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Perdido

One day during the second week of September, Buddy didn’t return to our house within a couple hours of his ramble, as he always did.  I simply attributed this to his independence.  However, when he had not shown up by noon of the following day, and had thus skipped two meals, I began to worry.  Of course, I recalled the many dead dogs we’d seen along Doña Ana County roads and highways. 

Rapidly mounting dread began to couple with anger at my naiveté.  Then I became angry at my fellow Doña Ana County residents.  Aware of all the empty beer cans and wine and liquor bottles along county thoroughfares, I cursed their drunken driving.  And I cursed their careless driving when they were sober.

However, while I was coming apart, preparing to write Buddy’s obituary in absentia, my wife, still composed and, as always, practical, decided we should gather up a photo of Buddy, some colored highlighters, and push pins, and head to the nearest copy shop to create some lost-dog posters.  A fool’s errand, I thought sadly: In one of the poorest counties in New Mexico, when there are fields to be harvested and children readied for another year of school, who’ll stop and read a sun-faded poster tacked to a tree trunk or telephone pole?  But I glumly went along. 

At an El Paso copy shop we ran off 15 posters, which, owing to Linda’s recollection of her high school Spanish, wisely included the words “perdido” and “recompensa.”  Driving around in my truck, we paused to tack the posters along the country roads roughly within a mile radius of our house.  Throughout, Linda periodically called out “Buhhhhhh-deeee!”―a wail into the indifferent fields, woods, and ditches that pierced my heart.  Later that afternoon Linda phoned the classifieds department of the El Paso Times, which was delivered throughout the Mesilla Valley, and dictated a lost-dog announcement.  That night I slept miserably.

The following morning, a Sunday, while I happened to be on our side patio, a dog appeared, limping down our driveway.  He was mud-caked and scraped.  Despite his sluggish arrival, he was panting rapidly.  His penis was oozing pus. 

We immediately phoned a veterinary clinic in Las Cruces, and the on-call veterinarian told us to bring Buddy in right away.  X-rays revealed that he had a torn diaphragm and two pelvic fractures.  Surely he had been struck by a motor vehicle.  We left the clinic while the vet prepared to perform “major surgery.” 

Despite Buddy’s obviously serious injuries, I was hugely relieved and, ignorantly perhaps, hopeful about the surgery.  After all, I told myself, he was still young, and he’d made it to our house from wherever he had been. 

The first thing I did when we arrived home was head out in my truck to take down all of the posters, not for practical reasons, but for the sheer relief, joy, and gratitude.  Never had our section of the valley―the roads, ditches, fields, homes both solid and sadly ramshackle, tractors, farmworkers, children, cats, dogs, blossoming alfalfa, seven-foot-high weeds―looked so lovely.  I savored the removal of every poster, while, with some shame, acknowledging the wisdom, not to mention the simple humanity, of tacking them up in the first place.  I thanked the fair skies that had occurred over the previous three days and the muddy ditch that may have cradled Buddy while, broken and torn, he mustered the strength to return.  Acknowledging once again my own carelessness, I apologized to the desert skies for my blanket condemnation of my neighbors.  Finally, I blessed my calm and compassionate wife.

That evening, we returned to the clinic and saw Buddy: sedated, an IV line in his forepaw, under several layers of warmed blankets, and breathing regularly.  He had survived the surgery, which revealed that his liver and intestines had partially entered his chest cavity through the ruptured diaphragm.  Beholding him, I was so grateful that, if he had not survived the trauma, at least he did not die slowly, in agony, filthy, forgotten, in a ditch, beneath a gathering whirlpool of soaring vultures. 

The following morning, remarkably, the veterinarian informed us that Buddy was ready to go home.  I’ve never forgotten that vet, her training, and her hands of an angel.

Over the next six weeks, as fall in the Mesilla Valley arrived, Buddy mended.  In the evenings, he reclined at my feet as I sat in the portal.  Never again did I let him out of my sight and voice control, at least not in our developed part of the Valley. 

In the desert wildlands, I continued to make an exception, for I knew he was safe there.  Once again, in pink and lavender evenings, we sat together at Vevay on our knoll above the Southern Pacific track.  We watched the lights of El Paso and Juárez blossom in the east.  With the approach of a freight train, I held Buddy firmly.  Sometimes, obeying the red light of a block signal, the train came to a halt right beside us, and in so doing seemed to become a black hole into which was sucked not only the clamor of the train, but the noise of the entire world, creating a vast and deep silence underscored by a mile or more of dark and brooding steel on wheels.  

Buddy, meanwhile, attended to every point in space, gazing, sniffing, in my gentle control, yet reveling in the independence of his senses.

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An Environmental Conscience, Part 2

After two years, it got to a point where I was daily trying to rationalize my employment at the company.  My mind was a welter of worthy arguments that seemed to come from both sides of the “forest products” debate.  I told myself, echoing the one-armed gentleman in the PBS special, that even tree-huggers lived in houses framed with two-by-fours.  Or did they?  Maybe they all lived in wickiups.  Or wigwams.  Or geodesic domes of steel and plastic.  Or dwellings of adobe, sod, or straw bales.  I thought of my first company picnic.  Sure, it included the executives decked out in finery likely from L.L. Bean or Eddie Bauer.  But it also included the denim, tee-shirts, and Red Wing boots of sawyers, shipping clerks, fork-lift drivers, lumber graders, stackers, kiln operators―the salt of the Southwest earth.  And their spouses.  And, especially, their children.  Children who were eager to be blindfolded and turned loose to whack at a papier-mâché cabron engorged with a rainbow of Jolly Rancher candies.  Children who now played with doll houses, Big Wheels, and toy dump trucks operated by remote control.  Children who were covered by medical and dental insurance.  Who would deny these children?  Ah, but was the company clear-cutting, and could I stomach the sight of this?  And these were Western forests.  Their vastness notwithstanding, they were arid and thus slow-growing.  Perhaps America should get all of its “forest products” from the dark and dripping woods of Maine, where trees grow like weeds.  Perhaps the timber companies should be required to harvest timber only from private land.  Perhaps the Forest Service should stop taking an outrageous loss on each and every one of its timber sales.  Yet what about that handsome 40-foot-long footbridge across the Rio Grande north of Taos, its $5000 tab paid for by my lumber company, used by grateful fly-fishermen and hikers like myself?  Yes, but have I lately heard the bark-like call of the threatened spotted owl in the chill of a November night?  Or seen the imperiled goshawk coast silently through a dim understory? 

Shit!  What a muddle.

Meanwhile, I hoped.  I hoped the company and the Santa Fe environmental organization would reach some kind of amicable compromise.  Not a chance.  The tree-huggers continued to challenge every timber sale.

After two-and-a-half years, I left the company.  My moral crisis had something to do with it, the trees having triumphed, but I also left because I couldn’t see myself writing code for the rest of my working life, regularly attending seminars and training sessions in a frantic effort to keep apace with a constantly evolving field.  Although opportunities for performing challenging software maintenance and development were rare at the company, when they did occur, I would come home from work mentally drained.  And while I liked the distinction of my position at the company and the attention it garnered, and I liked the salary, there were many days at work in which I was bored. 

Finally, one afternoon in July, members of the data processing and accounting departments and several salespersons, good people all, treated me to a going-away lunch at Sadie’s. 

I didn’t look for another job.  While still working, I had applied to and was accepted as a graduate student at the University of New Mexico.  Shortly after leaving the company, Linda and I married at the chapel on the University of New Mexico campus.  After we honeymooned at the Inn of the Mountain Gods on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in the White Mountains of southeastern New Mexico, Linda continued with her fellowship in infectious diseases.  I prepared to resume my education.  I wanted to read books.  I wanted to write books.

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Southwest Kitsch, Southwest Authentic, Southwest Everything in Between

During our first two years together in the Southwest, Linda and I, like so many other new arrivals to this land, surrendered to its numerous cultural attractions, from, in the words of Albuquerque-born Southwest scholar Robert Gish, “the lowbrow, curio kitsch” to the clearly authentic. 

The “kitsch” was primarily my weakness.  To friends, I enthusiastically fired off postcards bearing the obviously-doctored image of the New Mexico hybrid known as the “jackalope,” a giant, rearing rabbit crowned with the massive rack of an elk.  In Albuquerque’s Old Town, I snapped up mini bricks of piñon incense and small, cylindrical bundles of sage smudge, and soon my apartment was smelling like a Navajo sweat lodge, and the inside of my Mercury Christmas Eve on the Taos Pueblo plaza. 

Linda, meanwhile, purchased a popular New Mexico curio: a carved wooden coyote in full-throated howling pose; however, she drew the line at the equally popular mini-bandana about its neck.  

In the patio area of our rented townhouse, our first dwelling together, we hung a ristra.  The ristra, a venerable symbol of fall in New Mexico, is a mass of red chile peppers intricately strung together in a long bundle.  When available for sale, the peppers of the ristra are freshly-harvested and thus scarlet, plump, and rubbery; however, when subsequently hung outdoors, they dry, shrivel, and darken to burgundy, eventually swaying en masse, perhaps softly clattering, in New Mexico’s winter winds.  Of course, artificial “peppers” are available in New Mexico as well: we purchased and shipped red, green, and yellow electric “chile lights” to my sister and brother-in-law in New Hampshire.  

We purchased Native American artifacts: pottery from the Acoma, Jemez, San Felipe, and Zia pueblos; a delicate and detailed wooden “eagle dancer” figurine from Albuquerque’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center; a Navajo rug at a University of New Mexico auction; and, also from the auction, a “vegetal chart” explaining the origin of Native American dyes.  Linda gave me my first ring, a turquoise set in silver from the pueblo of Sandia.  

Gracing the walls of our townhouse were framed photographs of iconic Southwestern locales, places such as Laguna Pueblo and Monument Valley, by Ansel Adams and others.  

We watched Robert Redford’s 1988 film adaptation of John Nichols’s novel The Milagro Beanfield War; set in a thinly-disguised Taos, the movie was filmed largely in the northern New Mexico village of Truchas.

Books with Southwestern settings and themes quickly became my passion.  I purchased them at Albuquerque’s independent and chain bookstores, as well as at the gift shops of Albuquerque and Santa Fe art museums and cultural centers and Santa Fe’s famous La Fonda Hotel, the hotel displaying titles by Willa Cather, Frank Waters, Rudolfo Anaya, Tony Hillerman, and Nichols.  At a used book store on Central Avenue I purchased Lawrence Clark Powell’s Southwest Classics: sketches, critical and biographical in nature, of authors who were among the first to chronicle the often mystical life of the Southwest.  At the same store I purchased Erna Fergusson’s 1940 non-fiction work Our Southwest, which remains my favorite book about this land.  

And we often enjoyed much of this while listening to the music of “nouveau flamenco” guitarist and Santa Fe resident Ottmar Liebert.      

    

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Four Corners, Part 3

The Valley of the Gods, a vast landscape of sandstone mesas, buttes, and monuments, spreads at the base of a 700-foot-high rampart that runs from northeast to southwest.  I parked Red at the entrance to a dirt road that loops through the valley.  Cars and trucks trickled onto the road.  Preferring solitude, I decided to avoid it.  I reloaded my backpack, including the ridiculously bulky Sears sleeping bag and wide foam rubber pad, hoisted it onto my back, and, after negotiating a barbed wire fence, struck off in the opposite direction, a roadless swale devoid of prominent formations, yet no less lovely. 

In addition to shrubs and juniper, the land was dotted with tufts of tall grass on which some two dozen Hereford and Angus cattle grazed.  Their piles of manure―dark, rippling, and glistening when obviously fresh, gray and crusty when aged―were not infrequent.  But neither the smothering manure nor the destructive footprints of these huge, lumbering beasts bothered me.  So charmed by the myth of the American cowboy was I that I accepted these things as tolerable elements of this landscape of jarring beauty.  Depending upon the landscape, however, this sentiment would soon change.       

I hiked for a couple miles. After making a campsite beside a tall, broad juniper, I spent much of that afternoon sheltering from rain squalls, my plastic ground cover doubling as an awning.  The purchase of a small tent prior to my departure didn’t occur to me.  After all, my two previous visits to Utah’s canyon country involving camping took place in July, when the weather was sunny and 104 degrees[1], and September, when the weather was considerably cooler but equally dry.  Thus, I had concluded that it rarely rained in southeast Utah.  Whatever, I considered myself tough enough to handle any weather condition.  So, in the shelter of the awning, I looked around and around, marveling not only at the distant formations on the valley floor, but also at the fabulous sandstone bulwark at my back.  

This was the fulfillment of a dream: the Pawnee Buttes multiplied beyond imagining.  The landscape fascinated me for a number of reasons, beginning with its geometry, a result of its sedimentary nature.  Except for the Pawnee Buttes, the natural world I’d known up to now―the Berkshire hills and mountains of Massachusetts; the Catskill mountains of New York; the hills, mountains, and valleys of central Colorado―appeared more or less fashioned with a waving, cupping hand.  Curves―often crude, of course―characterized these landscapes.  Utah’s canyon country, however, with its millions of predominantly rectangular and triangular formations, appeared to be the work of T-squares, meat cleavers, guillotines, and circular saws.  It didn’t flow.  It chomped. 

Meanwhile, as with the Pawnee Buttes, this angular landscape had a charming familiarity.  I loved it for its natural qualities, yet also for the artificial constructs these natural formations recaledl: tables, temples, battleships, edifices, pyramids, butcher blocks, all in various stages of silent, mysterious, melancholy ruin.  And what curves there were in the land had a striking ability to evoke parts of the human anatomy such as breasts, nipples, and crowns of phalli. 

It was, as well, a naked land.  Before witnessing the Four Corners country, I’d become accustomed to a landscape cloaked not only with grasses, trees, and shrubs, but with soils.  The Colorado Plateau, however, was often paved with nothing but bare, lifeless rock―the very bones of the Earth. 

Space in the canyon country looked and felt different.  All of these right angles, these vertical rock faces, seemed to arrest the flow of gargantuan quantities of space, trap them, concentrate them.  I could almost hear and feel space colliding with the massive rock wall that stood behind me. 

Within all of this, a uterine security, the trance of entrance.

By late afternoon, the skies had cleared.  Anticipating a long, cold, lonely night, I decided to create a warm, colorful, lively companion until sleep overcame me.  Wandering near and far, I gathered juniper limbs and branches that I found scattered, gray and fundamentally arid, upon the red earth, and piled them at my campsite.  After scouring the ground, I reluctantly took to breaking branches and limbs from nearby junipers dead but still standing.  Although still reaching for the sky, that leafless wood was equally gray and parched.  Yet when I ripped a limb from a trunk, producing a sharp report that echoed faintly off the stone rampart, a reddish inner pulp, like the marrow of a bone and faintly aromatic, was revealed. 

That night, after a meal of beans and apricots, I sat on a boulder and fed juniper into a fire for three hours, studying the distant lights of Bluff, watching a particular star progress across the sky at the pace of an hour hand, and thoroughly smoking myself with the spice of burning juniper, that unfailing fragrance through the years.  

The following morning, I awoke―as I often would for years to come―to the croak of a solitary raven winging through the vast stillness in the direction of nearby Monument Valley.[2]  

Before leaving, I investigated, simply out of geological interest, a nearby cluster of boulders, some as big as storage sheds, at the base of the cliff.  After rounding the corner of one, I was stunned.  The side of the boulder was not belly-round, but rather planed perfectly flat, as if sliced with a giant diamond wheel.  Pecked into its surface, which was darkened as if with years of accumulated soot (later I would identify this “soot” as a geological/chemical phenomenon known as desert varnish), was a collection of obviously human-made figures.  Several figures clearly depicted humans, or, rather, abstracted humans.   One was armless with stubby legs and an elongated trunk with a large rectangle in its center.  Another possessed all its limbs, although it, too, had an elongated trunk.  A third had an elongated neck and stubby legs and was accompanied by a circle―signifying what? I wondered―immediately to the right of its head.  There was a figure that recalled a snake, or perhaps a river, or perhaps a mountain range.  There was another that clearly resembled a scorpion. 

I knew immediately the figures were not the work of modern man or woman.  Any newcomer to Albuquerque with the slightest bit of curiosity quickly learns of the petroglyphs―human-made etchings―in the volcanic rock of the vast lava field on the western edge of the city.  Indeed, Linda and I had already visited the field that would, within two years, become Petroglyph National Monument.  There we saw etchings, some perhaps 700 years old―well before Coronado’s arrival in today’s North America―that prepared me for the ones I now beheld in southeast Utah.  The idea that these lonely etchings near Bluff, Utah, had survived possibly seven centuries of wind, rain, heat, cold, and dust, murmuring their presence to virtually no one throughout nearly all of those years, stirred my guts.  I entertained the possibility―absurd but stirring nonetheless―that I was the first to witness them after such time, but then the knowledge of the paved road two miles to the east more or less affirmed otherwise. 

The petroglyphs stayed with me all that day as I returned to Albuquerque.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, Fahrenheit is the temperature scale used throughout this text

[2] Years later, while consulting a map, I would learn that this camping experience occurred just below a place called Muley Point.  And I would read, in an October, 1982 entry of Edward Abbey’s published journal, his description of the point: “It’s as marvelous as ever up here.  The tremendous stillness.  The tremendous infinity of sky.  One raven croaking.  The inevitable raven, guardian spirit of this place.  Sunlight on the beaches down in the Goosenecks of the San Juan River.”

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Albuquerque’s Slavery Row

Within several weeks of my arrival in Albuquerque, I was living in an apartment a block down Madeira Drive from Linda’s, which was the way we initially wanted it.  Today, the names of our respective apartment complexes back then might raise red flags in a marketing department of any residential development company in New Mexico, if not all of the United States.  Back then, however, they were presumably acceptable, and, in my view at least, they interestingly mirrored one another. 

My complex was called The Plantation.  However, I failed to see the New Mexico connection in the name.  As far as I knew, the state had no history of large-scale tobacco, sugar, or rice farming (although I would eventually realize that cotton is farmed in southern New Mexico, though hardly on the scale of the 19th-century South).  Since my arrival in the state, I’d not seen any Georgian and French Creole architecture, any mansions encircled by 12-foot balustrade galleries.  Therefore, all I could do was assume the name was simply meant to recall the bounty, leisure, and Gable/Leigh romance of . . . what?  The antebellum South?  The postbellum South?  Yet hearing the name, I couldn’t quash images of whips, chains, manacles, welts, auction blocks, and pints of salt.  And I had to wonder how Albuquerque’s Black community, which at the time comprised 3% of the city’s population, regarded the name. 

In any event, The Plantation was indeed a pleasant place.  It was quiet at night.  I thrilled to the spring winds that occasionally shook my apartment door.  On warm spring days, I’d occasionally and discreetly watch, through my front window, the female tenants sunbathe by the empty swimming pool in the complex’s courtyard.  And nearly every evening I’d relax to the moody serenade, through my living room wall, of my neighbor as she practiced her cello.

Linda’s apartment, meanwhile, was named The Conquistador.  It was obviously named to acknowledge, if not honor, the first Spanish explorers, Francisco Vasquez Coronado premier among them, to arrive in today’s North America.  Shortly after my arrival in New Mexico, I developed an intense interest in the state’s history, and, among many other things, I learned that many contemporary New Mexicans of Spanish and even mixed-Spanish blood revere these adventurers.  They were conquistadores: “conquerors.”  They conquered lands―loosely speaking, that is: they “claimed lands for Spain”; they were neither pioneers nor settlers. 

However, they also conquered peoples, and not always in a gentle manner.  This was periodically brought to my attention in the pages of Albuquerque’s newspapers.  In various articles, the Pueblo people reminded New Mexicans that these 16th- and 17th-century conquistadores were responsible for forced labor, familial breakup, punitive amputations, rape, religious persecution, and the spread, unintentional yet deadly, of infectious diseases against and among the Pueblans’ ancestors.  Thus, I was soon joking that I was living on a two-block stretch of Madiera Drive known as “Slavery Row.”[1] 


[1] In 2018, the Spanish and Catholic organizers of an annual Santa Fe reenactment of the 1692 “reoccupation” of the city by the Spanish, the “entrada pageant,” agreed, after increasing pressure by New Mexico’s Pueblans, to end the event.  Today, my former apartment complex is no longer The Plantation; Linda’s former dwelling, however, has kept its name.) 

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I’m a Kid Again

Shortly after I came aboard, Carlos, a forester, and I journeyed north in a “company car,” a plush Detroit sedan, to tour, largely for my benefit, the mill in Española. 

Before arriving at the mill, we stopped for lunch at Anthony’s, an Española restaurant.  It is there that I beheld my first fajita.  A Tex-Mex invention, the fajita is a mélange of thinly sliced beef flank, peppers, onions, tomatoes, and spices delivered to a table sizzling, sputtering, and smoking on a metal platter, and then loaded by the diner into the fold of a flour tortilla.  In my many years of sampling Denver’s Mexican restaurants I’d never encountered one. 

On this occasion, fajitas was Carlos’s selection; I went with my usual cheese enchiladas; the forester, enchiladas de pollo.  As I commenced to eating, I watched Carlos fork a generous helping of the savory mixture into a tortilla and then deftly clasp the package as he delivered it to his mouth.  The load, however, was a bit too generous: upon Carlos’s initial bite at one end of the cradling tortilla, a large dollop of the mixture blossomed out of the other―the forester and I looking on with discreet alarm―threatening to plummet to a plate and spatter the vice-president’s dress shirt and tie.  However, experienced fajitaista that Carlos no doubt was, he quickly and cleanly snapped up the wayward dollop with his mouth, consuming it before the possibility of any indignity, and continued his discussion of the cost/benefit of recycled sawdust. 

The Española mill, the company’s largest, stood on a barren, arroyo-slashed plateau at the base of the snow-capped Jemez Mountains, nearly hidden from Highway 84 and just south of the settlement of Hernandez, the moonlit subject of a famous 1941 Ansel Adams photograph.  The mill was a classic picture of American industry, albeit on a modest scale: large sheds; horizontal pipes briefly challenging the skyline before tapering down into huge metal bins and funnels; mountains of neatly-stacked logs; elegant temples of sawdust; neat, tight bundles of freshly-milled lumber; idling logging trucks and 18-wheeled flatbed trucks; scurrying forklifts. 

Escorted through the mill by its manager, a fellow whose extroversion bordered on the annoying, I was once again the goggled-eyed kid my proud father, a layout designer for a medical-industry magazine, led on a tour of the magazine’s printing plant in Rutherford, New Jersey.  As with the printing plant, the mill’s automation fascinated me.  I watched a huge ponderosa pine log “de-bark” as it passed through a giant, slowly-revolving toothed ring.  In a shed where the initial milling occurred, I watched a “sawyer” (now no longer just a character in one of my Twain novels) seated behind a plexiglass window, bundled against the chill, and busily at work.  His hands―and, for all I knew, his feet―on a mess of levers, he flipped and sliced, with the ease of a seasoned backyard chef grilling franks, one raw log after another, preparing them for their final expression as lumber.  Elsewhere, I watched the completely milled lumber, now requiring only drying, roll steadily past an employee who, after eyeballing each piece, stamped a grade on it in ink.  Much of this was obviously monotonous work, but work that likely paid a good wage for largely impoverished northern New Mexico.  (That said, I was certain no union represented any workers at the mill.) 

From the grading station, I was escorted to the mill office, where I met the office manager, the only female I saw at the mill, and the lone IBM 38 computer terminal and keyboard, which communicated by a modem and telephone line with the computer in Albuquerque.  On the terminal display, in the familiar glowing green letters and numbers, I saw the inventory application that was now solely under my care.  At 37, I was no longer doing “manly” work like that I had done in the tire factory and mine; still, my work now was as specialized and skilled as that of a sawyer, and of that I was proud. 

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Welcome to My Job

Weekday mornings, I wended my way northwest in Little Red to the lumber company, often driving past the Clover Club potato chip factory with the broad stack belching steam; a lover of potato chips since childhood, the sight made my mouth water even at the breakfast hour.  

The lumber company’s headquarters was considerably less glamorous than those of the two previous companies for which I had processed data.  The building was located on a broad, windswept, and dusty side street that contained no sidewalks.  The street’s asphalt ran right up to the company’s doorstep, and parking spaces were indicated merely by a few concrete chocks arranged diagonally. 

The front of the old, boxy, two-story building consisted of white brick with patches of wood paneling; it had a single, unsheltered glass door.  The bottom floor of the headquarters contained a reception area―small and, due to the floor’s split-level architecture, totally isolated―the offices of the president, the vice-president of finance, and the vice-president of sales; and a large, wood-paneled room with cubicles for the company’s several salespersons. 

A narrow, angled staircase with a small landing led to the top floor, except for the glassed-in computer room containing the System 38―my third 38―a largely open area where inventory, accounting, and computer programming occurred.  The floor’s large windows overlooked the lumber and shipping yards.  The floor had worn carpeting in some places and cracked linoleum in others.  The men’s restroom was cold, bleak, functional.  Yet after the swank of the Denver companies, I rather liked all this grittiness; given the nature of the business, it seemed as appropriate as the rugged mountains and mesas framed in the floor’s windows.  (It was my understanding that the 38 was, with a forklift, delivered to the floor through one of those windows; I would not have wanted to have been responsible for that procedure.)

I worked with seven others on the floor, a nearly even mixture of Latinos and Anglos.  The person in charge of computer operations was a young and easygoing Latina.  She and her husband, an auto mechanic, were originally from the northern New Mexico hamlet of Questa. 

In the cubicle next door to mine sat the accounts receivable clerk.  She was middle-aged and lived on what she called a “hobby farm” close to the Rio Grande in the sleepy village of Corrales, just northwest of Albuquerque.  (“Drive slow, see our village,” reads a street sign in Corrales.  “Drive fast, see our judge.”)  Ordinarily quiet and focused on her work, when prompted she loved to discuss her farm, particularly her beloved goats.  Proud of her pastoral life-style, she could hold forth about the tastiness of horse meat. 

Sharing her cubicle was a fellow named Steve, also middle-aged, who daily updated the company’s inventory.  He always addressed me as “Mr. Davis,” although with the warmest informality.  Whether by necessity or choice, he was always the first to arrive at the second floor, at 7:00 A.M., an hour before my appearance; thus, his natural warmth notwithstanding, I associated him with the mauve skies and chill of the New Mexico dawn.  He was always in good humor.  At lunchtime, I’d poke fun at some mysterious glop he’d just heated in the second-floor microwave and was enjoying at his desk.  “You were expecting The Galloping Gourmet?” he’d respond.  His home was the Shalako Apartments complex on east Central Avenue.  The name was perhaps some marketing director’s idea of attracting tenants by invoking the hallowed winter ceremonies of western New Mexico’s Zuni Indians.  Apparently unimpressed with this ploy, Steve always referred to his residence as “The Shacko.”  

Nearly every day employees from the first floor and the lumber yard paid visits to the second floor for one purpose or another.  The visitors included Carlos, the vice-president of finance, the middle-aged Latino who hired me.  Although he was not a programmer, I got the impression he was responsible for the purchase of the 38 and was thus most invested in its successful day-to-day functioning.  He was relaxed, often with his tie loosened and collar unbuttoned, but businesslike, rarely in the mood for levity.  Early on in my employment, observing my frustration with one of the company’s software applications, he offered, “The challenge is not the mountain, Phil, it’s the pebble in the boot.”  At this point in his life, he did not look like a mountain climber, rather like someone who would have been content to surround himself with his extended family, enjoying their respect, at a picnic at a National Forest campground at the base of a central New Mexico mountain.  In any event, especially as a hiker, I liked the ring of this homily: it struck me somehow as uniquely Hispanic, uniquely New Mexican. 

One of the company’s shipping clerks, Ray, a young, slim, handsome, and soft-spoken Latino, appeared with his coffee mug first thing every morning to get java from the second-floor coffeemaker and jaw in a relaxed manner.  Like many Albuquerque Latinos, he had a beautifully constructed pompadour; yet how he managed to maintain its shape and stature apparently without so much as a dab of styling mousse, I couldn’t figure.  (This as my own hair was thinning.)

Other visitors to the second floor throughout the day often included the Albuquerque mill manager and the company’s several area foresters, two of whom lived in Albuquerque and one who lived in the northern New Mexico town of Española.  I envied the foresters, pumped them for impressions of their latest sylvan rambles, for I knew they spent much of their workdays in the mountains up north, either in their trucks or on foot, among majestic ponderosa pines, the most coveted of the company’s raw material.

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The Soul of the New Man

After some basic research, I identified the two pillars of computing: “hardware” and “software.”  I learned that hardware is primarily about electrical engineering.  Having witnessed two people, one a dear friend and the other my brother-in-law, grapple with the study of “double-e,” and having an interest in electricity only insofar as it powered my refrigerator and stereo and was responsible for spectacular lightning shows over the Rockies, I knew that electrical engineering isn’t for me.  Which left that mysterious, apparel-sounding phenomenon known as software.  What, I initially wondered in my abject ignorance, is “soft” about any aspect of metal computer? 

Well, I then read that software is essentially electrified instructions that can read electrified numbers and letters and electrically command simple or complex electrified arithmetic operations.  (All of which was a considerable part of the soul of that little Texas Instrument calculator I used at the instrument repair company, although I was unaware of this at the time.)  I read that writing software is known as “programming,” and that programming is extremely detailed, precise, and orderly, and commonly used in accounting and bookkeeping applications―in other words, I concluded, a glowing possibility for me. 

From a programmer acquaintance, I borrowed a book on “flowcharting”: the routing of those electrified numbers―“data”―toward a desired goal.  As I read the book, the detailed-oriented part of me became increasingly optimistic, and the English-major part of me imaginative.  I imagined that each individual “datum” was a sleek automobile, its headlights aglow as it coursed over the perfectly gridded streets of, say, Manhattan at night, bound for its proper destination; turning north, south, east, or west; stopping and starting at perfectly calibrated traffic lights; respecting my junctions, intersections, loops, side streets, alleys, and dead ends; experiencing no unnecessary pauses, no time wasted, no flat tires―all under my flawless command, the traffic engineer at his desk upon which sat a coffee cup in its proper place.  Billions of cars, billions of lights, constant movement, not a single accident. 

Oh, such an awesome and beautiful rationality to all of it!  Yes, I could see myself as a successful programmer.  Thus, I decided to return to college, this one in downtown Denver, to pursue a major formally called by the college Computer Science and Accounting. 

Meanwhile, speaking of traffic, I hired on as a part-time driver at a Denver cab company, a job that, I was certain, would allow me to support myself, including paying for my education, while I pursued my studies.  Excited by my new career goal and satisfied with my new job now in its third week, I phoned my father and mother with the news.  My father applauded my latest academic pursuit, although not the new job.  “Only idiots drive cabs!” he spat, while no doubt recalling the thousands of dollars he spent toward my bachelor’s degree.  Swallowing, I tried to placate him, informing him, albeit with scant evidence, that demand for data processing professionals in Denver’s exploding economy was so great that I would have a job in the field long before I was awarded my second college diploma; this seemed to work. 

Lacking a car, I took a bus, or bicycled, or walked, or even ran―in running shoes and sweats―to the cab company in northwest Denver.  (I could have taken a cab, but I considered a cab too costly given my meager living as a cab driver.)   

Beyond my academic studies of FIFO, LIFO, central processing units, stocks, bonds, and “machine language,” I tried to engage with anything and everything in the day-to-day world that dealt with computers.  I read Megatrends.  I read Time magazine’s 1982 cover story about “the computer,” the magazine’s unprecedented “Machine of the Year.”  One afternoon I sat with rapt attention through a speech by a guest of the college, the distinguished Grace Hopper, a United States Navy Rear Admiral, computer programmer since the 1940’s, and pioneer in the development of COBOL, the first common programming language for business that I was at that very moment studying.  I slogged through Tracy Kidder’s Soul of the New Machine, a National Book Award winner about computer engineering.  At the same time, I sought any kind of work in the data processing field.

 

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Goodbye and Thanks, Colorado

Fourteen months after meeting Linda, I landed a job as a computer programmer at an Albuquerque lumber company.  Advised (translation: warned) by my new employer that I would be drug-tested in Albuquerque prior to my first day of work, before leaving Denver I did a six-day juice fast, confident, albeit with no scientific proof whatsoever, that it would remove any trace of cannabis from my system.  (I was an occasional user.)  On the last day of my fast─beyond hunger, my breath sweet, my mind calm and sparkling, my body feather-light and free of the distraction and ordeal of digestion─I arose early, got in my Mercury Lynx named Little Red, and made a triumphant farewell loop through central Colorado─Fairplay, Buena Vista, Leadville, Minturn, Silverthorne─bidding a grateful goodbye to the Colorado high country that had led me on a circuitous journey to my Southwest.  Several days later, on a Valentine’s Day morning, Red and I headed south on I-25 to Albuquerque.

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Dad Meets Mabeltown

On another occasion, I drove down to Albuquerque to meet my father, who had flown into the city from New Hampshire, where he had retired, a widower now for three years.  This was his second encounter with New Mexico, his first having occurred when, as an Army inductee during World War II, he rode an eastbound troop train across the southern part of the state.  After Linda, whom my father had previously met in Denver, and I welcomed him at the Albuquerque airport, my father and I headed in my car to Taos, where we would spend the night and ski the following day.  Dad had never been to the romantic northern New Mexico town.

On the ride north, my father, in the passenger seat, said little.  Understandable: he had always been a man of careful words; plus, his left ear had been failing him for some time and he thus had difficulty conversing even in a car.  Nonetheless, I could see his great interest, in his wide eyes and the continual swivel of his head, as we drove through ancient Santa Fe, shared the street with low riders in the pastoral town of Española, and hugged the Rio Grande, now January shrunken, in the winding cañon between Velarde and Pilar.  Yes, I thought proudly, Dad is as fascinated by New Mexico as I am. 

When we finally climbed out of the cañon, we were treated to what I had by now regarded as one of the most exhilarating views in the Southwest: to the west, the vast Taos plateau, fissured by the massive gorge of the Rio Grande; to the east, the distant town and pueblo of Taos, both nestled in the lap of the Sangre de Cristos.  Then we passed through the woodsy hamlet of Ranchos de Taos, where a sign indicated the iconic St. Francis Church, which had been attracting painters and photographers from all over the world for generations. 

By now, I couldn’t have been more satisfied, more grateful to The Land of Enchantment for the visual riches bestowed upon the two of us.  Unlike me, my father loved to travel, and I so wanted him to fall under New Mexico’s spell.  But when we entered the south end of Taos, and the highway ballooned into four hectic lanes on either side of which was, amid the litter, a dreary succession of hotels and fast-food joints, my father, without warning, dryly remarked: “Shitty town.”

“Shitty town.”  Thus, Dad seemed to join the ranks of none other than D.H. Lawrence, who, decades earlier, derided Taos as “Mabeltown,” after Mabel Dodge Luhan, of course.  (Luhan is “very wicked,” Lawrence once observed, “has a terrible will-to-power.”)

A bit stunned, I said nothing and drove on.  Meanwhile, more amused than resentful, I thought: Well, perhaps it is “shitty”when you live in a New England retirement community of handsome condominiums, manicured lawns, book and bridge clubs, a community garden, weekly trash collection and recycling, and cable TV, all located in a white-steepled Norman Rockwell village with a 150-year-old college, a lake with private beaches, a “Little Theater,” and a tavern serving crab cakes and shepherd’s pie.

Pffff!

My father’s estimation of Taos rose, however, once we reached the town’s center and he beheld the charmingly narrow streets, the aged pueblo architecture, the famous plaza with its majestic cottonwoods, and, especially, the Native Americans from the nearby pueblo and the town’s comely Latinas.  After two martinis and a dinner of pan-seared trout at Doc Martin’s restaurant, and the promise of a night in a sumptuous bed surrounded by R.C. Gorman prints and traditional Hispanic woodworking at the Kachina Lodge, the Taos mystique had just about roped him. 

The following day at Taos Ski Valley, Dad struggled for air in a heavy snowfall and called it a day after several runs due to poor visibility and a dearth of oxygen.  Nonetheless, he was thrilled by the wind, snow, and vertiginous slopes of the southern Rockies.  On the drive back to Albuquerque, in the cañon of the Rio once again, he reiterated, in his own straightforward and quiet way, his high regard for Linda: “She’s a good catch.”