A hero leaves us
We all have an Uncle Sam. For most of us, it's The Man in Washington DC. But I have another Uncle Sam, one who I helped bury this weekend.
We don't get to choose who we're related to but I'm pleased to say that my Uncle Sam was one of the good guys. You always knew where you stood with him, and it was always in a positive light.
Uncle Sam was an intensely dignified man and was always well-dressed and groomed. When I was a young kid, I remember seeing him wear fancy tortoise-shell eyeglasses and thick-soled wingtips that any modern hipster would kill to add to their vintage ensemble.
He was friendly and open to all, and yet decidedly unsentimental. He was long-winded in his stories (made worse as he got older when his hearing began to fail). He was a notorious penny-pincher, but more than anything else, he was a man of action and an advocate for the disenfranchised.
Soon after he turned eighteen he enlisted in the Army Air Force, was trained a photo tech, and found himself in Okinawa as a guard for Japanese prisoners-of-war. Once when patrolling the security fence, a prisoner called to him in Spanish. My uncle learned that in the early parts of the twentieth century, thousands of Japanese citizens had emigrated to South America. As Japan prepared for war, many of these ex-pats and their sons were summoned back to the homeland to serve the Emperor. Since they had been educated in Latin America, they were able to converse in Spanish. So my uncle, a junior enlisted man from Belen, NM, found himself as the go-between the US brass and their Japanese counterparts. Later he was transferred to Biggs Air Force Base near El Paso, TX (to again guard more Japanese POWs), where he rekindled a high-school romance with my aunt Alma who he married in 1951, and they stayed together for 62 years.
Uncle Sam worked various jobs while he sought footing in a steady career. He was a barber and a mail clerk before landing a job as a Federal civil servant at White Sands Missile Range.
Meanwhile, he became engaged in local and state politics. He was a prominent player in a civil-rights challenge against the City of Las Cruces that resulted in council members being elected from single-member districts rather than at-large to better represent the city's population.
Later as councilman, he proposed that the growing city needed public transportation to serve those who didn't have access to cars. The city argued that it didn't have the money to buy and maintain a bus system. So my uncle found federal grant money and with the groundwork for a local bus system in place, he returned to the city and said, here you are. Years later, when my youngest sister (who was developmentally-disabled) used the bus to get around town, my uncle said he was especially proud that the city's system was able to give her a measure of independence.
My uncle again locked horns with the good-ole-boy network. When the police requested new patrol cars, my uncle asked about the age of the current fleet. After they informed him it was two years old, he scheduled a test drive in their worst junker. After the drive, he told them the car had at least another three years left on it and to make due. Needless to say, the political machine worked against his re-election.
He sued his employer, the US Army, because he (like so many other minorities) was getting passed over for promotions despite seniority and superior job performance. Eventually he won, but the victory was moot when the army abolished the position he had fought for. Dispirited, he wondered about his next move until he unexpectedly received an offer to be a transportation master for the US Army in Saudi Arabia. Others had turned down the job, but my uncle jumped at the opportunity.
Unfortunately for the Army, my uncle brought his skepticism of big government and its cronies to his office. When the US government sounded the alarm about the dangers of Saddam Hussein, my uncle derisively commented that of course the Iraqis were well armed. He had witnessed the US ship them all those weapons.
However, he was more than a muckraker; he was also a life saver. Tires on military vehicles would explode and kill American and Saudi soldiers. My uncle asked about the exploding tires and was told it was the result of the hot Arabian climate. He replied that he was from Las Cruces, and he knew hot. Tires never exploded from the heat back in New Mexico. He poked around and discovered that the American contractor was shipping used, defective tires in place of new ones. His investigation forced the contractor to replace all the tires and that saved many lives. Later, when he questioned the practice of another American contractor who served hundreds meals for people who never showed up, my uncle was told by the Army it was time to return home.
Not surprisingly, my Uncle Sam was active in many organizations, and a short list includes the United Methodist Church, the Democratic Party, The American GI Forum, AARP, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Masons.
Samuel L. Barba, 1928-2013, R.I.P.
May we all live as long and leave such a noble legacy.
Labels: Army Air Force, Las Cruces, New Mexico, Samuel Landeros Barba, Uncle Sam