By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
I was sitting on a wicker rocker on Ross Graham’s front porch in Santa Fe. My college buddies, Tom and Ross, were still inside. Tom was asleep and Ross, who stayed under his ratty blankets hours after waking up, was either reading something abstruse in philosophy or mathematics or else scheming on a fast fortune. At twenty-one, I was the youngest of the three.
Across the road was Hal West’s studio. The three of us had heard of Hal from a western writer we admired and wanted to meet him. I wasn’t thinking of this, though, when Hal’s screen door swung open and Hal, a western artist, short and sartorial with mustache, dressed in khakis and knit shirt, stepped outside and looked both ways along the road.
Something flashed, a recognition I've had a few times seeing certain men, something in their dress or poise or speech or all of these tells me these men are complete, that whatever their reality, whatever scope of the world they have set for themselves, they fill it completely, and I knew then that West was such a man. I saw it in his look, his stance, in those few simple movements as he stooped for the newspaper on the narrow, dirt sidewalk.
Ross at that moment came out and pitched a “hello” to Harold and that, as I later thought, was the beginning of my life in America. Hal said, “Morning, kiddo” and stepped back inside, the screen door thwapping quietly behind him. Ross and I chatted awhile, then he went back inside to his books and I got up and walked across the road to Hal's front door on which a small hand-lettered sign said “OPEN.” I stepped into a room with a small bed and paintings that covered the walls, one above the other. I peered into the kitchen where Hal sat behind an old, grained wood table. “Come in,” he called. I sat down opposite him as naturally as if I had known him from boyhood, sitting around a cast iron stove at a crossroads general store.
Hal, Gene and Don West
Canyon Road, Santa Fe
I say that seeing Hal say hello to Ross was the beginning of my life in America because—although I had hitchhiked the country and had lived in a ten-dollar-a month-shack in Duran, New Mexico, known New York City and the Connecticut suburbs and Ohio farm country—this opened up something inside of me. The past year in Santa Fe had been the second consciously happy year of my life. The first had been my one-year at prep school, a year away from home before my first attempt at college.
Home was a family that threatened and yelled, or simmered with tension. We were living in New Canaan, Connecticut, a commuter town for New York executives and their families. If it had not been for the stultifying influence of New Canaan, where I lived from age 12 to 17, I doubt that I would have become so passionately independent. A less restrictive culture would not have bred such reaction.
Our family moved to New Canaan in 1957. These were the Eisenhower years. American factories were churning out cars, dishwashers, televisions sets and radios, backyard barbecues, and boxed cereals. The growing white middle-class had wages to spend. Even northern blacks in Detroit and Chicago with unionized factory jobs enjoyed this period of American prosperity. With a prosperous middle class with money to spend, advertising burgeoned. Advertising became a seam in the American fabric, something we took for granted and could even enjoy, especially the radio and television commercials with their perky, upbeat jingles that we could hum or sing to ourselves.
America’s consumer culture was burgeoning, but this consumer culture bred conformity, since everyone wanted the same things and some wanted even more. Somehow, we were all supposed to walk lock step. Everyone, including children, was supposed to fit in. The socially adjusted person was likable and therefore liked. He smiled. Ipana toothpaste spread the gospel of happiness through acceptance. The well-adjusted person smiled—the Ipana smile.
New Canaan culture in respect to conformity was especially adamant. But surely New Canaan was no different than other nearby affluent communities like Greenwich or Darien or the faraway Shaker Heights or any other town populated with white males who commuted to middle and upper management jobs in American cities.
But New Canaan culture was not only conformist, it was mechanized. New Canaan men lined the station platform, reading the New York Times as they waited for their morning trains. In the winter they wore blue, gray or dark brown suits with overcoats and snap-brim hats or homburgs. In warmer weather, they wore lighter colored suits. Each weekday morning, as their wives drove them to the station, the station lot filled with slowly moving or stalled cars. The streets outside the station were likewise clogged as train after train arrived. In the evening the process reversed.
Appearances were everything—in dress, speech and choice of friends. Children—excepting those from working class families—were expected to be well groomed and obedient. Housewives had perfectly shellacked hair, and when not shopping or cleaning house, socialized with other housewives while playing golf or bridge. In fact, there were few acceptable ways besides golf and bridge for adults to entertain themselves.
A clean house, a successful husband and bright, obedient children were the New Canaan housewife’s pride. A New Canaan housewife could have nothing less than an immaculate home—at all times. My mother even cleaned our home before our maid, Vivian, arrived, lest Vivian tell other women that my mother had less than perfect homemaking skills.
Perfection was the goal in all of life. Life itself was to be lived on a prescribed track. The goal at the end of the track was money, which guaranteed security and respect. After high school came college, then a high paying job. Somewhere along the line one got married and raised a family and the process started over. My father ridiculed our next-door neighbor’s son who had gone to India, because it was not only a waste of time but showed an absence of sound values. The boy was lost, confused.
I, too, had fallen off the track. By upper middle-class American standards, I had thrown away three years of my life, drifting across country. As my father said a few years later, “You’ve spent enough time with the lower elements of society, now you need to know the upper.” My father never met Hal West, but I know exactly what he would have thought of him—an eccentric who might amuse him for an hour, nothing more.