Sitting outside recently – enjoying the gentle spring breezes wimpling the leaves, while snacking on green chili pistachios (I know, how very New Mexican) – I realized that if anybody had told me 40 years ago I would be eating gourmet pistachios grown right outside my home town, I would have told them they were nuts. Actually what I probably would have said was:
“What? Please… The only thing they’re ever going to grow in Tulie is alfalfa, hay and gossipy bitches.”
Which really wouldn’t have been far from the truth, at the time. Tularosa is tiny. It’s always been tiny. Like, blink and you’ll miss it tiny. Population 2,912 as of the 2016 census. (Yes, I looked it up. That’s what Google is for.) Oddly enough, the population was about the same when I was growing up. Except I think there were a lot more young people then. Mostly retirees now.
It was the kind of town where everybody knew everybody else’s business and it wasn’t unusual to discover that this third or fourth cousin removed on my mom’s side was also the sixth or seventh cousin removed on my dad’s side. It was also rich with cultural history, including stories of battles between the Apache and farmer/ranchers, a hundred years prior. Add to that a great big dollop of atomic age history, too, as the Trinity Site is only 65 miles to the northwest.
As cool as all that may sound in retrospect, when I was growing up in Tularosa, we didn’t even have a roller rink, much less an arcade. We had to go to Alamogordo for that sort of fun. The only things to do were getting high in the creek, tipping cows and seducing rednecks. I was really good at a couple of those things. Not bad at the other, either, to be honest. I’ll let you figure out which one was which.
Today, Tularosa is a what they like to call a bedroom community. Which means it has a couple of bed and breakfasts, a couple of wineries and a few galleries and boutique shops. Oh, and pistachios. It’s become a tourist haven. 40 years ago we were all struggling to find ways to get the hell out of that Podunk town and now it’s a freakin’ destination!
I can’t tell you how weird that is. I spent the first eighteen years of my life, give or take a month or so, in that town and the most exciting thing that ever happened was when the tiny movie theater on Granado Street burned down, or when the band teacher was run out of town because his wife had been accused of seducing impressionable underage football players.
Oh, man, I had such a crush on that band teacher. Most of the girls in band did, too – he was tall, blond and gorgeous – but they never got to see him naked, like I and a handful of likeminded hormone factories did. Next to Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds, he was my favorite whack fantasy. As for the theater immolation, I was really young when it happened and I can’t even remember what it was called, just that we had to drive to Alamogordo, 12 miles away to see movies after that.
In fact, my very first job that wasn’t mowing lawns or baling hay, was at the Sierra Theater in Alamogordo. I was the projectionist for four years, non-consecutively. The theater has since been converted into a performance venue called the Flickenger, but the layout is still pretty much the same. Oh, if the walls of that projection booth could talk…
But, anyway… I’m digressing like crazy… it’s interesting how something as simple as munching Scooby Snacks and a handful of pistachios can open the floodgates. Seems to be happening a lot more often, these days. Sounds maudlin, and maybe it is, but I actually appreciate the little sidetrips down memory lane. They remind me that my own personal history is as rich as a triple fudge raspberry mocha cake with butter rum icing. Or something closely approximating that.
I used to think my life didn’t really begin until I entered college in 1979. For a long time, that was true. The life I was living DID start in college and I did everything possible to forget my childhood, though never my roots. Always the outsider, I discovered others like me at the university and nothing would ever be the same again. After nearly 40 years of chasing dreams and landing achievements, I hardly know who that kid was, anymore.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, I had friends and raised as much hell as possible while growing up in Tularosa. No mean feat, considering a third of the teachers at the high school were related to me and the entire police force were friends of the family. It wasn’t an easy place to grow up with a hungry mind and an overactive imagination. Somehow I survived, though I never really looked back. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to reflect with fondness on those formative years. Hell, I even have a few of my old school chums in my Facebook friends list.
Even so, I could never go back. I would fit in even less now than I did before. I’ve travelled the world and had grand adventures, I’ve dined with celebrities and suffered more than my fair share of fools, I’ve had dream jobs and suffered great tragedies. I’ve become, for good or ill, the man I always wanted to be. And now I’m back in New Mexico, replanting my roots in rich soil and raising my face to skies so clear and blue they could only exist in fairytale… or here.
Returning to my college town was a major lifestyle shift from which I’m still feeling the repercussions, but it’s nice to know that Tularosa is prospering less than a hundred miles away. A day trip, really, with plenty to see and do in-between. Occasionally I even run into former schoolmates and neighbors – old people with familiar eyes. They don’t bring back nearly as many memories as those pistachios do. I don’t even wonder why that is, anymore.