Sunday, February 27, 2022

Encounters of the First Kind : Gilbert Vigil

Gilbert Vigil in Cundiyo, NM.

When I met Gilbert Vigil while I was photographing the village of Cundiyo, NM. I was walking back to the church from the corner of Main and Main when a Pitbull came slathering at me. I was menaced by the beast and not a little afraid. Thankfully, at that moment a gray pickup coming down the hill stopped beside me and the driver, stout Hispanic gentleman, rolled down his window and greeted me in Spanish.

As described last week we exchanged pleasantries, he gave me a dozen eggs and we threatened to keep in contact.

I have tried to express how soul warming it is to make a friend and to feel that you really know that unique human being who was a stranger five minutes before. I haven’t, so far, found the words to describe that chest filling phenomenon but each time I’ve had the life affirming experience it’s become a blog post. Gilbert is the sixth or seventh. To add dozens more is my mission.

It’s my belief that you can know the arc of a person’s life inside of ten minutes. With Gilbert Vigil that was absolutely the case.

I learned that Gilbert is 75 years old and just got new knees. His discomfort which was evident when he got out of the truck to get the eggs from the back seat. He was visibly hobbled and in pain.

When he got back in the truck, he told me that he used to weigh 230 pounds and was 200 now. He said he wanted to lose another ten and he’d be able to get around better. I did not volunteer that at his height 175 would be a better goal.

“How much to you weigh, 140?” he asked.

I answered, “About 155.”

“You carry it well.”

“How tall are you, 5’10?” he probed

I replied, “5’-91/2” on a good day.”

Gilbert said, “I used to be 5’-10.”

I sympathized, “I was 5’-11” when I joined the Army in 1960.

“I refused to serve. I didn’t want to kill anybody. So, I did a year in a Federal pen and after that I volunteered to fight forest fires.” Gilbert told me.

“You’re lucky you went to a Federal prison, Gilbert. State prisons are hellholes by comparison.” I offered this without first hand knowledge.

“My prison in Safford, AZ. It wasn’t that bad.”

"There are lots of prisons around Safford, State and Federal," I offered.

He said he didn't know that.

“What do you know about Jehovah’s Witnesses?” he asked me.

I told him “Not much but they come to the door from time to time.”

“We don’t do that anymore because of Covid. But Jehovah’s Witnesses are good people. We live by the teachings of the Bible. It’s very strict. Do you have a piece of paper?” he asked me.

“I always have paper and a pen” I told him and handed them to him.

On a page he wrote “”

“Check it out” he suggested.

“I’m not a very good candidate, Gilbert. I’m agnostic at best.”

“Agnostic. Is that somebody who doesn’t believe?” he asked me.

“No. It’s somebody who isn’t sure’ I answered.

“Who is?” he answered with a disarming smile.

He continued that, “I’m a carpenter. In fact, I built the parking garage at the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters in Brooklyn. I was a volunteer.”

“My wife and I didn’t have kids, so we travelled a lot. We both had good jobs so we could do it. We went to Russia and China and all over Europe.” He told me.

“Isn’t foreign travel eye opening?” I marveled to him.

“It’s a miracle”, was he responded.

I told him that “The greatest joy of being somewhere new is meeting people, meeting someone for the first time and knowing their life story. Like today with you.”

I described meeting Luis Ocejo after Sunday services at the little church in Llano San Juan.  While I took his portrait Luis declared. “You don’t want to mess with a Viet Nam vet. We’re tough." His ballcap boasted that he was one.” We spoke for maybe three minutes, and I only needed thirty seconds to know the most important event in his life. Nam.

With Gilbert I'd guess that it was his prison stint during the Viet Nam or his devotion to his Jehovah’s Witness faith. Likely both. You’re allowed more than one life altering experience. You could even say that the more you have the more you’ve lived.

I told Gilbert, “Let’s keep in touch, get a coffee or a beer sometime.”

He replied, “I don’t drink anymore. I stopped four years ago. I got in trouble when a drank.”

“I get it, Gilbert. I drank like a fish till my mid-forties. I’m lucky I’m still here.”

1 comment:

Blacks Crossing said...

Absolutely terrific conversation and story of Gilbert, Steve, and what a great face he has. Your photograph shows a lot. He is definitely a perfect edition to your trove of stories, regardless of whether or not they are published. I am so pleased that you had this chance encounter, and hope that you do keep in touch with him for conversation and for a coffee. The JWs would be a different matter, but it is important to him, something that probably provides solace and stability in a life that has wildly different elements. Thank you for letting your readers witness Gilbert by adding it to your blog!