Going Back to Bisbee is actually the title of a book written by Richard Shelton, who first came to southeastern Arizona as a soldier stationed at Fort Huachuca. Years later he started his teaching career at Lowell School in Bisbee. It turns out he and I were there at the same time, but since I was attending Greenway School rather than Lowell, we didn’t meet then. I encountered him much later when I was working in the English Department at the University of Arizona where he started out as an Instructor and eventually became a much respected professor.
His book came out in the early nineties, and it talked about what it was like to live and work in Bisbee in the late fifties and early sixties. Reading it taught me things about my hometown that I had never consciously understood before. For one thing, there was a very real social divide between the professionals in town, the white collar folks, as opposed to the ones who did work that called for khakis. When my father switched over from brown to white, his kids—this one at least—ended up in a kind of social limbo. Although that wasn’t clear to me at the time, the creative part of me obviously noticed because, by the time I read Going Back to Bisbee, Joanna Brady had lived through a very similar circumstance.
But today I’m borrowing Richard Shelton’s title, because, in a very real way, I, too, am going back to Bisbee. The schedule for and surrounding the Tucson Festival of Books has been finalized. At the festival I’ll be doing two panels a day both Saturday and Sunday. Check the schedule page of my website, www.jajanceauthor.com for timing details. However, over the years I’ve heard from people who have been unable to attend my panels at the festival because they were already booked to capacity. As a result, I’ve decided to add in one more public event where overcrowding shouldn’t be a problem. This one will be held in Bisbee, on Monday, March 11, the day after the festival.
I attended Bisbee High School from 1957 to 1962. The new high school was supposed to be ready in September that year, but it wasn’t, so from September to Christmas I attended the ‘old’ high school in uptown Bisbee where wooden desks were stationary and attached to the floors by a metal framework. The “new” school had movable desks. The old one had no auditorium or cafeteria. The new one had both. The auditorium was large enough to hold the entire student body which numbered eight hundred students at the time.
As a high school student I enjoyed going to assemblies—both the sports ones in the gym and the guest speaker ones which were held in the auditorium. I loved that fact that on those days, a few minutes were shaved off each class so we could attend. I don’t remember all of the guest speakers, of course, but I know one of them was from NASA. Do I recall what he said? No, but I know for sure is that one of the kids in the auditorium that day ended up working for NASA his whole adult life. Did that assembly light the spark that led to his career? I don’t know for sure, but it’s certainly possible.
A lot of things have fallen by the wayside in recent years, and I suspect that school assemblies have mostly gone the way of the dodo bird. So I’ve hired myself to do an assembly at Bisbee’s “new” but now more than sixty year-old high school. It’ll be held in the auditorium. There will be high school kids in attendance, but the student body is much smaller now, so that means there will be a good 400 empty seats. As a result, I’ve now made arrangements for the assembly to be open to the public.
I know that many of my readers have put going to Bisbee on their bucket lists, so that’s why I’m writing this now—to give people some advance warning in case they want to make plans to attend. You’re probably saying to yourself, “Why on earth would I want to go to a high school assembly?” Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that while visiting England, I spent a whole day tramping through the village where Daphne DuMaurier grew up. By then, of course, she was long gone. In this case, the author will be in attendance.
I don’t have a new book coming out this spring. The next Beaumont book, Den of Iniquity, is due out in October. So what am I going to be talking about? I’ll talk about what going to school was like back then. I’ll mention the teachers who helped me chart my path as well as the ones who tried to derail me. But most of all I want to be present. I want to let this generation of kids know that even though they may be living in a small former mining town in Arizona, it’s still possible for them to grow up and live their dream. How do I know that’s true? Because it happened to me.
So if Bisbee happens to be on your bucket list, think about showing up there on March 11, 2024, at 11 AM. There’ll be plenty of room in the high school auditorium and plenty of parking, too. Bisbee High School is located at 675 School Terrace Road. You won’t be able to miss it. The school is actually the only set of building ON School Terrace Road. After the assembly is over think about hanging around town to explore the shops and galleries. Have some lunch. If you have some extra time, maybe sign up for a Lavender Jeep Tour or the Mine Tour. Then, as you head back to wherever you’re going, as you pass through the Mule Mountain Tunnel, expect to see some of the bluest skies you can possibly imagine. It’s probably only a trick of the eyes after passing through the dimmer light of the tunnel but seeing that swatch of bright blue sky is one of my favorite parts of going back to Bisbee.
Hope to see some of you there.