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Robert Rosenthal: New Mexico stories

These stories are taken from letters Robert Rosenthal sent me. I have edited them very slightly but most of it is pretty much what he wrote.---JS

I would have enjoyed driving over the area I once covered as a sanitarian -- part of Socorro County and all of Catron County. It was an experience! The restaurant act had just been enacted and I was told not only that the people in my area didn't believe in such things, but also that there hadn't been a sanitarian in the area for the past year. I had to learn that the majority of the population wanted to be called ``Spanish American'' rather than Mexican.

I had several ``towns'' that were, I suspect, maybe just a post office. Apache Creek was one, along with Dusty.

When I was in Socorro there was only one truly Spanish family. They operated a restaurant and were emphatic in assuring me they were not Mexicans. Populations do change. Many more Hispanic than there were. Interesting -- a large meat processing plant is trying to locate in Iowa, but the town they selected doesn't want this employer of about 1,000 workers. One of their reasons is that it would bring the wrong kind of workers. (For ``wrong kind'' read ``Hispanic.'')

Most of the water supply for Magdalena came from an old Santa Fe well, maybe 40 feet in diameter. One entered through the roof and went down a flight of stairs to a platform from which I could take water samples and check for chlorine content.

The mayor was also the water supervisor and operator of a bar. I told him he had to have a chlorine testing kit, which he bought. I showed him how to use it and on a subsequent visit I asked him how the chlorinator was doing, and how often he tested the water. He said he did it monthly, whereupon I asked to see the kit. The seals on the reagent bottles had never been opened. He was one embarrassed mayor.

I had one ``request for service'' in Socorro, a woman complaining about her own septic tank overflowing and what should she do? I'd routinely have 5 or 6 requests for service every day in Cal.

Regarding ethnicity, I had only one contact with truly Spanish people, in this case 2 women running a restaurant. They made sure I didn't confuse them with plain, ordinary Spanish Americans -- the common people, so to speak.

I did enjoy my trip through Datil to Reserve and south of there, but not as far as Silver City. can't say I enjoyed it in winter, when snow and ice could - and did - complicate matters. Then back through Arizona to I believe highway 60, back through Pietown and thence to Datil.

A couple items on Socorro. I was requested to consult with the manager of the TB sanitarium. They had their own sewage treatment plant, and were having troubles with it. At that stage of my life I knew from nothing about such an installation, but studied what references I could find, and learned what I could from the operator of the city's plant, so I wouldn't be completely ignorant. I looked at their blueprints and then phoned the appropriate State man, who got out his prints. After considerable comparing notes we found that he and I had slightly but critically different prints for the same plant. Somehow we did manage to solve the problem.

And speaking of the local sewage plant, the operator was so confident in the quality of his operation that he took a drinking glass, dipped it in the effluent and drank it. Now there was a man with an iron stomach. Interesting item: since tomatoes were a large part of the local diet, the sludge from the digesting tank, which was pumped out to dry, soon sprouted a veritable tomato garden. When dry the sludge made a good and harmless soil conditioner and gave you tomatoes to boot.

If I recall correctly, when we moved onto Fitch street, behind our back yard was good old desert. We hadn't bought a garbage can yet, and thanks to the breeze we didn't have to. Found one in our back yard one morning, asked the upwind neighbor if it was theirs. They said no, that it had been in their yard; they'd asked their upwind neighbor, who also said no, etc. So now we had a garbage can!

The public health nurse, Margaret McCullough, was quite a character. She wore a mannish haircut, jodhpurs, boots, and had a rather deep voice. My mother visited us, and of course I took her to the office and made the introductions. After we left, Mother asked, ``Who was that man?''

Had to visit Fence Lake whether I wanted to or not. It was really out of the way, as was Claunch. At Fence Lake I had to check the grocery store and the school cafeteria. Noted that along with salt and pepper at each table, they had a shaker of chili powder; saw one kid putting it on his pie. As for Claunch, I had to check the weather report. If it was going to be windy, I didn't go the semi-paved way (through Mountainair) because sand might obscure the road. If it was likely to rain I took it anyway because the arroyos could run on the alternate route which was hardly marked at all. Got lost on my first trip that way and landed up at a stock-watering tank. Again briefly lost when I got back on track because the road just seemed to end at a rocky outcropping. Got on top of the sloping rocks and saw the road continuing.

Now for a locale called Dusty. I looked for a town but found only the school. I asked the teacher (there was only one) why there was no toilet paper in the privy. She told me that if it was left there the wind would blow it away. (That must be how the place got its name.) The privy needed improvement -- the two holes were a mess. The little kids tried to pee into the holes but mainly they wet the entire seating area and all, and those not wanting to sit on the wet seat, tried squatting (I saw that once in the Philippines, when a suspect I was guarding did it successfully), but the kids mostly missed the hole and messed up the seat.

So we modified things -- put in a urinal trough, with a box under it for the little kids to stand on, and had a training session to show them how to use it.

As I recall it, Aragon was on the way to Reserve. Had a privy problem at the school, which was on a hill, or should I call it a mound. They'd tried to put in a drainfield for a septic tank, but there was little topsoil with solid rock underneath, so a privy was the only alternative. They'd tried blasting for the pit, but all that did was shatter the building's windows. So they built the privy on the slope of the hill, with the entry on solid ground, and the rest of it on stilts. Whatever you put in the privy just ran (or rolled) downhill since there was no pit.

I had considerable trouble with one measly item in the restaurant code, which required that anyone using utensils had to have hot water. What complicated matters was that perforce had to include many itsy bitsy groceries that used a knife mostly for cutting longhorn cheese. I managed to look the other way until prepackaged longhorn was available, although some operators complied. In one case the fellow put up a sign saying the health inspector required it. (I hated the ``health inspector'' term. Later in California we sanitarians got together and changed the name to `environmental sanitarian'). Thus I had plenty of titles: RS for registered sanitarian, CMDI for certified milk and dairy inspector and RPS for radiation protection specialist. Never used those letters, though.

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See also: The Robert Rosenthal stories
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John W. Shipman,
Last updated: 2000/07/29 00:42:16