by Kent Paterson
Chet’s Last Flight Back East
As the weight of the years began taking their toll, Mr. Chet Woodward nearly abandoned his beloved El Chuco for good in 2018.
Ricci and the crew at the Rockin’ Cigar Bar and Grill were saddened by the pending exit of their dear old friend. As a send-off they held a roast. Chet’s friends “lined up” and let it all loose, bar owner Frank Ricci Jr. fondly recalled.
With his glorious 60th birthday bash still a recent memory, Chet left El Paso with the intention of not moving back.
“He’d say (New Jersey) was where he would end up,” recalled Donna. “He came back thinking that his job prospects would be better in Jersey than El Paso.”
But Margo and Donna were skeptical of Chet’s professional prospects back home, sensing that his unconventional dress and lifestyle didn’t mesh with contemporary Garden State conventions.
A “miserable” spat of weather ushered in Chet’s return back east. Margo and Donna put him up in a couple of motels, and when the money for the lodgings ran out Chet’s friends pitched in with extra space. A stay with one friend, however, soured and an old relationship was soiled.
To be sure, the self-exiled King had some good times, including a “Chetfest 2018” with friends at the bar. But Chet’s dreams of playing music and carrying on regularly with his old buddies defied the tyrannies of time and the gods of the daily grind. After all, the drummer’s old running mates now had families, jobs and responsibilities.
One evening Chet curled up for some shut eye outside a church, but was awakened by the barks of dogs and the glare of lights. As the police asked him what the heck he was doing, a woman minister of the church emerged from the darkness.
“Well, I needed a place to sleep,” was Chet’s obvious explanation to the nocturnal inquisition squad, as told by Donna.
“I thought a church wouldn’t mind if I stayed on their property.” The burst of Chetesque philosophy and politicking struck the magic charm of the leprechaun once again, and Chet made friends with the cops and the minister, who helped him with a motel voucher.
Chet found temporary employment at a couple of warehouses, but was fired at one by an employer for working too slow. In the summer of 2018, he was fast approaching his 62nd birthday.
One evening while walking back along a darkened road back after a round at the beer garden Chet fell in a hole. Injuring an arm and a leg, he required medical treatment. Outraged by the injustice, he found a personal injury law firm and filed suit against the allegedly responsible government entity. The aggrieved King then waited for the wheels of justice to turn.
Margo and Donna attempted to sober Chet up, connect him with social services and nail down a long overdue appointment with the dentist for some front teeth, but their feisty little brother would hear little of it.
“I’m not a statistic,” Margo remembered Chet as insisting.
Still, the Woodward sisters helped Chet get his Social Security benefits after he turned 62 on August 7, 2018. Although at 62 he was only eligible for a reduced benefit, as stipulated by current U.S. law, the $700 monthly check gave him at least one steady source of income.
Chet had another huge reason for relocating back east: he wanted to make up lost time with a son living in Virginia, whose mother had been murdered long ago in an apparent drug deal gone bad and had pretty much grown up without Chet.
“Chet really tried to keep in touch with him but they just didn’t click,” Margo said of the long frustrated relationship.
Now a double incentive existed for Chet to reconnect: he had a grandson to meet for the first time.
“Chet had come home with grandiose ideas of reentering his son’s and grandson’s lives,” added Donna.
But her younger brother never had a chance to meet his grandson Brantley. While Chet was still in New Jersey, the toddler suffered a tragic and suspicious death, only one day after his third birthday and precisely on Chet’s 62nd birthday.
Surely undertaking a trip he never imagined, Chet traveled to Virginia for the boy’s services only to encounter a family fight that derailed the planned funeral.
Increasingly, episodes from Chet’s personal life could compose a blues anthology.
“By the fall, he was saying, ‘I think I made a mistake,’” said Donna.
El Paso City by the Rio Grande beckoned.
The Woodward siblings gathered together for the last time on Thanksgiving 2018 at Olga’s, a cozy Jersey family diner that Chet had previously patronized and liked.
Managing to get seated in the popular eatery, the Woodwards ate one of Chet’s favorite foods, turkey, on one of his favorite holidays.
“Chet, skinny as he was, had a voracious appetite when he had the chance to have a big meal, so he probably had appetizers and the works,” reminisced Donna. Nonetheless, the celebration was also the occasion when serious, strategic family business was conducted. At Olga’s the return of the King of Mesa Street to El Paso was mapped out.
Within days Chet had departed from Philadelphia’s train station headed for the U.S.-Mexico border. The trip proved to be one of those proverbial Amtrak Excursions from Hell replete with mechanical breakdowns, epic storms and teeth-gritting delays. Intently following the drama on Facebook, Ricci appreciated Chet’s humor throughout the ordeal.
The Return of the King
Averting becoming an Amtrak statistic, Chet arrived in El Paso in one piece. Sister Donna knew from experience what her brother had to endure. From 1984 to 1988, in one of her “favorite” jobs, she was Amtrak’s Equal Employment Opportunity officer for the New York and Boston regions. “The bosses used to say, Yes, we’re an equal opportunity abuser!” she quipped.
Writing in both caps and lower case on his Facebook, Chet was exceedingly grateful to be back in his beloved border city.
“…I’M Thankful for the chance
Given ME once again.
To realize that YOU CAN go home
AND realize how life is GRAND
SO here I’M BACK in OLD El Paso
The Wildflower and Cactus Bloom
There’s New life IN The Deserts
The Deserts THAT’S MY HOME…”
For surviving Amtrak, the national train service compensated Chet with a travel voucher which he productively used to see a concert in Houston. Although the Houston train ride also turned out to be troublesome too, Chet may have wrangled yet another voucher from what’s left of America’s train after decades of Washington downsizing and disinvestment.
“Chet wasn’t shy about trying to get ‘the establishment’ to pay up,” Donna later remarked. “As a little kid when he’d go to buy baseball cards, etc., he’d know the price and then when they told him there was tax to be added he’d get into a long argument with some shopkeeper about this! I don’t think he’d have been more than eight or ten when he started arguing his rights!”
Yet in 2019 the King was on a roll. He resettled into the RCGB groove and found a room with Michael Michael, a university student from Egypt. “Two different personalities altogether, but they got along good,” Ricci observed.
One evening, after scoring free tickets for a George Thorogood and the Destroyers show at the Plaza Theater, Chet introduced Ricci and his wife to a member of the band he knew.
Life was finally picking up for Mr. Woodward. After an upscale club opened behind the Cincinnati Avenue RCGB, parking hassles-and a big opportunity-emerged.
Realizing that the trendy joint’s clients were willing to fork out $20 a car for parking, Ricci enlisted a rotating cast of attendants to collect money. Proving to be the “most reliable” of the bunch, Chet soon became the exclusive worker. Before long the perpetually struggling musician was raking in $1,000 per week between Thursdays and Sundays, calculated Ricci.
Suddenly rolling in the dough, Chet was upbeat and making plans to get his own place.
“He had money coming in. He had his shit together,” Ricci maintained. “It was great for him. He loved life. He was saving everything. He had a lot of pride. He was very proud.”
Still, the RCBG’S owner said he warned Chet of the dangers of flashing wads of greenbacks in the bar (or elsewhere), as he was apt to do.
Chet was in El Paso when the city was shaken to the core by the Walmart Massacre in 2019. On September 8, he posted an El Paso Strong logo on his Facebook with a brief but poignant message:
“I don’t care WHAT Anyone Says. I LOVE El Paso. THE Greatest City IN The World.”
Ten days later, on September 18, 2019, Ricci and Chet settled in for an afternoon beer at the RCGB. According to Ricci, the two men were remembering the RCGB’s 44-year-old manager who had passed away two weeks before.
During the beer they listened to “Peaceful Valley,” the Ryan Adams song about death and passage and God. When the cold one was finished, Chet rambled over to the nearby Rib Hunt barbeque restaurant before returning to the RCGB for one last evening brew.
Prior to 11 pm, he walked out into the street apparently intending to catch the Stanton Street trolley car home but was attacked and stabbed to death.
Chet’s slaying was eerily reminiscent of the death of his grandfather, Howard Smith, who along with another man was murdered one day by robbers at Cleary’s Tap Room in the City of Brotherly Love.
Social media lit up with shock, sadness and outrage as news spread across the nation of The King of Mesa Street’s murder. Dozens of friends weighed in on Facebook with memories, big and small, and soulful farewells.
Christa Cooney Putt loved seeing Chet play with the Lice and Big Jack Johnson, recalling how she took off Chet’s boots and “covered him with blankets many times!.” Veronica Quintanilla remembered “All those rings 16 years ago..,” while Mariellen Donohue declared, “The world is a less colorful and peace-loving place without him in it but the ‘great beyond’ became even greater to gain his endlessly upbeat and kind soul…”
Richard Blauvet offered these Dylanesque lyrics:
Chet was standin’ on the side of the road
Rain fallin’ on his shoes
Heading out for the west coast
Lord knows he paid some dues
Tangled up and play’n the blues
Well-attended memorials for the King were held in both El Paso and New Jersey. Undertaking the obligatory trip to El Paso to wrap up Chet’s final arrangements, Margo and Donna were endeared with El Chuco and its people, making new friends in the process. Margo and a few of Chet’s friends located his dusty storage shed, sparred with the owner over back rent Chet supposedly owned and retrieved some belongings, most importantly for Chet- and the patrimony of humanity-those damn old patched up jeans.
The El Paso memorial of course was staged at the Cincinnati Avenue RCBG, the watering hole where the King held court for the last few years of his life. Austin Jimmy Murphy showed up wearing a baseball cap plainly lettered “Chet.”
A stunning slideshow, with some of the photos reportedly taken by Chet and displaying an uncultivated talent apparently possessed by the border bluesman, flashed continuously inside the bar’s interior while beer flowed to the sounds of the Stones, Neil Young, U-2 and other rock kings.
Revealing a slice of Deep El Paso, El Chuco Profundo, the slideshow depicted a smiling Chet with all manner and races of people: Chicanos, Mexicanos, Asians, blacks, whites. They were all his friends.
Chet’s friends read poems and shared memories. Striding up to the microphone, a man recalled the first time he met a chatty Chet, who was decked out in classic Chetesque attire while drooping long hair and rapping away like an amped-out raven.
“What the hell is this?” the man remembered asking himself, quickly adding that he and the King soon became good friends.
Several of the people in attendance had “rescued” Chet at one time or another-myself included. A woman friend recounted how she shared the family home with Chet on and off for decades, including the time she had to leave her sick father in Chet’s hands.
“That guy with the ponytail is gonna take care of me?” she remembered the worried old man demanding to know.
Both men got along just fine.
Despite the violent fate that befell her brother, Margo expressed a certain peace that Chet had finally found a home in El Paso.
“Chet was where he was meant to be. He was happy. He had friends down there,” she concluded.
After returning home Margo and Donna emailed their new El Paso friends that a gathering was held at a New Jersey brew pub owned by one of Chet’s friends, where the original members of their brother’s formative band, the Excellos, “minus the drummer,” played in honor of their fallen comrade in rock and blues.
“There were so many stories as were in El Paso,” Margo reported back. “It is amazing how so many people loved Chet. I spoke a little and told them that Chet belonged in El Paso and how amazing you all are. So many of them said they want to go to El Paso and the (RCBG)…”
Even in death Chet inspired partying and good times.
On a beautiful October day in 2019, Chet’s ashes were buried next to his parents in Coxsackie, New York. According to the local government’s website, the name Coxsackie is of Native American origin and variously interpreted as meaning “Hoot of the Owl” or “Place of Owls” or “Migrating Geese,” among others. The owl is frequently employed as a “local symbol,” reads the web page. Chet’s Burial On a beautiful October day in 2019, Chet’s ashes were buried next to his parents in Coxsackie, New York. According to the local government’s website, the name Coxsackie is of Native American origin and variously interpreted as meaning “Hoot of the Owl” or “Place of Owls” or “Migrating Geese,” among others. The owl is frequently employed as a “local symbol,” reads the web page.
More than a year after their little brother was murdered, Margo and Donna wait patiently for that call from the El Paso Police Department informing them of progress in finding Chet‘s killer(s).
Donna was contacted earlier this year by the law firm Chet had retained after slipping into the New Jersey hole in 2018. The firm’s rep was searching for Chet to tell him of a pending settlement in the case, which she regretfully informed would be less generous in his case because he was over the legal limit when he slipped into the ground. Donna told Lady Justice that she had dialed a little too late.
“We wished that Chet could have had a more secure and comfortable life, but that wasn’t his priority,” Donna and Margo wrote in a flyer distributed at Chet’s memorial. “He didn’t worry about what people thought of him or about future security, only about living free. And doing what he loved, playing his drums.”
A drummer beats into eternity
Chet’s violent departure from Mother Earth posed fundamental questions of life and death, of friendship and devotion, and of tolerance and narrow-mindedness. His long tenure on Mesa Street questioned prevailing mores of social acceptability, challenged standard definitions of rich and poor, tested the boundaries of true friendship, and perhaps even offered an example in loyalty and commitment, however unorthodox the course he pursued might seem to many. Long before the word “resilience” was a foundation-fostered cliché, Chet mastered it. Ultimately, he charted his path and stuck with it- pendants, patches, pimples, potholes and all.
Like his old bandmate Big Jack Johnson, Chet wanted people to stop all the fussing and fighting, chill out, kick back, listen to some good blues and rock, and have a good old time. It was said that the border bluesman could be a pain in the ass. Yet he always somehow resurrected and was happy to be your friend. And he wanted you to be his too. I think he really grasped that life is too short in a way many folks will never.
Occasionally, Chet and I talked about birds. Passionate about the winged creatures, Chet even considered himself an ornithologist. Whenever the avian species was the center of conversation, his eyes lit up and his tongue unleashed a barrage of feathery facts. For the Philadelphia eagle there were the ingrained images of dawn’s timeless flights in and out of majestic Cape May, New Jersey, just as for this Rio Grande roadrunner there were the enduring memories of dusk’s eternal descents of migratory sand hill cranes, ducks and geese at the Bosque del Apache in New Mexico.
When Lynyrd Skynyrd’s emblematic hit “Freebird” played at Chet’s El Paso memorial, the crowd immediately got it and pierced the interior of the RCGB with whistles. Long Live the King of Mesa Street. Que Viva El Rey de La Calle Mesa. Justice for Chet. Justicia para Chet.