One Small Voice: Bisbee mules vs. hardened schools

by Lynn Mandaville

Tonight finds me reminiscing about a recent trip my son Nick and I made to a little, old mining town in the very southeastern-most corner of AZ.

The place is Bisbee, down near infamous Tombstone and a mere three miles from the border with Mexico,

It’s not a big place. Once a bustling city of 40,000, today’s population numbers only about 10,000.  Since the copper mine played out in the 1970s, and all the miners and their families left, property values dropped significantly, and artists began to settle in Bisbee.

Now it resembles a throwback to the days of hippies, where there are small enclaves of artists living in old buildings in dire need of renovation, shopkeepers selling crystals and local art, tattoo artists and palm readers.

The old, 1860s-era architecture is being restored, and quaint hotels and B&Bs are in abundance to house the weekend tourists who come for the art, music and, of course, the Queen Mine Tour.

The highlight of our trip wasn’t the art we had expected to see.

It was, indeed, the Queen Mine Tour, where we rode actual mine cars that had conveyed the miners into the depths below Bisbee to extract the copper, lead, zinc, gold and turquoise found there.

Among the tidbits of mining lore that we learned from our guide were anecdotes about the lives of the mules that were used to haul the copper ore to the surface.

The mules were brought down to work in the mines at about age three.

From the time they went underground to work, these mules didn’t see the light of day at all until they were retired from mine work.

The corrals where the mules ate and slept were underground so that they didn’t have to reacclimate from light to dark every day.

It was the mules who made transport of copper ore most cost efficient, therefore the well-trained mules were irreplaceable to the whole enterprise.

Queen Mine mules received the very best feed possible.  They were checked out weekly by veterinarians, and their medical needs cared for immediately.

If a miner complained that a mule had kicked or bit him, the response from the boss was to ask what the miner had done to piss off the mule!

If a miner struck or kicked a mule, he was fired on the spot.

The average work life of the Queen Mine mules was about three years, though some worked as long as five years underground.

When it was determined that a mule had passed its prime for hauling ore, it was taken back to the surface, and its vision was carefully readjusted to normal daylight.

Then the mule was given to a local farmer who might employ the mule for farm purposes, or might just put the animal out to pasture for a retirement of leisure in the delightful climate of Bisbee, AZ. 

Queen Mine mules worked very had for a significant portion of their lives, but they didn’t exactly thrive within the confines of the mines.

As I was pondering this bit of history, I was also mulling over our current state of affairs in the US with runaway gun violence and mass killings occurring on a near-daily basis.

More specifically, I was pondering those Republican “gun nuts” (Ted Cruz and cronies) who have been espousing such remedies as “hardening” our public schools, stationing armed guards at and within school buildings, and arming teachers and support staff.

And it breaks my heart that anyone would give such an unreasonable solution even a passing thought before considering some form of reasonable gun management.

It’s this woman’s opinion that our increased spate of mass killings since Columbine is not the problem in and of itself.

These killings and increased gun violence are symptoms of problems in this country that stretch much wider and go much deeper than we can easily address.

While the easy availability of firearms adds to the matter, as does a decrease in the overall mental health of our population, we need to delve into other areas that contribute to certain people resorting to guns and the murder of innocents.

Though I’ve done extra reading about it, and though it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the obvious, it appears that these violent gun crimes are increasingly committed by young white men, usually between the ages of 18 and 24, with high-powered, military-style weapons.

These young men do exhibit evidence of having mental health disorders, sometimes consisting of depression or feelings of failure and isolation.  Some were bullied as children.  Many had no male role model when growing up.  Some were from dysfunctional families.  Most had struggled in school.

From these few facts, we can glean we’re dealing with a multitude of social-societal issues, most of which can contribute to a wide range of mental health issues that are currently not provided for in any significant way for the average person.

The solutions to mental health problems, especially for children, have not, in my opinion, been successfully addressed in this current atmosphere of rapid change, increasing poverty, and lack of a decent health care program for Americans.

Because funding for schools continues to decline year after year, fewer counselors are hired to address kids’ needs as they struggle with broken homes, abusive parents, food insecurity, and bullying or other forms of estrangement from their peers.

We keep piling on more duties and responsibilities to teachers and support staff.

And now it is being suggested that teachers – who currently can’t be trusted to teach children without “grooming” them in an unacceptable manner – should become proficient with firearms so they can be the “good guy with a gun” to protect the children in their charge from the bad guy with a gun.

Something is definitely wrong with a scenario that diminishes the role of teacher while at the same time demands an illogical proficiency with firearms.

Some of the days when I have charge over my grandsons, I drop them off and pick them up at their school.

I love the little campus that contains Hancock Elementary.

Hancock consists of several buildings, each of which houses one grade of classrooms K-3, or the multipurpose gym/auditorium/cafeteria, or the main administration offices.  A sort of open-air compound exists in the way the tall, open, iron fencing connects the buildings and surrounds the courtyard and playground.

I know that all of this has been done in recent decades to protect the kids from abduction by non-custodial parents, or by human traffickers who exist in and around Arizona.

Still, the little campus that is Hancock Elementary provides the kids sunshine, fresh air, and real grass in addition to the bright classrooms in which to learn and thrive.

No wonder it pains me to imagine what Hancock would be like if it were to become a “hardened” campus.

Gone would be the open, iron fences.  They would surely be replaced by high concrete walls and razor wire.

Gone would be the multiple entrance and egress points in favor of a single, defensible entry to the school.

Windows would surely be bricked and mortared for security.

It would almost be as if, for eight hours a day, five days a week, thirty weeks a year, my grandsons along with all the other school kids of Chandler, AZ, would be cooped up like the mules of Bisbee, in a darkened, chambered, fortress that confines them for the duration of their educations to cinder block walls and artificial lighting, until they can be freed into a society that still values its guns over the safety of its children.

It is the continuing horror of the mass killings in America that has once again prompted everyday people to cry out for solutions.

It is the total frustration we citizens have with our elected representatives that makes us scream, “Just, please, do something!” to help stem the tide!

The most obvious response by we powerless masses is to demand the banning of certain guns, and the restriction of how guns are bought and sold to individuals.

On several occasions I’ve expressed my opinion that there is no good reason on God’s green earth why civilians ought to be allowed to own military-grade weaponry or munitions.  Period.

Yet while many people disagree with this statement, it seems a tad over the top to throw billions of dollars of good money at retrofitting school buildings to become darkened fortresses in which to educate our young’uns.  

Instead, we ought to be hiring multitudes of counselors and psychologists to work within our schools to identify kids’ individual mental health needs, to listen to them, to create support groups within the school communities so kids will develop a greater sense of belonging and can flourish educationally and socially!

It makes no sense to me to sequester children within high walls when we can make real strides toward a more mentally stable population through proactive means early on.

Then, after our legislators have taken a good look in their mirrors, and discovered whether or not they are here to serve those who elected them, they should get off their high horses and down to the business of seeking consensus and compromise on issues like:

·        waiting periods for gun purchases, like 

·        requiring specific training and licensing of all would-be gun owners in gun safety and gun storage, like 

·        deeper background checks into individuals who would purchase firearms, like

·        a nationwide, digital database to hold registrations and licensing information, or mental health statuses and “red flags,” for access by law enforcement and gun dealers, like 

·        closing those loopholes that exist for guns bought at gun shows or sold by individuals, like 

·        considering a system for owning firearms as comprehensive as that for purchasing cars and trucks from individuals or non-traditional sources, where purchases have to be registered with the appropriate agency to be valid, like 

·        a surcharge levied on firearms the way each state levies fees for emissions testing, vehicle inspections, and sales taxes on motor vehicles.

There are individuals out there who would accuse ideas like mine of being aimed at taking away their guns and depriving them of their Second Amendment rights.

Those individuals would continue to be wrong in their assessment.

I believe in the Second Amendment.  

What I don’t believe is that the concept of gun ownership is somehow a God-given right, as has been suggested by more than a few of the gun-rights zealots I’ve heard of lately.

I believe that in our national state of heightened emotions over school shootings and mass killings we are in need, at the very least, of a short, but intense, time out, in order to get our priorities straight, and for our legislators to take their heads from out of their behinds, so that some real and meaningful change can take place.

As a nation, we claim American Excellence without exception, while in truth our country continues to fall behind other developed nations, not just in our embarrassing violence and addiction to guns, but in so many other areas where we used to be at the top of our game.

I would make two suggestions.

First, let’s get this “gun thing” back under control.  And if that means getting our legislators back under control, all the better.

Second, let’s not waste money on hardening schools’ brick and mortar.  Let’s “harden” our school personnel by hiring an obscene number of counselors and psychologists to see to our kids’ mental health needs.  Let’s let our teachers teach, instead of being the receptacles for all our social failings.

In the face of all the horror, pain, and grieving we’ve seen, these things seem like very little to ask.


  • Thank you for your column Ms. Mandaville. I agree with your suggestions. Civilian ownership of high-capacity, military-stye weapons, and weak gun ownership controls generally, have resulted in tragic mass shootings in our schools, churches, grocery stores, shopping malls, and many other places in our country. We’ve also seen law enforcement officers who are afraid to engage the shooters because they fear they might be “outgunned.” For years, the gun lobby has responded with calls for more common sense, more prayers, more civility, more law enforcement, more mental health support, more fences, more walls, more security, more concealed carry, and of course… even more guns. But what we’ve seen, year after year, is more shootings, and more deaths. Henry Ford supposedly said: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.” It’s time we heed his advice.

  • As Bisbee resident & former Mine tour swamper… you have a lot of facts wrong. Most of your mule info is correct but you make it sound like we all live in shacks. Also our pop has been sitting around 5,000 for the past decade. Please think of the people you write about before you paint us as hippies! Most of us have college degrees, own businesses & live in decent homes.

    • Trez,
      I certainly meant no disrespect to Bisbee residents. This was our first visit, less than 24 hours long, and my info. on population came from one of the mine tour guides. We saw only the old downtown area, so we didn’t see modern housing, only those structures lining the roads into downtown. I don’t consider being thrown in with old hippies a bad thing, but if it is a slight, I apologize. Personally, I wouldn’t mind living in Bisbee. It is quaint and loaded with history, and the climate is, truly, delightful. I hope you can forgive my shortcomings.

  • I enjoyed reading a bit about mules. I start to find them of interest while hiking in the Grand Canyon some time ago. Mules, and their non-hiking passengers, were much in evidence on some of the trails. Harry Crews, in “A Childhood: The Biography of a Place”, makes mention of mules, most important to sharecroppers/tenant farmers in the rural Georgia. “New Yorker” calls Crews’ book “one of the finest memoirs ever written”. The story about the mules of Bisbee was new to me. Thank you.

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