Leyendas 2017

A home to return to

1940s-1950s summers in Taos


The following piece is an excerpt from the chapter “Crack of thunder,  first drops of rain” in Jim Levy’s memoir, “Rowdy’s Boy,” about his childhood and adolescence.

To get from Los Angeles to Taos, my mother took Route 66, driven in the blazing heat of five summers, 1948-‘52, east in June and back again in August, the first time in a green Hudson when our mother was 40, Bunny was 9, I was 7 and infant Mary. A canvas bag bulging with water hung from the front fender of the sedan to use when the radiator overheated on hills.

Mom rents an adobe in Talpa overlooking the Ranchos valley. She rolls a sprig of sagebrush between her fingers and makes me smell it. I play with a gang of Hispanic boys who are smaller and tougher than me and have no trouble throwing me to the ground.

Tio Vivo is a small merry-go-round in the Plaza during Fiestas. I join other children riding little animals that go round and round: a lion, a giraffe, a hare with long ears. The animals don’t mind going in circles because that’s their job and I don’t mind going in circles because I keep passing Mom who waves and has a big smile on her face.

The next two summers she rented a house in La Loma, three blocks west of Taos Plaza. The town was small, ending to the south at Jack Denver’s motel, to the north at the turn off to Taos Pueblo. There was one stop sign and no traffic lights. At night the town was dark, with just a few splashes of light from the softball game. There were no parking meters, but there were burros and horse-drawn wagons in the streets. The phone book was thin, almost a brochure, and the phone numbers consisted of three digits. Our mother laughed when she picked up the phone and a neighbor was already on the line. 

The fourth and fifth summers, this would be 1951 and ’52, she rented a house from Mabel Dodge Luhan called the Tony House, which Mabel had built for her Pueblo husband Tony Lujan. The house was on Pueblo land and was a controversial subject. Some people said Tony had been banned from the tribe for marrying Mabel and allowing her to build on Pueblo land. D.H. Lawrence and Frieda [his wife] had lived in it when they first came to Taos and again on a later visit.

Mabel Dodge lived in “the big house” that had many pigeons. We were forbidden to go anywhere near it, but I waded up the acequia to her cornfield.

Mabel was everything people have said about her: bossy, imperial, rich. A burly woman with short hair and a large nose, she seemed to have a compulsion to slip a little bullying into every encounter. She wrote my mother, after our first summer there: “If Jimmy rides his horse through my cornfield one more time, I’m going to evict you.”

Tony Lujan came over most mornings to have coffee with my mother. A bulky Taos Indian with braids, he sat before a cup and didn’t seem to drink and then, when it was empty, left. I don’t think they talked. I imagine she enjoyed the attention, but wasn’t taken in. She was a skeptical woman who no longer believed in love or passion. She made pithy remarks about people and said about Tony and his Nash Rambler, “He thinks the center line is to guide him down the middle of the road.”

Frieda Lawrence visited too, a short plump woman (but soft, not hard like Mabel) whose wide mouth radiated warmth and humor. It is impossible to imagine Lawrence with her and impossible to imagine him without her. Lady Dorothy Brett came over too, a thin woman with big teeth whom people called Brett. She bothered me when she sat straining to hear in our dining room under the portrait she had painted of Toscanini who had an elongated finger pointing downward. I thought it spooky and used to make fun of it — all of us made fun of it, including Mom — but she told us to shut up about it when Brett was there.

Mom was friends with Eulalia Emetaz, an elegant woman with short hair, the owner of La Galeria Escondida, the first gallery in Taos to carry modern art, and with the painter Gisella Loeffler, who bought the house next door, called the Pink House. She was pretty and loaded down with necklaces, bracelets and belts. Lawrence, Frieda and others are said to have painted the doors and walls of that house.

While living at the Tony House, we rented three horses from Taos Pueblo. These were not the docile stable horses we were used to at the riding club in Los Angeles. They were small Indian ponies with mean streaks. One hated to have anything touch her ears so if we tried to slip a bridle over her head, she reared up and went berserk. We had to disassemble a bridle and reassemble it on her. The second glided over to barbed wire fences when she thought we weren’t paying attention and rubbed our legs up against them. The third swerved under low branches and tried to knock us off.

My friends and I took them in stride, giving as bad as they gave — Jimmy McCarthy, Johnny Ramming, one of the Randall boys, Billy Parr and two other Hispanic boys whose names I don’t remember. One of our deplorable sports was to climb onto the biggest of the horses, four or five of us, and then stick her with a nail. She bucked us off, and the winner was the last boy still on. 

We rode into the hills bareback, with only a bridle to control the horses, up one of the long arroyos leading towards the top of the hills, and then, we turned the horses around, slipped the bridles off and gave them a kick. Free, they ran for home with us clinging to the manes as they swerved through trees and around chamisa and sage until they came to jarring halts at the corrals. The winner: again the boy who stayed on.

Taos Plaza then was mostly real stores, not tourist traps. Safeway was on the southwest corner. There was a barbershop, a bar, a restaurant and the La Fonda Hotel. Some nights we went to the Plaza Theater, on the south side of the plaza. We entered off the street directly into the lobby, a cramped dim space bathed in the smells of popcorn and musty carpet, then we pushed through heavy blue velvet curtains into a cavern with over 400 seats.

On the walk home from the Plaza, I often cut through Kit Carson Park, which was just a tangle of brush and trees, dodging the drunks who lay in the bushes calling out to whoever passed. The park included a cemetery where Kit Carson’s grave was enclosed by an iron fence. My friends bet me three dollars to sleep on the grave and so I took a sleeping bag and did just that, spent the night sleeping peacefully on top of Carson’s grave.

Growing up in west Los Angeles, in a wooded canyon, I didn’t have much sense of the sky, but in Taos, I was alert to the drama of the sun, moon and stars as they crossed the immense sky. I was thrilled by the clear mornings when I roamed freely, and the afternoon thunderstorms and downpours that seemed to come out of nowhere. 

August 11, 1952, was the last day I spent in Taos as a child. I went out into the mesa between our house and the hills. Taos Mountain rose in the north; a string of extinct volcanos sat on the horizon to the west. It was warm and bright when I left the house but early in the afternoon, the sky darkened, thunder rumbled, crack of thunder and the first drops of rain released the smells of sagebrush and dust. A sleepy sexual energy coursed through me as I stood in the rain inhaling the molecules of wet earth.

Then it was over; light returned, the dry air sucked up the moisture.

Without my knowing it, Taos permanently changed me, aroused my senses, entered into my being and gave me a home to return to.

Jim Levy returned in 1963 and worked as a bartender for Harold Street at the Taos Inn. In the 1970s, he was the editor of The Fountain of Light and he helped Harvey Mudd renovate the Plaza Theater and worked there first as manager, then as projectionist. He was executive director of the Harwood Foundation and the Taos Art Association and worked for 35 years as an administrator for nonprofit organizations. He is the author of "Corazón (and Merkle)," which is about two dogs; "Cooler Than October Sunlight," selected poems; "Joy To Come," literary essays; "The Poems of Caius Herennius Felix," the story of a Roman-Spanish poet; and "The Fifth Season," a memoir of growing old.