Fertile New Mexican Topsoil
By Dennis Greene
I have always wondered if my mother’s penchant for cleanliness prevented me from achieving my dream of playing for the Celtics.
In July of 1958, I went to work at Philmont Boy Scout ranch in Cimmeron, New Mexico. When I set out, I stood five foot nothing but was full of enthusiasm. But, by the end of the summer, after I had immersed myself in this unbelievable outdoor adventure, I had grown almost eight inches.
I kept a low profile on the ranch work crew to avoid the attention of Smith Mullens, the trail boss. He was a tough little cowboy who didn’t say much but had a formidable look. On one day, though, I was assigned to work with him in a well shaft where it was impossible to avoid his notice.
“Hey, New England, when was the last time you took a shower?” Smith asked.
“I’m not sure, ” I answered. “There ‘s not much water out here in the desert.”
“It looks like there’s enough dirt and grit on your neck to grow taters, and I don’t want to think about what’s crawling in your hair, ” Smith drawled. “I have a mind to take my horse brush to you.”
“I’ll be sure to shower the next time we are at base camp, ” I promised, without any real intention of following through. I believed my filthiness might be the cause of my recent growth spurt, and I didn’t plan on washing until I was much taller.
“I’m not sure it can wait that long,” Smith said ominously.
Smith was more of a doer than a talker. Shortly after we finished installing a pipe, I found myself surrounded by the entire work crew. They grabbed me, threw me down in the grass, and stripped me naked. There was lots of laughing and taunting, but I wasn’t amused. I fought like a crazed wolverine but was overwhelmingly outnumbered. Two buckets of icy water hit me, and I was soaped up, head to toe, with a bar of rough laundry soap.
Then Smith Mullens appeared.
“OK, New England. Time to shed some of that rich New Mexican topsoil,” he said, approaching with his horse brush.
For the next few minutes, it felt as if I were being flayed alive. The laughter and taunting receded into the background as that brush scrubbed the dirt from my flesh. I thought I could see mud or blood running down my limbs and torso. It was a relief when the guys lifted me up and tossed me into the watering trough. I came up sputtering to the sound of fifteen teen-age idiots laughing their asses off.
I was so mad I wasn’t even a little embarrassed, but that night, I had to admit to myself that I felt a good deal less gritty. But because of the kind of work we did, I soon managed to become just as dirty as I had been before the bath, and I remained covered with that New Mexican topsoil for the rest of the trip.
When my parents met me at the bus station in Albany, my mother was aghast. I thought I noticed a few tears forming, but she brushed them away quickly. We were supposed to meet a bunch of my parent’s old friends in Pittsfield for a little vacation, but she would not even allow me in the car. She got a hotel room within walking distance of the bus terminal where she ordered me to disrobe, threw away what I had on, and told me to remain in the shower until she returned with new clothes. Then, she had my dad escort me to the nearest barber for a haircut and my first shave. When I was finally presentable enough to pass her inspection, she allowed me to rejoin the family, and we headed to Camp Winadu.
I still wonder how tall I might have been if she had let me continue to grow in that rich New Mexican topsoil for just another month or two. At six-foot five, I think I could have made it to the NBA.
Dennis spent his early years in and around New Bedford, Massachusetts as a reclusive bookworm, avid Boy Scout, high school basketball player and thespian. He now lives in Wellesley where he is writing a coming of age memoir, trying to improve his golf game, attending courses and leading a new science fiction course at BOLLI–and taking frequent naps.
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