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Chapter 5: Mystery Shopping and Snooping

Matthew Dudley went to the Dining Room early the following morning.  He needed to talk to Señora Angostura before Beth arrived.  He was still reading the Wall Street Journal when Paloma emerged from the kitchen drying her hands on a dish towel.

“Señor Doc, it is always good to see you each morning.  It reassures me that somethings in life remain consistent and dependable. How are you today?”

“I am well, thank you, Señora. I have a very busy day ahead of me and will be away from the premises for much of it.  I wanted to talk to you and ask your advice on a delicate matter.”

“You know you can always talk openly with me.”

“The situation surrounding Mrs. Arthur’s murder affected many people here and particularly Mrs. Branch.  She puts on a brave face, but I suspect it is just to cover up just how sad she is inside.  I wish there were something we could do for her.”

“Do you think there are others here who are also hiding their true feelings.”

“I was thinking of Señora Barela.”

Paloma smiled. “I am pleased that you are becoming sensitive to people’s true nature.  I guess there are benefits of not living alone after all.”

“You are correct, as always, Señora,” Dudley admitted grudgingly. “Can you think of a way that we could get the two of them together to perhaps begin to build a friendship?”

“If you are asking me if I would arrange that, I would be happy to do it.  You are also becoming more subtle in your requests, Señor. Just so you know, I have invited both ladies to my kitchen to help me with menus for the Summer.  I believe both have something to contribute and it will be an opportunity to get to know each other better.”

“I apologize for trying to appear devious, Señora.  I should know by now to be direct with you.  You are much too perceptive for my feeble attempts.”

“Paloma gave Dudley an all-knowing look. I take no offense, Señor Doc. But, you must now do something for me and I will be very direct. You are no doubt aware that Señora Duncan has made a proposal to Mr. Blackburn and Ms. Elliott about their contracts and desired living arrangements.  They are pleased and will certainly accept.  That is a good outcome for everyone.  But, I would like you to speak candidly and forcefully to Señor Ramirez about his behavior toward Ms. Elliott.  Despite her repeated rejections of his advances, he refuses to take No for an answer.  He insists that she is just playing hard-to-get. It is time for him to stop bothering her altogether and I believe you are the appropriate person to deliver that message.  If not, I will have to ask Francisco to talk to him and that is not something I wish to do.”

“I understand completely, Señora.  You have my word that I will handle this.  There is no need to involve Lt. Garcia; he has more important things to attend to.”

Dudley and Paloma continued to exchange general pleasantries until Beth Ford arrived.  “I must be off, Señora.  You can be assured that I will speak to our Resident Romeo at soon as possible.  Buenos dias.”
Beth Ford had compiled a list of places to visit based on the initial information Minot Atkinson had developed.  She and Matthew Dudley stopped in the first place late that morning.  Dudley was uncomfortable with their deception and Beth took the lead.  The Medical Counselor at the first facility was dressed professionally despite the rather shabby appearance of the office and strip mall location. Her approach was courteous and thorough and she handled the difficult inquiries about personal and financial information with tact.  As Beth answered each question, the Counselor entered everything into a computer terminal on her desk.  After almost forty-five minutes of intense questioning, the Counselor said, “Well, that completes the information, Mrs. Jones.  It will take a few days for the State and Federal Governments to process things.  You will be hearing from us in the very near future.  I’m sure your aging mother will be greatly relieved to know that all of her future medical needs will be met.  Thank you again for choosing ACA Assist and coming by this morning.”

Beth suggested they stop for a light lunch as they got in her car.  “That way, we can review our first meeting and assess how we’re doing.  Is that agreeable with you?”

They ate quietly for a few minutes before Dudley said, “Beth, I know we are trying to understand what is actually happening with these so-called Agencies, but I am still a bit uncomfortable with the deception.”

“That is certainly understandable, Doc. It is for me as well.  I keep reminding myself, however, that our suspicion is that these Agencies are involved in a much greater level of deception and most likely with some of the most vulnerable people in our community.  That thought gives me the strength to do whatever I have to do to get to the bottom of this.  We’re committed to helping people and if we can prevent them from being taken advantage of, then I’m OK with what we’re doing.”

“Thank you, Beth.  What is the next location on our list?

For the next several hours Matthew Dudley and Beth Ford drove around Albuquerque and stopped in a variety of places which offered to assist people enroll in the healthcare systems provided through the Affordable Care Act.  At each, location, they became more efficient and more direct in their approach and questioning.   Late in the afternoon, they stopped in front of a store front in a strip mall with a large neon sign overhead that read ACA Insurance Associates.  They went in and were greeted by a well-dressed young man who introduced himself as a Certified Insurance Counselor. He offered them a bottle of water and directed them to a small cubicle.

The interview progressed much as the previous ones with a similar format and almost identical information requests.  Suddenly, Dudley stood up, motioned to Beth and said quite angrily, “Let’s get out of here.  I see no reason why this man has to ask all of these personal questions.  Why does he have to have all of this information?  I am very uncomfortable with telling this perfect stranger the most intimate details about my wife and our personal finances!”

It took Beth a moment to recover from Dudley’s outburst, but she quickly regained her composure and said, “Now, calm down, Father. I know this is a very trying time for you with all of Mother’s problems and the mounting medical bills, but this gentleman is just trying to help.  Please sit down and allow him to complete the interview.”

“Oh, alright, but I still don’t see why he has to have all of this information.”

The Counselor smiled and said, “I understand completely, Sir.  I personally find it very difficult and confusing at times myself.  I had many of the same questions when I was going through the training program to become certified. My understanding is that all of these questions are specified in the Act and that any omissions would cause your application to be rejected.  But, let me assure you that we do not share any of your information with any other Agency and that our computer network has the very latest security software.  If you’ll bear with me a few more minutes, we’re almost through.”

Beth could hardly contain herself, but waited until they had driven a few blocks before she pulled over. “I could kiss you!  That was brilliant!  Despite your outburst, that young man remained perfectly calm and simply waited you out. I think it is fair to say that we are dealing with a very sophisticated operation and that these so-called Counselors are well-trained, to say the least. I can understand why the information requests would be standard; that could be dictated by the Act. But, that wouldn’t explain why each of the Counselors we met used essentially the same script in dealing with us.”

“I do apologize for my outburst, but that young man just appeared too smooth for my taste.  My skin started to crawl and I just couldn’t contain myself any longer.”

“Well, it certainly provided us a deeper insight to the sophistication of this operation.  We still have no way to actually prove that these individual offices are connected other than our intuition.  Hopefully, Minot will discover something in her research.”

“I have several important repair projects that I must attend to tomorrow, but I’m available on Thursday if you would like to visit a few more places.  I suggest we try some different neighborhoods as well.  My sense of things is that these people will focus on the less educated and those who probably never had any form of health insurance.  If you agree, why don’t you pick a few places from Minot’s list and we’ll see what we learn.”

“That makes sense, Doc. And, if there is any connection between these places, waiting a day or two might cause something to develop.  I’ll pick you up at ten on Thursday.”

 

Dudley and Beth spent most of Thursday afternoon visiting several more so-called Agencies. When they stopped for gas at an Allsup’s station, Dudley noticed a stack of flyers on the counter as he paid for two bottles of water.   They were for a place in the neighborhood called ACA-R-Us.  “We have to go to this place,” he said as he got back in Beth’s car.  I’m almost afraid of what we’ll find and we may be over-dressed, but let’s do this one more and call it a day.”

The ACA-R-Us Agency was located a few blocks away in a strip mall. The office was a small store front situated between a Nail Salon and Title Loan Company.  “On second thought,” said Dudley, maybe this would not be necessary.  And, I’m not sure I could contain myself to sit through the entire interview.  I think we’ve seen enough in the past two days.  Our task now is to figure out what to do with what we’ve seen and heard.”

“Thank you.  I don’t think I could have handled this one either.  If you have no objection, I’d like to visit some of the Agencies in Rio Rancho over the weekend.    I’ve bribed my husband with a fancy dinner out and we can pose as a couple trying to enroll an aging parent.  We may even see what happens when we try to enroll ourselves.”

 

With a minimum of grumbling, Doug Ford accompanied Beth on their mystery shopping tour on Saturday. Their premise was that they wanted to enroll Doug’s mother in one of the programs available through ACA.  At the second site, they also asked about enrolling themselves since they claimed to be unemployed at the present.  At each location, the information format was nearly identical to what Beth and Dudley had experienced.  At their last scheduled visit, things got a bit complicated.  The Counselor did not greet them with the same sense of grace they had experienced previously.  In fact, she took a more aggressive approach almost immediately.  “It looks like you have already enrolled your Mother, Mr. Jones. I’m sure you’re aware that each person can only enroll once.  I hope you’re not trying to pull one over on us!”

Doug Ford was taken aback and wasn’t sure how to respond. Beth stepped in and touched him arm. “I’ll bet Father took our advice and enrolled Mother on his own.  I suspect he got tired of my nagging and got up from the TV and did the right thing.”

“Yeah. I’ll bet that’s what happened.  Sorry for the confusion.  We’ll be on our way. Thanks for catching that.  We wouldn’t want to try to fool the system, now, would we?”

As they drove away and toward Bernalillo, Doug looked over at Beth and smiled. “Damn, you’re good.  You’re a lot faster on your toes than I am! Let’s head over to The Range and I’ll buy dinner.”

“I still love you, Big Guy, even if you are a bit slow.  But, that proves something to me; these various Agencies are somehow connected.  I doubt seriously that any actual government-run program could connect the dots that quickly.”

Beth sat back in her seat and began to relax for the short drive into Bernalillo. Suddenly she sat up and pointed out the window. “Damn! Doc was right. There’s another Agency and it looks like it’s operating out of a van in front of the Casino!  These folks are really targeting the people who are most susceptible to this type of outright fraud.”

 

Minot enjoyed spending time with Emily Chang; she was intelligent and had a totally wicked sense of humor which delighted Minot.  Tonight, however, Minot was in a much more serious mood and was becoming increasingly concerned about what she had uncovered in her research.  But, she had not been able to access the information she wanted; everything seemed to be buried under layers of various organizational structure and ownership.

Emily picked up on Minot’s mood almost immediately. “OK, Sunshine, do you want to tell me what has your knickers in a knot or are you just going to sit there and be a snotty bitch all evening?”

Minot began with Mila’s report and then described her own investigations into the various agencies that had recently opened shop around Albuquerque.  “I am convinced, Emily, that there is something going on here.  My best guess is that this is a coordinated effort to steal identities from lots of unsuspecting people.  They are being told that they are signing up for healthcare benefits, but I don’t think that’s what’s happening at all. It’s really just a simple scam to steal identities.  Two things frustrate me.  One, my gut tells me that all or most of these operations are part of one larger organization, but I cannot seem to discover the connection.  Second, what really has me baffled is why the information hasn’t been used.  The families Mila interviewed said that there were no erroneous charges to their accounts, no mysterious withdrawals, etc.  Nothing!  In fact, one family didn’t even have a bank account or credit card; they did everything in cash. All that shows up is that each family appears to have used a large amount of medical services and equipment, which is also false.”

“Maybe, suggested Emily, the bad guys are just accumulating information and plan to use it later.  Or, they may be reselling it to some Nigerian Prince or Russian Oligarch for an entirely different type of scam.  There are lots of possible explanations.”

“I guess those are possibilities, but it’s a stretch, in my opinion.”

“Tell me again about these charges for medical equipment and services.”

“Both families said that they received quarterly statements for all of the services and equipment they used in the previous quarter.  But, in each case, neither family had used anything, no doctors’ visits, no wheelchairs, no oxygen tanks, nothing.  The statement said that everything was covered by insurance so the families just ignored it and assumed that the system was screwed up.”

“Well, as we know only too well, it is entirely possible for the system to be screwed up or account numbers confused, or any other of a host of bureaucratic nonsense. Why don’t you let me do some research on my own into these various organizations. I have ways of digging deeper into corporate records and filings and may be able to uncover some things that are not so obvious.  Have no fear, my Dear, I will find something.  In the meantime, why don’t you relax and let go of this for a while. Just open that delightful bottle of wine you brought.”

Minot tried to focus her attention on the other tasks that the Team had asked her to pursue, but she remained troubled.  One afternoon, while staring at her computer, she received a text message on her phone. “Meet me for coffee at The Flying Star on Central near UNM, Em.” Minot dropped what she was doing and hurried into town.   She found Emily Chang sitting at a table near the windows facing Central Avenue.

“I can tell you, began Emily, that most of the organizations on your list are connected and the trail seems to lead back to a single source.  The trail is very, very well disguised with multiple layers of organization and ownership, etc. There are even more so-called agencies involved, but I believe there is something more. I just cannot get past the very sophisticated web that has been created to hide things. And, I still can’t figure out why the information is being collected in the first place.”

“So, you’ve confirmed my suspicion that there’s something fishy going on.  That is reassuring, but how can we find out what is behind all of this?  People don’t just collect personal confidential and not do anything with it.”

Emily smiled. “I think it’s time to call The Doctor.”

“What? Don’t tell me this little project has made you ill.”

“No. Let me tell you a story that’s before your time and mine for that matter, but I’m sure you are aware of the urban legend that Microsoft actually started here in Albuquerque.”

“I’ve heard that story, but I’ve always dismissed it as just that, urban legend.”

“Well, Bill Gates and his original team were holed up in a motel here on Central writing code back in 1977. The story goes that Gates was arrested for some minor traffic BS; you can even Google his mug shot.  Anyway, they packed it in and headed west to Washington; except for one guy who stayed.  Over the years, he became completely invisible. For all intents and purposes, he doesn’t exist; he’s that far underground. Completely off the grid.  He exists only by legend and no one even knows his name; he’s simply referred to as The Doctor.  Without going into any detail, he and I became acquainted several years ago during a project of mutual interest.  If anyone can trace this trail back to its ultimate source or sources, it is him.  I think a call to him would be appropriate at this point.”

“Wow. I’d like to introduce him to the Team or at least Beth Ford.  Can you arrange a meeting?’

“No can do.  In fact, if I tell you any more, I’d have to kill you!”

“C’mon Em, you can trust me.”

“That’s not the point.  You’ll just have to trust me and forget we ever talked about this.  Minot, I believe in what you’re doing and I also believe you’ve stumbled onto something much bigger than you can imagine. Let me handle this.  I promise to tell you anything and everything that affects your work and the Community Assist initiative.  Gotta go.”

Minot Atkinson sat at the table for a long while.  She hadn’t touched the coffee or the pastry Emily had bought for her.  She trusted Emily Chang explicitly, but could not help but wonder what she had meant by something bigger than you can imagine.   It was not unlike Emily to have an air of intrigue about her, but her reference to this mysterious character called The Doctor was both exciting and disturbing.  Minot realized that she had no choice but to wait for Emily’s call, which she knew would come … eventually.

 

 

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.

 

Chapter 6: Road Trip

One afternoon, while Matthew Dudley was returning from a minor electrical repair job, he passed Larry Blackburn in the main lobby. “How is your scrapbook project coming along?” asked Dudley.

“Just fine.” responded Blackburn. “I’d like to show you my progress when you have a spare minute.”

“No problem, just give me a call.”

“I have a question about New Mexico that perhaps you could answer for me.”

“I’ll try.”

“I’ve been doing some reading about the history of the state and I understand that there has been a considerable amount of mining in the past. That is an area I’m particularly interested in.”

“You are correct. There has been quite a bit of mining in the state of many different kinds. There has been considerable copper mining in the southern part of the state, near Silver City. And there were the uranium mines out near Grants. Closer to Albuquerque, there was coal mining in Madrid and lots of smaller primitive mines in Cerrillos, just north of here.”

“I don’t think I mentioned it, but I spent my entire career in and around mining. In the Army, I was lucky enough to get assigned to vehicle maintenance and spent my entire time there, learning a great deal. When I got out and returned home to Hibbing, Minnesota, I landed a job with Caterpillar working on those big machines in the mining industry. It gave me a chance to see some of the very large-scale open pit mines and I’ve been fascinated by those operations ever since. I’d really like to visit some of the historical sites around here if it would be possible.”

“You’re in luck,” beamed Dudley. “I used to live in Cerrillos and was headed up that way one day next week to tend to a few things. If you’d like to come along, we can take the “scenic route” past some of the gravel pits near Bernalillo, across Santo Domingo Pueblo land to Madrid and then into Cerrillos. There’s a new Visitor Center at the Cerrillos Hills State Park that we can visit. That will give you a chance to see several kinds of things. We could go to Grants or Silver City at sometime later.”

“I would really appreciate it, if it isn’t too much trouble.”

“Not at all. It gives OJ and me a chance to visit and to take a break from our routine here. I’ll give you a call a day or two in advance.”

A few days later, after a pleasant day trip as Dudley had described, the three of them were driving south on I-25 from Cerrillos and, as they drove past the San Felipe Pueblo, Blackburn noticed a panel van in the next lane. He had to look twice to reassure himself that the lettering on the side of the van said Sanchez & Son, General Contractors Bernalillo, New Mexico. Excitedly, he said to Dudley, “Please ask OJ to follow that van. I believe it must belong to an old Army buddy of mine. It is very important to me that I speak to the driver.”

OJ followed the van as it took the Bernalillo 242 exit and pulled into the Conoco gas station. Blackburn jumped out of the van and ran up to the driver who had just begun pumping gas. “I’m looking for Eddie Sanchez from Bernalillo. You must be his son!”

“No, sorry. Eddie’s my boss. Can I help you?”

“I’m sorry for being so abrupt. Eddie Sanchez and I served in the Army together and I know he was from Bernalillo and that his father owned a plumbing contractor business. It would mean a great deal to me if you could help me find him. I’m not even sure this is the right Sanchez.”

“Slow down, Old Timer. There is only one Sanchez Contractor in Bernalillo, but you must be talking about Eddie’s father. I mean, given your age, you know.”

“You’re probably right. But, can you tell me how I can get in contact with him?”

“I can do better than that. I’m on my way to see Eddie right now to deliver some drawings. If you’ll follow me to The Range, I’ll introduce you to Eddie Sanchez.”

Blackburn went back to the truck where OJ and Dudley had been sitting and watching this exchange. “Could we follow that van to some place he called The Range? He’s going to take me to see an old Army buddy of mine. I’d really appreciate it.”

“No problem, Señor Larry, but I won’t go into The Range; it’s much too fancy for me.”

“I’ll go with you, Larry, offered Dudley.”

OJ followed the Sanchez & Son van into Bernalillo and parked in the gravel lot across the street from The Range. Blackburn and Dudley walked into the restaurant where the driver was waiting and he motioned for them to follow him to a table in the main dining area. A young man and woman sat at the table and the young man rose and shook hands with the driver. “I hope you don’t mind, Boss, but I brought some guy to meet you. I actually think he’s looking for your father, but I’ll leave that to you to sort out. Anyway, here are the drawings for the new Kingston house for you to review. Nice to see you again, Mrs. Sanchez.” The driver handed over the roll of drawings and left.

Blackburn moved forward toward the table, unsure of what to do. The young man certainly resembled Eddie Sanchez. Blackburn decided to just plunge forward. He held out his hand and said, “My name is Laurence Blackburn and I served in the Army in Vietnam with Eddie Sanchez from Bernalillo. You are obviously not him, but I wonder if you could help me locate him.”

The young man took Blackburn’s hand and returned a firm handshake. “I am Eddie Sanchez and you are certainly referring to my father, but no one around here ever called him Eddie; it was always Eduardo. Please sit down and let’s talk. This is my wife, Brittney.”

Blackburn felt instantly at ease and asked if Dudley could join them.

Eddie Sanchez took the initiative to speak first. “Mr. Blackburn, it is a pleasure to meet you. My father never talked about his time in the Army and pretty much avoided any discussion of it when anyone asked. From the few comments he did make, I believe he was proud to have served his country, but deeply troubled by the experience. The only thing he ever really mentioned was how much the guys in his Unit meant to him.”

“You are correct; it was an awful experience. But, for me, it was the friendship of guys like you father that helped me get through it. He also talked a lot about his home and what a wonderful place it was and how much he missed his friends. In fact, it was his description of this place that encouraged me to move here when I retired and after my wife died. From what I’ve seen so far, his description was certainly accurate. I would really like to see him, not to talk about those times, but just to thank him for being a true friend.”

“Thank you very much for those thoughts, Mr. Blackburn. I’m afraid my father passed away late last year.”

“I’m sorry for your loss. I know you miss him a great deal.”

“Thank you. There might be something I could do, however. We are preparing to sell my parents’ house and I discovered a small shoe box containing some of what I believe to be my father’s Army memorabilia. Perhaps you could look through it and see if there is anything important.”

“I’d be honored, but shouldn’t your mother do that?”

“That would not be possible now. You see, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago and Brit and I can no longer care for her. Her folks are in failing health and it was just too much to care for all of them adequately. So, we arranged for Mama to live in a first-class retirement place called La Vida Aureo in Albuquerque. They have an excellent Memory Care unit and she is getting much better support than we were able to provide.”

“That’s a strange coincidence. I’m also living at La Vida Aureo and one of the main reasons I selected it was because of their capabilities for progressive care should I need it in the future. In fact, Mr. Dudley here also lives there.”

“Then, why don’t I bring my father’s box of Army stuff to La Vida Aureo for you when I come to visit Mama tomorrow afternoon?”

“That would be wonderful if it’s not too much trouble. I’ve been trying to organize a box of photos I have from my Army days and this would fit right in.”

Eddie Sanchez and Larry Blackburn rose and shook hands. Dudley felt a bit like a “fifth wheel”, but realized that he had just witnessed an example of true friendship. He knew that Blackburn’s comments had touched the young Eddie Sanchez.

Everyone left and Dudley and Blackburn found OJ sitting in his truck in the parking lot eating a large green chile cheeseburger from Blake’s Lotaburger! “Let’s get back to La Vida Aureo.”

Chapter 7: Discovery

As promised, Eddie Sanchez brought his father’s shoe box to La Vida Aureo the next day when he and Brit came to visit the elder Mrs. Sanchez. Despite their efforts to engage Mrs. Sanchez in conversation, she sat and simply stared out her window. Even when Eddie told her about meeting Larry Blackburn, she remained unresponsive. But, Eddie felt a sense of responsibility and would continue to visit his mother as often as he could. He took Brit’s hand as they exited the room and said, “I know this is very difficult and that my mother was never very nice to you, but I appreciate your accompanying me today. It is not necessary for you to come in the future. I will go with you to visit your folks as often as you like.”

Britney said nothing, but squeezed Eddie’s had a bit tighter as they continued down the hallway.

As they passed through the main lobby, Eddie noticed Larry Blackburn walking toward the main dining room with a large scrapbook under his arm and called out, “Mr. Blackburn, I brought my father’s shoebox.”

Blackburn accepted the box with a sense of respect. “Thank you, Eddie. I promise to call as soon as I’ve had a chance to sort through everything.” Blackburn smile and waved to Eddie and Britney Sanchez as they left.

Larry Blackburn had asked Matthew Dudley to join him this particular afternoon to review the progress on his scrapbook and to share in opening Eduardo Sanchez’s box of presumed Army memorabilia.

Blackburn had made considerable progress on his scrapbook and there were only a few remaining items to be incorporated, mostly newspaper clippings. “It always saddens me to look at these,” remarked Blackburn. “Most of the articles were very critical of the United Sates’ involvement in the Vietnam War and this general animosity was often directed at the returning GIs. This War wasn’t their idea and most of them were drafted into the service. People didn’t talk about PTSD back then, but a lot of the guys I served with were deeply troubled for many years after they returned home. At least in my small hometown, people were just glad to have their sons home and they were welcomed back into the community.”

“It was much the same here,” added Dudley. “There has always been a strong element of patriotism here and most people were proud of their sons.”

Larry put the scrapbook to the side and carefully opened the box Eddie Sanchez had entrusted to him. There were not many items in the box, mostly photographs. Under the photos, Blackburn found two medals, a Purple Heart and a Silver Star. “Wow!” whistled Blackburn. “I knew about the Purple Heart; several guys on that patrol were badly wounded, but I didn’t know about the Silver Star. I remember Eddie (Eduardo) carrying another soldier who was badly wounded back to base despite being wounded himself. The Brass must have decided to award him the Silver Star later. I think my tour ended a few months before Eduardo’s. “

“It looks like he put the medals at the bottom of the box,” observed Dudley. “I’ll bet he never mentioned them to anyone. It will be a very pleasant surprise when you share them with his son.”

As the two men continued to look through the box, they carefully took out Eduardo’s few photographs and tried to arrange them in some sort of order, from a print that looked like it was taken in Basic Training to one from some sort of farewell pose. “Look, Doc, I’m in this one. I remember gathering to say “good bye” to a bunch of the guys who were shipping stateside the next morning. There’s Eduardo and there’s me next to him.”

“Young Eddie certainly resembles his father, don’t you think?” observed Dudley.

At the very bottom of the box was a single photograph of four young people sitting in a convertible in front of what looked to Blackburn like a hamburger stand. “I’m not from around here,” he mused, “but isn’t that the same name as the hamburger OJ was eating the other day?”

“I believe you’re right,” smiled Dudley. “Blake’s is a New Mexico institution. This looks like a bunch of high school kids enjoying a typical sunny day. The kid behind the wheel looks like Eduardo and I guess those must be some of his friends.”

Dudley and Blackburn continued looking at the photographs and trying to put them in what they thought was the proper order. Blackburn happened to look up as JoAnne Elliott walked into the dining room. She was returning to La Vida Aureo from a day volunteering at the VA Hospital. That was apparent from the colorful vest she wore which was decorated with service patches given to her over the years by thankful soldiers. “Hey, that was my unit, The Big Red One,” exclaimed Blackburn when he saw the unmistakable insignia on the vest.

JoAnne was quite surprised that someone had called out to her and she stopped at the table where Dudley and Blackburn were sitting. “I’m sorry,” blurted Blackburn. “I noticed the patch on you vest. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“It’s quite all right,” smiled JoAnne. “I am very proud of my vest. All of these patches were given to me over the years when I worked at various VA Hospitals. It was usually a service person’s way of saying thanks to me for talking with them. In the early years, there were a lot of guys who served in the First Infantry in Vietnam, so I’ve had this patch for a very long time.”

“Pardon me, I’ve neglected my manners,” apologized Blackburn as he rose. “My name is Larry Blackburn and I’m a resident here. This is Matthew Dudley who is actually on the La Vida Aureo staff.”

“Ms. Elliott and I have already met,” offered Dudley who also rose to greet JoAnne.

“We were just looking over my Army scrapbook,” said Blackburn as he pointed to the table where he and Dudley had been working. “If you’d care to join us, we were just trying to put some of these additional photos from a buddy of mine in sequence.”

As JoAnne moved closer to the table, her eyes fell upon the single photo that was lying apart from the others and the scrapbook. “Oh, my God,” exclaimed JoAnne. “Where did you get this photograph?”

“It came from a box of mostly Army memorabilia from a guy I served with who is from Bernalillo, a town near here,” offered Blackburn.

“I know where Bernalillo is,” said JoAnne anxiously. “I grew up there. I know this photo. That is me sitting in the front seat with Eduardo Sanchez, my first and only true love, who was killed in Vietnam.”

Dudley noticed the confused and very troubled look on JoAnne’s face and helped her into a chair between himself and Blackburn. “Let me ask Paloma to make some fresh coffee,” he suggested. “I think we have some very important things to discuss.”

With a fresh mug of coffee in front of her, JoAnne picked up the photograph with trembling hands. “This photo was taken just after we all graduated from high school and before Eduardo was drafted into the Army. That’s Eduardo and me in the front seat and our best friends Isaac and Nina in back. He was only in Vietnam a few months when his family received notice that he’s been killed and that the Army had not recovered his body. It was actually Nina, that girl there, who called me with the news.”

Things were very emotional for the next thirty minutes as the details came out with Blackburn and JoAnne contributing most of the information about Eduardo Sanchez.   Dudley and Paloma together tried to guide the conversation into a coherent sequence of events. They were both deeply saddened when it became apparent that JoAnne had been horribly deceived, probably by Nina, and had spent her entire life believing that the one love of her life had been killed in combat.

JoAnne finally asked, “How did you come to have this box of photographs?”

Dudley could see how these revelations had also affected Blackburn so he took the initiative to relate the story of the chance meeting with Eddie Sanchez and the box of his father’s memorabilia. He also disclosed that Eduardo had died a few years previously and that Nina was a resident at La Vida Aureo in the Memory Care Unit with advanced Alzheimer’s. This information was a further shock to JoAnne and she began sobbing uncontrollably. The knowledge that Eduardo and Nina had had a son, which by everything she held dear, should have been HER son, was too much to bear.

After what seemed like a very long time, JoAnne gained control of herself and stopped crying. She looked at Blackburn, Dudley and Paloma and said, “Thank you. Thank you all very much. I know it has been difficult for you as well to relate these stories to me, but I am fine. I have learned over many years of working with veterans at the VA how to deal with adversity and stressful situations. I will direct my energies and emotions into my work. Helping others has always been a source of strength for me.”

“I also want to say that it gives me peace to know that Eduardo did not die and that he had a wonderful life. I don’t know if I am prepared to face Nina, but I would like to meet Eduardo’s son. I just want to see him. I do not intend to talk about the past and what might have been. You tell me that he is a fine young man and there was really never a doubt in my mind about that. I would just like to see him one time.”

Paloma and Dudley promised JoAnne that they would arrange that. Dudley spoke, “Larry has been through Eduardo’s box of memorabilia and discovered some important things that Eddie is probably not aware of about his father. If everyone agrees, I suggest that this one photo be given to JoAnne. I see no benefit in giving this particular photo to Eddie.”

A few days later, Larry Blackburn called Eddie Sanchez to tell him that there were a few surprises in his father’s box that he was eager to share. “Just let me know the next time you plan to come to La Vida Aureo to visit your mother. We can meet in the dining room.”

Matthew Dudley talked with one of the Supervisors in the Memory Care Unit to arrange an excuse for him to visit Nina Sanchez along with JoAnne Elliott. Dudley was on very good terms with most of the Supervisors and this would not be difficult to accomplish, even if Dudley neglected to mention JoAnne’s presence. One afternoon, when the Supervisor informed Dudley that Nina was having a “good day”, Dudley and JoAnne made their way to Nina’s room on the second floor. The premise of the visit was to inspect the air conditioning unit and would be limited to just a few minutes. JoAnne had mentally prepared herself for this encounter with Nina after so many years and with the knowledge of Nina’s deception. As they entered the room, they saw Nina in her rocking chair near the window. Nina barely acknowledged their presence and continued to stare out the window.

Dudley spoke softly. “Mrs. Sanchez, it will just take a minute to adjust your air conditioning unit. We’ll try not to disturb you.”

Nina slowly raised her head and gazed at her two visitors. JoAnne thought she noticed a sign of recognition in Nina’s eyes as she looked their way, but it quickly faded. Nina mumbled some that sounded like “Thank You”, but it was barely audible. With that, Dudley and JoAnne turned and quietly left the room.

“It is so sad to see Nina that way,” said JoAnne. “I was afraid I would be angry seeing her again after all these years, but I only feel sadness.”

“Many of the residents in this Unit have Alzheimer’s and it never a pretty sight,” suggested Dudley. “Let’s go outside for a change of scenery.”

That afternoon, as planned, Eddie and Britney Sanchez came to La Vida Aureo for a very brief visit with Mrs. Sanchez. Both were more eager to catch up with Larry Blackburn and learn about the surprises he had promised.

After showing the medals and some of the photographs to Eddie, Blackburn said “I have one more surprise for you. I’d like to introduce you to JoAnne Elliott who recently moved here to La Vida Aureo. She is originally from Bernalillo and she tells me that she knew your both father and mother when they were all much younger.”

JoAnne extended her hand to Eddie and then Britney and said simply, “When I saw some of the photos Larry was working on from your father’s box, it brought back some pleasant memories of my youth. I just wanted to say Hello and reiterate what Larry said about your father; he was a really great guy.”   JoAnne felt many more things in her heart, but decided to keep the meeting short, as she had promised. But she could not help but notice that the blonde, blue-eyed Britney reminded her of herself when she and Eduardo were dating and how much Eduardo’s parents objected.

Much to JoAnne’s surprise, Eddie began talking about his parents in a very candid way. “Thank you for your thoughts about my dad. I’m sure Larry told you that he passed a few years ago. Occasionally, he would get talkative after we had finished a particularly difficult job, but he kept much of his youth bottled up inside. I always assumed that his time in Vietnam was something he preferred not to relive. When I first brought Britney home, he was very supportive, unlike my mother who was not very pleased. I guess he saw something in Britney that he liked. My mother lives here and it is sad to see her deteriorate with Alzheimer’s. But, my mother seemed sad to me most of her life, like she was carrying some terrible burden. They tried to have more children after I was born, but were unsuccessful. Anyway, I apologize for going on so. It was nice to meet you and welcome back to New Mexico.”

Eddie thanked Blackburn repeatedly as he held his father’s medals in his hand. He and Britney walked hand-in-hand out of the dining room toward the Guest parking lot.

It had been another emotional afternoon for everyone. Larry invited JoAnne to take a walk with him and Dudley noticed them sometime later, sitting under the Navajo willow in the courtyard as the sun set.