Snow during my first winter in Texas brings beauty and tragedy...
The first few months in Uvalde as an agent are a blur. I was almost overwhelmed with all that was happening. I’d grown up in Eastern Washington, went to school at WSU and worked as a park ranger at Field Springs State Park—all these areas have a definite winter, usually with cold weather and snow. South Texas, I was assured, would seem pretty cold but when it did snow, which was quite unusual, it would only be a skiff or if slightly more, it would be gone quickly.
I missed the northern winter months and, by Christmas, I was truly homesick. It was cool, down into the 40s and sometimes 30s but it wasn’t really cold. Then, just after Christmas, 1984, a cold front raced down through the center of the country and stalled in South Texas. It started snowing. I woke up the next morning to find more than a dozen inches of snow! It was unheard of by the locals. But it was beautiful!
The locals were flabbergasted and most stayed home, refusing to drive which was completely understandable. Those with four by fours were out playing. The county or state didn’t have any snowplows so the roads were a nightmare for anyone without four wheel drive.
I made it to work because I lived an easy walking distance to the office. The other agents made it too and we all went to have coffee to start our morning just like every other one. I was jubilant as this so reminded me of home. The agents were equivalently happy go lucky as they had weathered plenty in their own careers and this was just a blip on their radars; an inconvenience that would soon be gone.
I rode with Kenneth LaMascus that day and truly it was an adventure!
We headed out after coffee, chatting about the snow and about how rare that was. Ken guided the older Chevrolet Blazer down the Old Eagle Pass Highway which had some ruts in it but was still hazardous to drive on. Ken guided us along at a very safe 30 miles per hour. He seemed to be happy as today was an exception to the rules.
A few miles down the highway, around a bend in the snow covered highway, I saw a dark blur probably a half mile up the road, and fixed on the sight, soon discerned that it was three people walking along edge of the highway. As we got closer, the three people suddenly broke to our left, jumped the fence and ran into the brush. They were obviously illegal aliens. Ken pulled the four-wheel drive vehicle into the deep snow of the bar ditch and I opened the door to run, feeling like a bloodhound about to be loosed on the tracks. Even I could follow their sign and it seemed an easy apprehension. I jumped from the passenger door and jogged towards the ditch only to hear Ken’s voice telling me to stop., calling me back to the truck.
I followed my journeyman’s instruction and stopped my pursuit, feeling like a puppy that just got jerked back on his leash. I remember his words as he examined the tracks, “Bob, them boys have sandals on. They aren’t gonna go far as their feet will soon freeze. Let ‘em go and they’ll come begging for us to pick them up.”
I was disappointed but Ken was right, as usual. We went on down the road a few more miles, both of us watching the easy-to-see tracks on the edge of the road. We were both looking for sign of others that would be exceedingly easy to see. After going down the road a few miles, getting out to check layup areas such as under a couple of bridges, Ken finally turned us around. I was sure that the aliens that had escaped would have continued to go deeper into the brush making locating them almost impossible and this irritated me a bit as I believed they would have been easy apprehensions. Driving down the road, Ken slowed at the area where the three had ran into the brush. I was even more disappointed and asked if we could follow the tracks. Ken ignored my request and continued down the road.
Not more than a mile down the road, the three were again walking on the edge and, this time, they didn’t try to escape. We pulled over and I got out, ready to chase the men but they were beat. Their feet were wet and cold and I’m sure that getting arrested and being transported back to Mexico no longer seemed like a bad choice for the trio, Ken wasn’t mad at them because it’s expected to run plus he knew he’d just taught me an important lesson.
That day we answered several calls from ranchers or motorists who called to report a couple in their barn or some hitchhiking along the county roads. It was a successful day and every alien that we picked up seemed truly happy to be going back to Mexico.
A dozen inches of snow makes walking almost impossible for those who often wore sandals made of tire tread without socks. None of them ever expected to pass through snow and it surely shook up their comprehension of the world.
Beauty is Only Skin Deep
The snow truly was beautiful but, like I’d been warned, it didn’t last more than a couple of days and then came the rains which hurried the melting process. Heavy rains and more than a foot of snow combined to make for the first flood of many I would witness.
South Texas, like much of the desert south, is usually dry and receives only occasional rain. The rivers and creek beds are often completely dry or with just pools of water in areas. But when heavy rains come that changes very rapidly. Creeks that had no water in them a day before would overflow their banks surprisingly quickly.
By new years eve, all of the streams and rivers were quickly overflowing their banks.
In Sabinal, a small town twenty miles to the east of Uvalde and an area we often patrolled, the Sabinal River was usually dry or with just stagnant water in certain areas. As the snow melted, due to the heavy rains, the Sabinal River and many of the tributary creeks quickly swelled to flood level. An older man, misjudging the level of a flooding creek just north of Sabinal, tried to drive across the low area. He and his vehicle were quickly washed away by the rising waters. The waters continued to rise, trapping the man in his vehicle which was slowly being pushed down the river. Sideways in the currents, it was susceptible to being turned on its side which meant a high likelihood of death for the occupant.
The Chief of Police of Sabinal, James Wulf, responded to the call of the vehicle being washed away. Chief Wulf was a single man, and stepped forward to wear a harness to try to rescue the older gentleman who was still in his vehicle which slowly was being washed down through the violent current of the once dry riverbed. Chief Wulf, wearing the harness with a rope being held by a myriad of fire and law enforcement personnel, was swept down to the truck and grabbing it, made it to the temporary safety of the high parts of the roof of the truck. He took the harness off and put it on the older man.
The vehicle was starting to tip so Chief Wulf made the decision to hold tightly to the man and both of them would be pulled to the shore by the rope.
Chief Wulf, who tried to hang onto the harness, was washed away by the violent waters, and swept down the river out of the view of the horrified onlookers who could do nothing to save him. They were able to pull the older man out of the river but there was nothing they could do to save Chief Wulf. His body was found later, tangled in the debris that the river had easily picked up.
Chief James Wulf would be the first of many officers that I knew who were killed in the line of duty.
Welcome to my world...