Benny Muñoz: Resident since 1964
This is an excerpt from Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California Volume 2 by Lawrence F. Lihosit, a local historian. It is available at Maildrop and G.B.S. on Howard and on Amazon.com Books.
• • •
Benny Muñoz was born the eldest of five on July 26, 1957 in Fresno. When he was very young, his family moved to Madera where he attended James Monroe and Washington Elementary Schools, Thomas Jefferson Middle School and Madera High School (North Campus). A graduate of Universal Technical Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, he briefly worked as a mechanic before entering police work. After brief stints in Mendota and Chowchilla, Mr. Muñoz began a long career as a Madera Policeman. Following a work-related accident, he retired and began a small business taking action sports photos of Madera’s youths and still takes photos. He has raised five children in Madera.
• • •
The first school I attended here was James Monroe. We moved and I attended Washington Elementary, Thomas Jefferson and of course, Madera High School. I graduated in 1975. I studied at Monroe for second and third grades while we lived near Fresno Street and Greenway and later at Washington when we moved to Lincoln and Greenway for fourth, fifth and sixth. Back then we were able to walk to school without any fear. Eventually, we moved to a house right across the street from Washington School which I enjoyed. When I was in the fifth grade, it snowed during classes. The teachers let us out and said, “Have fun.” That was the first time I had seen snow but it didn’t last long.
My dad’s parents passed away before I was born. They were from Mexico. My mom’s parents were also from Mexico. My mother’s mother was the only grandparent that I ever knew. My grandma spoke Spanish and my parents spoke Spanish. Their downfall was that they didn’t teach us because they wanted to raise us as Americans. They rarely spoke Spanish around us. The Spanish I know I had to learn on my own.
I took Spanish in high school and flunked. Later, when I worked for Mendota for a time, the chief made us take Spanish and I had trouble picking it up. The instructor was not that great. Down the road when I worked here in Madera, they hired an instructor who was awesome. I was really picking it up good.
My dad worked as a television repairman for a friend of his who had a shop in Mendota. He took a job here in Madera which is why we moved here. He had all the equipment to do repairs and test tubes but eventually gave up television repair when everything switched to the new modern stuff. He went to work for the school district (Madera Unified School District) as a custodian at Thomas Jefferson and retired as the head custodian.
My mom was a doctor’s assistant and over the years moved to the office. Then she got into medical transcription. To this day she still does transcribing for a few doctors.
I didn’t get involved with sports until high school where I played offensive tackle and defensive safety on the football team. I enjoyed defense more than offense because I had trouble memorizing the blocking assignments on offense. I played three of my four years and my senior year, we finally turned the program around with seven wins and three losses.
In the evenings I worked at Arctic Circle Restaurant as a cook, flipping burgers. The owner taught me. It was simple. The place was located across the street from Walgreens on Olive Avenue. There’s a little donut shop there now. It was a fast food place where you could buy a hamburger for twenty-five cents. The specialty was fish and chips.
Just before graduating, I became interested in becoming an auto mechanic. Representatives of a technical school came through town and convinced me. My parents drove me to an apartment complex on Seventh Street and Montecito Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona, a twelve-hour drive. The Universal Technical Institute offered housing. I roomed with a couple of guys from other parts of the country. My form of transportation was a ten-speed bike that I pedaled ten miles each day.
It was hot in Phoenix. This was a total whole new world for me. I had to do my own laundry and cook for myself, the easy stuff. I worked at a little diner as a busboy in downtown Phoenix for the year that I was there. The school helped place us in jobs. A guy I knew at school had an upholstery business and asked, “Hey! Can you give me a hand?” So, I also worked with him but it didn’t pay much.
Back in Madera, I found a job at a 76 gas station at Fourth and Gateway. They hired me to pump gas but when the boss found out I went to trade school, I worked under his supervision for basic oil changes, lube jobs, brake jobs and minor repairs. If I ran into a bind, he came over to help. I was there for four years.
The police department was a half a block away. When Russell Suderman, started working for the police department, every day he came in to make sure his patrol car windows were cleaned which is how we became friends. One day he invited me on a ride-along. After a couple more, I was hooked. They had a reserve program at the police department. In order to be eligible, I took a law course at the Modesto Junior College. Reservists weren’t on the payroll. They were more like passengers to back-up the officer with the duties of a Peace Officer.
Then I completed an advanced training program which allowed me to qualify as a Peace Officer. I went in quite a bit as a volunteer and handled my own beat in a patrol car. Even though Madera was my hometown, I learned about different areas that maybe I hadn’t hung out in. You learned about different nationalities and races. For instance, the north section of town where I lived as a child was mostly Hispanic. The southeast section of town was mostly black people and the west side of town was mostly white. Over the years this changed with people moving here and there.
I put myself through the police academy at Fresno City College, behind the stadium. Two friends of mine also went so we carpooled. We started at eight in the morning and finished about five in the afternoon. Towards the end, there were night classes as well. We started our day in the classroom. Our instructors were current and former police officers, district attorneys, judges and medical examiners. We studied the California Penal Code because we had to learn all the laws which tells you what you can do and what you can’t do. We had combat training. Some of the instructors were from the martial arts community. Police officers trained us in police tactics like how to handcuff someone (with metal handcuffs) or use the billy club. The karate people knew all about pressure points.
Our belt at that time included a nine-millimeter pistol, two extra clips, a can of Mace, two sets of handcuffs and a PR 24 club (billy club with a handle). We wore a uniform shirt with two breast pockets, badge on one side, name on the other and your shoulder patches. We also had nice radios with a mike on our shoulder. When I worked, it was recommended that we wear a bullet-proof vest under our shirts but there were days that I didn’t if my duties were light. These guys now look like military warriors. I think it’s overkill. I’ve seen them wearing big tear gas canisters all over. I look at that and think, “Man if they catch a bullet on one of those canisters, it’s going to go everywhere.” They wear cameras now. They carry pepper spray and tasers as well as their pistols and are required to wear larger bullet-proof vests.
• • •
To be continued.