A Winter’s Tale in Belen

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poinsettia-A WINTER’S TALE
By Bill Previtti

It was the winter of 1966, and I was serving as press secretary to New Mexico Governor David Francis Cargo. Frankie Mello, Darnell Lincoln, and I were heading home from Las Cruces in Darnell’s slick Chevy wagon. As members of the state’s Motor Vehicle Division, Frankie was its Deputy Director and Darnell, or “Linc” as we called him, was in charge of all the inspectors and vehicles.

The pair had met as medics in Korea, and were still active in the Army Reserve. Frankie was a fire hydrant-sized, fun-loving rascal out of Angel Fire. Imagine Lou Costello, only with brains.

Darnell was a chiseled Michelangelo statue of black granite. His family ties went back to the Buffalo Soldiers; his forebears rode with Black Jack Pershing. His mom and dad were retired reservation-based schoolteachers. They taught back in the day when African-Americans with a fistful of diplomas had a better chance of being struck by lightning than landing a job teaching off-reservation tots. But there they were.

We’d gone south for some state work, and to do some Christmas shopping in El Paso and in Juarez. It was getting dark as we bent the speed limit north of Socorro, the Chevy loaded up with gifts for everyone in our families. The three of us went over the line on baby stuff—I had a new infant at home, and Frankie and Darnell had cherub-sized nieces and nephews. Darnell even bough a truck battery for his brother in-law.

We were anxious to get home, to make that long stretch along I-25 fly by as quickly as possible. Frankie was up front, fiddling with the built-in two way and chattering with state troopers and dispatchers, when all of a sudden out of the radio speakers came a crackled voice, saying, “We got a problem here . . .” The voice belonged to a state trooper, who, it turns out, had also served in the Reserves with Frankie and Darnell.

The trooper, knowing Frankie and Darnell were also G.I. medics, told us there was a young girl in Belen who was going into severe labor pains. She needed help, like, now. “We could lose her, and the baby,” he said.

As we were rolling into the outskirts of Belen, the trooper was rapping to Frankie a mile a minute—in both English and Spanish—giving Frankie directions: “It’s a young woman and her husband; it’s their first kid. Both speak little English. There’s a lot of panic.

Apparently, the young couple had been taking care of this shabby goat-ranch-farm-habitat for a few dollars a month, out of which they had to feed the goats, and keep whatever was left over for themselves.

They had no phone, of course; the husband ran to the neighbors for help, who called the state trooper. Then the husband lit a bonfire by the side of the road in front of the house so the trooper could find him.

Now, I’m dying if I’m lying, we were there in three minutes. We even beat the trooper. While Frankie started talking to the daddy-to-be in Spanish, Darnell was in the cramped bedroom with the mommy-to-be. While my two buddies were making like midwives and I was taking inventory of the sad, sad surroundings, I heard the sound of car tires ripping up snow-crusted dirt and gravel. The trooper had arrived. We exchanged “que pasa’s,” I gave him a thumbs-up, and he was off and spinning away. It was just moments when I heard the squeak of a tiny soul, and out came the young papa holding a wee infant boy . . . followed by a smiling five-foot, eight-inch leprechaun, and a six-foot, three-inch gladiator, wiping his brow with a floral-print hand towel.

Frankie told the new dad what to do and said the trooper would send a doctor out in the next day or two. Then he asked him if the couple had wheels. Just an old pickup, said the dad, but no battery—and no money to buy one.

Frankie looked at Darnell, Darnell looked at me. We looked at each other. Then Darnell said, “I’ll back the wagon up to the door. You guys can unload. Get me the battery out of the back.” It took us longer to unload the wagon than it did for Darnell to deliver the baby. When we hit the road, we began to see the lights of Albuquerque. It was Christmas Eve. It was cold, it was dark. On the radio, Christmas music was playing. No one was talking.

“Frankie,” I said, “I never got her name, or his for that matter.” “His name’s Jose. Hers is Maria.”
It got real quiet again. We were taking inventory. Three wise guys, each of us out a hundred in cash we’d stuffed into Jose’s pockets, plus all the gifts left behind, all sitting in a tired and tattered little farmhouse outside Belen. But it was okay. I could see Darnell’s eyes glistening in the rear view mirror when he said, “Makes you feel real good, man, real good.”

Then I asked, “Frankie, does Belen mean anything in English?” “Yeah,” he said, laying his head back and closing his eyes, “it means Bethlehem.”

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