Thursday, September 13, 2007

Family, community history are more than just entertainment

by Mo Palmer

This is likely my penultimate article (that's a big academic word for "next to last").

It looks like my storytelling junket in these pages is about to end. I think it's been seven years now. There are at least a gazillion yellowing newspapers here, creating, no doubt, a fire hazard. Wow, that's 70 or 80 stories, give or take a few for a little time off.

I interviewed nine people in the past few weeks.

I'll continue my renegade history program and keep gathering bits and pieces. Someday, I'll croak and the tapes will go into a musty old vault. The effort is either a gift to posterity or an old woman tilting at windmills, I'm not sure. It doesn't matter, because our voices, legends and laughter will be there to forever frustrate the future, which won't have any machines that can play them.

On Wednesday, I interviewed Marshall and Joan Farris, after I forgot their address on the way down and had to get help from Verizon Wireless. Duh.

Marshall's father was Marshall Farris Sr. and dean of the College of Engineering from 1931 to 1959. The school is named after him. Pretty cool.

Marshall Sr., mini-Marshall and mom Roselle headed west from Arkansas in 1931 in a Model A Ford. No car radio, no traffic; they sang to wile away the miles. No gas stations, no rest areas. If you had to go, you had to go by the side of the road. Mom thought they were moving into the wilds, and at the time, they were.

Old Route 66, as I've talked about, veered east at Santa Rosa and went through Santa Fe so they descended old La Bajada and entered Albuquerque on what's now Highway 85. Their first overnight stay was at a tourist camp on North Fourth Street. Marshall says it's still there, so I'll have to go look for it.

A few moves later, they landed on the UNM campus, which then provided land for faculty homes, with a 99-year lease for a buck. Almost everybody lived there and Marshall can still tell you whose cottage was parked where. Most of them have been razed. "Faculty Row" was near the old, and I mean the old, Country Club, which was where the Newman Center now stands on Las Lomas Boulevard.

This modest little New Mexico vernacular joint was built in the '20s, surrounded by a dirt golf course. The fancy homes west of University Boulevard were once considered the Country Club district. Betcha didn't know that.

When the country set moved down to Laguna, where it is today, the Sigma Chis moved into their building. There were still three "greens," says Marshall, which apparently means golf holes. I don't do golf. They were oil-soaked sand — maybe mixed with old motor oil. None of these luxurious emerald meadows folks now traverse in wee carts.

Beyond the ersatz greens were tumbleweeds and wild grasses.

The family occasionally cruised down to the Alvarado Hotel to eat in the coffee shop — but never the elegant dining room. The newsstand, which lots of kids remember, also had toys, to the delight of a couple of young boys — brother John had come along by then. Nobody has ever mentioned the toys before.

Mrs. Farris was on the library board. One year, they tried to ban the "Wizard of Oz" books because they contained witches. Looking at today's Harry Potter hoo-ha, one might be tempted to think that some things never change. Mom got disgusted and resigned in protest. It's a good thing to stick up for wizards. You never know. Don't write me a letter. I don't know if wizards are right or wrong. I don't care, either.

Joan attended UNM during World War II. She lived in a fraternity house because all the men and boys were gone, so the buildings were used as dormitories. The Navy wanted young men to graduate fast so they could go into war service, so the school ran three semesters a year. Joan graduated in just three years.

She met Marshall on a bus headed for a sporting event — he was in the marching band. They danced the night away and the rest is romantic history.

Marshall remembers the engineering students painting that beloved old landmark, the "U," on a mound in the Sandia foothills. They kept it white, although whitewashing day often turned into a beer bust. There's an expression I haven't heard in a long time.

Apparently they stopped during the '60s, when it became uncool to venerate anything, including our flag. But that's another story, one I won't get to tell.

As rarely happens, I want to make a scholarly point about rambling anecdotes. Most people don't become governor or make a blockbuster film. We just live our lives, but along the way pick up memories that add a great deal to our community knowledge.

I learned about toys at the Alvarado's newsstand, a lot about UNM and about our first country club. What did you learn that you didn't know before?

In her book "Ceremony," American Indian writer Leslie Marmon Silko says, "I'll tell you something about stories . . . they aren't just entertainment. Don't be fooled."

Remember yours, jot them down, pull out those old photos and contact me. We all matter. Ordinary people have unique memories and every one adds a verbal photograph to the composite of cultures, people, faces and places that recreate our past.

Marshall is a docent at The Albuquerque Museum, and Joan is the archivist and librarian for First Presbyterian Church. They are doing their share and keeping their faith in history alive.

Have faith in your past, so we can pass it along to those who follow our act. And whatever you think about simple stories, don't ever be fooled.

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, September 13, 2007.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The Missing Photo:
(Alabama Milner/courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum)

The original Albuquerque Country Club, shown here in 1925, which is where the Newman Center now stands on Las Lomas Boulevard. This building was surrounded by a dirt golf course. The fancy homes west of University were once considered the Country Club district.

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