In the fall of 1962, I went with my father on a trip to Mexico. He was meeting a woman he had corresponded with. We arrived in Chihuahua on November 1, just in time to go with the woman’s family to the cemetery for El Día de los Muertos on November 2. In the next six weeks, we would go on a tour to Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, Mexico City, Morelia, Guadalajara, Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, Durango, and back to Chihuahua. We saw a canyon full of Monarch butterflies, peasants carrying huge loads of firewood on donkeys, farmers plowing with oxen, boys bathing naked in a small waterfall and waving to the travelers, indigenous people in native dress, rural buses with goats tied on top, barbecued cow heads, paintings of President Kennedy on black velvet, the Basílica de Guadalupe, and a million other sights. On our return to Chihuahua, we visited the small museum maintained by Luz Corral, the widow of Pancho Villa.
and again I remember an innocent moment, over thirty years ago, when I was
sitting in the college cafeteria at lunchtime. As was the custom at the time at
our small college, the instructors sat with classified staff and students, all
of us like a family. On this day, one of the students came out of the kitchen,
stopped, and dropped his tray of food. Utensils crashed, glass broke, food
scattered, and people laughed.
Sometimes I recall
an incident in which my father and another man were talking about a fifth
wheel. This was many years ago, when I was in my late teens and when fifth
wheels were not common features of recreational vehicles. They were used almost
exclusively with large equipment such as trucks and farm tractors. I asked what
a fifth wheel was, and instead of just explaining, my father took the occasion
to criticize me for not knowing. “It’s a fifth wheel. That’s what it is. Don’t you know what a
fifth wheel is?”
It is a truth, perhaps not universally acknowledged, that a large percentage of college instructors come from middle-and lower-middle-class families of industrial workers, construction workers, hard-scrabble farmers, farm workers, and other blue-collar employees. I am one of them. Like a great many people I have met in my line of work, I chose a profession that offered a moderate but secure income and a modicum of status—two things that I did not grow up with; like many of my colleagues, I followed the ideal of humanistic education rather than the lure of material success.
I remember my eighth birthday with some clarity. It was in December of 1956, a short while after I learned that my mother had died. It was during the cold, clammy part of the year, and the two events overlap somewhat in my memory. I know that on one morning shortly after Thanksgiving, my father called me and my two brothers into the kitchen and told us that our mother (who had been living far away) had died. He told us we should tell our teachers, who needed to know that sort of thing.
I could see I was snowed in but good. My circular drive had three huge drifts, and the dirt road that led out to the paved road was drifted over in several places. Snow was still falling, and a hard, cruel wind was blowing from the northwest—a true Wyoming blizzard. I walked the half mile out to the corner to see how bad it was, and I decided I wasn’t going anywhere. Even if I did dig myself out and manage to get to the main road, I would lose a few hours, and most of my work would be drifted over when I got back.
had been teaching English as a grad student for five years, part-time, when I
received an appointment to teach a section of composition at a branch campus of
a community college. I had done an internship at the same place a year before,
which meant that I had worked for free, grading papers and giving lectures for
the regular instructor. Now he was on sabbatical, and his work load was divided
up among a few part-time adjuncts, including me.
Having cited the three main
influences on my development as a student and writer of fiction, I thought I
might go on to discuss the topic in more variety. As I mentioned in my previous
post, I have read a little bit here and there, as most people in my world have
done. Most of us still have big things we haven’t gotten to, and most of us
have gone off on our own paths of interest, but there is a core of literature
that many of us share. I will mention a few highlights that are probably on
other people’s lists as well.
In the fall of 2009, the president
of Eastern Wyoming College surprised me with a small tribute. He told me that
the governor of our state was going to be visiting our campus on October 16 as
part of a visit to the new corrections facility being built near our town. The
governor was going to stay for the Baxter Black show, and there was going to be
a reception before the program. At the reception, said the president, he
planned to present the governor with a collection of four of my books that he,
the president, had found in the college bookstore. The president said that if I
liked, I could attend the reception and present the books myself. I was quite
honored by the invitation, and I said that I would have to make sure I didn’t
have a conflict. I added that if I thought I had a small conflict such as elk
hunting, my wife would make it quite clear that meeting the governor was much