A story based on the great song by Marty Robbins. A sequel to this is called, "El Paso City."
To make it clear, the present day story of John Sessions is always in the first person with his name on the title. The stories he writes about are always in third person.
Faster than I would have believed possible, my life changed from being a student in the halls of academia in a backward eddy in the flow of the country to nine days of hell in a place incongruously named, "Outpost Harry."
I finished my dissertation on "West Texas Gunfighters: Sheriff and Outlaw" and, after the faculty review, I was granted my Masters' degree from Texas Western College. I took off for a month of relaxation at the La Baca ranch outside of Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, with my roommate of five years, Pablo De La Puente.
After a truly great four weeks I returned to my dingy apartment near the university in El Paso that I'd rented after we had to move out of the dorms upon graduation. Amongst the clutter of mail was an official looking letter from the Selective Service that, of course, turned out to be a politely worded letter that changed my life in so many ways.
The letter, from my local Selective Service Board, of course, stated: "You are hereby ordered for induction into the Armed Forces of the United States, and to report to..." which kicked off a series of events that led to a rapid maturation and elimination of any remaining boyishness in my body and personality.
It began with five of us being put on a bus to the induction center in Dallas. Once there we were given a battery of mental and physical exams, then sworn in for our appropriate service ... mine being the Army. I was given a twenty-dollar bill for the mandatory onsite haircut and for having nametags sewn onto the four sets of fatigues I was given. I quickly understood why the money was called "flying twenties" since there wasn't much left of it when we were finished.
After a few whirlwind months at Fort Bliss learning important things like how to salute, shine boots; make beds and especially how to kill people (it felt like at that time I was trying to kill myself more than anyone else). Because of my degree and some other mysterious selection criteria I was selected for Officer Candidate School. For this, I was sent to Fort Benning to learn how to be what they disingenuously called, "An Officer and a Gentleman."
After getting the gold bars of a second lieutenant—Lt. John Sessions had a nice ring to it—I was put on a train for San Francisco. The staging area was Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg and we had four days before the next troop ship left for Korea. As an officer I was given a pass each night. On the recommendation of a fellow shave tail from my class, I went to the Buena Vista in Fisherman's Wharf. They had what must be the world's best drink—something called Irish Coffee. It was supposed to be as good as they served at Shannon Airport in Ireland. They had started it a few months before in the fall of 1952.
The BV, as my buddy called it, was supposed to be a hangout for TWA stewardesses and, after plying one with Irish Coffee for a couple of hours one night, I was able to get a date with her for all day on Sunday. After a fun day sightseeing in San Francisco, I did spend several hours with her in her apartment on Russian Hill. I still had a smile on my face when we shipped out from Fort Mason on the General W.M. Black two days later.
The first few months in Korea were a blur—in retrospect it seemed like a series of vignettes about learning how to be a soldier and how to lead troops. So in early June I found myself in the position of a First Lieutenant replacing a dead Captain as company commander of King Company trying to hold Outpost Harry.
This was a military hot spot about sixty miles north of Seoul in what was called the Iron Triangle. We were a bit over three hundred yards south of a hill occupied by the Chinese People's Volunteers, called Star Hill. Outpost Harry was also about a quarter mile northeast of the UN position. We were on the mainline of advance by the CPV and they desperately wanted to knock us off the hill we were on.
Our post consisted of a communication trench, which ran from the supply point forward about a quarter mile to the summit of the hill. At that point, the trench line joined another trench that made a complete circle around Outpost Harry. There was an additional projection that ran along the eastern part of the ridge for around a hundred yards.
The trench was deep enough to walk around the perimeter unseen by the enemy. It was fortified with reinforced bunkers, including space for a command post and for a forward observation position. It had enough space for a reinforced infantry company.
Facing our company was a Chinese Communist Regiment from their 74th Division. Our instructions were to hold at all costs, which turned out to be high. Over the next week plus, we were continually harassed by almost ninety thousand rounds of Chinese artillery. After a very long eight days, often involving hand-to-hand combat with wave after wave of CPV forces we held out. Later they told us there were over thirteen thousand soldiers in the attacking forces.
On the third day I was there, several of the enemy got into our area. One of them was coming at me with his bayonet. My .45 was in my hand but several of my men were behind him and I couldn't take the chance of shooting him then. I was able to sidestep his thrust and push him to the ground. I put a round in the middle of his face as he twisted around, trying to turn his rifle towards me. He was the only enemy I knew that I had specifically killed but it never bothered me in any way. I was doing what I had been trained for ... and I did it well enough that I lived.
An interesting footnote to my time at the outpost was that lines of fifty-five gallon barrels containing napalm were situated in front of our last line of defense. We hadn't needed to use them until on June 11, 1953, when we faced the largest wave of attacking Chinese soldiers. They were crawling up the hill like ants. The scene was clear and forever burned in my memory from the constant flares being fired.
When the attackers started crawling up the side of Outpost Harry the barrels were set off flowing down the hill engulfing the Chinese in an inferno of flame. I saw the enemy soldiers burning like paper and the smell of smoke and burning flesh was overpowering. We broke one more human wave of ChiComs and lived to fight another day. I've tried to sort out the images in my mind but it came down to a 4th of July celebration gone crazy.
On a more personal note, a Master Sergeant in our outfit got the Medal and I got a ticket home and back to my research and writing. On the last day I caught some flak that caught the back edge of my left hamstring and took out a chunk of my thigh that remains missing to this day. They fixed it as best they could but I would always walk with a noticeable limp and have a healthy furrow scarring the back of my leg.
On the troop ship coming home, I had a lot of time to think. All I had to do was the twice a day therapy, which left me with a lot of free time. More and more I looked back to the time I spent at my roommate's ranch. The picture of the lovely girl with her arm around me was sometimes the only thing that kept me sane on the hot nights at Outpost Harry when the mortars would pound, hour after hour, with their relentless cacophony of noise that was felt as much as heard.
She was Pablo's little sister with little being the operative word. Her name was María Elena De La Puente, and if ever there was a woman with the face of an angel, it was she. María was short, barely over five feet, with black curly hair that tumbled down over and beyond her shoulders. Her eyes were dark and large and always seemed to reflect her current emotional state. From minute to minute they could show a caring innocent demureness, or all too quickly change to a fiery anger or an icy politeness.
She was an eclectic mix of Madonna and tomboy. She was sweet, shy and decorous to a fault. But put her in Levi's and on her beloved Palomino mare, and she was as good a rider as any cowboy on the ranch. María shy was to fall hopelessly in love with her. María angry was to look for a hiding place.
She had this ... I guess this sense of innocence but at the same time, she would jump right in when it came time for branding and castrating calves. This juxtaposition of shy loveliness and earthy rancher totally enchanted me. I was afraid I was more in love than not ... and more afraid of her than not!
Once on a hot July evening we were out on the patio having a somewhat aimless, even lazy, conversation about some of my research projects. We were all tired from a long day riding in the hills behind the ranch headquarters. I'd talked for a bit about one I was particularly passionate about and it seemed to trigger something in María 's memory. She looked excited and started talking.
"Oh, Johnnie! You should write about my Aunt Faleena. Well, she is really my great-great-grandmother's older sister. She led an exciting life. I have been doing research and traced her to Santa Fe from where she was born south of Chama, a little north of here in the Tierra Amarilla Valley. She went to Santa Fe when she was seventeen and, as near as I can figure, stayed there about a year.
"There are some hints that she took a stage from Santa Fe to El Paso. There is a story, a legend really, that she died in a shootout with some famous marshal. The story was about her love for a wild young cowboy."
.... There is more of this story ...