“They Made Me See That You Can’t Live For Yourself”
An interview with Martha Zollinger and Beverly Hurlbut
Part 1 of 2
By Bob Rosebrough
When Beverly Hurlbut pauses while telling stories about growing up in Zuni, her close friend, Martha Zollinger, says incredulously, “I didn’t know any of this. This is wonderful.”
“The baby will be born in the mud.” Beverly tells a story about her birth at the old Rehoboth Hospital, “I was born on a snowy January night. Of course the roads from Zuni to Gallup were not paved. My aunt came along because it appeared my dad might not be able to get to the hospital. My aunt thought she might have to deliver me on the way. My mother wanted to get out of the car to go to the bathroom, but my aunt said, ‘No. She cannot get out of the car. The baby will be born in the mud.’”
“My dad actually thought in Zuni all his life.” Beverly says, “My dad was Bernie Vanderwagen. He was the youngest of the eight Vanderwagen children. The house that is now the Bed and Breakfast Inn at Halona Plaza, my dad designed that on the back of a napkin. He had the trading posts, but then he also bought almost all the available land between Gallup and the reservation line. So he reclaimed many, many acres of land that had been scarred by arroyos and he built a series of dams to capture the topsoil.
“It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized my dad is thinking in Zuni. He was the only one of the Vanderwagens, the eight kids, that did that. He was a Zuni inside. He was. He thought in Zuni to the end of his life. He talked very slowly and a lot people didn’t realize why he took so long to answer questions, but the reason was that he was translating his thoughts in Zuni into English.”
“The Zuni people came out of Mother Earth first.” Her memories of her father prompt Beverly to talk about how she feels the Zuni people think and perceive the world in a different way. She says, “The Zuni people feel that they came out of Mother Earth first. They were the first people, and they got their choice from the creator of what to like. The Zunis, being Zuni, chose beautiful and that’s why they make jewelry. An old Zuni man told my dad a story about how he had figured out the reason that white people do television. My dad had one of the first televisions in the store there, and the old Zuni man was walking around the T.V. and he said to my dad, ‘That proves that the Zuni way is right. We know what we’re talking about. We did come out of Mother Earth first and we chose the beautiful over the practical or the utilitarian and that’s why we make the jewelry and you white people make the television.’”
Beverly also remembers a tragedy that a Zuni father perceived in a remarkably different way. A Zuni teenager was up at McGaffey and he shot himself to commit suicide. Beverly says, “It was just the most horrible thing, but his father said the deer called to him and he had to answer – he had to go. The deer called him. I mean, isn’t that fascinating? That was his concept of why the suicide had happened. Of course, the father grieved, but in the end he just understood that it was not suicide because his son couldn’t stand life as a teenage boy, but the deer called to his son and he had to answer.”
“He thought he would like to have his own paper.” Martha grew up in Ohio far from Gallup and the Zuni Pueblo. She says, “John and I met in college at Miami, Ohio and after we were married he went into the service almost immediately. He was in the Air Force. In fact, he led the entire fifth Air Force across the Pacific Ocean as a volunteer navigator, but he got lost on the San Diego Freeway,” she says and she tries to keep a straight face.
“John had two uncles that were newspaper publishers back in Ohio, but he didn’t want to work for relatives, so he worked for small chains. He was sent to Louisiana as publisher of a small daily down there and he thought that’s what he would like, to have his own paper.”
John considered buying newspapers in South Carolina and North Dakota before settling in Gallup. Martha says, “The man that was running the paper in Gallup had a drinking problem and the owner in Farmington (Lincoln O’Brien) came down unexpectedly one day and fired him cause he was obviously drunk and we just lucked out.
“Lincoln’s son worked for us for a while and one day when John was making payment on debt to purchase the paper, it was a holiday and his payment was late because the mail wasn’t delivered that day, and Lincoln called and chewed him out and John said, ‘You trust me with your most precious possession, your son, and you get mad at me because the post office didn’t deliver my check!’” Martha laughs at the memory.
“Work with my husband’s people.” As Martha pauses while talking, Beverly interjects, “She spends all her time doing nice things for other people.”
Shortly after Beverly’s comment, Martha is talking about her background when she says, “The children were in school and I was just involved with them and I did work at the newspaper, but when she died (daughter Mary Ann who died in 1968 at the age of 15 when she collapsed while running high school track and later died from what was called heart failure), I just went to pieces. If I hadn’t . . . do you remember the Iglesias family?
“Well Margaret Iglesias was teaching in the Indian hospital. She said, ‘Come and help me.’ And she said, ‘There won’t be anyone here.’ So I went up and helped her and after a while she said, ‘Why don’t you go down and work with my husband’s people?’ She was Anglo and her husband was a Kuna Indian and they had just formed a church down there on this little jungle island (Ailigandí Island off the northwest coast of Panama) and she said, ‘Work with my husband’s people.’ And so she made the arrangements and Margaret taught Bruce Schuurmann and me a little bit of Spanish. But Bruce flunked out. All he can say is ‘¿Como está?’” Martha laughs.
“They had no gas, no electricity, no water supply until several years later. They had to walk jungle paths about five miles onto the mainland where the water was fresh and they would bring that fresh water back. You can’t imagine how primitive it was. And when I went down there, I called the cook a ‘good kitchen.’ That’s how poor my Spanish was.”
“I would hold a wound apart with two spoons.” “I was an extra pair of hands down there and would even help with surgery. This little whole island wasn’t even as big as a city block and the operating room was about as big as a kitchen here in the States with sand floors. The doctor would operate and I would hold the wound apart with two spoons and close my eyes because I knew if I opened them, I’d faint.”
Martha: “I was tall.” Martha says, “You don’t realize how much we have here in the States. So many wonderful things happened there where they had nothing. I was tall. I’m not quite five foot, but they had lots of little parades for different gods and I was tall and could look over them all.
“I found if you do something for somebody else, you can get over your own problems and heartaches. I’d bribe the little Indian children to swim the short distance between the island the mainland and bring me back some wildflowers, which I would put in a tin can and use for a decoration on the table. They said, ‘We never had flowers on the table before.’
“One day they asked, ‘What would you like most to have?’ I answered, ‘Oh, I wish I could have a real, real bath.’ And a few days later they said, ‘Put your bathing suit on. We have something to show you.’ I thought it was something in the ocean. And they took me to the church there and they had filled a canoe with water. To do that meant that they had to take tin cans and coffee cans and bring water on many, many trips from the mainland.
“They made me see that you can’t live for yourself. It isn’t how much you can get or how much money you can make, it’s how much you can give to somebody else. If you can make someone else’s life a little easier or happier, it’s worthwhile. I really am nothing, but I like to make people happy. That’s about all I can do.”