From 1988 to 1992, I lived in Silver City, New Mexico, a withered shell of a mining town that now housed a major university (Western New Mexico University, to be precise). From my school’s playground, I could look up and see the old silver mine that gave the town its name, now picked clean and dormant. The county seat of Grant County, Silver City had just over 10’000 people as of the 2000 census, though how many people it housed when my tiny self roamed its streets is a detail not worth the effort to find.
You’ve likely never even heard of Silver City unless you watched the movie Rat Race—even then, you’ve never seen Silver City, because the movie filmed those scenes in Nevada. But for four years I called the place home, and while my parents are quick to state that it was a great place to retire but not a great place to raise a family, I look back on my time there and yes, I remember that parts of it that were sleazy, dirty, or cringe-worthy, but also the truly wonderful things about it. Maybe that’s just childhood.
We lived in squat brown split-level in the suburbs—Combs Circle was elevated higher than the surrounded area, as I recall, rather built on the side of a hill. Our garage was made partially out of an ugly, puke-green fiberglass that would make enough of an impression on me to feature in some of my stranger dreams year later. Our driveway and our front yard were, for a while anyway, separated by what I believed at the time to be the largest contiguous evergreen bush in existence, a swallower of frisbees and balls, harborer of spiders and other nasties, and producer of a disgusting sort of stickiness that aerosolized easily. At some point, we had it wrenched from the ground. Our backyard was enormous, and dominated in one corner by an ancient cherry tree that littered the ground with fruit. I don’t ever remember eating cherries, but I do very vividly recall the sight of foxes who would steal into our backyard to eat the cherries on the ground. On the opposite side of the lawn was a much smaller apple tree which produced small, bitter apples. We more or less just left these alone, too, except when my mother would make giant pots of dark green applesauce from them—I recall that the result more closely resembled split pea soup than applesauce.
I don’t recall ever going through the front door. I don’t remember being in the front yard very much at all, actually—as a boy, most of my playing was done either in the backyard (more easily accessible through the door in the garage) or around the neighborhood, the entirety of which was my playground. I was just dumb enough (or young enough—I can’t figure out which) to play within a several-block radius, with usually zero supervision, and not think twice about it. And yet the worst thing that ever happened to me in those years—a cut on the forehead that required stitches—happened to me on my own driveway. I’m not silly enough to think that the late 1980s and early 90s was a “simpler time” without crime or any of that nonsense, but my neighborhood was apparently safe enough to roam without fear. It was mostly retirees, anyway: the only kids my age I ever played with were just visitors.
There was a room on our main floor set apart by a wall of glass and a sliding door. This was eventually turned into a ‘play room’ for Brady and I, because it was large enough to hold all of our G.I. Joes, Ninja Turtles, and Legos, and because my father could sit in his recliner and watch John Wayne films, needing only to turn his head slightly to the right to make sure we were still alive and intact. Our favorite activity was to put some kind of music in our cheap stereo—the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles soundtrack comes to mind, along with its “Coming Out of Our Shells” ballad—and pretend we were either fighting off hordes of imagined ninjas, thugs, and ne’er-do-wells or wooing busty heroines. We also spent a fair amount of time with Legos: we had a voluminous box with a hodgepodge of pieces. Brady liked to get the kits and build predetermined structures. I was more imaginative in the sense that I always created something original—the problem was, I created basically the same original thing each time: a large flat piece with lasers and cannons on the front, with a captain’s chair, a large cube in the back for the storage of swords, guns, and other weapons. It was the lamest spaceship in the history of Legos, but I was proud each time of my creation, bristling with guns, radiant in its destructive capability, flying throughout our house to a soundtrack of mouth-made sound effects, until it was dropped and flew apart. No matter: I would make it next time.
Finding things to do
I developed a lot of hobbies as a child. Discovering that, although scared of cockroaches and spiders1, I had absolutely no problems with lizards and horned toads (which we colloquially referred to as ‘horny toads,’ not knowing any better), which I collected in abundance.
I’m proud to say that I was the damnedest lizard catcher I knew—it was a science, you see. Lizards are fast little buggers, and most boys, in their attempt to catch one, would rush at it, feet stomping, and the reptile would scamper away to safety in plenty of time. You had to creep up, tip-toe as if it were a sleeping pet you were trying not to wake—you knelt down beside it, slowly, making sure not to pound or thump—your hands were cupped, you held your breath—you brought the trap of your hands over the lizard, careful not the block the sunlight from its eyes—slowly, you had to be slow—and then with only a few inches between your hands and the lizard you pounced, bringing your cupped hands down like a steel trap over the helpless creature, which then scrambled around in a panic. They only bit occasionally, but I just giggled when they did because they had no teeth to speak of—they were free to gum my fingertips all they wanted.
The most prized lizards—they were the fastest, you see—could be found just east of my house. At the concrete that separated our property from the adjacent empty field, in fact, where scampered a variety of lizards which looked identical to the garden variety except that their soft underbellies were a vivid indigo blue (see picture at right, courtesy of Tom Titus at the University of Oregon). I would catch this faster variety just the same, and cupping the squirming creature in my hands, I would run across the street to the house of Bill Miller, a retired professor with a seemingly infinite patience for children, who would tell me what kind of creature I had caught. I’m sure I didn’t come in with any new species—mostly, I just picked up the same two varieties of lizard—but all the same I felt overjoyed each time that the friendly old man could put a name to my latest acquisition.
I don’t remember how I first met Miller—surely my parents met him first—but he would eventually become the best friend I had in Silver City, better even than the kids my age. He was tied to an oxygen tank, and mostly just sat in his alarmingly white kitchen, watching TV. He had an old tattoo on his arm (armed forces?), and a small old piano by the door to his backyard that I liked to touch each time I went past. His back yard was the best, however: I don’t recall ever seeing him work on it, but it was like a garden paradise, always full of flowers and other plants, with concrete walks, and a giant fountain in the middle which was full of aquatic plants and a single snake whose occasional sighting in the murky water, gliding past like a mysterious sea monster, sent us young onlookers into shrieks of amusement. The fountain’s recirculation mechanism was a concrete spout in the shape of a chubby, cherubic boy peeing into the water, which scandalized us to no end.
I say “us,” because I was hardly alone in my endeavors. My brother was a constant companion, even though at the time we fought as much as we played, and my sister would often be our overlord. Miller also had local family who would visit him often, and his grandson Bill, no more than a couple of years my junior, would become a close friend of Brady and me. In retrospect, I can’t even remember what games we played, so tied were they to our fickle and transient imaginations, but I think it thrilled just about everyone involved—us boys, Bill’s parents, and Bill Sr.—that we played so well. It might have been what made Miller’s family visit so often.
In the summers, there was another visitor who I simply discovered one day—Tim, a fireball with reddish-brown hair and freckles who visited his grandmother (she lived due east of us, on the left side of Combs Circle. I forget the circumstances that brought us together—one day, I think, I looked up the street and saw a kid, and that was that. We hit it off immediately, inventing new and ridiculous rules for board games available in his grandmother’s house, playing “fish” with a floor full of scattered toys and two bungie cords with black hooks on the end, playing football with Brady, etc. After rains, we would go around pouring salt on the snails and slugs who appeared in the alley behind his house2. We watched bad kung fu movies together3—an awful and apparently rare movie called Super Ninjas comes to mind, though surely it wasn’t the only one.
These are the memories I cherish: I’m hard-pressed to think of things I didn’t do during those fabulously mild summers. I never wore shoes, doing most of my traveling barefoot. The relative simplicity of childhood friendships meant that what few children came to the neighborhood were immediately in my circle. It was a fabulous time to be a child.
- There were plenty of these: I used to always have the sensation that there was a cockroach in my bed, and then one night there was. Tarantulas also made the occasional appearance—though not dangerous, they were large and tremendously frightening to a kindergartener. One of my sister’s male friends, Casey, once obliterated one was a BB gun of some sort. Look at the street due south from my house and that’s where we all stood gaping at the mangled pile of hairy legs[↩]
- I realize that it was a horrible, cruel thing to do, but remember that I was both young and dumb, and didn’t know any better—the shriveling of the creature was a special effect to me, and not the throes of osmosis-induced suffering.[↩]
- If it gives you any indication, my favorite piece of cinema at this time was Jean Claude van Damme’s Blood Sport, which I would watch with relish, and then wrap a bandana around my eyes and pretend I, too, was a deadly fighter with finely-honed senses[↩]