The American Southwest is a very special place. Those of you who were born here tend to take it for granted, but you have no idea how lucky you are.
You were born here. The rest of us had to (a) discover this place, and (b) find some way to get here.
I found this part of the American Southwest way back in 1958 while I was driving to Travis Air Force Base, Calif., on my way to Japan. I remember driving through Mesa, which was hardly more than a few miles square at the time. I stopped and ate in a little restaurant on Main Street, and I swear I never felt so much at home in my life. And for a guy who was born in New York City, and raised in New England, that’s saying a lot!
A few years after that, in 1961, as I was driving across the country in the opposite direction with my beloved wife, Lolly, and my 9-month-old son, David, I stopped and ate in another Arizona restaurant, this one in Kingman.
And once again I had the feeling of being at home. Well, I may be dumb, but I am trainable, Johnny. So I made up my mind to get here somehow or other.
Made it too, though it took a long time.
Mind you, there are good people, and good places, everywhere. I often say a few words about New York City, making it plain that it would not be my first choice of places to spend an entire life. But if you stop and think about it, even in New York City, people live in neighborhoods, and what you think of a city, or town, or even a stretch of countryside depends not on its name, or its size, or on how many people live there. It depends on the people you know, the ones who touch your life, the ones closest to you — the folks in your own neighborhood.
I’ve lived in quite a few neighborhoods. In New York City. In Connecticut, Texas, Arizona, Louisiana — even in the UK. I found good people everywhere, people I was happy to have as friends and neighbors.
But the truth is the truth. There is something very special about the people of the American Southwest, some greatness of spirit, some way that the wide open country has found its way into men and women and given them a very different perspective.
Perspective. Yeah. That’s it. Let me give you an example.
If I say “multi-millionaire oil tycoon” to you, what kind of picture forms in your mind? Someone with a fat cigar stuck in his face? A three-piece suit? A pair of hard eyes? A wallet bulging with hundreds?
Not necessarily. I’ve told you about Tom Bell before, someone who looked like none of those things. Tom Bell was my landlord in Wichita Falls, a Texan with a broad, tanned face, a soft drawl, laugh wrinkles around his eyes, bolo tie, Stetson, and — of course — one pair of scuffed, but obviously first-class boots.
I mentioned Tom one time when I was telling you how long it took me to get here. Tom, you may remember if you read that column, is the landlord I had to tell I was moving because I couldn’t afford the $65 a month rent for a very nice apartment in his big old building. And if you remember that column I’m sure you haven’t forgotten what his answer was when I told him that.
“How much is your new place going to cost you?” he asked.
“About thirty dollars less.”
“Oh, shoot! Pay me thirty less and stay here.”
Those nine words of his, spoken in a warm Texan drawl, will live in my memory until the day I die.
But that’s not the best story I can tell you about Tom Bell.
This is, and it has a lot to do with perspective:
Tom used to sit down in the lobby of his big old three-story brick apartment building, boots up on a scarred old wooden desk. He was often on the phone when I came through the lobby, but he always took time to wave, and he always had a smile on his face. In fact, the most characteristic thing about Tom was that smile. It had what I would call a “welcome to Texas” look to it.
So you can imagine how surprised I was one day when I got home from Sheppard Air Force Base and passed through the lobby as always. There was Tom, sitting at his desk, boots up and phone in hand as usual, but with a deep frown on his face.
“What?” he said. “Again? How deep this time?”
I didn’t want to listen in on his phone conversation, but our little window evap cooler — the first one I had ever seen — was on the blink and I wanted to tell him about it.
There was a pause while Tom listened to the answer from the other end of the line. His frown deepened.
“Well, we’ll just have to move the rig and try again.”
He listened some more, waving me into a chair.
“Well, I don’t care. Just move it. Move away from the creek. Try it over by the hill where it’s bone dry. Maybe that’ll work.”
Another pause, this one even longer.
“Yeah, I know that’s dumb, but try it. I’ll be out to talk to you later, OK? You just get started moving that rig.”
He hung up, looked at me, shook his head, and dropped his boots off the desk with a thump. “Well, if that don’t beat all!”
I didn’t want to be nosy, but I felt I knew Tom Bell fairly well, surely a lot better than I’d ever known a landlord before.
“What’s up, Tom?” I asked him.
“Oil!” he said. “Doggone oil!”
I knew nothing about the oil drilling business, so I figured he had hit another dry hole, something that happened a lot out there in Wichita Falls, which was near the fabulous Burkburnett Oil Strike. People were still drilling like mad.
“No luck?” I asked.
“Sixth dang time we’ve drilled without a drop.”
Well, oil wells were a bit out of my class, so I had very little interest in them. “Too bad. Maybe you’ll strike oil next time,” I said, wanting to talk about my swamp cooler.
“Oil?” he said. “Lord, son! I’ve got enough oil. That’s the trouble. Every time I drill for water out on that ranch of mine we come up with oil.”
“Dang tootin’ it is! I got thirsty cattle out there. I need water not oil.”
As I said, it all depends on your perspective.