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40 Year Time Capsule

(Posted by Kevin)

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I “grew up” in a town called Denver City, Texas. You’ve never
been there. Denver City is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere, and it is
most certainly not a destination. If you think you “may have gone through there
on a trip once,” you’re wrong. You’d only end up there if you were headed there
in the first place, and you never would be. It’s not that kind of place.

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Denver City is a small town – about 4,000
people. It provides the basic facilities needed to survive – schools, a few
restaurants, a couple of markets, gas stations, hardware stores, auto repair…
But, you’ll find none of the next-level amenities – hobby stores, movie
complexes, chain restaurants – those are all relegated to the “big city” – the
nearest of which is probably Lubbock, Texas, a 90-minute drive from Denver
City. They might as well be on Mars.

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Life in Denver City is hard. The town exists
because of oil and agriculture. It sits on top of the Wasson Pool which, at the
time I lived there, was the second-largest known pool of oil in the world. But
West Texas drilling hit a tough time in the forty years since I left, and
apparently is just now experiencing a resurgence. Surrounding the thousands of
pump jacks is desolate, sprawling plains. No hills, streams, lakes, or forests
are anywhere near the place. The view from every edge of town is the same –
miles and miles of dusty scrub brush and mesquite extending off to infinity –
the occasional windmill breaking the line of the perfectly-flat horizon.

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The climate is dreadful, with scorching hot
summers and bitter-cold winters. The annual rainfall is somewhere in the range
of ten inches, and as my father used to say “You should be there the day it
falls.” The wind whips across the plains with incredible force, and thunderstorms,
dust storms, and tornadoes are commonplace. My primary childhood fear was being
blown away in a tornado. We regularly experienced tornado alerts and warnings,
and you could frequently see funnel clouds menacingly descending from the
overcast. Several times, tiny neighboring towns were completely obliterated by
tornadoes. We’d drive through in the following weeks and see nothing left in
the rubble taller than 3-4 feet. It had a profound impact on my 6-11 year-old
psyche. (It probably didn’t help that I had also watched “Wizard of Oz” many
times.) As an adult, living far away from tornado alley, I still have
nightmares where I’m trying to escape from killer tornadoes.

Why, you might ask, did my loving and
well-meaning parents move me to such a dismal place for my most formative
years? Money. My parents were public school teachers in Texas. Schools were
funded from property taxes. Denver City was sitting on oil lease land, which
was some of the most spectacularly valuable property on Earth. 

The schools were swimming in money, and the only
way to get good, qualified teachers was to pay them significantly higher
salaries than all the “nice” places in Texas. As a result, the school
facilities were (and are) opulent – almost from a different world than the
community around them. In West Texas, where football is king, the athletic
facilities are, of course, double opulent – a giant stadium with
state-of-the-art training facilities adjacent, artificial turf field, top-notch
track – nothing was too good for the 1960 Texas AA State Champions. The
trickle-down to the band department (my father was the band director) was
incredible as well. The students were provided with professional-level
equipment including artist-grade instruments, amazing facilities, and top-notch
instructional staff.

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(In Denver City, apparently girls cannot be Mustangs)

My parents compensated for this environmental
torture by availing the family of elaborate means of escape. We owned an
airplane – a fast one – and we would generally hop inside the minute school was
out on Friday and go somewhere FAR away from Denver City – not to return until
the end of Sunday to prepare for the beginning of the next five-day school/work
week. When summer vacation hit, we’d pile into our slide-in pickup camper and
head out across the country – spending the glorious summer months exploring
anyplace and everyplace that was NOT Denver City. Like inmates with good
behavior privileges, we served our time in Denver City as efficiently as
possible, taking the first possible opportunity for parole. 

As an adult, I love the travel we do in our
Airstream. As a child, the RV was our escape from Denver CIty. Climbing in the
RV meant leaving Denver City behind and experiencing trees, rivers, mountains,
lakes, different people, different cultures, and different weather. It meant a
huge gamut of sights, sounds, and ideas that were impossible to experience in
Denver City.

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Likewise, as an adult I love to fly. Flying
gives me a feeling of control, freedom, and escape. I can leave the bonds of
Earth and zip to almost anywhere I desire. In less time than it took to suffer
the dusty farm-to-market roads between Denver City and Lamesa, our family could
be in the mountains of New Mexico, the vistas of Colorado, the beauty of the
Texas Hill Country. My love of flight as an adult is, I’m certain, partly
rooted in my disdain for Denver City as a child.

For most of my adult life, I have been strangely
haunted by Denver City. It’s a bit odd. Perhaps those formative years of 6-11
instill more of a sense of “place” in us than other periods in our childhood. I
have repeated dreams where I’ve gone back to Denver City as an adult. In the
dreams, I walk around town and it looks pretty much as I remember it – just
updated a bit. Nothing remarkable happens in the dreams. I just go back and
look around. It’s kinda the same as it was back then. I leave.

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This week, I went back to Denver City for the
first time in forty years. The reality of our visit was almost exactly like my
dreams. We drove around town – past my old house (which had been nicely
updated), past the schools, down the main drag, and past a giant wedding (or
some sort of celebration) taking place at the city park. The place was, in many
ways, less dismal and hopeless than I had feared or imagined. The houses seemed
cared for, for the most part. The community seemed alive (unlike many of the
depressed-looking towns we passed through on the way there). It felt OK.

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We were only in town long enough to have lunch
in the Airstream in the high school parking lot. We ate our chicken salad
parked next to the band director’s podium I had climbed so many times with my
father over forty years ago – watching in awe as he performed his magic on a
120-piece marching band. That part was shockingly unchanged. The band hall, the
painted field lines on the parking lot where the band practiced, the grand
entrance gate to the hallowed ground of the football stadium… it all felt
exactly as it did when I was a kid.

Flatland

Leaving Denver City, I was reminded of one of
the worst things about growing up there. It is almost impossible to escape. To
get to anywhere else – you need to drive for hours and hours down long, dusty,
straight, flat roads with incredibly unremarkable scenery. It is a gauntlet
that is difficult to appreciate unless you’ve experienced it. Denver City keeps
you prisoner simply because of the insufferable journey one has to endure just
to get away from the place. Perhaps that’s why it took me forty years to come
back. Perhaps, it will be another forty before I’m ready to return.

(Posted by Kevin)