When we left Slidell, Louisiana, we headed south to connect with Interstate Highway 10 to take us through the rest of Louisiana, through Texas, to Las Cruces, New Mexico where we would leave IS 10 and head north on Highway 25 to Albuquerque. Once we were on IS 10 from Slidell we motored west, crossing Lake Pontchartrain, a 28 mile causeway crossing over the southern part of the lake. This wasn’t the first time we crossed the causeway but nonetheless, to me, it was always an eerie ride as I didn’t like being on a highway where once you crossed, you were committed until you reached the other side. (From a historical note, up until 2011, the Causeway was the worlds longest causeway over a body of water. In 2011 when the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge in China was completed, the Guinness Book of Records created two categories for the longest bridge over water, one over a continuous body of water (the Causeway) and one for the longest bridge over water (aggregate), the Jiaozhou Bay Bridge).
After what seemed a never-ending drive across the causeway, drove through New Orleans and kept going west. Since we had left Slidell in the early part of the year, there was no humidity to speak of and eventually we reached the Louisiana – Texas border. When we entered Texas I perked up and we were now in the Wild West. As we drove west I quickly realized that something was wrong. There were no deserts, no wild cattle herds, or anything I expected. It just seemed a continuation of what we had left in western Louisiana. It was disappointing and I crawled back into my book so the time would go by faster.
Slowly I realized the character of the terrain was changing, the trees were different, the land began to look different and I began to watch closer the further west we drove. Now, I have to say, when I looked at the map before we left, Texas occupied a very large area and when I asked my mother how long it take to cross, she thought for a short while and told me “probably two or three days”. I was shocked at this. And, she was right, it was a very long drive. My mother would drive, stop occasionally for something to eat or to rest for a while. When we stopped for a rest, it was my job to make sure my two brothers keep quiet so she could sleep.
We passed Dallas and began to enter western Texas. The vegetation and trees were much different from the eastern side of the state and soon I began to see signs of “The West”. It was different from what I expected, the roads were long and straight, it was drier, and the towns in 1960 were much further apart. Then I noticed the strangest thing, the “Burma Shave” ads, a short series of signs along the roadside with each sign leading up to the next sign until there was a product mentioned in the last sign of the series. There were a number of series and I don’t ever remember ever seeing the same set of signs back to back. You don’t see these anymore but they broke the monotony of the drive.
At some point in the drive we passed signs to Juarez, Mexico to the south of IS 10, and began watching for the highway signs for Las Cruces, New Mexico. At long last we took the exit for Highway 25 and began the final leg of the trip to Albuquerque. Shortly after we passed Las Cruces it seemed we were in a different part of the world. It seemed like a desolate land, the highway ahead disappeared into the horizon, and the distances between towns and gas stations were far greater than what I saw in western Texas. The highway seemed empty with only an occasional car or truck going in the opposite direction. The signs stating “Last chance for gas for the next 70 miles” took on a whole new meaning.
Then all of a sudden I looked closed at the land whizzing by our windows and I was absolutely captivated. Here was what I had read about, the gullies, the cactus, mesquite bush, tumbleweeds, small roadside attractions advertising western wear, real teepees, Great Eats, and so much more. As we drove we would see signs with flash flood warnings just before the road dipped into the gully and up on the other side. The few bridges we went over seemed so narrow that only one car could pass but it was a two lane bridge. I was mesmerized by what I saw then and I’m just as mesmerized today by New Mexico.
We finally arrived in Albuquerque, a city on a plateau of 5000 feet. When we drove up from the south the city seemed to sprawl towards the mountains to the north, the Manzano and the Sandia ranges. It was dusty, many buildings had flat roofs, many had adobe finishes, and as we drove through looking for the hotel my mother wanted to stay at near the bases, everything seemed so bright from the midday sun. When we finally stopped at the hotel and got out I was surprised at the crisp snap in the air where the sun was so bright and the air seemed so clear.
We stayed in the hotel for a few days and my mother rented a single wide trailer where we were to stay until she found a house once she had a job. Another city, another school system to be enrolled in…school system number 16 at 13 years of age. She got a job as a receptionist at the hotel were we stayed, went to school while she worked and after about three months, she announced she had bought a house near both Sandia Army Base and a bit farther from Kirkland Air Force Base. We quickly packed up and moved to our new home at 801 Florida SE. The house was on a corner lot, had a big willow tree in front of the living room window, had three bedrooms, a single car garage and a large back yard with an adobe wall. I was enrolled in Van Buren Junior High School about four blocks from the house for the eighth grade, and then a year later, I was enrolled in Highland High School about a mile from the house. The mile was important…under a mile and you walked to school; over a mile you could take the bus. I quickly learned if I walked a few blocks away from the high school I could take the bus. The bus driver knew who was supposed to be on the bus but she always turned a blind eye when others, including me, would get on.
The first year in our new house wasn’t too bad but tension was building between my mother and I. My next door neighbor took an interest in me to help smooth things out. He was a good man and with him and his friends and family I saw many parts of New Mexico I would not have otherwise seen. Those outings with him and his family were truly wonderful. We visited areas around Albuquerque, the Old Town, he took me when they went camping in the mountains. He reintroduced me to fishing – something I hadn’t done since my father took me out one day to fish from the docks in New Orleans. He helped me get odd jobs and during the summer between my sophomore and junior hear, he helped me get a job hot-tarring the flat roofs on the adobe houses. That was hard, dangerous work handling the hot tar. As I was strong for my age, I carried bucket after bucket of the hot tar up the ladder to the men swabbing down the hot tar. I managed never to get burned but there were several close calls. It was a dirty, hot, and dangerous job but I was being paid, wasn’t at home when I was working and managed to keep myself out of trouble.
Before high school started in the fall, my neighbor and a few of his friends asked my mother if I could go on a fishing trip for a few days. She agreed and soon we were off to a place I hadn’t been before. We left very early in the morning, around two or three, so we could get to the fishing location, climb down the canyon walls and walk a short distance to the fishing spot. We arrived at the canyon shortly before dawn. It was still early dawn when we began the climb down the steep walls. If you haven’t been to New Mexico, the night temperatures are very cool and rise rapidly as the day progresses.
The sun hadn’t broke the horizon yet when we began the descent and it was very chilly. My neighbor stayed with me on the climb down to make sure I was ok. I don’t know how long we went down the steep cliff but at some point just before we hit the bottom, I looked up and saw the first rays of the sun touching the far canyon rim. It was so beautiful, the bluish hue of the canyon walls, the sound of the river rushing by, and the sun’s rays steadily marching down the far canyon wall. My neighbor noticed I had stopped, came back, and said, “yes, it’s beautiful, isn’t it”. We watched a while longer, then gathered our fishing gear and began to cast into the deep water near the boulders. It’s another one of those sights that’s forever fixed in my mind.
After we returned home, it was soon time to begin my junior year. Tensions between my mother and I were at an all time high, I couldn’t keep my grades up enough to stay on the football and wrestling teams, and those last months before I was 18 seemed to crawl. When I turned 18, my mother could no longer prevent me from joining. I quit high school, took the GED, enlisted, and 10 months later I was in Vietnam.
I spent over two years in Vietnam. I spent a short time in Saigon, volunteered for jump school in Okinawa and upon my return to Saigon, volunteered for a field unit. I was reassigned to the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division in the summer of 1966 until my departure on April 1, 1968. During most of my time there I had a very “devil take all” attitude and volunteered for field duty whenever I could without any thought of safety. At some point towards the end of my tour, I realized I wanted to leave Vietnam, to return home, to see those incredible sights that I had remembered again, to find beauty and peace away from a war torn world, to feel what it would be like in the mountains of New Mexico, the calm green of those forests in France, anything to erase the memories of those war torn years.
When I came to my senses in Vietnam, I still had another five or six months to go before I could leave. I was still out in the field a lot with various units and it was during this period that TET 68 began and that was the worst period of my almost 27 months there. Finally, my last day in the field was approaching and on that day, all hell broke loose. I received a slight wound, and when I saw the aid station, I turned around. My slight wound was but a scratch and the medics had far more important work to do. Little did I know that the wound would cause my leg to balloon up and keep me in country for an extra week past my assigned departure date.
I left on April 1, 1968.
Over those next years, I met my future wife in Berlin, we married, had children, traveled around the world on different military assignments, took various college classes here and there, and finally, after almost 24 years, I retired in Washington State, where my wife had spent time as a little girl and wanted to live there again. I took a job in industry, attend night classes at the University of Washington, Tacoma where, with my wife’s help, I received my Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts in International Studies with a major in Soviet studies and a minor in East European history.
Next Post: Winding all this up…and what this all has to do with photography