The drive into Albuquerque was an endless stream of giant yellow billboards extolling the many virtues of the Flying C Ranch.
One after another after another and another and another they tease you, exhort you, beckon you to forget whatever destination is plugged into your GPS and EXIT NOW.
As you speed over the smooth flat tarmac towards the mountains in the distance, you’re bombarded. Left, right, left, right, they’re perfectly spaced, diabolically, even, to give you just enough time to process why you must EXIT NOW.
SWEET TREATS. SERAPES. ARTIFACTS. CHICKEN STRIPS.
POTTERY. T-SHIRTS. HOT EATS. SOUVENIRS. WALL DECOR.
FIREWORKS. MOCCASINS. JEWELRY. GUY STUFF. GIRL STUFF. (Seriously.)
COOL STUFF. EXIT NOW. FIREWORKS.
Despite the nearly overwhelming marketing effort, we did not feel the need to EXIT NOW. We skipped Exit 234 and drove past, well, a gas station. It was a decent size, with red-topped turrets on white towers flanking a red-topped rectangular white building with FLYING C RANCH in letters large enough to see as we whizzed past at 75 mph. But was it worth miles and miles of exuberant billboards?
We’ll never know. (And we’re OK with that. Although part of me…)
We were excited to get to Albuquerque. We had a date with indoor plumbing and centuries-old adobe and rattlesnakes. We had a date with Old Town.
As we neared our destination we exited I-40 to return to Route 66. It was a jumble of construction cones and closed-off lanes, but we took it anyway and we still arrived at Bottger Mansion about two hours early.
I really, really, really had to go to the bathroom, so we rang the doorbell despite the sign saying you cannot enter until 3 p.m. Steve, one of the owners, came out and informed us that we could come back in a couple of hours.
At the time I was put off by his strict adherence to the rules. We learned later that he was a software engineer, and I thought “Aha!”, but I know my irritation stemmed from the rising tide that nearly crested before we found the public bathroom on the square.
Once the waves retreated I realized that of course he couldn’t let me in early. They run a bed and breakfast, not a hotel, and their accommodations can only accommodate so many at one time, so that means early arrivals are not privy to the privy.
Darn it. I hate it when I act like an entitled prima donna.
The bathrooms in Old Town Albuquerque, we discovered to our delight and convenience, are right next to the Visitor Center. Remember what I said earlier? ALWAYS VISIT THE VISITOR CENTER. We did, and had one of the most memorable and moving experiences of the entire journey.
We entered a small-ish room that was lined with hundreds of brochures. It was a tease and a temptation, showing just how much we wouldn’t have time to do during our all-too-brief visit. We knew that going in, but one of my travel mantras is to ask the locals where they eat lunch, so that’s what we did.
Pat and Sir Tom were the embodiment of why you should – say it with me – ALWAYS VISIT THE VISITOR CENTER.
We learned that Pat’s grandson had been at Fort Sheridan on the north side of Chicago, which reminded us of the couple we met while hiking at Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge. Their son had also been at Fort Sheridan. During his service, he fell in love with the area, and then he fell in love with a girl, and now he lives in Bartlett, another Chicago suburb that’s about twenty minutes from our home.
“Guess he fell in love one too many times,” Jim joked.
That couple has to go all the way up there to see their son and daughter-in-law and their grandkids, but they didn’t seem to mind too much.
Sir Tom was a slightly stooped freckled gent with thinning hair and red-rimmed eyes. He grew up in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Michigan. As a child, all summer long he and his brother would jump from the weeping willow into the frigid water, and last he knew the house was still there, even though the town has changed. We asked him where we should have lunch in Old Town.
“I’m going to give you three choices, OK?” he asked.
“Your first one is Church Street Cafe.”
“Your second one is, and this is a close tie, but I’ve gotta say it’s … Church Street Cafe.”
Jim and I grinned.
“And your third one is, and I think you know what I’m going to say here,” he paused.
“Church Street Cafe,” we three said together.
As we thanked them both and were leaving for Church Street Cafe (how could we go anywhere else?) Jim noticed the military pin Sir Tom was wearing and thanked him for his service. The elder gent talked about going to war, and Jim asked him if it was World War II. When he said it was indeed, Jim shared a very personal story.
That one candid moment turned a casual conversation with a couple of tourists into something deeper.
Sir Tom landed at Omaha Beach. “There was a line of about 30 ambulances, and we could see the bombers coming in. They were strafing everything, but when they got close to us they stopped shooting and flew right over.”
Can you imagine? He was a kid, maybe 18 years old. Bombers are coming towards you and you know you’re going to die and then they fly right over. So you live and you survive. Then, the next year, you see what happens when humanity dies.
“I was at Dachau,” he said. “It’s real. What they did to them… When you hear stories about what they did to them, the Jewish people, believe them.”
“I was there.” He looked away.
“What people can do to each other…”
When he looked back there were tears. There was dignity. This man, this 92-year-old soldier, remembered what had happened seventy-two years ago as if it was yesterday.
That he shared those memories with us was the consummate privilege. We thanked him and told him how honored we were and headed into the bright sunshine knowing that we’d met one of the great ones.
We had to stop for a moment. When you meet someone like that, when he shares a part of himself that is profound and shaped who he is today, and you know his sacrifices and efforts shaped the world in which you live, it’s a disservice to move on gaily to the next item on the agenda. It deserves some processing, some acknowledgment.
We grasped hands and squeezed tight and knew that Sir Tom had now become a part of us, and that we were there, in some small way, because of what he’d done when he was just a boy.