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Book Review

Southwestern Adventures: Oh, the People He's Met!

JACK RUBY'S KITCHEN SINK: Offbeat Travels Through America's Southwest by Tom Miller; National Geographic Society; $24, 250 pages

November 17, 2000|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tom Miller knows his Southwest, and in "Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink" he takes us on a tour of some of its quirky, funky characters and out-of-the-way places.

Unlike the much-better-known travel writer Paul Theroux, who regards the people he encounters on his journeys with an unpleasant mix of condescension and distaste, Miller is tolerant and amused by most of the oddballs he runs into. Some of them are just ordinary people, more or less, whom Miller finds doing odd things.

Miller knows how to tell slight stories well, as he showed in his previous books "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba" and "The Panama Hat Trail." Here he uses his slender tales, all reprinted from various magazines over the years, to sketch his vivid pictures.

A number of Miller's stories deal with violence and death. He visits an Arizona man who ran cockfights in Arizona until that practice was outlawed there in 1999. (It is still legal in parts of New Mexico.) He tells a fine cautionary tale about a young man who goes out in the Sonoran desert of Arizona, gets drunk and starts shooting down ancient saguaro cactuses until one of them, more than 100 years old, falls and crushes him to death.

Miller owes his book's title to Johnny Stiles, a warehouse owner in Athens, Texas, who auctioned off, in 1972, the last belongings of Jack Ruby, the man who shot and killed Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Ruby died in prison; the man who got his Dallas nightclub closed it and stored its fixtures in Stiles' warehouse.

Stiles figured he could make some money off the Kennedy name, even at one remove. He didn't do well, Miller writes. A bar stool went for $26; the club's sign--Carousel Club--went for only $6. The highest bid, $200, went for a metallic engraving of a horse mounted on wood. Miller, who left the auction for a moment to go to a Dairy Queen, missed a chance at the kitchen sink, which he had hoped to buy. Instead, he bought Ruby's can opener for one dollar.

Elsewhere in the book there is Roberto Zubia, the owner of Rosa's Cantina in El Paso made famous in country-western circles by Marty Robbins' 1959 romantic, melodramatic ballad "El Paso," which describes a young cowboy, "wild as the West Texas wind," who falls for a girl in Rosa's Cantina. The man she is with challenges the young cowboy and the cowboy shoots him dead. Miller finds Zubia in the bar, which is close to the corner where El Paso, New Mexico and Chihuahua meet. Zubia tells Miller about the old days when a big metal smelter was there, about the people who worked there and the smuggling business. Nothing spectacular here, just pleasant talk of the days that preceded the current urbanization of the Southwest.

In a section titled "Hollywood Goes Southwest," Miller looks at two heart-on-the-sleeve lefty movies about the good little guys against the bad big guys in New Mexico. One was "Salt of the Earth," which tells the story of a strike by Local 890 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers, which had been expelled from the Congress of Industrial Organizations the year before because it wouldn't disavow Communist party ideology.

The strike, in southern New Mexico, was against Empire Zinc. The union's ladies auxiliary took over the picket line to keep out the scab workers imported by the company; faced by women, the scabs slunk back. Blacklisted Hollywood people made the movie; it is still shown. And it was in large part true.

The other is Robert Redford's "The Milagro Beanfield War," which is based on John Nichols' novel about the conflict in northern New Mexico between the farmers whose water rights date to the Spanish Conquest and developers who would like to just take that water. In the movie, it came out all right for the small farmers, but the struggle continues to this day and will certainly grow more intense as the water from the Rio Grande system comes under increasing pressure from a growing population.

As the stories in "Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink" might suggest, the Southwest is a region still in motion. Its conflicts and characters show one why it's a place that's not settled yet. And Miller does a nice job of catching it on the fly.

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