Lost Temple of the Pennytitties

The Tucumcari Devils, New Mexico High School Champions, 2000

The Tucumcari Devils, New Mexico High School Champions, 2000

According to James Crocker, Tucumcari, New Mexico is a town named for the Indian word for a woman’s breast, but you won’t find many people willing to talk about it. Crocker, however, knows a thing or two about the power of telling stories. He’s the town photographer and camera shop owner, and when we stopped in to buy a disposable camera last week, he happily boasted that with his pictures he wrote and rewrote the history of the town. Two years ago, for example, when the town’s sad sack high school football team missed the state title by an inch, he printed photos of the team, and labeled them champions.

“Who in a hundred years will be able to say otherwise?” he asked, and bounced with excitement at his deception.

We told him we were traveling and looking for stories. He pointed us to Route 104, which consists of 104 miles of high plains and mesas between Tucumcari and Las Vegas, New Mexico, and nothing else. Well, some other things.

“Got some folks out there who still do human sacrifice,” he said.

If we were taking 104, he told us, we should be sure to stop at the “Temple of the Pennytitties,” where “Mexicans” sacrifice their prettiest virgins on a concrete slab in the back. Then we should drive past the turn-off road for the nuclear hide-out of the Scientologists; they come and go by helicopter and don’t maintain the road to keep everybody out. The few that do brave the bumpy ride or the ten mile hike, the Scientologists menace with guns. He knew dozens of local men who’d helped build the compound and they swore that several times a day the Scientologists would make all the workers close their eyes and plug their ears while they performed secret ceremonies.

Tucumcari itself had just as much intrigue. A group called LULAC, he swore, was trying to “brown” the town as part of one unified Brown nation from Patagonia all the way up to — well, his town of Tucumcari as a matter of fact. He knew that sounded unlikely, but he had much photographic evidence. To wit he produced a photograph of the town in 1947. Population, 12,700. Today? 5,200. Why, 3,000 alone had disappeared in just the last six years, ever since the soldiers of LULAC arrived with their “book on how to take over towns” and “mexicanized” the city council with their “third-class style of government.”

Crocker showed us a photograph of his father’s house and said that across the street had stood a dancehall owned by a little roly-poly Mexican man known as the “Mayor of Northside,” for his ability to send votes in any direction like he was a strong wind. When the photographer’s father died, the Mayor of Northside himself paid a visit.

Crocker puffed out his belly and hunched his shoulders and affected a remarkably nuanced and subtle Mexican accent: “Your daddy was the only Anglo I ever liked. I don’t want nobody to know it, but I loved him as a good man. So I want to give you something in his memory. I’m going to tell you the secret of how I became Mayor of Northside. You want to know that?”

Crocker bugged out his eyes. “Hell, everybody wants to know that.”

“‘It was the coming of the voting machines,'” he said “‘The finest invention of my life. Election day, my men, they go into the voting booths, mark the levers for my choices with a bit of axle grease. Never goes away, but stains whatever touches it. Then we go outside and announce that we were paying $5 to everybody for being such good citizens by voting. Hold out your hand, we say, and when they did we’d check for the axle grease. If it was there, they got the $5; if not, they got a beating.'”

Crocker broke character to grin at this. Whether the story was his invention or the Mayor of Northside’s, we couldn’t tell. He slumped and went back to his accent.

“And that’s how I convinced the people of Northside that I could see everything,” Crocker said. “And that, my friend, is why they made me mayor.”

“Now I’m counting on you boys not to write about what I’m telling you,” Mister James Crocker of Ledeane Photography in Tucumcari, New Mexico told us. “Those Mexicans will burn my store down. They’ll kill me. They’ll pour out my developing chemicals. They’ll take me out on 104 and leave me without any water.” He smiled nervously. “I have no choice but to play along, you see. I let them cheat me. I make their pictures for cheap, cheaper even than Walmart. These people, they’re so irresponsible, they don’t even care.”

Crocker pointed to a bin of white photo-envelopes. “Those are all unclaimed.” Half of them contained photos of white people, people who’d fled; the other half were of Latinos, and who knows what’d become of them.

Just then a pretty Latina woman came into the store. The photographer brightened like the sun popping up over the horizon and proceeded to call her all kinds of nice names, and we slipped out the door and onto 104. It was more or less as he’d described: a few very modest ranch settlements, a handful of stone houses, and a “resort” around a lake that from the highway looked like pale green stone slowly creeping across the grassy desert; its shores were rimmed with salt.

Before long we found a tin-roofed church we thought might be the Temple of the Pennytitties, but when an old Latino couple appeared, they said it was just an ordinary Catholic Church: 10 or 12 people served by a priest who sometimes came from Las Vegas. They never knew when he’d arrive, so when he did, they’d call the congregation and sit silently while old worshippers drove an hour or more to church.

Twenty miles on we topped a low rise to see the road flat and straight forever, spare green grass on either side, so light that it seemed illuminated from below. We got out of the car and the wind nearly bowled us over. Not gusts, not strong enough to flatten a person but steady and firm so that it ate away at your stance if you stood in one place long enough. We charged it: Running straight into it and whooping, the best our lungs could produce was driven straight back down our throats so that our shouts bounced around inside us.

We got back in the car and drove on. For forty miles or so we drafted behind an 18-wheeler hauling coffins for a funeral supply company (“Drive Safely; Heaven can wait,” the back of the trailer read), and finally found it: the Temple of the Pennytitties. A few hundred yards off the road a tiny building perched on a boulder. Inside, Santeria candles burned, freshly lit though there was no one around. From the ceiling, over a statue of the Virgin Mary, bundles of feathers and bones hung by strings of twine. Beside the little building, like a horse corral, was a 30 foot string of giant wooden beads tied off in a triangle by a big wooden cross — a giant’s rosary, apparently prayed by marching around it.

Behind the temple stood a concrete platform, high up the steep mountainside, that really did look as if it was designed for human sacrifice, for Abraham to give Isaac the knife. But then, that’s what every altar is, and an altar is all this was, one belonging not to murderous Pennytitties, but to a Catholic brotherhood called the Penitentes, who continue the medieval practice of self-flagellation during lent. Blood thirsty perhaps, but only for their own.

Seeing the altar we knew for certain what we’d supposed before: that the photographer’s stories of human sacrifice were, like all his tall tales, racist libels — lies made “true” in the telling, like his legend of the winning football team. We knew now that this “temple” was just an ordinary shrine to the Virgin Mary, placed here to mark the entrance to the Sangre de Cristo mountains. What we didn’t know, and what we only later asked ourselves, was why we looked for blood.

Jeff Sharlet and Peter Manseau were co-founders of Killing the Buddha. Together they wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible.