By Rosa Imelda Flores
William Wood was "born in space," his reference to the little mining town of Santa Rita, which was in the hilly terrain of southwestern New Mexico.
Santa Rita was excavated for the valuable copper ore lying under it until it was completely destroyed, Wood explains. And today, only "space" remains; the open-pit mine dominates.
"The mine gobbled down the town," Wood said.
In the late 1930s, Santa Rita had other well known "spaces" within the city. Anglos lived on one side of town; Mexicans on another. Wood was born 200 feet into the Mexican side of town, where he grew up in a bilingual household.
"My dad cussed me out in English and my mom consoled me in Spanish," he recalled.
His language skills were honed in and outside of class at Sully Grade School, named after John Sully, a geologist who convinced Wall Street Santa Rita needed an open-pit mine to generate revenue. Classes were taught in English but the Mexican students practiced their Spanish on the playground.
In the 6th grade, Wood's world turned upside down. That year, his father, a World War I veteran, died from tuberculosis. One year before, his mother had died from heart disease. His Aunt Nora took care of him and his sister after the two were orphaned. Wood started delivering milk for the local dairy during his 6th-grade school year. After 8th grade graduation, he worked seven days a week for $1 and two daily quarts of milk.
"I worked my way through grade school," he said.
Earning a college education was nowhere near the picture Wood had in mind when he delivered milk in frigid temperatures.
"My hair used to freeze and my snot used to freeze like popsicles," he said.
He dreamed of a good job, warm coat and full stomach.
"I remember going to bed hungry," he said. "I remember weighing 92 pounds when I was supposed to weigh 120."
Although the weight he carried was far heavier than he wanted to bear, today, his perspective on that period has changed.
"I'm glad it was tough," Wood said. "It made a better person out of me."
After delivering milk and working at the local bowling alley, Wood delivered groceries. Earning $10 a week was better than the $1 he earned delivering milk. But, after doing the math, he realized his six-day week, 10-hour shifts added up to 16 cents per hour.
For better pay, Wood took a job at the Santa Rita mine. He was 15 and under legal working age, so he added two years to his life to qualify for employment. He says his boss knew about this but kept silent.
Some of his clearest recollections are of the 105-degree heat and prejudice.
"I remember the discrimination," he said. "No consideration, no respect and no feeling for people."
Many of the mine’s employees were illiterate and couldn’t risk losing the job that supported their families, Wood says. He recalls noticing that Mexicans with more seniority and better skills could never advance beyond the lower levels at the mine, while Anglos progressed through the ranks quickly.
"I saw a bunch of dumb Anglos," he said. "The only qualification they had was an Anglo name. You'd see the Anglos on top [of the mine] driving trucks. Hispanics ran the shovels because they weren't smart enough!"
Finally, two things happened to make him leave the mine: One was the electrocution of a co-worker, which reminded him of the dangers of the job; the other was a magazine photo of a United States naval officer, in his dress whites.
"I looked at myself," Wood said. "All full of dirt, hard hat and lamp ... I think I'll join the Navy."
To qualify for Navy enrollment Wood says he once again padded his years, as well as paid a notary public $25 to notarize an affidavit detailing his fake age and legal guardian status.
Before leaving for San Diego, Calif., he grabbed a spike from the railroad and made a promise, borne of the bitterness of his experience.
"When I get back, I'll defecate on the mine," he said.
Boot camp in Ames, Iowa, was his first significant hurdle, he says. Later, he received extensive electronic and aviation training to prepare him for Fleet Airwing-11, where he recalls following German submarines up and down the Atlantic coast.
Wood says his history of personal hardships prepared him for difficulties and intimidations.
"It was tough," he said. "To solve problems, I'd think about them in Spanish and solved them in English."
During World War II, the U.S. sank 781 German submarines. Wood's outfit was responsible for 21 of them, one of which is on display in Chicago. The U-505 was captured four days before D-Day, but the U.S. kept the victory secret to roll out D-Day as planned.
Wood is proud of his military service.
"The Navy gave me education and the foundation to continue with work in electricity," he said.
He returned to Santa Rita briefly after his time in the Navy, but realized he’d never advance much. So he moved to Southern California and got a job in electrical engineering. His first civilian jobs in the field were installing light fixtures for American Show Case Company. But, with time and dedication, he built a sound reputation that generated job offers from coast to coast. From 60-cycle power generators with O'Keefe and Merit, to ground support equipment for the Air Force, Woods worked until the age of 60 for various major companies in Southern California, including Honeywell, American Can Co., Hercules Electronic Machinery and Western Electric.
Wood decided he'd had enough of California and wanted to return to his birthplace.
"I'm tired of this," he said. "I want to go back to New Mexico, where there are wide open spaces and a hand shake is as good as a contract."
By this time, he and a group of friends owned a small airplane. He flew into Santa Rita, remembering the promise he’d once made to himself.
Wood took a number four paper bag, filled it up with dried dog turds and drove over the copper pit he’d worked day in and day out as a teenager. He then pulled his arm out of the aircraft and dropped the paper sack down the center of the mine.
Although he deviated from his original vow, he still feels he fulfilled his promise.
"It was symbolic," Wood said. … "It made me feel like I could accomplish anything I set my mind to do."
Mr. Wood was interviewed in Arenas Valley, New Mexico, on July 15, 2004, by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez.