Bataan Memorial Park
I was waiting for a Walgreens pharmacy to open in order to get a prescription for my mother, yesterday. Across the street is Bataan Memorial Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Every year on Memorial Day there is a gathering of those few still alive who were in the Bataan Death March at the park. There are honor guards from different branches of the military present, speakers and the playing of taps.
This day there was a church gathering for an open-air meeting. A few guys were setting up boundaries for a game of flag football. A few people were walking their dogs around the edges. On the south side next to a circular wall a homeless man was sleeping on flattened boxes.
I ate a couple of Egg McMuffins, giving the last bite of each of them to my Jack Russell mix dog, named Sammie. The table where I was eating used to have a WWII five-inch gun, the barrel properly capped. Kids used to climb over it and use it like a jungle gym. I noticed a partial amphitheater on the south side that was facing north. To the side of the circle of benches were pillars of granite. It’s been there awhile, but not when I lived by the park.
I tossed the trash and walked Sammie to look at the pillars of granite. They listed the names of those from New Mexico who fought on Corregidor, the Bataan Peninsula and died during the infamous death march. The first column listed the names of officers. Then each column listed those who were from different cities in New Mexico: Clovis, Gallup, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque.
I looked at each granite pillar, about eight feet high and the names etched on both sides. I found the names ending in S and checked them. I passed a number of columns until I found the name I sought. Spensely.
I never knew him. It was the first time I knew his whole name. Tears filled my eyes as I was transported back to when we bought the house a few blocks away from the park in 1971.
My father was finishing up his teaching degree at the University of New Mexico (UNM). My mother was a secretary in an insurance company. A fellow female student sat next to my father, and he was always a rather outgoing type of guy. Nancy Spensely was a former high school cheerleader and never met a stranger. She confided in Dad that she needed a job after she graduated as she was getting married. He knew Mom’s office was needing a receptionist. He told her to apply. She got the job.
Mom and Nancy got along well and gave her advice on planning the wedding. Mom mentioned that we needed a bigger house. Nancy mentioned after the wedding her grandmother would be left alone in a huge house and couldn’t take care of it.
We looked into buying the house from her, but at the time couldn’t afford it. For two years Mrs. Spensely waited until my father finished his student teaching and started teaching third grade. In the Spring of 1971 we moved into a three-bedroom, one bath, with a converted coal room as a basement house. It also sat on a quarter acre lot surrounded by huge Elm trees.
The house and neighborhood were built in 1926. My mother’s boss told her we didn’t buy a house we bought a project. While living there they reroofed, rewired, replumbed, replaced the gas heater, put in solar panels and a swamp cooler. They needed to cut down a few of the elm trees.
When moving into my bedroom, the first time to have a room without my brother, in the closet I got up on a stool to clean the shelf above the clothes bar. It was rather dusty. I came across some papers that were underneath the dust. Pulling them out I noticed there was an envelope and outside of it a telegram. I read the words, “The United States Army regrets to inform you…” the last name was Spensely.
I took it to my mother and asked what to do with it. It wasn’t like junk mail that got left behind. She told me where Mrs. Spensely was living, which wasn’t too far and to take it to her.
The kind lady waited two years for us to be able to buy the house from her and we thought the world of her. I didn’t want to bring up an old wound. It was thirty years since she received it. Would she want to see it again?
Putting the telegram into the envelope, I drove to her new house, nocked on the door. She opened it and I gave the envelope to her. She thanked me and I left. I never had contact with her again.
Memories of the Park
Back in that day, the park was just grass up to the curbs with a dirt track worn by joggers and the Duke City Dashers (girls track team before Title IX) who trained there. There was a flag and some flowers around it on the south side which was next to Lomas Blvd. with a plague giving the name. On the eastern side was a five-inch gun like the ones used by the battery division that was mostly made up of soldiers from New Mexico and Arizona stationed in the Philippines before Pearl Harbor. It was mostly a forgotten park.
I used to take Harvey, our German Shepherd/Collie mix and run around the park in the evenings and Saturdays. On Sundays before leaving for college I’d meet up with a bunch of other guys and played touch football. The summer I left for college I joined a pick-up game of football. A 440 runner from a rival high school lived across from the park. I was on his teem and he was the QB. I went out long and he threw it at me. I thought I was at the end of his range and waited for the ball to come down. It sailed over my head by ten feet and just kept on going. That’s when I remembered he was also the school’s quarterback. He never threw it my way again.
Across a side street on the east of the park was Russel’s bakery, where Dad would go every Saturday for donuts and coffee. Gil’s Runners World sat on the corner of Carlisle and Lomas across from the bakery,,Hallmark shop and ceramic shop that extended west from the bakery. My mother and sister would make ceramic pieces, fire them and bring them home.
Around the corner was a small space that looked directly across the park. A fantastic lady opened up a children’s bookstore there named Trespasser’s William.
I left for college on a track scholarship in 1972. I’d come home over the summer and ran with Harvey to stay in shape for cross-country season. When I returned from exile in Texas (four years in Plainview and a year in Fort Worth), I met Gwen Shultz and her bookstore. She also sold science fiction and fantasy.
I was living at home and going through a divorce. Gwen sold me a few books by Harlan Ellison. The first one I read was Death Bird Stories. This has to be about the most disturbing and depressing book ever written. Ellison (may he rest in perpetual battle like he did in life) even put in a warning not to read it in one setting. It sounds counterintuitive, but Ellison put into words the emotions I was feeling and it lifted me out of my depression. I went crazy reading just about anything I could find by Harlan and have fallen far short of the body of work he did in his lifetime. See previous posts concerning him.
I remarried, started a family, became a teacher of English and History. While teaching 7th and 8th grade English. Gwen would hold book fairs and any APS school willing to let her come and show her children’s books.
She moved away from the park and the suffocating smell coming from the bakery. In the middle of summer and it’s 100+ degrees the aroma of baked bread is awful. There was a time or two I could only last a few minutes in the store. I don’t know how she spent 12 hours six days a week for years there.
When she would hold a book fair at my school it was always nice to stay in touch. I moved from middle school to high school and other than driving by her new location further up Lomas Blvd. she was off my radar.
My only other round about way of contact with the Spensely’s was my father-in-law. Mrs. Spensely’s husband was a dentist. He was the one who pulled all of Ed’s teeth and made his dentures.
When I retired in 2010, I started sponsoring a writer’s group for west side Albuquerque writers. Before starting one of the sessions a lady mentioned that Gwen Shultz passed away. She’d moved to Colorado.
My parents sold the house and moved across the river to the west side. My family followed shortly after. For years the park was off our radar.
Our house and the telegram were a distant memory. My son graduated from high school in 1999. He enlisted in the Air Force. While waiting for the paperwork and orders to come for him to leave for basic training, we watched Saving Private Ryan on video. I’d heard that the opening sequence was rather gruesome and it was. It was when the telegrams were delivered to Mrs. Ryan and she fell on the floor that the memory of a real one hit me like a ton of bricks.
It reenacted what must have happened when Mrs. Spensely received hers. My son couldn’t understand why I was crying at that scene. After we finished the movie I told him about it.
In 2012 after the attack on the twin towers there was a resurgence of patriotism. The city decided to upgrade Bataan Memorial Park and removed the gun, put in concrete walks around some of it and wood chip covered edges around others. They planted more flowers on the south side and added the amphitheater and pillars. They started holding events on Memorial Day, Veterans Day and Flag Day. I mostly knew about it from TV news.
Dad passed away in 2007. They were living in Texas. My mother returned to Albuquerque and bought a townhouse not far from ours. A few years ago, my mother sold the house and moved into independent living not far from the park. She gets her prescriptions there. I usually have to take her to pick them up or get them for her like this last Sunday. Normally its get in, get out. The park is just there.
This time I had to wait an hour and finally went to see the pillars. It struck me as I saw the name of a man who I died years before I was born, that he would still have an effect on me. Somehow knowing his mother and niece, living for years in the house he grew up in, and the memorial to him and all those who died some now 70 years later has given me a connection more than a name on a granite pillar or reading about it in a history book. The name of Homer V. Spensely has meaning and the sacrifice he made helped make the future for me and my family.