SABANETA, Venezuela -- Telma Torres flips through a diary and pulls out a crisp black-and-white snapshot of a young cadet standing ramrod straight. Then she makes coffee strong and sweet just like she used to serve the man in the photo, President Hugo Chávez.
And although his family moved when he was 12 from this sleepy agricultural town, Torres said she always kept in touch with her first love.
He was always so humble and smart, Torres said of Chavez, who died Tuesday. He loved his family and never forgot about his friends.
On Thursday, tens of thousands of Venezuelans filed past Chávezs body at the Military Academy in Caracas for a last glimpse of the man who led the nation for 14 years and became an icon of the global left. But in this town that he called home, 400 miles southwest of the capital, classmates and friends consoled each other by swapping stories about the man everyone here knew as Hugo or Huguito.
Torres, 59, had a steady stream of visitors Thursday eager for details about her relationship with Chávez. When he attended paratrooper school in Maracay, she said, he would joke about training her to jump.
I used to tell him You just want to take me up there so you can push me out, she recalled. We laughed about that for a long time.
One of seven children, Chávezs early years were spent with his grandmother, Rosa, in a wooden house with dirt floors. The house is long gone and has been turned into the Mamá Rosa elementary school.
But neighbors recalled that Chávez and his friends were so poor that they couldnt afford a baseball bat, but still had heated games, slapping a rubber ball with their fists.
When he won the presidency in 1998, Chávez often talked about his humble background. And he plowed the nations oil wealth into social programs, including free housing and healthcare that made him a hero to the poor.
At the Sabaneta baseball stadium where Chávez used to play this time on a league with uniforms and equipment some of his former teammate had gathered outside. They used to call him Tribilín the Spanish name of the Disney character Goofy because he was so skinny and had big feet. But he also had a wicked fast ball and, as a lefty, could bat from either side of the plate.
Alfredo Aldana, 61, a lifelong friend, made Chávez the godfather of his four children. Although Aldana always knew that Tribilín was headed for the military, he never suspected he would become a global figure. But there were early signs, he said.
One time, after running past home base, Chávez found the water cooler empty and gave it a savage kick, Aldana said.
Then he screamed One of these days I am going to be someone in the country so these things will quit happening to me! Aldana recalled. It was a joke, but it was also the truth.
There were also signs of his headstrong streak. Years later, when Chávez was an army captain, he became incensed at a local landowner who had put a gate around a battlefield memorial site. Chávez unholstered his pistol and shot off the lock then cleaned the site, Aldana said.
That fierceness followed him to the end, as he battled cancer even as he campaigned to win the presidency for another six years.