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Becoming New Mexican


The following summer after arriving in New Mexico. Kids are off to camp.

The following summer after arriving in New Mexico. Kids are off to camp.

This is part of a series of essays about ‘loving’ New Mexico and yes, it is memoir—since the reason I loved this place for so long is because of how I lived my life here, so it is impossible to separate the love from the life. Even though the landscape, however harsh, however magical, plays a role in my relationship to this state, still it is really about how I became whoever I am (for better AND worse) in a particular place (New Mexico) and time (70s and 80s).

A previous post was about being a young air force wife on Holloman AFB, commuting to college at NMSU, and gaining some modicum of political awareness. All heady stuff but it did not make me a real part of New Mexico (air force bases and college campuses are not really part of a place—they’re their own worlds).

The following then is more about the how rather than the where of a life being lived.

Back in the spring of 1972 I completed student teaching at Alamogordo Middle School, received my BS degree in Secondary Ed/History, and Don got orders for an overseas assignment where I could not go. What to do? We owned a small travel trailer so the kids and I moved to my mom’s Minnesota backyard for the summer.  I sat over endless cups of coffee with a U.S. map in front of me trying to decide whether I wanted to live back east in North Carolina or in the southwest where I now felt more at home. Late summer I packed up the kids and I’m sure a dog or two and headed west, the decision made except whether it would be Phoenix where my best friend Sue lived or New Mexico which was more familiar.

We drove to Phoenix. I hated it. Years later Scott and Steve told me they desperately wanted to stay because at least they knew two kids there, Kim and Pam, Sue’s girls, and they really did not want to go to a totally strange place. I was blindly unaware of their anxiety I am sorry to say.  I feel the need to endlessly apologize to them for not making their needs a higher priority—I thought that as long as they were (relatively) well taken cared for, loved and had some favorite stuff they would be okay. And ultimately they were…and are. In a strange way it has all worked out to the advantage of my grandchildren because, based on their own experiences, their parents have been determined to let them live out their school years in one good home in one good neighborhood in one good school district. I tell myself that if I hadn’t been so restless and had instead made sure my kids had a stable childhood who knows if they would have felt the same necessity to keep chaos out of their kids/my grandchildren’s lives!

But back to the story: After Phoenix we drove to Alamogordo and it turns out none of us wanted to be there—although New Mexico DID feel right!  North to Albuquerque it was. I rented a cheap motel room on Central and, before I could even think through the Albuquerque possibilities, a call came from Farmington, New Mexico (in those pre-cell phone days tracking me down in an Albuquerque motel was no easy matter) offering me a position teaching history. It was almost time for school to start so, they said, I needed to come up immediately to be interviewed and fill out the paperwork. I truly had no time to think. The next day Scott was sick so I left my poor 12 year-old under the watchful eye of the (hopefully) trustworthy motel manager (who would risk that these days?) and 9-year-old Steven and I drove to Farmington.

A successful day. Quick interview, accept the position, sign the paperwork, head back to Albuquerque for the night, get Scott and tomorrow move to our new home.

Sounds good doesn’t it? I had just been offered a position in the profession I had studied four years to enter. I would have a stable income. My husband would return from wherever, and I would either stay in Farmington (the marriage was not excellent by then) or go with him and take another position, now as an experienced teacher.

Steven and I are back on I-25 approaching Albuquerque. I have been a little depressed on the way back but maybe I’m just tired. Steven’s quiet—probably because he doesn’t know where he will be living next week. The lights of Bernalillo are glimmering over to our right. Those lights look so beautiful and they seem to go on for a long time. I keep thinking how good they look to me, to Steven too. Bright…like a city. I have lived in Minneapolis and Orlando so I do have some sense of city as opposed to town. Damn they look SO good. I say something like, “Steve, let’s just live here…blah, blah, blah. He probably says okay, why wouldn’t he, at least he’s been in Albuquerque a day and a half instead of just his three-hour experience of Farmington. I’m sorry Steven. I was actually only about a 5 on the motherhood scale at that moment. Please don’t ever tell me it was even lower…

The next morning I called the principal in Farmington and turned down the job. Professionally that was extremely dumb since history teachers were  not in big demand even back then…unless you could also coach something. My kids were okay with this I guess…what choice did they have. I mean I wasn’t a bad mom exactly…I did love them, talk to them, feed and clothe them, provide them with a reasonable amount of goodies, worry about them, want the best for them…I just didn’t know who the hell I wanted to be when I grew up…which is very hard on kids. Still I rationalize that they are better parents for all of that!

 You know Barack Obama’s mom wasn’t so different, just had her sights set a little higher…on the whole world instead of North Carolina versus New Mexico. Which is why he’s a great dad and no-drama Obama—all because his mom wasn’t a vegetable-cooking church-going stable super-mom! However If she were alive today I’m sure she would still be apologizing… “You know he would have quit smoking sooner; be happier/more relaxed/tougher on Republicans; not be such a smarty pants if I had just been a better mom…”  Fortunately my sons are pretty much perfect so… This might be a test to see if they’re reading my blogs.

In Albuquerque the next day I went house-hunting, registered my kids in Bandelier Elementary and Jefferson Junior High, and decided while I was looking for a job I would volunteer somewhere…the McGovern for President Campaign perhaps.

And that my children is how we became New Mexicans. 

Coming of Political Age in New Mexico

Continuing the tale of New-Mexico-Love after the epiphany in Valley of the Fires. For the next two years, I lived on Holloman AFB with my Air Force husband and two grade-school rabble-rousers. Our sons insisted on letting their white-blonde hair grow long, only gradually realizing the disadvantages. While that long hair did establish their independence from standard military fashion, they were apparently the only two little boys living on the base with long hair so when the little mini-gang of neighborhood friends struck, their dad would inevitably get a call from base security.

By now I had discovered politics…well actually that particular epiphany happened previously while listening to JFK’s inaugural address followed by an interest in Minnesota’s Eugene McCarthy and living through the three assassinations.  But I hadn’t done anything yet and now seemed like the right time. Women’s Lib was in the air—the concept of strong women taking charge, working their collective asses off, and being smarter and more determined than the men around them was not new to me. My conservative Christian farmer mom would not have admitted it for the world but she had all of those “Lib” qualities…another story.

My Holloman Air Force wife years were consumed with commuting to Las Cruces to finish up an undergraduate degree in education (minor in History) at NMSU. I was listening, with car and house windows wide open and the music up loud, to Helen Reddy’s

I am woman, hear me roar

In numbers too big to ignore

And I know too much to go back an’ pretend  

 ‘Cause I’ve heard it all before

And I’ve been down there on the floor

No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

and Judy Collin’s “Marat Sade”

Fighting all the gentry and fighting every priest

The business man the bourgeois the military beast

Marat always ready to stifle every scheme

Of the sons of the ass licking dying regime

 I suppose you could say I had attitude.

 I was studying history, thinking politics and wearing my husband’s camouflage jacket to NMSU’s pathetic little peace rallies. My teaching supervisor and I drove to El Paso to hear Gloria Steinem and a woman traveling with her (who gave the opening address and said f*ck more in one sentence than even Anthony Bourdain can manage 40 years later). I hung out on the freaks side of the student union; once some kids from the cowboys’ side beat up one of my friends. We drank gallons of coffee, smoke cartons of cigarettes, and talked volumes of political truths!  This was heady stuff for an air force wife from rural Minnesota—all happening in my new state of New Mexico.

So…me and New Mexico. Loved it during those years. I student taught in the underwhelming little town of Alamogordo, drove up into the Sacramento Mountains to Ruidoso or down to Juarez on day trips, and especially loved the drive to school through White Sands Missile Range. Early morning New Mexico, empty roads, think/ plan/muse/dream, sometimes halted for awhile so a rocket could be launched. Occasionally my friend, also from the base, rode down with me—the friend, it turns out, who was having an affair with my husband on weekends while I was studying—obviously she was a quicker study than I! Oh well.

Obviously politics was of growing interest and New Mexico was a good place to get started down that particular long and twisty road. Such a sparsely populated state, you really could get to know the cast of characters pretty easily. At this stage it was mostly through the media but before long I would get to know them—well the Democratic them—more intimately.

National Park photo of White Sands National Monument.

National Park photo of White Sands National Monument.

National Park photo of White Sands National Monument.

National Park photo of White Sands National Monument.

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