Sunday, January 03, 2016

Gene Wood

Border Conflict
Gene Wood
The sixth angry rancher
By Stephen L. Wilmeth

            I have scores of miles of fence to rebuild.
            Most neighbors are in the same situation as some fencing is entering its 9th decade of existence. Constantly, I marvel at the hand labor it took to get it all built. How was it accomplished? It was done with an unfathomable effort that necessarily included all hands, wives, little boys, and Mexican labor streaming north across our border.
            I remember the old gentleman that came to the 7V and cut staves. He was welcomed to the house to eat his meals and he sat there quietly and ate. He never wore gloves and his hands were an object of attention. His palms were polished callous as was the handle of his saddle axe. Both were the color of mesquite and tough as leather. He probably didn’t weigh 110 pounds, but he was a master with that axe. With economy of effort, he cut staves like a machine. They would be matched and stacked with the precision of a brick mason.
            Albino, the vaquero at Darrell’s was a different character. He wore shirts with snap buttons, pointed toed boots, and a white panama that would fit perfectly in today’s taco hat selections from Star Western Wear. I loved being with him. We always spoke Spanish and I remember how he suggested I go to Mexico for a summer to work on a ranch and find a Mexican girlfriend who couldn’t speak any English. He told me I’d come home speaking Spanish like I actually knew how rather than speaking like a “pendejo gringo”.
            I learned to yell “listo” when we finished a calf at the branding fire and we’d coordinate turning it loose. I knew the difference between a bacerra and a bacerro, and I knew what it meant when somebody yelled…  “Migra!”
            The Border Patrol (CBP) had arrived!
            La Migra
            I was confounded by the relationship of CBP and most ranchers. Darrell never spoke harshly in my presence, but I knew there was something antagonistic there. I saw it in his interaction with Greg Whipple. Greg had come to southern New Mexico as a smoke jumper from Montana. He was hurt in a jump, and, during his recuperation, he spent a lot of time at our home. He was an exotic older brother figure and became very close to my family. He liked the border country enough to apply to the CBP. He was accepted and went on to the Academy. One of his first assignments was at Lordsburg 50 south of us.  We saw him regularly.
            I saw he and Darrell stand face-to-face one day in an encounter at the mouth of the Mangus and I knew something was certainly not copasetic. Neither would say anything about the other thereafter but there was a wide chasm of conflict. It was rancher versus CBP. It was border conflict.
            Greg was salty. I remember seeing him once with a big shiner and asked him what happened. He wouldn’t divulge much, but admitted there had been an internal affairs workout in the Lordsburg office. Later suggestions revealed the boys resolved it by locking the doors, turning the shades down, and debating the issue to a workable solution. Anecdotal evidence has it that some chairs and desks were shattered, several bones were broken, a wall was removed, but a lasting and unified resolution was concluded.
            The legend of “old time” Border Patrolmen grew more “legendary” as a result of such debates.
            Gene Wood
            Gene Wood was “purro Migra”. No real border conflict arose, but he and I disagreed on three things.
The first was he insisted CBP needed more patrolmen and I reminded him they needed fewer but those fewer had to be clones of the “old time” patrolmen. They also had to be turned loose to do their jobs. The second disagreement was the birth place of agents and station assignments. My insistence was the CBP needed to take a page out of Texas Ranger history and assign agents only to home districts. The Rangers believed a local would defend his home to his death. I think that remains as true to today as ever. Gene said training and professionalism trumped place of birth.
We lost him Christmas Day, 2015.
He lost the fight to small cell carcinoma, but that wasn’t his story line. In our little community of now national monument ranchers, Gene will forever be remembered as being the 6th man of the original “Five Angry Ranchers” (as the press dubbed those of us who fought the effort for eight long years).
Victor Manjarrez introduced me to Gene. Vic was the new El Paso Sector Chief when we came to the conclusion we had to have CBP voice their great concern for placing yet more federal border lands under restrictive access management. He admitted he was limited to what he could say or do, but the retired agents within the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers (NAFBPO) would have no such restrictions. Gene was on that board as well as the governing board of the National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso. He made his home in Las Cruces.
Manjarrez had a meeting scheduled with the museum board. At the conclusion of that meeting he called me and passed the phone to Gene. That was the start of a relationship that put us both on a path of respect and lasting friendship.
Gene’s immediate and flippant assessment of the issue was our third point of disagreement. He concluded it was a local issue and he wouldn’t involve NAFBPO. I told him that was “bullshit”, and, if he couldn’t recognize the implications of national security it presented, my whole assessment of old time border patrolmen was fraudulent. There was a long pause.
“When can we meet?” he asked.
Gene Wood’s eulogy will reveal his birth to an Idaho dairy family in 1930. It will continue with his Air Force service in Korea and his ultimate decision to pursue a career as a state policeman or a border patrolman. The latter was revealed in the opening and closing of one of life’s doors when CBP responded first. It began with his attendance at the Academy which was at that time in El Paso. It would continue as he and his first wife, Ginger, moved their family ten times over a career that lasted until his retirement in 1984.
In succession, he would advance from inspector trainee, to immigration inspector and examiner, to patrol agent in charge, to officer in charge, to deputy chief, and, finally, two stops as sector chief. The first was in McAllen and the second was in San Diego when San Diego was the most active sector in the nation.
Gene lost Ginger in 1994. In 1997, he moved back to the El Paso area and settled in Las Cruces. It was there he became active in the directorship in both NAFBPO and the museum (he received the prestigious designation as Trustee Emeritus in the latter). It was at the museum, he met his second wife, Kristi. Kristi was working there in the gift shop.
Gene leaves son, Terry Gene, and daughter, Susan Preckett in El Paso. His son, Scott, is a chief with CBP at the Dallas/ Ft. Worth airport in international flights.
The story of Gene will not be concluded without mentioning the room in Gene and Kristi’s home that is filled with various awards, letters of recommendation, distinguished career service recognition and a letter from Ronald Reagan. He will also be remembered for his senate testimony and his efforts in such legislation as the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, but the things those of us who knew him so intimately in the last years of his life will remain more vivid and most personal.
We’ll remember his loyalty to the cause that became national along with its endless hours spent formulating the defense of our southern border with dangers emanating from yet another ill advised national monument. We went on radio programs together. We went on television programs together. We presented to community leaders and associations together. He presented in congressional hearings and he traveled to Washington to testify yet again.
 In the process, our “local issue” became his issue and one of great importance to NAFBPO. We lost that battle as Gene lost his life’s battles on Christmas Day, but we fought the fight against a debacle that will eventually be revealed for the danger it presents. In the process, he earned our admiration and the honorary title of the “6th Angry Rancher”.
I’ll always wonder, but perhaps … he extended to us the reciprocal honorary title of “old time” Border Patrolmen.

Stephen L. Wilmeth is a rancher from southern New Mexico. “Gene, I smiled at your eulogy mention of strong advocacy for “security and public safety on public lands adjacent to the national borders”. We learned from each other … didn’t we?”

Gene Wood was a gentleman.

Tall, slender, silvery-haired and distinguished in both looks and carriage.

I first met him when he started attending our Western Heritage Alliance meetings.   That is the group started by the "5 angry ranchers" that grew to encompass hundreds of professionals and respected local organizations. Gene served as our border security expert and liaison to NAFBPO.  Our first battle was with legislation creating border wilderness areas, with wilderness being the most restrictive and harmful designation to both ranchers and law enforcement.  With Gene's help, we won that battle.  It was only to Obama's onslaught of Executive Orders and Proclamations that we later fell victim.

Thank you Gene, for all you did for our nation, your agency and the "5 angry ranchers".

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