Let me tell you something about water. I am fascinated by its absence and here in the desert it has been a thing which I have both feared and revered. Its lack of abundance has been a guidepost in my life. A dweller of mesas and arroyos, water represents something that is both formidable and sacred to me.
My family moved to Albuquerque when I was twelve. Before that, we lived on the edge of the Navajo reservation. 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 we would wander around those mesas and arroyos, drifting across them, finding waterholes and digging up clay from the ground.
We came into town often, shoppped at Trademart and ate at various restaurants around Gallup. On the weekends, we would drive to Albuquerque, to visit friends and relatives.
When we were young, driving through the town or this state, with my father (who was oddly enough, a sailor) at the helm of a car he himself would later categorize as 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 spoke to something which was mostly unknown to us way back then: the gathering together of forces we had only seen during the isolated days of late summer thunder storms, that we had only waded through, shin deep, in murky rivulets and ponds. And here was that force, personified and unified, in mighty metal towers.
There are water towers in the desert; this place is ripe with them. The travels we took with him seemed to begin and end with those risen behemoths.
The towers loomed on this horizon and that and 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 liquid contents.
The old man would glance in the rear view mirror and laugh and cuss when he saw one approaching and my mother would turn up the radio.
I grew older and stopped screaming, but water maintained its elusive influence. 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 would say that the world was a watery place, that my confusion was contrary to the way of the earth. Water was a precious substance and magical too, he warned.
To prove his point, he would drive us out to the ocean, nearly every summer. He would also tarry in the large desert that preceded the ocean and we would wonder at the vast emptiness and its dryness, anticipating the opposite.
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 that activity, he would make us watch the Val De La O show.
The Val De La O was a local tee vee show that was broadcast live on Saturday mornings, from the KOB studios, in the 1960s and 1970s. Besides providing entertaining Spanish music for my then young and beautiful parents to dance to, Val featured certain celebrities as guests. One of his occasional guests was Johnny Weissmuller. Weissmuller had been an Olympic swimmer who had risen to fame portraying Tarzan in the movies. By the time of my childhood, he had retired and sometimes 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 Val and his hilarious sidekick Mario Leyva (he was sort of like Cantinflas, sabes?) had taken their leave of the studios on Coal Avenue, I nearly drowned in the Gila River.
We had been camping with some other undergrads and decided to hike along the east fork. My brother 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 the road, an old Pontiac roared along. And like that tower, which held water, I decided to rise. Like that car which sought out water, I moved, somehow resurgent. I more crawled to shore than swam, though.
My brother was standing there, screaming.
This is what he shouted, loud enough to be heard over the din of the water, which roared like a beast: "who in the fuck do you think you are, Tarzan?"
That night, back in the student ghetto, I dreamt of clay.