Sunday, December 11, 2011

Snow Day

We don’t often see heavy snows here. Maybe that’s why we greet them with a child’s wonder and delight.
Two days running, snow had covered the Organs, and I’d been out freezing my tail off photographing them; but Monday’s heavy snow was a revelation.

Monday afternoon, I’d have stayed out by the mountains if I could have, but I’d promised to meet with some Occupy folks, so I headed in to Albert N. Johnson Park.

I stopped on the road to photograph snow on cactus, snow blanketing Tortugas Mountain, and three intrepid bicyclists starting out toward the mountains on Dripping Springs Road. When I got to my destination, I was still a lot more interested what I was seeing than in what needed fixing.

I photographed a snow-covered bicycle outside the library:
This bicycle waited for someone outside the library.
I photographed the Occupy tents. With snow on the ground and snow still falling, the tents made a more eloquent statement than usual. 
I also visited briefly with the statue. I'd known Albert Johnson before he became mayor, when he was a city commissioner and I was a young reporter. We were friends. Not close, but I respected and liked him, and I think he reciprocated. I was long gone when he died, prematurely; but I recall him as a pretty smart guy with a sense of humor, and as someone who had less of an ego (or less of his ego invested in his municipal position) than most folks in politics.
For readers who weren't here then, he was the first black mayor in New Mexico, unless Vado had one in its early days, and one of the few in the United States in 1976. Now the snow made him half-white.

Perhaps the visit with Mayor Johnson made me more reflective.

As I continued to drive around slowly, I saw a lot that was familiar but none of it looked familiar: everything had fresh snow all over it; and instead of the strong, reddish late-afternoon light of New Mexico, softer light filtered through still-falling snow. Any other day I’d have sped past the lion in front of City Hall, lying placidly under his snow-blanket, and the old barbershop across the street, closed for the day in the certainty that no one would brave the weather for a haircut.

In Pioneer Park, a few trees still showed off autumn colors muted by the snow. I heard a half-dozen kids, suddenly freed, scream with delight that they would make snow angels, and watched them run past a lone, hooded figure sitting at a snowy picnic table, head down.

I started up Lohman but pulled into a parking lot immediately to photograph the old Dona Ana County Courthouse with its snow-dressing. When it was a courthouse, not just a historic relic, I’d covered some interesting trials in it.
Walking around the grounds again, I half expected to meet the ghost of E. Forrest Sanders -- as, by God, I'd like to. We became close friends in 1974, an old man and a young one. But I recalled something I heard during the first few days I lived here, in August 1969 – a misplaced New Yorker who loved the land here but wondered what the town was like.
In my cheap apartment near NMSU, the breeze was blowing the kitchen curtains and I was half-listening to the radio when they read a story about a black man, an escapee from an Alabama chain gang, who'd been arrested in Las Cruces as a fugitive -- and, after hearing from the Alabama authorities who'd come to take him back there, the judge in Las Cruces said not only no but Hell no. He wasn't sending that black man back to that southern chain gang. I knew nothing about Judge Sanders, but suddenly felt a little better about my new home. When I got to know Forrest, I found he was a southerner, who'd been sent out here to die, in the late 1920's. When I mentioned the fugitive case, he chuckled, and told me the folks from Alabama hadn’t expected any such ruling from a judge with his accent.
I start up Lohman again but make it less than a block. Accented by snow, a small sculpture calls to me. I turn into the First National Bank parking lot (as it was back then). I must have passed the sculpture a thousand times. Maybe I once knew its story, but I don't now. Today, I shoot pictures , then read the caption: "O Suffering Jesus! O sorrowing Mary! Sept. 24, 1941."
From one angle, the courthouse stands in the background, the figures of Mary and Jesus facing it as if pleading for justice. From another, the First National Bank Tower looms behind them.
As the light fades, I drive home, accompanied by a string of ghosts. In the grey dusk, the town I know so well seems a little wondrous tonight. I wonder if the ghosts will tell anyone if I make a snow angel?


                                                   -30-
[The foregoing appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, although space permitted inclusion of only one of the photographs.  Below, a few more pix from the day, some mentioned in the column and some not -- as well as a couple, from the following morning, which was bright and clear but still cold enough that trees and buildings retained their snow.]

I guess I'd add that younger readers may not be able to imagine how unusual Albert Johnson's position in Las Cruces was.  At the Farmers' Market yesterday morning, an old friend mentioned again a ceremony at which Mayor Johnson was to speak.    As they announced that he'd be there in ten minutes, and then in five minutes, my friend was chatting with a couple of tourists here from New York.   When someone introduced the Mayor, they did the proverbial double take, and one of them said loudly, "That's the mayor?!"

Forrest Sanders also deserves a full blog or column.  He was a hell of a guy.  One of my great regrets is that our friendship was back before Xerox machines were quite as common (and copying as inexpensive) as it soon became.  (They existed, but not everywhere; and if you weren't a business they were costly.)  Forrest gave me a unique thing to read: his memoirs, covering his decades as a lawyer out here back when being a lawyer was more interesting than it would be now.  He defended a lot of accused murderers, and hung out in some of the least savory establishments in southern New Mexico.  I enjoyed it tremendously -- and I'd say that a couple of neat tricks I pulled as a trial lawyer were engendered by Forrest's memoirs.   I'd returned the book and talked with him about it many months before he died, and so far as I know it disappeared. 
One incident trial lawyers will appreciate.  Forrest was trying a case in Deming.  As some folks know, lawyers for each side get to challenge jurors.   If someone's obviously prejudiced against your client, or thinks your client slept with his wife, you have a challenge for cause -- and you can make as many of those as you wish, although the judge may or may not agree your grounds are strong enough to throw the juror off the panel.   You also get a few "peremptory challenges": these you use when there's no acceptable legal cause for a challenge, no demonstrable bias or defect, but you just have a bad feeling about the juror; or you see reasons she might be biased but the judge doesn't think they're strong enough to eliminate her.   These peremtory challenges are precious!
In the Deming jury, Forrest spotted a very conservative preacher who had disapproved of Forrest's lifestyle for many years.   It wasn't anything tangible enough for a challenge for cause, but Forrest had lived a somewhat riotous life, drinking in bawdy establishments and representing "low-lifes" in the area, and he knew very well how the preacher felt about him.   His reaction was brilliant.  As he moved along the front of the jury box, asking the other jurors questions that might establish bias, he finally reached the preacher.  He asked no questions at all, but simply said, as enthusiastically as he could, "Tom, great to see you -- guess I don't have to ask you any questions, as long as we've been knowing each other! as if the preacher was his best friend.  Opposing counsel, who was a lawyer from some bigger city, was immediately moved to use up one of his precious peremptory challenges eliminating a juror who would have been his best friend -- except that Forrest would have had to use up a peremptory challenge if the other lawyer hadn't done so!
That was the kind of plain human smarts I often didn't see in the high-priced lawyers I eventually went up against in San Francisco.  Which reminds me of a bunch of out-of-town lawyers who argued a case before Forrest once he became a judge.  There was an earlier case with similar facts, or so the argued.  Taking a look at the small-town judge and listening to his rural accent, they explained, somewhat condescendingly, the finer points of the case they said should control the result of their case -- until finally someone clued them in to the fact that the trial lawyer who'd aruged and won the earlier case was . . .  E. Forrest Sanders.

A while back, thinking about him and his lost memoirs, I googled him to see if anyone else in the world recalled him.   The bulk of the hits were quotes or reviews of the autobiography of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.  As a young girl in eastern Arizona, she'd known Forrest as a friend of her parents', and as a smart local lawyer, and then briefly as her boss when he hired her as an intern for a summer during law school.   She greatly admired him, maybe even suggested that his example was part of why she pursued the law.   I could well understand.

Other images from my afternoon drive:

An autumn leaf impaled on an ocotillo




Tortugas Mountain
 



Bicyclists -- through the truck's windshield
 

I hope the third fellow fixed the problem!
   
I pass these guys every day. 


Today they don't look real happy.

In fact, neither do they!

A wider view of the park





Sasha at Occupy



A stylized view of the bicycle -- but it wasn't a high-contrast day.



One of the two municipal lions

Not sure if this place was closed for the day, as I thought, or forever -- noticed the next morning that it's for sale:

This place, though, is closed forever.

Around the corner from the barbershop, this fellow had found a place to hide from the snow.

This fellow hadn't.

It was a gloomy day, and getting darker

Pioneer Park is always an appealing place, so I drove a few blocks to see how it looked in the snow.  Christmas lights braved the still-falling snow.  I paused to contemplate the hooded figure huddled at the table, looking less than content with his or her lot in life.
Then the voices of children surrounded me, screaming about making snow angels, and I watched them race gleefully past the figure at the picnic table:

This fellow watched from across the street . . .

. . .while these kept on going round and round


Writing the column, I was tempted to make more of a point about the old First National Bank tower looming over the statue, except that I also wondered whether perhaps Frank Papen, who built the tower, had also put the statue there.  Don't know whether that was instinct or a dim memory.
In any case, ideology aside, I liked the image but not the light, and so returned early the next morning, when sensible people weren't venturing out on the slick streets unless they had to, to shoot more appealing pictures of the courthouse and the statue.










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