Going To See Chris
By Jack Stoddard
Iím writing this story for me but I thought Iíd share it with you, my readers. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.
Itís 3:00 AM Friday July 3, 1998. I just opened the garage door and as Iím on my way back into the house to get my coffee I can hear the deep mellow sound of the dual exhaust on my classic baby ďSweething,Ē (a 1960 Chevy El Camino) echoing off the garage walls. Iím on my way to visit the burial site of my good friend Chris Cordova. After doing many hours of research and with the help of my wife Sue we were able to find out where Chrisís home town was and with Sues magic fingers on the keyboard of the computer we even had a phone number for Robert Cordova who turned out to be the younger brother of Chris! After talking with Robert and finding out exactly were Mosquero, New Mexico was I decided that Iíd like to go and make sure Chris had a nice plot and headstone. Plus I wanted to once and for all close some doors so that I could open some new ones. So with coffee in hand I pulled out into the street watching the garage door close behind me. Seven hundred miles and fourteen hour from now Iíll finally be with my friend of over twenty eight years ago.
I left Las Vegas and soon was going over Hoover Dam. Being so early in the morning the traffic was light and before long I was climbing the canyon wall heading for Kingman, AZ. The trip was nice as it stayed cool all the way to Flagstaff before I had to roll down the windows to pick up a breeze. I love driving across I-40 because being an old car buff I really enjoy driving 70MPH and looking in everybodyís back yards along the way seeing what kind of old cars they have parked there. Especially around Gallup! On this trip I didnít hear the normal, ďstop looking around and keep your eyes on the road,Ē my wife would constantly be telling me. This trip I was on my own. This was my quest, something I have wanted to do for a long time.
Around 3:00PM I pulled into Tucumari, NM and started on RT 54 toward Logan, NM. It was nice to get off the interstate and travel on the back roads again. The weather was great! Hot but still very nice with white clouds cutting off the heat of the sun every so often. Once I arrived in Logan I followed the old main street through the city. You could see that at one time it must have been a busy place but now a lot of the stores were closed. Just as it must be in a lot of small towns in this country. As I kept going North the road seemed to be getting smaller and smaller until I finally turned onto to RT39 heading for my final destination of Mosquero. Now the road was a narrow two lane highway that seemed to be darting out into nowhere. There was nothing but green rolling hills all around with only a few ranch houses scattered about to interrupt this gorgeous land. By now I was starting to get really nervous. I kept thinking about all the things I have wanted to say to Chris. And I was nervous about meeting the Cordova family! Did they want to meet me? Have they put everything in the past or would they want me to tell them everything I remembered from 28 years ago? I guess I really didnít know what to expect.
After going about 20 miles I was approaching the base of this beautiful mesa. I was sure I would drop off toward the right side and go into a valley where Mosquero would be found, but instead as I reached a fork in the road I started to climb right up the side! It was very steep and I was just hoping my old car would make it up through these steep sharp curves. As I slowly maneuvered my way through this wonderful mesa I came upon a huge wall of rock and saw it was covered from top to bottom with names and dates. I wondered if Chris had maybe put his name there when he was a boy. As I finally reached the top there was nothing but green rolling hills with Jeniper trees scattered about as far as you could see. It was nothing like I had expected the top of a mesa to look like. I thought it would be flat and rocky. I was hoping there would be a gas station in Mosquero as I was down to a 1/4 of a tank and still had to travel the 30 miles back to Logan later in the day.
I soon was approaching the very small town of Mosquero and I mean very small. With luck I saw a single old gas pump on the right side of town with a big sign saying ďopenĒ leaning against it. As I pulled toward the old gas pump I couldnít help but think why would anybody want to live in this little spot in the road place? I stopped my car and as I was getting out an older man approached and asked how I was doing. I returned the greeting and as he was removing the front cover on the pump so he could reset the meter by hand (the old pump had broken 3 years earlier) I asked him if he could answer 2 questions for me. One was where was the cemetery located and the second was where did Robert Cordova live? He replied with, ďoh sure thatís easy.Ē Then he said heíd just call Chris Cordova (that was Robertís son who had been named after my friend) he was the town marshal and was always around. As the man was filling my car with gas I was looking over the town. I could see a volunteer fire dept building with a closed sign in the window and next to it was a small market with and even smaller bar attached to the side of it. That my friends was downtown Mosquero, NM. Other than the post office I saw later.
A few minutes later a pick up truck pulls up and a young Mexican man walks up to me. I assumed it was Chris as I put my hand out and said, ďhi Iím Jack you must be Chris.Ē He said, ďyes and I would be happy to take you to the cemetery as soon as you get your gas sir.Ē In a few minutes I was following him down the road to where my friend was. We only went a short way when we turned off onto a gravel road and soon my car was getting covered in a great cloud of white dust. I remember being upset about that and then feeling ashamed at such a time because I was about to see Chris and worrying about a little dust was really stupid! Within five minutes we had pulled in the grave yard. It was on about a 1/4 acre plot of land with a small fence around the outside of it. I guess there was about 30 grave sites in all.
I was feeling really nervous now. I had so many things I wanted to tell Chris. As we approached the first grave I could see it was Chrisís fatherís grave as it read PFC Jose Cordova died 1945 in Germany WWII. As a lump was forming in my throat I was all of a sudden thinking to myself that Chrisís dad was here and was taking good care of him and that Chris would be alright. Then came the real hard part. I walked up to Chrisís grave site. There was a small stone just like his dadís. It had his name, rank, where and when he had died on it. There was a small patriotic flag made of flowers in front of it. They had long since died but you could tell Chris was being thought of and not forgotten. His nephew put his hand down and moved the wreath so I could see the complete head stone. As I knelt down something very strange happened to me. It was as if I somehow knew Chris had heard all my thoughts I had about him during the last 28 years and I didnít have to tell him anything at all because he already knew. With tears in my eyes all I could say was, ďitís good to see you buddy,Ē as I patted the top of his headstone. I just sat there patting the headstone for maybe 5 minutes as Chrisís nephew backed away to give me some privacy. Finally I said one more time, ďitís good to see you Chris,Ē and I stood up and walked a few steps backward just looking at the grave. I really felt a sense of peace as I finally turned and walked back towards my car wiping the tears from my eyes. I didnít want to break down and cry as I knew I still had to meet the rest of his family in a few minutes. The tears would come later as I was driving out of Mosquero.
Soon we were pulling into the front yard of Robertís house. It was a large wooden house with new and old cars scattered through out the yard. Robert walked into the yard to meet us. For just a moment I thought it was Chris they looked so much alike. We shook hands and I could tell this was as awkward for him as it was for me. He introduced me to his sister, his wife Francis and their older son Floyd. I was then invited into their house and was offered a beer that I gladly took. I am not really a beer drinker but I really needed it now! We all sat around in the living room making small talk as I was trying to figure out how to give them a copy of the story I had written about Chris. I decided to just pull it out of my pocket and hand it to them so thatís what I did.
I gave it to Robert and watched as he took the 2 page story from the white envelope. I was so scared at that moment. I took another large gulp of beer while wondering if they would like my story or not. How would they act? Did I do the right thing? I just waited. The story was passed from one person to the next with only a few nods of their heads being any sign at all of what they read. I could see Robertís eyes had gotten a little red but other than that not a word was spoken! I was offered another beer and after a few minutes of prodding I accepted a plate of home made enchiladas. While all of us sat around the kitchen table and I ate Chrisís (Robertís son) wife entered the kitchen doorway and said, ďthat was a really nice story you wrote about Chris. We all liked it very much.Ē That was all that was ever said about that. But it did make me feel much better and a little more at ease. After I had eaten a few more bites of dinner out came the photo albums! There must have been a hundred pictures of various sizes already in the living room with a separate special area for each one of the sons and cousins who had served in the military. Chris had his spot with his medals hanging next to his basic training picture and next to him was Robertís son Floyd. Floyd had served in the Persian Gulf but was now on disability from a back injury. After the two beers things started to get better. All the stories of Chris and Robert, who was 2 years younger, started pouring out in this small room atop of this beautiful mesa in NM. Robert told me a doctor who had lost his in Vietnam and had built a memorial and chapel in the little town called Angel Fire, MN. It was 80 miles north west of Mosquero. All the boys from the surrounding 4 counties who had died in Vietnam has their pictures and some personal effects placed in the memorial building. Chrisís picture along with his dog tags were there. Every week a different picture was placed in the chapel and that soldiers family was notified. Robert called that place ďHoly ground.Ē A lot of the conversation was about how the two boys grew up and how their Uncle Joe had taught then to hunt, fish, and swim in the local swimming hole. Soon with a third beer in our hands, Robert, Floyd and myself were heading out the door and on our way cruzin, as Robert put it. My feelings of being a stranger was now fading as I realized I was being accepted as a friend.
There couldnít have been more than 30 houses in this small town. Many of them were boarded up as the people who had once lived there were now long gone. When Chris had been a boy here there was probably 300 people living in town but now there was only around 100. Most of the small ranches had been bought out by three large ranches in the area. Francis still worked at the Bell Ranch but Robert now worked at a small chemical plant 30 miles away. As we left the house we went a half block away and saw the small white buildings that were the elementary and high school. Robert told me a picture honoring Chris was in the main hallway of the high school. We then drove by the church and the little hospital, that was closed over 10 years ago. It was now the school superintendents' house. Every time we drove past a house everybody would wave and I would wave back. I could imagine what they must have thought at the site of this strange gringo riding around in Robertís green pickup truck! Everybody knew everyone else in this town. It was like one huge family. You just couldnít help but fall in love with Mosquero, NM!
Robert drove us down the Bell Ranch road about 40 miles. As we drank beers more stories came out about Chrisís funeral and how Robert was on his senior class field trip to the Lake of the Ozarks when he was notified of Chrisís death. The class (all 5 of them) cut the trip short and returned early. He said the whole town of 300 turned out as well as the Honor Guard from the Air Force National Guard in Clovis, MN. Bob told me about the wild elks in the area and how many he shot each year. Floyd pointed out the local sights like the two Indian caves and when we got to the end of the Mesa they pointed to an area across the valley where dinosaur foot prints were. We had a really nice talk as we returned home and I felt I now know more about Chris than I had known the whole year I had lived with him.
Robert wanted me to stay the night and kept asking me over and over again but I didnít feel right about staying. I didnít want to ruin their holiday. But deep inside I really liked these new found friends and could have stayed longer. But I knew I had to get home to my own family.
I had finally closed my door with Chris but I also knew I could open it again and be welcomed not only by him but by his family and friends as well. I left at dark and as I was driving out of town the impact of what had happened hit me again. I had to wipe the tears away as I climbed back off the mesa and headed for the busy world below. I couldnít help but think of the past and how my wife had told me go ahead and write this book of how I felt about the way Vietnam really was. How it was about good men just doing a job as best they could. Not killers or heroes but boys just like Chris. And of how when I said I wanted and needed to go see Chris she said, ďgo do it, weíll get the money somehow. Just go and do what you have to do!Ē Sheís not only a good wife but she understands me sometimes more than I understand myself. Thank you Sue for helping me close my doors.