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A bewitching tale, told well

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s an old Saavedra family story, but as to who tells it best, well, that’s up for debate.

Henry Saavedra, the quiet patriarch of the family and the talented protagonist of this curious Ditch Witch yarn, hands the phone to his wife, Roseann Saavedra, who has giddily retold the story so many times that it’s achieved lore status.

“It is a very one in a million thing,” she says, teasingly.

But she thinks daughter Jamie Saavedra is the best teller of them all because of her pivotal role in the story.

And so I settle in as the younger Saavedra tells the tale.

First, she says, it’s important to know that her dad is a former welder with the Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority and a lover of old cars and new ways to craft art out of scrap metal and discarded junk that might otherwise go the way of the tumbleweed in the hands of less creative types.

The Ditch Witch, made of scrap and sheet metal, mysteriously disappeared from a display at the Convention Center and was found 14 years later in a yard in Socorro. (Courtesy of Jamie Saavedra)

And speaking of tumbleweeds, Saavedra says it was her dad who came up with the idea of building a snowman out of them in 1995. Twenty-five years later, the AMAFCA tumbleweed snowman remains a holiday icon, returning annually along Interstate 40 near Menaul the week after Thanksgiving.

“That’s Christmas in Albuquerque,” she says. “Luminarias, tamales and a tumbleweed snowman.”

Before he retired, Saavedra says, her dad decided to make something else iconic as a parting gift to AMAFCA. This time, his thoughts turned to Halloween.

For nearly two years in the early 2000s, he toiled over his masterpiece, a heavy, 8-foot-tall ominous beauty crafted of sheet metal and slats, with a tall, pointy hat, crooked nose, curled copper shavings for hair and fitted with his daughter’s cast-off Caterpillar work boots.

He called her Ditch Witch, a shiny, silver, industrial-strength La Llorona, the legendary wailing woman who haunts the arroyos and the minds of fearful children.

“At the time, La Llorona was used as a marketing strategy to convince kids to stay out of ditches, and my father thought displaying Ditch Witch would help capture their attention,” Saavedra says.

It did.

Henry Saavedra with Ditch Witch around 2002 when she was shiny and new. (Courtesy of Jamie Saavedra)

For a year or two, AMAFCA folks took Ditch Witch to exhibitions and other events, hauling the heavy lady on casters installed at its base.

One such event was held at the Albuquerque Convention Center. When it was over, a crew broke down the display, leaving the arduous task of moving Ditch Witch for last.

When the crew returned for her, she was gone.

“Dad was disappointed and sad about it because he had put so much time into making it,” Saavedra says. “It was so heavy to move, but somehow it was.”

That seemed the end of that, save for the speculation.

“We would talk about it all the time,” she says.

Years passed. Henry Saavedra continued to craft clever creatures out of discarded treasures. An airplane from an acetylene tank. A cat from a coil. Soon his front yard became a metal menagerie that come Christmas was decorated with lights and joined by whimsical motorized displays like roller coasters and Ferris wheels, inspired by the famed Bugg House that his daughter had taken him to one year.

Years later – 2016, Saavedra thinks – she and her boyfriend made their annual trek to Water Canyon, southeast of Magdalena, to cut down a Christmas tree. As a joke, supposedly, her boyfriend taunted her with scary stories about the witch of Water Canyon.

“He was just trying to frighten me, get a rise out of me,” she says. “I don’t think it’s a real thing.”

Well, maybe not.

On the way home, the couple stopped in Socorro to eat but took a wrong turn and landed in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Tired, hungry and lost, they were searching for a main road back when they saw a 1940s-era Pontiac parked in a yard.

“We’re both Pontiac hobbyists, so we went in for a closer look,” she says. “And that’s when I saw her.”

She wasn’t the witch of Water Canyon. But she sure looked like the Ditch Witch of Albuquerque.

She was rusted and darkened by weather and time, still wearing Saavedra’s old Caterpillar boots, her father’s initials still welded into the metal base.

The occupant of the residence asked what they were doing in his yard, and Saavedra said that Ditch Witch was her dad’s creation and had been missing for 14 years and it would be nice to return her.

The man was unmoved.

Henry Saavedra with Ditch Witch when she was found around 2016, darkened and rusted by time. (Courtesy of Jamie Saavedra)

“Bring me the police report and we’ll talk,” he said.

A police report had never been filed. But she had plenty of photos of her dad with Ditch Witch.

The next day, Saavedra, her boyfriend and her dad and mom went back to Socorro to make their case. That didn’t work, but money did. Saavedra says she gave the man between $75 and $100, a small price to pay for something her father had worked so hard to make.

“It was worth it just to see my dad smile,” she says.

Ditch Witch is home now in the metallic menagerie of Henry and Roseann Saavedra’s front yard near Copper and Washington NE. Gone is her copper hair, stolen years ago and replaced with aluminum wire. The dark patina gives her an even more ominous look – too ominous for Christmas, Roseann Saavedra says.

So during the holiday season, Ditch Witch is modified, her slatted skirt turned into a Christmas tree.

The Saavedras still talk about her all the time. Sometimes they speculate about how she mysteriously ended up 77 miles south of where she had been.

Mostly, they talk about the serendipity of getting lost in Socorro and finding her rusting in that yard. Like Roseann Saavedra says, it’s a very one in a million thing.

Maybe it’s a little magic. Maybe a little luck. It’s a good story no matter who tells it.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.

 

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