A little story, straight out of 1984, before I get to the other story, straight out of today ...
I spent the summer of 1984 in Moriarty, N.M., about 40 miles east of Albuquerque, living with my dad and his then-wife, with whom he was at the tail end of a second go-round at marriage. (They'd originally married in 1975, then divorced four years later, the precipitating event of which was an argument after she had asked me to clean something up and he'd told her to do it herself, so ask me sometime how long it took me to get over the idea that I'd been the reason for the bust-up. Anyway, I digress. They remarried a year or two after that, but by 1984 they'd renewed acquaintance with just how profoundly ill-suited they were.)
The arrangement—my spending the entire summer with them—was the resumption of an every-year appointment that came out of my folks' 1973 divorce. It had been put on hiatus by Dad's bankruptcy and money struggles the year before, when he just couldn't dig deep for a plane ticket for me and two months' worth of sustenance. Two years later, I'd interrupt that appointment myself by deciding that, age 16, I didn't want to leave my hometown for entire summers anymore. To many friends, too many girls to chase, too much dough to make bagging groceries and slinging hamburgers and such.
But 1984? In 1984, I was eager to see him again.
Dad, who'd made a lot of money in the drilling business when times were good—made a lot and burned through a lot, a la the nouveau riche—was barely hanging on now. The oil economy had tanked, and he was trying to make his monthly nut by digging water wells, an unsustainable ambition. He would lose the drilling rig to repossession the following year, along with his marriage and most of what meager amount of money he'd been able to stash away. If anything remained, his two-time ex-wife would clean him out for good, showing up one day in 1985 with her hand out, leaving Dad to fill it, then cry at the kitchen table, talking to a friend, lamenting, "When it's over, it's supposed to be over."
But 1984? In 1984, he still had hope.
More than that, he had me—a big kid, 14 years old, plenty strong, and well acquainted with the operation of a drilling rig. I could handle the dirty end of that particular work and at an hourly rate—zero dollars—that suited his upside-down financial situation. As a pimply faced teenager, I was conscripted into the drilling business.
We dug a lot of water wells that summer, most of them forgettable one-day affairs, and one of them that persists in memory through the nearly 40 years since. The reason for the persistence lies in the place, the people, and the circumstances of the dig, all of which lay bare why Dad was such a spectacularly failed businessman and so wildly popular at building the kind of hard-bonded lifetime friendships his son struggles to match.
A Californian named Merv Gemmer had recently bought a piece of property about 10 miles east of Moriarty and gotten a whale of a problem in the bargain: He had New Mexico history—an abandoned roadside attraction called Longhorn Ranch that was shouldered right off old Route 66—and a thriving little truck stop cafe and a line of tidy motel rooms. He also didn't have a water source, having been forced to haul it in several times a week. That just wasn't going to work much longer, by his reckoning. He asked Dad to drill him a well.
I can remember at least two dry holes, enough to compel any driller actually interested in remaining in business to cut his losses and say, "Hey, sorry, but I did my best." Not Dad. He'd given his word, and he understood Merv's plight, and he swore he'd hang in there until Merv had a well, all at the original quoted price. I know for a fact that Merv felt bad about that, but Dad wouldn't hear of amending their deal, so he at least made sure we were well fed. His homemade enchiladas from the El Vaquero restaurant were some of the best I've ever had, and for as long as Merv owned the place, you could see trucks filling his little parking lot. (Life hack: Pay attention to where the truckers eat when you're on a road trip. They know.)
In the end, Merv got his water. Dad lost money on the deal, a lot of it, and he was in no position to take on that kind of financial burden. He ended up with a deep friendship, though, and I suspect he'd say that the nearly four decades since have paid off in bigger ways through that. He's probably right.
It's been years since I, or Dad, have been back to that part of New Mexico. A Google maps search, above, tells me that the El Vaquero and the tidy little motel are mostly gone now, much like the Longhorn Ranch before them. A strip club built by subsequent owners still seems to be intact, pleasures of the flesh being more durable than pleasures of the palate, I guess.
In 1984, the Longhorn Ranch remains were at least tactile—empty storefronts, broken windows, and the like. Merv eventually bulldozed the rest of it down, the same fate that apparently has befallen the old restaurant and should befall the motel, judging from the fire damage in the picture.
Is water still pumping? Hard to know. The place looks pretty desolate. We dug Merv a good well in the end, one that pumped mightily, but nothing lasts forever, right?
Which brings me to Merv Gemmer. Dad told me today that he died a few days ago. He said it in a matter-of-fact way, same as he's relayed the news about several other friends. That's the bargain. You either go before them and let them miss you, or you live long enough to mourn them. He said that last week he called Merv, who spoke wearily, then said he had to go lie down. "I'll call you back next week, Ron," he said, according to Dad.
That call won't be made.
Dad doesn't betray much of how he feels about all this, but he doesn't have to. He hears the clock. There's been Covid, which knocked him down hard, and trouble with his blood pressure, and his kidneys are rebelling, and ... well, something's going to give, sooner than later given the hour.
He thumbed through his phone and showed me pictures other friends, the ones still living, have texted to him. He tells me Charley Allen looks old, and I say, "Well, he should, he's two years older than you." He tells me the two women who lived next door to him 20 years ago, twins, look old, too, and I suppose they do juxtaposed against his memories, but they're younger than he is, anyway, and I wonder if he's looked in a mirror lately.
But I don't say anything. It's needless, and chances are high it'll come out cruelly in his ears despite my intentions, so I just say, well, you've been lucky with friends, Pop. That counts for something.
Craig Lancaster is an author, an editor, a publication designer, a layabout, a largely frustrated Dallas Mavericks fan, an eater of breakfast, a dreamer of dreams, a husband, a brother, a son, an uncle. And most of all, a man who values a T-shirt.