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Life lessons at Zozobra

September 4, 2018

Life lesson No. 109 from a blue-collar dad whose genetic composition was fueled by wanderlust, hot coffee, the Detroit Tigers and a curious love for Southwestern décor came just a few months after the red, white and blue celebrated its 200th.

We were newcomers to Santa Fe back then, the entire family having moved this way after time on the Tittabawassee River in Saginaw, Mich., and the Mississippi Delta in New Orleans. Enamored with the high desert and its deeply rooted traditions, dear ol’ dad took the day off from Jackalope and (life lesson warning here) dispensed a novel’s worth of colorful metaphors when trying to parallel park the family Oldsmobile anywhere within walking distance of Fort Marcy park.

Nothing elevates the stress quite like navigating the narrow streets of Santa Fe in a car big enough to challenge a tank. To this day, I still think about Dad’s blood pressure whenever I approach our newsroom near the cathedral, and the sort of mumbling set of incoherent curse words made famous by Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story.

It was time to burn this giant puppet thing Dad had been talking about for weeks, the one our first-grade teacher at Chaparral Elementary taught us to make using Popsicle sticks, tissue paper and markers.

Dad was one of those classic hurry-up-and-wait guys. He’d arrive ridiculously early for everything (tee times, work, dinner), then jettison the anxiety in ways that would make a therapist reach for a notebook. He wandered through the crowd that day asking if anyone had fireworks he could buy.

At 3 p.m., our comfy 10-by-10 space along the right field line was an island of fun. There was plenty of room to play catch and wander though the crowd without feeling lost. By 9, we were shoulder to shoulder, everyone sort of smashed together like headbangers at a concert in Tingley Coliseum.

Then came the dancing guy in the red suit, the swaying arms of Zozobra, the fire and the cheers. The entire thing made no sense and, almost half a century later, it still doesn’t. Getting 10,000 people from a Catholic town to stand around for hours at a time just to watch a moaning monster disappear in flames in what is essentially a pagan ritual sure sounded cool to a 6-year-old Midwestern transplant, but it seemed too bizarre to compute.

And that, Dad reminded me, was the entire point: Every town has its traditions, but Santa Fe’s was special in a way that made it lovable, unique and proudly independent. Understanding the rituals wasn’t required. Enjoying them was. Nothing says Santa Fe quite like the visual of Zozobra’s white robes glowing in the afternoon sun, his growling howls and dancing flames helping erase the gloom.

Life lesson No. 110 here: Now that we’ve seen it, we aren’t coming back. Not until the drinking days of college did I return for my second appearance, and not until my first days at The New Mexican did I dare give Round 3 a go.

Through it all, the lasting image of the crowd roaring and the flames rising higher than any building in town has stayed with me as much as any other. They all point to a childhood memory that is uniquely Santa Fe, but one that’s probably shared by countless others.

Minus the road rage, that is.

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