The Wild West Of My Dreams
By David Schweidel
El Paso, Texas is a brown town, the brown of mountains, the brown of desert, the brown of skin and earth and muddy river. When I arrived in El Paso as a five-year-old in the summer of 1959, I wanted to see that river, the famous Rio Grande. I’d seen it in movies, glorious cowboy movies with majestic vistas and mighty, rushing rivers, silver water sparkling in the sun. I wanted to see the river and the mountains and the horses and the cowboys. I wanted to see the Wild West of my dreams.
We drove into town in our brand new Chevrolet station wagon, with its air conditioning and wide fins, my father the colonel, my mother the colonel’s wife, my sister Suzy, who wore glasses, my sister Judy, who did not, my brother Kim, whose actual name was Kermit, after my father, and me, little Davey, the sweet one, the innocent one, the one least fucked up.
Our first stay was on Dyer Street at the Beverly Crest Motel. Ice machine, swimming pool, television set in our room – the Beverly Crest had it all! The mountains, though, were a disappointment, not nearly as high as the mountains in Germany, where we’d lived the previous three years. I could count to ten in German and say please and thank you and excuse me. Our apartment building in Frankfurt had housed dozens of families with lots of kids my age. I didn’t know any kids in El Paso, but at the Beverly Crest I could happily swim and watch TV and suck on ice forever.
Early in the morning on our second day, my father took me with him to run errands. He enjoyed my company and I enjoyed his, as long as he didn’t get mad. We were going to the post, he said. The army base. Fort Bliss.
At the entrance to the base, an actual cannon gleamed in the sun. My father stopped at the checkpoint, where a soldier peered in our window, spotted the insignia on my father’s uniform, and snapped off a crisp salute.
The post was as brown as the rest of El Paso, but it also had shiny white rockets as tall as a house, and a red-and-white checkered water tank that rose even higher. We parked next to a wide green lawn in front of a sand-colored building with a pretty red roof. Instead of walking around the lawn, my father angled straight across. This was no surprise. My father preferred the direct route. After a few steps, though, I realized that I was getting wet. The sun was out, no clouds in the sky, but a fine mist was spraying from somewhere – from the ground! – and leaving us soaked. My father, though, stuck to his route. He was a dignified walker. Shoulders square. Back straight. Steps steady and deliberate. I dutifully followed. When we reached the sidewalk, he turned around and gestured at the lawn.
“Those are sprinklers,” he said, as if he’d orchestrated this demonstration.
“Oh,” I said. I’d never heard of sprinklers before.
“It’s best to water the grass early,” he said, “so the water won’t evaporate so fast.”
“Yes, sir,” I said, and on we marched.
* * *
The first house we rented had a backyard full of weeds and stickers. When you tried to pull the weeds, stickers stabbed your fingers, and when you walked on the weeds, stickers stuck to your shoes. Inside the house, stickers snagged on the shag carpet, so when you walked around barefoot, you’d step on a sticker and cry. Or maybe I was the only one who cried. I cried when I stepped on a sticker, and sometimes just the thought of stepping on a sticker was enough to bring tears.
The second house we rented was across the street from Austin High. My brother attended fourth grade at Rusk Elementary, my sisters attended sixth grade at Crockett Junior High, and I stayed home and looked out the living room window at the high school. I still didn’t know any kids in town, but I didn’t mind playing by myself. My brother and I had lots of soldiers – little men, we called them – and I’d set up the little men and enact great battles. The only time I got restless was when the wind blew, and in El Paso in the spring, the wind blew often, and it blew hard. I’d stand at the window and watch the trees sway and thrash. The wind kicked up so much sand, the air turned brown. One day in the spring of 1960, I saw the biggest tree in the neighborhood blow over. It seemed to happen in slow motion. The tree bent, and bent further, and then it bent impossibly far. The sidewalk buckled. The roots tore through the ground. It was like seeing the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk tumble from the sky. That I, a five-year-old, could witness such a monumental event gave me a fright and a thrill.
One day my parents took my brother and sisters and me to look at yet another house. I went into the backyard and sat down in the dirt by a rusty spigot. At first the spigot was stuck too tight for me to turn it, but I found a rock and knocked it against the spigot, and brown water trickled out. Soon the water flowed clear, and I took a drink. By then, I had a fair-sized puddle going, and I turned off the water and started making mud pies and mud people and mud dogs. I liked the feel of mud in my hands.
When my mother and father came outside, I looked up at them in their clean clothes and realized that I was covered with mud. I braced myself, but my father smiled. “How would you like to live here?” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
The Rio Grande did not sparkle in the sun, I discovered when we went to Mexico. The river wasn’t even that wide, just a slow-moving trickle of brown water, much like what sputtered out of the rusty spigot in our new back yard. My father drove our air-conditioned station wagon to downtown Juarez. We strolled past shops and restaurants, bars and open-air markets. At one shop, I tried on a cowboy hat. It was a perfect fit.
“Cuánto?” my father asked the man.
“Twenty dollars,” the man said.
My father shook his head and led us out of the shop.
“Nineteen,” the man called. “Fifteen!”
My father kept walking, though I slowed down.
The man followed us out in the street. “Ten dollars,” he shouted. “Five!”
My father wouldn’t turn around.
“I sell it to you for a quarter!” the man yelled, but we all kept walking.
Would he really have sold it for a quarter, I wanted to ask my father, but I held back.
On the way out of Mexico, we waited in a line of cars to clear customs. Kids ran up with outstretched hands, asking for money.
“Roll up your windows,” my father said.
One of my sisters said that according to someone at school, people in Mexico disfigured their children to make them better beggars.
I sat in our air-conditioned station wagon and looked through the window at a boy my age holding out his open hand. “Quarter, Mister?” he said. “Quarter Mister, quarter Mister, quarter Mister?”
At customs, we had to state our citizenship. Even I, a five-year-old, had to declare. “American,” I said.
And we drove across the bridge over the muddy river back into El Paso, my brown town, where the mountains were small and the stickers were sharp and the Wild West was not the Wild West of my dreams.