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My ’70s Childhood Summers in New Mexico

thedesert-624x416We chased lizards. Horny toads were slow and easy to catch since their coloring protected them from predators and didn’t need speed, but blue tails were the real challenge because they were fast as could be and if you grabbed their tai,l it would come off in your hand, leaving you with a writhing and bloody mess that you threw at your friends to make them squeal. Don’t worry. Bluetails grow their tails back, and when you got one that had that in-between look, you instantly announced that it was the one that got away last time, even though it wasn’t likely true.

It didn’t rain much, but when it did, every kid went outside, even when school was still in session. If a storm came when it was hot out, the school bell rang, and we all ran outside to dance and play and get soaked to the skin. In New Mexico this was fine, but sure enough, the rain would pass quickly, and we’d stay outside until we dried off, often not more than ten minutes or so. Hard to stay damp in the desert.

After the rains when school was out, we’d head to the fields behind our apartment complex with baggies and magnets. Storms brought the iron in the dirt to the surface, and we’d place a magnet in a baggie and drag it through the swirls of black dirt where there’d been runoff. Once our magnets looked like odd little spiky monsters, we’d put it into the other baggie, remove the magnet, and dump the dirt into the waiting baggie. It felt magical, and we always swore we were going to sell it, but we never did, and our mothers dumped the bags out in the yards once we weren’t looking.

I went to day camp at the YMCA, and our days were filled with archery, swimming, cooking, and shooting bb guns in the boiler room under the gym, the target only a few feet away from our trembling hands as we pulled the trigger. We chased lizards there too and played gin rummy in the shade and sometimes played “Convoy” in the giant cement pipes that were on the playground. Once I sat on a red ant hill without realizing it and got a zillion bites on the backs of my thighs.

We never wore sunscreen, though my mom tried to make me put zinc oxide on my chronically crispy nose. Of course I wiped it off the moment my mom was out of sight. At the pool in my apartment complex, one of the older women let me borrow her tanning lotion, homemade and containing a mixture of butter and crisco so we smelled like popcorn as we fried our skin. On weekends, I stayed outside at the pool the entire time it was open, 9am to 10pm, often being the last person in the pool. My mother could see me from our kitchen window, but I doubt she checked often.

One summer I built a clubhouse in our tiny apartment yard out of wood I found in the empty fields behind our house. It was terribly fragile and filled with pointy edges and ready-to-puncture splinters, and my friends and I all crawled inside and snuck cigarettes and ate the candy bars we swiped from the Circle K until I got caught that one time and they made me call my mother and tell her, and I was grounded for a month.

I rarely wore shoes and had huge thick calluses on the bottoms of my feet. At the end of the day, I’d sit on the doorjamb and pull out the embedded goat’s head thorns because while I didn’t feel them, my mom sure did when they fell out into the carpet inside. My legs were tan and strong, my hair nearly blond each year by August, and I was happy.

My summers were filled with light, laughter, and lizards in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In August, I’m returning for my sister’s wedding, and I cannot wait to help my daughter catch a horny toad, even though the fields I played in are now full of homes. We’ll find a spot. I remember just where they hide.

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This post was inspired by Melissa Fenton‘s hilarious post over at Mommy Page. Thanks for the memories, Melissa.

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