Monday, November 16, 2009

Sketch #5 Crackers

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sketch #4 Gene and Pablita

Gene, the son of Adolfo and Pablita Gallegos, lived in another trailer house, a little farther up the arroyo.

Settlement in the high desert strung out along the flood plains of the streams and rivers that trickled and flowed out of the mountains. The original land grant colonists had built on the bluffs, above the irrigable, mosquito ridden flats. Their fields stretched down to the banks. A road was established, parallel to the river, linking the homes together. As time went on—and families grew—the holdings were divided into strips, perpendicular to the river. This configuration maintained access to the acequias. At some point, individual properties became so narrow that it was impractical to resubdivide them in the traditional way (and only the Anglo newcomers were crazy enough to settle on the flood plain), so the next generation inherited lots above the road—land that was dry, overgrazed, and deforested.

Gene was of that generation that could no longer subsist on the land. Pablita had told me that, “We had no depression here. We had chickens, we had beans, we had milk.”

Someone told me that Gene had been a cop once, but had gotten kicked off the force. When I knew him, he was painting cars and selling a little mota. Five bucks got you a 35mm film canister, fifteen a small baggy.

To raise a little scratch, Gene also sold off his father’s tools. I bought an elegant twenty inch long jack plane, with a Bailey shoe and a Stanley blade works, and a perfect 12 point Disston hand saw—with a V for Victory emblem etched in the blade—and neither with a spec of rust, for maybe twenty five bucks. He asked me not to mention this to Adolfo. I treasured that saw until someone who knew its value borrowed it and never gave it back. A lesson in karma, I suppose.

Painting cars out in the open was problematic. Even on a calm day, a lot of dust would settle on the wet paint. So Gene built himself a paint teepee.

Of course, an inverted cone shape was not ideal. Gene elongated the teepee form into a sort of A-frame with rounded ends. The building plan and ridgeline bent somewhat, to accommodate an outcropping.

The structure was fashioned from slender tree trunks, maybe six or eight inches in diameter at the base, and set about two feet apart, in opposing pairs, sloping to the center. Tar paper was draped over the framework, and a lathe of chicken wire set over the paper.
Finally, Gene applied a few hasty layers of cement stucco over the whole affair. It was a feverish work of genius. Vincent Sculley could have written a paean to it, how its organic form resonated with the mountains in the distance; my straw bale and natural building friends would have been in awe.

Gene’s paint shop took off. It became a local landmark and gathering place—even when there were no cars to paint, Gene’s buddies would visit, drinking beer and blowing weed all day long.

One morning I looked out the window and the teepee was gone. In its place was a pile of shattered and scorched stucco, a great deal of which was mounded over the car that was ready for a final buff-out.

I can’t recall how much time Gene spent, despondent, paralyzed. But soon after the debris was cleared, a flat bed loaded with adobe bricks showed up. A tidy rectangular slab, about 36’ by 24’, was laid out and poured.

Then it was adobe time. Pablita managed the mortar pit. The mortar, or mezcla, was little more than the hardpan beneath your feet, soaked with water, and worked with a hoe. Pablita demonstrated the action. She told me that when she and Adolfo built their house, she led an ox around in a circle, to churn up the mud. The beast’s urine added strength to the mix. In the old days, the finish floor was of the same mix. After it dried, the ox was led in and slaughtered—and its blood mopped in to seal the floor.

A simple roof went up. An Ashley stove went in. Once again, Gene was back in business.

At some point during these events, a young redhaired woman showed up. She was slender, but her belly was round. Even though she was Anglo, she spoke excellent Spanish. Gene was in heaven. “I always wanted a redhead,” he shared with me.

I wish I knew how the story went. Did Redhead have Gene remodel the shop into a snug little casita—and rent the trailer to another couple of Anglo misfits?

Janet and I found the arroyo again in 2005. We asked some people we saw if they remembered the Gallegos. A woman knew a niece, and offered to see if she could find her, but we declined, content to leave the past a mystery.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Sketch #3 Adolfo

TO A TWENTY FIVE YEAR OLD, Adolfo seemed ancient.  Perhaps he was 70, perhaps more.  He enjoyed making jokes at his own expense.  “Llamo Gallegos, pero soy un poco Indio,” he admitted, then added, “Todos somos un poco Indio.” 

He was lanky and looselimbed.  His forehead was tall and narrow, and sloped down to a large brown nose, perched on which were heavy framed glasses with thick lenses.  “Estoy un poco ciegos,” he apologized, when he didn’t recognize me. 

“Que es ‘ciegos,’ senor?”  I asked.

Adolfo lifted his glasses and blinked.  He staggered forward, groping at me.  Then he replied, in perfect English, “It means I’m blind as a bat, my friend.”  

I got to know him early in the year, at ditch cleaning time.  Land owners with irrigation rights had to provide manpower to clean the ancient hand dug acequias—probably dating to Spanish colonial times—or pay a fee to the ditch association for hiring laborers.  The individual requirement was proportional to the acreage under irrigation.  The work took place before the sluice gate was opened for the new growing season.

 As a renter, I was not obligated to participate.  But I still volunteered, and on the appointed morning, Adolfo and I—shovels in hand—arrived at the head of the ditch.  There, we were logged in and assigned a number.  We took our places at the edge of the ditch, along with three or four dozen other men—mostly younger even than I was.  Adolfo was by far the eldest.

Then, the majordomo jumped down into the ditch.  He took two paces down its course, and thrusting his shovel into the ditchbed, he called out UNO!  Without breaking stride, he continued—two more paces, chop, DOS!—and on, until he had called off a number for each man.  When the last number was called, we all leapt into the ditch and shoveled furiously, dirt sailing, birds and critters skittering and flittering out of the willows and Russian olive along the bank.

 All of us, except for Adolfo.  Instead of leaping, Old Adolfo pushed his shovel into the ditchbed, and gripping the end of the handle close to his chest, he gently swung himself over the edge.  He landed like a cat.  Then he began to dig in an easy, rhythmic motion, scraping and lobbing in one graceful arc.  Somehow, he kept up with the rest—some, one quarter of his age.

As soon as we completed our six foot segments, majordomo marked off the next set.  We advanced almost without pause.  By the end of the day, my ruptured blisters were bleeding through my gloves.  My lower back was screaming. 

Adolfo was tired, too, but he looked like he could go another round or two.  That’s a good thing, because it would take several more days to complete the work.

But that was it for me.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Apropos: Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall

In August of  2001, while attending a convention in Montreal—I spent as much time as I could get away with, away from the meetings and seminars—wandering the streets and neighborhoods of the enthralling city.

On the outskirts of Vieux Montreal, I passed by an entrance to what initially appeared to be a large office building—but on closer look—I saw daylight pouring into the space from above.  Intrigued, I entered the space—originally a narrow street or alleyway between two older buildings, which had been roofed over with glass.  This atrium ran the length of the block, with shops and cafes along the sides.  Above were balconies and office windows.  As I walked through the space, I noticed, way at the far end, an upright slab of concrete.  It was crudely wrought, and marked with furtive graffiti. 

I approached—and as is my habit—I overlooked an explanatory plaque—and walked around the slab in wonderment.  On its far side, the graffiti was vivid and colorful.  It was only on completing a circumnavigation of the monolith that it dawned on me—this was a remnant of the Berlin Wall.  The plaque confirmed the assumption—the slab was a gift, from city to city.

The magnitude of my simple and innocent act—walking around, freely, casually, unconsciously, what had been an insurmountable barrier, for the better part of my life—began to sink in.  Tears welled up in my eyes.

Janet took me back to Montreal last August, to celebrate my Six-Oh.  I made sure to show her what I had discovered, eight years before.

Are there any conclusions to be drawn from this experience?

If nothing else, it points to the futility of using the same concrete barriers, cast in the identical profiles, to separate Israelis from Palestinians.  Or for that matter, of any wall, based on ideology.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sketch #2 George McNaughton

It must have been George McNaughton who turned us on to the place.  George lived in El Rancho, just down the road from the trailer house.  He would have known about it, and now that I think about it—George—who spoke some Spanish—introduced us to the landlady, Pablita Gallegos.  Now the image is distilling—George, telling Pablita how he knew me from working together in the Honda shop, George, describing Mary Ann as my wife, Pablita, gently correcting his pronunciation.

I wish I knew where he is now.  If there was any one person who helped me shake off my demons and mellow out a little, it was George.  He was only a fair mechanic, but his world was larger than a 350cc engine. 

He was renting a shotgun house on a sliver of land—it couldn’t have been more than 25’ wide.  You had to go through the house to get to the lot in the rear, where he kept his goats.  I’d leap the neighbor’s fence and find him sitting on some straw in the pen, nursing a kid in his lap with a baby bottle.  He loved their milk, and would bring some in a mason jar with him for lunch.  I tasted it, and was shocked at its gaminess.  He apologized, explaining that there was a billy goat in the adjoining field, and his odor was enough to rankle the milk. 

I borrowed his truck once, to pick up my own truck engine from the machine shop in Santa Fe.  It was a ’55 GMC, and George was intensly proud of its big Pontiac 287 V-8.  The rear fenders were rusted through, George warned me that the one on the driver’s side lofted outward at highway speed.  “So stay over to the right, now.  If you roll the window down, roll it all the way down, hard, so it doesn’t rattle.”  Even then, it was getting hard to find replacement glass.

He told me how the truck had cost him his last job as a butcher.  “I’d have to fiddle with the carb every morning, to get it started, and my hands would get greasy.  Of course, the fat from the beef would dissolve it, and by lunch time the grease would be gone.  But I guess the boss couldn’t handle it.”

But George had an uncompromising sense of dignity.  I recall him, tall and towheaded, blond hair sweeping over blue eyes.  When we’d go out, he wore a dapper three piece suit of pale blue denin.  His dream was to build a home on some property he owned with Cynthia, somewhere up there between the Chama and the Rio—La Madera, maybe.  In some high valley, miles beyond the power lines. 

He was crazy about Cynthia, and would speak of her in terms that would make a gynecologist blush.  But their stars were crossed, and she wound up marrying some guy from Santa Fe.

==    ==

sketch #1 Home in El Rancho

here it sat, the little trailer house, like a Coors can tossed out the window of a passing pickup.

You approached it from the east.  Its berth was scraped out of the side of a hill, as tall as the trailer itself, so you didn’t even see it until you were almost past.  And if you were sailing down the road at that harmonic speed where you float across the washboard ruts, you’d miss it altogether.
Opposite was an arroyo that flowed from the barren barrancas and foothills to the south.  Widening and flattening, it merged briefly with the road, then resumed its final couurse, between adobe houses shaded by lombardy poplars, between their fields and orchards, and at last, into the weaving, tamarisk choked mud flats and trickles of the Nambe.

a city boy no more...
the arroyo is in the background

If you didn’t fly past—if you stopped and pulled in beside the arroyo—you could mount the stoop—a pallet with a scrap of carpet, set on cinder blocks—and enter the trailer house through its sun blasted door.

It was only on the other side of the door that the little house revealed its modest charms.  Its walls were paneled with maple or birch, the rising and falling patterns of the bookmatched grain resonating with the rugged terrain beyond.  Windows wrapped the south end, scanning the Sangre de Cristos to the east, the Jemez to the west, and the empty lands between.  A plaque above the centermost window denoted the pride the Great Lakes Mobile Home company took in its manufacture.


At the opposite end of the space was a perfunctory kitchen.  Beyond, a miniature bathroom, a nook large enough for a child’s bed—and finally—a bedroom with enough room to walk around one side of a double bed.

Somewhere there was a closet capable of stowing a partially dissembled motorcycle.  There must have been a bench in the nook, because I recall overhauling the engine block of my ’61 F-100, inside, where it was clean and warm.

Maybe not so warm.  Waking up on a winter morning, with the temperature at 5 below zero, there would be a halo of frost on the wall around your head.  There was a propane furnace next to the kitchen, but even set at full blast, it seemed to make no difference in the bedroom.

Or warmer than warm.  In the summer, with the sun pouring in through the bay windows, you knew how a dog felt, locked in a car with the windows rolled up.  Haling from the muggy east, I was not familiar with swamp coolers, and it took me half the summer to understand the basic principles.  By the time I figured it out—all it needed was to trim the rotten end of the water supply tube, and snug it down with a new hose clamp—the worst of summer had past.

==    ==

New Mexico Sketches

In a recent FaceBook chat, author-architect Carol Venolia posted about living in a 60 square foot travel trailer.

That got some engrams knocked loose, and I began to reminisce about a small space I inhabited once.  The result has been a bittersweet process.  Searching for records of the past--and finding photos and letters from old friends and lovers--too many of them gone; many more, somewhere beyond the reach of a google search.

The goal is to build on the following sketches, combining and amplifying them, to come up with a New Mexican Moveable Feast.  It's a terrifying prospect, because there were events where I caused great and needless pain to people.  But you have to begin somewhere...

               photo by Lynne Motley / 1985