ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Switch on the radio this centennial year and you'll hear snippets of New Mexico history about everyone from Ham the astrochimp to a UFO-spotting Socorro sheriff.
With the help of research by the state historian, State Folklorist Claude Stephenson trimmed 261 oral portraits down to 240 words timed at 1.58 minutes each.
Stephenson edited the stories for radio stations across the state to use. The tales cover everything from buffalo soldiers to buried treasures to murders, rebellions and floods.
"It was extremely difficult," he said. "These radio stations wanted me to cut them down to 60 (seconds). I said they were nuts.
"I originally thought that 90 seconds might be the thing. We just came up with scripts to try and tell a succinct story."
"This is not a public service program," Stephenson added. "This is like a two-minute version of 'Gunsmoke.' "
In January 1961, the 5-year-old New Mexican-African chimp Ham gained fame by becoming the first American primate in space. "He was from Cameroon, but he was on an American rocket," Stephenson said.
Ham was obviously a star, having beaten out 40 competitors for the role. He was trained to perform simple, timed tasks in response to electric lights and sounds. If he failed to press a lever within five seconds, he received a mild electric shock to the soles of his feet. A correct response earned him a banana pellet.
Trained at Alamogordo's Holloman Air Force Base, (his name was an acronymn for the base medical center) Ham rocketed to the skies from Florida's Cape Canaveral. He soared through the heavens 155 miles above the earth, slicing through the atmosphere at speeds of 5,800 mph. The capsule suffered a partial loss of pressure during the flight, but Ham's space suit prevented him from suffering any harm. When a rescue ship recovered him in the Atlantic Ocean, he had suffered only a bruised nose. The flight lasted 16 minutes and 39 seconds.
Ham's flight led directly to Alan Shepard's mission aboard Freedom 7 in May of the same year. The famous chimp retired to Washington's National Zoo in 1963, eventually moving to the North Carolina Zoo, where he died in 1983.
"He died in the zoo," Stephenson said. "But he's buried in Alamogordo in a memorial garden in the (International) Space Hall of Fame."
Then there's the lost mine of Padre Larue, who administered to a poor Indian village in northern Mexico.
New Mexico has been a magnet for treasure seekers and a hotbed of tall tales from the time Fray Marcos de Niza preceded Coronado in his search for the Seven Cities of Gold. No one seems to mind that the treasure has nearly always proven elusive or nonexistent.
According to one Southwest legend, Larue was caring for either a dying old man or a soldier who told him about a rich vein of gold hidden in a mountain two days north and east of El Paso del Norte.
"The soldier handed him a map to a fabulous mine," Stephenson said. Larue "came north with these Indians and found this mine of pure gold. They extracted the ore, smelted it and hid it in a cave."
When the Spanish heard the rumors, the monk and his companions closed all evidence of the mine and denied any knowledge of the treasure. The Spanish captured and essentially tortured the padre and his lost flock to death, Stephenson said. No one would reveal the mine's location.
Although successions of treasure-hunters have scoured the rugged hills of the San Andres Mountains, the secret cache remains lost beneath the shifting desert sands.
Stephenson views the story with great skepticism, but he's fond of the myth.
"I like the fantastic ones," he said.
New Mexico has been awash in UFO sightings for decades. Sheriff Lonnie Zamora of Socorro found himself swept into "The Twilight Zone" in 1964.
While chasing a speeder, Zamora heard a loud explosion. Expecting to find a shattered dynamite shack, he broke off and headed in the direction of the noise.
What he saw he would never forget. It was a saucer-like ship with two long legs housing two beings dressed in white overalls moving around inside.
His story was never discredited. Both the Air Force and the CIA investigated and agreed that the church-going, experienced law enforcer was an unlikely fantasist. He was also well-versed in recognizing airborne vehicles.
"He was an extremely credible witness," Stephenson said. "Up to that point, (UFO sightings) were marginalized. He had a long history of being a no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth person. They never figured it out. But it's one of the few UFO sightings the U.S. government agreed was credible."
George McJunkin made a discovery in northeast New Mexico near Folsom that would rupture the timeline of U.S. archaeological history. A former slave turned cowboy, then ranch foreman, McJunkin was self-taught, curious and fascinated by the geology surrounding him.
"He was a voracious reader; he played the violin," Stephenson said. "He carried a telescope and a violin on his horse."
Sometime after the tragic 1908 Folsom flood, McJunkin was chasing some cattle when he spotted something unusual in Dead Horse Arroyo — enormous bones too big for either cattle or buffalo, as well as 18 stone arrowheads or spear points.
He excitedly reported his find to the scientific community.
"Nobody paid any attention to him," Stephenson said.
McJunkin died in 1922. In 1926, a group of skeptical Denver anthropologists finally traveled to the site. They discovered the bones of 23 prehistoric bison dating back 11,000 years. The curious and persistent cowboy changed our understanding of history.
Other spots cover the Taos rebellion, the murder of Gov. Charles Bent, Col. Stephen Kearny's 1846 entrance into New Mexico and, of course, Smokey Bear.
"We give them ear candy," Stephenson said of the programs. "But then we give them a little cod liver oil because we're trying to teach history."
Information from: Albuquerque Journal, http://www.abqjournal.com