He never talked about it when I was growing up. My father’s name is Thomas. Thomas Jones. Tommy to his close friends. Tom to most everyone else. He married my mother, Gina, right out of college. Both of them went right to work. My father worked in agriculture while my mother pursued nursing in our small town of Mancos, Colorado. In case you don’t know, and most people don’t, Mancos is home to just over 1600 people and sits just east of the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park. Mesa Verde became a national park in 1906 when President Theodore Roosevelt created it to preserve its biggest attraction: the Puebloan cliff dwellings. Centuries ago, the Native Americans that lived there carved their homes into the earth. Archaeological experts from all over the world came and still come to Mesa Verde and there are over 4000 archaeological sites and over 600 preserved cliff dwellings that draw hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. Last year alone over 620,000 people visited the national park.
When most people think of Colorado and scenic landscapes, they usually think of the Rocky Mountains. And, yes, they also have a national park. And, yes, they saw over 4.5 million people last year at their park. But 620,000 was plenty of traffic coming through our little town of Mancos along U.S. Route 160. Route 160 stretches from Arizona all the way to Missouri. It was made famous in 1975 in the country music song Wolf Creek Pass by C. W. McCall. Okay, maybe famous is a bit of a stretch. If you travel northeast along the two-lane Route, you’ll go through the southern bit of the San Juan National Forest and hit the town of Hesperus. In the other direction, after you pass the Mesa Verde National Park, you’ll run into Cortez. They have a Walmart Supercenter and think they’re quite special. As for the Joneses, we lived right in the middle of nowhere in Mancos. And we loved it.
Father began working for the Willson Farm after college. Quickly, his degrees in business administration and agriculture from Southwest Colorado Community College were put to good use. He was able to increase production, decrease costs, maximize labor and help grow the farm to service all of Southwestern Colorado instead of just the few local towns.
A lot happened in the next ten years. My father saved up enough money to start his own farm. He employed over fifty people to maintain the fields, care for livestock, harvest the crops, package and deliver their goods, and to set up an online presence with a website, a Facebook page and an Instagram account. His farm was supplying stores in Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and he was looking to expand even further. He owned tractors, backhoes, front-end loaders, cultivators, cultipackers, plows, balers and rakers. Four years after starting his own farm, I was born. My name is Elliss. I was named after Luther Elliss, defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions and the Denver Broncos football teams. Luther was born in Mancos and my father is an avid Denver Broncos fan. So it was a bit of a no-brainer that I would be named after the two-time Pro Bowler and most famous athlete to come out of our little town.
I grew up mostly helping my dad around the farm. My mother continued working as a nurse at Southwest Medical Group. They are a smaller hospital and definitely don’t have the funds and resources that Mercy Regional Medical Center has in Durango to the east past Hesperus. She could have made more money out there, and they wanted her skills, but she always said that’s all the more reason to stay and help the good people in Mancos.
Everyone in town knew my father. Every time we walked down Grand Avenue, I could hear “Hey there, Tommy” and “Good to see ya, Tom” coming from every direction. I even heard, “There’s the famous Joneses.” At least, that’s what I thought I heard. It made sense. We were somewhat of local celebrities and our family name was Jones. I didn’t think anything of it. I was too busy admiring all the local art and listening to the live music in what’s called The Creative District. My dad was there networking and looking for local supplies.
In 1992, when I was two years old, our little town had another notable celebrity to brag about. Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton was running for President of the United States against President George Bush. Mr. Clinton in his bus with his entourage made their way through Mancos to hold a rally at Mesa Verde National Park. I never gave it much thought. I was only two. But apparently it was a big deal. I didn’t understand why it was a big deal. It would seem that the tour worked as Bill defeated the President. By a lot. The final tally was 370 to 168. That didn’t make sense to me until I got older. Even at a young age I knew there had to be more than 538 people voting in an election. But that didn’t matter much to me.
The real story started my first day of high school at Mancos High, home of the Blue Jays. The school was built in 1909 and is the longest continuously used high school in the state of Colorado. We’re a pretty big deal. We have a basketball team, a baseball team and a football team. As much as my dad wanted me to play football after my namesake, I chose basketball. I’m tall, like my dad, and definitely not built to get knocked around on the football field. My father always supported that decision and never expressed any disappointment, though I’m sure he would rather have a football helmet and pads laying around the house than basketball shorts and tank tops.
On the first day of school, when Mr. Dunlap took roll call for the first time in my high school career, he made his way through the names alphabetically. Michael Adams. Jennifer Burgess. Ezekiel Crenshaw. Finally, he got to my name.
“Elliss Jones,” he called out, going down the list on his clipboard.
“Here,” I replied.
“You’re Moses’ kid, huh?”
“No, sir. I’m Tommy Jones’ kid. Elliss.”
“Right. You’re Moses’ kid,” he repeated, like I didn’t know my own name.
“Okay, Mr. Butt Slap,” was my snarky response.
“Excuse me, young man?” he seemed upset.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I wasn’t really sorry. “I thought we were just making up names. You say I’m Moses’ kid, I dub thee Mr. Butt Slap.”
“You really don’t know, do you?”
“My name? Yeah, it’s Elliss Jones. And my father is Thomas Jones.”
Ultimately, I was sent to the Principal’s office. When I walked in, the secretary, Miss Stevens was sitting at the desk. She looked at me, looked at the clock, then looked back at me.
“That must be a new school record,” she said half surprised and half amused. She was sweet.
“I’m thinking that’s not a good thing.”
“The entire school year is only ten minutes in. I mean, it’s not terribly uncommon to have someone sent here on the first day. But in the first ten minutes? Come on. What did you do?”
“I called Mr. Dunlap, Mr. Butt Slap.”
“And why,” I could tell she was trying to keep from laughing, “why would you do that?”
“He started it.”
“Okay, okay. Calm down. What’s your name anyway?”
“Jones. Elliss Jones.”
“Ohh right. You’re Moses’ kid.”
Was this a joke? Was I on some elaborate prank show? Before I could even ask her what was going on, she was on the phone calling my father and I was having flashbacks to people greeting us on the street over the years. Were they really saying, “There’s the famous Joneses”? Or were they saying “Moses” this whole time and I just never picked up on it?
My father walked into the office and he was not pleased to see me there.
He looked at me, then addressed Miss Stevens. “What did he do?”
“Well, apparently he called a teacher Mr. Butt Slap.”
“Dad,” I was going to try to explain.
He shot me a stern look and I stopped. We got in his red pickup truck and left the school. Quietly. Excruciatingly quiet. When we got home, he motioned for me to sit on the couch as he paced back and forth composing himself.
“Okay, son. I hope, I pray, there’s a good explanation for this.”
“You and me both.” I was hoping that telling him what I did and why would not only get me out of trouble, but also lead to some answers about this whole Moses thing going on.
“They called you Moses’ kid? Oh, son. I was hoping they’d gotten over that by now, it was so long ago.”
“Wait, you know what they’re talking about?”
He went to the bookcase and reached behind a couple of books on the second shelf. He retrieved an unlabeled disc and put it in the DVD player. The television came on and then Governor Bill Clinton was speaking at a rally in Mesa Verde. The sun was setting behind him and the whole park glowed orange as thousands gathered to hear him speak. Towards the beginning of his address, he said this:
“I want to thank a great American, a hero really. Mr. Thomas Jones. That man just saved my life. He parted traffic with a wave of his staff and the cars split to the sides of the road like Moses parting the Red Sea. God bless you, Moses Jones.”
I’m assuming the speech went on from there, but father turned off the television.
“Ummm, what was that?” I asked.
“In 1992, just as my business was starting to take off, young Bradley Zimmer was driving down old 160 in Bessy.” Bradley was one of the first kids my dad ever hired to work for him and Ole Bessy was his very first tractor. “Well, Bessy broke down right in the middle of the road. Bradley panicked and left her there and began running back to the farm. I just happened to be heading in that direction when I saw Bradley running up the street like a maniac. He saw my truck and told me what happened. It was early evening, just before the nightly commute was about to get going. We didn’t have much time. Bradley took my truck and went back to the farm to get some tools. I ran up ahead to get to the tractor.
“When I got there, cars were already slamming on their brakes to avoid hitting her. She was a big beast in the middle of the road, kinda hard to miss. But as the sun began to set in the West, it made it tough for those heading west to see her in time with the sun beaming right in their eyes. I had to do something. I didn’t have any flares or cones and I could see more cars coming up in the distance.
“I ran to the side of the road and pulled up two metal stakes from the fencing along the road. I ripped the sleeves off my shirt and stuffed them with leaves from the acacia trees down by the Nelson house. I wrapped the leaf-filled sleeves around the ends of the stakes and ran back to the tractor. I grabbed my Zippo and lit the sleeves on fire. The acacia leaves helped make a big bright blaze. I raised the flaming stakes in the air and waved them back and forth to warn oncoming traffic.
“Coming up fast was Clinton’s campaign bus and his motorcade. They weren’t slowing down. I had to warn them somehow. I remembered there was a flare gun on the tractor. I jumped up, grabbed the gun, aimed it just in front of the first limo coming my way and fired. The twilight sky lit up red from the flare. I stood on the tractor and waved my arms with the stakes still ablaze at the ends.
“It worked. They swerved and missed us and made it safely to Mesa Verde. Anyway, I really wasn’t expecting him to say what he did once he got there. I didn’t think it was that big of a deal, but folks around here started calling me Moses. I never really liked the attention. I guess that’s why I never said anything. I was hoping it would have blown over by now.”
And that’s the story I tell my son, Moses Jones, every time he asks how he got his name.