(Personal Memories of Benson: Eighth in a Series)
By Bill Guerra (firstname.lastname@example.org)
July 25, 2018
Benson will probably never be confused with Mayberry RFD, Walton Mountain, or even Lake Wobegon – but we did enjoy a certain idyllic charm that was descriptive of our life and times – and that many of us still carry in our now overloaded memory banks. My memories of ‘Old Benson’ are rooted in the 50’s and 60’s but, hopefully, all readers will catch a familiar glimpse of his or her memories, too!
During a just concluded trip to Benson (five of my six siblings still live in Arizona so we try to visit at least two or three times a year) my wife Orapin and I were treated to the ups and downs of summertime in the Great Southwest. The day we landed in Phoenix, the temperature hit a Hades-like 114 degrees but less than a week later, after onset of the yearly Monsoon and while enjoying a beautiful Arizona sunset and evening from my sister Donnie’s back porch we were chased inside by unusually cool temperatures. That’s Arizona in Summer, I thought! Both hot and cold! But, oh, how refreshing!
Those who resided in Benson during the middle years of the 20th century now recognize this was indeed a time of change. It was a period in which Benson, along with much of the country, took a step forward. Or what we perceived to be a step forward. In retrospect, the widespread introduction of air conditioned homes, television, and the interstate highway system took a toll on many of our country’s Old Bensons! Gradual lifestyle changes have always been a part of our country’s DNA, but our newfound national affluence drew an unusually abrupt and distinctive line between past and present – with unanticipated repercussions for all generations. Any wonder the 60’s were such turbulent times?
As a young pre-teen I remember, more than once, being shaken out of bed during the early morning hours of Memorial Day, May 30th, (not the very fluid ‘last Monday in….’ or whatever it’s become) by volleys of rifle shots fired by bedraggled veterans of the local VFW and American Legion over the gravesites of fallen comrades who now reside in Benson’s 7th Street Cemetery. Ah, the audible start of Summer! For us youngsters that longed-for recess had already begun as a result of our end of school year dismissal, but the three holidays of Memorial Day, 4th of July, and Labor Day punctuated the calendar days of our Summer. The calendar days were important, but the essence of Summer was in the weather, food, activities and, most important, the time and freedom… to be whiled away as we pleased!
Summer predictably started – then, as now – with dry, hot days. Meteorologists now tell us this type of weather is typical, and necessary, to trigger the monsoon rains that refresh and revive our parched land. My sister Georgie says that by Mexican tradition, the monsoon or rainy season commences on June 24th, San Juan’s Day – the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist – although in my recollection it rarely began before 4th of July, the birthday of my twin brother Bob and I – as well as some other national holiday 😊! Before we and many of our neighbors acquired our first ‘air conditioner’ – actually an evaporative cooler, a ‘swamp cooler’ – sometime in the 1950’s, much of our Benson lifestyle was for obvious reasons focused on early morning or late afternoon/evening activities. Because there was no television and because people were naturally inclined to escape warm houses, there was, to my mind, a great deal more social interaction – even if just to water the garden or lean across the fence and gab. To my juvenile mind it was a very pleasurable and enjoyable time.
Those dry hot days of June, however, were no real deterrent to our Summertime activities. Most of these goings on were ad libbed by ourselves, but a few were actually structured and adult-led. For us young ‘Mackerel Snappers’ (Catholics) that meant the first two weeks of our vacation were devoted to religious education classes. Initially, we grumbled these half day classes, led by the nuns based in Bisbee, were unreasonable and unjust punishment: We just got out of school! But by the session’s end we marveled at how fast the time had gone and why didn’t the session last longer! I should add that another motivator for our religious studies program was that the Altar Boys annual camping excursion to either the Graham or White Mountains was also scheduled to occur immediately at the conclusion of Bible School – and one had to be in good standing, attendance-wise, to make the trip!
Little League baseball was also an adult-led staple of summertime. As I recall, Benson fielded four Little League teams but the perennially dominant team was the Bulldogs, a team comprised almost exclusively of young Mexican-American players from the local barrios. Benson’s 7th grade teacher and sometimes football coach Lou Bulzomi was nominally the team’s Manager, but his field coach Ernesto Mesa was the Team’s field genius who led the team to many no-loss seasons – usually with sons Ernie and Freddie in starring roles. Among these very talented players, MY typical position was substitute right fielder – the guy who might enter the game in the last inning IF we had a double digit lead! Oh, how I envied my brother Bob who somehow was drafted by the Red Devils where he played a starting position as team catcher! The Red Devils weren’t league winners, but Bob played a starting role in every game! (A notable aside: Ernie, Billy Barrios, and Conrad Caballero – all recently deceased – were veteran Bulldog players.)
Little League games were played at Lion’s Park in the early evening hours and were typically followed by Benson’s fast-pitch softball teams, Women’s and Men’s. Pitchers like Bennett and Dottie Mauldin, along with Everett Dillon, Rudy Alvarez, Eddie Lee, Kent Hoopes and others were local stars. Catcher Al Estavillo was one of many notable players on the receiving end of these pitchers. I’m sure many other names could be added to this roster of notables, but I was likely too busy fooling around the park to take sufficient notice. Sorry!
At the conclusion of our games we often gathered at Benson’s brand new enterprise, the Dairy Queen, to enjoy an apres game treat, courtesy of our Team Manager, Coach Bulzomi! Talk about genius: Doc Richards, with daughters Janet and Kathy + son Bobby in starring roles, was phenomenally timely in opening what I believe was Benson’s first national chain eatery! Of course, we still had our longstanding locales like the Horseshoe, the Milo Café, the 86 Café, the Benson Café, etc, but the DQ was a definite first! It was followed, in short order (no pun intended) by the A&W, at some point under ownership of the Rothermel family, which also became a Benson fave!
But back to baseball. Much as we enjoyed the trappings of organized Little League, our disorganized, come-as-you-are pickup games were our true favorites. We typically played these games in the middle of the street – usually at the (then, still unpaved) intersection of 6th and Catarina streets, right in front of the Palma family’s home. Teams were picked before each game, with two appointed captains making his roster’s selection after a bat toss, a catch by one of the captains, and an alternating hand over hand upward climb of the bat to see which captain succeeded in ‘crowning’ the bat, thereby gaining the privilege of first player selection. (The captain who won the toss typically had the most potent team, since first select was inevitably Ernie Mesa!) Rules making and enforcement was pretty haphazard but seemed to work. Our games were occasionally interrupted by some driver who had the audacity to think the street was a place where one could actually drive a car! Our silent, rubber-faced stares as the driver slowly made his way through our ‘diamond’ were usually enough to convince him to take another route should he have the
temerity to again come this way! At some unappointed but logical time our games came to an end and we retired for our ‘break’. Often we played two games a day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon. Our ‘barrio league’ continued indefinitely or until some other intervening obstacle: lack of a playable ball, a broken window followed by the window owner’s threatening rant, an unforeseen downpour, etc! More often than not, the latter.
In Benson, June quickly becomes July as evidenced by the actual start of the rainy season. The fragrant smell of rain on parched earth and the intoxicating aroma of wet desert flora is something most Arizonans cannot get enough of! Nor is the sight of yellow withered vegetation taking on this strangely green hue. Look! The river is now running! And along with the revival of the Earth comes a multitude of other observations: the daily transformation of the sky from crystal clear mornings, to mid-day clouds over the mountains, to roving bands of late afternoon and evening thunderheads releasing either sprinkles or downpours over favored places! Benson’s dirt roads become rushing arroyos as water searches its way to the San Pedro. Meanwhile, as the rainfall subsides we kids don shorts or swimsuits and rush out into the streets with Dad’s shovel and hoe to try and dam the water and… save it? Who cares. It’s fun!
By late July and August, the water revived landscape has transformed our favored locales into new places of adventure. The river now runs constantly and the countryside is cloaked in green. Along with this metamorphosis comes a deluge of critters. Flying ants swarm in clouds, tarantulas occupy pencil-like holes in the earth, froglets abound. All the flora and fauna of the earth savor the season to reproduce or to store up necessities for when the landscape again dries up. We humans also savor the season. We enjoy hand-cranked ice cream socials. Mormons produce home made root beer. We all consume home grown produce from the garden or from local farmers. Green corn, chili peppers, tomatoes, peaches, apricots, etc are all in plentiful supply. Life is good, but change is in the future.
Labor Day, (still, thankfully) the first Monday in September, followed by start of the new school year, signals the end of Benson’s Summer. By now, many of Summer’s enticements begin to age or wear thin. Kids even begin to verbalize the unmentionable: I’m bored. I can’t wait for school to start! What? No Way! Besides, Summer can’t end until after Benson’s Labor Day rodeo celebration. The last fling of Summer is highlighted by the rodeo itself and by a parade down Benson’s main street, which is also US Highway 80 – and, yes, cross country traffic is halted or alt routed – because the show must go on! For us kids, the rodeo was also a time of enterprise. Every boy I knew had a shoe shine box and plied the downtown sidewalk searching for drunken cowboys who desperately needed to have their dust laden cowboy boots freshly shined. Shine, sir? Only 15 cents! Of course, our real hope was that in his inebriated state the customer would hand over a quarter and say ‘keep the change!’
Bill (Billy?) Guerra
The author is a Benson native and a member of BUHS class of ’63. He and his six siblings are all BUHS graduates (1947-64) and Bobcats For Life! Bill and his wife Orapin currently reside in suburban Atlanta.