Everyone knows the story of putting a frog in tepid water and heating it up. The idea is that the change is so gradual that the frog will not realize it is being boiled alive. I’m not a frog, but I see myself adjusting to the changes in my life over the past 50 years so gradually that I’ve forgotten what it was like: before children, career, computers and cellphones and so much more.
I thought of this when I read Henry D. Terrell’s novel Desert Discord about a small West Texas town in 1970. The town is called Duro in the book, but Terrell modeled it after Odessa, the oil town where he grew up. The book is available on Amazon.
The cast of characters in Desert Discord is large, in the “everybody knows everyone’s business in a small town” kind of way. The sprawling, yet surprisingly intimate, story revolves around violin prodigy Andy and his large, Hispanic family; the artsy, counter-culture-ish Piedmans and their three daughters; Andy’s music teacher; a few small-time crooks and an assortment of young men with varying degrees of prospect.
Two of Andy’s friends start a marijuana growing operation. Young thugs who took them for homosexuals beat up Andy and his friend Simon. Both Piedmans are going through mid-life crises. There is a kidnapping, a peeping Tom, a runaway and several shootings. Also, a dog, classical music, a flash flood and traumatic brain injury. The intertwined story lines weave in and out with panache and humor. I am reminded of Donald Westlake’s Dortmunder books, where unintended consequences always intrude.
In my head, I know–and you know–that a lot has changed since the ‘70s. But the differences didn’t feel so concrete until I read the world described in Desert Discord. For example in those days we all drove American cars. The cheap VW Beetle was the one foreign car in wide circulation.
After twenty-five years of driving Japanese cars, and snapping on seat belts, I had forgotten a time when Japanese, Korean, German and Swedish cars didn’t roam our streets. The cars on our streets and in our parking lots today actually look vastly different from those on the streets and in the parking lots fifty years ago. And much safer.
In the novel, Andy putters around in his red, clanky-valved Beetle. My first car was a blue VW Squareback. I had recurring nightmares that I would be flattened by a semi because that car had no acceleration. Simon’s fiancée had a Dodge Dart. My next car was a powder blue Dodge Dart Soft Top. The rear wheel drive was terrible in snow, which, I suppose, is not a problem in West Texas. Jerry De Ghetto, a not particularly adept businessman, tries to impress with an Oldsmobile 442 convertible, which Terrell describes as a “long land shark.” My dad also drove a long Oldsmobile, an Olds 98. There were no SUVs in those days but Andy’s dad has a Ford Ranch Wagon.
Terrell also captures the different ways we communicated with each other before cellphones and computers. Sometimes, essential communication takes longer. When Andy and Simon are mugged, Simon has to run to a store to ask the clerk to phone the police. When Apollo Piedman drives his Corvair into a rain-swollen river, his family has no inkling of his harrowing experience until he shows up at home wet and shoeless. His daughter asks, “My God, Daddy…What happened to you?”
“What happened to me is I lost my goddamn car and nearly drowned. But here I am. Yay, me.”
Other times in the story, slower communication is helpful. When a person wants to drop out of society, the lack of the Internet makes that a lot easier to accomplish. A gay teenager in trouble with the law takes a bus to Houston and is able to be “lost” in the big city. Janie Piedman just wants to get away from her family. She heads out for California, as some of my friends did. She doesn’t get far, also like my friends.
An important plot point in Desert Discord is the risk gay people have to take to find each other – cruising or meeting in parks at night. Besides the societal change in attitude, we now have phone apps for this!
Reading Desert Discord, I am drawn back to the less distracted pace of life in the days when people had one conversation at a time. These days, when I say “Hi” to my neighbors, I have ear buds on and a podcast going. When I’m eating dinner with my husband, I am also checking my email – and my blog post viewers. When I am talking to friends, I am distracted by the ping of a text message.
Most interesting to me are the social issues that are raised in Desert Discord. Reading about them now, I feel very little emotion, even though I was very passionate about some of them at the time. My boyfriend’s long hair was a flash point with his parents and mine, just as Andy’s hair, which “spilled over his collar and onto his shoulders like a cavalier in a Pre-Raphaelite painting” keeps him from being appointed first chair of the second violins in the Duro Symphony Orchestra. At one time, this scene would have infuriated me. So many years later, I feel an amused recognition. The orchestra leader explains, “We’re not in the vanguard here in West Texas. It’ just that. . .well. . .the symphony board is concerned about appearances … Some members were adamant that the length of your hair was unacceptable.”
As I am rubbing CBD, a hemp product, on my arthritic fingers, I can recall the fear of getting caught by the police for smoking pot. It was both the fear of legal consequences and terror at what my parents would say! One night, our commune was passing around a joint when there was a loud banging on our door. The voice claimed to be the fuzz. It turned out to be friends playing a joke on us. My mild, pleasant buzz morphed into a stomach churning dread in seconds, proving once and for all, that the mind and the body are intimately linked.
In Desert Discord, marijuana touches many lives. Andy’s mom has been drinking it in a tea for her arthritis for years. Andy’s friends go to great lengths to make growing it a business – stealing metered water, patrolling for deer and hiding their field from the authorities. Janie just wants to get stoned.
It’s interesting to me that, despite the legalization of marijuana in many states, our policy continues to be as confusing and conflicted as ever. People are still being hauled in for growing weed in some states while, on my last trip to Denver, I bought some chocolate-flavored “edibles” at a marijuana store called the Smoking Gun.
There were few Latinos in St. Louis when I was growing up. Not so in West Texas. Desert Discord treats the relationship between Hispanics and whites as a non-issue. As Hispanics and whites have lived along side each other for a long time in Texas, there was an easy interaction. The idea that hordes of them need to be physically barred from this space a la the border wall seems ludicrous.
I had no views on homosexuality fifty years ago. If I had an idea that the concept existed, it was a vague, theoretical construct. Certainly no one ever told me that they were gay. I remember my first year medical school class on human sexuality in 1976. A gay male couple talked about their relationship. I don’t think it was graphic. My memory was that I was touched by the degree of tenderness they held for each other. I imagine I always had gay friends and family members, but I know now.
Human nature has not changed even if the appearance of the scene and the big political and social issues of the day have. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives, doing the best given the circumstance, making some good decisions and some stupid ones.
Desert Discord took me on a trip back to my own life, one that I had forgotten, via an entertaining story with endearing characters. For a little while, I was the cute, naive and earnest twenty-three year-old I was in 1970.
Tell me: What is one thing in your life that you do completely differently from ten years ago?