A Strong West Wind: A Memoir

Paperback | January 9, 2007

byGail Caldwell

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In this exquisitely rendered memoir set on the high plains of Texas, Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell transforms into art what it is like to come of age in a particular time and place. A Strong West Wind begins in the 1950s in the wilds of the Texas Panhandle–a place of both boredom and beauty, its flat horizons broken only by oil derricks, grain elevators, and church steeples. Its story belongs to a girl who grew up surrounded by dust storms and cattle ranches and summer lightning, who took refuge from the vastness of the land and the ever-present wind by retreating into books. What she found there, from renegade women to men who lit out for the territory, turned out to offer a blueprint for her own future. Caldwell would grow up to become a writer, but first she would have to fall in love with a man who was every mother’s nightmare, live through the anguish and fire of the Vietnam years, and defy the father she adored, who had served as a master sergeant in the Second World War.

A Strong West Wind is a memoir of culture and history–of fathers and daughters, of two world wars and the passionate rebellions of the sixties. But it is also about the mythology of place and the evolution of a sensibility: about how literature can shape and even anticipate a life.

Caldwell possesses the extraordinary ability to illuminate the desires, stories, and lives of ordinary people. Written with humanity, urgency, and beautiful restraint, A Strong West Wind is a magical and unforgettable book, destined to become an American classic.


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In this exquisitely rendered memoir set on the high plains of Texas, Pulitzer Prize winner Gail Caldwell transforms into art what it is like to come of age in a particular time and place. A Strong West Wind begins in the 1950s in the wilds of the Texas Panhandle–a place of both boredom and beauty, its flat horizons broken only by oil d...

Gail Caldwell is the chief book critic for The Boston Globe, where she has been a staff writer and critic since 1985. In 2001, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism. She is also an avid rower. Caldwell lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.From the Hardcover edition.

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Format:PaperbackDimensions:256 pages, 8 × 5.2 × 0.54 inPublished:January 9, 2007Publisher:Random House Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0812972562

ISBN - 13:9780812972566

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Poised at the heart of so much open land, Amarillo, too,sprawled in a sort of languid disregard, as though territorial hegemonymight make up for all that loneliness. Route 66 cut throughthe center of town as a streamlined reminder of what was outthere to the west, and the trucks roared through town day andnight, slaves to hope and white-line fever, heading for Californiaor just somewhere else. The steak houses and truck stops ateither end of the city confirmed these great distances, offeringtwenty-four-ounce T-bones along with the diesel fuel, and theneon from the all-night signs must have looked from the sky likepaths of light—bright flashes of pink and green and white as thetown grew sparser, flanked on the highway to the east and westalike by miles of open country.Downtown in the 1950s was only a few blocks long, and thetwo banks, the two movie theaters, the Silver Grill Cafeteria, andthe Amarillo Grain Exchange were all within shooting distance ofone another. The Mary E. Bivins Memorial Library stood on theoutskirts of these necessities, on Tenth and Polk, a generous oldGeorgian mansion with two sets of stone steps up to its wide verandas.The place had been built as a private home at the turn ofthe century, and its interiors still held traces of domestic calm—the foyer smelled wonderfully of floor wax and printer’s ink andno doubt years’ worth of muted librarians’ cologne. The bookswere spread luxuriantly over four floors, with the aisles betweenshelves feeling as wide as city streets. It was here that an entiregeneration of kids enjoyed a certain benign neglect in the scorchingTexas summers: Scores of mothers deposited their childrenat the library each day to snatch a few hours of freedom in betweenthe swimming pool and the grocery store. The place wassafe, it was cool (in the days before air-conditioning,we had onlyswamp coolers), and, with its gruff librarians posted like marinesbetween Adult Fiction and the checkout desk, it offered a semblanceof day-care-cum-self-improvement. In a city five hundredmiles from the Texas Gulf Coast and a day’s car ride from themountains of neighboring New Mexico, the town pools and thelibrary were the closest thing a lot of people had to getting away.Our idea of escape was an order of fries at the snack bar ofthe Western Riviera—a cross-shaped turquoise swimming poolslapped across the prairie like an SOS sign to God—and then theinsouciant promise of the library, where you could lose yourselffor hours in sanctioned daydreams.Maybe such repositories of childhood are always graced bymemory, each of them archives of that wider world to come. Butfor me those rooms were my Elysian fields, possessing a grandeurand reach that would blur over time but scarcely diminish after Ihad taken flight. My mother drove us to the library in an old Fordstation wagon, two-tone Palomino Pink, and I can see it still,idling on the street below, as I half staggered down the stone stepswith my weekly haul. There was a limit to the number of books,probably ten or twelve, that children were allowed, and the librarianat first admonished me that my appetites were likely toprove grander than my capabilities. But I was bored beyond measurewithout a book in my hand, and each week I surprised herby showing up for more.This doggedness had revealed itself early on, an adaptive traitfor a would-be toddler who had struggled to walk until well pastthe age of two. By the time I finally got to my feet, I stayed there—a victory that must have assured me, on some profound and preverballevel, that determination was a mighty ally. Certainly itproved useful in the library’s summer reading contests, where,one sweltering July, our literary progress was tracked by tiny flagsascending a papier-mâché mountain. Each Friday the young explorerswould report to base camp to summarize the books wehad finished; once the librarian had determined we were tellingthe truth, she would move our flags closer to the summit. I rememberthis textual expedition with pain and pleasure both: thegiddy journey into higher altitudes, as I left the pack behind, theweekly anticipation of receiving our sentry’s seal of approval.And finally, the misery of coming in second to a boy in my agegroup—I was probably nine—who had dared to outread me.The realms of athletics and other hand-eye endeavors hadfound me thus far undistinguished. When she was five,my sisterhad drawn a horse of such promise that the picture won a localcontest; I promptly got out the tracing paper and copied her masterpiece,an act that suggested the visual pursuits be left to her.What I possessed was a capacity to absorb and retain great quantitiesof words, a skill useful in spelling bees, Latin conjugations,and, for one shining moment, onstage. My dramatic talents wereconfined mostly to a deep second alto, but I snared the lead in thesixth-grade school play simply because no other child couldmemorize the lines. Dressed in a red, white, and blue flowinggown that my mother had painstakingly sewn, I was cast as thesmall embodiment of the American flag. Like a one-girl chorus ina Greek drama,my role was to deliver great swatches of truth andbeauty from a pedestal on high. “I am the American flag!” beganmy soliloquy, then marched on through the ages to the rockets’red glare.Such fervor must have met with a forgiving crowd in thoseCold War and Camelot years. With the native-son exception ofLyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, Amarillo would vote overwhelminglyRepublican in every presidential election for the lasthalf of the twentieth century—a conservatism that displayed itscolors everywhere from Sunday-morning sermons (where mightwas always right) to young girls camouflaged as American flags.My father had been a master sergeant in the Eighth Air Forceduring the Second World War, stationed for three years in asupply-command base in Blackpool, England, until months afterthe European theater was over. A tall, brown-haired man withpool-dark eyes and a slow, trustworthy grin, he had the type ofyoung-Jimmy-Stewart physical stature that Hollywood had lionizedin its soldier-heroes. I was born five years after his return, in1951, and I grew up cloaked in the sweet mysteries of his havingbelonged to such an exotic mission. This aura of intrigue washeightened by the stories he told and the ones he wouldn’t: thepoker games he’d played and won throughout the war, the scaron his chest he refused to explain but that I imagined was a knifewound. Mostly, though, I had a notion of my father as a soldier incharge of a company of men, where his physical strength andbluster-rough camaraderie must have been on full display. For achild, these heroic images were part of a larger dimension that includedphysical warmth and the smell of coffee and Camel cigarettes;taken together, they offered a portrait of a dad who wasalready larger than life. When I stood on that stage in my patrioticgarb, delivering my lines to a full house, I knew the audience helda man who had come back from the war to take care of me. I musthave believed myself at the very center of the home of the brave.The war novels were housed in the basement of the library,within the larger territory of Adult Fiction, where I wasn’t supposedto be. So this was where I headed, preferring the remoteaisles of the last rows of the alphabet, where I was less likely to beapprehended. There was a vague warning, issued by mothersand librarians both, to be on the lookout for strange, nonreadingmen—the ones who smelled of whiskey, nodded off at the readingtables, or seemed too interested in children. I was far too youngto consider that most of these dispossessed were veterans of theirown wars, real or illusory, and were, like me, simply looking forshelter. They never bothered me and I hardly noticed them, for Iwas curled up on the lineoleum before the rows of Leon Uris andHerman Wouk—men whom I followed, without anyone’s permission,into battlefields and drop zones of untold danger and intrigue.Did other girls love war novels the way I did, in those yearswhen the national mythos was still dizzy with the aura of Alliedvictory? I know only that my passion for the genre was probablythe beginning of a tragic worldview—that Uris’s Battle Cry andMila 18 would send me on to the grittier likes of James Jones andNorman Mailer; that the moral ambiguities of Wouk’s The CaineMutiny may have prepared me for Dostoyevsky in adolescence. IfThe Yearling had been my first literary instruction in grief—in theunalloyed pain of love and separation—then the messy heroics offallen soldiers only secured that terrible lesson: the idea thatvalor could face off with evil in a field of mud, and lose.That’s grim fare for a child, no doubt sweetened by the pulpypromise of Uris and Wouk; like most Americans, as WilliamDean Howells noted, I still preferred my tragedies with happyendings. And not for me the local wars of either Texas or theDeep South. I was bored by literary accounts of the Alamo andthe Civil War, though this distinction, in which I eschewedprovincial battles for the European fronts of modern war, hadmore to do with my father than with any sense of regional shameor estrangement. Because he had returned unscathed from “his”war—which had, astonishingly, managed to take place before Iexisted—I needed to know everything about it. The legacies ofWorld War II were part of the story that mattered most: a homefor my unfolding consciousness, with a good-and-evil plot thatoffered the last vestige of innocence in America.Our fathers had come home to a nation infused with relief andideological certainty, two commodities that would never again bein such abundance. Buoyed by the ticker-tape parades and necessaryfictions that allowed them to go on, they could look beyondthe devastation to a future that promised, at least on the surface,protection from the past. The lines had been so thoroughly drawnby the rise of Nazi Germany and the aggression of Japan that ourresponse was accompanied by a sort of mandatory amnesia—it wasessential, if not easy, to overlook the legacies of a Great War twodecades earlier, in what was billed as the War to End All Wars.Nowwe had Kilroy instead of doughboys; now we had the liberation ofthe camps to justify and amend the casualty lists.And we had Dresden,too, instead of Ypres, but that was a subplot best neglected. Ifthe campaigns in Europe had demonstrated America’s valor, theones embellished by Hollywood and Madison Avenue confirmedit. The darker story, found in classics like The Best Years of OurLives and The Naked and the Dead, would outlive the boosterismof the postwar years, eventually becoming part of the elegiac truthabout war and modern history. But for now, before the fences wentup, we were still a land of suburban war games and toy bombers,where the Nazis always got what was coming and where nobodygood ever died—except maybe for a few minutes, only to be resurrectedas the other side’s troop commander. Our dads wereheroes—all of them were heroes, it seemed—and it was our tenderburden to be the little soldiers who had made it all worthwhile.Huddled there in my barracks on the basement floor of theMary E. Bivins Library, I envisioned myself to be of particularlysteely character. Otherwise, how could I bear the horrors of Normandy,or the lousy C rations that awaited me each day? I livedfor such extended fantasies, believing that the canned peachesand tinned beef I read about were the food of giants—and thatconsuming them, in my imaginary way, would nourish me aswell. This empathic identification guided me in the real world asoften as it transported me into the next. I’d heard all about thefish-and-chips, wrapped in newspaper and sold for a dime, thatmy father had subsisted on in England; though he describedthem as dreadful, I ordered them every time I had the chance. Becausethe grunts in my war novels were, like him, card sharks andbetting men, I made him play me at gin rummy or casino until Idropped off to sleep at the kitchen table. It was hardly a parentalsacrifice: In the card games and dominoes we both loved, he wasalready grooming a straight man for his pastimes. He had begunteaching me the bones of arithmetic when I was about four, tryingto outfox me by making change for a quarter. I assumed this, too,was part of what made a good soldier: Laugh and shake yourhead as part of the bluff, never look away from your opponent,and never bet the farm.No g i r l can live forever on blood-soaked heroism and fivecarddraw, and I still had to train for my relatively peaceful future.I was at the age when compassion and excess go hand in hand,and I had cried so hard and long over Gone with the Wind (not itscasualty lists, but Rhett’s exit) that my tears had alarmed mymother, then annoyed her. Staggering from Herman Wouk’s warstories to the tamer domestic pastures of his Marjorie Morningstar,I responded to the exotic constraints of Marjorie’s Jewishnessby giving up bacon for a month—and, considering mynaive day trips into other people’s religions, I probably gave it upfor Lent. The heroines who seized my heart belonged to the sophisticatedurban settings of Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke andBetty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Joy in the Morning; ifprecocious girls elsewhere, poised on the verge of puberty, werereading Austen or the Brontës, I didn’t know it and I doubt Iwould have cared. I was enflamed by the purpler stories that capturedthe young women of modern America, hoping that, like thefield manuals that had given me my father’s war, they could teachme how to grasp my life—how to grab hold and ride it to victory.At a time when television had only a tentative foothold as culturalauthority, such moral and practical guidance still belongedto the word, be it secular or scriptural. We learned how to getwhere we were going by the stories we heard, whether we foundthem in the classroom, the sanctuary, or the closet with a flashlight.So we listened to tales in the schoolyard about the fatesawaiting the craven and depraved, or we plotted our getaways bymemorizing the escape routes of Calico Kate or Pioneer Polly.More pious girls, no doubt, absorbed these life lessons from theGood Book itself—“How should we then live?” Ezekiel wastaught to ask—and yet the educational merits of Scripture eludedme throughout my childhood. When my parents gave me an inscribedBible one Christmas, my heart sank with disappointment,then guilt at my ingratitude.This religious drift was not for lack of access: As the productof a long line of Calvinist preachers and congregants, I had inheritedtheir severity but not their devotion. My mother’s hangoverfrom her Southern Baptist upbringing still made her frownupon the idea of cards on Sunday, though none of us, especiallymy dad, could take her disdain seriously. Instead of the terrifyingstrictures of a fire-and-brimstone world, my own spiritual domicileheld a kind watercolor Jesus with pale blue eyes—a beneficentimage I had met in the paintings that adorned the walls ofour Sunday-school classroom, where I doodled away the hourand assumed I had a place in His tender flock. My parents hadabandoned their strict religious backgrounds when they married,eventually joining a moderate Presbyterian congregation.Each Sunday we were lulled into a nondenominational oblivionby the church’s soporific organ music, and it was here, in thelight-filled, stained-glass chapel of the Westminister PresbyterianChurch, that I discovered something far more commanding thanthe gist of any sermon. Singing from the hymnal and readingaloud from the liturgical responses, I fell in love with the meter ofProtestantism rather than its substance. I took to humming thedoxology—“Praise / God / from / whom / all / blessings /flow”—around the house; I startled my mother by reciting, atodd times and without warning, the Apostles’ Creed. I was aboutnine when these epiphanies struck, too young to be consideredpious, so she learned to ignore me. “He ascended into heaven,” Iwould solemnly intone, “and sitteth on the right hand of God theFather Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the quickand the dead.”The quick and the dead! My decoding of this portentoussoundingphrase suggested how I was to feel about Scripture.That God should judge both groups meant, from what I couldtell, that the quick were in at least as much hot water as the dead(who, in the soft-hell universe of Presbyterianism, had nothingmuch to lose).For years I assumed that the quick were impetuous,immoral, or godless; like the “debtors” seeking forgiveness in theKing James version of the Lord’s Prayer, surely they had donesomething wrong. When I eventually discovered that quick was anarchaic term for the living, I was crestfallen. Not only did this newunderstanding imply that we were all guilty—God judged usevery one—but it also meant my interpretation, however wrong,had been more piercing and dramatic than the truth. Far frombeing chastened by my error, I felt it only supported my preferencefor sound over content. I daydreamed my way through a fewmore years of obligatory religious instruction, the high point ofwhich was my introduction to Catholic services by a friend. Themass at her church was imparted in words incomprehensible inmeaning but so rich in tone and cadence that I swooned from thesound. When the time came to select a language in school, Isigned up for Latin, then buried myself in its majestic declensionsand conjugations for eight more years.Later, I would learn most of what I knew about other religionsfrom literature—from James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor, whorevealed the torment and glory of living under the eaves ofCatholicism; from Roth and Malamud, who gave me Jewishnessand Judaism with an intimacy I never could have encountered inmidcentury small-town Texas. I went after writers who offeredmysteries instead of doctrine, who roamed in the wilds of doubtand longing. This seemed to me where God would want to live—out there in the hinterlands, where faith danced and then disappeared.Out there in the war zones, for that matter, where Godwas surely necessary but sorely missed. All these desires and halfassurances awaited me in a world opening more each day, andrarely, if ever, had I been led to them through the doors of thechurch itself.So my sanctum sanctorum would remain inside those cloisteredlibrary halls, where attendance was optional and devotionabsolute—at least for a time, until adolescence offered me darkervenues with less predictable results. And oddly, wonderfully,toward the end of that time of single-minded ease, two books Iwasn’t old enough to comprehend were the ones that had thegreatest hold on me. The first was a musty volume called On theOrigin of Species, and I remember making the childlike associationof God and monkeys as I added it to my stack. The librarianlooked surprised, then somber, when I handed her the book atthe checkout desk, and she waved in my mother from the car.“Gail has chosen something that may be too mature for her,” shesaid softly; unfazed,my mother shrugged and let me take it home.On one level, the librarian was right: I was eleven, and Darwin’sfindings were way over my head, not likely to keep the attentionof a girl who lived for war stories and smaller heartbreaks. But Isuspect the woman who declared Darwin off-limits to me, heravid charge, also had more censorious concerns. It was 1962 andwe were in the dead center of the Bible Belt; to the east, in Tennessee,Darwin was still banned in the public schools. Before theyear was out, America would see the publication of James Baldwin’sAnother Country, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’sNest, and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Had that librarianany idea what was coming, she might have headed for a falloutshelter and taken me with her.My other seminal text was a thick, overwrought novel Ifound around the same time, on an afternoon when I was scanningthe recent returns. If by now I was a kid who lived to read, Iwas still beholden to the action of the page—to plot-driven storiesmore full-throttle than real life ever was. What I hadn’t yetgrasped was that prose for its own sake, grown-up prose, couldbe so transporting as to exist beyond linear narrative in a corridorof its own making. One might call this the beginning of a modernistsensibility; I think, though, that I was simply ready to be awitness to beauty—that my brain was waking up to the world’spossibilities, and they came to me by way of fiction. The book Iheld in my hands that day was a worn hardback copy of ThomasWolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and I didn’t get beyond the firstpage, because what I saw there so humbled and elated me that Icould read no further. “Each of us is all the sums he has notcounted,”Wolfe had written in his second paragraph. “Subtractus into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin inCrete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday inTexas.”That I had just been given the confluence of time, space,and metaphor—a rough abstract for human consciousness—wasclearly way beyond my comprehension. What I knew was thatsomeone, in some other time and place, had made sense of thelargeness of life and the dark reaches I felt so privately within mysoul, and that this stranger had found out where I was—he hadsaid so, right there, with “yesterday in Texas.” This seemed to mea secret contract between writer and reader, a grail beyond anypromises I had heard about in school or church. I went home andkept the revelation to myself, sensing that I would carry theelixir—great comfort and petition both—through all my days.Part of what I was falling for, beyond all that swoony prose,was the author’s own apologia for leaving. In the rich and gustyself-portrait that was Eugene Gant,Wolfe had given us one of theearly Southern-boy migration stories—a prodigal son escapingthe madness of Dixie, catapulted by ego and estrangement towardthe distant North. This propulsion, this outward imperative,is part of America’s founding story, in history and in myth,and I must have read a dozen versions of it by the time I actuallyqualified for those shelves in Adult Fiction. A tattered trail of pro-tagonists, most of them alienated and most of them male, wouldwend their way through my early literary consciousness: BinxBolling, the perpetual dreamer of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer;the young men of Larry McMurtry’s early Texas novels, leavingCheyenne even if they had to crawl; Faulkner’s Quentin, whojourneyed so thoroughly into my heart over the years that he becamemy Quentin. That so many of these itinerant figures weremen did not occur to me; I think I was searching for a flight farreachingor victorious, however torn asunder the heart that hadlaunched it. The few female protagonists I came across had a tendencyto stay put. Should they dare to venture beyond the bordersof propriety or domesticity, they often suffered misery,ostracism, or untoward death. I discovered the full spectrum ofthis punishment for roaming when I got to James’s Isabel Archerand other female innocents abroad; for now, as I veered my ownboat into the chop of adolescence, I aligned myself with the guyswho had hit the road.Not that Kerouac or his wanderlust forebears had anythingon my ancestors. My maternal great-grandfather was a Baptistpreacher who had lost an arm fighting in the Battle of Murfreesboro,though this sacrifice is said to have barely slowed himdown—one hand, Grandpa Mitchell insisted, was all he neededto hold the Good Book before his congregation. Both sides of myfamily were Scots-Irish, with English on my father’s side andCherokee on my mother’s, and we assumed from our mongrellineage a sort of moxie, as though we had gotten as far west as wedid by our refusal to stop moving. Like a lot of settlers who hadmigrated west in the mid-nineteenth century, Grandpa Mitchellhad pulled up stakes in Tennessee and “gone to Texas”—an explanation,common in the Deep South at the time, that revealednot destination but freewheeling spirit. gone to texas was thesign you scrawled and planted outside your house when, likeHuck Finn, you were lighting out for the territory, even if youdidn’t know where you were headed. The resounding theme wasone of agency—of staring down your adversary, heading west,trying to outlast whatever trouble awaited you. My mother’s father,a farmer with the exquisitely Southern name of Jerome ForestGroves, used to walk the rows of his crops all night long whenan early freeze hit Breckenridge,Texas; he believed that his treadon the hard ground would raise the temperature a few degrees. Idon’t know that he ever saved so much as a head of lettuce. Butthe notion that he thought he had, or could—well, that was thesame endurance that put him on the road during the flu epidemicof 1918, when my mother remembered his walking ten miles intotown to get medicine for his children. That was the kind of faithI’d heard about in churches, generally reserved for movingmountains. That was what got you to town, or to Texas, or justgot you through the night.My father’s father, James Penick Caldwell, known as Pink,made it as far west as Quanah,Texas, on the southeastern edge ofthe Panhandle, before love took him home to Reilly Springs.Quanah had grown up around the railroad, and Pink went thereas a young man in 1890 to find work. “There was a man shot herein town, but not hurt bad,” he wrote to the girl he had left behind.“This is a lively little place.” Still, Quanah’s high life was nomatch for Della McElroy, who would become my grandmother.Afriend tried to convince Pink to press on to Oregon to work therailroads, part of the great westward wave of young men whowould build the Northwest. He told Della he was heading hometo her instead. “If I was to roam this wide world over,” he wrote,“I would not forget my black eyed Darling.”Della wanted to marry Pink, but she was only seventeen, andher father,Dr. J. E. McElroy, thought she was too young. She wasphysically slight, and because she was stubborn and he knew betterthan to cross her outright, Dr. McElroy told his daughter shecould have his blessing when she weighed a hundred pounds—calculating, as a father and a physician, that she had alreadyreached full size. Della saw the dare for what it was, and she goton her horse and rode it through the creek until her long skirtswere drenched to her waist. Then she went home and climbedon the scales, and Dr. McElroy had to keep his word.I came of age under the rubric of this story, and Della’s headstrongguile continues to fill me with gladness: Who was thishundred-pound mass of insubordination who stood up to her father,married Pink, and gave birth to six sons and four daughters?She died in 1936, when she was fifty-nine; my father had left collegeto go back to the farm and care for her in her last months. Iknew her only through the legends she left and through the farmat Reilly Springs, a rambling old white house with no indoorplumbing, each of its rooms bearing whispers of the past. Therewas the front bedroom where as a boy my father had found a copperheadcoiled beneath his pillow, instilling his lifelong fear ofsnakes. There was the long farm table, occupied for hours eachday, where Della had fed her hungry brood in shifts; the oneswho showed up late generally got the least to eat. And therewas the outhouse—humble, enduring edifice—where a bullyingcousin once tried to spy on me and my sister, until my dad gotwise to the boy and sent him on a mysterious snipe hunt. Mr.Pink, too, had died before my childhood, just after my fatherhad come home from overseas. But I can still and forever see Dellariding through that stream, defying and outwitting her father. Itwas a splendid lesson for a girl in rough-hewn Texas to possess—my very own Pride and Prejudice—and a story my father, in theyears that followed, may have regretted passing on with such unabashedpride.Innocence is a state perceived only after it is gone; and minenow seems a mirror image of the nation itself—or at least of thedominant culture, playing its indolent game of lawn tennis acrossa darkening sky. In those last years of latency, my pleasures remainedpensive or interior: fishing with my dad, climbing treeswith my sister to our fort (in actuality, a neighbor’s forbidden flattoppedgarage roof), where we read and ate pimiento-cheese orbutter-and-sugar sandwiches and presumed to defend our secretbivouac. In teaching me casino, a card game based on memoryand sums,my father had cultivated what would be a lifelong loveof numbers; for years, I feigned interest in his venerated stockpages, both to please him and to prove that I understood fractions.Having mastered these rudiments of math, I dove headlonginto the elegance of algebra—a place of labyrinthine and sereneprecision in an increasingly uncertain world. I remember feelingan easy relief when I got to binomial theorems and x-factors: Algebra’sarched perfection was a buttress of clarity for a girl whoseshowiest asset was her mind. I was short, taciturn, and thoughtful;I ran for class treasurer instead of the deeply coveted post ofcheerleader. And if math wasn’t exactly cool, knowing how topass it was. My first education in the casual cruelty of girls camewhen a reigning cheerleader invited me to her house to spend thenight, only to ask me, without flinching, to finish her algebrahomework before I left.Throughout childhood’s march, this was the position I wouldhold—the kid who read too much, talked too little, cried inconsolablyover novels even as I maintained a steady grip on my ownuneventful life. And then, to my parents’ awe and terror, thechanges of puberty threw me into adolescence like a bull riderout of a gate. The year I turned fourteen, I grew four inches, gotbreasts and contact lenses almost in the same week. I startedrolling my eyes at the idiocies of Latin Club and Student Council.Outfitted with a supply of Marlboros—they were twenty-fivecents a pack—I began hanging out at the local drive-in burgerjoint, slouched in the shotgun seat of a friend’s Mustang andlooking for action, listening to teenage wipeouts on the radio.The old 45-rpms my sister and I had worn nearly through, from“Get a Job” to “The Twist,” had been replaced by the Beatles,who had stormed The Ed Sullivan Show a year earlier; now it wasthe sleepy, syrupy sounds of the Four Seasons and the Associationwe heard, about to be rendered impotent by the marvelouslydirty lyrics of “Gloria,” “Louie Louie,” and the Rolling Stones.What was happening to me, of course, was taking place allover America, but that in itself was a marvel: Radio and TV werecreating a mass culture, and my rebellion dovetailed with one ofthe great cultural upheavals in modern history. Television’s responseto the Kennedy assassination had proved how a countrycould be soldered together by the collaborative enterprise ofmyth and machine: that technology could transform history simplyby recording it. The airwaves that delivered rock ’n’ rollpiped in its language of sedition to every urban alley and backwoodslane from sea to shining sea, and the listeners waitingthere responded with the frenzy of a mob outside the Bastille. IfVan Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” had told us how to make lovein the green grass behind the stadium, then the Stones’ bumpand-grind bass gave us the final permission for those hormonaloutrages, and Janis Joplin told us how to scream. For decades,English teachers had been trying to impart the hidden glories oftheme and symbol to their unwitting students. Now we werecurled up in bed at night with transistor radios to our ears, listeningto one of the great antiheroes of popular culture, WolfmanJack, instruct us in the subversive narrative of rock ’n’ roll. Nowwe were meeting metaphor head-on in the undeniable poetry ofJohn Lennon and Bob Dylan; Paul Revere’s hokey descendant,poised to foretell another revolution, had taken acid before hismidnight ride. And now, when Country Joe McDonald told uswe were all fixin’ to die, he made it sound like an anthem insteadof a eulogy.Who could resist such shock waves of grit and grace? I fellheadlong into the pop-culture explosion around me, boredsenseless with the homogeneity of life before rock ’n’ roll. Ipierced my ears, illicitly and crookedly, with sewing needles andbottle corks, using ice cubes as my only anesthetic. I wore chalkwhitelipstick and nail polish in acolyte imitation of London’sYardley Girl, an early-wave supermodel who was kohl-eyed andanorexic. Amarillo, too, responded to the lion at its gates withradical measures. The Dean of Girls at my high school, a formidablewoman known to all as Miss Willie, took to carryingaround a ruler to measure our hemlines, and she wielded thatweapon as though it were a holy scepter. Once apprehended, wehad to drop to our knees on the linoleum floors of the highschoolcorridors, genuflecting before Miss Willie’s mighty gauge.When I was sent home to change, I took the reprimand as a badgeof honor; within a few years, I would be wearing far more confrontationalgarb. Like the rest of the would-be bad kids at TascosaHigh, I had to make do with the minor rebellions of smokingin the parking lot and skipping journalism class; the only realtrouble we could find involved unlocked liquor cabinets and illegalkeg parties.Except for sex, which in the mid-1960s presented a dangerousterritory that many had wandered into but few were willing to acknowledge.As a child, probably in the late 1950s, I had discoveredthat my mother stashed the best books under her bed, awayfrom her daughters’ eyes; this dust-bunny archive was where Ifound The Carpetbaggers and In Cold Blood over the next fewyears. But first there was Peyton Place, which I devoured. I wasshocked by the idea of Constance MacKenzie’s nipples beinghard as diamonds, even if I didn’t quite understand why theywere. Most of my education in sexual desire had come from theelliptical instruction of popular fiction, where women got carriedupstairs as a way to end the chapter. So mine were only vagueprepubescent fantasies, fostered by novels instead of boys, andthen almost accidentally. And that was before I got ahold of MaryMcCarthy’s The Group, which shattered whatever fictions Americahad left about good girls and chastity when it appeared in1963. McCarthy had dared to have her women experience sexualbliss and dared to call it what it was; in the American vernacular,the word climax would never be the same.I must have made off with my mother’s copy of The Groupsomewhere in the mid-1960s, a few years after it appeared; certainlythe fragile paperback I still own, with its background shotof the movie cast, testifies to that. But McCarthy’s randy sophisticationwas more than I could yet tolerate; besides, her characterswere Vassar girls, and that was in another country. AndMcCarthy’s novel had, after all, belonged first to my mother.Myown self-conscious march into sexually explicit fiction came ataround the same time, accompanying another foray into adulthood.I had just gotten my driver’s license, which meant I couldplant my flag all over the Panhandle, or at least Amarillo, and I rememberbeing surprised and disappointed by what that freedomimplied: So what if you could go anywhere at all, if there wasn’tanywhere to go? For a fifteen-year-old, such unrestricted visionmeant that I could take off in my mother’s car for, at most, a coupleof hours. But at the time it seemed like a mockery, as thoughmy mobility had opened up the horizon, only to underscore theemptiness of its plains.Two interior journeys softened this letdown, if only mildly.The first was a novel called The Arrangement, by Elia Kazan, asteamy story of a love triangle that I bought one summer at thecorner drugstore. The other expedition began when I read ashort story in The Saturday Evening Post, slightly racy and deep,about the sexual awakening and ultimate downfall of a youngwoman named Lucy Nelson. It was excerpted from a novel to bepublished the next year, in 1967, and it had been written by a mannamed Philip Roth. I had never heard of him, though from whatI could tell, a lot of people had. What I knew was that he followedLucy’s chaotic despair toward its natural end; more impressive,he had given his novel the wistful, ironic title of When She WasGood. Partly because I was determined not to be, I asked for thebook for Christmas. And whether they knew or intuited it, myparents seemed to realize that I had turned a corner with this par-ticular book, and that my path might be veering in a dangerousdirection. That, say, the author of Goodbye, Columbus might beexcavating caverns far more threatening than those of either waror evolution, at least to a teenage girl on the prowl, armed withher Marlboros and her driver’s license and her long white nails.And then I met Travis.From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Advance praise for A Strong West Wind“I loved A Strong West Wind. [Caldwell] writes of her adventures in the sixties and seventies, and the quest for truth in California, with the authentic voice of the children who once made life hell for the ‘Greatest Generation’ and in the process turned out pretty great themselves.”–Russell Baker“Gail Caldwell’s quiet, burnished memoir is a story of a life’s affections—for her Texas parents, for the sere landscape of the panhandle, and for the road paved with book upon precious book that runs in both directions: far away and home again.”—Richard Ford“Gail Caldwell's book measures the sweep of one life against literature, history, legends of Texas, and the infallible truth of real feeling. This is a brave and moving work.” —James Carroll“An elegant memoir. Gail Caldwell performs something like alchemy—taking the base metals of the Texas Panhandle badlands and turning them into pure gold.” —Ward JustFrom the Hardcover edition.