Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A Big Bad Ass Mexican

"If you grow your hair out for a year, I'll fly in to Cheyenne to take some photos", I told Jerry when I couldn't make his retirement ceremony last year.

"You're on", he said.

In order to understand Jerry, you have to understand the city that forged him.  He was born and raised in Pueblo, Colorado, the "Pittsburg of the West", founded on railroads and steel mills.  It's a hard core, blue collar city built by fiercely tough men and women.  Jerry, born in 1971, grew up in a time that is described by the Pueblo.org website like this:

"The 1960s and 1970s saw good working conditions for the people at the mill but globalization began to stress American steel manufacturers. Latent racial tension also boiled over into a prominent La Raza movement among Hispanic residents in the 1960s and 1970s, creating tensions that have only recently subsided."

For Jerry, Pueblo was (and is) a stratified zone of neighborhoods where it's critically important to know which side everybody is from.  An East sider wandering into the West side, for instance, is likely to take a beating.  Every unknown male in Jerry's territory was scrutinized and challenged like a lone wolf wandering into the wrong area.  No perceived insult, in any circumstance, was left unaddressed. The offender (usually) had the option of submitting, but it had better happen quickly or the fight was on.  I've seen the wolf eyes myself and it's unsettling to watch.

We first met in 1990 when we were randomly assigned as roommates at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.  I had just tried on my standard issue athletic shorts and found to my chagrin they fit like Daisy Duke shorts, barely containing my grapes.  I was just about to take a peek inside the bag labeled "Sanchez" to see if there was a better option when the Big Mexican blustered in and walked over to introduce himself.   He leaned in tight, uncomfortably close, looked me in the eye and said "Hey, I'm Jerry".  Our friendship may have been over before it started if he had walked in a few seconds earlier.

I witnessed Jerry give the wolf eyes several times in that first year, all of which went unchallenged by the offender.  One kid had the temerity to say he could kick Jerry's ass in the pool (water polo player), and he was quickly pinned to the wall by his throat with Jerry's nose an inch from his.  The kid received a stern lecture while in that position about how things work in Jerry's world.

Another time we were in a bar in Denver with Jerry's friend Danny and there was a standoff with some rather large dudes.  At some point in the conversation, Jerry informed them he was from Pueblo and the standoff  immediately ended based solely on Pueblo's tough reputation.

I suppose it was inevitable that I would be directly involved at some point, and it finally happened one night in Colorado Springs with a group of us.   We've had a lot of laughs over the years about Steve's "laceration" and Jerry demanding to speak with a non-existent Chuck Fucking Rodeo. I asked my long-time roommate, Steve Sanders, to describe that evening and here's how he remembered it:

"The scene:  Travis Pacheco, Jerry Sanchez, Chris Mills, Steve Sanders, and I can’t remember his name… some big guy named Mike (I think) went out for a nice evening in the 1982 Red CJ5 (cool ride thank you very much…and I still have it) and ended up at the rootin tootin, line dancing, Brooks n Dunn (over) playin, western jean too tightenin, bar “The Rodeo”. The sequence of events:

-        All is normal: Buckets of beer, shots of whiskey, a little dancing, and a lot of laughing

-        All becomes abnormal: Chris Mill pisses on Alan Jackson in the bathroom and is asked “nicely” to leave the fine establishment.  (Why is there a cardboard cutout of Alan Jackson in the men’s room anyway?  Seriously, why not Shania Twain)

-        Jerry Sanchez begins “negotiations” with the bouncer at the front door to get his friend back in the “fine” establishment.  Bouncer tells Jerry it’s not happening.  Jerry inquires if he can speak with the owner.  The bouncers (notice it’s plural now) tell Jerry the owner is not available.   NOTE: at this point a LARGE crowd is gathering at the entrance…including all 5 of us.  Jerry, who must have read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People, insists on speaking with Chuck “fucking” Rodeo because his friend didn’t do shit and deserves to finish his beer in this “fine” establishment. 

-        At this point something happens.  I’m not sure…a little push, a crack at the door, a wink …whatever it was it was the Tipping Point and all hell broke loose for the next few minutes.  I got hit with a bottle, you got hit in the face, Jerry is beating the crap out of some dude, Chris is at it somewhere too, and so is mike.  It broke up in the parking lot…all five of us standing there looking at a bunch of cowboys.  A bottle flies from out of nowhere and hits Jerry in the forehead and breaks.  It’s like he didn’t even feel it…even though I see his head turning blue.  He just stares at the one Mexican cowboy and says “I thought you were Mexican…bro”

-        We leave…Jerry notices his finger is bleeding profusely.  I drive us to the Hospital downtown.  We walk through “Labor and Delivery” on the way to the ER.  Funny…they gave us a little verbal lashing b/c of that.  They bandage it up and send us to the AFA clinic.

The result:  I suffered a “half centimeter laceration to the scalp” and receive one staple.  Your glasses are scratched because they were knocked off your face.  Chris and Mike are free of any scars.  Jerry, the toughest dude we all know (National Champion Boxer, Big Bad Basic, etc) loses part of his index finger."

Jerry Chimed in with his version:

"I go to take a piss and Steve is getting hassled by the bouncer for pissing on a poster. I start arguing with the bouncer, who kicks us out. I continue to argue as we get escorted. Guys in line engage in the argument. I must have told them to F-off and they proceeded to follow us outside. We start to dance and all I recall is rushing one guy getting him in a head lock followed with a flurry of uppercuts while his buddies were teeing off on me. Next thing I remember is bouncers finally separating us and at this point all you guys come outside and through the mob and I recall someone hitting you as you pass. Mf-ers.

I look at my finger and about at the same time I get hit by a thrown beer bottle. We get in vehicles and you all drop me off at the emergency room.

One week before retiring from the Air Force the dentist added some tooth to my incisor that was kicked in that night, after all these years."

It wasn't uncommon for Jerry to return to base on Sunday night with blood on his pants, the result of a last second weekend brawl.  Amazingly, within the same year, he returned with a bandage on his nose and peeled it back to reveal a large, bloody flap of skin that was bitten off during another fight.  This one he kept under wraps until the skin fell off so he wouldn't be punished by his commanding officer.  Officially, Jerry had been "jumped" in the finger biting incident, but a second offense might prove to be too much. Subsequently, Jerry was a great officer in his career because he understood these types of things happen to good people and kicking them out actually hurts the mission.  He told me the story of a young, bright E.O.D. (bomb squad) studentof his who was busted for a D.U.I, a potential career killer.  Jerry went to bat for the guy and he went on to become a talented N.C.O. 

Once a shoulder injury derailed his football and wrestling career, Jerry went on to become a two-time Wing Open Champion and a national champion boxer.  Nobody was surprised, as we had all witnessed him become "Big Bad Basic" in boot camp with the pugil sticks.  I was thrilled when he revealed an anecdotal story to me after we had faced each other in the competitive round.

"I could see you had that look in your eyes and were ready to fight so I just wanted to end it quickly by jabbing rather than brawling", he said.  

My intent was to swing for the fences and see what happened.  I was happy to be acknowledged as a competitor.

Despite his tough background, Jerry also has a big heart and is fiercely loyal to those he considers friends or famliy, whether they are his closest, brutally tough Pueblo allies Ramon and Danny, or the outsiders and cast-offs because he's befriended because he finds them interesting.  He's extremely generous and nurturing, and always makes sure his guests are comfortable and their glass is always full.  He's the same way with his kids, demanding hugs and kisses and making sure their needs are taken care of, but demanding their compliance and respect.  It was always apparent to me that he would make a great officer in the Air Force, both as a Civil Engineering officer and E.O.D. officer.  He always had a natural ability to lead people.

Once we graduated, the Air Force took us our separate ways and we didn't see each other for 20 years, with only intermittent e-mails and updates about our lives along the way. In those 20 years he went to numerous places and did three tours in Afghanistan and Iraq with an E.O.D. unit and with RED HORSE, the baddest ass Air Force Civil Engineering unit, where he regularly took mortar fire while acting as Squadron Commander rebuilding the area (see bottom for full deployment history).  Sitting on his porch in Cheyenne, we reminisced and picked up right where we had left off in Colorado Springs 20 years ago.  At some point in the conversation I asked him why that tough Mexican kid from Pueblo befriended a white dude from Northglenn.  

"I think maybe it was because you had this "Fuck You" attitude, some spunk, and you were athletic", he said.  I told him I connected with him because I recognized his personality from my dad.  In a lot of ways, I had grown up with this person.  

We sat there for hours shooting, talking, and drinking.  It was comfortable and comforting to be with an old friend with shared experiences only a few can relate to.  After all the years that had passed, I found he was still the same.  Still tough, still loyal, still Jerry:  A Big Bad Ass Mexican.

Belize, SA / Civil Engineer / JTF (Humanitarian Mission)

Saudi Arabia / Readiness Officer / Operation Southern Watch

Oman / Civil Engineer / Operation Enduring Freedom

Iraq / EOD Officer / Operation Iraqi Freedom
Iraq / EOD Officer / Operation Iraqi Freedom
Iraq / Civil Engineer / Operation Iraqi Freedom (Joint Area Support Group – 1 yr Army tasking)
Afghanistan / Civil Engineer (RED HORSE – 809 ECES SQ CC) / Operation Enduring Freedom
Afghanistan / Civil Engineer ( RED HORSE – 809 ECES SQ CC) / Operation Enduring Freedom