In 1999 on his ranch just outside of Sierra Blanca, the county seat of Hudspeth County, Texas, Roy Jackson would stroll in his cactus garden and savor the stark and dramatic landscape he so loved. As different an atmosphere as can be imagined from the polished and perfumed drawing rooms favored by his wife Frances (profiled in the last edition of this website), the ranch was nonetheless as breathtakingly beautiful in its way as any urban counterparts.
Roy’s father had established Jackson Ranch as a getaway where he and his family could enjoy the tranquility of the desert. And his son continued to use the property in much the same way. He would make the one and a half hour drive from El Paso to escape city life, hike in the mountains, and listen to the quiet. Here he could prepare his meals on an outdoor grill, bathe in water warmed by the sun, and go to sleep in a candlelit room where no telephone rang.
“I was born on September 8, 1917 in Ft. Stockton, Texas,” Roy began, “about 150 miles east of here. Mother and Dad, as poor financially as they were rich in more important respects, were running a farming/ranching venture in the vicinity of a small town named Buena Vista that is no longer in existence. In order to get by from the money standpoint, both also taught, and Dad became superintendent of the school district.”
It was easy to understand why Roy, still tall, handsome, and patrician, had been the great love of Frances’ life. He spoke slowly, in a deep Texas-flavored baritone, and began with describing an episode from his childhood.
“As a lad of ten or so, while on a saddle horse/mule pack trip with adults in a remote mountain area of Arizona, a large diamondback rattlesnake crawled on my back while I was reading inside a tent.
“I had assumed that the sensation of movement was yet another practical prank by one of the grownups. But eventually I looked over my shoulder into the eyes and flickering black ‘tongue’ of the snake.
“Turning my head back slowly, and almost completely paralyzed with fear, I called out, ‘Dad! There’s a rattlesnake on my back!’
“‘Stay still. Don’t move,’ he warned, and I did just that.
“Later on, with misplaced fatherly pride, he often recounted how courageous I had been. The truth was otherwise. I was virtually numb with fear.
“When I felt the rattlesnake moving away from my head and off my leg, I bolted. It did not strike, but immediately coiled and rattled. Dad, using his pistols, shot several holes in the bedding. He then retrieved his .22 caliber rifle and largely removed the snake’s head.”
That first recollection somehow suited both the setting and the man, but he went on to recount other, less dramatic memories.
“I grew up in El Paso, graduating from Alta Vista elementary school in the late twenties.
“Alas, after my freshman year at El Paso High School, I went to a summer camp of the Reserve Officer Training Corps and contracted a throat ailment. Due to improper treatment, I developed rheumatic heart disease that required staying in bed for four or five months.
“When cured, Mother, by then head of the English department at Bowie High School in El Paso, suggested I enroll there and I did so. I suspected, correctly, that she wanted to keep an eye on me. At that time Bowie was the largest senior high school in the United States with a 100 percent Mexican student body. It was located a few hundred yards from the border and most of the students were living in el segundo barrio, then the slum area the northern extent of what was the line of demarcation between the Mexican and gringo populations.
“The unique academic/social exposure proved to be invaluable. I graduated in 1933 as salutatorian, president of the student body, member of the football and track teams, and business manager of the basketball team.”
Reflecting on a period a few years later, Roy turned pensive.
“The only historical event during my lifetime was World War II,” he began.
“I joined the US Navy Reserve and was called to active duty, as an enlisted man, in August 1941. On December 7 of that year, D-Day, I was stationed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when Pearl Harbor was attacked. There was serious—and completely foolish—thinking that due to the presence of German U-boats, the island would be attacked. I was promoted to ensign and engaged in Naval intelligence related work in various Caribbean islands.
“Eventually, and after additional training, I was assigned to the DD-418 (USS Roe). I took a troop ship to Honolulu and eventually got a ride from there to Saipan on a small old freighter (the USS Absaroka) that had been damaged by a Japanese sub early in the war and could make only about ten knots with a stern sea. The captain and I became good friends during that long voyage. He was one of the last senior mates to handle large sailing vessels.
“During our second bombardment of Iwo Jima, part of a ‘softening-up’ strategy, a companion destroyer to ours hit a sea mine, killing several crew and reducing its ability to make a quick exit. The commanding officer of the cruiser division we were working with at that time ordered us to remain near the island on patrol at a low speed so that the damaged destroyer could be escorted out of range of Japanese aircraft based on Iwo. This resulted in our ship being attacked. One of the Japanese planes dropped a torpedo in exactly the proper location without being hit by any of our fire! Thankfully, the torpedo setting was somehow deficient and it passed under our ship. And before they could mount another attack it was dark. Whew!
“During our third attack on Iwo Jima, we destroyed a vessel alongside the pier. And then there was one of those unexpected developments that happen frequently in wartime.
“One of our aircraft reported that a Japanese war vessel was escaping to the north—well beyond our horizon. A two-hour chase ensued. When we had come within range of our 5-inch 38 cannon, we scored a direct hit that caused a huge flame in the center of the target vessel—a destroyer escort.
“The fire was quickly extinguished, and the fighting became intense—reaching the point where each vessel, guns ablaze, was literally trying to ram the other. Eventually our superior firepower prevailed, and the target vessel went down by the bow. The last view we had was of its still-turning propellers.
“This was offshore of the Northern Marianas. Our executive officer volunteered to try and bring back on board, for intelligence purposes, a few of the thirty or so survivors who were floating or paddling around us without life preservers. But before he could secure a rope around his body to begin this operation, the captain had second thoughts. He was concerned that we were still in submarine-infested waters. I also think he was concerned that some of the survivors who had floated over on empty aircraft gas tanks might be attaching explosive devices on our hull.
“So the captain ordered full speed ahead.
“This literally chewed up the Japanese at our stern and left the other survivors in the water with virtually no chance of being saved.”
Roy had grown pale. “There were many other incidents,” he concluded. “But none as personal and dramatic as that one.”
In October 1945, Roy returned to civilian life and to El Paso. He was not to remain there long, however, for a successful law career and an inherent interest in the world and its people found him relocating and traveling extensively: Latin America, Europe, the Middle and Far East, Africa.
“The El Paso I knew as a boy and a young man was considered home,” he explained. “However, I left there in the 1940s and only returned as a resident in 1988 or thereabouts.”
But somehow the rough and ready city of El Paso and the dramatic desert sprawl of rural West Texas never left Roy. This is an isolated part of the country—driving to Dallas takes eleven hours and it’s about the same to San Antonio—and it seems to instill the kind of strength, independence, and modesty that he personified.
Sitting in the simple adobe cabin on his ranch, far from the upholstered insulation of his wife’s in-town domain, he reflected.
“My trip across the stage has taken place in some of the most interesting decades of recorded history. I was fortunate to have been born when I was, to have had the parents I did, and to have had the good fortune (luck?) to get at least some measure of exposure to different cultures. But if the past is prologue, subsequent generations will be aware of very little of the twentieth century. Nor will they care.”