July 4, 1979
The dusty, rusted pickup pulled up alongside the beanfield. One rather round guy got out on the passenger side. Another, by appearances the other’s brother, from behind the wheel. They nodded and half-smiled at Joanie and Rob, who were busying themselves in front of their small trailer/home with preparations for the Independence Day gathering they were hosting. Bags of chips were being emptied into plastic bowls. Jars of salsa opened without the formality of decanting. Beers and sodas iced in a tub.
Doug, the anthro professor with whom several of us were spending the summer up here in Northern New Mexico on an archaeological dig, studied the charcoal he’d been arranging in a dented barbecue kettle. It had to be just right so that, as would the spray of lighter fluid coming soon, so that a single match touched in the one perfect spot would bring about the even distribution of heat in consideration of the hot dogs, burgers and, marinating in ziplocs, some chicken which awaited.
The apparent brothers, along with many others in this area, were perhaps descended from the people who in the early 1500s, before Europeans had made it up this way, had abandoned the long-buried and largely undisturbed-to-now site at which we were digging on the mesa right above two-lane Highway 285. Not sure if these two had rolled up from the San Juan Pueblo down river, or maybe from one of the sparse communities spread out among the hills. They circled to the truck’s bed, and each reached in retrieved a beat-up guitar case. There were a dozen or so folding chairs around. They took two, set them a few feet apart, halfway between their truck and the trailer, took their guitars from the cases, sat down and started to strum.
C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…
They ran through that a few times and then started to sing, in unison:
Crossin’ the highway late last night
He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right
He didn’t see the station wagon car
The skunk got smashed and there you are.
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Stinkin’ to high heaven.
And then, doing their best to get Loudon Wainwright III’s wry delivery of the original, they waited the appropriate few beats before somberly intoning in tandem the tag:
Then they cracked up.
No one seemed to be paying attention aside from me. I had my guitar too, the nylon-string starter model I’d bought nearly 10 years before with Bar Mitzvah money. Maybe we’d have a hootenanny.
I went to get it, found a third free chair and sat down with them. They smiled and resumed strumming.
C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…
They sang it over again.
And they cracked up again.
I plucked a clumsy solo for an instrumental chorus, then they resumed singing, though I don’t think they knew any of the other verses so they just repeated the first one a few times before cracking up again at the end.
I tentatively played some chords to something else, “Cowgirl in the Sand,” or perhaps I tried to show off a little with the intro lick to “Sugar Magnolia.”
They paid no mind, looked at each other and started once more.
And that’s pretty much how it went, except that after a couple of starts and stops of the song there were no more stops. For 45 minutes. I am not exaggerating. Three-quarters of an hour. It was the “Dark Star” of “Dead Skunks,” and some acid might have helped. People would wander over, hear the song, maybe even join in on a chorus, and then wander away. Some came back, rolled their eyes, and left again. No one acted as if there was anything abnormal here.
Every couple of minutes – they’d sing “stinkin’ to high heaven,” put on the most sober faces they could manage, look each other in the eye and command:
It was hypnotizing. The song’s only got those three chords, played over and over. It’s trance music worthy of the Gnawa brotherhoods of Morocco, if they were singing about Pepe LePew roadkill. I was powerless to do anything but stay and play.
As the afternoon wore on, people trickled in to the party, having crossed the river in their cars as we had in Doug’s vintage VW camper van. The fixings for the barbecue mounted with each arrival, along with the armory of fireworks, mostly legal, purchased down in Española. The Big Indian (that’s what he called himself, and he was, a 6’5″ Apache from the midwest) and his family brought some jambalaya and cornbread (his wife was Cajun). Joanie was setting up some tables while Rob and their four-year-old son cleared the ground of what was to be the staging spot for the display, testing out a few bottle rockets, launched from a folding chair and pointed over the field, away from the small trailer, all set on a small patch of dry ground between the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Rio Grande – the tributary here just a middling flow working its way down the Rockies to its ultimate role as the famed border and then the Gulf.
It was certainly a different vibe this year. Last summer we were somewhat outsiders, fighting suspicion that comes naturally in these small, isolated communities. That year it was Jim and Jeff (both still undergrads) and just-graduated me joining Doug for the inaugural dig. For about half of the six weeks Doug’s two young daughters, just four and six years old, joined us. The adults slept in tents at the ex-KOA (it had lost its affiliation a few years back), the girls in Doug’s old and mechanically uncertain green VW camper van.
The Big Indian managed the campground that first summer with his wife and two teen daughters. But before the ’79 return session they’d lost that gig entirely due to some sort of feud with the owner. So this summer, we were staying across the road in a little motor court, which was something of luxury accommodations comparatively.
The motor court and the campground were the only choices in Ojo Caliente in those days, the town consisting pretty much of nothing else but a post office (barely), a few scattered houses and the near-derelict “spa” built at the hot springs that gave the village its name. This is the kind of place where the young adult culture seemed to revolve around the guy who’d gotten his hand caught in a wood chipper and pulled down a resultant insurance settlement – which he used mostly to by pot and malt liquor and, of course, gas for his Firebird. That’s about as good as kids who stayed here could aspire to in those days, I guess.
The small general store just down the road was officially outside of town, as was the Mexican restaurant (and its perilous sanitary practices that got each of us at one time or another) about the same short distance north. Española, a booming metropolis relatively speaking (it had a Dairy Queen!) lies 25 miles south, cosmopolitan Santa Fe another 25 further south and Albuquerque (practically New York-like with its university and airport) another 50 miles. This is the southern Rocky Mountains, the northern Rio Grande valley, Georgia O’Keefe country and locale of John Nichols’ “The Milagro Beanfield War.” Our Independence Day celebration site wasn’t the same beanfield, but if you’ve read the book, you’d recognize the setting, not to mention the people. And maybe the magic realism infusing Nichols’ tales, which locals would simply call “realism.”
This summer, Doug’s students were all women, and with a limited budget the three of them – Julia, who had been my Platonic apartment mate in L.A. for a bit, gregarious Kristin and meek Liz – were kind enough to accept me as co-tenant in our cozy room. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor and it all worked out surprisingly well in terms of privacy and personal space, except for that one time when Kristin passed out in the middle of the night in the bathroom (that Mexican restaurant again) and I was the only one to hear her fall, finding her unconscious on the floor before I could rouse the others to attend to her. She was fine, though embarrassed.
With Doug joined for part of the time this year not only by his daughters but his wife Carol, he and I were the only males in the gang, and the tone was a bit different than the boys club of ‘78. Rather than shooting at, and missing, prairie dogs when we visited the Big Indian and his family, now those social occasions involved excessive amounts of stew and cornbread and sitting around the kitchen table listening to their cassette of Cajun comic Justin Wilson, I garrrr-an-tee you – this was before he was a national phenom for his PBS cooking show or before anyone outside of southwest Louisiana even really knew what a Cajun was. His shaggy catfish story — the ultimate tall tale of the one that not only got away but toyed with him like a, well, cat with a mouse — put the Big Indian and family in stitches even though they’re heard it hundreds of times.
For me it was a time of transition. I had just learned that I’d been accepted into the Anthropology Film Center, a small, intensive hands-on documentary film production and theory program in Santa Fe. So in a couple of weeks I’d be driving my little blue Opel wagon back to L.A., clearing out my apartment, packing as much as I could into the car and heading back to New Mexico to find a place to live and starting a new life, more or less.
That was all out of my mind as we settled in that afternoon. We sat and gabbed – Rob, small but tough, talked about the several seasons in the last few years they’d worked as migrant fruit pickers, heading up into Colorado. They were just Okies, he explained. Maybe they’d have to move back home. Things hadn’t been going too well. But they’d be okay.
“You know that song, ‘Little Bit o’ Soul’?” Rob asked me.
“The Music Explosion,” I answered. I’d coincidentally just heard that ‘60s hit on the radio a couple of days before, but I knew it anyway.
“Guess who the drummer was.”
“I have no idea.”
“You’re lookin’ at her.” He turned toward Joanie.
“Yeah,” she said. “I was living in San Francisco then, and dating the drummer. I was supposed to meet him at the studio, but he didn’t show up. He’d taught me the drum part to that song, so they asked me to do it.”
“That’s not an easy part,” I said. “And it really is what makes the song.”
She Mona-Lisa-smiled. Is the story true? Who knows? She was even smaller than Rob, couldn’t have been more than 5’1” and 95 pounds. Hard to imagine her beating the skins with the force heard on that garage-rocker. Da-da-da-da … THUMP! Da-da-da-da … THUMP! But it’s a great story and I have no reason not to believe it, no matter what the credits on the record say.
Sundown came around 8:15, though the official fireworks portion started while it was still just twilight, which was fireworks enough on its own up here at 7,000 feet in the high desert – shifting streams of blue, purple and orange dancing over the hills. Once it was dark, it became a full-on barrage: Roman candles, pinwheels, flares, bottle rockets and more bottle rockets, some very loud and concussive explosives that I’m pretty sure were not all that legal. But it remained safe and, relatively, sane. Bit-by-bit people started to peel away, headed home or to other parties, all smiles and satisfaction. Some I’d never see again.
A few of them I did see during the nine months I lived in Santa Fe before returning to California. A couple of times I went up to visit, hang out. Doug I saw a few times back in L.A., but after a year or so he got another job at another college in another city. Julia moved to Mexico, got married, had a kid, turned up a couple of times in visits with various other friends around here. The Big Indian is certainly no longer with us – he was close to 60 then and having health problems. Somehow I figure the guy with the wood-chippered arm probably is still around, maybe he got another settlement for some other accident, bought another muscle car, wrecked it a couple of times but got away with just some bruises and is still the guy around an increasingly young crowd of waste-os gathers to smoke weed and chug malt liquor and suffer his bitter rants.
The hot springs, though, has been upgraded to a modern spa, a “resort” at least relatively speaking. A new age resort. With a wine bar and paleo/keto/whatever entrees on its restaurant menu.
And the two brothers? Pretty much anything could have happened to them. Maybe they became respected tribal elders, negotiating mineral rights with the BIA. Maybe they remained just guys, living with their kids and grandkids at the pueblo. Maybe they moved to cities seeking work.
Or they’re still strumming: C… G… F… C… G… F… C… G… F…