Chapter 4: Bernalillo, New Mexico 1967
It was late June, 1967 and four friends were sitting in the parking lot behind Bernalillo High School in the Town of Bernalillo, New Mexico. They were sitting in Eduardo Sanchez’s 1964 Chevy convertible; Eduardo and his girlfriend JoAnne Elliott were in the front seat and Antonina “Nina” Boncarbo was sitting in the back seat with Isaac “Izzy” Melero. There wasn’t much conversation as they were busy finishing the last of their green chile cheeseburger from Blake’s Lotaburger a few block away. Eventually, the conversation moved to the most pressing topic of the moment; when will the monsoon rains start to break the June heat?
It was dusk. The school year had just ended; Prom was over and the friends began talking about how they will spend the summer. Eduardo said he had hoped to spend the summer in his father’s plumbing business, learning about this trade that had supported the Sanchez family for many years. Isaac was confident that his Uncle would get him a job with the Town of Bernalillo; he was just not sure what kind of a job it would be. JoAnne had enrolled at the University of New Mexico for the Fall and planned to take some introductory classes in Social Work over the summer. For Nina, the summer didn’t hold much promise. “I will probably end up watching my sister’s kids while she tries to find a new job.”
Eduardo casually said, “I got a letter from my Uncle today.”
Isaac asked, “The one in Española?”
“No, the one in Washington.”
“Huh? I didn’t know you had no family outside New Mexico.”
“Nah, it was my Uncle Sam. My number came up in the Lottery and I’ve been drafted into the Army.”
“That is no good, amigo. I hear that everyone that gets drafted gets sent to Vietnam.”
For these young people in this small northern New Mexico town, Vietnam was just a word they heard occasionally in school. It was a country that was very far away and not often mentioned in the local news. And, they didn’t know anyone from Bernalillo who was actually in the Army.
Nina said, “I have a cousin in Socorro who got drafted over a year ago and he was sent to Vietnam. He survived and is due to come home by Christmas. My Tia tells me that his letters have described some pretty horrible things.”
Later that evening, Eduardo and JoAnne were sitting alone in his car. They had driven east, up into the foothills of the Sandia Mountains where they could watch the city lights of Albuquerque.
Eduardo put his arm around JoAnne and said quietly, “Wait for me. We will have a life together as soon as I return. They say I only have to be in for two years and probably only one year in Vietnam. It won’t be too long and we can get married when I get back.”
JoAnne nestled her head against Eduardo and whispered, “I’m gonna miss you something awful. I’ll write every day. I promise.”
Eduardo tried to be his very macho best and said, “I will miss you, too, but nobody’s gonna mess with me. I have big plans for us. Everything will be OK, don’t worry.”
“Oh, Eduardo, I’m so afraid. Please be safe and come home quickly to me.”
In just a few short weeks, Eduardo had taken the bus to San Antonio, Texas where he underwent basic training prior to shipping out for Vietnam. JoAnne began her classes at UNM and began writing Eduardo, telling him how exciting university life was and how much she missed him.
Nina was shopping for her sister at the T&T Market one afternoon when she saw Eduardo’s parents. “Señor y Señora Sanchez, how nice to see you. I hope you are well.”
“Look, Papa, it is Antonina Boncarbo, one of Eduardo’s friends.” “Ola, Antonina, como esta?”
“I am well. Any news from Eduardo?”
“Not much. I worry about mi hijo while he is so far away.”
“Maybe the Army will knock some sense into him while he’s away from that Anglo girl from school. At least, she didn’t get pregnant to trick him before he left.” said Papa Sanchez angrily.
“We did not approve of her, added Mama Sanchez. She was not part of our community. She did not even attend mass at Our Lady of Sorrows though she lives here.”
“JoAnne is in school at UNM in Albuquerque. Maybe she’ll meet a nice Anglo boy there and forget all about Eduardo,” said Nina hopefully.
Isaac Melero was a rather non-descript young man without much ambition. The primary reason Nina encouraged him was because he was Eduardo’s best friend and she could be around Eduardo almost all the time. After the chance meeting with the Sanchezes, Nina realized that there might be a way to capture Eduardo for herself. She would need the Sanchezes help, but, based on their negative comments about Joanne, Nina didn’t think that would be a problem.
Nina’s plan was to separate JoAnne from Eduardo by intercepting their letters and writing letters to him of her own. She knew that her cousin who worked at the Bernalillo Post Office would also be willing to help. It was over a year until Eduardo was due to be discharged which provided Nina plenty of time to manage the situation to her advantage.
Nina presented her plan to the Sanchezes about a week later. “I will write to Eduardo and tell him that JoAnne had left the university and run off to Mississippi with some black guy to join the Civil Rights marches. I know it may hurt him, but I will help him get over her quickly. It will also be necessary for me to tell JoAnne that, as his parents, you received notification that Eduardo had been killed in a horrible battle somewhere in the jungle. So far, the Army had not been able to recover his body.”
“Oh, Antonina, that would be a horrible thing to do. It would not be right and The Blessed Virgin would not approve of our actions,” cried Mama Sanchez.
“But, if Eduardo marries that Anglo, he will be dead to us anyway,” argued Papa Sanchez. “You know that is true, Mama. He will leave us for her and all that I’ve worked for will be lost. We cannot allow that to happen.”
“Antonina, we must pray about this. I feel so bad that so many people would be hurt.”
“You can pray, Mama, but I know we must do this to protect our only son and preserve our community and our church as well as the business.”
Nina waited anxiously for the next few days until Señora Sanchez called on her while she was watching her sister’s children. “I have prayed to the Virgin for guidance and to forgive us for these terrible lies. But, Papa was strong and he always knows what is best for our family and our community. Please come to our home this evening when Papa is finished with his work to talk about what we must do.”
With the support and cooperation of the Sanchezes, Nina wrote the letter to Eduardo informing him that JoAnne had left school to join the Civil Rights marches without telling Nina exactly where she was going or how to contact her. Nina smoked several packs of cigarettes and stayed awake for the next several days so that she sounded totally distraught when she called JoAnne to inform her of Eduardo’s tragic death.
JoAnne was devastated by this news and the Sanchez family played their part completely to support Nina’s lies through a very brief phone call. Joanne tried to study, but remained heartbroken and inconsolable. She decided to pour all of her energies into action; she could no longer just attend classes or sit in her room at the university and study. She took a bus to Mississippi and got deeply involved in local Voter Registration drives. She grew to deeply despise the war that had taken the love of her life from her. She started volunteering at the local USO center and also at the local VA hospital. Her Eduardo was gone, but she would dedicate her life to helping other young men who had suffered through a similar experience.
Nina began writing letters to Eduardo, initially expressing her shock and sadness that JoAnne had run away so abruptly. Over the next few months, Nina’s letters became more frequent and she increasingly told Eduardo how much she missed him and how much he meant to her.
Nina’s letters were a source of great support to Eduardo as he endured the brutality of his time in Vietnam with the periods of total boredom and the moments of sheer terror. He came to rely on her words of comfort and the promise of a better life when he returned home. By the time his tour was over, Eduardo had almost completely forgotten about JoAnne and was eager to return to a life that he understood much better than what he had experienced while in the Army.
Over the next few months, Nina was often a guest for dinner at the Sanchez house and Eduardo and Nina began to spend more time together. After he had been home about six months, Eduardo asked Nina to marry and share a quiet life in Bernalillo with him. He took the few items of memorabilia from his time in the Army, put them in a shoe box and placed them in the back of a closet, never to be opened again.
Papa Sanchez eagerly welcomed Eduardo into his business which was growing as the new city of Rio Rancho began to expand rapidly. They worked together to diversify the original plumbing business into a larger general contracting operation. Despite their considerable success in the new neighborhoods, Papa Sanchez remained fiercely loyal to the Bernalillo community and often provided service at a lower rate to struggling families and also donated his services to Our Lady of Sorrows. This approach to the business satisfied Eduardo’s ambition to grow and Papa Sanchez’s commitment to his community. This was clearly demonstrated the day Papa Sanchez purchased a new panel van for the business with Sanchez & Son painted brightly on the sides.
Eduardo and Nina welcomed the birth of a son into the Sanchez family and Papa soon bought the baby a set of plastic tools as his first toys. There was little doubt in the family that young Eduardo would someday follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.