This is a story I wrote 4 years ago, in Oct. 2017. It tells of a typical love/hate between two men, of which I’m a part of. It’s hard to believe that it’s now been this long since I’ve seen my old friend. I decided to check with his daughter Rose this morning to see how her parents are doing. Remarkably they are still living out that life they have lived for so many years, almost 70 years. I vowed to go see them soon and I will do that.
Within just a few months of me starting into the construction business in 1972, Chago came to work for me. His name was Santiago, but Jimmy was a name he seemed to prefer. The guys on the crew called him Chago, but I don’t think I ever called him anything but Espinosa. That’s still what I call him in conversations today.
He was the best excavator operator that I had ever seen. He could dig more ditch than anyone else. His moves were just one fluid motion. Back in those days, when I first started out, it was common for the hoe (that’s what we call an excavator in the biz) operator to also be the crew pusher.
He was able to bark out orders and give hand signals to keep the men all moving, all while digging a ditch. He lead by intimidation. Almost every hand on the crew feared him. He never got off of the machine until lunch time. He would motion and one of the guys would run to the water can and get a cup of water and bring it to him. Getting down to meant a few less joints of pipe in the ground at the end of the day and he understood the importance of production.
Espinosa was 20 years older than I am, making him 40 years old when he went to work for me. I first got to know him when I went to work for Nelson Lewis, almost straight out of high school. I worked along side of him, becoming his boss at no more 18 years old. He never resented that or if he did he never let on. But since I knew no Spanish, he could have been saying anything about to the all Mexican, but something told me he didn’t.
In the first few months after going in business for myself, I patterned my operation after what I’d seen Espinosa do. I set on the backhoe digging while Jimmy Palmer and Glenn Lewis laid pipe behind me. That proved to be a way to get a lot done. It was hard work, but I came out way ahead of what I anticipated we could do. There was a pride in pushing for more, from all of us.
After we finished up our first water line subcontract in Burnet, it was time to move on to Lakeway and take on a bigger opportunity. Knowing I needed more manpower, I went Nelson and made a deal to take Espinosa with me. That was a pretty easy thing to talk Nelson into. While he knew Espinosa was a dang good hand, he also saw him as an agitator. There was always a competition between crews and Espinosa didn’t mind rubbing it in the other crew foreman’s faces that he was better than them. Therefore, he was seen as an outsider with a lot of the old Nelson Lewis people.
Don’t get me wrong, there wasn’t a love fest between Mr. Espinosa and me everyday. I had the ability to push his buttons, but when I made him mad, he worked that much harder and got more done. For that reason I didn’t mind locking horns with him.
I was always willing to give him a lot of leeway in the way he handled the crew and who he hired. It never worked for me to hire someone for him to work. That was never going to workout. I soon learned that if a guy walked up and needed a job, I sent him directly to talk to the big guy on the excavator.
I always treated Espinosa good in regards to pay and bonuses. Bonuses spoke his kind of language.
I furnished him a truck and fuel. He would haul a whole crew with him in the back of that pickup. It didn’t matter the weather, they showed up.
I didn’t know for a long time, that there was a fee charged for riding to work with him. I never said anything about it, it was a system that worked out.
He always had an ice chest or two in the the back of the pickup. He ran a store on the honor system right out of the back of that pickup all while he dug ditches. He would park to where he could keep an eye on things and those workers weren’t fixing to sneak a soda in fear of losing their job.
Yes, Espinosa had a knack for making money. For the first decade, we traveled around the state working most of the time. I would furnish living accommodations, either renting a big house for the crew or motel rooms. Something told me that those workers were charged a fee for rent, but I stayed out of that all together.
After 20 years together it was time for Espinosa and me to turn the corner on our relationship. He decided he had dug all the ditch that he needed to and I decided I’d butted heads with that hardheaded Mexican all I needed.
He went off start an export business, taking pickup loads of everything imaginable to Mexico and selling it. He would load up with appliances, bicycles, lawnmowers and anything else he could think of and head to the border. I knew he was going to be just fine. He knew how to survive.
I already had someone that had been an understudy to Espinosa working him for several years that was young, smart and energetic that could fill his shoes.
Leoncio “Shorty” Balderes stepped right in to fill those shoes and now that relationship has endured for more than a quarter century. There is a slight difference. I all this time, I don’t remember ever having a cross word between me and Shorty. While he has a similar work ethic to Espinosa, he rules with love and compassion for his guys. That style has served the company well since the early 1990s.
I was driving down the highway at Buda this past Saturday. I hadn’t seen Espinosa and his wife Flora in a few years, so I decided to drop in on them.
Flora met me out under their carport. She operates a little makeshift store, selling sodas, chips and candy to the neighborhood kids. They live in a remote subdivision with no local store so that has filled a need for a long time.
Flora had worked for my wife back when the twins were born for a while. She and Madeline forged a great friendship during that time.
Her face lit up when I walked up. She told me to go on in, that Jimmy was inside. She finished a transaction with a couple of her customers.
I went inside. Espinosa was sitting with the TV tuned to a Mexican Soap Opera. I spoke, but he didn’t really respond. I continued to talk with only slight nods coming out of him. Flora finally came in. She was able to make him understand that it was me that had come to see him. It was me, “The Patrón”. That’s what he always called me.
That day he never spoke directly to me, but only made whispers to Flora. She would then tell me what he said. We visited for a good little bit. She said he was is now 85 and she is 80. She told me about her children and grandchildren. I did likewise.
Their oldest daughter, Rose is almost my age. I never knew her as she was married and gone before I came along. I’m sure I met her sometime or the other, but I can’t recall.
Their younger son Raul worked for the company for several years. He died a couple years ago. The baby, Elisia, was a newborn, the first time I met Espinosa and Flora, in late 1970. She now has grandchildren.
As I was ready to leave, I shook his hand and leaned down to give him a hug. A big tear rolled down his cheek, causing the same to happen to me.
Flora told me that he has barely speaks since he had his stroke a few years ago. Her days are mostly taken up caring for him. They have kids in the area that are able to help. They ask her about bringing in outside help, but she declined. She said “that’s my job”.
Last night I received a text from Rose. She had come to visit her parents and had gotten my number from them. It was such a sweet message from her. She said her dad sometimes tells Flora that he needs to get in the pickup and go get the men so he can go lay some pipe for me. That touched me very dearly.