LAS CRUCES —“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana said.
Kurt Vonnegut opined that “History is merely a list of surprises. It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again.”
My mom was an art and American History teacher who had artistic ways of making history come alive for us when we were growing up, so I was an easy sell even before I came to New Mexico, which has generated some of the most entertaining stories on the planet. Our own little patch of the Land of Enchantment is particularly packed with intriguing tales. The ancient pueblo peoples have literally left chunks of their artistic perspectives on life in our fields. The Mimbres’ vivid portraits of people, plants, adventures and animals were etched on their pottery to inspire and fire the imaginations of generations of kids, including me and my grandson.
All the world seems to know that Billy the Kid and Pancho Villa were regulars in our territory.
The Wild West, Borderland derring-do outlaws and revolutionaries have generated lots of tourist interest and some exciting action films.
Personally, I’m more excited about the creative souls who shared our quenencia than the flamboyantly destructive types. Lew Wallace, the territorial governor and author of “Ben-Hur” made his home here. Nacio Herb Brown, who wrote “Singing in the Rain,” grew up in Deming.
I’ve actually had the chance to interview and get to know some of our 20th century superstars who have already secured a place in history. Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, wowed me with his depth of knowledge and role as a space pioneer and a touching personal history that included almost inconceivable discoveries made before the computer age. Whether Pluto eventually remains categorized as a dwarf planet or not, Clyde’s lifetime accomplishments — and very funny crow puns — will live forever in local history. Clyde and his wife Patsy also made a huge mark on cultural and educational life of this community, like another local celebrity, Tony Award-winning playwright Mark Medoff. If you’re new in town, you might not know that Medoff was also nominated for an Academy Award for “Children of a Lesser God,” and Merlee Maitland won an Oscar for her portrayal of Medoff’s deaf heroine.
Mark has also made several films here and like Tombaugh, has made academic contributions that have literately changed the community. Clyde’s work paved the way for space programs at White Sands and he also was a founder of the astronomy department at New Mexico State University. Medoff was a leading light at NMSU, too, with the American Southwest Theatre Company and more recently as a founder of Creative Media Institute, which is creating everything from feature-length movies to interactive training videos and state-of-the-art animation projects.
There have been some dark chapters here, too. The most aggressive Wild West six-shooter rampage pales in comparison with something a group of scientists demonstrated at Trinity Site. The first atomic bomb exploded in our back yard and shortly thereafter led to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for a total of almost 200,000 casualties, according to atomicarchive.com, which estimated a toll of 66,000 dead and 69,000 injured at Hiroshima and 39,000 dead and 25,000 injured at Nagasaki. Compare that with the Twin Towers.
We’re in a rarefied corner of the world in a catbird seat to watch all kinds of history in the making, in science, arts and culture. Some of our era’s most innovative moguls have been drawn to New Mexico. Ted Turner has major holdings here. Richard Branson and X Prize could be well on its way to adding to our already rich space history.
But sometimes, it’s not the moguls that bring history to life. I thought about that this month, when military memorabilia collector Kevin Dasing showed me his before and after target photographs of Hiroshima. And when those who had lived through the Great Depression shared their memories at an NMSU Museum gathering. They brought clothing made out of feed sacks and stories about hardships and survival. Vesta Siemers, 92, remembered the empty seats in her classroom, after the 1929 stock market crash. Each empty seat represented a child away at the funeral of a father who had committed suicide.
There are pieces of history all around us. Clues and stories about triumphs and tragedies, role models and cautionary tales.
Whatever your attitude toward history, it’s a good idea to pay attention to where we’ve come from, and how it affects where we are and where we’re going ... and what we leave behind.
S. Derrickson Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org