Papa And Pancho Villa

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Aside from being the only private in Fancho Villa’s army, my father had another distinction—he was probably the only man ever to be dragged into an army at the end of a harness. But, as any fair-minded person will coneede, he was not trying to avoid military service; he was simply resisting an outrageous expropriation of his personal property.

His sudden “enlistment” occurred on a sultry October afternoon in the dusty little plaxa of Bachimba, Chihuahua. My father had come to town to purchase a harness at Don Epifanio’s general store, and many years later he could still recall the strange, ghostly silence that seemed to hover in every doorway as he entered the square. Only an occasional child greeted him when he clomped along the wooden sidewalk, half dragging an old cart with squeaky wheels. He was slightly more than seventeen years old.

He passed Don Miguel’s barbershop, the old barber asleep in his swivel chair. This being the siesta hour, the three small stores beyond the barbershop-canteen were also closed and shuttered against the blistering sun. But Don Epifanio, a stay-awake gachupin from Madrid who was the only affluent merchant in that impoverished area, was predictably open for business when my father entered his store.

Qué tal, viejo ,” he said. (In Mexico people greet all boys as “old man” and all old men as “youngster.”)

Emboldened by Don Epifanio’s friendly familiarity, my father acknowledged the greeting and then inquired about the unusual quiet in Bachimba and the absence ol any adults in the plaza.

“Then you have not heard:’” asked the Spaniard. ” Pancho Villa was here yesterday. With two hundred men he came. And he took ten sacks of” flour from me, four jugs of tequila, and a dozen steel combs. Some other things, too. Then he told me to charge it.”

My father glanced at the loaded shelves beyond the old man and wondered why Fancho Villa’s men had left so much behind.

“And he also took some men with him,” Don Epifanio added. “They grabbed Domingo Ortega, Jesus Silva, the Marquez boys, and that young man who helped me in the store. All of them are in the army now. That’s why everybody’s hiding now. That’s why you don’t see anybody in the plaza.”

“But Villa’s gone. You just told me.”

“Not very far, amigo . He left a small cadre behind, just south of Bachimba. You can see their camp from the church tower. And you’d better get out of town, muchacho . Don Pancho may decide to draft you into his thieving army.”

When my father mentioned that he was only seventeen, Don Epifanio knowingly observed that young boys, being more foolhardy and less circumspect than most adults, were probably prei’erred by the reckless vagabond leader of the fugitive Division del .\orle. But my father-to-be, having never seen that youthful army, had no basis for either agreeing or disagreeing with Don Epifanio’s judgment nor for heeding his advice about getting out of town to avoid being kidnapped. He chose instead to dawdle, and the impatient storekeeper finally interrupted his browsing with an almost abrasive curtness. “Surely you didn’t come here to loaf. What do you want, boy:'”

It was then that my father told him he might want to buy a new harness. But first he wanted to know if the old one (whieh he had hauled in the cart) could be repaired. It was ancient, its leather cracked and torn, and Don Kpifanio scofled at the possibility of salvaging it. With a heavy sigh of resignation my lather tossed it into a waste barrel and proceeded to haggle about the price of a secondhand harness that the old man had reclaimed from a nonpaying customer from San Luis. My father (after two hours of sporadic bargaining) offered to pay seventeen pesos. Shortly before sunset they settled on a price of eighteen pesos and fifty cents, the old gachupin darkly muttering, “You’re a worse bandit than Pancho Villa.”

Modestly pleased by this minor triumph and no doubt flattered by the comparison to Villa, my father carefully stowed the harness in his cart and solemnly thanked Don Epifanio for a pleasant afternoon. The sun, by now a precise red-orange disk poised on the jagged silhouette of the barren sierra west of Bachimba, cast an amber glow on the deserted bandstand in the plaza as my father started to cross the street. Then quite suddenly a loud and probably drunken voice ordered him to halt. Four soldiers shuffled toward him in a crudely menacing manner.

“Where are you going, boy?”

“What do you have in that cart?”

The two voices rolled over each other, yet my father heard them both—clearly and separately. But before he could answer either question, one of the men reached for the newly bought harness. Instantly—his proprietary instincts overriding his fear—my father grabbed the harness and started to pull it toward him. With almost equal alacrity, the two soldiers snagged the halter and started pulling in the opposite direction. My father held on to the harness with mulish determination. They struggled for several minutes; then one of the soldiers gradually narrowed his emotions to plain unadulterated disgust.

“All right, you little bastard,” he muttered, simultaneously reaching for his heavy pistol. “Since you’re so in love with your lousy harness, you may as well stick with it. We’re going to take you both , you and your harness, into the army.” And that’s exactly what they did. In one single act my father was both expropriated and drafted.

Ordinarily, one would have expected my father to continue his resistance and raise a bit of hell once he reached camp. He had, admittedly, a stubborn nature. But he calmly accepted his new status and was assigned the duty of stable hand in a cavalry unit, to which his harness had also been assigned.

The camp itself was a rather shabby affair consisting of three wind-battered tents stolen from a hacienda, a makeshift corral of seven horses, several sacks of flour piled on a flat-bed wagon, and—with my dad’s arrival- twenty-nine soldiers, most of them younger than twenty. Their uniforms were the least uniform uniforms any army ever wore. No two men were dressed alike, although several of them wore the large, cumbersome, wide-brimmed sombreros that soon became the symbol of Villa’s troops. However, whether in uniform or not, my father had no difficulty realizing that he was now a soldier. On the very first night he was handed a heavy rifle and ordered to serve as a lookout on a nearby hill.

“If you see any fédérales chingados just wake us up, and we’ll get the hell out.” Apparently this rear-guard cadre’s sole responsibility was to shoot and run (in several different directions) and later regroup at a more southerly rendezvous.

Many years later, as we sat around the supper table in our rented flat in Denver, my father recalled in minute detail the awful fear that nearly paralyzed him as he stood guard on that scabrous hill four miles south of Bachimba. It was a quiet night, so deathly quiet that he could hear every lizard that skittered across the parched earth. And somewhere behind him—he was too frightened to ascertain its exact whereabouts—a lonely coyote moaned at fitful intervals. Yet his fear did not keep him from sitting down on a flat rock, where at last he fell sound asleep. He woke up at sunrise, stretched his cramped limbs until they felt normal again, and then walked slowly down the barranca toward the stillslumbering camp. “I’m a soldier now,” he said to himself, a slight strut momentarily creeping into his gait. “I’m a private in Pancho Villa’s army.”

A few moments later he heard an abrupt snort from the tent nearest him, followed by a petulant grumbling that quickly crescendoed into a rolling thunder of curses that would have awed Satan himself. It was the capitan, Luis Jimenez, sounding reveille in his own piquant manner.

My father, who was no stranger to pungent language, forever claimed that Capitan Jimenez had the most violent, most profane, and most imaginatively obscene vocabularly he had ever heard. He had twenty-seven different expressions for homosexual, sixteen for unnatural birth, nine for canine maternal parentage, and a vast number of dark synonyms for murder and mayhem. Right now he wanted to get his detachment away from there.

Ten minutes later the tents were haphazardly folded and stashed next to the flour sacks on the flat-bed wagon, two horses were hitched to it with the previously expropriated harness, and they quickly pulled out of camp in a southerly direction. Having wisely decided not to ask permission to inform his parents about his spontaneous induction, my father rode in glum silence on the bumpy rear of the wagon. He wouldn’t permit himself to cry, but his throat felt tight and bitterly dry.

Shortly before sunset, after long hours of tedium and discomfort, they finally caught up with the advance battalion. Pancho Villa himself greeted them as they shuffled into camp.

My father nearly gasped when he first saw Villa standing spread-legged by the huge bonfire, his voice booming a hearty “ Bwnvemdos, muchachos .” Here, then, was the legendary Centauro del Norte in the flesh! He was a big man by Mexican standards, with a head like a proud lion and massive shoulders that strained the seams of his khaki tunic. But his eyes (not his large mustache, as most people think) were his most arresting feature.

“They seemed to burn with volcanic energy,” my father later told us. “And yet there was a gentle mockery in those dark, intense eyes, a kind of teasing amusement that seemed to say there was nothing in the world that couldn’t be laughed at.” As for that famous mustache, which was to become a slobbery shank of messy hair in the movie portrayals by Wallace Beery and other actors, everyone who knew Villa insists that it was always clean and well clipped.

My father’s first impression was a mixture of surprise and speechless awe. He was so dumbstruck by Villa’s charismatic presence that he stumbled backward when the general moved forward to greet the new arrivals, bear-hugging two of the cadre leaders, shaking hands with some, and greeting others with friendly belly jabs, his rough, husky voice full of comradely warmth and cheerful obscenity. Then, suddenly noting my father shyly half hiding behind another soldier, he leaned out and grabbed my father’s arm. “So this is one of our new comrades,” he said. “What is your name, muchacho?

“José Patricio Lopez Sepulveda.” The name gushed from my father in a roll of frightened syllables.

“That’s a large name for a small muchacho , but a good one.”

“Everybody calls me Pepe,” whispered my father. “Just Pepe.”

“And where do you come from, Pepe?”

“From Bachimba—from Bachimba, Chihuahua—but we live on a rancho.”

The smile of Villa’s face broadened into a toothy grin.

“Then you must know Marti’n Lopez—also from Bachimba.”

“He’s my cousin. Marti’n is my cousin.” With less shyness now. “But he is much older. He’s already twenty-five and I’m only seventeen.” 60

“Ah, yes,” answered Villa in his gently ironic manner. “Martin is getting to be an old man like the rest of us. But he’s still young enough to raise hell with the pinches fédérales . He’s one of my best men, Pepe, one of the toughest rebels in all Mexico.”

Like everyone else in Bachimba, my father knew that Marti’n Lopez had once pulled a gun on Villa and that his act of defiance had, curiously enough, resulted in his being assigned to Villa’s los dorados , that famed inner circle of “golden ones” who might be equated with a modern-day Mafia.

Perhaps sensing my father’s private knowledge, Villa pressed his arm with a certain intimacy and quietly said, “Marti’n Lopez is the only man who ever openly defied me. And it takes much courage, Pepe, it takes great courage to defy Pancho Villa. Now he’s one of my dorados and also a most trusted friend.”

Marti’n Lopez rode into camp on the following afternoon, and shortly thereafter my father was summoned to Villa’s command tent by a gruff, potbellied sergeant. When they finally reached the large officers’ tent, Villa and another man were studying a map spread on the dirt floor, the noncom having to clear his throat twice to catch their attention. Villa looked up and quickly recognized my father. “Marti’n,” he said, touching the other man’s shoulder, “I have a surprise for you. Here’s your little cousin Pepe.” “My God—it is! It’s little Pepe, my little cousin Pepe.” Marti’n grabbed my father and warmly embraced him, nearly squeezing him breathless. “But what are you doing here, muchacho?

“He’s our newest volunteer,” said Villa. “We volunteered him three days ago. Near Bachimba.” “But he’s only a boy, my general. He can’t be more than sixteen,” protested Marti’n. “The last time I saw him—about three years ago at my uncle’s ranch—he was only thirteen years old.” Sensing an abrupt end to his military career, my father shook his head and stammered, “No, no, no, Cousin Marti’n! You’re wrong—really you are—I’m seventeen —I’m already a man—I really am—I’m seventeen- and I want to stay.”

“Don Pancho” (as many people called him with great affection) put his arms around the boy’s slight shoulders and held him tight. “Perhaps your cousin is right, Pepe. Maybe you’d better go home. We may need you later on, muchacho . ”

My father wheedled and cajoled and argued with desperate conviction, and finally, after an hour of futile polemics, they agreed to let him remain on condition that he serve as personal aide to Marti’n Lopez for the duration of the revolution . Thus, though he could not have anticipated it then, my father was soon to bear wit- ness to some of the most exciting and daring exploits of that prolonged and bloody revolution, and his cousin was destined to become one of the most feared soldier-bandits in northern Mexico. Yet Martin Lopez was surprisingly gentle when my father panicked during his first exposure to gunfire. This happened late in November, 1913.

The federal troops had been harassing Villa’s rear guard and were apparently planning a major advance along a railroad route north of Candelaria, in Sonora, where they had temporarily stopped to replenish themselves with food, women, and ammunition. Villa learned of their plans and fell back on one of his favorite tactics: to immobilize the enemy by blowing up its troop trains before departure. This, of course, was always a rather tricky and suicidal maneuver requiring a special kind of talent and courage.

On this occasion Villa assigned the chore to M art m Lopez and Rodolfo Fierro, each of whom was to select five aides. Quite understandably, Martin bypassed “little Cousin Pepe” in choosing his five; but after several hours of spirited lobbying my father persuaded him that he could never become an experienced soldier unless he could have some experience. He thus became the thirteenth man in a sabotage team that was immediately dubbed the Odd Dozen.

Shortly alter sunset the squadron pulled out of camp heading south, nine of them on horseback and four others walking alongside two large mules laden with dynamite. My father was one of the four on foot. They travelled several hours through pitch blackness, skirting the dirt highways and hugging the foothills, where an occasional cactus or bush offered at least minimal concealment from prospective enemy scouts. An hour before sunrise they sighted the troop train on a siding near the town of Candelaria. They could spot only one guard slouched against the rear platform of the caboose. “There are probably more guards on the other side,” M art m whispered to Fierro. “But we have a fairly clear approach from this side.”

After a brief second look he ordered the squadron to unpack the dynamite and divide it into packets of four sticks bound together with baling wire. Everyone having been given two packets and a pair of fuses, Marti’n drew a rough sketch of a railroad car, quickly explained his special demolition technique, and then assigned a car to each man. Fierro was to blow up the caboose and Marti’n the engine. With only a bare half hour of darkness remaining, the thirteen saboteurs fanned out in a wide arc and stealthily crept their way across the scrubby plain.

To his great surprise my father felt no fear during this phase of the operation. All he could think about was the fourth car behind the engine, its silhouette looming larger and larger as he got closer. Suddenly he was there, right under the middle of its “long belly” (Martin’s term for it), and now he had to find the cross rod. His head bumped against it, and he was momentarily stunned. But he quickly regained his composure, pulled the dynamite packets from inside his shirt, tied them onto the cross rod, attached the fuse cord, and slowly commenced to unravel it while he crept backward in a crouched position. Glancing to his right he saw his companeros also pulling back from their respective cars in crouched positions, with their fuse cords unravelling. Fierro had apparently stabbed the man guarding the caboose, so until now they had not been detected by the fédérales . It was like a well-rehearsed game.

Then, quite suddenly, the sky seemed to shatter. Someone had spotted Marti’n as he was crawling away from the engine and immediately shouted a general alarm. Almost instantly the air was punctured by a wild scattering of bullets, most of them whistling into nowhere. Taking advantage of the brief chaos, the Odd Dozen hastily ignited their fuses, carefully laid them on the ground, and started crawling away, zigzagging every few feet to avoid gunfire. Once again following Marti’n’s lead, they commenced shooting back, hoping to distract attention from the sizzling fuses. Thus crawling and shooting and crawling once again, most of them managed to reach a safe distance before the railroad cars started to explode, first the engine and then the passenger cars, one after the other like falling dominoes. But the fourth car behind the engine—the one assigned to my father—did not explode. It merely teeter-tottered off the track as the cars on either side were blasted off the rails. That’s when my father, pausing to look back at the massive wreckage, remembered that in his panic he had forgotten to ignite his fuse.

When they finally got back to their horses and quickly mounted them for the getaway, it became painfully apparent that six of their companeros had been killed or disabled. Although four of the thirteen saboteurs had come on foot, escorting the ammunition mules, there were now two extra horses. My father, still acutely conscious of having flubbed his chore, deliberately trailed behind the others as they raced toward the protective shadows of the Sierra \ladrc foothills. Hc was heartsick and depressed, and when they had found a safe haven he told his older cousin about the unlit fuse and about the only car that hadn’t exploded, reluctantly but frankly admitting he had panicked as the gunfire broke out.

Martin looked at him with gentle cousinly concern and drew him into a tight embrace. “Never mind, Pepe, never mind. It happens to all of us. The man who says he’s never afraid is a liar or a fool. Even Pancho Villa is afraid sometimes. He simply hides his fear better than most men. And you’ll learn to hide yours, Pepe. It takes time.”

During the next few months my father did indeed learn to mask or at least ignore the awful fear. He ostensibly overcame his qualms in a succession of historic battles late in 1913, the first of which took place in San Sostenes, Durango, where the Villutas attacked a federal-army supply center in a bold maneuver that caught the enemy flat-footed during the siesta hour. That particular raid, which turned into a spirited handto-hand ruckus before the fédérales retreated into the hills, netted the rebels two tons of clothing, several thousand rounds of ammunition, and some miscellaneous railroad equipment.

Two weeks later Martin Lopez led a band of fifty specially chosen guerrillas into the town of Mulato, Chihuahua, a wind-blown village temporarily designated as a headquarters for the forces of Venustiano Carranza, the leader of the Constitutionalists. Again relying on surprise plus outrageous daring, the rebels moved in shortly after midnight. Except for a few drunkenly inattentive guards, the federal troops had taken refuge in an old adobe church facing the plaza, the more fortunate ones lying on rows of wooden benches while the others shared the hard-packed dirt floor with an occasional scorpion. Having wenched and drunk pulquc all evening long, they were sleeping quite soundly in spite of the hard bedding; and only two or three of them were even half awakened as Martin’s men carefully crept over inert bodies and between the benches, deftly expropriating rifles, pistols, knives, and ammunition. Then, having first posted his men at strategic places inside the chapel—fourteen of them now armed with newly acquired machine guns- Martin asked his bugler to blow a rousing three o’clock reveille.

The ensuing blast, needless to say, was not too graciously received by the 260 bleary-eyed fédérales . They were even less gracious when ordered to remove their trousers and start marching toward the next town. Thirty rebels escorted them on horseback. Two hours later, as dawn broke over the ragged foothills, the rebel escorts abandoned the shivering, trouserless marchers on a long stretch of desert plain and galloped back to Mulato. They arrived in time for breakfast. Cheerfully attended by the grateful womenfolk of that impoverished but hospitable village, Martin’s fifty men ate huge servings of tamales, huevos rancheros , hot tortillas , and frijoles refntos , after which they packed their looted rifles and ammunition on ten of the captured mules and headed back to Villa’s headquarters in the city of Durango.

Shortly after their arrival there on January 1, 1914, Pancho Villa ordered Martm’s men to join several other rebel contingents at Ojinaga, Chihuahua, where a large force of Carranzistas was heavily entrenched. This particular battle was the most disastrous event my father was ever to witness. Initially there were three days of furious fighting, the outnumbered rebels periodically picking and snapping at the well-fortified fédérales like packs of angry but toothless coyotes. Ojinaga was situated on a flat, barren desert that offered no chance of cover for an attacking group. Thus, in the absence of any clearly defined strategy, the rebels continued their fitful in-and-out forays, eighty men losing their lives in senseless assaults across wide-open areas murderously exposed to machine guns. Then an enemy cavalry unit closed in from the north in a lightning thrust that sandwiched 130 Villistas between two layers of firepower. Some of them tried to escape and were quickly shot down; the others prudently threw down their arms and surrendered. Brutally prodded with rifle butts, the prisoners were marched into the square and incarcerated in a local church. My father was among them, but somehow he managed to escape into a tiny corridor that led to a dark, narrow staircase winding up to the bell tower. There, alongside the belfry, he found a cracked and discarded bronze bell, and he snuggled into it like a frightened cat.

Long after nightfall (he never knew exactly when, for he had finally fallen asleep) he heard the staccato bark of machine guns somewhere beneath him, then a short silence followed by another brief volley, and then silence again. He simply could not imagine why anyone would be firing a machine gun inside a church, nor was he anxious to find out. Shifting his tired body into a reversed coil inside the bell, he soon managed to fall asleep again, and he was not fully awakened until just after dawn, when the dreamy silence was shattered by loud, angry voices from the plaza. He scrambled to his knees, shook the grogginess from his head, and then cautiously crawled across the roof toward the edge facing the square. Below him my father recognized some of the men from Martin’s brigade. At first he thought they had been taken captive but then quickly noticed they were carrying arms. He bounded to his feet and raced across the roof and down the narrow stairs into the main chapel.

In his wild excitement he stumbled across two inert bodies before he realized that the floor was littered with bullet-shattered corpses, many of them grotesquely sprawled over each other in pools of drying blood. Some of the faces were mangled beyond recognition. Stunned and soon sickened by the horror all around him, he backed into the corridor, and there he felt a soft comforting hand on his shoulder. It was Cousin Marti’n, standing close to him with an unutterably sad expression in his eyes.

“How did you escape?” Marti’n asked in a near whisper. “I thought you were dead, Pepe. I was just now searching for your body. And then I saw you.” My father slowly explained how he had sneaked up to the tower and slept through the awful massacre beneath him. Then Marti’n told him how the fédérales , apparently but erroneously assuming that Pancho Villa was sending a large battalion to reinforce his men at Ojinaga, had abandoned the town long before daybreak. But they had first of all murdered their 130 prisoners inside the chapel.

To my father the mass execution of Ojinaga would always represent the absolute depth of cruelty. And to Pancho Villa’s men, particularly to los dorados like Marti’n, it would serve as justification for acts of equal depravity.

Yet no war is without its lighter aspects. One need not be a Hemingway to observe that between battles there might sometimes occur a moment of sexual whimsy. One such moment came to Pancho Villa late in 1915, when he fell in love with Conchita del Hierro. They had met injiménez, Chihuahua, through the auspices of her Aunt Clotilda, a person with no discernible excess of modesty. She was, in fact, an ambitious bawd, and within three days after the Division del Norte had moved out of Jiménez she sent the general a note by personal messenger telling him that her niece had been greatly impressed with his “gentility” and was most anxious to see him again. His response was characteristically immediate and expansive. Summoning Marti’n to his headquarters tent—they were now inGuadalupe, Zacatecas- he asked him to go forthwith to Jiménez and bring back Conchita and her aunt.

“Take an engine and a caboose and enough men to run them,” he said. “Treat them with all consideration, Marti’n. Their every wish must be granted.” Then, with a vaguely skeptical glance at his much younger and more handsome comrade, he added, “And don’t forget that Conchita is my girl. No monkey business, armgo .”

Early that afternoon Marti’n and five companeros chugged out of the railroad station, my father stoking the boiler of the engine and doubling as assistant porter. He was in high good spirits all the way to Jiménez, whistling “Adelita” over and over again, periodically scraping the coal shovel as accompaniment—but his spirits soared even higher when he first saw Conchita.

Her shy, tentative smile and soft voice made the men feel that she was altogether unaware of her exquisite mestizo face and lithe, slender body. On the assumption that Villa would find the girl more desirable if her shoulders were half exposed, her aunt had forced her to wear a skimpy lace blouse, but Conchita had nullified this erotic ploy by wearing a thick black rebozo that shielded her like a nun’s cape. Indeed, as she got off the caboose at Guadalupe, her entire demeanor was that of a young nun, her frightened eyes glinting now and then with helpless resentment, her naturally full lips pulled into a tight, childlike pout.

Villa, waiting on the platform to greet them, instantly realized that Aunt Clotilda had lied to him about the girl’s yearning desire to see him again; yet his ego was not prepared to admit what his eyes clearly told him. “ Bienvemdos! ” he said with determined gusto. “I was beginning to think Marti’n had kidnapped you.”

Not to be outdone by the general’s effusiveness, Aunt Clotilda, pushing the reluctant girl forward, also gushed with good cheer. “She’s here, Don Pancho. You see I’ve kept my word. But the child’s overcome with fatigue and excitement. We’ll have to rest a while.”

“Yes, yes, of course. That’s a long journey.”

Briskly assigning four aides to escort the ladies to a small hacienda nearby, Villa almost recovered his composure in the process of snapping orders. But not quite. His men, at least those close to him, could see that Conchita’s manner had deeply shaken him. And during the next forty-eight hours she managed—not with malice, nor even by the slightest intention—to bruise his pride as few women would have dared. She locked herself in the master bedroom, pushed a heavy divan against the door, and simply refused to see either Villa or her aunt.

In the end Conchita had her way. My father was far from surprised when the girl and her aunt abruptly left the hacienda on Friday morning, riding a plain buckboard wagon in considerably less grandeur than upon their arrival. While helping them with their luggage he heard the enraged aunt scolding her niece.

“You foolish child,” she said bitterly. “That man will be president of Mexico, and you could be the first lady.” Several months later Pancho Villa’s troops marched into Mexico City, and he temporarily seized the national palace, proclaiming himself president. Had she been more expedient, Conchita del Hierro would have been first lady for seventy-two hours. She might have also been shoved aside by the fickle Centauro del Norte , for he was notoriously inclined to break his word. On several occasions, for example, he promised to promote my father to corporal—one of the many promises he never kept.

José Patricio Lope?. Sepulveda remained a lowly private for three long years, after which he fled across the border to El Paso, Texas, to escape the ultimately triumphant fédérales . As a child living in a Mexican neighborhood in Denver, where everyone’s father bragged about having been officers and noncoms, I was never fully reconciled to his unique status as the only private in that famous rebel army. I, in fact, sorely resented Pancho Villa for failing to promote him. Not until recently have I come to appreciate the ironic whimsy that no doubt prompted my father’s quiet refusal to elevate himself to an officer’s rank.

I now have the suspicion that he was really a full corporal.