I grew up on a farm in the irrigated plains of Southern New Mexico. A desert landscape, yanked from it's dry barren state and coaxed to produce cash crops. Though, if was not the paradisaical Arcadia of myth, it did have its splendor.
To this day... I ask myself if it was real. The memory of it still haunts me. It was a different time and another world. A setting straight from the pages of a Steinbeck novel, as if illustrated by the brushstrokes of a French realist.
The migrant workers appeared overnight, at least one hundred. They had arrived in a caravan of old cars and trucks. It was a disheveled and unwashed bunch, desperate looking men, tired women and sad eyed children.
They traveled in thirty day cycles as they followed the cotton harvest from California to Texas. In the Golden State they picked the Upland variety and when that ran out the flow of humanity moved east as the Pima bolls popped open in Arizona and New Mexico.
The single men were housed in dilapidated barracks, salvaged from a nearby Army Air Field. Those long buildings were a reminder of a time when an even larger number of workers would harvest the crops. Already an era had passed and a generation of workers vanished, to be replaced by the next.
The men with families lived in camper trailers or camped alongside their vehicles. A sense of gloom gathered in the air over the cotton fields as workers shouldered their long bags and plucked the cotton, one fluffy boll at a time. By the next season, machines would do the work, but for now time had stood still.
At times my father would drive a bus. In the morning he would swing over to the barracks and pick up the workers and deposit them at various fields. I would sit behind him, taking it all in. The men would board the bus, some cheerful others sullen, but without exception they would greet me with affection. I became a mascot of sorts.
On this day, there was a buzz of excitement. The men had kicked in for a raffle, there was a cash prize, a wrist watch and a clock radio. As chances were sold, the excitement built up. That day after work my dad hustled me to the barracks, I was the good luck charm selected to draw numbers out of a hat.
The cash prize winner rewarded me with a fifty cent piece, I was flush with joy. They had set up a boxing ring in the center of the barracks, several boxing matches were scheduled for later that night. I foolishly stepped into the ring with an older boy from town and suffered a bloody nose that bled for what seemed like an eternity.
The men chastised the boy and offered him a match with someone his own size. He started crying and couldn't apologize enough, but it was my fault, I had my guard down... lesson noted.
I've been living on borrowed time since I nearly stepped into the path of an oncoming car on a two lane road in the Gila Forest. I was about five years old, by a stroke of luck someone pulled me out of harm's way at the last possible instant.
I cheated death, a fact that I've never been able to ignore. I went about my childhood with the knowledge that somewhere another boy died in order to fill the quota for that day. It was my quick and easy ticket off this world and I missed it.
As a child, I caught the tail end of an era... The timing of my birth was perfect, by accident of said birth, I was too young for Vietnam. I enlisted in the armed forces after high school and waited for my generation's defining moment... it never came.
In frustration or relief, I drank and drugged my way through the terms of my enlistment before returning to civilian life, slightly worse for wear.
I won't die before I get old, I won't live fast and die hard, I will not leave a good looking corpse, nor will my passing be noted. They won't play taps or carefully fold the flag into a perfect triangle. I will transition from this life to another without fanfare.
A life spent in quiet desperation, humble, pensive and with few regrets is all that I'm entitled to and all that I've ever asked for. Life will come to pass as it has for countless generations. The fields are now fallow, the desert as it always has, is restoring the natural order.