In 1947, when my father was born, Durango, Colorado, was still little more than the miners’ and cowboys’ town it had been since the turn of the century. My father was born in a house his father’s father had built, at the top of a hill with a red-dirt alley between the house proper and the yellow garage. There was, is, a crab apple tree in the side yard and a cherry tree ruts up against the kitchen window. It was a time, my father tells me, when no one locked their doors, and everyone left their gun cabinets unlocked. My father and his friends stored .22 rifles in their lockers in junior high, just to have them at hand the moment the bell rang, for the tin can targets in empty lots, backyards, hung on neighbors’ fences. There was one junior high, and one high school, and everyone knew everyone. Teenagers drank 3-2 beer legally, everyone smoked, and cowboys weren’t just something out of the movies; they roamed Main Street and sulked in what then were still saloons.
There was property in the mountains, too; the horses were kept at Palisades Lake, where each spring when the rising life sent the winter snows careening down the mountainsides, the ice melting and swelling the rivers. The Chevy pickup, bought new then in ’54, slumbered in the yellow garage until it was time to run lumber up or down from Elektra, or to ride up the mountain road to Silverton to check on the family mine. Boys hunted arrowheads in the woods, and the Navajos sold their cloths and turquoise along roadsides. His grandfather, also Charles, as his father was Charles, and my father is Charles, partly owned the Strater Hotel at the end of Main—a glorious four-story brown brick building, with crystal chandeliers in the lobby and plush velvet carpeting. My father’s great-uncle was a deputy sheriff, and in a box in his closet my father keeps his tarnished brass badge; the family owned and operated for many years the railroad between Durango and Silverton, winding through treacherous mountain passes only to emerge again into open air, whistling above sweeping panoramas of rivers rumbling through eternal cliffs and untouched lakes glinting silver between firs.
There is nothing for me before my father, and there is nothing of my father without those stories. As a child, I devoured all stories, guzzling them anywhere I could find to store in the vacuum of my undeveloped mind. Most came from books; the others came from my father and my father’s music. Every morning in the shower, or dressing, my father would sing about a yellow rose in Texas, or songs of coyotes (my father pronounces this “ky-oats,” and I have never shaken that pronunciation from my own speech) yipping along a trail. In the car driving through flat, humid southern Florida, I learned from his songs that innocent men hang as often as the guilty, that even the guiltiest leave behind little ladies, that love means climbing through rings of fire, or often means nothing but misery. Sometimes, especially after a Marty Robbins tale of a cowboy in love with a Mexican barmaid, while the cowboy bleeds out in his black-eyed love’s arms, my father would wipe his red eyes with the back of his wrist and say, “Isn’t that a great song?”
Country music was the music written about towns just like Durango, by boys and men just like my father. It was the only music that could contain within its few solemn bars the grandeur of the Rockies or the awe of the bleeding Western sun setting over Monument Valley. It was the music of stories, and of stories just like my father’s, with all the raging sadness only the humbling infinity of open sky and open roads can bring. Country music, real Country, the kind left untarnished by the false glamour of rhinestones or rodeos, were songs written by lonely people with no other way to purge their pain. Most never sang or picked up a guitar because they wanted to; they did it because without release, they would crumple under the weight of their own desolation. Men were unfaithful, untrustworthy. Fathers would beat their wives and children, would take off down the old dirt road and never come back. Women were loose, women were wild, women would grab your heart and tear it apart before you could even consider defense. The devil, warns the slow wail of a slide guitar, lurks within us all.
With a child’s egoism I could not disconnect my father from these songs—simultaneously, I could not connect my father to them, beyond knowing they were his. He might as well have written them, and I knew all the words to Waylon Jennings records long before I ever connected the name “Waylon Jennings” to a single song. Yet, I could not comprehend why these were my father’s songs. Weekends, he would drive me, no older than ten, out to the Everglades for skeet. I had my first pair of cowboy boots when I was eight, a bow and blunt arrows I would fire all day long at the grossly overweight ducks in our yard. With my father, I did things like the people in his songs, and that was enough. Other stories, perhaps deemed more age-appropriate, I could not reconcile with what I learned from those songs. The animated Little Mermaid bothered me, the happily-ever-after ending was something I not only couldn’t comprehend, but truly disliked. Instead I read and reread Hans Christian Anderson’s original tale. It only made sense to me that the lady would die for her love. The tragedies then were the characters’ tragedies, not my own, and my father, I thought, loved them as I loved them, as fantasy.
I have only just begun to recognize my father’s sadness. In him weighs the sadness of every one of those songs; of the American Dream deferred. In my father’s family, everyone drank too much; his parents never let cocktail hour slip by without a solid few bourbons. My grandmother smoked, my grandfather’s chewing tobacco cans rested on the porch, on the kitchen table, in his basement workshop. People aged quickly—by 65, my grandmother’s skin slid off and around her bones like water in a jar, and my grandfather was dead by his 70s after a long battle with any and every sickness. My father’s body is ragged and scarred with, first, common childhood memories: falling from trees, cutting hands and burning fingers learning what pain is. But there is also his disjointed elbow, a permanent remnant of a scuffle with a bear. There are the tiny slices from the stitches that reattached his nose, after the brakes of his Four-Four-Two gave out on an icy Wyoming road, and the cattle were too stupid to get out of the way.
I cannot remember ever seeing my father in church, though he and my mother paid for the best education we children could get—private Christian schools from the first years until college. I know, though, that my father is angry at the Lord the way Loretta Lynn is angry when she sings, “I’ve heard people say, why is my child blind?/Why is that old drunk still livin’/When a daddy like mine is dyin’?/There’s no reason for what he does/But God makes no mistakes.” The anger, like the sadness, like the name of a first-born, like the songs, are inherited. At first it is residual, the pain of a great-uncle shot in the back in a saloon, the sadness of some cousin’s Cherokee wife disregarded by the white women in the family, the agony of the earth gutted and blasted through, ravaged for progress, for manifest destiny. Then, it his own.
Like his parents, five o’clock never slips by but for my father to have a few bourbons. It isn’t excessive, it’s just enough to take the sting from the exhaustion of another day. It takes the sting off remembering his little brother, dead from an unsafe affair with another man, after years of trying to hide behind a marriage; off the very real pain always burning from his feet. My father’s feet are warped and twisted from surgery after surgery, years of trying to correct a muscular deformity inherited from his mother. My father’s biggest sadness comes from knowing he has given the same disease to me, his oldest. It kept him from joining the Air Force. He abandoned that dream, majored in journalism, worked out his years wasting his love of the English language behind a desk at a bank. I still find half-started novels on his computer, and he will call me just to read opening passages of novels that seize him. He takes the edge off remembering a marriage that was doomed from the start.
My mother was the most interesting woman my father had ever met. She was young, ten years his junior, and she was stunning—small, sharp, dark. My father spoke Mexican Spanish, necessary so close to the border states. My mother’s Spanish came from visiting her bohemian sister in Barcelona, and was thoroughly interchangeable for my mother with French and Italian. Her Tagalog was hilarious, her Persian atrocious. My father didn’t leave Colorado until after graduate school; my mother had flown around the world first-class for the first time when she was eight. He’d never met anyone like her, so he said he loved her. She had father issues, and my father was nothing like her father, so they married.
The songs imitate life, and our lives grow to imitate the songs.