El Paso With A New Perspective

By Chez Chesak

My father was a Texan. He despised our New England winters, said y’all regularly, and the first thing he did when he moved into one of his (many) new apartments scattered throughout central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire was hang a giant Texas flag from the balcony.

Grandfather “Butch” Chesak with Chez, Mark and Kari Chesak

But he wasn’t a regular Texan. He was from that other Texas, the part oft-forgotten and readily dismissed by the urbanites in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. He was from far-flung El Paso, the western-most of Texas cities (indeed the western-most of Texas itself), which had more in common with New Mexico than those central Texas cities that were seven, nine and almost 11 hours away by car.

Chesak kids in 1972

Even though we were in New England, El Paso was a regular part of our life. Thanks to my dad, we knew most of the words to Marty Robbins’ woe-some 1959 song El Paso. There were regular, static-filled, long-distance calls to our aunts and uncles there, as well as my grandfather, who had earned the nickname “Butch” during a short stint as a butcher. Then, there were the interminable, never-ending, seatbelt-less treks from Massachusetts to Texas, in a puttering 1978 orange VW Campervan (often with “El Paso” playing on the eight-track cassette player).

Juarez in 1974

With Grandpa Butch’s house as home base, we explored. We took the Wyler Aerial Tramway to the top of the Franklin Mountains. We investigated Las Cruces and lunched in the 1,000-feet -underground Carlsbad Caverns. We went to Juarez and haggled for leather belts, sterling silver belt buckles and marble chess sets. We went to bullfights there and quickly learned, albeit the hard way, that the more expensive seats (in the shade) were worth every penny.

We made irregular visits back to “Sun City” for my cousin’s weddings and  the funerals of Butch and a great uncle. Once, as a teen, I flew in over the mountains, and, on approach, was treated to a nocturnal display through the aircraft window: the city’s massive, signature illuminated star on the side of the mountain aglow, as always, but this time framed with sporadic flashes in the distance as a brush fire burned in a circle below.

Chez and his wife Sally at Fort Bliss

When my Army National Guard unit was called up in 2004 to go to Iraq, we trained at Fort Bliss, the massive U.S. Army post in El Paso. We set fake ambushes in the real desert, cleared fake Iraqi towns and ran fake patrols. Meanwhile, I slipped away as often as I could to grab a barbecue meal at Stateline (a restaurant in New Mexico but whose parking lot is in Texas) or a steak dinner at the remote and sprawling Cattlemen’s Steakhouse with my aunt and uncle. My dad, who had fallen back in love with his high school sweetheart, used my time there as an excuse to come see me during training and visit his girlfriend on her pecan farm near Mesquite, N.M. It was an opportunity for my new wife, Sally, pregnant with our first child, to come to visit too.

Lillian and Sylvia Chesak at Fort Bliss National Cemetery

When my dad passed away, finally succumbing to the traumas he endured as an advisor in Vietnam and the subsequent decades of medications that the VA threw at him, we brought him home. He was laid to rest in Fort Bliss National Cemetery, with a nice view of the Franklin Mountains. My oldest child, the one that was still in the womb when Sally came to visit me during training, was 12 by then and somehow by her own volition, snapped smartly to parade rest when she saw his gravestone.

I was legitimately thrilled in Barbados last year when I heard El Paso was hosting the 2019 SATW Convention. I was then humbled when President David Swanson asked me to chair the Planning Committee. I was beside myself on the site inspection, diving into the history, culture, and spirit of such a familiar place that I was now seeing with new eyes and from a fresh angle.  

Downtown El Paso (photo: Visit El Paso)

I’m now overjoyed to share this unique, dynamic, and entirely unexpected city with my SATW colleagues during the annual convention taking place October 20-24, 2019. Register now to join us in this great city that is a hub for three states, two nations and a crossroads of cultures.