My years on a desolate island

I grew up with a back yard 300 feet wide and 50 miles deep.

As soon as I and my brothers left the small spot of grass that my mother kept alive through incredibly hard work and in spite of the town water rationing, we were in a world where only American Indians had been before us. The expanse of the Jemez mountains and the Rio Grande valley filled thousands of square miles with no trace of people, except an exciting cave here and there where we could find old arrow heads.

We can still frighten our parents when we tell them about cliffs we climbed and crevices we got lost in while we explored the world of stone and cacti of northern New Mexico.

It is a wild sensation of freedom and immensity I have found only in one place in tame Denmark, on shores of the North Sea when the wind is so strong that only the ocean is real. But for most people raised the real America, the America East of Las Vegas and West of Philadelphia, this sense is the original state of one’s self.

My childhood years were the years that American authors like to speak of as the years when America lost it´s innocence, and the America I grew up in – white protestant affluent small town America- is the America whose disappearance David Lynch and Steven Spielberg have used their entire lives and a score of movies to bemoan.

Every morning in school we swear allegiance to the flag ‘and for that freedom for which it stands’ and again a Saturday a month at the cub scout meeting. We have progressive teachers: Miss Paraskevas in 4’th grade leaves the text book, teaches us Spanish words and tells us about the Spanish conquest of New Mexico from the Pueblo Indians, and the American conquest of the state in 1848. So we know that America wasn´t just colonized by English puritans from the Mayflower.

One day I am playing on a grass lawn by the road, a jogger runs past. It is probably 1972, and joggers have begun to appear everywhere, even in Los Alamos. He says “mornin’” to me, using a broad Midwestern accent, and I say the same back to him in the same accent. He looks at me, wondering as if I am making fun of his way of talking.

But I always speak back to people with the accent I hear them use. Myself, I have no language, I come from nowhere.

At the time we only had four TV channels in New Mexico, all of them at most had a half hour of National news a day. The rest of the programming was about fishing and sports. It was relaxed television, often live, and the news were often postponed or cancelled if the base ball match took extra time or it took longer than expected for the master angler to get the trout to bite. Our news paper is the Los Alamos Monitor, where the police blotter is the high point of journalism. A few homes bought the New York Times from the drug store with a delay of a couple of weeks. We watch Mannix, Hawaii Five O, and Star Trek on TV. I and my brothers know all Star Trek episodes by heart, and act them all out again and again up and down the cliffs, in and out of garages. These are strong times, detectives cage the bad guys in 52 weeks a year, the Federation spreads civilization and decency around the Universe, the Prime Directive – on non-intervention in the future of other races and respect for the right of the weak to their own destiny – is respected by the always conscience-ridden captain Kirk.

This is before Native American Studies, African American Studies and Gender Studies walk their victory march through US education systems. In my text books everything outside white middle class USA, that I myself am part of, is invisible. In 4’th grade I learn about the Mayflower pilgrims and the heroes of the Boston tea party as history, not as lessons in myth creation for beginners. In 5’th grade my social studies book teaches me that communism is an evil ideology that slave binds people in bondage and that strives for world hegemony. No more, no less. That is all I need to know about communism. I learn that President Kennedy made sure that the US beat the communists in the space race. There is nothing about Vietnam or the Bay of Pigs.

But the evenings at home are filled with President Johnson’s more and more desperate speeches to his people, bombs raining over Vietnam – they did, that was the picture I saw – , the race riots in Watts, and an orgy of incomprehensible political violence as one after another of the Nation’s progressive politicians are liquidated in what nobody dares to think of as a hysterical reactionary guerilla war. Johnson is followed by Nixon’s beloved and hated gangster face, and finally by the Watergate hearings, where the television screen pitilessly destroys the glory of the country´s governing elite in an infinite stream of talentless, petty, self revealing, uniform answers: ‘I have no recollection on that matter’.

Los Alamos is a rich town with a voting majority of high paid young parents, so it is a town where I take great benefit of the strong American tradition for local government. We have the best school system in the state, and I have never – in Denmark or in any other place in the US – had better or more inspiring teachers.

Back home in Denmark in 6’th grade, I am shocked to experience our at the time still restricting and class divided school – with Technical Admittance Exams for the kids with blue collar parents and Secondary School Exam for us kids from white collar academic homes, inflexible teachers and a straightjacket educational plan, unable to adapt the teaching to the individual pupil, and a strong class solidarity among the children, which would easily turn to a collectively enforced refusal to learn what “their” school taught. It may well be that Danish kids are far better than I to settle conflicts, to give space to one another and that they know more about the realities of the world than I do, but I am far better at math.

In 8’th grade I am back in Los Alamos at Pueblo Junior High School. I am not in a clique – I was in Denmark in 6’th and 7’th grade and apparently these are important years to have missed. I am neither a jughead (the hash smoking laid back type guys) nor a jock (those on one of the school sports teams). I get together with a few old friends from elementary school, all of them like me are rather immature types that don´t quite understand the puberty games that have started to dominate school life. We are probably ‘brains’, the small minority that in Denmark would be ‘teachers´ pets’.

In Denmark you stay in class with the same 20 kids all through elementary school, and later, when I come back to Denmark for good, I am for rest of my years in school envious of my school mates, for whom their grade school class has been a safe incubator that most of them have grown up in, for good and for bad. In Pueblo every student put together his own daily study program so you change from one class to another seven times a day. In elementary school we were at least together with the same kids all day for a year.

It is a school system engineered for a mobile population that often moves thousands of miles each time they change job, a nation where to be a stranger is normality. By drowning the students in an ocean of strangers every day, the system forces us to learn to wear a social camouflage as we glide through an always changing social landscape. It is a school culture that nourishes the openness, curiosity and clever reading of a social environment, the tolerance and the speedy adaptation to change, that are so charming American traits. The other side of the coin is the urge towards total conformity that all American children must learn as a survival mechanism in the unpredictable jungles that the schools are for those who attend them.

Los Alamos lives and thrives by the 4000 highly educated technicians and researchers employed by the town´s weapons laboratories. All are cleared by the FBI, almost all are WASP – white anglo saxon protestants – all are of good middle class background with degrees from the leading science faculties of the country. Losd Alamos has two Junior High Schools – Pueblo is the one where the Latino children go – those whose parents are the garbage collectors, the county administrators and the street cleaners in this class divided town on the top of a mountain in the middle of the poorest state in the US.

At Pueblo the Latinos probably feel they are as much outsiders as are us brains, but all I experience is the pressure at the gym classes, where I am the only one that never gets a baseball glove when I am posted as an outfielder. I am a favorite victim in the daily warball warm up, where we stand in two rows across from on another shooting basketballs as hard as we can at kids in the other row when they aren´t looking (as so many other small town gym teachers in the US, at least those portrayed in movies and TV, Mr. Tucker is a sadist, a disappointed marine corps instructor type).

In the school yard during lunch break the Latinos form a row and force everyone that tries to pass through to give money. I refuse to pay and challenge them to beat me up during gym class. It never happens, but they make Mr. Tucker give me 30 bench presses extra with every one watching.

There comes a day where I, in my usual exile as outfielder, catch a high flying and hard hitting ball. The batter, a popular jock, has been caught out. My hand is numb the rest of the day but it is worth it for the Latinos look at me in a different way than usual, and afterward I am left alone during gym.

When the last bell rings I often throw up the fear of the day together with the cafeteria lunch, before entering the school bus for the trip home, and at the bench press episode a tic in my right eye appears for the first time, a tic that ever since appears when I am in a pressed situation. Later, when I am a high school teacher in Denmark for a couple of years, the nickname my students give me is, naturally, ‘The lighthouse’.

I understand nothing of the anger I am surrounded by at Pueblo. Today it is shocking for me, but it is typical for the elite that leads the US into Vietnam, Watergate and Watts, that in my insular life in Los Alamos I know nothing about working class America, the US of the Blacks, the Chicanos, the Italians, the Greeks, the Irish, not to speak of the famous southern white trash.

I don’t even know the word ‘Latino’, even though Los Alamos is a small white island in a brown State. It is only when I in high school in Denmark see American Pictures by Jakob Holdt that I began to get an idea of what lay behind the Latinos´hard eyes at gym, the unfriendly greed of the Pueblo Indians when we visit their dances, and the fact that you could not let cars from Los Alamos (with the very visible first digits of ’32’ on the license plate) stand parked over night in the poor Mexican and Indian villages in the valley below ‘The Hill’ as Los Alamos is called in daily talk.

In later years it is the anger shown by the tough kids on play ground I recognize again and again in US events, while the friendly ‘mornin’ from a passing jogger to a 10 year boy is lost in a time that America despite huge and determined efforts never has been able to find it´s way back to.

When after my last return home in 1976 I have tried to find ‘my’ US again, I have, except for brief visits, been forced to track it through America´s cultural exports. I have followed working class America´s anger over the thoughtless betrayal of trust by it´s ignorant elite through Sylvester Stallone’s patriotic revolt in Rocky and First Blood, and the strange culmination of this rebellion in the revenging, gloomy Christian visions of Ronald Reagan and Bush Sr. that Stallone´s later Rocky and Rambo movies adulate.

I follow Clint Eastwood when he as an aspiring director is excited over Reagan’s attempt to recapture America´s US past, and later when he in total disillusion stabs Reagan and all he stands for in the back, in ‘The Unforgiven”, the ultimate erasure of small town America as a myth that never existed. The US I knew dies with ‘The Unforgiven’.

By Sven Gårn Hansen

Sven Gårn Hansen experienced the US for six years in the 60’s and 70’s as a child of a traveling nuclear physicist.

PS: In this piece I use the word “American” the way North Americans used it in the 60s and 70s, as if they were the only American nation. Also, ethnic labels are used as when I learned them, not as they probably would be used today.

MoskitoA version of this story has been printed in Danish in Moskito.

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