“It is indeed ironic that we spend our school days yearning to graduate and our remaining days waxing nostalgic about our school days.” Isabel Waxman
Carol writes: The move from White Sands Missile Range to the Fort Bliss Family Campground in El Paso, Texas, was only 60 miles south; however, for Al the personal journey back to El Paso had spanned several decades. Some of Al’s earliest childhood memories were his years as a youngster in El Paso, Texas, where his father was stationed with the Army at Fort Bliss in the early 1950s. His family lived in what was then a small, relatively new, wood-sided house on the outskirts of town. It was in that neighborhood where Al first entered elementary school.
It is obvious from Al’s stories that those early years in El Paso were happy ones. He had fun as a young kid roaming the desert landscape, shooting his .22 single-shot rifle at various targets in the desert, and learning to climb the hills behind his house. We often say that those hills were responsible for germinating the seeds of Al’s lifelong love of hiking. On Fred Wilson Road, Al’s best friend lived three doors down. Among his most lasting memories are the lunches of wonderful homemade tortillas that his friend’s mother cooked on a brick on her kitchen stove.
Imagine our surprise when we went back to the old neighborhood on Fred Wilson Road and found the old homestead still standing!
We had an even bigger thrill when we went hunting for Burnet School, where Al first attended elementary school, and found it still very much in active use.
In fact, the front door was open and we heard voices in a room just off the main office. We introduced ourselves and asked if we could take a trip down memory lane and take a peek at some of the halls. “Certainly, go right ahead,” was their generous reply. Al clearly remembered the system of ramps that connected some of the corridors.
Incredibly, the playground had barely changed over six decades. Al pointed out his favorite places to play.
What a nostalgic and unexpected find from so long ago…
Another one of Al’s early memories from his El Paso days was the time he attended a football game with his dad at what is now the University of Texas at El Paso. Appropriately named as home of the Sun Bowl, we visited this impressive stadium in its beautiful and dramatic setting surrounded by desert hills.
The stadium was just as Al remembered from 60 years ago, the only change being additional seats added vertically. There is a Galus family UTEP connection… A few years later, during a second tour at Fort Bliss, Al’s father was coach of the Texas Western (now UTEP) ROTC championship rifle team.
During our stay in El Paso, we had hoped to meet up with our son Jason’s ole Army buddy, now stationed at Ft. Bliss. Joe, Angela, and their three children were just about to embark on an ambitious road trip to many of the most famous sites throughout the American West—from Texas to Utah, to South Dakota, to Washington State and back to Texas—all in 10 days! The night before their departure, they graciously agreed to meet up with us at Rudy’s for a get-together and some great Texas barbecue. We had a good time catching up with them and getting reacquainted with their delightful children. We have had a blast this past week following their 5800-mile travel adventure on Facebook!
The historic part of El Paso had really captured our attention. True travel nerds that we are, what better way to see the downtown city sights than to actually do an “historic architecture” walking tour. The old buildings from the early 1900s really were beauties…
like the Kress Building
and the white terracotta Centre Building next to the Anson Mills Building.
Naturally, as we progressed on our tour, we spent a lot of time looking up, and I suppose that is what attracted the attention of a local resident who was passing by. She nicely asked us if she could help in any way. After we told her what we were doing, she nicely offered to give us some really good tips on buildings not to miss… like the lobby of the former Cortez Hotel in spectacular Spanish Colonial Revival Style.
On her urging, we even went back to the Camino Real Hotel for a peek at its fabulous Tiffany ceiling that we had missed when we had lunch in their hotel cafe.
ARMY HISTORY AT FORT BLISS…
Present day Fort Bliss is the sixth location of the post since U.S. troops first established a garrison “opposite El Paso del Norte” (now Cuidad Juárez) in 1849. Today Fort Bliss is home to the hallowed 1st Armored Division, one of the oldest and most prestigious in the United States Army. In honor of its spirit of daring and durability, the 1st Armored Division has acquired the nickname “Old Ironsides” after the Navy warship USS Constitution.
Indeed, the name was well chosen, as the men and women of the 1st Armored Division have been on many campaigns, such as the beaches of Anzio and during Operation Torch in North Africa during WW II, in addition to Vietnam, Bosnia, and the Middle East, just to name a few.
Mindful of the proud and storied history of Old Ironsides, we thoroughly enjoyed our own informal car tour of the historic houses and buildings at Fort Bliss. Many of these structures from the early days have been nicely preserved, and some still provide Army housing for senior officers and their families. The two-story, tile roof, stucco houses along the historic Noel Field parade grounds
serve as Field Grade Officer Quarters.
Just across the street was the main chapel, which was originally used as the post’s first movie theater in 1926.
To us, the most striking of all the historic houses was the turn-of-the-century Pershing House, home to General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing from 1914 to 1916.
It was bookended by a pair of 2-1/2 story Victorian beauties. Oh, to be so fortunate to be assigned to one of these as your official Army housing…
From a personal perspective, one of the most interesting buildings in the Fort Bliss historic area was the 1950s-era building that was originally designed for instruction on the Nike Ajax and later the Nike Hercules Air Defense Missile Systems. Without a doubt, this is where Al’s father attended classes when he worked as a Nike Ajax missile man in his early Army days at Fort Bliss.
On checking in at the campground, we had heard that the 34th year of the annual returning musical called “Viva El Paso” was currently underway. This dance and musical extravaganza artistically depicts El Paso’s rich cultural history…in an outdoor amphitheater setting. Sounded perfect to us!
The setting in McKelligon Canyon was superb! The night was comfortably warm with gentle breezes. We were treated to a thoroughly enjoyable interpretation of the four major cultures that have influenced the City of the Sun—Native American, Spanish Conquistador, Mexican, and Western American. The histories came alive through drama, song, and dance. Photos were prohibited during the performance, so I had to resort to getting what I could from the Internet.
The colorful costumes were extraordinary! We felt our evening at “Viva El Paso” was certainly a unique and fitting way to celebrate the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
As a final celebration of the holiday weekend, we couldn’t pass up a Fourth of July Mexican dinner at Carlos and Mickey’s…
ONE MORE HIKE IN EL PASO…
A few days earlier, while we were checking out the end of McKelligon Canyon, we had spotted a trail that led to a high spot far above the city.
It had been a while since we had done a hike, so Al eagerly seized on the opportunity to do this one. I passed on the choice to accompany him when I read about a section that would require using chains to navigate upwards.
A fairly steep climb… chains and long drop-offs… in addition to eventual extreme heat—this one clearly wasn’t for me. Al started out early and wasn’t disappointed…
The view back toward the city was spectacular.
As we came to the close of our two-week stay along the Rio Grande, we were entirely happy with the personal history, the city history, and the Army history that we had uncovered in our explorations of El Paso.
Thomas Wolfe famously wrote, “You can’t go home again,” but in El Paso we found out that it sure can be rewarding at least to take a peek.