Recuerdos de Nuevo Mexico

    Well, I was thinking that’s “Memories of New Mexico” but being insecure about using Spanish I had to have that confirmed by my friend Marcela.  I lived in New Mexico for the better part of eight years.  I went to one year of high school there and six and a half years of college. I moved away in November, 1967, and I came back for a visit in October, 1970. Except in haunted dreams and memories I have not viewed its mountains, and deserts for 42 years. However, I’ve been contemplating a visit there next month and I’m starting to have some flashbacks that almost feel like PTSD.  Once the desert, and the limitless vistas of the American West become part of you, it never quite leaves you–and the times I spent out there, while memorable, were not the best times of my life to say the least. 

    One of my regrets is that I didn’t take at least a year of Spanish in high school or college. The earlier a language is learned the better. A couple years ago I took a class in conversational Spanish at SCC, but unless you use it every day you lose it quickly at my advanced age.  In my late teens and twenties I heard Spanish pretty much every day–at least half of my buddies were Chicanos.  And you pick up a word here and a phrase there–about enough to ask simple questions, read sign and menus, etc–but not enough to carry on any meaningful conversation.  It’s often an interesting revelation for gringos from the East when a native Mexican tells them that, “Oh, by the way, Santa Fe was the capitol of the territory before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.” The Spanish cuture in the American Southwest goes back about 500 years.

    Me and my bud John Doggett hung out with our chicano buds the Ruybalid brothers, Eddie, Dick and Ben, Al Fountain and Chuy Amezquita–mostly we drove around aimlessly in Eddie’s customized, dumped in the rear ’53 Merc, drank pints of vodka and 11 oz bottles of Coors–endlessly circling the Shamrock drive-in checking out the other hot cars, and talking mostly about cars and girls. I wasn’t all that interested in cars and knew nothing about girls and so I just listened and looked out the window. I was so hopelessly shy that girls were a topic about which I knew nothing save what I saw in Playboy.  Ben and Dick were older and had actually had women and so they had a certain man-of-the-world status in our little circle of the hopelessly adolescent.

    The Shamrock had authentic burritos–the best I’ve ever had.  A real burrito isn’t the enormous over-stuffed sloppy mess you get in restaurants today.  It’s smaller and stuffed with hunks of roast pork and green chile–usually quite hot. Once parked outside “The Sham” I recall Eddie asking Dick if he was going to have a burrito, and Dick said “Nah, I’m off that greasy kid-stuff.” That was one of the wittiest remarks ever.  It was a reference to a hair tonic commercial popular in the 1960s.

    I lived at home then–in my mother’s little cement block house at 1845 Foster Rd–and I attended New Mexico State.  From our backyard you could see the Organ Mountains in the distance–its rugged 9000-ft peaks vaguely resembling a pipe organ.  NMSU was not much more than two miles distant and so in a pinch I could walk it. My mom car-pooled the 27-miles over Organ Mountain Pass to her clerk-typist job at White Sands Missile Range, and so I usually had the use of her old Pontiac. I loved learning but disliked school. I hated staying up late Sunday nights writing papers at the last-minute. I hated having to parrot back to some profs what they wanted to hear just to get a grade. I hated having to flatter their over-stuffed egos by pretending to take as fact what was in effect their opinions. Often, their grading seemed so arbitrary, especially in English Lit, my minor.

     I started off as a Psych major and then during the first semester of my junior year switched to English Literature–but then switched back to Psych when I realized that it was much more difficult to make A’s there than in Psych.  After my B.A., I continued in grad school there and got an M.A.  My Master’s degree was in General Experimental Psychology. I knew enormous amounts about animal behavior, verbal learning, running rats in mazes, and learning paradigms, but pretty much nothing about working with people.  My only people-oriented classes were two psych testing courses.  They taught me a bit about assessing intelligence and psychodynamics but nothing about counseling–nothing about actually working with people–what was to become my eventual career.

    I got a very good education at NMSU. It’s programs in Electrical Engineering, Math and Physics were all highly rated–Agriculture too.  Only two years before I started there it was still called New Mexico A & M.  The College of Arts and Sciences didn’t have the same cachet as Agriculture and Mechanical Arts, but nevertheless I had some good teachers as profs.  Most of the profs in the English Dept were educated at Harvard, Columbia, Cornell and other Ivy League schools. The head of our Psych Dept, Dr. Thompson had studied under Spence and B. F. Skinner at Iowa State–the very pinnacle of behaviorism, and he was highly respected as a researcher.  There were no easy A’s.  When our Psych graduates took the GREs all but one scored between the 88th and 92nd percentile. In other words our little podunk Psych Dept’s  graduates were comparable to those of the very best programs in the country.

    After NMSU, I went up to Albuquerque to UNM for a semester in a doctoral program–but about halfway thru the term I dropped out.  One afternoon I took a nap after lunch and when I awoke it was too late to make it to the seminar on time–I never went to another class.  At that time in my life I was beginning to have some major problems with generalized anxiety, panic attacks and depression. Even tho I was a Psych major I didn’t have a clue as to my own mental health.

    Trips to the library for research, or sitting in long seminars, became excruciating ordeals because of my anxiety and concomitant urge to flee from the setting. I was having mixed symptoms of sociophobia and agoraphobia–fear of people and fear of being in an open, “unsafe” environment. The little efficiency apt on Sycamore that I inhabited for three months became my sanctuary and I recall it vividly even tho I was there ever so briefly. It was my first experience of living on my own. Money was in short supply but when I had a few extra bucks I went to Jack’s Bar on Central and drank big pitchers of Coors with my grad-student bud Gene Smith. I was treating my anxiety with alcohol, but both my drinking and my fear were gradually increasing. I was generally so miserable that on occasion I would even crack open my old King James Bible and read a bit. I remember lying on my bed one nite and reading several chapter of Ezekiel–all of the “woe unto you” didn’t cause me to feel a bit reassured. I was basically an agnostic at the that time in my life and not looking for God–at least not consciously–but He was looking for me, and His persistent unanswered knock on the door of my heart had everything to do with my anxiety.

    When I think about that time in my life, I recall how sad and lonely I felt and how my vision of any future at all seemed so clouded and murky. I knew I didn’t want to get drafted and go to Viet Nam–like many of my peers. Not that I had anything against killing or the war, but I just knew, based on my experiences in Army ROTC, that I wouldn’t do well with the arbitrary madness of military-life and their endless catch-22s.  I obsessed about the draft and about women. I was 23-years old and had only ever had a couple of lunch dates.  And so of course I obsessed about women and how utterly unattainable they seemed for someone as shy as myself–someone with confidence and self-esteem below zero.

    After dropping out of UNM I went back to Las Cruces and started looking for jobs thru ads in the APA employment bulletin.  I had too much time on my hands–too much time to worry and obsess, so in the late afternoon John and I would drive out to the El Patio in Old Mesilla and spend a few hours drinking with the other derelicts.  The El Patio was owned by the Fountain family–and Albert J. Fountain IV was one of our buds. He usually worked the bar in the afternoon, and would slip John and I a freebie now and then. Mesilla’s 2000 residents lived mostly in older adobe hovels, but at one time Mesilla had briefly been the capital of the Arizona and New Mexico territory in the 1860s.  It had a town square with a Catholic church at one end–the Basilica of San Albino. I could sit at the bar with my long-necked bottle of Pearl and look thru the open door at the basilica’s facade across the square shimmering in the afternoon heat. Around the square were gift shops, and in addition to the El Patio, there was the “Billy-the-Kid Bar” complete with a mural of Billy gunning down one of his victims on that very spot.  It was a historic place and Al’s great-grandfather “The Judge” was a character about whom books had been written.

    The usual crew at the El Patio consisted of two middle-aged guys who owned a screen-printing business. One was a retired Army captain with a distinct military bearing about him. He usually addressed me as “sir’ even tho I was half his age. Everybody knew him as “The Captain” and I think his partner’s name was Jim.  I bought my first guitar from Jim. Then there was Tino who came in most every afternoon hands shaking till he got his first glass of wine and then steady as a rock. He was a vet with PTSD from service in WWII, a sad derelict who had helped defeat Rommels’s AfrikaCorps. By 1967, the El Patio had started to attract college profs and the literati–one of its patrons was the soon to be famous playwrite Mark Medoff. But John and I didn’t hang with educated university types, mostly guys into cars, motorcycles and getting loaded.

    Every few weeks a group of us would drive the 40-miles to El Paso and cross the Rio Grande into Ciudad Juarez–cheap rum, cheap food from street vendors, and cheap women in the strip clubs was the draw.  We would pop amphetamines (speed) on the ride down so we could drink more and not worry about nodding off on the drive back.  I recall thinking the first time I took a “black beauty” that the air had never smelled so good and that I had never felt so alive–not a good sign, but a harbinger of things to come. Most of my friends had liaisons with the prostitutes, but I was too insecure even for that. They all caught VD at one time or another, and John got rolled once by the local cops–they roughed him up when they angrily discovered that he only had small change left in his pockets.  But they took even that and so he didn’t have the three cents it took to walk back across the toll bridge–drunk and disheveled he was reduced to begging pennies from the tourists for the toll.  As for me, my worst experience was 12-days of dysentery from eating a plate of flautas from Ciro’s.

    Not all of my friends were derelicts.  I did have a few university friends from my job as a research assistant at the Speech and Hearing Center.  I was lucky to have that job. The head of the Speech and Hearing Dept, Dr. Edgar Garrett, was a mentor to me and one of the kindest men I’ve ever know. I think he recognized how screwed up I was and gave me a leg-up by giving me a job.  Also, the Speech and Hearing Center was doing cutting edge research in speech recognition and automated instruction. Dr. Garrett’s assistant was Kay Rigg.  Kay’s background was electrical engineering, though he had completed most of the work for a Master’s in European History.  His dissertation committee didn’t understand his proposal–that of using a computer program to analyze a historical event–they didn’t have a clue, and so he gave up in disgust  Kay was one of the brightest people I’ve ever known. He grew up in Los Alamos during WWII and his buds were the sons of the men who were legends in physics and builders of the A-Bomb, like Enrico Fermi’s son.

    Anyway, my sojourn in New Mexico, La Tierra Del Encantanto, came to a screeching halt in mid-November, 1967, when I answered an ad for a psych intern job in Illinois, 1500 miles distant. I bluffed my way thru a phone interview. The clinical psychologist who hired me actually thought I knew something about working with people–boy, was she surprised.  And so on the 11th of November, 1967, I packed all my worldly possions into my old Plymouth and pointed it up U.S-54 past 10,000-ft El Capitan and on to I-40 and eventually “The Land of Lincoln.”  I wasn’t so sad about leaving as I chugged up U.S-54.  I didn’t get teary-eyed as I’m prone to do–my memories of there were so mixed.  Mostly, I was scared out of my wits about having a real job where total strangers would have serious expectation of me.  I knew I was screwed up and I had enormous reservations about my ability to contribute anything meaningful in this world.

    I thank God every day that He had a plan for me–plans that I certainly couldn’t even dimly see.


About diospsytrek

I am a licensed mental health counselor in Florida. I am also the author of four books. The books have to do with coping with depression and other mood disorders, and the nexus of psychological problems and spiritual warfare.
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