American Vignette: Smokey Bear and the Beaches of D-Day

Juan Herrera was our neighbor when we lived in the old Smokey Bear house on West Coronado Road.

Utah Beach DDay
Utah Beach DDay. Photo: US National Archives

Juan Herrera was our neighbor when we lived in the old Smokey Bear house on West Coronado Road. At one point it was the last road south of Santa Fe, the truck road, and Juan and his wife had bought their house brand new when they couldn’t find anything to rent in town. Juan had just returned from Europe. He had landed on Utah Beach on D-Day. He fought his way into Europe until he was wounded a second time, and a colonel came to visit the hospital where he was recovering and said, “I guess you’ve had enough,” and sent him home.

I called him Johnny and he called me Pedro, and in the summer we would sit on the wall he had built between the houses and watch the sunset and he would say, “It doesn’t get anymore beautiful than that.” He would buy boxes of biscuits to feed my dog Toby and would invite us to pick cherries when the tree in his back yard bloomed. Sometimes I would drive him to the bank or the doctor’s office, and he would tell me stories about the war, like how his friend Frenchy had been shot through the neck right when he was about to light a cigarette, laughing over a joke they’d shared.

The U.S. Forest Service had already created the Smokey Bear “Only you can prevent forest fires” campaign before the New Mexico Capitan Gap Fire in 1950. That was where they found a young bear cub clinging to a burned out tree with singed paws. The ranger who found him brought him home–to our house–before he became the living embodiment of Smokey, and was moved to a D.C. zoo. Juan’s wife, Mary, who worked for Game & Fish, showed us a photo of the cub resting in the fireplace with his bandaged paws.

Juan’s son Alan had schizophrenia. He would tell you about all the brilliant things he was thinking about, then say something that made you feel like you had just taken a somersault in your mind. He had been a bowling protege before the disease set in, and Juan’s garage was filled with his trophies and bowling balls. Alan liked to watch the Jesus station on TV, loud so that we could hear it across the yard. Once, when we were driving out to breakfast, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were going door to door. When they got to Juan’s house, Juan said, “I know who you want to see,” and they were still talking to Alan on the porch when we got home.

When PBS was airing a special on D-Day, Juan came to the door and asked if I wanted to watch it with him. He said everything before the narrator, like how “Airborne got the hell kicked out of them,” right before the narrator said, “the 101st and 82nd Airborne had some of the highest casualties.” When Private Ryan was showing at The Lensic on San Francisco Street, Alan took Juan to see it, and after he came home he didn’t leave the house for days.
He lived into his 90s. He had the Purple Heart license plate on his car. After Mary died, and Alan was getting care, sometimes Catherine and I would shear his bushes or mow the lawn. Twice we went to visit him in the VA hospital, once in Albuquerque and then in Santa Fe, and each time we were glad he came back home. It was a few weeks after 9/11 when one of his relatives came to the door to tell us he had died.

There was a service downtown in the beautiful St. Francis Cathedral, and something I had never heard in a church, the joyful rising melody of an electric guitar. He was buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery, with all the white crosses rising up the hill. Alan was given the folded flag from his coffin as the pallbearers fired a 21 gun salute, and back at the car we had to wait to drive home because of the tears in our eyes.