“Everybody that showed up was there to stay.” — An Interview with Alfred Abeita and Ernie Abeita: Part 2 of 2
By Bob Rosebrough
The Fire Station: “Playground of dreams.” The Abeitas’ father started working for the fire department on weekends. At that time the fire station was located where the city parking lot is now – northwest of Aztec and First. Alfred, who would later become Gallup’s fire chief, says, “He was a weekend driver. He used to come to work at seven o’clock at night and go home the following day at seven o’clock. You talk about a playground of dreams. We had that.
“They used to have a lot of card games. The railroaders didn’t want to buy a room for the night when they came in. They’d just come into the firehouse and sit around and play cards, night and day.”
Ernie says, “It was, I would say, a high-class gambling place. They had two tables. This was nice – really plush nice.”
Alfred says, “The fire station only had one bed and one shower. They had a small kitchen. I was the first guy to get to go up there because my dad forgot his lunch. He’d call home and ask my mom to bring him his lunch. Fine. So I’d come on up. They ran out of cards and wanted a fresh deck. My dad said, ‘I want you to go down to Pino’s Drug Store on First Street.’ We knew where Pino’s was because the Pinos lived right around the corner from us, on the north side. Ray Pino’s dad.
“Before I left, my dad would ask the other guys, ‘Do you want to have Porky bring something back for us?’ They gave me the money and I went down to Pino’s and paid. So I gave them all the change and an older guy by the name of Grenko said, ‘What’s the matter with you? All those are tips, they’re yours.’ I said, ‘Dad, can you forget your lunch again next Sunday?’”
They fought alone. When the Japanese conquered the Philippines in 1942 most American soldiers – including a group of Gallupians surrendered or were captured. A small group of Americans, under the leadership of Col. Wendell Fertig, took their chances in the jungle in 1942 on the Japanese-controlled island of Mindanao. Fertig and a handful of Americans led thousands of Filipinos in a guerilla war against the Japanese. One of them was Julian Benac of Gallup who was related to Ernie’s wife, Diane.
When the Americans returned to Mindanao at the end of the war, they found Fertig and his men in control of the island and commanding a guerilla army of 35,000, and heading a civil government with its own post office, law courts, currency, factories and hospital.
Ernie says, “We have a lot of paperwork on him. He was a real big deal here in Gallup. He’s in a book at the library called They Fought Alone.”
Ernie adds, “They were killers. Guerilla fighters. That’s why they couldn’t get them! They were tough guys. I think there were thirteen of them. He was living right here, living right here, and he was a big hero. He had malaria so he kind of got a mental problem going. He’d get the shakes and stuff like this. He was a sick man. He would walk the streets in Gallup. He always had a plastic bag. He walked every day, all around Gallup. You wouldn’t believe the stuff he had.”
Gamerco Miners Ballpark. Ernie, who had a standout career in athletics, started his baseball career when he was eight or nine and his family moved to 609 West Princeton.
Alfred says, “That was the edge of town at one time.”
Ernie says, “I used to hang out for the Gamerco Miners – a semi pro team. I was their batboy and I shagged balls for them every Sunday. Their ball park was only fifty yards from our house.”
Almost sixty years later, Ernie can still remember all the details of the ballpark. “It was a big fence all the way around – like a major league park. Big signs on the background with different sponsors. A big scoreboard with ‘Sponsored by ICX Trucking.’ It was a yellow scoreboard with black trim with numbers that you would slide in. They had a really nice grandstand and they had a press box in the middle, and, of course, some of the finest ball games and ball players Gallup produced.”
Alfred says, “They used to bring in a team from Mexico. Chihuahua, Mexico for three games. You could not find a place to sit. Just across the street from our house people were camped out. All the people on West Wilson were sitting on their houses. On the other side there was a railroad spur we called the stockyards and people went to the stockyards to watch games there. I’ll tell you what, there was a lot of excitement at that ballpark.”
“Nobody backed down.” In the early seventies before Interstate 40 came through the middle of town, there were four or five floods and then one devastating flood. At the time Alfred was the Gallup Fire Chief and Ernie was on the Urban Commission that was charged with purchasing property to make way for the interstate.
The flood was caused by a bottleneck at the Second and Third Street bridges over the Perky. Ernie says, “If nothing got in the way the Perky could handle the water. There were a bunch of refrigerators and boards that caved in and got trapped at the Third Street crossing, but it wasn’t as bad as the Second Street crossing. We were there. Sam Ray was the mayor. The water was bubbling over. It was scary. The thing was clogged with refrigerators, washers and dryers. It backed up all the way to Pershing Street. The water had no place to go. All the way up to Wilson Street.”
Alfred says, “Almost to Princeton.”
Ernie adds, “To Princeton, right at the alley of Wilson Street and then you had Princeton, the Senior Center. That’s where it stopped! From that area, if you can picture it, it was ten to twenty feet! I’ll tell you what, there were boats in there. Guys were trying to find people to help them, with boats!”
Alfred was one to the people who had a boat. At the time he lived in Sky City. He says, “When I left home I looked down there and I said, ‘What the hell is that?’ The water was all over the western plain, right where the mall is now. All the way to the railroad tracks looked like a mirror shining. I got down to Third and Second Street at Princeton and there were four firefighters there. Gallup was cut off – north and south.
“Manuel Soto was our neighbor near our old house on Princeton. I said, ‘Manuel! Do you still have your boat back there?’ He said, ‘Yeah, take it! Take whatever you need!’ We went down Wilson hanging on the side of the boat to use it as a float and the water is rolling. You can see a pickup truck coming by!”
Ernie says, “Yeah, cars are floating.”
Alfred continues, “I could hear people yelling, ‘Up here! Up here!’ from their roofs. I looked inside Stanley Tafoya’s house. His family was there. Their mattresses were floating. They were holding their hands, pushing the ceiling so they don’t bump their heads.” Finally after midnight, the waters began to recede. “It was a scary night. Especially when we had people in trees!”
Miraculously there were, “No major injuries. No deaths.” Alfred concludes by saying of the rescue workers, “And nobody backed down. Everybody that showed up was there to stay.”