THE BLOG
06/13/2014 06:02 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2014

My 1950s Death Valley Dad

Michael Cogliantry via Getty Images

Although my dad had a difficult temperament, although he was a 1950s kind of father who kept his distance from the children, and though my brother and I saw very little of either parent while growing up, I knew my dad loved and supported me. In an age when my aunt said "a girl who can sew like you, why would you want to go to college?" he was the one to beg me to get an even higher degree. "The more degrees you have," he said, "the better you'll be treated."

He was a man with few advantages (who suffered all his life from the fact that he only achieved a GED), but he knew how to make his life interesting, even when lack of money or tedious employment on the bottom rungs of a corporation worked in a daily way to make his existence unrewarding. What I learned from him is that degrees do count, but that, with or without them, our existence requires strategies to make one's life vivid and exciting, and that these strategies are available no matter how small the sphere in which one moves.

I try to understand my mother and father both by thinking of them as belonging to a generation that was on the move. Both had migrated to California from the Great Plains in the 1920s and 1930s and that geographical journey seemed to have translated into a psychic break, not just with the past, but with a sense of family ties altogether. Their relation to their families of origin, and to their own children, are best described as loose.

This laxness of familial connection was also a result of their attraction to the adventure and romance of the frontier. During the Great Depression, both my parents ended up in Death Valley Junction, which had a population of about 50, working for the Borax Company. It was here they would eventually marry and have me. Both were pioneers who enjoyed living in unsettled territory, especially one that had already been enshrined in Western literature and Hollywood films, not just as a place of desolation and hellish heat, but of gold and silver, booms and busts, of 49ers lost and 49ers rescued, and of desert eccentrics who were rumored to be, or not to be, fabulously wealthy.

For my father especially -- smart, good-looking and adept at playing monopoly and poker, which is what inhabitants of the Junction engaged in during those long desert nights -- life on the frontier was full of romance. Before he got to Death Valley, life had not been easy. His family had been poor, and he'd spent a few years during the Depression picking and living on pears. He'd caught TB, stayed in a hospital for 18 months -- during which time his family never visited -- and finally, in 1935, wrangled himself a job in Death Valley Junction, which is where his life changed, and with no little flourish.

Dad had gotten himself to Crucero, a dusty outpost in the Mojave some 90 miles south of the Junction, when a flash flood washed out the roads and railway tracks. It was 3:30 a.m., so Dad sat down in what passed for a railway station to get some rest. Around dawn a man in a handcar appeared, as in a dream, sent by the president of the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad to transport Dad to his new employment. The dawn that day must have turned Death Valley's Golden Canyon the color of honey.

Dad's job as clerk earned him only $60 a month to start, but before long he was proudly writing the boss's letters for him and taking control when the boss left town and the frontier settlement veered slightly out of whack. One noon, he once told me, about 30 army men arrived in town and wanted to be fed. "The cook threw up his hands when he saw how many there were," my father said. "He went to the store and got a bottle of booze, and in an hour he was drunk." Here, Dad assumed the booming voice of some old time desert rat who's seen and done it all: "So I fired him, promoted the dishwasher to chef, waited the tables and got them all fed." Then, directing his watery blue eyes toward something I couldn't see: "Things like that happened all the time. It was an exciting life. You did everything."

Dad's one disappointment at this time stemmed from his unsuccessful attempt to work a gold mine with a Shoshone partner. The mine lay 20 miles from the Junction, hidden among the canyons, and could only be accessed, and then with difficulty, by burro. The cost of searching for elusive veins of ore eventually persuaded Dad to suspend his mining operations. But the lure of undiscovered gold stayed with him long after the railway stopped running in 1940 and the Amargosa Hotel closed down two years later for the War, long after he and my newly-pregnant mother, seeing the handwriting on the desert's tumbled walls, fled with 2-year-old me to Compton, a working-class suburb outside Los Angeles.

Working for the Borax Company near Los Angeles, Dad "mainly did one thing." Outside this office there was no Amargosa Hotel, no hungry army men, no undiscovered gold. Dad's lack of a college degree also subjected him to watching as accountants with far less seniority and expertise were promoted over him time after time. He became anxious, bitter and angry, often losing his temper with his children. Aunt Bea said that Dad also developed a wandering eye. I don't know if what she said was true. (Aunt Bea was an expert on wandering, having been married seven times herself.) But Dad was ripe for a different sort of life, and, before long, a different life did come, as it had come once before in a hand-car at dawn.

Sometime in the late 1940s, my father and mother attended a western square dance. Lloyd "Pappy" Shaw, a high school teacher who was successfully promoting a revival of country-western dancing, called it "Cowboy Dancing." From the beginning my frontier-loving father was hooked. Soon he became a square-dance caller and then, with my mother, a teacher of square and round dance both. Not much later, the two formed a dance troop: the Latinaires. Dad had found an alternative life to that of the 1950s bread-winning, low-level corporate accountant, which he continued to be -- a life in which a dozen or so couples, in matching costumes, performed Latin-based dances of complex choreography while moving in a circle -- arms lifting, women spinning, petticoats flashing, all to the dashing rhythms of the samba, the cha, cha, cha, and the tango. And it paid.

Soon, my parents were teaching dance seven nights a week. My brother and I would see them, though barely, at dinner. We children ate in front of the television, they in the kitchen, but on holidays when the four of us ate together, Dad took out the playing cards and set out to bring the dashing spirit of the frontier to our kitchen table. It was in playing cards that my father's harshness mellowed into slyness and mock exasperation -- he usually won -- that my mother seemed to recall that she had children, and that my brother and I actually conversed, often working together as a team to keep my dad from winning. It was in these card games that Dad made his -- and our -- home life adventurous and engaged. They were the happiest moments of my childhood.

We'd sit at the kitchen table, our elbows parked on a blue plastic cloth. It would be Dad's turn to choose the game, and he would choose hearts at ten cents a pop. As we tossed our dimes into the little silver-footed cup to the left side of the table, Dad took possession of the cards, arched their backs, and sent them flying up and into each other with a well-disciplined, whirring sound.

He repeated this feat three times and then he dealt. The cards slid like bullet trains to precise destinations in front of each of us. We picked them up and studied what had befallen us, stealing glances at Dad's reaction to his hand. He was the King of Heart s-- and of every other game we played together. The challenge was to elude him, to sneak a win right past his face.

Dad sorted his cards, raised one eyebrow, and cocked his head to the side, in a characteristic move. He sighed loudly.

"Oh sure," he said. "Who dealt this lousy hand?"

"You dealt this lousy hand," Mother said, talking trash to him as she seldom did in daily life.

He sighed again. "For crying out loud."

Mother, the Queen of Sweets, got up briefly to bring us peanut butter fudge in its pale blue dish, and we began to play.

Fifteen minutes passed, punctuated by multiple cries of exasperation on the part of my father, many of them involving our names: "Ju-dy! Mi-key! Kar-y!" Each one of us was forcing him, it would seem, to pick up trick after trick loaded with our garbage-y cast off hearts, but then my brother's eyes met mine in recognition across the table. Our frontier and adventure-loving father was "shooting the moon." He had been planning, ever since his first encounter with his lousy hand, to take every heart and the Queen of Spades to boot, a high-risk strategy, which, if successful, would penalize each one of us with twenty-six points apiece.

"Sa-cri-fice!" my brother demanded, imitating Dad when he urged us to keep someone else from completing a win. But there was nothing to be done. Our hearts flowed to his side of the table as if magnetized, and then there she was--the evil Queen herself. Dad played her in a final, deciding flourish, slapping her against the table, and taking the trick. He had won -- again. He closed his hand on the silver cup, placed it precisely before him, and stacked our ex-dimes into his neatly growing stash. Then he reached for a piece of Mother's peanut butter fudge, looking as if he'd struck that long lost vein of gold.

In so many ways, I felt we'd found it with him.

From the memoir Tasting Home.