Chapter 1, The Cerro Grande Fire
I had planned to celebrate my 75th birthday with seven of my friends and neighbors on May 11, 2000. We went to the new Chili’s restaurant in Carlsbad. While we waited for our table, we stood outside the bar area. I could see that the 6 o’clock news from one of the Albuquerque stations was on the TV set. It looked like they were showing aerial footage of the big fire up near Los Alamos, which had been about the only news story in New Mexico for the week since it started. I couldn’t make out much from where I was standing, but when I saw the large caption across the bottom of the screen start flashing, I moved a few steps closer so I could read it.
“LOS ALAMOS EVACUATED” it flashed, several times. Then it changed ominously to “WHITE ROCK NEXT?”
I leaned against the nearest bar table for support. I couldn’t believe it. In the beginning, back in “those days,” everyone’s greatest fear was fire. Now all these years later and the growth of the “secret city” into the Los Alamos National Laboratory, this just couldn’t be. Three days earlier there had been warnings that residents should prepare for a possible evacuation, but this … just could not be happening.
In those days, the persistent fire threat that hung over the mesa was from a potential catastrophic accident, committed by a careless man or precocious nature. But this fire, what they’re calling the Cerro Grande Fire, wasn’t caused by a catastrophic accident — it had been intentionally started by man. The “prescribed controlled burn, ” said the experts, was supposed to reduce the risk of a future conflagration, a “fire to end future fires” to borrow a phrase. Instead, what man started under the delusion of control was taken over by a possessive Mother Nature who seemed intent on teaching man a lesson, like a reprimanding school marm sending the act-up to the dunce corner.
I thought back to the two houses that Miss Warner had turned into homes — the old and the new, one on the north side of the old road, the other on the south side of the new road, both west of “where the river makes a noise.” I did the math in my head … it had been 53 years since I helped build the new house. It was, coincidentally, my birthday weekend that work on the new house started. That was my last summer in Santa Fe.
I knew the old house wasn’t there anymore because it had been taken as an unwilling sacrifice for the new bridge and highway from Pojoaque to Los Alamos. Otherwise Miss Warner and Tilano would never have left the place that seemed as natural as the two mesas that guided the Rio Grande into White Rock Canyon — Shumo to the east and To-tavi to the west.
Did this fire threaten the new house? Was the house under To-tavi now at risk of itself becoming an unwilling sacrifice to the god of man’s misplaced confidence? Were its current occupants, surely descendants of the Martinez family or other pueblo relatives, now being punished like innocent children who just happened to be sitting next to the act-up, but were nevertheless sent to the corner?
I suddenly felt sick. I didn’t feel like celebrating or eating. I apologized and begged my puzzled friends’ forgiveness, then drove home while I tried to remember everything I could about the day that Miss Warner’s new house emerged from the earth.
Chapter 2, The Purpose of the Plaster
I had driven up to Otowi with Mrs. McKibbin on Saturday, May 10th, 1947, the day before my 22nd birthday. The men from the pueblo, or “village” as Miss Warner referred to San Ildefonso, had gotten a head start by clearing the site of its scruffy vegetation. The place for the new house sat directly below the northern point of To-tavi mesa, snuggled up to its base, just south of the large garden that Tilano’s family had tended for generations. They had also unloaded large piles of sand, clay dirt, and stones nearby. In a few months, these natural materials provided by Mother Earth would be mixed and worked and set with caring hands, by those whose hearts were right, as the pueblo people say. The sand and dirt and stones would be transformed into the foundation and walls that would protect Miss Warner and Tilano from the autumn chill and the winter winds.
We arrived at the old house just as two carloads from the Hill pulled up, led by Mr. and Mrs. Bradbury and their family. Mr. Bradbury had taken over as director of Los Alamos after Oppie left when the war was over.
(I should explain that I never called Robert Oppenheimer that to his face, since I didn’t know him that well. Everyone else did. Mrs. McKibbin would either refer to him as “Oppie” or “the director.” The one time I had dinner with them at her house she called him “Robert” since they were good friends. I don’t remember anyone ever calling him anything other than “Oppie,” except for Tilano.)
Mrs. Bradbury was friends with both Miss Warner and Mrs. McKibbin and I always enjoyed being around her. I babysat their youngest boy a few times during the war and felt comfortable enough now to call her “Lois.”
Chapter 3, Leaving Plainview
According to the tradition of the pueblo peoples, a story should be told from its beginning. As I understand it, their stories all begin with the emergence from the underworld of Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player who led the pueblo peoples to the “middle place,” above Mother Earth and below Father Sky.
Kokopelli entered the middle place with a purpose as well as a following. He carried a sack of seeds on his back which, as he strode across the expanses of the middle place, he spread upon the ground above Mother Earth. He played a flute that could be heard by all his followers, and more importantly by Father Sky, even in the darkness of night. When the time was right, and when the peoples’ hearts were right, Father Sky would respond to Kokopelli’s flute and cause the rain to fall. Then the seeds that rooted into Mother Earth would sprout into corn, beans, and wheat to feed the pueblo peoples.
And Kokopelli, as the fertile one responsible for all new life, also made sure that new babies were born so the pueblo peoples would grow in number.
That’s how the story of the pueblo peoples began, as it’s been spoken and passed from each generation’s memory to the next. And for centuries, that’s how it was illustrated in the petroglyphs etched into the volcanic rock all along the Rio Grande valleys and canyons in northern New Mexico. The simple silhouetted etchings of Kokopelli make the sack of seeds on his back appear to be a part of the being himself. That’s why Kokopelli is described as the humpbacked flute player.
Of course, when my story began I didn’t know any of this ancient history, or mythology if you’d rather call it that. When my story began, all I knew was that I was a 17-year old pregnant flute player who had to leave Plainview, Texas, because someone spread his seed to me.
Chapter 4, Family and Flappers
I don’t know why I would’ve been so aware of taking care of myself that day. I can’t remember a time when I haven’t taken care of myself.
I was an only child until the sixth grade when James Robert, or Jim Bob, came along, unexpectedly. I can’t say that I raised myself because I know Father and Momma were there, but I remember spending an awful lot of time by myself. I don’t mean this in a judgmental way, but I think early on I got a sense that “this is just the way it is” in terms of how Father and Momma were as parents. They were young when I came along and still trying to figure out things for themselves, much less knowing what they were supposed to do with me.
My father, RL Armstrong, was born on November 15, 1907, in Duncan, Oklahoma. Actually, he was born in Oklahoma Territory because the day after he was born is when Oklahoma officially became a state. More than once I heard him complain that if he had just been born one day later he might’ve been named “OK Armstrong” and everything would’ve been different. But instead, his father, my Grandfather Armstrong, named him RL just because he liked the sound of it. The initials were his name. They didn’t stand for anything other than him.
Father’s mother died during childbirth. He never talked about her, although of course he never knew her. He talked about his name, but not his mother.
Grandfather Armstrong had come to the Oklahoma Territory from Indiana, looking for land well after the sooner land runs, hoping to find a bargain. In those days, Oklahoma lands were still occupied by Indians so he felt he should stick close to the military forts. He chose Fort Arbuckle to start his search, but what little land offered for sale there was expensive on account of the land speculators. So when he heard some traders talking about cheap land out to the west near Fort Sill, he hopped on the train and headed out to the west.
Chapter 5, Gordon and Chief
It didn’t take me long to fall asleep once the train got moving. I used my coat as a pillow against the window and slept hard for about three hours. I woke up just as the train rocked to the side entering a curve. I opened my eyes and looked out into the darkness. All I could see were the dim figures of the telephone poles passing one after the other, one after the other, one after the other, and then I felt the sickness.
Fortunately the older woman sitting next to me was smaller and, judging by her snores, sound asleep. I managed my way around her to the aisle and then hurried back to the lavatory.
This was the first time in two weeks I’d been sick. Three months earlier when I found out I was pregnant, I got sick just about every day. When I started taking the summer shorthand course at the business college, the teacher gave me some hard looks when I had to excuse myself each morning. I lied and told her it was on account of something I must have picked up from my little brother.
After the first round of heavings, I knew I wasn’t through. I desperately wanted some water to rinse out my mouth. But I didn’t feel strong enough to climb up to my feet and didn’t trust myself to be able to get back down onto the floor and into position when the next heave came. I didn’t want to make a mess I’d have to clean up. So I just sat there, helplessly waiting for the nausea, at the mercy of a body I could not control.
I started to cry. For some reason, it hit me then how much I missed Gordon. Right after his accident, things seemed to happen one after the other and I just didn’t have time to really miss him. On the day of his funeral, I had this eerie sense that it wasn’t real, yet I felt something was missing. I shared thoughts, and feelings, and secrets with Gordon that I hadn’t told anybody else, and I wondered what had happened to those secrets.
Chapter 6, Salvation
Until Mrs. Davidson knocked on the front door as I was getting ready for bed, April the second had been one of the happiest days of my life. It was the day after April Fools, a Thursday, and the day we had band contest.
We were shooting to earn a seventh straight “Sweepstakes” award, which meant we had to make 1st Division ratings in all three areas of band competition — marching, concert, and sight-reading. Since Chief Davidson came to Plainview in 1935, his bands had earned Sweepstakes awards every year, and we weren’t going to let him down in 1942.
Chief himself never talked about the awards or let on there was any pressure to make 1st Division ratings. He didn’t talk about competing with other bands, like we had to go out-march or out-play them. What he emphasized over and over again was our challenge as a band to perform the music as the composer or arranger intended. It didn’t matter how good any of us played individually … all that mattered was how we performed together as a band.
Chief set high standards and expected a lot from us. But he made it clear that they were his standards and his expectations. He didn’t give a hoot or a holler what the Band Parents Club or the principal or the superintendent or even the contest judges thought. If we met his standards, we had “done good,” as he put it.
Gordon drove out to pick me up at 6:30 that morning. We lived nine miles west of town towards Olton, and a mile south on the road to Hale Center. The band was supposed to congregate at the city auditorium parking lot at 6:45 and be ready to leave at 7:00 sharp for the hour-long drive to Lubbock High School.
The Band Parents Club had bought an old delivery truck that was used to carry the tubas, drums, and baritones to football games, parades, and other events like contest. The rest of us were responsible for carrying our own instruments, uniforms, and hats. Each of the section leaders was in charge of making sure that everyone in that section was assigned to a car, some of which were driven by band members and others by band parents. When we got to the auditorium, I had to move from Gordon’s car to one of the two cars carrying the flutes.
Chapter 7, The Swing ‘Bones
When we got back to Plainview we stopped at the city auditorium and turned in our uniforms so they could be cleaned. We wouldn’t need them again until the Pioneer Round-up Parade in May. Gordon had to wait until all the clarinet players checked in with their uniforms, then we headed off in his car to the city park for our celebration cookout hosted by the Band Parents Club.
The Band Parents Club was one of the best organizations in town. Chief never missed an opportunity to credit them as a big reason for his band’s success. They raised a lot of money to pay for things like uniforms, instruments, and scholarships for kids to take private lessons and attend band camp. Those scholarships were the only reason I was able to take a year of lessons with Chief when I was a freshman, and that’s how I got to go to the Tech band camp in Lubbock the summer before.
When Chief came to Plainview in 1935, the band parents weren’t organized. I was in the fifth grade that year, so I was in his very first beginner band. I remember the night we all sat in the auditorium and selected the instruments we were going to play. He introduced himself and told us he was very happy to be at Plainview. Then he started telling the parents how important they were.
“Listen, parents. I want to make sure you all understand that everybody in this room is part of the band. The kids will play the horns. Well, some of them’ll play the horns and some of them’ll just carry ‘em.”
He gnawed on his cigar and waited, then decided he’d better explain.
“Okay, that’s the first bad joke you’ll hear from me and I can dang near promise it won’t be the last.” He laughed out loud and the parents all turned to each other and laughed, too. It would take us fifth-graders a while longer to understand the joke.
“But what I mean, okay, is that it’s going to take more than just your kids and their instruments to make music. Your kids are going to need your support and your encouragement to become the kind of musicians you want them to be, and the kind I want them to be, and the kind they want to be. They’re going to want to practice — they’d better want to practice — when you’d rather listen to peace and quiet or the Sunday afternoon radio broadcast.
“When they need to practice their scales, you’re going to need to practice your patience. Because for a while, they aren’t going to sound very good. They’re going to squeak and blast and honk like lost Canadian geese. And you’re going to have to nod your heads while you’re holding your ears and say, “Well, Johnny … that sounds … better!”
Chapter 8, Quitaque Plans
Gordon was still standing up, looking at the music. “Well, gee!” I mimicked him. “How ‘bout that? Did you see that one coming?” I laughed and patted the ground for him to sit back down.
We finished eating and sat there for another thirty minutes or so, mostly talking about songs we’d like for The Swing ‘Bones to play. They had a very good reputation around Plainview for playing at banquets, like the Lions Club and for dances out at the country club. The year before they even got to go to Lubbock and play for a radio program.
“You know,” I said in my best attempt at playing cute, “what that band really needs — in addition to a handsome clarinet player — is a wonderful vocalist who some people say sounds just like Judy Garland … because I’m nobody’s baby now.”
Of course, I didn’t sound anything at all like Judy Garland. But Gordon jumped to his feet and then pulled me up and spun me around.
“Yes, yes! Gee, that’s a great idea. We need a singer. Why not?”
“Well, for one thing, I’d never sing in front of an audience.”
“Your mother does. And you’ve sung with her before, I’ve heard you. You’re good!”
Gordon was talking about the singing Momma did at the tent revival meetings. Father had taken to preaching at the tent revivals in some of the smaller towns like Edmondson and Hart and Silverton. He wasn’t ever the main preacher, but he had come up with a pretty good 12-minute testimony that usually brought people down for the altar call. What he would do is talk about himself, and what a sinner he had been and still was. And everything he said he had done and all the sins that he described were things that just about everybody did, or had done at least once. So he didn’t have to say that everyone there had sinned like he had, but by the time he had finished with them, that’s what they were thinking.
Then he’d get emotional at the end and explain that even though he had committed all these sins and done all these wrongs, Jesus still accepted him, and loved him, and wanted to forgive him. “Jesus knows me. And He knows what I’ve done. And even knowing all that sin, He’s willing to accept me, and love me, and forgive me … just as I am.”
“Jesus knows me,” was Momma’s cue to start playing the piano, real soft. Then she’d come in and start singing the hymn right as he finished — Just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me. They almost always got a full altar with it, sometimes two-deep, which meant that Father got a decent cut of the love offering that night.
Chapter 9, Mrs. Davidson at the Door
I had just finished the chapter from Huckleberry Finn that was assigned for my American Literature class when I heard a car door shut. My bedroom was on the west side of the house and stuck out beyond the front wall of the living room. I had a side window that looked out onto the front porch. I walked over and pulled the curtains aside enough to recognize Mrs. Davidson at the door.
Oh, no. I thought. Something must have happened to Chief! But why was Mrs. Davidson here at our house at ten o’clock?
I put on my robe and slippers and walked into the living room as she knocked on the door. I turned on the lamp and could hear Father and Momma stirring in their bedroom. Jim Bob was already asleep.
I opened the door, and the first thing I saw were her tears. Her lower lip was quivering and her left arm was shaking. Her purse hung on that arm, and it was open at the top so that I could see she was carrying a Bible.
Momma was at my shoulder. “Nellie, come in. What is it? Sit down here.” She turned to Father. “RL, get her some water and put some coffee on.”
Mrs. Davidson’s breathing was labored. “No, Mozelle, thanks, just some water would be fine. I don’t how to … I just don’t …” Father brought the water and she took a sip, which seemed to calm her. Father stepped away to give her space. Momma and I sat on the divan.
“Chief got a call about eight-thirty from Dr. Jones at the hospital.”
I started to cry, even though I couldn’t breathe. It wasn’t Chief. It must be Gordon. It had to be.