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About Water

Rio Grande
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Rio Grande

Here are some stories about water.

I am fascinated by its absence; here in the high desert the dry earth is something I have both feared and revered. A dweller of mesas and arroyos, water remains elusive to me; it is a half-remembered dream.

My family moved to Albuquerque when I was twelve. Before that, we lived on the edge of the Navajo Nation. There was an arid beauty there, expansive and windblown. I remember being driven to small fishing lakes in Navajoland and not being able to believe that so much water could gather in one place.

Sometimes I would wander around the mesas and arroyos, almost drifting across them like a bird, finding waterholes and scratching up clay from the surrounding soil.

We went to Gallup often, shopped at place called Trademart and ate at various restaurants with names like "The Ranch Kitchen" or "Mucho Burger." On the weekends, the old man would drive us to Albuquerque, to visit friends and relatives.

Driving around the state with my father - who was oddly enough, a sailor - at the helm of a car he called a boat, my brother and I would hang our heads out the windows and scream in defiance of the water towers we passed.

They were monumental and mysterious and contained a force mostly unknown to us: the gathering together of powers we had only seen during the rare days of late summer thunderstorms, that we had only waded through, shin deep, in murky rivulets and ponds.

Here was that force, personified and unified, in mighty metal towers. The travels we took with the dude seemed to begin and end with those risen behemoths.

The towers loomed on this horizon and that. I suppose we imagined them to be a type of metallic creature, robots which might careen out of control at any time, drowning us with both malevolent size and watery contents.

The old man would glance in the rear view mirror and laugh and cuss when he saw one approaching; my mother would turn up the radio and prepare for the worst.

I grew older and stopped screaming. But water remained an elusory aspect of my world. By the time we finally moved to Burque, I remember standing at the edge of the Rio Grande, staring.

When I asked my father about this utterly strange phenomenon, a river that flowed, he said the world was a watery place, that my confusion was contrary to the way of nature. Water was a precious substance that made a difficult and dangerous magic, he warned.

And so, he also taught us to swim, mostly at pools around town. There was one at the Albuquerque Country Club. There was another at the Mountainside YMCA. Our favorite became a pool called the A-Pool. It was a public pool located near Pennsylvania and Menaul. It was shaped like a gigantic letter A.

To further pique our interest in the water, he would also make us watch the Val De La O show.

The Val De La O was a local teevee show that was broadcast live on Saturday mornings, from the KOB studios, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Besides providing entertaining Nuevo Mexicano music for my then young and beautiful parents to dance to, De La O featured a variety of fascinating celebrities as guests. One of his frequent visitors was Johnny Weissmuller.

Weissmuller was an Olympic swimmer who had risen to fame portraying Tarzan in the movies. By the time of my childhood, he had retired from his fictional vine-swinging, vicious lion and Nazi-fighting duties and often visited Albuquerque.

My father hoped that Tarzan's recollections of his watery exploits would encourage us to become safe and strong swimmers, despite the lack of water all around us.

He was mostly right.

Years later, long after De La O and his hilarious sidekick Mario Leyva (he was sort of like the Duke City version of Cantinflas, sabes?) had taken their leave of the studios on Coal Avenue, I nearly drowned in the Gila River.

My brother and I were camping with some other undergrads and decided to hike along the east fork of the river. The twin warned me that the spring rains spelled treachery, but I ignored his admonitions. I decided to cross the swollen river.

In transit, I slipped on a rock, fell and was pushed under the torrent. The current was swift. I could not lift myself against it, and became submerged in it. It was surprisingly quiet down there. I began to see pictures of my life being paraded around the backs of my eyelids.

When I had just about given up, I saw an image of a water tower rising above a dusty road. On that road, a super stock Pontiac roared along with kids screaming in the back seat and Jefferson Airplane blasting out of the open windows.

And like that tower, which held water, I decided to rise. Like that car which sought out water, I moved, somehow resurgent, somehow robotic. Lifting my head up out of the Gila River, I took a deep breath and did as I had been trained to do.

My brother was standing on the bank of the river, screaming.

This is what he shouted as I climbed up on a rock, loud enough to be heard over the din of the water, which was roaring like a beast: "Who in the hell do you think you are, Tarzan?"

That night, back in the student ghetto, I dreamt of clay, of arroyos and dust.


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