A Summer With Dad

(1928 - Age 13)


Ralph Tanner


have been asked by my children and others to write some of my experiences with Dad (Joe Tanner). I spent most of two summers going around the reservation with Dad to families he had making silver beads and jewelry. He would furnish most of the turquoise and silver for them. I don't know what kind of a deal it was, but they always seemed happy. I went out to Tsaya with Chunk as Dad was already there. He had written me that he would like me to stay with him and learn to grind and polish turquoise. We left Tsaya and went over to a farm and ranch with an artesian well where he planned to start a trading post. We stayed there a few days as he was finishing a fence along the road up to the store. When we had finished the fence and were getting ready to go, Dad went to the front of the pickup to crank it. He must have left it in gear because when he gave it a crank it started forward. Dad just barely got out of the way when the pickup sped up and headed right for the fence. (The fence was all new with 5 strands of barbed wire). It just pulled the posts out like toothpicks until, some 30 posts later it went into a ditch and stayed there. Dad just looked at the whole scene and said, "Go you son of a b---- go!" I was just about to split from laughing which he did not appreciate, and I asked him why he did not try to stop the truck. He pointed out that the wire and posts were on both sides of the truck and that he could not get to it. He left a Navajo to rebuild the fence and we headed for Gallup.

We stayed at Billy Bicente's place that night. He was a close Navajo friend of Dad's. He always kept a string of race horses and Dad used to race them for Billy. We had a good meal which I thought was rabbit. Later, sitting around the fire, Dad asked how I had liked the "prairie dog." I looked at him and about up-chucked, but I had to admit it was pretty good until I found out what it was. Billy and his dad got quite a laugh out of this.

Mysterious cavern with pinnacles of gold.

We went on to Gallup, stopping to pick up jewelry at several camps. Bus was there grinding sets and we stayed for a few days. Dad said we needed to go to the San Domingo village to get some turquoise necklaces and jaclos. Dad had brought a few saddle blankets and small rugs to trade. Bus stayed in Gallup to grind sets and get them ready for jewelry for Dad. They would also high-grade turquoise from the copper mine to sell to Dad. On our way back we stayed west of Grants at an old Navajo man's camp. He also made jewelry for Dad. As we left the camp Dad said "Rove," (I guess it was a cross between my nickname of Lovy and Ralph) "look south and to your left. Down there somewhere are a lot of pure gold nuggets just like this one on my watch fob." (When Dad passed away in Gallup, his watch and watch fob were never found.) Then he told me quite a story about the old Navajo we had just left. His brother and Dad had escaped from Kit Carson who was taking the Navajos to Bosco Redondo after they had surrendered and were kept there for several years. The two boys and their father and a dog hid out in the volcanic rock and were almost to die of thirst. The dog wandered off and when he came back they could tell he had found water. They then followed the dog and he led them down into a cavern that had pools of water. There they saw pinnacles of pure gold on the ceiling and on the walls. They stayed around Grants after the Indians were allowed to go back to their reservations, north and west of Gallup. They would go to the cavern and get gold to trade for silver to an old Dutchman in Grants in order to make jewelry. The old Dutchman became wealthy from this trading and left Grants for the East. (This story can be documented in Grants). The father and brother had died and the old man whom we had just seen told Dad about the gold and offered to take him there. Dad went in three different times with the Indian. Each time the old man would make Dad wait at a certain place while he went to see if everything was all right. Each time when he came back he would be pale and coughing (sometimes blood) and would not go back. He had T. B. quite badly. He would have a white chalk on his front and back. Dad knew he had gone through a narrow crevice. Dad  tried to follow him on the third trip and as a result the Indian would never take him back again, although they did remain close friends. Dad tried several times with other fellows using metal detectors that Ann's husband Ivan had gotten for him from the army, but there were so many minerals present that it completely scrambled any reading they could get. They did find the skeleton of a burro and three men with bullet holes in them. There is a record in Gallup of two discharged army men who bought supplies and said they had found a rich gold deposit in the lava beds south of Grants. They were never seen or heard from again. Dad's search lasted two weeks or more. They wore out their shoe leather and half soled them with tire rubber. Dad felt they were right near it but could never find exactly the right chalking crevice, although several times his heart really got going when they thought they had found the right one.

We got back to Gallup and Bus had finished most of the sets. We helped him finish the rest and headed for Tucson and Douglas. As we neared Tucson, I developed a real bad stomach ache and told Dad he better stop by a bridge. He said there wasn't a bridge for ten miles, only a mesquite bush. I ran out and in a minute called back for Bus to bring me some "paper." "There is a paper in the bush," he said. I reached up to get it and said, "I can't use this, it's too expensive....it's a $20 bill." Boy did I get the paper from Bus in a hurry.

We got to Tucson and went to Karl and Lonce's. Josephine and her kids were there, and she decided to go to Douglas with us since Raymond was working there. While riding along they would sing, "Ain't Got a Barrel of Money." We started down a long hill and Jo said, "Look at that big lake!" Dad said it was not a lake, just a mirage. As we got nearer Jo insisted that it was a lake, and Dad said that it was as dry as a bone. When we got to it, Jo made Dad stop and she got out and threw a rock and it splashed. "Is that a dry splash Dad?" Dad had never seen water in it before, now there was about half and inch because it had rained.

In Douglas, Dad had some of the Navajos (who worked in the mines) making jewelry for him. Dad and I went across the border to get some shell and black gem stones for the Zuni Indians to make bolo ties and bracelets. Dad spotted a Mexican kid with a burro loaded down with bananas. Dad gave the kid a dollar and he darned near unloaded the burro. We got to Customs and the inspector said, "What in the devil are you going to do with those bananas, sell them?" Dad replied, "I've got a daughter and grandchildren in Douglas and two families in Gleason that mine turquoise for me." The inspector had already checked the stones and said we were a little over,  but to go on ahead. He didn't look through the pickup, just joked with Dad. As we went on Dad said, "Damn, I knew I should have gotten some extra stones and put them under the seat." I told Dad he would have looked guilty. Dad replied, "I've never tried to take more than I thought I could talk them out of and most of the time, like today, they let me by with extra. I was just kidding about trying it." We stayed with Josephine that night. We headed for Gleason and arrived there in the evening. Tomicito, a Mexican friend of Dad's, and his wife fixed us a big Mexican dinner. We sat down to eat and Dad handed me a bowl of ground meat. I took two big spoons full, some beans, and some vegetables. It sure was a nice meal. I didn't notice the others mix their meat with the beans. I saw Tomicito smiling. Dad must have told him to keep still. I took a big bite of the ground meat first. It looked so good and I was really hungry. It felt like I had a hot poker in my mouth, and like a nut, I swallowed it. I jumped up and ran outside to the well, but the more water I drank the hotter it got. Tomicito, his girls and Dad about died laughing, but it wasn't funny to me. The next morning we walked up to the mine. Tomicito and his helpers had already walked up ahead of us. Dad told me to watch my step and to listen and look for rattle snakes. I thought he was kidding as usual, but returning to camp that evening you would hear a rattler everywhere you turned. Tomicito said to Dad, "I think we got good pocket coming close. I think we no shoot, just pick." They had been working a good vein and had gotten a lot of very good turquoise which he had shown us the night before at home. Dad explained that the vein that the vein had run out but that there was probably a pocket of nuggets in the area. Indeed there was and it was beautiful turquoise. We mined four days and were following a good vein going to one side. Dad thought it looked pretty good and to keep on it. He told Tomicito not to come up in the morning, that we would clean up and come down and that we would spend the night before getting the turquoise that Tomicito had in the house, and then go on to Gallup. That night Dad and I were sitting by the fire talking. He was explaining to me about the mine and about the particular vein that we were working looking very good. He said, "There has got to be something wrong. Tomicito has been shipping boxes of turquoise that are not half as good as what we are getting now. Someone has got to be hi-grading the shipments of turquoise."

In the morning, Tomicito had the boxes of turquoise all out. Dad went over them and packed them up. Tomicito's wife had packed a lunch for us to take along. Suddenly Dad said, "Tomicito, what about Ralph staying here with you to help mine for two weeks?" I looked at Dad and he said to come along with him and get some things out of the pickup. When we got outside I said, "Dad, what in the devil are you thinking of? I don't even know these people." He replied, "I've got to find out what is going on and I hope it isn't Tomicito." He left with final instructions for me to call him at the restaurant in Gallup if I needed him.

Gleason was a town of about 20 or 30 Mexican families. There was a nice recreation hall where they held dances and parties. The girls introduced me to several boys and we had a really good time.

It was an experience mining. In three days we hit a good pocket and Tomicito said, "One more shot in the morning, then we use picks." When the dust cleared we went in. Clear at the end I saw some nuggets on the floor and some larger ones still in the chalk rock. I turned around to hear Tomicito moaning in his Mexican accent, "Sonda bechil" over and over again. I picked up three or four nuggets and said they sure looked good. He told me to put them in a bucket of water and I was absolutely floored to see them disintegrate before my eyes. Then I realized the blast had shattered the turquoise. We used only our picks and in the next three days sure did bet some beautiful nuggets. We worked into a thick vein and there, got the largest thick piece I had ever seen.Earlier I had shipped Dad a box of stones which I had marked. I called to let him know they were coming and that I had marked several of them. I told him what we had hit and how the quality was and that I didn't think it could be Tomicito doing the hi-grading. I sent other shipments of ore to Dad, but this time I kept the best stones out. Dad came down to the mine three days later. he arrived in the evening. Tomicito and I had been outside talking when he drove up. Dad and I talked a few minutes and then Tomicito told Dad about the pocket we had messed up. "Damned crazy judge" he said. I liked to hear him talk. When Tomicito went in Dad rolled his bed out next to mine. He asked me what I thought about it. I told him it wasn't Tomicito, that I thought it was in the Gallup post office or here in Gleason. I asked him if he had noticed anything wrong with the boxes. He said they had been damaged and then taped, but he couldn't tell about the ones I had sent.

The next morning Tomicito said, "show what you got." I said, "Dad, I've been hi-grading on these shipments, but first tell Tomicito what has been going on." As Dad told him, tears came to his eyes. "Joe Tanner, you know I wouldn't cheat on you." As Dad explained, I got the box of turquoise out and Dad just blew his stack. "You mean this came out of those two shipments? I'm going to the post office." Dad came back in about half an hour and we went to the mine. Dad noticed we were in some good stuff so we picked it out, cleaned up and had a good lunch. Tomicito said, "Maybe so shoot out both sides wide out?" Dad told him to go home, that he and I would clean it out and get it ready. So the following day Tomicito and I drilled two holes in each side of the vein and loaded them light. Tomicito was right, we still had some good stuff and hit a small chalk pocket. I guess Dad and Tomicito decided where to start next. On the way down, Dad told Tomicito to take off and take the kids somewhere, and he would write to them. Dad packed a box of the marked turquoise and mailed it to Gallup.

We told the family goodbye. I hugged Tomicito and his wife and told them I sure appreciated them taking me in and treating me like one of the family. The girls said, "Why don't you come back next summer for a while. I said I might do that since I am going back to Mesa to start high school. The oldest girl gave me a hug and kissed me and so did the other one. By that time my face had turned forty colors. We got in the pickup, waved and took out. "Damn you Dad, did you put the girls up to that?" All I got was, "Hell no." I did write to them for about two years, but that was the last I ever saw of them because I started high school in Kirtland. Dad was to have taken me to Mesa. Mother had moved back and I was going to help her get settled before starting high school. We spent the night at Safford. It was good to take a real bath instead of a cold spit bath. Dad called Mother to tell her what had happened and said he would like for me to be a witness. I talked to her too and told her not to over-do herself, that I would come down on the bus. Dad had timed our arrival in Gallup so that a postal inspector could go with him to get the package. The man handed it to Dad and the postal inspector said, "Let's go in the office, we have a problem here. I'm a postal inspector." Dad got out the list of the marked sets and the number of sets in the box. The box had been damaged and taped up. The fellow confessed (and he was later given a twenty-five year sentence). The inspector said, "You know we are going to have to keep this box as evidence." He smiled and said, "I bet you got a duplicate of this list," and stuck it in his pocket. Dad smiled back and we left. In the pickup I asked if he did have a list and he said, "Damn right." We went to the shop and the first thing Dad got out was the big slab of turquoise I had held back. He started grinding it and it turned out to be the prettiest piece of turquoise I had ever seen.

Dad had a place to store his rugs, jewelry and turquoise in a bank that was owned by Chee Dodge. He put everything away there and I asked where we were going. Dad said, "Oh, let's take a little trip out to Chee Dodge's." When we drove up Chee was sitting out in the shade. He jumped up and grabbed Dad saying, "How you doing you damned old ornery cuss?" Dad came back at him in Navajo, Chee put his hand on my neck and said, "Taking good care of the old man?" I smiled and said that would be hard to do. Chee winked at Dad and smiled. We sat down and told him about the post office deal in just enough English so that I could tell what was said. Chee had something he wanted to show us in the house. He had just put new carpet down. Boy was it something, quite a home! Dad said, "I've got something to show you too." He took the big piece of turquoise out and handed it to Chee. "Where did you get this," he asked. Dad told him I had it with me when he got down to the mine last week and that I had held it out from the shipments I had been making to Dad. Dad said, "It was part of some other real good stuff, probably the best he had gotten in years." Chee asked, "Hoe, what do you want for this?" Dad said, "That's an early Christmas present and don't expect anything in December."

When we got ready to leave the next morning, Chee handed Dad a piece of paper. Dad looked at it and smiled, tore it into four pieces and handed it to Chee. He put it into Dad's pocket saying, "Keep it for a souvenir." He continued, smiling, "glue it together if you ever need it and take it to the bank. Tell them I said to cash it." Dad said it was a check for $1,000. I have always been thankful that I had the opportunity to see two friends like that. I should add that Chee Dodge owned a hotel there in Gallup. It was run by a man about Dad's age. They were good friends. Dad stayed at the hotel quite a lot and it was here that he passed away.

The summer ended on our return to Gallup. Dad asked me whether I wanted to go to Mesa on the bus or on the train. I took the train as I had never been on one before. He was anxious for me to get down there as he was afraid Mother might be overdoing.