The first thing I remember about my childhood in San Ysidro, New Mexico was the unusual people who lived there. True, I met many oddballs, hippies, vagrants and all-around misfits during my parent’s 18 months on the road. We traveled across the western United States, packed into a Volkswagen microbus, from one bizarre hippie commune to another. Sometimes we stayed for a couple of days, others we lingered for months. We lived at one particular state park in northern California for 3 weeks, along with a dozen or so tentbound societal outcasts. Lots of driving, lots of exploring, free love, pot and music. I was out of school, probably illegally, so my mom compensated by teaching me to read, write and understand basic math. I remember many times, sitting in the van, drawing wild animals that I had seen out the window, or indulging in my new obsession with dinosaurs. The huge area that we drove through was filled with geological marvels and fossil museums, and I learned early about those fantastic monsters that once filled the land. I still have crude drawings, buried somewhere in my closet, of ferocious red-eyed tyrannosaurs attacking long-necked brontosaurs. I remember mom teaching me the Theory of Evolution, as she understood it. She told me, for instance, that giraffes evolved from antelopes many thousands of years ago. Generations of antelopes stretched their necks to reach the tender leaves from treetops, each successive generation growing a slightly longer neck, with the final result being our modern giraffe. She also told me that while dinosaurs were long extinct, their modern day ancestors lived on as lizards, alligators and other reptiles. And while mom got the specifics of evolutionary theory wrong, the basic idea that animals somehow changed from one creature to another over spans of millions of years was taught to me at a very early age. Mom’s crude understanding, visiting fossil museums and traveling through desert terrain were all I had to explain the animals and fossils that I saw, and where the dinosaurs went. I do not remember at that early age any conception of our special creation from a deity – only a scientific explanation. It all made perfect sense to me. Here is a dirty secret – even during the years of my most fervent religious convictions, I was always convinced by the theory of evolution. Too many hikes in the desert observing nature, I suppose.
Eventually a life with no income and three children wore my parents down, so we settled on some property owned by my mother’s parents. San Ysidro was a small farming community about 40 miles from my grandparents birthplace, and probably not much bigger. For the next four years, we lived in a tiny adobe house, in the most primitive of conditions. As I already mentioned, the tiny town of Mexican farmers was at that time being overrun with very unusual people. My parents were one of a number of hippies and outcasts who arrived in San Ysidro, and northern New Mexico in general, trying to escape modernity.
I met two children who occupied a half eroded adobe house with their grandfather. I have a vivid memory of them shaving their grandfather’s thick toenails with a pocketknife, while he lay back on a couch talking to my parents. Like so many transients that I met in San Ysidro, they only stayed for a short time before moving on. We met a young cowboy with an older wife and his inherited eight children. I remember they once shared with us all they could on our first Christmas Eve in San Ysidro – some boiled potatoes, Jello, and bear meat that was tougher than shoe leather. They also moved out of town very soon after we met them. I have often wondered about the children I met in San Ysidro, where they now live, and if they could write similar articles about transient life in New Mexico. We often saw drunk Indians from the two neighboring pueblos, Jemez and Zia, and they were commonly seen stumbling or passed out on the road, meeting outside behind the town’s several bars to drink with friends, or even wandering onto our property or even our house! Alcoholism was a terrible problem with the Natives of New Mexico.
Mom enrolled me in the local public school, but my advanced reading and writing skills allowed me to quickly skip a grade. I moved straight from 1st to 3rd grade thanks to my mother’s education. Today, she considers granting the school permission to move me up a grade to be one of her worst parenting decisions. For the next 8 years or so, I was the youngest and smallest kid in my class, and I would later pay for it dearly.
Dad quickly found work as a lumberjack in the mountains. I remember him coming home from work, filthy with sawdust and oil, and sharpening his enormous chainsaws. He also drank more. His abuse and violence continued against mom and me. He frequently got in fights at the bar, and since he hated stupid Indians he would often go to the bar just to drink and look for trouble with them. In those days in northern New Mexico, we never, and I mean never, saw a police officer. San Ysidro was, like Cabezon before it, a relic from the Wild West. I believe the nearest police station was in Bernalillo 25 miles away, and they never ventured into our part of the county. Dad could get away with pretty much anything if he wished, and vigilante justice ruled. I remember one perverse day when dad took me to the bar in the neighboring town of Jemez Springs, got me to puke on two shots of tequila, had me shoot pool with some of his logging buddies, then on the drive home gave me the one and only expression he ever gave of his hopes and dreams for my future. I have heard that most dads are proud of their sons for showing some kind of aptitude and a potential for a successful adult life. After taking me to drink, my dad told me that I shot pool and drank like a man, and he could not wait for me to grow up so we could go out drinking together and beat up Indians. It would be another 30 years before he directed another expression of pride towards his son.
Eventually, mom had to leave dad. I believe they divorced around 1972. He went to live in Jemez Springs with his new girlfriend, and mom was left with no job, no skills and three children to care for in an isolated New Mexico town that offered no opportunity. If she did not live in an adobe house owned by her parents, I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t blame her for being desperate. She got a job at the local trading post/feed store, about a mile down the road. She still did not know how to drive a car, and things were looking kind of grim for us.
In all this time, my life was godless. There was never any talk of religion, God, Jesus, miracles – nothing. I had no conception of any of it.
That would quickly change. More transients moved into San Ysidro. Most were young hippies who longed to drop out from society, but we finally met some who were from Southern California. They were heavily influenced by Chuck Smith’s Christian ministry, and converted to his charismatic brand of Evangelical Christianity. They spoke a bizarre new lingo like ‘Jesus Freaks’, ‘One Way’, ‘Jesus saves’ and ‘Jesus is coming again’. I don’t remember the first time I met these people, or was introduced to their religion, but like so many other transients we met, they seemed to come into town, stay a few days or weeks, then move on.
Another family moved into town, this time from Jamestown, New York. I never knew why they traveled across the United States to settle in little San Ysidro, New Mexico, but like a traveling band of Mormons, they braved the wilderness until they found their Promised Land. The Wagner Family (not their real name) was three generations of Pentecostal Christians who suddenly moved into our tiny town, where there was only one small Catholic church, intent on building a church to their liking. Mom, soon after meeting this family, converted. This young woman, who had rejected her family’s religion and heritage of Catholicism, quickly became a Pentecostal Christian. She became a part of the family. Like I said, she was desperate.
The Wagner family patriarch was a man whom we all called ‘Grandpa Wagner’. Dad loathed him, and called his wife ‘Old Toothless’. He was an old-fashioned hellfire preacher whom I am certain would get along just fine with the likes of Fred Phelps. They moved to San Ysidro with their four grown children and spouses, numerous grandchildren, and even a few members of their Jamestown church. We quickly became friends with all these people. It was in this cult-like religious atmosphere that we lived for the next few years, and it is in this environment that I was first exposed to Christianity.
Mom was desperate, and perhaps she accepted her new family and their religion because of that desperation. Perhaps she did not know at the time, when she married Grandpa Wagner’s oldest son, that she was desperate. Perhaps she really was in love. Perhaps she only thought she was in love. Who knows? All I know is that Michael Wagner (again a pseudonym) was single, had no children, and had the marketable skills necessary to care for three very poor children. Mom was desperate, and she had to do what she had to do. She married into the family of an old traveling preacher, and converted to their religion. In return, she was cared for, and we were fed.
And I learned to Love Jesus.
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