Early Wednesday morning, I drove out about 30 miles north to the village of Contreras and met Abenecio S. Tafoya who recently celebrated his 102nd birthday.
My father, Tony Jaramillo, and I made the trip to talk with Mr. Tafoya and his daughter Anna at their longtime home.
We were met by their two feisty dogs in the drive way and then by Abenecio’s wonderful daughter Anna. I wasn’t sure what I should expect when I finally met Mr. Tafoya and I guess my thoughts were that he would be a frail, slow moving, slow talking gentleman who could no longer understand much around him. I was very surprised when I had my first look and heard the first words from Abenecio.
He was watching television and smiling when his daughter began to introduce us to him. She told him that we were from the Mountain Mail newspaper and that we had come to talk about his latest birthday and his lifetime of memories. He immediately stood up and invited us into his front living room where we could sit and talk more comfortably. As he rose from his chair my father (81) and I (55) automatically reached out to help him up, but by that time he has scurried around the chair and left us well behind as he headed toward his living room.
He waved his hand behind his back and said, “this way.”
We sat, and he was ready to talk - and man could he talk and tell a story - making us laugh and feel really good about the whole interview idea. He told of his lifetime living pretty much in the same small area all of his life. He pointed out the front window to the west and said he lived in Ranchitos de La Joya earlier in his life but always in the same small area. The only five year break he got from farming the land in and around Contreras was his time in the Army during World War II.
He traveled just about everywhere in Europe and did just about everything for our country that he possibly could. He saw action in Africa, Italy, Spain and other countries during his time at war. He was sent home only after both knees were destroyed in an explosion.
As he lifted his pant leg over his scared knees to show that he no longer had knee caps I asked him what he thought about making it back home and he said, “I came back to work again.”
He talked a lot about where he had been in the war but never mentioned the European African Middle Eastern Service Medal Award, WWII Victory Medal or American Theatre Service Medals that he received for his courageous service to our country. It seemed the only important part to him was that he did what our country asked him to do and he made it back to the place he loved, home.
When I asked him why he thought he’s had such a long life he replied, “God said, you’re now born and you won’t know when I’ll be back to get you, so here I am, 102.”
“Who knows?”
Abenecio loves beans and chili and eggs. He told me he’d been eating them all his life and he really like them. One of his favorite sweets is pie. He enjoys a little wine from time to time and told us a story of a man who used to make the wine by stepping on grapes in a tub all day and always had a very good finished product for everyone to try. I asked him where people went to get food and supplies when he was a child and he said there were little tienditas (neighborhood stores) scattered about the land. Some were far and some were a little closer. Different stores hand different things. The only way to travel then was by horse or mule, or by foot. He said the “wind up cars” came later.
When asked about what people did in the early 1900’s about doctors, he said they “either traveled for days to find one” or “did their very best to self medicate and get better on their own.”
Many didn’t and some did.
“Those who found a doctor paid cash, and cash was so very hard to come by 100 years ago,” he said. “They only paid 50 cents a day and you worked from sun up to sun down every day. He said he couldn’t believe that they pay up to eight dollars an hour now just for one hour, and shook his head.”
He told us the story of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s CCC camps coming to the area and paying one dollar per day. It saved many peoples family’s and lives.
Then out of nowhere, he begin to sing the CCC Camp song that everyone sang in those days. It was about the President bringing jobs and money to everyone who was willing to put in a decent days work for a decent days wage. He smiled and sang the song like it was just yesterday.
The Mountain Mail will have his song clip on for everyone to hear and see.
He showed me photos of his family and kept that smile going the whole time. His memory was absolutely remarkable, and as he and my father reminisced about people and friends they both may have known, his eyes were bright and full of excitement. He reeled off name after name of people who had walked through his life and were all now gone. He talked of the banditos of the Manzano Mountains that in their day were some pretty bad people.
“Everyone took care of themselves any way they could back then,” he said. “Banditos tried robbing and stealing and anything else they could get away with. But we all protected each other when we had to.”
Benny had eight siblings and was married to his wife Mary for 55 years. They had three daughters and six grandchildren of which he is very proud. Daughter Emilia passed away in 1952 and his wife Mary passed in 2006. Abenecio’s daughters Anna and Antoinette stay with him and keep him company as well as care for his daily needs.
He’s still active enough to keep a little garden where he grows his tomatoes and chile. He has always been an avid horseman, farmer and rancher.
I’ve had never met or even talked to someone who has lived more than a century. Like he said, “you won’t know how long you’ll be here until God comes for you.”
We can all hope that he forgets to come for us for a really long time.
It was an absolute pleasure to shake hands with a man who lived through all of the history that I could only read about in books. He’s no worse for the wear for living over one hundred years and I’ve got a feeling that he’s going to be walking and fixing fences around his property for many more years to come.
Congratulations from everyone in Socorro, Valencia and Catron Counties to Mr. Abenecio “Benny” Tafoya on his 102nd birthday.
This was such a special opportunity and story for the Mountain Mail Newspaper staff and myself. Perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity.

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