A Lesson in Genetics

In this excerpt from Blue Highways © 1982, author William Least Heat Moon recalls a conversation in the Desert Den Bar in Hachita, New Mexico:

(Bartender) Mrs. (Virginia) Been turned to me. “He’s a real cowboy. Horse, lasso, branding iron.”

“Not many of us left except you count the ones that tells you they’s cowboys. A lot them ones now. I been ridin’ since the war.”

“Weren’t you up around Alamogordo when they tested the bomb?” the high-mileage man said. “Think I heard you were.”

“Over west to Elephant Butte, up off the Rio Grande. Just a greenhorn, sleepin’ out where we was movin’ cattle. July of ‘forty-five. They was a high wind that night and rain, and I didn’t get much sleep. Curled up against a big rock out of the wind. I was still in my bedroll at daybreak when come a god-terrible flash. I jumped up figurin’ one of the boys took a flashbulb picture of me sleepin’ on the job. Course nobody had a Kodak. Couple minutes later the ground started rumblin’. We heard plenty of TNT goin’ off to Almagordy before, but we never heard nothin’ like that noise. Sound just kept roarin’. ‘Oh, Jesus,’ I says, ‘what’d they go and do now?’ Next month we saw wheres they bombed Heerosaykee, Japan. We never knowed what an A-tomic bomb was, but we knowed that one flash wasn’t no TNT blockbuster.”

“The next day the sun rose in the wrong direction,” the other man said. “They’ve been testing soldiers stationed at Alamogordo in ‘forty-five for radiation poisoning. You know, Herefords up there turned white.”

“Feelin’ fine. Doctor told me once it was a good thing I was behind that rock. He says the wind saved me, but the wife says the bomb musta been why we never had no kids. Says it burned out my genetics.”

“You never know.”

“Truth is, bad genetics runs in my family. Dad never had no kids.”

“Your Dad didn’t have children?” I said.

“Not a one. That’s why he adopted me.” He drained his beer. “You know what Spaniards called the valley where the bomb got blowed off?”

High mileage looked up. “Don’t think I ever heard.”

“Journey of Death,” the little cowboy said. “That’s the English for it.”

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