As I scroll back through my childhood remembrances, Mexico comes to me in clips and phrases, a staccato succession of wonder and horror — but mostly wonder.
I was 7. I remember playing tag atop Aztec ruins with my 5-year-old brother, Shawn, dodging and weaving between massive, weatherworn stone columns and figures as the sun was setting. I remember swimming in a pool fed by desert hot springs. I remember playing in the mud in the front yard of the apartment my parents had rented and finding a scorpion. There was also the scorpion I spotted crawling on the wall above me one day in class, in the little English-language school I attended.
There were snakes, too. I learned that digging for clay in the desert. Shoveling the soil from the side of a hill one 100-degree afternoon revealed a labyrinth of snake tunnels. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.
Remarkably, given my curiosity, I was never bitten by a scorpion or a snake.
I had something of an unconventional childhood. In 1975, my parents, both artists and teachers, took a six-month sabbatical to San Miguel de Allende, a nearly 500-year-old city of 139,000 in central Mexico. My mom and dad studied at the Instituto Allende, a world-renowned visual arts school, where they crafted clay pottery and silver jewelry. We lived in a two-bedroom apartment, with a front yard full of cacti and an oversized balcony out back overlooking the dusty street below, where open-sewer troughs ran down the sides.
Today San Miguel is a major tourist destination, but back then it was still something of a wild place. It had been a destination for artists from around the globe since the 1950s. Expatriates filled the city. Still, it was developing, and every once in a while, it could turn semi-lawless, as it did the day we left San Miguel in a hurry because desert bandits came to town and set up gun racks in the central square. That was a signal for any Americans with children to move on.
Still, most of the time was peaceful — and adventure-filled.
I was reminded of all this when I recently read John McPhee’s wonderful “The Fourth Draft.” McPhee is a Princeton University journalism professor, a writer for The New Yorker and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Early in the book, he writes of the laid-back summers he spent at Camp Keewaydin in Vermont, where his father, a Princeton sports physician, attended to campers on his off months.
The camp, McPhee writes, “specialized in canoe trips and taught ecology in our modern sense when the word was still connoting the root-and-shoot relations of communal plants. Aged six to twenty, I grew up there, ending as a leader of those trips. I played basketball and tennis there, and on my high-school teams at home, with absolutely no idea that I was building the shells of future pieces of writing. I dreamed all year of the trips in the wild, not imagining, of course, that they would eventually lead to the Brooks Range, to the Yukon-Tanana suspect terrain, to the ship-like ridges of Nevada and the Laramide mountains of Wyoming, or that they would lead to the rapids of the Grand Canyon.”
I hadn’t thought deeply how my Mexico adventures, or my summers spent canoeing and hiking in the Adirondacks, affected my decision, in my teens and 20s, to become a journalist myself. Then McPhee’s lines hit me, and a flood of childhood memories rushed through my mind.
In part, I wanted to write, and still do, because writing, if done right, brings with it a sense of adventure. For a journalist, no two days are the same. Journalism takes you to places and introduces you to people that you otherwise never would have imagined.
McPhee, now 87 and still writing — he published “The Fourth Draft” last year — has traveled the world, and recorded his adventures in The New Yorker. What a gift it is to experience life that way, whether at a national or local publication.
My memories of Mexico are not all pleasant. One time we stopped on the roadside in our big green Chevy Carryall to inspect a fallen tree that appeared ripe for carving into a statue, and from the underbrush, bandits approached and kidnapped my father at gunpoint, leaving my mom, my brother and me in the car. Dad was hauled off to a shack down the road with tire irons around his wrists. Local police had to negotiate his release.
Mexico taught me early in life that there are good and bad people wherever you go, but mostly there are good. The police were kind. Our neighbors, like the woman down the street who fed me fresh, homemade tortillas, were kind. The vendors at the open-air market were kind. My teachers were kind.
Mexico was a beautiful place, and so were its people.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.