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Spring 2000, Volume 17.3

Essay

 

Levi S. Petersonphoto of Levi Peterson.

Growing Up in Snowflake 


Levi S. Peterson is a professor of English at Weber State University. He is the author of two collections of short stories,
The Canyons of Grace and Night Soil; two novels, The Backslider and Aspen Marooney, and a biography, Juanita Brooks: Mormon Woman Historian.

 

Snowflake is a small town in northern Arizona. I delivered newspapers there from age eleven to fifteen, at first by horse, later by bicycle. Consequently I can remember all the houses in town and most of their occupants. In one of its aspects, the town was a culture, which it passed on to me. In descending order, this culture was Occidental, American, Western, and Mormon. Well before my time, the town's agrarian economy had reached its saturation point and its children had to emigrate. Its links to other communities were such that it prepared its children for a very different mode of living than they had experienced in it. As a community, Snowflake prepared me for city life. As a place, small and remote, it left me with a taste for the wild.

My father's name was Joseph Peterson. Raised in Utah, he was called to Snowflake in 1898 to establish a high school curriculum at the stake academy. He had four sons and two daughters by his first wife, Amanda Andelin, who died of typhoid in 1919. My mother's name was Lydia Jane Savage. She had two daughters by her first husband, Jesse N. Smith III, called N.J., whom my mother divorced in 1916 because she considered him a ne'er-do-well. My father and mother married in 1924, composing an instant family from his two sons and one daughter who remained at home and her two daughters. They went on to have five sons, of whom I am the last. The first of these five, Alma, died in early childhood.

My mother had long arms, wide hips, a prominent nose, a jutting chin, and auburn hair that didn't go gray in old age. She had no capacity for play but worked prodigiously and got by with very little sleep. She rose early, built the fires, cooked all the meals, washed clothes on Monday, baked bread on Saturday, pressed my father's suits, and mended her son's overalls. Often her household included grandchildren, orphaned nephews and nieces, and her aged, senile mother. Working alone in the kitchen late at night, my mother talked to herself aloud in a voice that was earnest, well inflected, and full of query and response. I never regarded this habit as eccentric because she practiced it from my earliest memory. She also slept in church. Within a minute or two of taking her seat on a church bench, she was gone, and it was the duty of anyone sitting next to her to awaken her for partaking of the Sacrament.

I hasten to say that much of the civilizing I have undergone along the line of affection, loyalty, and interest in my fellow human beings I owe to my mother. Over and over she communicated an unconditional love for me during my formative years, infusing me with a propensity to affirm and take pleasure in human beings rather than to injure or begrudge them, a contribution to my adult personality very worth having.

My father was almost sixty when I was born, and he died when I was nine. He had abundant silvery hair, and his manners were dignified and somehow sedate even when he labored on our small farm. Every morning while school was in session, he walked to the nearby high school attired in suit, white shirt, and tie. Everyone called him Professor Peterson with the profoundest respect. He was also a counselor in the stake presidency, which meant that, when attending Snowflake ward, he sat in an honored seat on the stand, where, irresistibly, he fell asleep.

One day as my father and I arrived home in the car, he asked me to open the gate to the driveway, which I did with some difficulty, being perhaps four years old. As the car rolled past me, he said, "Thank you." I also said, "Thank you." "No," he said gently, "you say, `You are welcome.'" Thus I learned how to be gracious to those who have thanked me. How many hundreds of other things did I learn from him without remembering my debt?

My father's children by Amanda were Arley, Leora, Andelin, Earland, Elwood, and Wanda. My mother's children by N.J. were Lenora and Mary. These, my half-siblings, were married before or soon after my birth. They seemed more like uncles and aunts than brothers and sisters. Their children, on the other hand, were very much my equals, and I acquired an affection for all of them almost as deep and abiding as my affection for the three immediate brothers with whom I grew up. My adult siblings moved around the West a good deal, but at any given time some of them lived in Snowflake or nearby towns. Visits from those who lived far away were happy, festive occasions, and their inevitable conclusions taught me that life is characterized by happy assemblies and sad departures.

My immediate brothers, Charles, Roald, and Leon, also contributed to my socialization, for they were my influential peers, and it is the role of peers to teach one another that what happens to one must sooner or later happen to all. However, our surrender to the conventions of adulthood was reluctant and late. My brothers and I lived in inescapable intimacy. During my earliest childhood, we shared two beds in a single room. Later, an outside wash house was finished, and Charles and Roald slept there. Each of us had a small closet and a single drawer in a dresser for clothes. These could not be locked. We ate at the same table three times a day, vied for a single bathroom, and did outside chores together. In winter we were thrust even more closely upon one another. Our house was heated by wood-burning stoves, and we normally had fires only in the dining room and kitchen.

The boys of Snowflake created a counter-culture whereby they collectively resisted the domestications of adult society. My brothers and I were members in good standing in this piratical fraternity. We had a conscience, knew right from wrong, and cheerfully sought the wrong. Returning from movies after dark, we wrote our names with urine in the dust of the graveled street. If one of us broke wind, we followed a frantic ritual. If the one who had broken wind shouted "Safety!" before someone else could shout "Jiggers!" all was well with him. But if someone else shouted "Jiggers!" first, all present were commissioned to pinch the wrong doer while he counted from ten backward, whistled, and shouted "Bulljo!"

When insulting our enemies with a birdie, we did not merely offer an elevated middle finger but pulled down the finger on either side to resemble testicles below an erect penis. It took muscular conditioning to get one's side fingers to take this position quickly, important because in offering insults, timing is everything. So under the tutelage of my brothers, I practiced for weeks one summer to perfect my ability. I am pleased to report that this skill, once acquired, never departs. From my brothers I also learned how to use obscene words, smoke bark-and-paper cigarettes, and masturbate a male dog.

When I was five or six, I got undressed behind a chicken coop with a girl my own age. I was very interested in her genitalia, as she was with mine. One of my brothers discovered us and threatened to tell on us unless we did what married people do. I do not recall the result of our attempt, but after that I knew where babies came from.

I loved play and hated work when I was a child. An hour of play passed in a wink. An hour of work drudged on forever. My emotions were unbearably vivid. I can't duplicate their intensity now. I just remember that anticipation and disappointment were overwhelming— uncontrolled freshets of emotion, floods rather than streams. I took pleasure in remote and arcane resemblances. Even a faint similarity could trigger my imagination, inducing me to step from actuality into fantasy. One Friday after school I made a farm tractor of my coaster wagon by placing a cardboard box in the front half of its bed. Our lot was on a hill, which I coasted down, seated behind the box like a farmer behind the engine of a tractor. With a pencil I drew a radiator grill on the front of the box and on the back I drew oil and temperature gauges. I stuck twigs through the back of the box to represent a throttle and choke, which I pulled and pushed just as I had seen drivers of tractors do.

I first attended church in the arms of my mother, then sat at her side in sacrament meeting. Soon I attended Junior Sunday School and Primary. I understood very early that Mormons who attended church were good people and outsiders and Jack Mormons were bad people, some of them notoriously so. I hated sermons from my earliest consciousness. The lay preachers of Snowflake ward relished doctrine and high sounding phrase, and many a good farmer, called on to open or close a meeting, turned his prayer into a lengthy disquisition on the gospel. My mother was mercifully narcotized during all this by sleep. Unluckily I lacked the ability to sleep in church in those days. For distraction, I made dolls from a handkerchief, drew pictures on bits of paper, and counted dots on the high ceiling. Long before meeting ended, I languished in unrelieved misery.

Still, Sunday had its redeeming traits. Sunday dinner was the best of the week, with fried chicken or roast beef, mashed potatoes, gravy made with cream, buttered vegetables, and pie with a tender, flaky crust or cake with deep rich chocolate icing. When sacrament meeting adjourned in the late afternoon, I was free to seek friends, and we played raucous games in the street or backyard. Sadly, modern Mormon children are not permitted vigorous activity on the Sabbath. God, it seems, dislikes energetic movement on his Holy Day.

The church also accounted for much of the social life of the town. It sponsored Friday or Saturday night dances, especially in the summer when school was out, and organized the observance of holidays. Children often attended adult dances, and some of the older men practiced the pioneer custom of dancing with teenage girls. On the fourth of July the town fathers fired a charge of dynamite at dawn. A patriotic program, street games, and dance followed through the course of the day. Pioneer Day on the twenty-fourth of July was an even bigger event, featuring a parade, a grand barbecue, and a two-day rodeo with boxing matches and evening dances. On Thanksgiving night there was a Wood Dance, to which men and boys earned their admission by hauling, sawing, and splitting a winter's supply of juniper for the town's widows and spinsters.

At the rodeos, I escaped from the car and circled the arena afoot, excited by all the commotion. A loud speaker blared "The Yellow Rose of Texas" or "Blue Shadows on the Trail." I peered into pens where broncs stood with heads drooping in deceitful ease. I passed a camp of Apaches from the White Mountain reservation who had arrived in a half-dozen horse-drawn wagons. I viewed a cavalcade of dudes, sun-burned Jewish youths from the East who summered at a nearby guest ranch operated by Mormon ranchers. I watched the calf roping, the team tying, the bull dogging, the horse racing. The contestants were from Snowflake and nearby towns. Some were skilled, some inept. That made no difference to me. Amidst rising dust and bawling critters, I was amazed, excited, electrified.

It was the church that made this possible. The bishop appointed a Pioneer Day committee and called on others to help out in putting on the parade, program, barbecue, rodeos, boxing matches, and dances. If I were looking for a new church, I'd find one that puts on rodeos. A church that puts on rodeos has a lot going for it.

The church also instructed me in Christian mythology, giving me a metaphysics and world view as well as a mode of worship. Despite my aversion to sermons, the church managed to teach me a good deal of doctrine and theology. Some of my early catechists were duly appointed by the church—my primary teacher, my Sunday school teacher, and later, when I had turned twelve and been ordained a deacon, my priesthood meeting instructor. My instructors in priesthood meeting were always men. Most of my other teachers were women. They were invariably better prepared and more impressive than the men.

I also received a lot of informal instruction. My brothers were adept at translating adult language into juvenile concepts. For example, Roald informed me that God could see through concrete. Though I doubted Roald at first, I later adopted his view. One night a town loafer declared that, according to an apostle preaching in the latest general conference, the Second Coming would occur within the decade. "You boys better get your house in order in a hurry," the loafer said. Because of this, I suffered anxiety for several years over the fast approach of the Great and Dreadful Day of the Lord. This loafer was an agent of the church, albeit self appointed. As an institution of religious instruction, the church isn't limited to those who occupy pulpits or who sign certificates of baptism and ordination. It includes anyone who fancies himself or herself an authority.

Following is a confession of my faith during my early teens, the credo of a Christian child from Snowflake.

I believed God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost were distinct personal and corporeal entities. I believed my Heavenly Father had a spouse, my Heavenly Mother, and they were the parents of my spirit in the Pre-Existence. I believed the Pre-Existence still thronged with unborn spirits waiting to enter the mortal body of a newly conceived child. I believed that human couples who persevered in righteousness were destined to become celestial parents of spirits and creators of worlds in the manner of our Heavenly Father and Mother. I believed the Bible and the Book of Mormon were the word of God, equally tedious and incomprehensible. I believed Joseph Smith had been a true prophet of God and that the existing president of the church, Heber J. Grant, was his successor. I believed that faithful prayer could move mountains and heal the sick, though I had never witnessed an actual miracle. I believed it wicked to drink, smoke, swear, masturbate, or peer into the blouse of a nubile girl sitting in the desk next to mine at school. Predictably, in certain moods I believed myself damned. In more congenial moods, I fancied I stood in good odor with God. The key to winning God's grace was self denial. I believed in self denial. I simply wasn't very good at achieving it.

I have lived most of my adult life in cities, all of which have oppressed me with their congestion and nearly total obliteration of the natural. I trace my dislike for cities to Snowflake, which left me with an irrepressible appetite for the wild.

In any season I was aware of the sky. The sun was bright year around, even in winter. The rise of a full moon over the low eastern horizon was always spectacular. The harvest moon was unbelievably large—maybe ten miles away. During the dark of the moon, I saw a stunning sky. Stars glimmered and the Milky Way painted the zenith a chalky white. Everywhere the cosmos burned with a fine luminescent dust.

Winters were sunny but cold. Sometimes winter temperatures plunged drastically with an accession of arctic air over the open plains of northern Arizona. We heated our house with juniper; no wood has a more fragrant smoke than juniper and I miss it sorely. Our ill-framed house leaked heat steadily, and we stayed close to a stove. Children who live with central heating don't know what winter is. We slept between flannel sheets and under a heavy stack of quilts. On the coldest nights our mother wrapped heated flat irons in towels and placed them at our feet.

Snow was infrequent but not unknown. When it fell, the entire town was happy. The general aridity of the region was a fact no one could ignore; precipitation in any amount and at any season was cause for rejoicing. One Sunday when I was the first awake in our house, I went out the back door and found the world covered by an astonishing mantle of snow, perhaps six inches deep and utterly unblemished. In retrospect I recognize that the snow had stopped falling only minutes before I discovered it. Overhead a muted light passed through low clouds, and I was transfixed by the unfamiliar scene, intuiting alien realities upon which I had no rational grasp. The snow softened angles and filled corners and crevices. It clung to branches, creating lacy patterns. It buried the woodpile, covered buckets, boxes, pens, and coops, and stretched in a heaping line along the fence railing. It transformed the street and spread across the vacant block next to ours. By noon, when we returned from Sunday school, it had melted. It had been a passing revelation. I had been visited by the wild and warned it is not always with us.

Spring visited us briefly in February. Temperatures ameliorated and suddenly there were a few balmy days. Along the creek were pussy willows with silvery gray catkins, and I experienced a minor ecstasy upon finding them. The most notable feature of springtime was the wind. From early March through most of June a gale raced northeastward across northern Arizona. It could blow day and night for weeks at a time, and if it stopped for a few blessed days, nothing was more certain than that it would soon begin again. The pioneers of the region cursed the wind, and some of them turned around and went back to their previous habitat because of it.

In full summer, calm, hot days became the rule. Evenings were balmy, and by morning a cool freshness prevailed. Invariably we pulled up the covers well before dawn. During the rainy season of July and August, thunderheads boiled upward in silvery white billows every afternoon. Often they gathered into a storm, which advanced across the land with lightning and thunder and veils of rain. Storms developed mostly on the hottest days, and those lucky enough to be in their wake were blessed with a happy amelioration of the temperature.

One afternoon I stood in our yard and watched a sharply defined wall of rain advance toward me. I ran to the shelter of the front porch as the drenching downpour arrived. Half the sky was clear and sun rays slanted in from the west to where I stood. Minutes later the rain was gone, and a rainbow cast its curving spectrum among broken clouds in the eastern sky.

Silver Creek divided our farm and gave it much of its pleasant character. Near the bottom of our land the creek was deflected slightly by a rock wall, where a headgate diverted water into a ditch. Periodic floods dredged a swimming hole at the base of the rock wall. On hot afternoons, naked boys with flying penises ran full tilt down a sand bar and plunged into the pool. Poison ivy grew on the opposite side of the rock wall. I was warned not to touch it and never did. It grew uninvited, beautifully green and shiny, yet a sign of the unfriendly side of the wild.

The creek and its banks were a rich riparian environment. Willows, cottonwoods, grass, reeds, wild roses, and any number of other plants grew plentifully. Red-winged blackbirds and meadow larks and a host of birds I never learned to identify warbled among the branches. Imported carp and native suckers swam in the creek. Ducks paddled on its quiet surface. Blue herons waded along sand bars with bright-eyed aplomb, prepared to harvest an unsuspecting frog. Raccoon and skunk tracks were abundant along the banks. Once in a while a coyote or a bobcat made a crossing and left its tracks behind.

I often had the duty of escorting a cow in heat to a nearby farmer's bull. One eager cow didn't wait till I had opened a gate but tried to go through a barbed wire fence, where she stopped, half in and half out. While the amorous bull lowed gently at her head, I shoved mightily at her rear till I had pushed her through the fence. We milked as many as a half dozen cows and sold raw milk to our neighbors. As for the hygienic qualities of our milk, I recall plucking many a mote of dry cow manure from a foaming pail with a none-too-clean finger. In general, our cows tolerated my presence and seemed even to take an altruistic interest in my welfare. On more than one occasion, I fell to the ground and writhed in mock agony, and four or five of the cows gathered around me, mooing anxiously and wanting to help.

I think of our cows as long-departed friends whose names I remember fondly: Pet, Pippin, Sally, Jerse, Blackie, Flossie, and so on. It was a pleasure to hear them belch and watch a lump rise up their long throats and see their jaws begin to chew a cud. Cud chewing, an eons-old habit of the ruminants, reminds me that my friends the cows were more wild than tame. Like me, they wore their domestication lightly.

Early autumn in Snowflake was a benign season. Frost began to appear in the mornings, and fields turned silver with stubble. The trees of town and along the lanes and creek took on hues of yellow and red, and the atmosphere seemed extraordinarily rarified and pure.

My happiest autumn in Snowflake was my last. I was a junior in high school. By a quirk of unforeseen circumstances, I would spend my senior year of high school in Mesa, a small city, and after that I would go away to college in Provo, another small city. I will say in advance that even small cities were too much for me. Their paved curbs and sidewalks, their dense array of houses, their swarms of people forced the domesticated oppressively to the forefront of my consciousness. I could no longer feel the wild.

But in 1949, at the beginning of my junior year, I had no inkling of this unhappy eventuality. Allowed to leave school early every afternoon, I hauled hay, cut corn, assisted in the production of silage, got in winter's wood from the hills, and did all the outside chores at our lot in town. I did a lot of hunting that fall. I parked our pickup among the junipers out on the range land and hunted along ledges of rock with my .22 rifle and shot a cottontail or two. More than once I got home after dark and gutted a rabbit by light coming from the window, and later, when I came in from milking, my mother was frying the rabbit for supper.

One day I saw a herd of antelope, maybe twenty of them, in a wide grassy valley rimmed by junipers. The tawny-and-white pronghorns wheeled and began an easy lope down the valley toward a barbed wire fence. I watched with excitement, anticipating that, one after another, they would gracefully leap the fence with scarcely a break in their stride. I was shocked when they skidded to a halt and, three or four at a time, fell to their knees and crawled under the fence. On the other side, they resumed their flight, and after a minute or two they passed from sight over the far rim of the valley. So I was taught, if I hadn't already learned this lesson, that the wild can deceive you. It can announce, quite abruptly, that it has plans beyond human expectations.

One night in mid-October I was milking cows after nightfall at the farm. I was at the flank of a cow, stripping hard on her teats. A bright moon stood high in the sky. I heard a distant sound, which quickly magnified into the quacking of ducks. Suddenly I saw two ducks pass between me and the moon, rocketing on with plaintive voices toward an invisible haven on the nearby creek. My emotions were intense and complex. I was suspended in delight, rich anticipation, and the ineffable mystery of being alive. I was at one with the staccato flight of the ducks, the glowing moon, and the frosty October shadows around me.

It was good to grow up in Snowflake. I had a full sense of belonging to family, church, and school. I took on my acculturation with considerable pleasure or, where pleasure lacked, at least with tolerance and resignation. Furthermore, I enjoyed the wild and took its active presence as a matter of course. As a city-dwelling adult, I have become all too keenly aware of the well established law that the beautiful side of the wild recedes to the degree that civilization develops. But as a child I had no idea that culture is ultimately antithetical to wilderness. My home town, small and comprehensible, seemed a sufficient shelter against the ominous lethal side of the wild. In my perceptions the beautiful side of the wild and the domesticated mingled harmoniously. I had from that a wholeness of spirit sadly lacking in my adult personality.

 

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