Recently I was
made aware of the mindset
list published by Beloit College in Wisconsin at the beginning of each fall term. The idea
is to remind faculty that entering freshmen have a very different view of
the world from their teachers by pointing out significant changes in context (for students born in 1984, apartheid has never been the
official policy of South Africa). The idea intrigued me, so I
decided to write a mindset for my own context in a similar vein, if less
concise style. I was born and raised in the ranching communities
of west Texas, the sweaty lower part of the muscular working back of the
USA, just after World War II; a "baby boomer".
Texas was the residence of my parents, Hap and Virginia Gustavus, at the time of my birth. The small town hospital was not
considered optimal for the many potential complexities of a child birth, so the event took place
in distant San
Angelo. The story goes that my first name was taken from the hero of a
Grey novel my Dad read while awaiting my arrival, fathers being generally considered a
nuisance in the delivery room at that time. My mother would later
tell me I was born on the same day an atomic bomb test obliterated Bikini Atoll on the other side of the world.
World War II was
over, and we were the winners.
Summers were hot, but in those days the sun was considered a great source of vitamin D, and it was healthier for kids to play outside.
To not sport a tan by the middle of June was to qualify for concerned queries from one of the neighborhood Moms picking pallor out of the
otherwise unnoteworthy gang of small boys -- brown, barefoot, armed (however imaginatively) and
hunting for something too distant down the food chain to enjoy the benefice of non-cruelty to animals.
Dad was the town dentist, having bought the practice and our house from the previous dentist, and walked the two blocks to work to his
office in the basement of the hospital. The town square, site of
the annual Halloween Carnival under towering pecan trees, boasted a life-sized statue of Davy Crockett. Davy wasn't really Texan, but
we claimed him because he died at the Alamo, which every Texas school child knew was part of our glorious war for independence from Mexico.
I remember my Dad carefully reading the inscription under the statue to me: "Be sure you're right, then go ahead." That
seemed easy enough.
In Ozona I learned about birthday piņatas, hot tamales, broken arms and Saturday afternoon matinees, complete with cartoons and a serial
cliff-hanger. We had a community Easter Egg Hunt where prizes retrieved from the rocky hillside, which townsmen had previously
cleared of rattlesnakes, could be redeemed at the local bank for silver dollars. Across the square from the hospital was Mr.
Williams' grocery store. I remember asking one day why the prices he was
painting on his front windows were so big. I judged his answer perfectly reasonable: "So your Daddy can read them from way over
yonder at the hospital." Strangers were uncommon in Ozona,
and some city types who thought they would rob the small-town bank were dismayed to find themselves greeted on their exit by a dozen ranchers
looking down the barrels of the deer rifles they all carried in their
My Dad was called up from the reserves during the Korean conflict.
He sold his practice because the town had to have a dentist, and we
moved to Alabama for a couple of years where he served while waiting to be the
next dentist sent to war, a call that never came. Major Gustavus'
services were required before the end of my older sister's school year, so there was a sad parting at the Ballinger train station late
one night. My Mom tells me she was determined not to cry in front
of us kids, but remembers I was inconsolable, so she let me in bed with her that night. Some weeks later Mom drove us far away to Alabama,
on the third day arriving at our destination where we were greeted by men
who were undeniably soldiers in uniform, the first I had ever seen outside a movie. The soldiers informed the Major that his family
was at the front gate, and my Dad came zooming up on the most amazing conveyance I had ever imagined: a motor scooter! With my brother
on the seat behind him and me standing between his legs where I could see
out the front windshield, Dad whisked us away at incredible speed to our new home. I was thrilled.
Alabama was about as pretty a place as I had ever been, glowing green and alive with flowers and huge trees draped with gently waving
strands of gray moss. Craig Air Force base, from the perspective
of eight to ten year-old boys, was about the most exciting place in the known universe.
Our "barracks" in the officer's quarters
had a full-length screened front porch that looked across a road and down a
grassy slope to a lake bordered by mimosa trees covered with pink blossoms and full of blue gill, frogs and even the occasional snake!
Across the lake was the Flight Line where real jet airplanes would thunder to life and streak off into the sky every
morning. After a few weeks, you didn't notice the noise.
The cloud which this silver lining wrapped was the seemingly unending series of shots for diseases I had ever heard of before.
They hurt bad and made me sick anyway, so I wasn't convinced they were useful.
We had to rest during the hot part of the day so we wouldn't catch polio. My cousin Tommy had caught it before I was born and was
still in a wheel chair; he was so much fun, I was anxious for him to get
well again, but Mom said he never would. When it was cool enough,
we would go to the officer's pool, though you couldn't go in the water if you ate anything because you would get cramps and sink to the bottom.
It wasn't a creek or stock tank, but like a huge bathtub, only you wore a swimming suit. At night we could watch television! I
hadn't seen TV before, but quickly decided my favorite show was "Name That
Tune". I had to go to bed when "Inner Sanctum" came
on though, because Mom said I wouldn't be able to sleep all night if I watched
that. All I ever saw of it was an old door, creaking open ever so slowly; I was in my bed with the covers over my head before I ever
saw what was behind that door. Mom was always right about this
sort of thing, but nothing ever scared Daddy.
Life on the base was great; so many new things and new people from far away places I had never heard of. I had never seen black
people before, but the black airmen at the non-com swimming pool would throw
us up in the air and teach us how to do flips off the diving board. The officer's pool was a little boring compared to that.
the time the airmen wore spotless uniforms and would click their heels and
salute when my Dad was wearing his. My brother and I practiced saluting a lot, but it was a little hard to click our heels in our
high tops. We both decided to be airmen when we grew up. For
now we had to settle for "crew cut" haircuts with butch wax to make
the front stand up right.
Selma was the closest city and the usual choice for Sunday dinner at the Selma Dell. My first bicycle was bought from the local
department store there, my big brother having provided the patient reassurance
and maiden push. In the five-and-dime store I wondered aloud why
the water fountains labeled colored didn't really have colored water, which sounded much more fun than the clear water that came out of the
ones labeled white. I was instructed not to talk so much in public
and to stay close to my parents until we got back to the base. I didn't spend much time in Selma, though my older sister went to the
high school there. It was pretty, but everything was old and the people talked funny.
The war ended, and I learned we were going
back home. This confused me because we had always been at home.
They meant we were going back to Texas.
I spent most of my public school years in Abilene,
Texas, a city by virtue of the fact that it was the most populous town for a hundred
miles around. You could see the whole town from the top of the new highway overpass, and from the steeple of the First Baptist Church
spot a break in the line of worn hills to the south. Buffalo Gap whence the legendary herds of
yesteryear poured forth to blacken plains now pocked with oil well pumps and stitched together by barbed
Dad built Mom her dream house there. It was pink, built out of the
used brick from the old Drive-In theater which was torn down after the
newer "twin screens" took all the business away. There
were pink double front doors and a big bay window with a flower bed in front filled
with pink rose bushes. We had a pink Oldsmobile, and I was dressed
in a pink blazer for Easter Sunday. We still refer to it as Mom's
The new house was much bigger than our barracks and modern. That meant carpets on the floor, an automatic dish washer (pink of course)
and something called central air-conditioning. My big brother and
I shared bunk beds and a chest of drawers with a big wagon wheel on the front. We settled into our new bedroom by hanging our plastic
model airplanes from the ceiling with mono-filament fishing line.
In Abilene the soil is red and the wind omnipresent, so the sky can be smeared in rust with the gritty taste of dirt, bruised by a
thunderstorm reeking of ozone and tinted with the metallic green of hail, or burning blue when a norther bursts the containment of the jet
stream and spills its arctic air mass across the shelter less plains. Range cows know to stand in the lee of a hill with their tails turned
into the blast. Those that don't freeze; sometimes those that do.
Weather is the pulse of a ranching community; the topic of most import; the background for every tale.
Spring rains run the
creeks, fill the stock tanks, sprout new grass, spawn tornadoes and sometimes
scour the ground with golf balls made of ice. Summer belongs to
the sun, however, and the local radio station ran an annual contest won by
the closest guess for the day and time the temperature first breaks 100 degrees; early June is obvious, but which day? By August, hot
winds have sucked up all the green, and even the post oaks look dusty.
"Will it ever rain again?" Crows feet crinkle in the
leathery brown face; the old-timer grins through tobacco-stained teeth and spits out
a long brown stream just like the grasshoppers when you squeeze them. "Always has before."
I was taught that just over the horizon of living memory, bold pioneers had wrestled with a nature red in tooth and claw to win this
land as a refuge for their families, meaning of course me. Even
then I don't think I believed Hoppy, Gene
and Roy represented real
pioneers; at least not the ones pointed out to me in great reverence. For
one thing, their faces weren't cracked from the wind or burnt by the sun.
Their foreheads weren't white from never going outside without a hat on. Their hands weren't callused and scarred, nor their boots.
They talked too much and said too little.
Real cowboys were distinguished by their capacity for thriving on demanding physical labor under the most uncongenial conditions for pay
that offered little hope of any other kind of life. Most told
stories like my grandfather's. Having lost both parents to fevers and not
wanting to be a burden to the various kinfolk who had taken him and his younger siblings in, Albert Volentine Livingston set out at
fourteen to make his own way, and worked cows for one of the big spreads out west around Marfa.
It was a life of considerable
harshness and deprivation, and therefore hardy camaraderie and vivid memories oft
retold of flash floods and lullabies sung by the night riders while ball lightening danced on the horns of the steers. The life of a
bygone era, never likely to return. The Old West.
In the Fifties, when jet planes were astonishing and spacemen were science fiction, nobody called it the New West, but society reached
the consensus that movie cowboys should represent only the best facets
of the pioneers. There were some bits that, however historical,
would have to be left out because they really were not appropriate for kids.
So Hollywood offered heroes of unswerving virtue; Lancelots holding outposts on the frontiers of civilization, defending people's rights
against the unceasing villainy of an uncivilized world. Honesty
and hard work were their own rewards. Everyone bathed regularly.
Quite unremarkably, my personal movie hero was John
Wayne. The plot never turned on who would win, even in the rare cases where John went
down in Pyrrhic glory. Just how bad were the bad guys was the question at issue, because that determined the extent of justifiable
retribution, in other words the action. Petty larceny could expect
to draw little more than a look of distaste, a deprecating epithet or at
most a cuff on the head. Stealing livestock, however, evoked the
full rigor of the law; gunplay was assured with especially gruesome wounds
reserved for the arch villain.
By the time I was old enough to understand that for large parts of the world, mesquite trees were little more than unruly bushes, I began to
wonder about an Old West populated by untarnished paladins. At any rate they had done their work well.
The wilderness was settled,
the prairie fenced, towns built, roads paved and the closest Indians confined to a reservation in New Mexico.
There wasn't all that
much left to be done now. My grandfather and his hounds had run the
wolves out of Runnels County before I was born. Were we fated to
be decadent progeny, softened by the advantages our forefathers fought and died to obtain for us
back when people knew how to work and what a dollar was worth?
By the Sixties I was in high school, movies were mostly in color and even
some TVs! My sister's portable 45 rpm record player, having faithfully
cranked out hours of Bill
Haley and the Comets, had been replaced by a stereo in a large credenza that sat in the living room
and played 33 rpm records. We kids got to choose one record each,
but it was all grownup music I had never heard of. I chose
Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony because I had heard my band director mention the name
once. It was performed by Eugene
Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Philharmonic Orchestra, and I had never imagined music could be so
majestic and achingly beautiful. That was when I decided to switch
from saxophone to the French horn, now that my braces were off.
The AM radio was what played kid's music. Elvis
was the heart-throb of most of the girls I knew, but their parents considered all that
writhing around objectionable. I preferred folk music, which meant Joan Baez and
Paul and Mary, but there was also these guys from England named the Beatles.
Some of the older folks said they were just trash, but we had seen them on the
show, and my parents thought they were nice kids who really just needed a good haircut.
The summer after my sister's wedding, Dad decided it was time to give the boys some attention, so we took a vacation trip to Dallas.
We rode there in a train and flew back in an airplane, my first time for
each. It was only a prop plane, and the two hundred mile trip at night was over pretty quickly, but I spent the whole time glued to the
window, entranced by the twinkling lights of the towns far below. We stayed at the
which was nice, but the city was so strange, and there didn't seem to be much to do but shop.
could shop for hours without buying a thing, so Dad and I usually found a
place to sit and watch the people go by.
Some of our neighbors were putting in underground bomb shelters about
this time because Abilene had a Strategic Air Command base which, we
were told, was known to be marked on the bombing maps in Russia. My
Dad, still in the Air Force reserve, was assigned the duty of giving technical presentations to local groups concerning our options in case
of a nuclear attack. While the base was several miles away, he was pretty sure our house was close enough to the "sure-kill zone"
that a bomb shelter was just wishful thinking. We had all seen the
Russian Premier bang his shoe on the table at the UN, and scream they would
bury us. At school they showed us films about how to get under our desks in case of an attack, but of course I knew that wouldn't really
help. I was confused to learn that Tchaikovsky
was a Russian, and that they had been our allies against the Germans in World War II.
Seems everybody had switched sides since then. We all doodled mushroom clouds with our new ballpoint pens.
People got all excited when the Russians put sputnik
in space. It was just a little silver ball with antennae sticking out all over, but
evidently it was up higher and flying faster even than jet planes. The President decided we
should have a race with the Russians to see who could put a man in space first, and overnight jet planes gave way
to rocket ships, and we all dreamed of being astronauts. Maybe we would finally get our chance to be pioneers too, and in a frontier
even more untamed than the Old West.
My high school choir group had just finished a lunch concert for the local Rotarians when we received the news that the President of these
United States had been assassinated
in Dallas. The shock was palpable, and school let out for the rest of the day.
We found TVs
in our classrooms when we returned so we could watch the funeral procession, but most of us just put our heads down on our desks.
We didn't know what to think. Events from far away kept intruding
into our lives about things that were hard to understand. On TV you
might see parts of Los
Angeles or Detroit
being burned by looters, or black people marching to demand their civil rights through streets lined
with whites screaming hatred. Even the governor
of Alabama being arrested by state troopers for blocking the way of a black boy who was
just trying to go to college. I was going to college too; ready to
go ahead, but it was getting a lot harder to be sure I was right.
For more information on terms or events discussed in
this article (or maybe a trip down memory lane), follow these links: