The Dragon's Roar

Jana Pendragon

May 1999

Dragging Main: Memories of Growing Up In a Small Town

In these past few weeks America has been tested. For any cognitive thinker to deny this would be absurd. Thus, this time around The Dragon’s Roar veers away from our usual topic, traditional Country & Western and American roots music, in order to address a topic that is a significant factor in the development of this genre of music. Our detour concerns the changes that have stripped small town America of its dignity and created several generations of youth who feel lost and alienated from the world around them. While our Mother Earth continues to spin in the sky, America’s children are falling apart. No greater piece of evidence can be offered to support this fact than the recent events in Littleton, Colorado.

In the aftermath of this tragedy I was drawn back to my own childhood spent in the small town of Reno, Nevada. During the ‘50s and ‘60s Reno was the center of the universe to me. It was the best of civilization and traditional country life all rolled into one. With the desert on one side, the Sierra Nevada mountain range on the other and the Truckee River connecting the two, I was sure Reno was paradise.

Granted, life was simpler then. Boundaries were set. You didn’t talk back to your elders, you were taught to respect others and their property and the Meadow Lark always signaled the return of Spring. Yes, it was a different world. Weekly trips to the library were exciting and anticipated and one simply did not spend hours sitting in front of a T.V. screen. Running in the fresh air and using your imagination were daily requirements. And, while it was not a perfect world, it was very close to it.

(And before you mutter aloud, “But the gambling, the prostitution, the atmosphere! That is no place to raise a child properly.” Let me just say--it was. Gaming was our industry and it meant as much as building cars did in Detroit. There was a sense of respect instilled in us because of it and we grew up knowing the dangers of too much gambling, too much drink and too little self-respect. As for prostitution, well it has always been and always will be. Even as a young child I looked upon Nevada’s logical approach to prostitution as reasonable and sound. I still do.)

As the full impact of Littleton, Colorado continued to hit me, I found myself returning time and time again to those cherished memories of Reno, Nevada and the question of the alienation of our children. I happened upon an essay I began in 1993, shortly after losing my mother and baby brother. Reflective, I was at that time still mourning a loss that can never be reconciled. Still, the essay, “Dragging Main,” speaks volumes about the alienation I felt as a teenager as small town Reno turned into a grotesque version of a gaudy carnival side show. Reading through the essay I came to realize the connection between my words, written years ago, and the tragic events in Littleton.

More, I came to several conclusions. It is not the music or the media or the prevalence of guns within our society that is to blame for the alienation and loss of our children. If any blame must be placed it should be leveled at the lack of time and attention that parents are able or willing to dedicate to their children. It is not about a proper Christian upbringing either, though the right wing Christian strong arm would have us all believe that is so as they use Littleton to fuel their fire and transform a deceased teenage girl into yet another Christian martyr. It is about parents being cognizant and present in their children’s lives. It is about parental awareness. It is about giving children boundaries as well as a foundation upon which to stand as they grow into their own independence. It is about regulating what they watch on T.V., listen to on the stereo and who their friends are. It is simply all about parenting.

For anyone to say that the government or the public school system is not doing enough to insure that America’s children grow into independent, functioning, healthy adults is ludicrous. Each and every child who is brought into this world has two parents who are responsible for that child from day one. To take the joys of parenthood and not the responsibilities is unacceptable. There is no job more important to this nation and the world. Too few enter the hallowed halls of parenthood with this attitude however.

Realizing this I also realized how lucky I was, in spite of my own alienation and troubles as a teenager, to have had the parents and grandparents I had. I was and still am fortunate to have the never ending influence of Mama’s best friend and my ‘second mother,’ Jane Bowden as well as the lessons of my Daddy’s hard life. Along the way there were other adults of substance and quality who taught me, through example as well as through words, the difference between right and wrong. While I did not always follow the correct path, few kids do, I always knew that there was a right way to travel the road of life and I had the road map to prove it.

With all of this in mind, I give you a slice of life from Reno, Nevada in the form of the essay “Dragging Main,” which ends with a brief poem, “South of Reno,” that emphasizes the loss of my own small town in America as well as my innocence. In the final analysis it is the lost innocence of our children that we must fight for as well as their imaginations, creativity and the sense of security that only a home and family can give them; and their identities as worthwhile individuals who are accepted, loved and belong.

This then is more food for thought as The Dragon's Roar is heard once again....

Dragging Main

When I was sixteen every Friday night seemed to hold a promise that floated into my consciousness upon the dry desert air that came waffling in at sunset. Like unseen flowers off in the distance about to bloom, my friends and I could smell the sweet scent of excitement as day transformed itself into glamourous, mysterious night. Another weekend loomed before us as we broke the chains that bound us to school and the rules set down for us by our parents at home. We knew the promise was there--somewhere--and we were sure that we would find it. Eventually. Our youthful optimism would not allow us to halt the quest in spite of repeated failures and disappointments. Week after week we waited for our first whiff of the promise and Friday night.

Closing my eyes now I can still see the flashing red, green, white, yellow and blue neon lights of the casino signs that lined the main thoroughfare of my home town, Reno, Nevada. I remember quite clearly the names of the most important casinos of that era; “the Nevada Club,” “Harold’s Club,” “Harrah's,” “the Mapes,” and “the Riverside” where Mama worked when she was not yet 21 and met Frank Sinatra and where, years later, I saw and heard the magnificent harmonies of the Mills Brothers for the very first time when I was just three.

And, the world famous Reno Arch that proclaimed for all to see that we were, “The Biggest Little City In The World.” It held sway over our main street with a crowning glory of neon that cannot be replaced or denied even now. The gaming and the show rooms...lunch at the counter of Woolworth's or the Wigwam with Mama...Daddy’s cowboy boots and trips to the Reno Rodeo and his diamond cuff links...the Majestic Theatre...the Truckee River...Wingfield Park...the Sierra Nevadas...Lake Tahoe...Pyramid Lake and arrow head hunting with the Bowdens...the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe tribes...Joe Conforte and the infamous brothel, Mustang Ranch...the sounds of Patti Page, Dean Martin, Elvis, Hank, George and Buck, all hearkening to me from the speakers of my antiquated record player or the AM radios that could be heard from one end of the Truckee Meadows to the vast desert at the other; and, finally, the old man’s farm on Valley Road where I used to sit for hours watching the horses and cows who spent their days in that once lush pasture. All are symbols of home for me. And somehow, they all anchor me to my own past and the Nevada roots that still run deep. More, they gave substance to the promise that mesmerized not only me but so many others as Friday night rolled around and we proceeded to drag main.

As for the promise itself, we could not define it or give it a name. Perhaps it was anticipation or the uncontrolled sexual energy that surges up in adolescence. Or maybe it was the idea that we were the true champions of the universe and knew so much more than our parents (or so we thought). What we didn’t realize at that time was that we were the generation who was and always would be caught between the old world of the family farm and ranch and the new world of the impersonal city, built upon profit and loss, separating us from nature and the natural order of things.

At the time though, we were hardly aware of this fact. Our community was in the process of being displaced by sprawling masses of humanity and the dwellings they would work, eat and procreate in. The cowboy culture and the Native American culture that were so much a part of us in our part of the world were fading away, like the beautiful and free herds of wild horses protected only by the voice of the late Wildhorse Annie, victims too, obliterated by technology.

Still, we persisted in our quest for the promise, like the mythical Holy Grail that left Arthur’s Round Table in ruins. Each Friday night was greeted with the same ritual: showering, donning clean Levi's, hair and make-up, and for me, my tough-cowgirl suede jacket that, in my overly romantic teenage imagination, was like a badge of honor, a symbol of my courage, my identity and my place in the world. Everything had to be just right before dragging main, that time honored small town tradition of driving up and down the main street endlessly, looking, hoping, trying to see and being seen--searching for the promise.

Most of the time I dragged main with Patty Jo in her dad’s old pick-up truck. My very best friend Kathie was beset by an onslaught of boys who sought to escort her to a dance, to the movies, to a football game every Friday and Saturday night; in my memory we did not drag main together very often. On the other hand, Patty Jo and I were bound by simple things like the fact that both of us had fathers who represented the American cowboy, our mothers dealt 21 and we, Patty Jo and I, whom many referred to as Jake, were sure we would grow up to be famous poets like Ginsberg, Frost, Dickinson and Plath or Sexton. We also tried very hard to be cool and sophisticated, hip to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll that popular culture espoused all around us. We tried to act as if we weren’t simply two very lost young girls coming of age in a town that was also coming of age; growing from small town to overpopulated city just as we were growing from starry-eyed small town girls into the uncomfortable and ill-fitting womanhood we would wear as the modern era progressed. What we did not know is that we were the first generation to grow up completely away from the familiar country life of our forefathers and mothers; the first generation to become city dwellers.

However, looking back now, I see it was a sense of growing alienation from our collective pasts that pushed us on each Friday night and the increasing fear of an unknown future that kept us there--searching for the elusive and undefined promise that floated upon the night breezes, always calling to us, as it hovered silently just beyond our reach.

The dawning of the Seventies saw many new beginnings and a myriad of sad endings. For us, in small town Reno, Nevada, our once-protected world was coming to an end just as the world of our grandfathers and grandmothers, who had grown up on the land as farmers and ranchers, came to an end a generation or two before. For us it wasn’t a great depression or a dust bowl or even a world war that brought about this tragic end that shattered our souls and left us wanting--it was greed disguised as progress. The greed of the developers and corporations who turned small town Reno into another kind of abomination, trying to bring people in with the allure of high rises, false fronts and fast bucks.

We who had lived so innocently watched as our illusions were shattered along with our dreams and our hopes and, for some, the promise of Friday night. Even then I knew that those who came to plunder this sacred land and our natural resources only saw dollar signs; they never saw us or what they were destroying.

Looking back now I can see that we, the first generation to live completely away from the land, were doomed in so many ways. We, Patty Jo and I, were representative of the struggling youth caught between what was left of the wild, wild west and the peace, love and drug culture that so many of our peers had embraced. We were confused, not quite sure where we belonged anymore, and we certainly hadn’t come to terms with the plight of losing our place upon the land or even the simple freedom of riding a horse, unencumbered, out in an open meadow. Perhaps this is an overly romanticized view of the situation and maybe we were only momentarily lost-but I don’t think so. I still feel the same; I long for the land and the open spaces and a horse to ride into forever. And, I am still alienated, more so than ever before and living in a bigger city that talks to me in terms I know so well, “redneck,” “goat roper,” “hick,” “Okie,” “hillbilly.” Or simply the mocking, “Nevada?” As if to say there is nothing there but crap tables, bars and whores.

Still I wonder, “Who am I and where do I belong?” I am most certainly not a city girl and my country seems to have vanished.

I recall Patty Jo used to talk about Montana and the ranch and the horses her cousins still rode and how it used to be, once upon a time, when she was small and the world was new. And one day, she often said, she would go back there and ride into her own forever. And I used to talk about nothing, nothing at all. But, in my own silent pain I always cried out to the horses I once rode and the promises made by a father who went away and never really came back; and the stories about Nana and Grandpa’s Oklahoma, the land of my father’s people in Missouri and “those damned ol’ stubborn mules” and my paternal great-grandfather’s bid to resettle in the San Joaquin--his valley of dreams.

But, what, you might ask, were we thinking about as we drove up and down Reno’s main street, Virginia Street, in that old green pick-up truck? Montana? Missouri or the San Joaquin? Boys? Falling in love and living happily ever after? Fame and fortune? I don’t remember, and I doubt if Patty Jo does anymore either--she probably doesn’t really care. Life has been hard on both of us and there were no dreams that ever really came true.

What I do remember is the feeling, the longing, the hope that maybe, just maybe, if we were baptized completely and totally in the neon lights that adorned each casino and nightclub along Virginia Street and if we drove far enough and long enough up and down that single street that we would eventually find that promise that was always so fragrant and potent as it lilted along beside that old, green pick-up truck, riding the evening air every Friday night.

So we did. We drove and drove until midnight and then returned home with empty pockets and the growing anticipation of that as-yet unfulfilled promise that intoxicated us and held us enthralled. By the start of our Senior year things were already starting to change. You could see it in the night sky and feel it as strip malls and new casinos shot up out of the ground like Jack’s magic beans. And then Patty Jo got a boyfriend and I just got more self-destructive, more sullen and more determined, still thinking I might be able to find the promise--somewhere.

By the time we graduated from Reno High School Patty Jo and I no longer dragged main together. We weren’t buddies anymore and she had outgrown the promise or at least the quest for that particular holy grail. Patty Jo went on to other boyfriends and made her own excitement while I continued to find myself being drawn to the neon wherever I’d go. I bathed in the light indulgently, hoping to become worthy of that still elusive promise. Always trying to believe and holding on only to the hope that remained inside me.

And now, years later, I can still feel the promise pull upon my soul on Friday nights. Maybe it is only a memory. But, I’ve searched beyond my home town, in the honky tonks and bars of the San Joaquin, Los Angeles and even Elvis’ viva Las Vegas. I remain empty and seeking still.

I do go home from time to time. I retrace the route from the parking lot of the Mayfair Market at the north end, south on Virginia Street to where the neon still rains down upon the crowds and I search for what I might have missed--never finding it.

Sadly, everything has changed. The transformation of Reno, Nevada from small town to city came with a price. The cancers that eat away at America’s big cities have come to nest in my home town. The gangs and violence, unemployment and the influx of immigrants with strange faces and stranger tongues who can’t or simply won’t assimilate into a culture that is not their own. That which is comfortable and comforting and familiar is vanishing like the sacred buffalo who once ruled the Great Plains. And I wonder where did all the cowboys and Indians go? It feels like I am walking the street’s of L.A.; I grow frightened and then angry. In my despair I am sure that the promise is gone, lost forever. Then comes the internal and silent gnashing of teeth, tearing of hair and the rush of tears as they fall from my eyes to the waiting ground below. Only then do I realize I am like my home town: misplaced even in the land of my birth. I am the alien in this town that is not my home town any more. And I am alien wherever I go.

And who am I? I still have no answers, only questions. But, if I am quiet, sometimes-just sometimes-I can close my eyes and feel the pull of the promise as it calls to me on a Friday night, begging me to renew my quest. And sometimes, when I’m home, the vibrant prospect of the renewal of that long ago promise reaches out to me, pulling me down to the river of neon to be baptized once again and then and only then do I know, briefly, who I am and what I am about; a small town girl still coming of age and searching for the fulfillment of a promise made on a Friday night in another time and in a place that dwells only within me. A promise that once carried the future upon its soft, downy wings, a promise
that has yet to be fulfilled.

South of RenoŠ

I drove a school bus out south of Reno,
Long before the ranches and fields were covered
over with concrete and steel.
I remember the open fields and the cattle
Grazing and foals on wobbly legs
on April mornings.
But that is all gone now, never to return
To us, who loved the freedom of that life
unfolding as it should.

Copyright 1990,1993 &1999
Jana Pendragon
All Rights Reserved

Jana Pendragon can be reached at