If I were prone to regrets of things done and undone I’d regret not being more observant when something was going on around me worth observing.
I was on a business trip in a New Mexico State vehicle meeting city officials in Portales, the town where I grew up. I visited with my old friend and classmate Fred Stevens and, we ate out together the previous night at a local restaurant.
Next morning hanging around City Hall I chatted with my 6th grade teacher, Bill Walman, then Parks and Recreation Director, and Mack Tucker, director of something else, with whom Kurtiss Jackson and I had worked for Skeeter Jenkens on the ranch ’way back when [ A Sobering View of Y2K].
If I’d been paying attention I might have noticed something at the meeting. Or maybe during one of the chats with friends I mentioned the route I’d be taking home. Maybe I’d have examined the car for something attached to it. Years of hindsight would have been helpful. Some of the details of the following sequence of events might be out of order, might be inaccurate by having dimmed with the years. But it’s a fairly close portrayal of something that I still don’t understand with whatever’s been gained by the passage of time.
After the meeting I left late-morning and headed west to go home to Socorro. Probably there was a lot I could have noticed if I’d had my senses tuned. But I was on autopilot.
The road between Portales and Roswell seems a long one to motorists and I probably was exceeding the speed limit. There was almost no traffic, and I didn’t notice whom I passed and what they might have been driving.
I’d consumed a lot of coffee that morning and somewhere out beyond Elida I stopped and walked to a tree along the fenceline to relieve myself. A battered old truck pulled up behind the state car and stopped with the engine idling. When I finished I went to his window.
“Anything I can do to help you?”
The guy was dressed in a shabby bodyshop shirt, bad teeth, nasal twang accent of a local. “Ah was just wondering why someone in a government car passed me going 80 miles an hour.”
“What makes you think I was going 80 miles an hour? The speed limit’s 55. If I passed you going 55 I might have been speeding to go past just to get around you.”
“What gumment agency you working for going that fast? I jest want to know why you’re driving so fast in a state car!”
I told him to take the tag number and call it in if he had a complaint, but he went on and on with a nasal, makes-no-sense questioning.
I got back into the car and drove on, but stopped again at Kenna. The village had become a ghost town, but it had a lot of memories for me because Skeeter’s ranch was outside Kenna, and when Portales was ‘dry’ most Portales teenagers used to drive here to buy beer because the Portales bootleggers wouldn’t sell to them.
I’d begun to awaken a bit, though, and was wondering about the guy in the truck. I watched as he drove past on the highway and probably considered the fact he was now ahead of me again. A few miles out of town I passed him again, this time carefully not exceeding the speed limit by much.
Once he was out of sight far behind me the coffee was working on me again, and I pulled down a side road and behind an abandoned schoolhouse for another bladder call.
I paused and poked around the old school yard waiting for him to go past, figuring I’d wait until he went by, let him get out of sight in front of me, then drive on to Roswell with him well ahead of me. I don’t recall why I did this precisely. I wasn’t alarmed yet at this point. Maybe I was just enjoying the bits and pieces of school yard litter from so long ago. Even the old outhouse was still standing.
I drove on, taking my time now. But when I arrived at the intersection north of Roswell where traffic goes north toward Santa Fe, south into Roswell, or west into the mountains, there he was, pulled off and waiting. He somehow knew, I suddenly realized, I’d gotten behind him. So instead of going on I drove into Roswell and got some lunch, figuring he’d be out of my life by the time I headed west.
But a few miles west of Roswell, there he was again. He let me go past, so up the road a way I pulled off and parked behind a convenience store, went inside to let him go by while I had an ice cream bar. He did go by, and I finished my ice cream and headed west again. But at the intersection going to Ruidoso into the mountains, or Lincoln and westward to Carrizoso there he was again.
I drove on by, pretending to be going to Ruidoso. I pulled over again a couple of miles up the road, out of sight of the highway and waited for him to go past for half-hour, but he didn’t. So I figured I’d lost him, headed back through Lincoln, and there he sat in front of a museum, engine running. I pulled in behind him, determined to confront him.
I drove out of town behind him and a few miles up the road he turned into a picnic/camping area and turned around, stopped at the entrance facing the highway. By now I was pissed, but also damned confused and slightly alarmed. I couldn’t understand how he could be doing this.
I was armed and I walked up behind his car so he could see me in the rearview, but with the firearm behind me out of sight.
“Why are you following me?”
“Ahhhm not following yew. I just stopped here to take me a rest.”
“You waited back there at the intersection. You waited again in Lincoln. Why are you following me?”
“I’m not follering yew. But I still want to know why a person in a gumment car passed me going 80 miles an hour.” And so on.
“I’m warning you. Don’t follow me anymore.” I shrugged it off, curious how far he’d go with this.
We played cat-and-mouse, me in a busy parking lot in Capitan during a thunderstorm as he went by, him waiting for me in Carrizoso. He wanted me to know he had a fix on me.
I was convinced by the time I passed him on the hood of his truck west of Valley of the Fires that he was a cop… couldn’t see any way a private citizen could have the equipment it would take to do what he was doing.
It’s a long drive through that desert between Carrizozo and Socorro and my mind was working 90 miles an hour. As I approached Socorro I became convinced I was about to be arrested for something.
I called a friend with the City of Socorro and asked him to go look at my house to see if there were a bunch of cops waiting there. There weren’t, and I didn’t see the follower until several years later in Albuquerque during a much later phase of what came to be a decade of that sort of crap.
A week later I described it to my Bureau Chief in Santa Fe. When I’d finished telling it I asked, “Do you know of anything I ought to know? Could this be Internal Affairs following me around for some reason?”
He thought about it frowning. “No, I don’t think it could possibly be that. I’d know it if any questions were being asked about you. They’d have asked me.” Then he looked me in the eye. “You need to be careful about that speeding, though. If you get stopped for speeding in a State car working for DPS it’s no questions asked. They’ll fire you.”
What began that day lasted almost a decade. Long after I’d left DPS and through several post-Y2K years.
But back in the beginning, all manner of other mysterious happenings intruded into the lives of those who climbed that mountain with me, and to me. I don’t know to this day whether the two parallel sets of happenings were connected.
Maybe if I’d been paying more attention from the beginning.