Sample text for A strong west wind : a memoir / Gail Caldwell.

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Poised at the heart of so much open land, Amarillo, too,
sprawled in a sort of languid disregard, as though territorial hegemony
might make up for all that loneliness. Route 66 cut through
the center of town as a streamlined reminder of what was out
there to the west, and the trucks roared through town day and
night, slaves to hope and white-line fever, heading for California
or just somewhere else. The steak houses and truck stops at
either end of the city confirmed these great distances, offering
twenty-four-ounce T-bones along with the diesel fuel, and the
neon from the all-night signs must have looked from the sky like
paths of light—bright flashes of pink and green and white as the
town grew sparser, flanked on the highway to the east and west
alike by miles of open country.

Downtown in the 1950s was only a few blocks long, and the
two banks, the two movie theaters, the Silver Grill Cafeteria, and
the Amarillo Grain Exchange were all within shooting distance of
one another. The Mary E. Bivins Memorial Library stood on the
outskirts of these necessities, on Tenth and Polk, a generous old
Georgian mansion with two sets of stone steps up to its wide verandas.
The place had been built as a private home at the turn of
the century, and its interiors still held traces of domestic calm—
the foyer smelled wonderfully of floor wax and printer’s ink and
no doubt years’ worth of muted librarians’ cologne. The books
were spread luxuriantly over four floors, with the aisles between
shelves feeling as wide as city streets. It was here that an entire
generation of kids enjoyed a certain benign neglect in the scorching
Texas summers: Scores of mothers deposited their children
at the library each day to snatch a few hours of freedom in between
the swimming pool and the grocery store. The place was
safe, it was cool (in the days before air-conditioning,we had only
swamp coolers), and, with its gruff librarians posted like marines
between Adult Fiction and the checkout desk, it offered a semblance
of day-care-cum-self-improvement. In a city five hundred
miles from the Texas Gulf Coast and a day’s car ride from the
mountains of neighboring New Mexico, the town pools and the
library were the closest thing a lot of people had to getting away.
Our idea of escape was an order of fries at the snack bar of
the Western Riviera—a cross-shaped turquoise swimming pool
slapped across the prairie like an SOS sign to God—and then the
insouciant promise of the library, where you could lose yourself
for hours in sanctioned daydreams.

Maybe such repositories of childhood are always graced by
memory, each of them archives of that wider world to come. But
for me those rooms were my Elysian fields, possessing a grandeur
and reach that would blur over time but scarcely diminish after I
had taken flight. My mother drove us to the library in an old Ford
station wagon, two-tone Palomino Pink, and I can see it still,
idling on the street below, as I half staggered down the stone steps
with my weekly haul. There was a limit to the number of books,
probably ten or twelve, that children were allowed, and the librarian
at first admonished me that my appetites were likely to
prove grander than my capabilities. But I was bored beyond measure
without a book in my hand, and each week I surprised her
by showing up for more.

This doggedness had revealed itself early on, an adaptive trait
for a would-be toddler who had struggled to walk until well past
the age of two. By the time I finally got to my feet, I stayed there—
a victory that must have assured me, on some profound and preverbal
level, that determination was a mighty ally. Certainly it
proved useful in the library’s summer reading contests, where,
one sweltering July, our literary progress was tracked by tiny flags
ascending a papier-mâche; mountain. Each Friday the young explorers
would report to base camp to summarize the books we
had finished; once the librarian had determined we were telling
the truth, she would move our flags closer to the summit. I remember
this textual expedition with pain and pleasure both: the
giddy journey into higher altitudes, as I left the pack behind, the
weekly anticipation of receiving our sentry’s seal of approval.
And finally, the misery of coming in second to a boy in my age
group—I was probably nine—who had dared to outread me.
The realms of athletics and other hand-eye endeavors had
found me thus far undistinguished. When she was five,my sister
had drawn a horse of such promise that the picture won a local
contest; I promptly got out the tracing paper and copied her masterpiece,
an act that suggested the visual pursuits be left to her.

What I possessed was a capacity to absorb and retain great quantities
of words, a skill useful in spelling bees, Latin conjugations,
and, for one shining moment, onstage. My dramatic talents were
confined mostly to a deep second alto, but I snared the lead in the
sixth-grade school play simply because no other child could
memorize the lines. Dressed in a red, white, and blue flowing
gown that my mother had painstakingly sewn, I was cast as the
small embodiment of the American flag. Like a one-girl chorus in
a Greek drama,my role was to deliver great swatches of truth and
beauty from a pedestal on high. “I am the American flag!” began
my soliloquy, then marched on through the ages to the rockets’
red glare.

Such fervor must have met with a forgiving crowd in those
Cold War and Camelot years. With the native-son exception of
Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, Amarillo would vote overwhelmingly
Republican in every presidential election for the last
half of the twentieth century—a conservatism that displayed its
colors everywhere from Sunday-morning sermons (where might
was always right) to young girls camouflaged as American flags.
My father had been a master sergeant in the Eighth Air Force
during the Second World War, stationed for three years in a
supply-command base in Blackpool, England, until months after
the European theater was over. A tall, brown-haired man with
pool-dark eyes and a slow, trustworthy grin, he had the type of
young-Jimmy-Stewart physical stature that Hollywood had lionized
in its soldier-heroes. I was born five years after his return, in
1951, and I grew up cloaked in the sweet mysteries of his having

belonged to such an exotic mission. This aura of intrigue was
heightened by the stories he told and the ones he wouldn’t: the
poker games he’d played and won throughout the war, the scar
on his chest he refused to explain but that I imagined was a knife
wound. Mostly, though, I had a notion of my father as a soldier in
charge of a company of men, where his physical strength and
bluster-rough camaraderie must have been on full display. For a
child, these heroic images were part of a larger dimension that included
physical warmth and the smell of coffee and Camel cigarettes;
taken together, they offered a portrait of a dad who was
already larger than life. When I stood on that stage in my patriotic
garb, delivering my lines to a full house, I knew the audience held
a man who had come back from the war to take care of me. I must
have believed myself at the very center of the home of the brave.
The war novels were housed in the basement of the library,
within the larger territory of Adult Fiction, where I wasn’t supposed
to be. So this was where I headed, preferring the remote
aisles of the last rows of the alphabet, where I was less likely to be
apprehended. There was a vague warning, issued by mothers
and librarians both, to be on the lookout for strange, nonreading
men—the ones who smelled of whiskey, nodded off at the reading
tables, or seemed too interested in children. I was far too young
to consider that most of these dispossessed were veterans of their
own wars, real or illusory, and were, like me, simply looking for
shelter. They never bothered me and I hardly noticed them, for I
was curled up on the lineoleum before the rows of Leon Uris and
Herman Wouk—men whom I followed, without anyone’s permission,
into battlefields and drop zones of untold danger and intrigue.
Did other girls love war novels the way I did, in those years
when the national mythos was still dizzy with the aura of Allied
victory? I know only that my passion for the genre was probably
the beginning of a tragic worldview—that Uris’s Battle Cry and
Mila 18 would send me on to the grittier likes of James Jones and
Norman Mailer; that the moral ambiguities of Wouk’s The Caine
may have prepared me for Dostoyevsky in adolescence. If
The Yearling had been my first literary instruction in grief—in the
unalloyed pain of love and separation—then the messy heroics of
fallen soldiers only secured that terrible lesson: the idea that
valor could face off with evil in a field of mud, and lose.
That’s grim fare for a child, no doubt sweetened by the pulpy
promise of Uris and Wouk; like most Americans, as William
Dean Howells noted, I still preferred my tragedies with happy
endings. And not for me the local wars of either Texas or the
Deep South. I was bored by literary accounts of the Alamo and
the Civil War, though this distinction, in which I eschewed
provincial battles for the European fronts of modern war, had
more to do with my father than with any sense of regional shame
or estrangement. Because he had returned unscathed from “his”
war—which had, astonishingly, managed to take place before I
existed—I needed to know everything about it. The legacies of
World War II were part of the story that mattered most: a home
for my unfolding consciousness, with a good-and-evil plot that
offered the last vestige of innocence in America.
Our fathers had come home to a nation infused with relief and
ideological certainty, two commodities that would never again be
in such abundance. Buoyed by the ticker-tape parades and necessary
fictions that allowed them to go on, they could look beyond
the devastation to a future that promised, at least on the surface,
protection from the past. The lines had been so thoroughly drawn
by the rise of Nazi Germany and the aggression of Japan that our
response was accompanied by a sort of mandatory amnesia—it was
essential, if not easy, to overlook the legacies of a Great War two
decades earlier, in what was billed as the War to End All Wars.Now
we had Kilroy instead of doughboys; now we had the liberation of
the camps to justify and amend the casualty lists.And we had Dresden,
too, instead of Ypres, but that was a subplot best neglected. If
the campaigns in Europe had demonstrated America’s valor, the
ones embellished by Hollywood and Madison Avenue confirmed
it. The darker story, found in classics like The Best Years of Our
and The Naked and the Dead, would outlive the boosterism
of the postwar years, eventually becoming part of the elegiac truth
about war and modern history. But for now, before the fences went
up, we were still a land of suburban war games and toy bombers,
where the Nazis always got what was coming and where nobody
good ever died—except maybe for a few minutes, only to be resurrected
as the other side’s troop commander. Our dads were
heroes—all of them were heroes, it seemed—and it was our tender
burden to be the little soldiers who had made it all worthwhile.

Huddled there in my barracks on the basement floor of the
Mary E. Bivins Library, I envisioned myself to be of particularly
steely character. Otherwise, how could I bear the horrors of Normandy,
or the lousy C rations that awaited me each day? I lived
for such extended fantasies, believing that the canned peaches
and tinned beef I read about were the food of giants—and that
consuming them, in my imaginary way, would nourish me as
well. This empathic identification guided me in the real world as
often as it transported me into the next. I’d heard all about the
fish-and-chips, wrapped in newspaper and sold for a dime, that
my father had subsisted on in England; though he described
them as dreadful, I ordered them every time I had the chance. Because
the grunts in my war novels were, like him, card sharks and
betting men, I made him play me at gin rummy or casino until I
dropped off to sleep at the kitchen table. It was hardly a parental
sacrifice: In the card games and dominoes we both loved, he was
already grooming a straight man for his pastimes. He had begun
teaching me the bones of arithmetic when I was about four, trying
to outfox me by making change for a quarter. I assumed this, too,
was part of what made a good soldier: Laugh and shake your
head as part of the bluff, never look away from your opponent,
and never bet the farm.
No g i r l can live forever on blood-soaked heroism and fivecard
draw, and I still had to train for my relatively peaceful future.
I was at the age when compassion and excess go hand in hand,
and I had cried so hard and long over Gone with the Wind (not its
casualty lists, but Rhett’s exit) that my tears had alarmed my
mother, then annoyed her. Staggering from Herman Wouk’s war
stories to the tamer domestic pastures of his Marjorie Morningstar,
I responded to the exotic constraints of Marjorie’s Jewishness
by giving up bacon for a month—and, considering my
naive day trips into other people’s religions, I probably gave it up
for Lent. The heroines who seized my heart belonged to the sophisticated
urban settings of Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke and
Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Joy in the Morning; if
precocious girls elsewhere, poised on the verge of puberty, were
reading Austen or the Brontës, I didn’t know it and I doubt I
would have cared. I was enflamed by the purpler stories that captured
the young women of modern America, hoping that, like the
field manuals that had given me my father’s war, they could teach
me how to grasp my life—how to grab hold and ride it to victory.
At a time when television had only a tentative foothold as cultural
authority, such moral and practical guidance still belonged
to the word, be it secular or scriptural. We learned how to get
where we were going by the stories we heard, whether we found
them in the classroom, the sanctuary, or the closet with a flashlight.
So we listened to tales in the schoolyard about the fates
awaiting the craven and depraved, or we plotted our getaways by
memorizing the escape routes of Calico Kate or Pioneer Polly.
More pious girls, no doubt, absorbed these life lessons from the
Good Book itself—“How should we then live?” Ezekiel was
taught to ask—and yet the educational merits of Scripture eluded
me throughout my childhood. When my parents gave me an inscribed
Bible one Christmas, my heart sank with disappointment,
then guilt at my ingratitude.
This religious drift was not for lack of access: As the product
of a long line of Calvinist preachers and congregants, I had inherited
their severity but not their devotion. My mother’s hangover
from her Southern Baptist upbringing still made her frown
upon the idea of cards on Sunday, though none of us, especially
my dad, could take her disdain seriously. Instead of the terrifying
strictures of a fire-and-brimstone world, my own spiritual domicile
held a kind watercolor Jesus with pale blue eyes—a beneficent
image I had met in the paintings that adorned the walls of
our Sunday-school classroom, where I doodled away the hour
and assumed I had a place in His tender flock. My parents had
abandoned their strict religious backgrounds when they married,
eventually joining a moderate Presbyterian congregation.
Each Sunday we were lulled into a nondenominational oblivion
by the church’s soporific organ music, and it was here, in the
light-filled, stained-glass chapel of the Westminister Presbyterian
Church, that I discovered something far more commanding than
the gist of any sermon. Singing from the hymnal and reading
aloud from the liturgical responses, I fell in love with the meter of
Protestantism rather than its substance. I took to humming the
doxology—“Praise / God / from / whom / all / blessings /
flow”—around the house; I startled my mother by reciting, at
odd times and without warning, the Apostles’ Creed. I was about
nine when these epiphanies struck, too young to be considered
pious, so she learned to ignore me. “He ascended into heaven,” I
would solemnly intone, “and sitteth on the right hand of God the
Father Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the quick
and the dead.”

The quick and the dead! My decoding of this portentoussounding
phrase suggested how I was to feel about Scripture.
That God should judge both groups meant, from what I could
tell, that the quick were in at least as much hot water as the dead
(who, in the soft-hell universe of Presbyterianism, had nothing
much to lose).For years I assumed that the quick were impetuous,
immoral, or godless; like the “debtors” seeking forgiveness in the
King James version of the Lord’s Prayer, surely they had done
something wrong. When I eventually discovered that quick was an
archaic term for the living, I was crestfallen. Not only did this new
understanding imply that we were all guilty—God judged us
every one—but it also meant my interpretation, however wrong,
had been more piercing and dramatic than the truth. Far from
being chastened by my error, I felt it only supported my preference
for sound over content. I daydreamed my way through a few
more years of obligatory religious instruction, the high point of
which was my introduction to Catholic services by a friend. The
mass at her church was imparted in words incomprehensible in
meaning but so rich in tone and cadence that I swooned from the
sound. When the time came to select a language in school, I
signed up for Latin, then buried myself in its majestic declensions
and conjugations for eight more years.
Later, I would learn most of what I knew about other religions
from literature—from James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor, who
revealed the torment and glory of living under the eaves of
Catholicism; from Roth and Malamud, who gave me Jewishness
and Judaism with an intimacy I never could have encountered in
midcentury small-town Texas. I went after writers who offered
mysteries instead of doctrine, who roamed in the wilds of doubt
and longing. This seemed to me where God would want to live—
out there in the hinterlands, where faith danced and then disappeared.
Out there in the war zones, for that matter, where God
was surely necessary but sorely missed. All these desires and half
assurances awaited me in a world opening more each day, and
rarely, if ever, had I been led to them through the doors of the
church itself.

So my sanctum sanctorum would remain inside those cloistered
library halls, where attendance was optional and devotion
absolute—at least for a time, until adolescence offered me darker
venues with less predictable results. And oddly, wonderfully,
toward the end of that time of single-minded ease, two books I
wasn’t old enough to comprehend were the ones that had the
greatest hold on me. The first was a musty volume called On the
Origin of Species,
and I remember making the childlike association
of God and monkeys as I added it to my stack. The librarian
looked surprised, then somber, when I handed her the book at
the checkout desk, and she waved in my mother from the car.
“Gail has chosen something that may be too mature for her,” she
said softly; unfazed,my mother shrugged and let me take it home.
On one level, the librarian was right: I was eleven, and Darwin’s
findings were way over my head, not likely to keep the attention
of a girl who lived for war stories and smaller heartbreaks. But I
suspect the woman who declared Darwin off-limits to me, her
avid charge, also had more censorious concerns. It was 1962 and
we were in the dead center of the Bible Belt; to the east, in Tennessee,
Darwin was still banned in the public schools. Before the
year was out, America would see the publication of James Baldwin’s
Another Country, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Had that librarian
any idea what was coming, she might have headed for a fallout
shelter and taken me with her.

My other seminal text was a thick, overwrought novel I
found around the same time, on an afternoon when I was scanning
the recent returns. If by now I was a kid who lived to read, I
was still beholden to the action of the page—to plot-driven stories
more full-throttle than real life ever was. What I hadn’t yet
grasped was that prose for its own sake, grown-up prose, could
be so transporting as to exist beyond linear narrative in a corridor
of its own making. One might call this the beginning of a modernist
sensibility; I think, though, that I was simply ready to be a
witness to beauty—that my brain was waking up to the world’s
possibilities, and they came to me by way of fiction. The book I
held in my hands that day was a worn hardback copy of Thomas
Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and I didn’t get beyond the first
page, because what I saw there so humbled and elated me that I
could read no further. “Each of us is all the sums he has not
counted,”Wolfe had written in his second paragraph. “Subtract
us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in
Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in

That I had just been given the confluence of time, space,
and metaphor—a rough abstract for human consciousness—was
clearly way beyond my comprehension. What I knew was that
someone, in some other time and place, had made sense of the
largeness of life and the dark reaches I felt so privately within my
soul, and that this stranger had found out where I was—he had
said so, right there, with “yesterday in Texas.” This seemed to me
a secret contract between writer and reader, a grail beyond any
promises I had heard about in school or church. I went home and
kept the revelation to myself, sensing that I would carry the
elixir—great comfort and petition both—through all my days.
Part of what I was falling for, beyond all that swoony prose,
was the author’s own apologia for leaving. In the rich and gusty
self-portrait that was Eugene Gant,Wolfe had given us one of the
early Southern-boy migration stories—a prodigal son escaping
the madness of Dixie, catapulted by ego and estrangement toward
the distant North. This propulsion, this outward imperative,
is part of America’s founding story, in history and in myth,
and I must have read a dozen versions of it by the time I actually
qualified for those shelves in Adult Fiction. A tattered trail of pro-
tagonists, most of them alienated and most of them male, would
wend their way through my early literary consciousness: Binx
Bolling, the perpetual dreamer of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer;
the young men of Larry McMurtry’s early Texas novels, leaving
Cheyenne even if they had to crawl; Faulkner’s Quentin, who
journeyed so thoroughly into my heart over the years that he became
my Quentin. That so many of these itinerant figures were
men did not occur to me; I think I was searching for a flight farreaching
or victorious, however torn asunder the heart that had
launched it. The few female protagonists I came across had a tendency
to stay put. Should they dare to venture beyond the borders
of propriety or domesticity, they often suffered misery,
ostracism, or untoward death. I discovered the full spectrum of
this punishment for roaming when I got to James’s Isabel Archer
and other female innocents abroad; for now, as I veered my own
boat into the chop of adolescence, I aligned myself with the guys
who had hit the road.
Not that Kerouac or his wanderlust forebears had anything
on my ancestors. My maternal great-grandfather was a Baptist
preacher who had lost an arm fighting in the Battle of Murfreesboro,
though this sacrifice is said to have barely slowed him
down—one hand, Grandpa Mitchell insisted, was all he needed
to hold the Good Book before his congregation. Both sides of my
family were Scots-Irish, with English on my father’s side and
Cherokee on my mother’s, and we assumed from our mongrel
lineage a sort of moxie, as though we had gotten as far west as we
did by our refusal to stop moving. Like a lot of settlers who had
migrated west in the mid-nineteenth century, Grandpa Mitchell
had pulled up stakes in Tennessee and “gone to Texas”—an explanation,
common in the Deep South at the time, that revealed
not destination but freewheeling spirit. gone to texas was the
sign you scrawled and planted outside your house when, like
Huck Finn, you were lighting out for the territory, even if you
didn’t know where you were headed. The resounding theme was
one of agency—of staring down your adversary, heading west,
trying to outlast whatever trouble awaited you. My mother’s father,
a farmer with the exquisitely Southern name of Jerome Forest
Groves, used to walk the rows of his crops all night long when
an early freeze hit Breckenridge,Texas; he believed that his tread
on the hard ground would raise the temperature a few degrees. I
don’t know that he ever saved so much as a head of lettuce. But
the notion that he thought he had, or could—well, that was the
same endurance that put him on the road during the flu epidemic
of 1918, when my mother remembered his walking ten miles into
town to get medicine for his children. That was the kind of faith
I’d heard about in churches, generally reserved for moving
mountains. That was what got you to town, or to Texas, or just
got you through the night.
My father’s father, James Penick Caldwell, known as Pink,
made it as far west as Quanah,Texas, on the southeastern edge of
the Panhandle, before love took him home to Reilly Springs.
Quanah had grown up around the railroad, and Pink went there
as a young man in 1890 to find work. “There was a man shot here
in town, but not hurt bad,” he wrote to the girl he had left behind.
“This is a lively little place.” Still, Quanah’s high life was no
match for Della McElroy, who would become my grandmother.A
friend tried to convince Pink to press on to Oregon to work the
railroads, part of the great westward wave of young men who
would build the Northwest. He told Della he was heading home
to her instead. “If I was to roam this wide world over,” he wrote,
“I would not forget my black eyed Darling.”
Della wanted to marry Pink, but she was only seventeen, and
her father,Dr. J. E. McElroy, thought she was too young. She was
physically slight, and because she was stubborn and he knew better
than to cross her outright, Dr. McElroy told his daughter she
could have his blessing when she weighed a hundred pounds—
calculating, as a father and a physician, that she had already
reached full size. Della saw the dare for what it was, and she got
on her horse and rode it through the creek until her long skirts
were drenched to her waist. Then she went home and climbed
on the scales, and Dr. McElroy had to keep his word.
I came of age under the rubric of this story, and Della’s headstrong
guile continues to fill me with gladness: Who was this
hundred-pound mass of insubordination who stood up to her father,
married Pink, and gave birth to six sons and four daughters?
She died in 1936, when she was fifty-nine; my father had left college
to go back to the farm and care for her in her last months. I
knew her only through the legends she left and through the farm
at Reilly Springs, a rambling old white house with no indoor
plumbing, each of its rooms bearing whispers of the past. There
was the front bedroom where as a boy my father had found a copperhead
coiled beneath his pillow, instilling his lifelong fear of
snakes. There was the long farm table, occupied for hours each
day, where Della had fed her hungry brood in shifts; the ones
who showed up late generally got the least to eat. And there
was the outhouse—humble, enduring edifice—where a bullying
cousin once tried to spy on me and my sister, until my dad got
wise to the boy and sent him on a mysterious snipe hunt. Mr.
Pink, too, had died before my childhood, just after my father
had come home from overseas. But I can still and forever see Della
riding through that stream, defying and outwitting her father. It
was a splendid lesson for a girl in rough-hewn Texas to possess—
my very own Pride and Prejudice—and a story my father, in the
years that followed, may have regretted passing on with such unabashed

Innocence is a state perceived only after it is gone; and mine
now seems a mirror image of the nation itself—or at least of the
dominant culture, playing its indolent game of lawn tennis across
a darkening sky. In those last years of latency, my pleasures remained
pensive or interior: fishing with my dad, climbing trees
with my sister to our fort (in actuality, a neighbor’s forbidden flattopped
garage roof), where we read and ate pimiento-cheese or
butter-and-sugar sandwiches and presumed to defend our secret
bivouac. In teaching me casino, a card game based on memory
and sums,my father had cultivated what would be a lifelong love
of numbers; for years, I feigned interest in his venerated stock
pages, both to please him and to prove that I understood fractions.
Having mastered these rudiments of math, I dove headlong
into the elegance of algebra—a place of labyrinthine and serene
precision in an increasingly uncertain world. I remember feeling
an easy relief when I got to binomial theorems and x-factors: Algebra’s
arched perfection was a buttress of clarity for a girl whose
showiest asset was her mind. I was short, taciturn, and thoughtful;
I ran for class treasurer instead of the deeply coveted post of
cheerleader. And if math wasn’t exactly cool, knowing how to
pass it was. My first education in the casual cruelty of girls came
when a reigning cheerleader invited me to her house to spend the
night, only to ask me, without flinching, to finish her algebra
homework before I left.
Throughout childhood’s march, this was the position I would
hold—the kid who read too much, talked too little, cried inconsolably
over novels even as I maintained a steady grip on my own
uneventful life. And then, to my parents’ awe and terror, the
changes of puberty threw me into adolescence like a bull rider
out of a gate. The year I turned fourteen, I grew four inches, got
breasts and contact lenses almost in the same week. I started
rolling my eyes at the idiocies of Latin Club and Student Council.
Outfitted with a supply of Marlboros—they were twenty-five
cents a pack—I began hanging out at the local drive-in burger
joint, slouched in the shotgun seat of a friend’s Mustang and
looking for action, listening to teenage wipeouts on the radio.
The old 45-rpms my sister and I had worn nearly through, from
“Get a Job” to “The Twist,” had been replaced by the Beatles,
who had stormed The Ed Sullivan Show a year earlier; now it was
the sleepy, syrupy sounds of the Four Seasons and the Association
we heard, about to be rendered impotent by the marvelously
dirty lyrics of “Gloria,” “Louie Louie,” and the Rolling Stones.
What was happening to me, of course, was taking place all
over America, but that in itself was a marvel: Radio and TV were
creating a mass culture, and my rebellion dovetailed with one of
the great cultural upheavals in modern history. Television’s response
to the Kennedy assassination had proved how a country
could be soldered together by the collaborative enterprise of
myth and machine: that technology could transform history simply
by recording it. The airwaves that delivered rock ’n’ roll
piped in its language of sedition to every urban alley and backwoods
lane from sea to shining sea, and the listeners waiting
there responded with the frenzy of a mob outside the Bastille. If
Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” had told us how to make love
in the green grass behind the stadium,
then the Stones’ bumpand-
grind bass gave us the final permission for those hormonal
outrages, and Janis Joplin told us how to scream. For decades,
English teachers had been trying to impart the hidden glories of
theme and symbol to their unwitting students. Now we were
curled up in bed at night with transistor radios to our ears, listening
to one of the great antiheroes of popular culture, Wolfman
Jack, instruct us in the subversive narrative of rock ’n’ roll. Now
we were meeting metaphor head-on in the undeniable poetry of
John Lennon and Bob Dylan; Paul Revere’s hokey descendant,
poised to foretell another revolution, had taken acid before his
midnight ride. And now, when Country Joe McDonald told us
we were all fixin’ to die, he made it sound like an anthem instead
of a eulogy.

Who could resist such shock waves of grit and grace? I fell
headlong into the pop-culture explosion around me, bored
senseless with the homogeneity of life before rock ’n’ roll. I
pierced my ears, illicitly and crookedly, with sewing needles and
bottle corks, using ice cubes as my only anesthetic. I wore chalkwhite
lipstick and nail polish in acolyte imitation of London’s
Yardley Girl, an early-wave supermodel who was kohl-eyed and
anorexic. Amarillo, too, responded to the lion at its gates with
radical measures. The Dean of Girls at my high school, a formidable
woman known to all as Miss Willie, took to carrying
around a ruler to measure our hemlines, and she wielded that
weapon as though it were a holy scepter. Once apprehended, we
had to drop to our knees on the linoleum floors of the highschool
corridors, genuflecting before Miss Willie’s mighty gauge.
When I was sent home to change, I took the reprimand as a badge
of honor; within a few years, I would be wearing far more confrontational
garb. Like the rest of the would-be bad kids at Tascosa
High, I had to make do with the minor rebellions of smoking
in the parking lot and skipping journalism class; the only real
trouble we could find involved unlocked liquor cabinets and illegal
keg parties.

Except for sex, which in the mid-1960s presented a dangerous
territory that many had wandered into but few were willing to acknowledge.
As a child, probably in the late 1950s, I had discovered
that my mother stashed the best books under her bed, away
from her daughters’ eyes; this dust-bunny archive was where I
found The Carpetbaggers and In Cold Blood over the next few
years. But first there was Peyton Place, which I devoured. I was
shocked by the idea of Constance MacKenzie’s nipples being
hard as diamonds, even if I didn’t quite understand why they
were. Most of my education in sexual desire had come from the
elliptical instruction of popular fiction, where women got carried
upstairs as a way to end the chapter. So mine were only vague
prepubescent fantasies, fostered by novels instead of boys, and
then almost accidentally. And that was before I got ahold of Mary
McCarthy’s The Group, which shattered whatever fictions America
had left about good girls and chastity when it appeared in
1963. McCarthy had dared to have her women experience sexual
bliss and dared to call it what it was; in the American vernacular,
the word climax would never be the same.
I must have made off with my mother’s copy of The Group
somewhere in the mid-1960s, a few years after it appeared; certainly
the fragile paperback I still own, with its background shot
of the movie cast, testifies to that. But McCarthy’s randy sophistication
was more than I could yet tolerate; besides, her characters
were Vassar girls, and that was in another country. And
McCarthy’s novel had, after all, belonged first to my mother.My
own self-conscious march into sexually explicit fiction came at
around the same time, accompanying another foray into adulthood.
I had just gotten my driver’s license, which meant I could
plant my flag all over the Panhandle, or at least Amarillo, and I remember
being surprised and disappointed by what that freedom
implied: So what if you could go anywhere at all, if there wasn’t
anywhere to go? For a fifteen-year-old, such unrestricted vision
meant that I could take off in my mother’s car for, at most, a couple
of hours. But at the time it seemed like a mockery, as though
my mobility had opened up the horizon, only to underscore the
emptiness of its plains.
Two interior journeys softened this letdown, if only mildly.
The first was a novel called The Arrangement, by Elia Kazan, a
steamy story of a love triangle that I bought one summer at the
corner drugstore. The other expedition began when I read a
short story in The Saturday Evening Post, slightly racy and deep,
about the sexual awakening and ultimate downfall of a young
woman named Lucy Nelson. It was excerpted from a novel to be
published the next year, in 1967, and it had been written by a man
named Philip Roth. I had never heard of him, though from what
I could tell, a lot of people had. What I knew was that he followed
Lucy’s chaotic despair toward its natural end; more impressive,
he had given his novel the wistful, ironic title of When She Was
Partly because I was determined not to be, I asked for the
book for Christmas. And whether they knew or intuited it, my
parents seemed to realize that I had turned a corner with this par-
ticular book, and that my path might be veering in a dangerous
direction. That, say, the author of Goodbye, Columbus might be
excavating caverns far more threatening than those of either war
or evolution, at least to a teenage girl on the prowl, armed with
her Marlboros and her driver’s license and her long white nails.
And then I met Travis.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Caldwell, Gail, -- 1951-
Journalists -- United States -- Biography.
Critics -- United States -- Biography.