Celebrating A Life Well And Truly Lived.
By Tom Danehy
MY WIFE AND kids and I spend Thanksgiving in Douglas, Arizona. It's a quaint little border town which has somehow managed to survive against some pretty tall odds.
In its early days, Douglas saw lawlessness bad enough to prompt the territorial government to bring in Texas John Slaughter to restore order. It then watched in panic as Pancho Villa's army attacked Agua Prieta, just across the line. It dealt with the notoriety surrounding the "disappearance" of Aimee Semple McPherson, and then spent decades on the rollercoaster ride that defines the very existence of every mining town. Douglas even managed to survive the often-disastrous closing of the mining operation (in its case, the huge copper smelter just outside of town).
Douglas is a tough little town. Not as warm and maybe not as optimistic as it once was, but still plenty friendly and inviting. And for my wife, Ana, it's home. She grew up in Douglas, got her first 15 years of education there, and even today, in times of stress and pain, clings dearly to the memories of home and family.
She especially remembers Thanksgivings growing up. While my sisters and I would have lasagna on Thanksgiving (if we could afford it), the Gutierrez clan of Douglas did it up right. Two or three turkeys cooking in various parts of the kitchen, along with huge pots of potatoes and stuffing on the stoves, pies and yams in the ovens. Enough food to feed all the friends and family members who might stop by, as well as half the neighborhood, for that matter.
My wife's mother, Ana Maria, would supervise all the cooking and make homemade bread so good the kids would stuff themselves on it all day, to the point that the turkey, when finally done, was merely an afterthought. And her father, Amado L. "Chief" Gutierrez, would be busy around the house, doing some work on a car that a friend brought by, chopping wood for the fireplace, and trying to sneak in a couple minutes of the football game on TV.
It was as though Norman Rockwell had discovered a new, slightly more tan, skin tone.
In many ways, it was middle America. Chief had attended school in Douglas himself, where he starred in three sports as well as in the classroom. He'd wanted to go to college, but got drafted right out of high school and served as a tank commander throughout much of the European Theater in World War II. He was with Patton during the Battle of the Bulge.
When he got back from the war, he might have had a chance at a pro baseball career. But he landed a good-paying job at the smelter, got married and settled down. He and Ana Maria raised nine kids in a loving, no-nonsense, very-Old World household. Seven of the nine kids have college degrees (one other is still in school); five of them have master's degrees.
A soft-spoken man off the field, Chief was a fiery competitor on it. Baseball historian John "Chon" Bernal said Amado Gutierrez "terrified opposing batters when he was pitching and terrified opposing pitchers when he was batting."
You never would have known he could terrify anyone by his demeanor. When I met him, he smiled and made me feel welcome in his home. He'd come out to the college to watch me play ball. I was different, to be sure, but he accepted me as a kindred spirit of sorts. Ana Maria, on the other hand, thought this jive-talker from L.A. was the Devil his own self come to take her pure and perfect daughter away. In a way, they were both right.
We've always looked forward to the Thanksgiving trip to Douglas. The big Gutierrez house out on the east side of town by "D" Hill was a two-story hive of activity, joyful noises and wonderful smells.
For his part, Chief just rolled along. When Ana's eldest sister Lupe was killed along with her husband by a drunk driver, Amado and Ana Maria adopted all five orphans and raised them as their own. He retired a few years ago, but kept active at a lot of different things. Mostly, he was just himself. Like the town in which he lived most of his life, he was tough but tender. Strong, quiet and friendly.
We'll be going to Douglas for Thanksgiving this year, but nothing will be the same. Chief died September 10.
He'd had stomach aches for several months, but dismissed them to age. When he finally went to the doctor, he was told it was stress, then a few weeks later, that he might have an ulcer. After a couple months, the pain got so bad that he came to Tucson, where it was discovered he was in the advanced stages of lymphoma.
Denial was rampant. How could this vital, vibrant man be sick? He was 75 but looked 50, and by family reckoning, he had another quarter-century to go. Besides, there was no history of cancer in the family. None.
The Tucson doctors said it was probably environmental in nature, a by-product of decades of working with God-knows-which chemicals at the smelter. He hung on for a few weeks and even showed some improvement after the initial chemotherapy. But then he took a sudden downturn and slipped into a coma. The doctors said he had 24 hours, but he stayed with us for another week.
We buried him next to his parents and daughter. On the way down to the funeral on Friday the 13th, I was involved in my first-ever car accident when a woman barreled out of a shopping center and crashed into the side of my car. I've had better weekends.
It's going to be a bittersweet Thanksgiving. Ana Maria certainly needs her family around her now more than ever. But I'm not thrilled at the prospect of wandering around that big house with all those memories.
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