But yesterday was one of those 100 or so perfect days we live for in the Land of 505. Clear blue skies, temperatures in the mid to high 70's, no breeze...the kind of autumn day where you can wear either shorts or jeans and be comfortable. If the blazing sun is too hot, you need only move into the shade, if it gets too chilly in the shade, you need only move into the sun.
The kind of day that makes the Chamber of Commerce and the State Tourism Dept. gush with pride.
So me and the Mrs. decided to overlook our fears and traumas of past State Fairs, and took a chance on this last day of the 2009 Fair. We looked forward to the fact that for the first time, we could do the things we never did at previous Fairs.
We could hang out in the beer gardens, sit and listen to all of the varieties of live music on display, saunter at our own pace through the exhibition halls, and bask in the unique to America experience that is the New Mexico State Fair, with it's heavy emphasis on the dominant cultures of this state.
The New Mexico State Fair is first and foremost a showcase of the Native American and Hispanic heritage of which this part of the USA strongly clings to. (Despite the crushing onslaught of all things Angloneuropean as manifested by the midway carnival and way too numerous gimmicky Roncolike product booths).
After an hour or so spent in one of the beer gardens, (conveniently located next to the Dock Dog exhibition where we watched happy dogs get big air and soak nearby spectators chasing duck decoys into a swimming pool....who can't love happy dogs getting wet and stinky?), we resumed our trek through the grounds.
That's when I had the greatest experience of any State Fair that I have ever been to.
While awaiting the Mrs to return from the lady's room, I indulged myself (one of my favorite things to do) by depositing 25 cents in one of those bulky looking foot massage machines. The ones where you sit in a chair with your feet on what looks like the converted foot pedals from a barber's chair and receive 3 minutes or so of a vibrating podiatric orgasm. While simultaneously engaging in one of my other favorite pasttimes.....people watching... along the main street of this State Fair venue
Toward the end of my session I noticed a large family walking toward me on the busy main street, and at the center of this clan are an elderly (and very small) Grandma and Grandpa.
Grandpa is making eye contact with me.
I sense that he is looking for a little encouragement from me to try the gizmo I am occupying as he is wearing what can best be surmised as a pair of vintage Stride-Rites from the 60's. They're in pretty good shape, but are not the world's greatest walking shoes.
More importantly to me though, he is wearing a black baseball cap emblazoned with a white logo that reads "WWII VETERAN", and the rest of his cap is festooned with Marine Corps colors and combat ribbons, as well as dates of reunions he has attended. Being a huge fan of all things WWII, I shout out to him, "Hey soldier, C'mon over and give those dogs of your's a break!"
So this tiny little man (couldn't have been more than 100 pounds) and his wife breakaway from their family to join me at the bank (3) of foot masage units. I rise up and greet this stranger by shaking his hand and thanking him for his service to our country. He pauses while his even smaller wife plops into a chair and digs for quarters in a purse that was half her size, and he smiles at me and thanks me for noticing the baseball cap.
His speech had a thick Hispanic accent, made doubly difficult to understand by this gringo because I could only discern two lower teeth in his palate. Mid to late 80's in age, he was nevertheless in great physical and mental shape, very spry and agile for a man his age and especially for someone who was involved in such misery in his life.
Most importantly, he was all too eager to share some of his war experiences with me. And as someone who's dad served with the Marines in the Pacific, I was all too eager to listen and to question him.
He and 18 of his High School buddies from "Martineztown" (a small mostly-99%- Hispanic district in downtown Albuquerque) enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942.
At the time of enlistment my new friend was only 94 pounds which was far below the 110 pound minimum, so the recruiting sergeant had to place his own foot on the scale and put enough pressure on the scale to bring him up to the minimum 110 pounds.
All through boot camp his buddies had to help him through the more physical aspects of it, cuz he was just too small, nor was he strong enough to perform them.
With two weeks to go before graduation from boot, he decided that he had enough of the abuse, was in tears and went to the Chaplain to figure a way out of the Corps. The Chaplain and his 18 buddies talked him out of quitting, a decision which he says now was the greatest and worst thing that has ever happened in his life.
The three combat ribbons on his baseball cap represent the three campaigns he served in during the war with the 1st Marine Division.....Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
(BTW, while this conversation was going on, he remained standing, never took advantage of the foot massage, and his wife was throwing quarters into the chair like it was a slot machine at Sandia Casino).
He was wounded two times during battle. There were times when he saved his buddies lives and times when they saved his.
He was training for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs (made in New Mexico, tested in Japan) were dropped, and is absolutely convinced that he would not have survived an invasion. (the same sentiment voiced by every other veteran of the Pacific that I have ever spoken with).
The man was an encyclopedia of stuff and I could have chatted with him all day, all weekend, all month. He was equally grateful to have an audience.
But it was time for us to move on and enjoy the rest of the fair, as his family came looking for him and my Mrs. was ready to head for the Native American Village.
So I left this stranger with a long embracing hug, both of us happy with this chance encounter and brief friendship....I thanked him again.
He whispered in my ear his own appreciation for my appreciation and interest.
As we parted ways (his wife was STILL dropping quarters) Mrs 505 said to me
"I'm sure you are crying".....
I said "Yeah.....do you wanna know why?"
"Sure", she said.
"I asked him how many of his 18 buddies returned home"
And he told me "Four, the other 14 were still serving..... in Guam, Iwo and Okinawa".
I think I'll go back to the Fair next year.....and walk around a lot.
And next year I'll make a point to visit the exhibit showcasing surviving members of the Navajo Codetalkers from WWII.
I'm sure they have much to say as well, to anyone willing to listen.