Tribute to Joe Richardson

From ‘ Switchin’ Flies’ by Barney Nelson

Jeff Davis County Mountain Dispatch

The first time I ever saw Joe Richardson, I was 17, a newly hired “Harvey Girl” in the Bright Angel Hotel Curio Shop at the Grand Canyon. Joe was guiding tourists on the mule rides to the bottom of the canyon. Hopefully, nobody will do the math and figure out how old I am, but that was 53 years ago.
We canyon employees called ourselves “locals” and the tourists “dudes.” Almost every evening we locals gathered back in the timber where the dudes couldn’t find us to cook steaks. We liked to trade dude stories, like the time the curio girls told the dudes that some Hopi Indians were going to parachute off the rim at a certain time (10 minutes after our shift was over). Or when a mule skinner would tell some dude that his mule was blind, so don’t let it graze along the edge of the trail.
In spite of the horrid way we treated dudes, several members of our band of outlaws eventually went on to become pretty good citizens. Mule skinner Billy Word became President of Sul Ross’s Rio Grande College, and Bright Angel Hotel clerk, David Moore, went on to become President of Alpine’s First National Bank and a big regional cheeze with West Texas National Bank. One curio girl even became a famous columnist for the Davis Mountain Dispatch.
Joe was the only failure in the bunch. He became a junior high school teacher, first at Eagle Pass and then Alpine. Now who in their right mind would do THAT? Plus he actually loved those little hormone-stuffed curtain climbers. Joe had one eye that kind of strayed off to one side, which made it hard to tell what he was looking at, which came in handy. My daughter says he would growl, “Hey, Boy, spit out that gum.” And 14 boys would go spit out gum. Since he never said “Girl,” the girls just hid their gum under their tongues. He was one of my daughter’s all-time favorite teachers.
Through the years, we canyonistas remained friends and signed blood oaths that what happened at the canyon, stayed at the canyon. But . . . now that Joe has headed to that Grand Canyon in the sky . . . I can safely tell some stories!
My favorite Joe Richardson story happened around 1980ish. Joe and I and several other working-class curmudgeons would meet every morning about 7:00am at the old Ponderosa Café for coffee. We took turns complaining about the government, the weather, and each other. Joe was our favorite storyteller and always good for a laugh.
One morning, after Joe had just returned from a sentimental journey to the canyon, he said he had asked around and found out that his old boss was still in charge at the mule barns. Then, for our entertainment there in the coffee shop, he demonstrated what he did. He rolled up his pants legs a turn or two, put on some sunglasses and turned his hat around backwards. Do you have the picture? We cracked up.
Then, he said he went to the mule barns and found his old boss. Using his own version of a British accent, he started repeating their conversation. The conversation between Joe and his old boss, both parts acted by Joe, went something like this:
“I demand to talk to the man in charge.” (stiff British accent)
His old boss, looked the angry tourist up and down and hesitatingly said, “I guess that would be me.”
Joe stuck out his chest in righteous indignation, “I left a very expensive camera on that animal and demand its immediate return.” By this time the whole coffee shop was in tears and gasping for air.
“I’m very sorry, sir,” said his old boss as a small crowd began to gather around them. “But we haven’t had anyone turn in a camera for several days. Are you sure you left it on the mule? What was your guide’s name?”
“Of course I’m sure! That guide . . . his name was Joe . . . probably stole it! He looked like a crook. If I don’t get my camera back, I will hold you personally responsible.”
Not currently employing a guide named Joe, his old boss was confused and squirming: “When did you lose your camera?”
Joe said, “Thirty years ago.”
He’d brought me back an old mule shoe that had caulks on it for icy winter trails. I still have it. Periodically we’d run into each other in local restaurants when he’d take his best friend Sally out to eat, and later when Sally took him out to eat.
The last time I saw my old friend Joe, I don’t think he knew me, so I’m sure he was ready to go. But West Texas is a sadder place without him.


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