Sunday, May 1, 2011
PANCHO VILLA: A LIFETIME OF VENGEANCE - Ben F. Williams - Book Review
Pancho Villa: A Lifetime of Vengeance written by Ben F. Williams, Jr.
Full disclosure: Ben Williams is the father of my good friend, Liz.
Remember all those Pancho Villa caricatures from years past? You know, the long mustached smiling sombrero-wearing guy with the bullet belt strapped across his shoulders, with maybe a guitar (or rifle) somewhere in the picture? Not even close, Villa was a brutal thug.
A maniacal criminal, Villa killed on a whim and seemed to fight everyone he came in contact with unless it was women and then he married them (quite a few, apparently).
The author, Ben Williams, is a fifth generation Arizonan rancher from the border who knows firsthand that Pancho Villa ain't no funny caricature. His grandfather dealt with Villa and lived to tell a few stories.
Told in a matter-of-fact style, Williams combines Pancho Villa history with family stories. Williams describes the battles, the horrid violence attributed to Villa, the organization of Villa's army including his soldaderas or female soldiers/camp followers, and even the classic Mexican music. Since there is no continuing plot line it is super easy to pick up and read a chapter here and there. For the last several years I have enjoyed reading two or three books at a time (that has to be good for the brain, right?) and this book slipped into that practice easily.
The family history adds to the tale including the following from Williams which occurred in an area near where the Battle of Agua Prieta was fought:
"One day, as a young boy, I walked the very ground of the slopes of Saddle Gap Mountain east of town where the United States artillery was positioned. I found an unexploded artillery shell. Placing it in the metal box on the back of my motor scooter, I hauled it over the rough and bumpy dirt road five miles back to town. When Dad learned what I had brought home, he had a fit and called the local police. They in turn called the military at Fort Huachuca. A bomb squad was sent from the fort to remove the dangerous projectile, which they took to the artillery range at the military installation, where it was exploded." Can't you just picture this young kid, completely unaware, bouncing all over the rough roads with explosives practically in his back pocket? Thank heavens for guardian angels.
I had forgotten that Villa had actually launched an attack on the U.S. In 1916, Villa and his "Villistas" attacked the village of Columbus, New Mexico. 18 citizens were gunned down. Because of the attack, the U.S. went on the warpath sending General John J. Pershing on an expedition to chase down Villa. Part of that regiment included a very young George S. Patton. They didn't succeed but Williams takes us on an adventure describing search which included the first use of military airplanes by the United States. Bless those brave pilots who flew aircraft during this time. The combination of wooden propellers, minimal power, and canvas-covered wings were a disaster. Planes crashed routinely but miraculously no airmen were killed. Good preparation for World War II, no doubt.
Back to Pancho Villa. There is a fun chapter devoted to the mysterious disappearance of Villa's skull. Villa was killed in 1923 and after his death a mysterious purchaser paid $25,000 for his head. Almost three years after Villa's death, his head was delivered and the money collected by Major Emil Holmdahl who admitted the actual deed of decapitation. There are conflicting stories and rumors about who purchased the head, where it went, and where it is now. Williams does a good job of tracking down facts and rumors and piecing it all together. However, the mystery is not solved. But surely, someone could write a very fun fictional mystery about all this, don't you think?
After reading about Villa and his violence, I am so irritated to know that there are two, possibly three statues of him in the U.S.--one in Tucson, Arizona, one in El Paso, Texas and there might be something in New Mexico. Absurd and shameful.
Bottom line: An easy, entertaining, and informative read.