DURANGO – The smell seems almost artificial, like it’s being piped-in from some mystery vent tucked behind a giant dictionary or a set of ancient Encyclopedias.
It’s the smell of sunshine dust and broken bindings, of worn handmade rugs and wooden stools. But mostly, it’s the smell of age and experience, of the deterioration of pages of old books, sending molecules of knowledge into the air, into your nostrils and maybe, just maybe, into your brain.
The Bookcase sits off 2nd Avenue in Durango, tucked into a corner building off the street, Tibetan prayer flags hung across the awning. The inside is cramped, claustrophobic and cluttered, a fire hazard if there ever was one. But every book, each volume of bound information, has its ordered place.
More than 20 years ago, Anne Perkins-Parrot, the owner, moved here from Beaumont, Texas with her husband. She still has a Texas drawl that rolls off her tongue like sweet tea, still has a Texas wit about her.
“I’m a hyphenated woman, not a highfalutin woman,” she says.
What she also has is a love of politics, raised by a father who was good friends with Lyndon B. Johnson, back in the days when LBJ was a senator from the Lone Star State.
Anne is a self-described proud progressive. She remembers registering black voters with her dad, and the ire that drew from the community. She learned at 4 years old never to cross a picket line. In her teens, she went into a diner with a friend and locked arms across the bar that separated whites from blacks. The police arrived, dragged then out and threw them onto the sidewalk.
“I was very politicized at a very early age,” she says.
In a day an age when much attention is being given to what role government should play in the lives of Americans, she sees a place for government. Someone needs to police companies, she says, because they won’t police themselves.
Her daughter, Candy Freeman, also from Beaumont, agrees. She’s seen the ill effects of deregulation, of companies allowed to do what they please. Candy has lived in Durango for eight years, but the memories of her time in Beaumont – where some of the largest oil refineries and petrochemical plants in the world sit – are fresh.
The big issue for both women now is climate change and making sure that the nation moves toward an energy portfolio that is truly sustainable. Fracking for natural gas is a big and still burgeoning industry in Colorado, a state rich in natural resources. But that’s come at a price, Anne says.
Whether climate change is man made or not is of no concern to Anne. It’s happening, she says, and needs to be dealt with. Both women have seen how the climate has changed in Colorado over just the past five, six years. It’s hotter and drier, they say, and wildfires have become commonplace. It snows less and less each winter. Animals come down from the mountains and into downtown Durango searching for food because there is where they live.
“I don’t care what’s causing it,” Anne says, “it needs to be dealt with. All this debating about it is just a distraction.”
ALAMOSA, Colo. – Vernon Davis sits in a booth at VFW Post 899 off Main Street in downtown Alamosa, sipping beer from a small pilsner glass, the head sometimes leaving a thin line of foam in the mustache of the white beard that washes across his face.
Mr. Davis, 79, served one tour in the Korean War and three more in Vietnam, flying fixed-wing aircraft for the US Army. I ask him if he can tell me about his time in the service. He gets quiet and looks down at the table before raising his head to speak.
“No,” he says. “I’m not going to talk about that.”
What he will tell you is that he didn’t care where a man came, what color he was or what he believed in when he was on active duty during his 22 years of service.
“You meet a lot of guys from a thousand different backgrounds in the service,” he says. “You might not always agree with each other. You might see things totally different from them. But when it matters most, you come together to get the job done.”
That kind of cooperation is missing these days, he says, especially amongst elected leaders in Washington.
“A leader takes care of his troops,” he says. “And right now our government is not doing that.
“We’re digging ourselves a great big financial hole, and one day we’re not going to be able to climb out of it, but you don’t see any of these politicians working together to get it done. You can’t keep printing money. If you’re always spending more than you take in, it ain’t going to work. It’s simple mathematics. Life is nothing more than what you put into it. You reap what you sow.”
Behind him, in an area darkened from a blown out light above it, a tiny, humble table sits, going almost unnoticed. On it sits a dusty, overturned wine glass, a Bible, a single rose in a vase and a plain, white plate with a small, shriveled slice of lemon in its middle. It’s a table for the lone unknown, for the missing in action. It’s for the one who is alone, who can only taste the bitterness of his captivity.
“Gone but not forgotten,” Vernon says. “We don’t forget the sacrifice of men.”
Now he’s looking for a little sacrifice from Washington.
“It’s time to pull in on the damn belt-straps and take it up a notch,” he says. Cuts must be made and programs eliminated, he says, but cuts to the military?
“If they cut the military, they’re cuttin’ their own throat,” he says. “There’s people out there that are just waiting to hurt us. We shouldn’t make it easier for them.”
Davis still speaks like a soldier.
“I’d recommend getting an honest man up there in the headquarters,” he says. “And whoever that is, they need to start downsizing. The government’s getting too much of the public’s money. It’s time to give it back.”
Shelter from the storm
OLD COLORADO CITY, Colo. – There were nights that his family couldn’t find shelter and sought refuge – all 10 of them – in grain silos.
Even when a roof was over their head, they often had to place tarps over the worn, wooden plank floor of their one-room, tarpaper shack so that snakes would not slither into their sleeping bags as they slept.
He remembers the sting of a rubber hose biting into his back, humiliating punishment from a teacher for speaking Spanish in class. He knew no English.
It’s easy for Eduardo Briones to conjure-up memories of his time as a child in the 1950s, roaming from state to state, town to town, farm to farm with his migrant farm-worker family. His father, born in Mexico, American born mother and most of his siblings would harvest cotton and watermelons under a blazing sun or clean fields of weeds by hand with hoes.
Sometimes, after days and days in the fields, the farmers they were working for would refuse to pay them. They had no power, no way to push back. They just moved on to another farm in Kansas, Oklahoma or Texas, the state where Eduardo was born.
“They were terrible conditions,” he says. “But at the time, I was thinking: ‘This is the way people live.’”
Too young to work in the fields, Eduardo would climb under farm trucks to escape the relentless heat, lying in the greasy shade when he wasn’t fetching water for the workers, once at mid-morning and again in early afternoon.
His family toiled and his parents sacrificed. They had little, but made up for their lack of possessions with a fierce commitment to each other. There were home cooked meals every day, the wholesomeness of something warm and real. What they had was love.
“Family was the center of the universe,” Eduardo says. “The family is what saved us.”
The farm work ended when the family moved to Wisconsin, where Eduardo attended Marquette University. With no jobs in sight, he quit school and joined the US Army, living at bases across the United States and Europe. He volunteered for assignments in dangerous places – El Salvador during the Sandanista uprising in the 1980s and Operation Desert Storm in 1991 – because, he said, “I just liked the adventure.”
Eduardo will tell you – veterans who put in their 20 years (his time mainly in computer network systems jobs) are not treated as well as they should be when they retire from active duty. For a career that spanned 1984-2004, he gets a $1,700 per month pension.
Do the math: That’s a little over $20,000 a year. Yes, it’s tax free, but try supporting a family on that amount and you’re likely to be receiving food stamps or other government benefits. In many places, you would be living below the poverty line.
So Eduardo supplements his pension with a contractor job through Northrup Grumman at Schriever Air Force Base outside Colorado Springs. The payout? $94,000 a year.
As time went on and his life progressed, he’s had a chance to look back. Eduardo is almost 60 now, and has never married, never had kids. What he does have are the memories of struggle and sacrifice and pride. The advancement of his fellow Latino Americans throughout the arc of his life is a kind of redemption of the pain of his past, he says. Like most Americans, jobs and the economy are important issues to him, and he is sick of divide and conquer politics and wants to see more cooperation and less partisan wrangling.
“If you don’t have a job how damn important is it if gay people can get married? Just give me a damn job,” he says.
But you can tell by the pitch in his voice and the way his body gets energized when he talks about it that immigration policy is something that he cares the most about.
He’s felt the issue; on the floor of a dilapidated shack, on his young back, in the loving embrace of his family, tired and worn-down from work, but always striving, always moving forward – with hope. He’s heard anxiety in the voices of some of his white friends and fellow veterans about how the country is changing, getting darker, moving away from the way things used to be when the prospect of a non-majority race culture wasn’t hanging out there on the not-too-far-out horizon.
But there is no going back, Eduardo says. Change is happening right now, and the sooner everyone accepts it, the better.
“There’s no going back,” he says.
Four years ago he got a tattoo of the Aztec god Quetzalcóatl inked on his right arm, the two-headed snake – an Aztec symbol of self-reflection and death and resurrection – wrapping itself around his large bicep.
“It’s my heritage,” he says of the tattoo. “It’s the one thing I own, that I can control.”