Volume 12, Issue 35 ~ August 26-September 1, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

This Old Man Caught up with Boyhood Dreams
Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.
—Book of Joel, the Holy Bible.

photo by Alan Doelp
Burton with a model of Fat Boy, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki during World War II.
Obviously, the verse from the Book of Joel is meant to applaud the young, who have sufficient time remaining in life to fulfill their dreams. But old men with little time left can at times fulfill their dreams, and with great satisfaction. This I learned last week in an automobile tour of south central New Mexico.

I was born in an era when boys had dreams as well as visions. Calvin Coolidge was president, the Great Depression was looming, there was no television and no thought of computers and their games. What occupied our dreams were daring cowpokes riding the range.

Days were spent playing outdoors, usually games of cowboys and outlaws. Tom Mix and his Ralston straight shooters or the Lone Ranger and Tonto were our heroes. Though times were changing, we were young enough to daydream about galloping on horseback amidst the cacti, six gun ready to do justice.

But on Saturday afternoons there was no time for playing; that’s when widowed Grandma Burton took time from the fields of her farm in her endeavor to impart a bit of culture into her oldest grandchild. How I hated those afternoons; other boys were riding imaginary horses, and there I was saddled indoors close to Grandma commanded to listen on the radio to the Texaco-sponsored Metropolitan Opera program.

Another Little Boy in My History
A dozen years later on Aug. 6, 1945, when I had left far behind the daydreams of being a cowboy (and no longer was obliged to listen to fat ladies singing in strange languages), I was attending a movie with a couple dozen other SeaBees, and something happened that perhaps — no, make that probably — changed the course of my life.

On the screen, as I recall, there were steep cliffs, and we were studying them, for this was no ordinary movie, when someone broke into the ‘theater’ to shout the news of the drop of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The projector continued churning the reel of celluloid, but no one was watching. It was the beginning of a three-day celebration that later took us to the streets to celebrate the Japanese surrender.

You see, the movie was more of a documentary: our first glimpse of where we were to land later in the year to clear the beaches for Marines invading Japan. The challenge was formidable, the odds of survival not as good as with Tom Mix and his straight shooters bushwhacked by a band of outlaws at the pass. Hence, to this day, no one better suggest to me that Harry Truman should have decided not to drop Little Boy on Hiroshima.

Youth’s Dreams Become Age’s Daydreams
Over the years, the bomb, the cowboys and the opera became history, stowed away within the mind yet recalled not infrequently along with so many other dreams, visions and real life happenings. Maturity changes values as well as perspectives; things like the opera become a treasure, things like cowboys become little more than a vivid reminder of the lore of young America. Even Little Boy faded within memory. Life goes on; the past is just that.

Yet in the twilight years, one dwells more on the past, for after all, the past makes today and the visions of youth become the dreams of today — and not infrequently the daydreams of today.

For more than a few years, I have yearned to see Lincoln County, where the famed Billy the Kid fought in the Lincoln County cattle wars. And there was the equally renowned Santa Fe Opera within an outdoor pavilion arrangement overlooking the city, a refreshing alternative to operas I’ve enjoyed in Annapolis, Baltimore and even the Met in New York.

And then there’s Los Alamos where was developed the bomb, which killed so many thousands yet spared so many more, possibly me among them. And all within south central New Mexico, making the decision easy when Alan Doelp and wife Carol invited me and wife Lois to join them on a trip to Santa Fe.

Dreams Come True
Grandma would have enjoyed the production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and would have enjoyed even more watching me pay $260 for two tickets. Yes, her attempts more than 70 years earlier to instill a bit of cultural appreciation had paid off.

It wasn’t with dry eyes that I viewed at Los Alamos Fat Boy, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki a couple of days after Little Boy fell at Hiroshima. It was the clincher in convincing Japan to surrender. Little Boy was being refurbished elsewhere. If only either had come a year earlier, my best friend and fellow sailor Henry Beckwith would not have gone down over Ireland.

Though at Lincoln the museum was closing, exhibits coordinator Francine Murtaugh allowed me an hour to roam through the old Lincoln County Courthouse from which Billy the Kid escaped after shooting to death deputy sheriff J.W. Bell, also Bob Ollinger, who tormented him via callous remarks about the gallows Billy had a date with on May 13, 1879.

As I viewed a hole at the bottom of the hallway stairs where hot lead felled Bell, I relived the dreams of days when the kid Billy Burton played the role of Billy the Kid swaggering amidst other playmates, many now long departed, who had assumed roles of the likes of Wild Bill Hickock, Butch Cassidy, Doc Holliday, Jesse James and Tom Mix.

In Recollections of Early Childhood, William Wordsworth wrote “Wither has fled the visionary gleam? Where is it now, the glory and the dream?”

To old timers, I would say there still is the glory and the dream. If possible, do it now. Return to the locale of the glory and the dream. True, visions are for the young, but there is much satisfaction in the dreams, or if you prefer, the daydreams of the older. They in great part make us what we are today. Vivid reflection flavors what is left of life. Enough said …

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