Our life experiences, enveloped in memory, underpin our sense of self. Mine were rooted in Meadowlark, New Mexico, a small town in the mountainous northern part of the state, where I came of age in the 1950s. We were wedged between the heroic World War II generation and the numerically superior, and more self-indulgent Baby Boomers, giving us a perspective of our own. My hometown—for which “Meadowlark” is a pseudonym—would have been similar to other small towns in NM, but functionally equivalent to a different planet from Eastern cities. I know this because throughout high school I worked away from home in summer jobs that brought me into contact with kids from across America. Later, armed with two degrees from UNM, I moved East where many of my new colleagues were elite young men and women educated in Ivy League Universities.
Work took me away, but I’ve retained tremendous affection for the land where I grew up—high-plateau country that was good for cows, dotted with mesas that grew into mountains. The river–flanked by ancient cottonwoods, willows, and reeds–that flowed through my hometown was the domain of so-called red-winged blackbirds, with their orange racing stripes tipped with yellow. Everywhere else one could hear the silvery call of the bird from which the town got its name. Even today, I can’t hear a meadowlark without nostalgia. I spent my sixteenth summer in Pennsylvania, the longest period I had then been away from NM. As I returned, our familiar mesa country, illuminated by bright moonlight, looked startlingly beautiful through my train window.
Seemingly, nothing changed in Meadowlark except the seasons. Life was simple, the pace slow. In many respects, it was a good place to grow up. Boys had nearly unlimited freedom. From the age of 10, alone or with other boys, I tramped the hills around town armed with my single-shot .22 with which I terrorized beer bottles and the odd jackrabbit. Most males hunted and fished. (Oddly, my younger sister, without trying, much later was a crack shot; she enjoyed trouncing the good ole boys, many of them expert gunsmiths, at the annual turkey shoot.) We biked everywhere until we turned 14 and could legally drive, a scary thought.
Our town was about evenly divided between Anglos and Hispanics. The latter included few, if any, recent migrants, and some of their families had been in NM for centuries. We had no blacks or Asians to add diversity. Members of the town’s only known Jewish and Lebanese families owned the two largest, competing grocery stores. Financially successful, both families were prominent in town society—one family branch owned a large ranch while the other became active in the Methodist Church, traditional avenues to social success. Sons of each became commanders of the local Army National Guard battery. Their wives and mothers joined the Antique Club, a preserve of the town’s few wealthy women. #
Our class distinctions would not have been apparent to a stranger. Land ownership (lots of it), a ranch, and cattle (not sheep) were paramount. Money also was useful because with it one could buy a ranch. (My parents owned a small farm, which didn’t count socially—or economically.) Most of us regarded ourselves as middleclass, but by today’s standards would be considered “working poor.”
Even prosperous citizens externally were unpretentious. I never saw Sam, a rich rancher, for example, in anything other than worn, dusty cowboy boots and shirt with faded Levis suspended tenuously below his vast beer belly. He used his Lincoln, purchased annually, to herd cattle, and never washed the trail dust off it. Consequently, his nearly new, premium cars looked almost as bad as the battered pickups of poor dirt farmers. Similarly, Tony, our only rich relative and a sophisticated guy, dressed like all of the other old ranchers. Fine art, including a Renoir, hung on the walls of his home. He owned late-model Cadillacs, but usually drove an old Ford pickup so faded by the sun that its original blue paint looked silver. Another rancher relative, who once had been a good student, deliberately, we thought, employed appalling grammar. He looked a bit like a zebra when he removed his cowboy hat: face weathered mahogany below, boiled egg white above.
Everyone knew just about everything about everyone else. As various townspeople discovered, Meadowlark was a poor place to conduct a clandestine affair. Our town, as everywhere, had its bad hombres, and everyone knew who they were. The town cut me some slack because my parents and kid sister were respectable. In the way of small towns, Meadowlark was capable of great generosity when disaster struck one of its own.
If there were a more insular, less sophisticated time and place, I do not know it. Most of the boys and many of the girls went to school looking prepared to herd cattle rather than study. Levis, cowboy boots and hats, wide belts with large silver buckles were de rigueur. The annual rodeo was a big deal. Musically, Meadowlark preferred country and western–was there another genre? Ford, GM, or Chrysler produced the town’s cars and pickup trucks. Even relative sophisticates, such as Tony, knew nothing about fine wine. My father, a well-read man, knew that one should serve wine with dinner. For special dinners, he’d locally buy a bottle of wine, which invariably tasted awful. I grew up thinking I didn’t like wine, one of life’s great pleasures.
It was a closed, inward-looking society. Some of my schoolmates regarded Meadowlark as the hub, if not of America, at least of New Mexico. They simply could not imagine why anyone would want to live or even travel anywhere else. Atypically, my parents, taking their kids with them, did travel. We learned not to tell classmates what we’d seen or about strange new foods, such as pizza (new to us then but common now), that we’d sampled. Hemmed in by mountains, Meadowlark could not receive TV signals–an unrecognized blessing at the time. Lack of TV, however, exacerbated our insularity. After eight grade, school didn’t offer much for those of us who didn’t feel called to the plow or carpentry. Our high school’s most important offerings were Future Farmers of America classes followed by shop.
By comparison with the decades that followed, it was a sexually repressed, even innocent time. Girls were mysterious in a way that perhaps they’d never be again. They tended to wear tight sweaters and armored bras that made their breasts look and–unless you could get the damn things off–feel like miniature torpedoes. The height of sophistication was to take a girl and a six-pack in Dad’s old pickup to the stockyards.
Girls needed to be perceived as “nice.” They had reason to be careful, given the culture of the time. If a girl got in trouble, town society would blame her, rarely the boy. Once married, a woman would be expected to subordinate her interests to her husband’s. She was likely to be economically dependent. Divorce, accordingly, was serious business and, if undertaken, probably would result in the town closing ranks against her, however excellent her reasons for departure.
The town was outwardly Victorian in other respects as well. Most people claimed to be religious, whether they attended services or not. The town’s Catholic and Baptist Churches had the largest congregations, but the more socially prominent families were Methodists. Parents taught their young’uns to address their elders as “sir” or “ma’am,” a practice that soon would seem as dated as the minuet.
No one “did” drugs. Instead, Meadowlark boys punished Coors and bourbon—scotch and wine being reserved for tourists and microbrews not yet invented. Few girls drank much. Both genders generally smoked cigarettes by the time we were in high school.
Most of us had known each other since first grade. By high school, we accordingly tended to date kids from other towns. We did not necessarily treat each other kindly, despite our long-term association. Although our schoolyard battles weren’t yet lethal, kids were quick to exploit vulnerability. Thus, even the prissiest girls called Tommy Bates “Master.” Gracie, a thin girl with unusually large breasts, was “Amazing Grace.” A myopic girl with coke bottle glasses became, of course, “20-20.” A boy with a pear-shaped face was “Handles” because of his protruding jaws. I cannot imagine Meadowlark producing a John Walker Lindh. The other boys would never have permitted it.
In most respects, I was typical teen–self-centered, horny, ignorant, and impulsive. To fit in, I tried to conceal that I also was not brain-dead. I recall joining in teasing another boy as a “brain” after his achievement test scores were disclosed, while concealing my own higher scores.
Like kids everywhere, I essentially left my parents’ roof and my hometown when I went to college—but I retain the emotional and intellectual trappings of where and when I grew up. An English professor commented acidly that my reading was the first time he’d “heard Shakespeare with a cowboy accent.” Others found my attempts to pronounce French words hilarious –I tried to render them as if they were Spanish. I startled people by using expressions, common in my hometown, that they had not heard before. People wrongly assumed that I would understand allusions to popular TV programs that everyone had watched in the Fifties. Decades later, to my wife’s chagrin, old Sam’s informal dress code, absent the cowboy motif, makes sense. I retain a peculiarly western preference for straight talk and an impatience with pomp and ceremony. I regard public expression of sentiment with suspicion and make no attempt to be politically correct—characteristics that occasionally have gotten me in trouble. I dislike cities, and occasionally dream of mesas in moonlight.
Something is terribly wrong with the 21st Century. Since 2000, and more particularly since 2001, time is speeding up. Suddenly this year is going faster than each of the past 60+ years. The last year-and-a-half has flown by at warp speed, faster than all previous years. It is now end of July and I am not yet through with Christmas.
Maybe it is a time of change. I do notice that I am going to more funerals than weddings, and hair seems to have slipped from my head to my nose and ears, but I do not recall entering middle age.
Maybe I should return to school so at least nine months of the year will eternally drag and only three months will fly. Things were not necessarily better then, but time was certainly slower. First semester was not too bad because it had Thanksgiving and Christmas but, of course, there was always some would-be molder of young minds who assigned a paper over Christmas holiday. The semester ended after we returned from Christmas vacation, then second semester was forever; besides school time, there was only Easter/Spring break.
At least half the drivers now on the highways are women. I missed the moment when women began driving on trips, never mind driving alone across the country. The last time I looked, women drove around town, but seldom on the highway. Now it seems that more than half of the drivers on the Interstate are women driving alone, not even with other women accompanying them. Don’t they know there are dangers out there? According to the media at any given time, there are quantities of children and women missing. There appear to be more serial killers. Is that because there are more available targets? Do these women have a contingency plan in case they have a flat tire or mechanical trouble? They should.
Many of the cars on the road have government license plates. I had thought the reasoning behind opening regional and local government offices was so employees wouldn’t be required to drive around the state. Is this travel still necessary because all governmental wisdom is vested in the state capitol? Must messengers be dispatched from there to the hinterlands with the day’s orders because government computers and software are low bid and, therefore, Email doesn’t work well? By multiples, there are more government vehicles on the roads than police vehicles.
Speed limits — dropping from 70 to 55, and finally back to 70 on some interstate highways — are normal again, but I seem to be the only person on the Interstate driving the speed limit. I set my cruise control at the posted speed but I am rarely passed. I spend much time slowing down for trucks, motor homes and older drivers. When I am old — whenever that distant time might come — I will not drive slow.
Speaking of motor homes, how do those people find the time and money to drive all over the country in huge conveyances towing smaller conveyances? I cannot take the offered vacation time because I have work to do. It must have to do with credit.
In the 1950s, credit cards were gasoline cards. The only other available credit was through your local banker and local merchants. Everything else required cash or check. The tax burden was around 3% of a person’s income, instead of about 47% now for many taxpayers. Accounts were payable, in full, every month. Local merchants rarely charged interest; they just disconnected your credit until you paid what was owed, and if you were a slow payer, they did not again extend credit to you. In the late 1960s, MasterCard and Visa appeared, offered through local banks by bankers who personally knew you. Those cards were only offered to good customers. Now, there are few local merchants and even fewer locally owned banks, but an almost limitless line of credit, whether or not you have sufficient collateral to back up debts. Credit cards are even offered to college-bound students who have no income besides from their parents.
Everything is bigger. There are four-lane highways and Interstates and there are more vehicles of every description on the road. About half the population is still female, but more are single and work.
Corporations are larger and more complex. Government is much bigger.
Only TIME is continually growing smaller because it flies by at increasing speeds.
The goat show was today. Zofie’s goats placed very well, especially Frosty, the three-month-old buckling who has especially brilliant white mohair. He received a blue ribbon and a grand champion ribbon. He also won second place in the dress-up contest; he was dressed as a punk with a leather jacket, leather boots and a Mohawk. (A cow dressed as a chicken came in first.)
Today was so much fun! There was a good crowd and a lot going on. Zofie, my 11-year-old daughter, is spending the night with all the goats — along with one adult and a lot of other girls, like a sleep-over party. I bet no one sleeps.
A forwarded Email:
Says a patient wife: One day my housework-challenged husband decided to wash his sweatshirt. Seconds after he stepped into the laundry room, he shouted to me, “What setting do I use on the washing machine?”
“It depends,” I replied. “What does it say on your sweatshirt?”
He yelled back, “University of New Mexico!”