The Things Ben Has Seen

By Richard McCord

A few days after I bought an old adobe house in the South Capitol section of Santa Fe, there came a knocking at the door. Standing there was a tiny man, not more than 5 feet tall, with a little black mustache. "My name is Ben A. Martinez," he announced with a huge smile. "I am 86 years old. I heard that the house had been sold, and I wanted you to know that my mother, Rosario Apodaca, was born in it a long time ago."

Mr. Martinez stayed a while that day, and told me about the old days in the neighborhood--where the crops had grown, where the woodcarvers and the tinsmiths had lived, where the acequia had flowed. Since then he has come back a time or two, with grown grandchildren in tow to see what I have done with the house. And I have gone to his house in turn, and heard the story of his life.

He was born in 1907 on a mesa in the Ojo de la Vaca area south of town, where his grandparents claimed land under the Homestead Act of 1862. The oldest of eight children, he lived the hard-working life of a farm boy, doing chores and riding horses from the age of 4 on. A brother died in the influenza epidemic of 1916. Ben's father and uncles went off to work on the railroads during World War I. His mother died at the age of 30, when he was 13 years old. Bringing beef in from the farm to Frank Ortiz's store in Santa Fe and wood in to his relatives, he courted the pretty Helen Medrano. They were married in 1932.

During the Depression, Ben was hired by the National Youth Administration to teach building trades at a tent camp for boys in the Jemez Mountains. When World War II broke out, he was sent to San Diego to work on B-29 bombers. After the war he taught construction skills to veterans at the vocational school in El Rito in northern New Mexico. Then he was asked to take a similar post at Santa Fe High School. For 16 years he taught, then lost his job because he had no college degree. But he could always find work on his own.

In the early 1960s his house was taken by the city, to make way for the St. Francis Drive throughway that cut the town in two. Ben built another place nearby, on Sierra Vista Street. Then an 11-year-old son got lost in the mountains and died, and his wife could no longer live in that house. So he built her a fine new home with vigas and fireplaces, just off Agua Fria Street, close to their church, St. Anne's, and surrounded by their friends.

When the children were grown and gone, however, keeping the house clean with all the smoke and dust was too much for Helen. She begged Ben for a modern house. Though he did not want to move, he had never been able to say no to her. In 1986 they bought a slick new place in a subdivision on the south side, near the high school. At first Helen was happy, but soon the roof of the new house was leaking, and tiles were falling out of the bathroom walls. Then, just two years after moving in, she died.

With his wife gone and his young new neighbors all rushing off to work each day, Ben grew lonely. He tried to buy back his home off Agua Fria. The new owner was willing to sell, but asked four times the price Ben had placed upon it. He could not meet that price, and so remained where he was. Despite his 86 years, and the $1,260 he must pay annually for auto insurance, Ben still drives his car a bit, to St. Anne's and the Alto Street Senior Citizens Center, and to visit friends in the old part of town. But mostly he stays at home, working, very slowly, on his project.

"Recuerdos y Cosechas," the project is called--"Memories and Harvests." It is a collection of clippings, jottings and mementos that Ben hopes to pull together into book form, along with similar items from friends at the senior center. About 20 people were working on the project when it began a few years ago. Now only eight of them are left.

Ben A. Martinez worries that time is slipping by. But his fingers cramp when he writes, his strength is low, and his memory sometimes fails. Still, he means to get the job done, for he knows that the things he has seen in his long life in Santa Fe are worth remembering, and will not be seen again.

To order Richard McCord's book "The Other State: New Mexico, USA," just out in paperback, visit Amazon.com .

Other Articles by Richard McCord


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