Halfway to Nowhere
A melodrama fundraiser is the latest effort by people in Columbus
to keep their town afloat.
A combination of experienced and inexperienced actors spreads across one side of the Columbus community center that serves as a stage. They muff their lines, laugh out loud, and then try again.
Their costumes make them into charming caricatures. The stout female saloon owner has orange corkscrew curls, a thin female extra wears a plain apron and a very large puffy white dust cap, and the playwright himself, Tim McAndrews (see "Observer of Life," August 2008), is long and lean as a cowboy with a 10-gallon hat on top. They all look like McAndrews' own cartoon drawings.
I'm looking in on the second-to-last dress rehearsal of Halfway to Nowhere. It's a cowboy melodrama written by McAndrews in 2002 and now being used to raise funds for the Emergency Medical Service in the town that has gone nearly broke due to mismanagement and possibly malfeasance by former officials. Performances ran through July 1.
They're calling themselves the Columbus Recovery Theater Company, and they may produce more plays further along.
Two days earlier, former mayor Eddie Espinoza had just been sentenced to a 51- month prison term for his role in the gun-smuggling ring that included the police chief, a trustee and eight other Columbus residents. They were arrested in March 2011 in a dramatic raid. Espinoza's sentence was much lower than the possible 60 years that had been projected in news reports.
The land-grabbing, thieving villain of Halfway to Nowhere, unambiguously named Mr. Blackguard, wears his summer khaki shorts under his cape and black top hat because costume designer Barbara Agte hadn't finished his pants yet.
He sings, "Everything they have will soon be mine," which could be a faint allusion to the apparent misuse of funds by some officials. "My tender juicy little chickens/just waiting to be plucked," he warbles ominously.
The players and over a dozen technical support staff (including cooks for the meals at this dinner theater) have thrown themselves into this cowboy romp to help pay for the maintenance of the town's ambulance and the drivers after the state of New Mexico decided to cut off their financial support by July 1 this year.
Townspeople tended to be shocked by the sentencing of Espinoza. "I was floored," said Deborah Olliver, assistant pastor at the Song in the Night church in Columbus. "I thought he didn't get enough." She is tonight accompanying the actors on her guitar along with local musician July McClure, who plays a mean bass and does verbal sound effects, too.
"I think however long he lives would be fitting," says Sally Farber, who obligingly plays a man in the show. "This town is in a mess. They cleaned out the town." (One of the arguments for Espinoza's short sentencing is that he is on dialysis treatment.)
During these final rehearsal days Operation Fast and Furious made national news again, because Attorney General Eric Holder was being held in contempt of Congress by a House committee for allegedly withholding documents relating to the program. Fast and Furious was the federal gun-smuggling surveillance operation by the US Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) that let guns "walk" across the border for the purpose of tracking Mexican gun-smuggling kingpins.
NarcoNews reported on June 19, 2011, that 15 firearms linked to the "Columbus 11" were recovered in Mexico, six of which were discovered at murder scenes, involving five murders in Palomas and three in Juarez.
Columbus is still in a scrambling mode as it tries to get back to normal a year and a quarter after the arrests.
Nicole Lawson is the appointed mayor. In a small, almost inaudible voice, she says modestly that she had finished last in the mayoral race between Espinoza, Martha Skinner and herself. In response to some rumors that the election was fixed, she says, "I find that unlikely."
She adds, "We have fewer volunteers than six months ago. Two people come in on a weekly basis, maybe one to three days a week. We had as many as eight in here at the time I first took office."
But she acknowledges that a few people in town think Columbus should be unincorporated. "The coming fiscal year will be very tight," she states firmly. "Whether we can sustain ourselves remains to be seen."
The library was also slated to be closed by state authorities. But townspeople immediately rallied to save it.
"I was really amazed to see the town pull together," says library director Linda Werner. "It was heartwarming to see how much they cared about the library. I had people coming in here every week and giving me $20 when they hardly have even money to live. No one wanted to close the library.
"Eddie [Espinoza] always loved the library," she adds. "He brought people from out of town and showed it to them." The library includes a large computer room very popular with town kids.
The Friends of the Library has been very active in the past year with bake sales, book sales, car washes, plant sales and a dinner-and-movie night.
The public pool has shortened its hours since the arrests, but rancher wife Connie Johnson "has offered to keep the pool open until mid-August," Mayor Lawson says.
The state shut down the local police department, but that doesn't seem to matter to many people. The sheriff's office is adequate to handle the town's security problems.
Turmoil about the arrests still exists beneath the surface in Columbus. Three people I tried to interview on two different days refused to talk to me, I imagine because of family relations with the accused.
There are many intermarried families in Columbus and Palomas, and Eddie Espinoza (known by the nickname "Bully") grew up mostly in Columbus. His wife is a long-time teacher in the Columbus schools. It's not obvious when or how these tensions will be healed.
Costume designer Barbara Agte, who is a retired social worker in the public schools, thinks the whole affair is particularly sad for youth in Columbus.
"I have seen how young people in the village looked up to him," she says. "He was a judge at science fairs. He was at every occasion we had at the school. That's why I'm extra-sad.
"All kids need someone to look up to, and not everyone has a father figure in their family. The kids really, really liked Eddie. It's not good for the kids."
It's not the least bit clear where Columbus will be in a year or two, whether the town will win or falter. The town will not be able to subsist for long on bake sales and theater productions.
But through their remarkably strong efforts the townspeople may craft a stable future for themselves.
Columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.