Looking Homeward: It took a tragedy to show a kid from Clovis the warmth in her past
Kathleen M. Rodgers (formerly Kathy Doran, CHS class of 1976)
(Author’s note: This essay was originally published in The Albuquerque Journal 3/3/91)
When people used to ask me, “Where are you from?” my reaction always resulted in sweaty armpits and palms and flushed cheeks. Finally, and almost apologetically, I would rush through my spiel: “Oh, a place you’ve never heard of…Clovis, New Mexico.”
I used to feel guilty about my answer until I heard what my aunt Kay, an Albuquerque resident of more than 25 years, had to say about growing up in Clovis: “It’s a great place to be from, but I wouldn’t want to live there.” She voiced what I’d been thinking for years.
Clovis is just a hop and a skip from the railroad tracks that divide New Mexico from the Texas panhandle. It has even earned the nickname “little Texas” because it resembles many of the communities of the Lone Star state more than it does Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Gallup or Las Cruces.
I’d always considered the place I grew up in as just another small town that was staying alive because of outside forces, in this case because of the stockyards, the Santa Fe Railroad and Cannon Air Force Base. In high school, I couldn’t wait to get out. Each summer, between ninth grade and senior year, I got to escape the one-horse-town days of Clovis and spend several glorious weeks at my aunt’s and uncle’s house in Albuquerque. Aunt Kay and Uncle Larry took me places, and I experienced a true New Mexico culture that seemed so lacking on the east side of the state. We meandered through the historical sites of Old Town, ate Indian Fry bread at Isleta Pueblo, visited the sprawling campus of the University of New Mexico and drove through the scenic Manzano Mountains. I came away from those summers knowing that I wanted more than what Clovis had to offer.
A few years later, when I was 21, I married a “jet jockey” – what the local boys called the F-111 pilots from Cannon AFB. The marriage whisked me quickly away from home. And except for occasional visits to see my mother and brother, I happily stayed away for 11 years.
Until recently, I was convinced Clovis had so little going for it that if the base ever closed or a few businesses failed, the town would simple dry up and blow away. My view of my hometown could be summed up by a postcard I saw a few years before I left. It pictured a ragged burro in search of water under a scorching sun. The caption read: “Clovis, N.M., a hundred miles from anywhere and one mile from Hell.”
Then last June, while watching a national television broadcast, my childhood image of Clovis began to crumble.
The story showed the way the entire town pulled together to search for a missing child, 6-year-old Matthew Roberts. As I watched the townsfolk talking to the television reporters, I saw a Clovis that’s still a small town, but a vital one with an enormous heart.
The police force got little sleep after the call came in that Matthew was missing, and more than 5,000 of the town’s 35,000 citizens joined in the search. Churches, scout troops and schools helped distribute flyers all over town. Children wore T-shirts displaying Matthew’s picture.
Folks who generally kept to themselves came out of the woodwork to look for the little boy. My mother told me, for example, that for several nights right after Matthew was reported missing, she lay awake listening to what seemed like thousands of voices calling out into the night from the streets and alleys: “Matthew, where are you?” And the television program showed a crew of local bikers, in leather jackets and chains, ride up on their choppers and give Matthew’s parents a large sum of money they collected.
One man on the program gave a simple reason why the community was doing so much for one little boy. “Because he’s a Clovis kid,” he said.
More than two weeks into the search for this Clovis kid, his body was discovered inside a storage compartment in the back of a car near his home. It appears Matthew crawled inside and was asphyxiated within minutes.
Many people who did not know Matthew experienced the tragedy of his death, but for me it was particularly wrenching. I cried for days after the special was aired. I cried mostly for little Matthew and for his parents, the empty bedroom they must now face and their aching hearts.
But I also wept for myself – because I felt ashamed. I too was “a Clovis kid.” And I had turned my back on the town that had cradled me from birth and nurtured me well into my adult life. I got my first professional break in Clovis, with my early dreams as a writer fostered by the local newspaper editor who hired me.
That show made me realize that it’s people like my first boss, my Clovis neighbors and my own family that make a place what it is. What my hometown may lack in culture it makes up for in the quality of the people who live there, the way they sally forth when one of their own needs help.
Now when others ask me where I’m from, I proudly say, “Hey, ever heard of a place called Clovis, New Mexico? It’s a great little town.”
~ Kathleen M. Rodgers is the author of the award-winning novel “The Final Salute.” She resides in Colleyville, TX, but gets home to Clovis often. When coming into town, she always drives down Main Street and remembers those long ago days of “dragging Main” and “hitting the bricks.”