Cotton and Cepeda
In the school of street smarts, these young entrepreneurs
were way at the head of the class.
by Phillip Parotti
Editor's note: Our special holiday gift to readers is the return of Phillip "Pep" Parotti, whose autobiographical (and otherwise) tales of growing up in Silver City have enlivened our pages many times. This entertaining yarn is more fiction than non- (we think) and will leave you smiling as much as any present under your tree.
Have I known them long? Cotton and Cepeda? Ray Cotton and Rudy Cepeda? Well... yes. I think they both joined our class right after the Korean War ended. That was in '53, so we must have been starting the sixth grade at the time. Their fathers were Korean War veterans, but before that, I think that both men had been drafted during the Second World War. Afterward, they'd been in the reserves, so they'd had the bad luck to be called up a second time for Korea.
I saw Cotton's father a few times; he worked as a jack-of-all-trades for one of the Realtors, and from what I recall, he was a lean man and didn't smile much. According to Cotton, his father had been wounded in Korea and had a purple heart. Someone — maybe it was Jesse Wallman — told me that the Cottons had moved up here from one of the villages south of El Paso, from Fabens or Fort Hancock, where their father had worked for the railroad between the wars. I didn't know Cepeda's father, but he worked at the Santa Rita mine, on a drilling crew, or so Rudy told us. Cepeda and his sisters had been born in Bisbee, but their father had brought them all over here after he came back from Korea because the Bisbee mine was closing while the copper pit at Santa Rita was thriving.
Oh, no, nothing of the sort. Both of them settled right in and adjusted to the rest of us in quick time. Most of us, boys as well as girls, had been together since kindergarten. Once, in the fourth grade, a girl had joined the class who was not accepted, but she was with us only for a brief stretch and moved somewhere else within a couple of months. Cotton and Cepeda were accepted immediately. Sports, or what passed for sports in those days — touch football on the September playground — broke the ice. Cotton was fast, and Cepeda had a good throwing arm, so we weren't three days into the first week of school before those talents put them on greased grooves. What we boys accepted, the girls also tended to accept, so within a week or two, it was as though they had started with us from the beginning and always been a part of our class. There was, however, a slight catch to our relations, and it is about that catch which I probably ought to inform you.
During the time I was growing up in Silver City, by national standards, we kids were all poor only we didn't know it. My father, a teacher, did well enough, but nevertheless, we still raised chickens and tended a good garden in the spring and summer because we needed to supplement what we bought at the grocery store. Food was expensive; the monthly grocery bill took more than a quarter of my father's salary, while we were also trying to pay a mortgage and making payments on our first car. We had enough to eat, clothes to wear — often hand-me-downs from older relatives or friends — and we could go to the movie or out to dinner once a month, but we didn't have "money," and neither did anyone else we knew.
With Cotton and Cepeda, I think things were harder. Even in the dead of winter with snow on the ground, neither of them wore anything warmer than a Levi jacket, but at that age, it never occurred to us that they might have been cold. Cotton's family drove an old Jeep with a canvas cab cover, and the family seemed to hunt or fish every weekend of the year. We assumed that they were all keen on sport, and we were rather envious; it never crossed our minds that such activities were the main means for putting meat on the Cottons' table.
Once or twice in the spring, when our baseball coach drove us home from Little League practice, 14 of us wedged into the bed of his pickup, we dropped Cepeda off at his house on Brewer Hill, and that came as a revelation. His family of six seemed to be living in an adobe shotgun house with a cook shack standing to one side and an outhouse out back. When we let him off, I could see homemade, three-tiered bunk beds on either side of the front door with a single table, a single chair and a pot-bellied stove standing at the rear of the one room. As I was to learn, several of our schoolmates lived in similar houses, because in those days The Hill harbored more than a few of them, with little or no plumbing and precious little heat.
The Cotton family, living in an old frame house partway up the Pinos Altos Road, might have been slightly better off but not by much. I know for a fact that Mrs. Cotton still cooked on a wood stove because I once had one of her biscuits, and Ray told me that it was the wood stove that made her biscuits so fluffy.
What I'm trying to say is that right from the beginning, both of those boys had seen rough going, and that, I have to suppose, is what caused the two of them to be a little ahead of the rest of us in what we are today calling the department of street smarts. Each, in one way or another, knew how to squeeze a nickel out of a wood chip, and when you put them together, they made an effective team.
With Cotton and Cepeda, the entrepreneurial urge struck early and struck deep. In those days, child labor laws being what they were, all we boys had jobs of one kind or another. Allowances for the girls seldom topped a quarter a week, enough to cover the cost of a movie and a box of popcorn, but for the boys, things were different. I worked Saturday mornings in a mom-and-pop grocery around the corner from my house, earning the princely sum of 25 cents per hour for stacking the shelves, sweeping the floor, and keeping the cooler filled with sodas. Two of my friends mowed lawns throughout the warm months and managed to make their way through winter on the proceeds. Three others had newspaper routes.
As soon as the leaves began to fall, Cotton and Cepeda went into the leaf-raking business, earning an hourly wage for their labor while contriving to double their profit by selling the bagged leaves to people who wished to use them for compost. That was regular employment in my book, but where I learned that they had to be watched was when the two of them went into the pencil business.
At school in 1954, we still did our written work with fountain pens; ballpoints were only in their infancy, and our teachers didn't like them because the ink tended to smear. Arithmetic, science and a host of other assignments were still done in pencil, and when this or that classmate sharpened his or her pencil down to the nub, it had been customary to "borrow" a pencil from a classmate who had two. Cotton and Cepeda did their best to change that practice.
From somewhere — from the garbage cans behind the college dorms and the nearby high school, I suspected — they acquired an inventory of pre-owned pencils, some of them with teeth marks, few of them with erasers intact, none of them more than three or four inches in length. They began selling these gems to us in the capacity of "stop-gaps" for a "reduced price." That is, a new pencil bought from the nearest grocery store cost five cents; a C & C Special — even that early they had already adopted the C & C logo for their enterprises — cost three cents, unless the used pencil was more than four inches long, whereupon the price tended to go up. (Cepeda carried a flexible plastic ruler in his hip pocket, a handy reference to be used when closing a deal.) I won't tell you that the boys made a heap of money from this venture, but they did make money until Miss Bascomb, our teacher, discovered what they were doing and put a stop to it by supplying the principal's office with a box of new pencils that could be purchased for one penny each.
What I like to remember as The Great Snake Scam followed shortly thereafter. In the mid-Fifties, almost all of us belonged to the Boy Scouts. Aside from weekly troop meetings, weekend hikes, quarterly overnight camp-outs, the annual merit badge show, and our yearly first-aid competitions, the really big event of the year, the one to which every boy looked forward, was summer camp. This promised one entire week to be spent 20 miles north of town, high up in the Gila National Forest at Camp Tuff Moses, a small paradise located on Meadow Creek at the foot of Signal Peak. The mere thought of spending a whole week unrestrained by parental rules, sleeping in tents, staying up late, reliving the adventures of real mountain men was more than enough to gladden the heart of every boy under the age of 14 — if, that is, one could raise the $14 camp fee. That fee covered, probably, what passed for food in the mess hall and a few minor incidentals such as our entrance physical, which was designed to prevent us from carrying chicken pox or measles into the camp.