By Noor Nahas
Living in a small town named Casa Piedra, 42 miles outside of Marfa, Texas, Armando Faustino Vasquez lived and worked like many of the other young men in the area. He went to church every week, worked long days on his father's ranch in the summer, and listened to the radio with his family.
But "Mando" Vasquez's decision to go to high school would lead him to enlist in the military, and he would travel far beyond the warm, dry weather of West Texas.
Casa Piedra's school went no higher than the eighth grade, so after reaching that milestone, young Vasquez decided to go high school in Marfa, leaving his family's ranch and moving in with relatives. While he was living there, something besides girls and school caught his interest: the Marine uniform.
"The reason I volunteered to become a Marine was because I liked the uniform. I loved the uniform," said Vasquez.
With the image of the Marine uniform in his head, and with World War II two years in, Vasquez was ready to serve. In the fall of 1943, he got on a bus and traveled 194 miles northwest to Fort Bliss, near El Paso, to sign up. After taking his physical, he faced an "old contrarian" sergeant who would decide where the young Vasquez went.
"What branch of service do you want to join?" Vasquez recalled the sergeant asking him.
"The Marines. That's the reason I volunteered," Vasquez said in response.
The sergeant looked at Vasquez and said, "I'm sorry. You're in the Army now." He stamped the paper in front of him without another word.
With that, Vasquez's name was added to the white board in front of the church in Marfa.
"Every time a local would join the Army, the priest would write his name down, and it was loaded with names," said Vasquez. "I was surprised there was so many."
Vasquez was sent from Fort Bliss to Fort Knox, in Kentucky, where he was trained as a replacement for troops already in combat.
"They gave you training in artillery, in tanks, and a little bit of everything. You didn't know what you were going to be doing," said Vasquez.
Vasquez and his fellow replacements were sent to England and took a ship to Le Havre, France, 26 days after Allied forces had landed at Normandy on D-Day.
"We didn't know where we were going to be sent. We were just a number," said Vasquez.
Much to his delight, Vasquez was soon assigned to the 737th Tank Battalion in France. There, he worked as an assistant driver, manning the .30-caliber machine gun on an M4 Sherman tank nicknamed the "Ronson Lighter," a reference to the tank's tendency to burst into flames when shot.
With nothing but their uniforms and their gear, they found winter in northern France very harsh. Vasquez recalls sleeping under his tank with the rest of his crew as snow fell around them.
Toward the end of WWII, Vasquez returned to the United States and was discharged from the military on Nov. 11, 1945.
"It was a miracle I came out alive in one big piece," said Vasquez.
Tired of military life and taking orders and punching a clock, Vasquez decided not to go back to school. Instead he took up work as a mechanic in the Chevrolet dealership in Marfa. He also got married, to Josephine Velasco. The couple had three children.
At the dealership, he began noticing that when it came time to divvy up the work, he got the less appealing jobs - the older cars that needed more work, but brought less money. White workers got the better assignments. He quit after a friend told him of work as a cattle inspector in Mexico.
And so he left his mechanic job and family life in Marfa in 1950 to become a cattle inspector in central Mexico, where he worked for two years. With the higher salary, Vasquez was able to return to Marfa, buy a house for his family and open his own garage - one he referred to as "the chicken coop" because it was a small garage attached to a fueling station.
"Only half of the floor had concrete and rest of it was dirt. But I didn't want to go through that treatment anymore like they were treating me at the Chevrolet dealer," said Vasquez.
Vasquez grew his business and eventually was able to move his garage into a bigger building. He continued to operate the shop until 1997, when he decided to sell it.
"I was 72 years of age. I was taking care of the ranch at Casa Piedra, and it was flat too much for me," said Vasquez. "It was time for me to retire."
With that, Vasquez sold the business to two immigrants from Holland, and he and his wife retired to his family ranch. Vasquez continues to work three days a week on his ranch, doing the work on his own.
Mr. Vasquez was interviewed by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez in Marfa, Texas, on Aug. 18, 2012.