Commentary: Forty-four years ago this week I started work as the Las Cruces Bureau Chief for The El Paso Times.
It was a different town in a different time. Cruces was much smaller then, though it had added a second high school. Telshor Boulevard was quite new, and there was nothing but desert between it and the Cox ranch house up in the Organ foothills. I-10 met up with I-25, but didn't continue through town. Folks used University Avenue, Valley Drive (“Truck Bypass”), and Picacho to get back on I-10 toward Deming. One of the town's biggest businesses was the Palms Motel on Picacho. The county commission was three people, and met in a tiny room in the courthouse. Tommy Graham was mayor. Bob Munson and Albert Johnson were on the city commission, each to become mayor within a few years.
I wasn't a journalist. I needed to make money. I lived cheaply, in a big green school bus I'd driven from Brooklyn back to Las Cruces. I'd been substitute-teaching a little, and working part-time as a night projectionist, showing Deep Throat and similar flicks, way out in the county. (Just that one memory speaks to how much things have changed!)
When editor Fritz Wirt interviewed me, all I could give him as a writing sample was some poems.
I knew nothing of local politics. After my civil rights work and antiwar activities, I'd thought of myself as exiled (or self-exiled) from mainstream society. I told friends the new job would be “a crash course in Middle America.” With long, braided hair and a motorcycle, I was such an oddity that Graham, after watching me plunk my helmet down on the reporter's table at a city commission meeting, mockingly dubbed me “Captain Zoom,” which some old-timers still call me.
It was intense. The Times wanted to increase its presence in Las Cruces. I covered everything, from murder to county fair hog competitions. The “bureau” was the bus, staffed by the dog and me. Naturally curious, I threw myself into the work. I became immersed in local life, and all the ideals and cynicism, joys and sorrows, and ups and downs that entailed.
People talked to me. I had no dog in any local fights; the Times was miles away in El Paso, impervious to local pressures; and people figured the crazy biker probably wouldn't get intimidated into revealing his sources. Therefore, whenever local authorities wanted to keep something secret, people whispered to me, and I broke the story before the Sun-News.
It was a different world. I dictated stories on the phone or used some primitive ancestor of the fax machine. Gannett was building the Times, not shrinking it. Newspaper and radio were what there was for local news. No Internet. No cell-phones. Computers were huge things few had actually seen. People who were gay kept that fact to themselves, to survive.
But it was also the same. Occasional stirrings of hope for the Las Cruces Airport; exciting changes that outside experts said would make downtown special (then, the new downtown mall, now, relief that we've gotten rid of it); a long-time mayor facing a challenge; and impeachment under discussion for a president who'd committed crimes, or tried to cover them up.
Those three years with the Times deepened my love for this place, taught me that there are almost always two sides to any story, and created many lifelong friendships.