Sunday, December 15, 2013

Desert Sun

Fourth Grade, the old Zach White School, Upper Valley, El Paso, Texas. 

Bored and not happy, this tall and thin eight year old, turning nine, did not know what to do or how to do.  

The school work was easy.  It seldom grabbed my attention. P.E. or any period of recreation terrified. I did not fit. At least in class the terror subsided and I could lose myself in some book, all the while listening to the teacher, a very intense dark-haired man, Mr. Jacobs, who was thin as a Texas dawn. 

Outside, the high Chihuahuan desert sprang up, not far from the school’s walls, in mounds of creosote and ocotillo. The eastern mountains were baked into purple walls. The sun relentlessly pounded down. Shadow was scarce.

Though my hair was white-blond and did not absorb much heat, and my skin tawny from   walking between home and school down Love Road, with its sticky asphalt and burning dirt sides, I loved shadows.  They diminished the sun and let me be alone, away from taunts and threats, and sometimes fists. 

Cotton grew six feet tall in fields to the side of Love, near the train tracks by Doniphan Rd. where the school’s rigid, purple brick walls rose. My father said it was named for someone who protected the Saints in Missouri. But those Saints who were supposed to be just like me, since the teachers included all of us in the term “Mormon Boys”, were the most unrelenting in their torment. Only shadows or Mr. Jacobs' eyes kept them still. 

In the cotton I could feel safe, as I watched quail with their questioning top knot race among the stems. It was a different world, one I imagined was a jungle filled with something so different from where I was, a place I could simply be. 

The cane, though tight and able to slice your arms and legs if you were unwary also formed secret paths and openings where the sun did not beat and there were no fists. 

In winter giant tumbleweeds blew in the frequent winds that picked up grit and stung eyes and face. They caught in the irrigation canals and against fences and walls. In them or under them I would think or read.  

Those days when Mr. Jacobs would stand in front of us or stride up and down the aisles among our wooden desks, it seemed the temperature would drop and sunlight decrease.  

In my father’s library, I found picture books of the Amazon. With its tall trees and relentless green, it was so different than the place in which I was growing up. The rivers were so much bigger than the Rio Grande which marked boundaries between us and New Mexico to the west, and then us and Mexico to the South.  They were even bigger than the Mississippi I remembered crossing when we left the coastal South in which I was born.

The Portuguese of the Amazon with its strange spellings and exotic sounds was almost always intelligible, but yet so different from either of the two languages of my world, Spanish and English.  

While Mr. Jacobs would pace the class, or stand and talk, I would open one or another book of the jungle and study photos, or read. When I did not have the books I would dream. 

The jungle was filled with shade.  Its canopy blocked the sun’s entrance, like a giant version of my cotton fields.  I dreamed, day after day, of living there when grown up.  

I would leave behind the desert with its whip lash scorpions, rattle snakes, tortures, and cactus with spines. I would escape its summer thunder storms that made every arroyo dangerous and sometimes filled El Paso’s streets with water deeper than a car was tall.  Once it even lapped right against the door of my home, another place where I could find shadows.  

I would leave behind those Mormon boys whose tongues where sharper than the switch blades offered in every Juarez market, and whose fists snapped like the bull whips we would bring across the river and home.  

There was beauty, green and lots of flowers, and different kinds of people, including Indians.  They were not like the Tewa or Navajo and Apache Indians I knew when younger.  They were more like the Tarahumara who came to the border in strange clothes and spoke an unintelligible tongue. These, though, wore few clothes. 

In that desert sun I did not like to wear clothes either.  They were too hot.  

My English grandmother, when she would visit, always wanted to make me wear a T-shirt, when I could hardly bear to wear my shirt, unless deep in the shadows.  

For some reason, fourth grade weighs on me today, fifty years later, as I write in a coffee house on the upper Amazon, where it is cool and green and where I have a sweater handy.  Shadows no longer intrigue me as much as before, but when walking down a street when the sun escapes clouds, I can feel it burning my now bald head and often cross to where the temperature is cooler and the sun does not beat. 


  1. Amazing how we are marked by our childhood El Pasos and Farmingtons. I enjoyed this very much.

  2. Thank you Scott. Those places have indeed left their mark.