In central Texas, for as long as I can remember, pecans and turkeys have been a mainstay harvest source for my family clan: Morris, Parks, McRorey, Millican, Gray, Hollingshead.
Millican Pecan Co., San Saba, Texas
The Millican family business, stretching back to the nineteenth century, provided pecans for Queen Victoria and Alfred Lord Tennyson. The queen and Lord Tennyson were an integral part of the customer base for many years. My grandfather and grandmother took long bamboo poles and thrashed pecans along the Colorado and San Saba Rivers. On one occasion my grandfather lost his high school ring while thrashing and never found it. Someone will unearth it one day and see the graduation date at about 1917-1918, and think it unfortunate, yet quaint, the ring was lost.
Before mechanical pecan shellers, my step-father and uncles about Thanksgiving and Christmas had stained fingers, like charred wood, from cracking and peeling pecans. In older years, a package of shelled pecans was always included with Christmas gifts and the nuts were minced upon for days thereafter. As I put a pecan in my mouth, I reflected upon the labor tended, my step-father cracking pecans in front of the radio or television in the evenings. I knew hard shell from soft shell pecans and sought the soft shell to crack — didn’t we all?
The McRorey family — Floyd, Lennie, John R. and Joycelyn — raised turkeys for the Thanksgiving table on a grand scale with thousands fed and sped to market before the holidays. The turkey business was good for the McRoreys and when I stayed with them I drove the tractor as grain was unloaded in the feed bins. I was not the best of drivers, but I meant well. I learned much from my Uncle Floyd.
My mother hunted wild turkey. On one occasion in Brown County (Brownwood, Texas, the county seat), she bagged the first turkey of the season. With a .22 caliber rifle she took her kill that season. She arose before daylight in the morning and placed herself behind a hunter’s blind on my uncle’s ranch near Brookesmith, along the creek, and waited patiently for the flock. Ofttimes, she merely watched the wildlife, counting the flock or observing deer in the pasture. For many years after she won the first-turkey-taken prize, as I accompanied her on errands around town, she was asked: Are you going to get the first turkey this year, Gywn? What rifle do shoot turkey with? Where do you hunt?
I am one and two generations removed from a family clan that thrashed pecans, raised turkeys and lived off the produce of the soil, harvesting and consuming nature’s fecundity. I have only lightly touched those activities, but I am aware, deeply so, that when I eat pecan pie today I see the bamboo poles of thrashing in the rafters of the barn, and when I see the breast meat of turkey upon my plate I hear the gobble-gobble of Uncle Floyd’s turkeys along the Cherokee Creek in San Saba County. I am truly thankful for for the produce of the soil and the hands that have tended the harvest and taught me lessons about nature and all that dwells therein.
Southeast corner of Pecan Tree Pasture, Johnsongrass and big bluestem (September 4, 2011).
Drought has come to the Southwest, particularly Texas. Wildfires erupt and I view every cloud in the sky as either friend or foe, rain-cumulus or pyrocumulus. Man lives in oscillating cycles: birth, maturity, degeneration and death; spring, summer, winter and fall; day and night. Nature’s theater, the grandest show — in fact the only show on the road — brings hot, dry days to us, an uneasy audience that sits without a program in hand.
Raising my hands and putting on a broad-brimmed hat to shield myself from the sun, I think, Is there is no way out of this parched country of west Texas, this incessant drought? As a matter of habit, I drove to the far field two days ago, then again yesterday, and what I saw brought me out of the funk and into the reality of primary, nascent things that fosters renewal, not despair. What I saw was the green field of my far pasture, Pecan Tree Pasture, a 35 acre field of buffalo grass, side-oats gramma, little bluestem, big bluestem and Johnsongrass that stood higher than my head! The rain of about 2.5 inches two weeks ago provided enough moisture for a re-eruption of growth.
Trying to understand the dissonance of yellow-brown drought in Texas and this field of green grass, I gazed deeper and deeper into the field, trying to resolve these issues of color. Then, it penetrated: I was not looking deep enough, for beneath the grass lay soil, the wellspring for grass, the fountain of energy that we all thrive upon. Well springs the soil.
Land, then, is not merely soil; it is a fountain of energy flowing through a circuit of soils, plants, and animals. Food chains are living channels which conduct energy upward; death and decay return it to the soil.
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, p. 216, New York: Oxford Press, 1949.
In primary school, we all saw the pyramid chart of soil, plants, animals, man, sun and the flowing of energy back and forth. The tooth and claw of the pyramid remained omnipresent, but never voiced. We knew one thing lived by absorbing another living thing, whether cougar on deer, fox on rabbit or kids on hamburgers, but our teachers for reasons of refinement side-stepped the tooth, the claw. The revealing of one thing eating another lay with fathers and uncles in the field on cloudy, windy and cold days. Perhaps that is how it should be.
To know my soil, early this morning I unfolded the Soil Survey Map of Erath County, Texas, in order to type the soil of the far field I saw yesterday. The map is ninety-one years old (1920); it is still accurate, still a good map. My land, temporary occupant that I am, encompasses three soil types. First, I have rough stony land (R) upon which sits the house, barn, stables and arena. Second, the tree grove of American elm, willow, live oak, red oak, juniper and pecan rests upon Frio silty clay loam, Colluvial phase (F). Through the tree grove runs Salt Creek, an intermittent flowing stream.
In the far field, where big bluestem is stretching upwards of seven-feet in height, a pasture that has not been grazed by Angus cattle in four years, is Frio loam (Fm), deposits of earth that have rushed down from High Salt Cove and between two creeks, Barton Creek and Salt Creek. From Frio loam springs the grass in the far field. The doe and fawn I disturbed yesterday lie between the high stands of big bluestem, and I lapse back to Oklahoma’s plains and the waving blue-red waves of autumnal bluestem that rustle with wind, the stems making sounds as they brush against one another. The pasture holds the moisture of the last rain and though I am not a person of edgy competition, I would put my far field of green grass up against any non-fertilized field in Erath County for height, vigor, nutrients and wildlife.
After tending the far field for eight years and seeing the soil’s fountain of energy this late summer, How is it that man fouls such richness, such gifts? The answer is complex, but knowable. The resolution to stop the pollution begins with a respect for knowledge, deep knowledge that is revealed early and, unfortunately, forgotten early on with so many other things in our youth, a bulletin board that displayed the food chain in first grade. The ethic of conservation and sustainability rests upon simple principles that need the status of a Commandment, an article of the Constitution, a catechism of the church. Better yet, we should recover that which was lost when we began to make pottery, metal and textiles thousands of years ago, or left on that bulletin board at Coggin Elementary School in Brownwood, Texas.
Land is a fountain of energy. In my far field, Frio loam is a wellspring.
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Click to enlarge. Soil survey map, Salt Creek and Barton Creek merger, from Soil Survey of Erath County, Texas (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922). The far field is located at about center-left along Salt Fork and is associated with the symbol, Fm, for Frio loam.
Notes, corrections and additions:
Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac And Sketches Here and There, New York: Oxford Press, 1949. I am quoting from the paperback, special commemorative edition that has an introduction by Robert Finch.
Soil Survey of Erath County, Texas, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1922. The map was drawn in 1920, hence, it is ninety-one years old. I found it in the workshop of the house I once owned in Mingus, Texas. The house was know as the Old Bertino Place, named for the Italian family that had come to the area to work in the coal mines of Thurber in the nineteenth century.
I have been reading a considerable amount of literature this summer: Aldo Leopold, Thoreau, Tolkien, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Edward Hoagland, Black Elk, Frank Waters, Wordsworth, Catulus. I have something to write. Whether it sells or not is a by-product. I have to write, I really do.
Western edge of pond, Flying Hat Ranchito, north Erath County, Texas, July 2011.
Proust had his tea cake that extended memories to prosy heights that we all have started to climb, but failed to reach — my ascent stopped at Swann’s Way, but I’m not going to stay long on the ledge for I have hammered the next piton to assail the final page of Mt. Swann. “Cool Water,” a country and western classic by the Sons of the Pioneers, a tea cake of sorts, takes me back to old Camp Bowie, near Brownwood, Texas, as I complained the lack of water on a hot summer day, touring with my parents in a old, non-air conditioned Ford sedan. Why they weren’t thirsty, I’ll never know, but I campaigned persistently for halting somewhere, anywhere, for water.
I must have been persuasive for my step-father stopped the car along the highway and I crossed over a fence and ran to a pond of fresh, cool water in a green pasture. I drank, cupping the water in my hands, not muddling the water as I scooped. Even today, I still see that pond when I drive in the region, although it has been dug out and deepened countless times. Both my step-father and mother laughed in sympathy and I was dubbed, “Chief Water Bucket,” a name I did not like nor wanted.
The drought in the Southwest descends brutally upon the landscape, in the news and by the mails; the only shade at times is under lovely junipers. I look out upon brittle, brown grasses; the trees in the grove are turning golden. The newspapers boldface the headlines that cattle are being sold through the night at local auctions as cattlemen line up two-miles long with moaning cows in their trailers. In the mail, Barton Water Cooperative states that I can only water the yard twice a week and if the water usage exceeds tolerable levels, I will be assessed a fine, a surcharge. I fill one water trough for my horse, Star, allowing an overflow into a pan on the ground for wildlife. I dare a surcharge for that.
This summer I have thought often about “Cool Water,” and sung and hummed the melody and lyrics. Each time I reflect on the music, I am back with my parents alongside the road, running for the cool, clear water in that pasture. “Cool Water,” is my tea cake, my madeleine.
Here are the lyrics to “Cool Water,” followed by a current photograph of the ranchito’s only pond.
All day I face the barren waste without the taste of water,
Old Dan and I with throats burned dry and souls that cry for water,
The night are cool and I’m a fool each stars a pool of water,
But with the dawn I’ll wake and yawn and carry on to water,
Keep a movin’ Dan, don’t you listen to him Dan, he’s a devil not a man
and he spreads the burnin’ sand with water.
Dan can’t you see that big green tree where the waters runnin’ free
and it’s waiting there for me and you.
Water, cool water.
The shadows sway and seem to say tonight we pray for water,
And way up there He’ll hear our prayer and show us where there’s water,
Dan’s feet are sore he’s yearning for just one thing more than water,
Like me, I guess, he’d like to rest where there’s no quest for water,
Map of the Kiowa Territory in Western Oklahoma, 1833-1843, from Alice Marriott, The Ten Grandmothers, p. 15.
In 1944, Alice Marriott in her book, The Ten Grandmothers, recorded Kiowa Spear Woman’s narrative of the motion and color changes of prairie grasses. The “Ten Grandmothers” are ten Kiowa medicine bundles. The bundles still exist, but they have not been opened since the 1890s when the last person who had the right to see the contents died.
For Leah the south porch of the big house was the best part of home. Here you could sit and watch sunrise or sunset; watch the shapes of the earth change and move as the sun moved. Then you knew, when you sat out there, that the earth was alive itself.
Spear Woman sat beside her granddaughter and thought that the earth had gone dead. Lights played and moved, and cloud shadows came and went, but the earth itself had somehow died. It was all one color now; not like the old days when its shades really changed and flickered like flames under the wind. She stirred and sighed and spoke.
When the buffalo moved across it, there were other colors and other lights.
The thought was near enough Leah’s own to startle her. There are lots of colors there now.
Her father spoke behind them. Not like there used to be. In the days that even I remember, there was one color when the wind was from the north and another when it was from the south, one from the east and another from the west. Now the grass is all one color on every side, and it doesn’t change with the wind.
Sometimes the colors change. Down near Lawton there is a prairie where the grass takes different colors.
She brought her best Pendleton blanket from the trunk and spread it over the seat. She put on her very best clothes and painted her face….
Two lines of high, tight fence spread across the prairie from a gate, and Spear Woman sat stiff, suddenly. What is that! That is grass like the old days. Real grass. All different colors.
It was, too. It was like changeable silk, the kind the Delawares used to trim their blankets. Yellow as the wind struck it; rose-color as it died away; then a sort of in-between color, with patterns that moved like patterns in silk when you folded it….
Shade was not even in sight, and when they had driven through the gates, with the lines of the fence on either hand, it was still not easy to find. Spear Woman didn’t care. She sat and watched the grass turn over in the sun, flickering and bending and straightening like little campfire flames, and was happy. It was the old kind of grass, the old, rippling, running prairies, even if there were fences. She was glad her eyes were dim, because she didn’t always see the fences, and could forget about them. It was all peaceful and alive again.
From Alice Marriott, The Ten Grandmothers, pp. 285-288.
* * *
When I was a boy, my grandmother drove between Brownwood and Bend, Texas, near San Saba to visit relatives. I watched fields of grass sway in the wind on either side of the road, a narrow two-lane highway. She would point out to me where she and her family had camped and where she had seen buckboard wagons ascend a hill along the creek, the hubs carving their initials along the cliffs. I saw them and put my hands in wagon-hub grooves when we stopped to rest. The prairie wind flowed over the grass, moving stems and leaves in a rhythm, a wave of motion like water I saw in Corpus Christi Bay.
* * *
Last year I planted six acres of native grasses in the Pecan Tree Pasture. The grasses are native to the Cross Timbers of Oklahoma where Spear Woman found peace again, and the grasses are native to our ranch that is also designated as Cross Timbers. The grasses in our pastures grow waist-high, chest-high in some areas, and when the prevailing wind, a southwest flow from Mexico, crosses the pastures, grasses move and bend and change color. As I go up the road towards Huckabay, Texas, about six miles away, I always notice a very old stand of Bluestem that turns reddish-brown in the Fall and Winter, but becomes blue and green in the Spring. The stand of Bluestem is only an acre in size and machines have not touched it in many years for it is on the side of a hill. It is old, that family, and I care for it. If I could move that acre of old Bluestem to my ranch, I would. I can’t. But I have planted its relatives in the Pecan Tree Pasture and there I shall attend to their health and growth.
The citation is: Alice Marriott, The Ten Grandmothers, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1945. I have the fourth printing, October, 1951. In the excerpt, I have omitted quotation marks and substituted italics for the spoken words.
Lawton, Oklahoma, is also the home of Fort Sill, Oklahoma, that is seen in the map above. If you click on the map, then enlarge it with your computer, you can see more clearly the locations of encampments and the Sun Dance locations. The Cross Timbers designation flows all the way down into Texas and includes our ranch, Flying Hat Ranch, Mingus, Texas.
Willful Lilly walks to Well House Corral (December 27, 2010).
In the ongoing story of Lilly (Ima Lil Moore), she is a willful horse. The above photograph shows her this morning, after browsing a few minutes in the front pasture, walking intently to the fence panels of the Well House Corral.
Lilly had spent the night in the stables underneath a 150 watt light bulb. When I went down this morning to feed her, she was up and moving and whinnying for her breakfast, even pinning her ears back slightly when I entered her stall. After she finished her grain, I put out two blocks of green alfalfa for her to munch on.
And, this is point of the story, she turned away from the hay rack and deliberately walked out of the corral and into the pasture with a determination of a yearling. She’s twenty-five years old, for goodness sakes! Then, after a bit of browsing, I shot the above photograph of Lilly.
She’s going to die — we’re all headed that way, for sure — within who-knows-how-long? Tomorrow, next week, next month, next year? Jim Scroggins is coming out to the ranch with his back hoe in the morning to dig a grave pit for Lilly. Don’t be sad. I’ll set up panels around it so that no one will wander into it. It’s a preparation, sort of like making a will or planning a funeral with your favorite mortician. (My political mentor when I was young was Groner Pitts of Brownwood, Texas, a funeral director.) If Lilly makes it through the winter and I and the vet think she will, I’ll fill up the pit with water and maybe ducks will swim in it. It is there, however, just in case.
But, for now, Lilly is a willful mare, stubborn in her habits, sleeping longer than usual and limping a little with arthritis. Kinda like your grandfather or grandmother. She has her life today and she willfully directs herself to green winter grass, lying down in the sun and drinking from the stock pond with ducks swimming about her. It’s a good day to live.
In the 1940s and 1950s, I grew up in central Texas, playing and working about the counties of Brown, Mills, San Saba and Lampasas.
Although born in Brown County, my family spend a great deal of time visiting relatives during the holidays in San Saba and Lampasas Counties. The Colorado River and San Saba River formed the backdrop of my childhood and early teen years. During December, I often stayed a week or two with my grandmother who lived first in Bend, Texas, and then Lometa, a few miles away from Bend where she worked as a telephone switchboard operator for the communities. The switchboard was in her living room. Her name was Effie Morris Parks and she taught me much about living off the land, or at least using nature’s products from the original source, not a supermarket.
Grandmother Effie, as I called her, steered me in the month of December to harvest and collect two things: mistletoe and cedar. Cedar is still harvested, but the gathering of mistletoe with its poisonous berries to frock the door portal seems to have vanished from holiday culture.
She had a green Chevrolet pickup. We would drive the pickup down dirt county roads and pull up next to a tree, usually mesquite, that would have clumps of deep green mistletoe with white berries. We would knock down the mistletoe with long bamboo poles that we also used to gather pecans in the Fall. Either that or I would climb up the tree and break off the fungus. Then we would gather the mistletoe and place it in the bed of the pickup until the pile topped the rails. We had to be careful to preserve the white berries because that improved the price we would receive. We drove to San Saba or Lometa and would sell the mistletoe at the mohair and wool congregating store. We would make upwards of twenty dollars and during the rest of the season, I often thought I saw what we had collected in small, cellophane packages sold in grocery stores in Brownwood. I doubt that was the case, but I felt rather pleased that I had helped make holidays brighter for someone.
I chopped cedar only once or twice as a boy and it was grueling work, but during December the weather was cold and going into the cedar breaks to cut wood did not seem as brutal as it was chopping cedar in the summer. Grandmother’s friends would take my cuttings — not very much, I’m afraid — and I would have a few dollars to spend during the holidays. The cedar choppers I worked around were all muscled and strong and I envied their chopping expertise. I learned how to cut staves versus good thick fence poles.
My grandmother Effie also gathered water cress, pecans, killed and plucked her own chickens, and during the late summer we would take the green Chevrolet and collect wild Mustang grapes that she would turn into jelly to consume on our breakfast table and give to friends. The tartness of the Mustang grape is like no other.
But it is the memory of harvesting and gathering of mistletoe and cedar with Grandmother that stays with me today during the holiday stretch. I scraped my arms and got stuck by mesquite thorns. Despite it all, I grew up knowing nature intimately during the cold of December with my grandmother as teacher.
Jack with Spot at 401 Congress Avenue, Brownwood, Texas (ca. 1952)
My life has been defined by animals. All sorts of animals: chickens, dogs, cats, horses, cattle, birds, wild and domesticated beings. For whatever reason, I preferred to stay home as a child while my mother and grandmother worked and when I was older and my mother married J. W., I liked the fact that he had land in Mills County filled with cattle, raccoons, squirrels and wild, tall, native grass that I later learned was bluestem.
I was a latch-key kid. And when I sped home on my Hawthorne, Montgomery-Ward bicycle, the first thing I did was play with the dog. The dog you see in the picture is Spot and he was the second dog I ever owned. He did not live long, for distemper took his life. Before him, there as a chow-mix of a dog named Toy that mother had to relocate because he ate the neighbor’s chickens. I loved that Toy and when he was picked up by a farmer that lived in Bangs, Texas, one world came to an end and I lost my innocence, not in the back seat of a Ford, but in the driveway of my home as Toy went away. To this day, I can remember his fur and his dark, black tongue.
Many events force growth and sadden our days. The loss of a loved one, four-legged or not, wounds us and we stagger into days and nights hating the loss and finding ways to forget it or ease the heart from the tear.
Many events bring growth and brighten the day. The face of a loved one upon rising in the morning, the nickering of horses in the barn and the wagging of that tail.
At the end of this post On the left sidebar of the blog home page are photos of cats, dogs and horses that surround Brenda and me. All of the cats are gone now, from accident or predators. I miss each of those kitties: Fenster walked with me to the far fields like a dog, Bubbles talked to me on the road down to the barn and Painters never strayed from my side while I fed and tended the horses. Painters would lie down in the middle of the corral and the horses would walk around him.
Lottie is a schnauzer and was my mother’s pet. I brought Lottie to Mingus and she has run through every room in the house slamming her toys for attention and play.
Yeller is like Toy, my first dog, the chow-mix. I first saw Yeller across the county road, staying on the Nowack place, our neighbor to the north. Yeller loved children, but the Nowacks had several dogs already and Yeller had come from some other family or was abandoned in the country by a cold-hearted person. One day Steve Nowack tried to shoo Yeller away. Yeller crept off the property and went down the road, just out of sight of the children, and stopped. Yeller turned around and sat on his haunches and looked over the grass towards the children, wagging his tail and smiling, wanting to go back and let the smaller children ride him. I had already begun to like the old boy, but that was it: Yeller obeying to go off as instructed, but not far enough to lose sight of children. I would not let another minute go by with him unattended by a human companion.
I called him to our yard. As he saw me engaging him and then petting him, Yeller ran around in circles, merrily and merrily he went. Soon, we took Yeller to the vet and had him brought to pristine health and today, tonight as I write this post, he sits on the floor beside me. I walk him and Lottie three times a day. He is always on leash. I cannot dis-attach myself, nor do I want to, from the kingdom of animals.
Jack with Spot at 401 Congress Avenue, Brownwood, Texas
Caralee Woods of Kanab, Utah, sent me a cactus illusion she had in her home at Eagle Mountain Lake, Texas, several years ago. She writes,
Here’s another cactus illusion, one of my favorite photos. It was taken in a hall that led from the kitchen to the garage in the Fort Worth house. You will remember there was a series of three small square windows in which I put little pots of small cacti. The sun would shine at a particular angle, making a shadow on the white opposite wall.
Caralee Woods and Jimmy Henley live in Kanab, Utah, and are building a strawbale compound. You can visit their website Building Our Strawbale Home! Caralee was a regional book representative for Harper and Row before she retired. Her husband, Jimmy Henley, was the undergraduate dean at Texas Christian University and taught sociology. He was a grade school and high school friend of mine in Brownwood, Texas.
Their home at Eagle Mountain Lake near Fort Worth was featured in Architectural Digest [n. d.] before they sold it and moved to Kanab. Their home was built with many of the lines and forms of the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth.
I used to house sit and take care of their companions (doggies and kitty cats) while they vacationed in the American Southwest. I grew so attached to their companions that I regretted when they returned and I had to leave.
Caralee and Jimmy’s home was not featured in Architectural Digest, but in the local Dallas and Fort Worth newspapers. See the comment section below.
In the 1940s, in Brownwood, Texas, three movie palaces illuminated downtown: the Bowie, Lyric and Queen. I sat in all of them and learned much about Hollywood life, even Mexico because the Queen ran some of the best desperado celluloids I have ever seen. The Bowie theater showed upscale film, hardly any Saturday morning trailers for boys and girls. The Lyric posted both upscale (MGM, Colombia, 20th Century Fox) as well as the Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, Tarzan and the Three Stooges. I can still see the darkened theater and kids at the Lyric waving and shouting and screaming and laughing, hands and arms waving between me and the screen. When I saw Purple Rose of Cairo, I saw myself in the audience at the Lyric theater watching the film come right off the screen and into my heart.
Mother took me to the Lyric one day and I took my teddy bear, young boy that I was. I fell asleep. After the showing, we came back to the trailer house on Austin Avenue, where the clocks spun in the dirt. The trailer was cramped for the three of us: mom, grandmother and me. Sweltering in the summer, pumping and pushing those sprayers of mosquito repellent at night. I looked for my bear at bedtime. The bear was gone. I had dropped teddy when I fell asleep and now it was gone and in the hands of who-knows-who at the Lyric theater.
A day went by and I missed that bear.
Then, magic, like Hollywood and the desperado escapes in Mexico, mother said, “Look under your pillow, Little Jack.”
I uplifted the pillow and there was my teddy bear, black buttons for eyes and leather for its paws, all back in my clutches, never to leave my side again. What vacuum had been was now evaporated in the retrieval my mother obtained from the Lyric theater management. She had gone next door to use the landlady’s telephone to have them hold the bear until she could walk (we had no car) back downtown the next day, rescue the bear and come back to our trailer house on Austin Avenue.
The good citizens of Brownwood have turned the old theater — it has been shut for decades — into a thespian venue, replete with new furnishings and grand opening. A new palace for acting and art. I can extrapolate, but won’t right now. It’s good, not bad.
I parse the loss of the bear and its return. What I see and feel is a mother caring, a business attentive to lost toys and a town that nurtured its community with innocent amusement for a post-war generation. The Lyric theater in 1914, from what I read about it, was to be a theater for live performance, probably a late-vaudeville medium as well. If that is true, then the Lyric theater has gone from a venue for live performance to Hollywood and serials on Saturday back again to live performance. A cycle.
When I lived in that small town, I never lost anything, not even a bear at the Lyric.
As a boy, I looked out of a hotel window in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I saw women in colored skirts and snow-covered mountains.
In 1947, my mother and I and her boyfriend traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico, from Brownwood, Texas. I do not remember the name of mother’s friend, but he was a nice man and very kind to her. I was five-years old. The road we traveled to New Mexico included a long stretch of highway paved like a washboard. I sat in the backseat, and for an hour or so when we hit that stretch of highway, I bounced up and down. At the end of the bouncing lay Albuquerque, a city that imprinted the New Mexico I revere in memory.
My mother and father divorced shortly after World War II, and mother worked at several jobs to support herself and me. We lived with her mother, Effie, who worked also at odd jobs to pay the groceries and rent for trailer house space under walnut trees on Fourth Street. It was a very small trailer with one room composing three bunk beds and kitchenette. Our toilet was in the neighbor’s house from whom we rented the space for the trailer. Late into the evening, the Philco Safari shortwave radio emitted a golden glow with its sounds of music, news and comedy.
Mother must have met her boyfriend at the cafe she worked, across from the Harvey House at the Brownwood Santa Fe railway depot. He toiled for Santa Fe railroad.
She also waitressed (it became a verb in our family) downtown at the Cactus Cafe where she became cashier before being hired by Southwestern States Telephone Company, a corporation she worked at for over thirty years. Mother had blond hair and blue eyes, about five feet, two inches tall in height. She was slightly built and vivacious — Irish through and through. She was quite verbal, having descended from a background of story tellers and fiddlers near Bend, Texas, a small village along the Colorado River in central Texas. Stern and hard-working, she pushed herself to the extreme while young and it did not cease when she grew old.
This trip, however, was a vacation to Albuquerque with a close friend and there was no work involved, just fun and merriment. We must have stayed several days in Albuquerque. Mother and I stayed in one hotel room and her friend stayed in another. She bought me a book, Indians of Yesterday, that I still have to this day. We visited the Old Town trading area and shopped downtown. Our hotel was several stories high, but I don’t remember the name of it.
The view from our hotel window looked down upon the main street and in the distance, the Sandia Mountains.
I remember gazing out that window. I would have solitude in the hotel room. Not long, just enough. From my window, I looked down on the street corner and saw women dressed in colorful skirts with concho belts. Their hair was black and they clustered in drops of color about the shops, standing, milling around. Within the skirt pattern, some of which were black or navy blue, I could see rhythmic lines of white ribbon. Soft boots, it seemed, they wore. I don’t remember their wearing hats or bonnets. Exotic women, full of energy, covered in color. It seemed as if they wore several skirts, layered one upon the other.
I peered up from the hotel room and saw snow-covered mountains in the distance, deep purple, deep blue, holding secrets. I looked at them and wanted to go to the snowline and touch the cold — or, have the cold touch me.
I looked down at the women and looked up at the mountains, then the scene as a whole, one tableau. As a child, I comprehended novelty, but I was also enamored by the scene from my window. Today I know that the women are the Navajo that come for trade and fun. The mountains are the Sandia, the location of the earliest paleolithic finds in North America, and I have taken students on field trips to see the Sandia Cave. These new attributions of New Mexico embellish my early memory; they neither replace nor smother what I saw as a child.
You could say, I suppose, if mother and her boyfriend had taken me to New York City, I would have become entranced with cities, but I doubt it. As it was, we returned to Brownwood, Texas, and I got bounced again on the highway while mother and her friend chatted and laughed. Mother continued for a time to work at the cafe across from the Harvey House. Time passed before I returned.
In 1955, I traveled to Glorieta, New Mexico, with a church group. I was distracted by infatuation and pious supervisors, but I remember the smell of conifers and the soft carpet of pine needles about the camp. There were neither colorful skirts nor snow-covered mountains — a regretful trip, in so many ways.
Then, in 1967, my wife and I traveled from Amarillo, Texas, to Raton, New Mexico. We had spontaneously decided to go at four o’clock that afternoon. So after packing quickly, we got in the Ford Mustang and drove through thunderstorms to New Mexico. As lightning flashed, it illuminated the countryside and I remember the volcanic hills and mountains flaring to light, then darkness all around. We reached Raton at midnight, excited by our thunderous passage westward.
For the next three days, we stayed in Raton, Taos, and Santa Fe. I was twenty-five years old, twenty years since I had been in Albuquerque with mother. To me at the time, and even now as I compose this piece, the early visit to Albuquerque and the jaunt to Raton seemed a hundred years apart — long, long in-between, though only twenty years. I cannot account for the emotional relativity of it, but it is true. The effect of the quick trip with my wife to New Mexico, however, was quite different from the regret of Glorieta.
I dreamed in vivid colors of New Mexico when I returned to Amarillo: passageways of art and pottery, cafes of chile, museums, people dressed in color and turquoise, adobe walls and hornos. I made plans for a second visit to go farther into the forest and into the desert and trade shops. Over the years, I slept in maid’s quarters and the backseat of my car. I was stranded alone, overnight, in a snowstorm on top of Jemez Pass, bundling in a bedroll and losing a bit of an ear by frostbite. I went again and again and I am still going. I have stayed long enough in the high desert and mountains, however, to become acquainted with rough and jaded junk that falls into arroyos, the brutality of domestic violence, the rage induced by alcohol and drugs on the streets and hyped-up-commercialism of art and craft. I was never an innocent about New Mexico. Never.
It is the land and the people that draws me: the rhythm of the drum, the conifers of Carson, the silky dust of an unpaved road, the remembrance of man and horse plowing the field at Mora, bronzes of Canyon Road, the Dona Luzes of La Casa Sena, Truchas, sagebrush, meadow and the vista of Logan. After my divorce, I took my daughter annually to New Mexico, camping out and staying in fine hotels. We saw Christmas lights on the highway from Tucumcari to Las Vegas, arriving late in Taos one evening. In the summer, dust devils rode beside us, rocking our pickup as we cowboyed through the devil to the campground in the cool forest. These days, I am in northern New Mexico, writing and living in my daughter and son-in-law’s home, renting houses on Witt Road in Taos, and paying beaucoup amount of money in Santa Fe and Albuquerque when I research in special collections and archives. Dust devils still whirl around me; snow and ice make Palo Flechado Pass dangerous; and acequia water still flows along the curbs of Mora and Fort Sumner.
In overcoming loneliness and discontent, I was lucky to have been seized by terrain, something massive and material rather than soft and ideological. It is not all pleasant, this nature writing, because one season is green, the other brown and dying. Yet, the sage blooms again and the riosgrandes have always run shallow or deep, never dry. I see it as my duty to attend these cycles and write about them so that a not-so-bloodless redemption may save our planet yet. It may be a futile effort and I may be wrong.
Indians Of Yesterday, by Marion E. Gridley, illustrated by Lone Wolf, M. A. Donahue & Company, 1940.
Use of the word, “cowboyed,” is a regionalism. See also “cowboy up.”
The Dona Luz was a restaurant in Taos. I use it here as a personal application to La Casa Sena restaurant, reflecting all the cuisines of the region. To my knowledge, there is no Dona Luz at La Casa Sena. The Dona Luz in Taos had a wine cellar that was dug deeply into the ground. I always liked to eat at a table near the stairwell to the cellar so that I could look down at the wine racks.
I have struggled to define the attraction I have for the Southwest, New Mexico in particular. Texas has its fine qualities and I’ve spent most of my life here and I type it, of course, as southwestern, too. Being a child and on my first, conscious, exotic vacation, the Albuquerque visit would be striking, a first-time event of major proportion. That is explainable by that context. The visit to Raton, Taos, and Santa Fe in 1967, is inexplicable. Calling it a “rebirth” makes me want to stick my finger down my throat. The closest classic description of what happened is D. H. Lawrence’s statement that New Mexico and the high desert vistas called him to fully attend the physical environment (I paraphrase). That’s about as close as I can define it: made me attend landscape and my life like never before.
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