commuterchroniclesdbh

Driving and Biking in the Big City

Archive for July 2012

Small town breeds chameleon

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Reunion is a strange time for anyone. Mine was a time of fun but also reflection on the road not taken. That road would have been life in my hometown — a place of fishing, shrimping, crabbing, boating and water skiing.

Living a city life, you forget the well rounded skills of a more independent existence. When I want fish these days, I go to a restaurant. I seldom go for shrimp because it’s never as fresh and sweet as the just-off-the-boat shrimp from my childhood. I haven’t cleaned a fish or headed a shrimp since I left Port Neches. I don’t even remember the last time I used my patience and finesse to land a crab with a piece of line and a hunk of raw chicken. I can’t even imagine having the time to sit for hours on the canal bank, waiting for my cork to bob.

If you need an electrician or a plumber in my hometown, you do it yourself or call a relative. You don’t rely on a second- or third-hand recommendation from a friend of a friend or turn to the Internet and read the “reviews” for a business.

And so I took the Nome and Neches Highway back to reality, passing the Luck in a Bucket and Crawdad’s gas station. The Eagles were playing on the intercom as I filled up my tank for the trip and bought a diet Big Red for the road.

I’ve come full circle after first believing I had nothing left for my hometown or any of the folks who inhabited it with me during my girlhood. Only after many trips up and down, back and forth on this road home and back and the confusion of which is home and which is back. And only after acquiring impatience as a characteristic and bad fish at expensive restaurants as a replacement way of life.

I am, in fact, a city girl with small town roots, a chameleon who is happy to be green but just as likely to blend into the brown bayou. In both cases, I’ve got plenty of mosquito spray in my backpack-purse and an Ozarka for the road.

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July 29, 2012 at 10:05 am

Advice from my teen-aged self

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One of the instigators of my recent high school reunion and certainly a candidate for the TV show “Hoarders,” came in while we were decorating for the pre-reunion confab with a yellowed container full of notes from our junior high years. Wow! I was so shocked to see my far-neater-than-today handwriting abundantly displayed among these intriguingly folded and be-flowered offerings.  

And, in fact, I am glad Patti is a hoarder because I spent the better part of that evening reading advice and opinions from my teen-aged, lovelorn, drama-rama self. This letter atop the pile of notes at the right has a pause for algebra homework and a flower at the bottom to brighten your day. However, in the middle of the spread of notes, I gave poor Patti some bizarre advice. I suggested she call up her current love interest, wait until he came to the phone and then hang up. What? How crazy is that for attracting the man of your dreams. And, in fact, I’m lucky I landed Big Johnny before Caller ID was invented.

As revealing as these notes from junior high were, I unfortunately already knew the depth of my shallowness.  Years earlier, when I wrote for the Houston Chronicle’s old “Star” magazine, I wanted to do a piece about how Jesus appeared on the screen door in the house behind the Western Auto in Port Neches. It’s one of those hometown legends I repeated frequently around newsrooms and cocktail parties and something few people who lived above the Mason-Dixon line believed.

To get a feel for that story, I first obtained a copy of the original Polaroid — which my hoarder mom still had displayed prominently atop her dresser in her bedroom. Then, I went looking for my notes from back in 1969 when this miraculous and life-changing event occurred.

I’ve always been a diarist and a journal keeper so I thought the now-adult me could find some salient details for this new article. A lot was in my head but I wanted more. I have a record of most of my days, starting in seventh grade with a baby blue Barbie diary that had a flimsy  key that was never a match for my wily brother. (So, it makes sense that I’m now a happy blogger today.)

In any case, I looked through every single page for three years of diaries and never found a single note about Jesus on the screen door. All I had on my diary pages was frivolous musings of who had called, what had happened at school that day and what I was wearing. Jesus never made an appearance. The details from that day were magnified in my head but not written on a single sheet of my junior high mind. The reason may be in the beginning of this note to Patti. Perhaps it, too, “was too dangerous to write down.”

.

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July 24, 2012 at 5:31 pm

The one that got away

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Cyndy and me

It was the summer of 1972 when a group of my girlfriends and I attended freshman orientation at Lamar University. I was in the company of one of my favorite running buddies from junior high and high school who was an exemplar dancer. Later, she would make the cut for one of the very prestigious and highly sought after spots on the Rangerette dance team in Kilgore, Texas. But, as a backup school, she was signing up for Lamar with me, and it was my lucky day.

Some folks are lucky in love, lucky at cards and lucky by the friends they keep. I’ve got the grand slam. Big Johnny was there that day and was drawn to a cluster of lively young co-eds who were as giddy and enamored of college as they were of every single new experience we tried. Cyndy is perhaps the best friend a girl can make, especially one that’s quite a less efficient dancer and more of a reader.

The oldest of three daughters, Cyndy is a daddy’s girl who was always good with makeup, making her on clothes and attracting the cutest boys. Hers was the house where we had boy-girl parties in her garage, where I spent enumerable nights listening to 45s and where, unbeknownst to her adoring parents, we introduced ourselves to the liquor cabinet.

But on this balmy day in Beaumont, when our skirts were shorter than our attention spans, Big Johnny and his band of brothers started following around the cute girl with the curly hair and the infectious laugh. And, in fact, we all signed up for freshman English together.

John never asked where Cyndy was as he took the seat beside me in Freshman English. We saw each other Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and eventually went to see “Hair” and “Catch-22” together as class assignments. I helped him with his essays, and, despite having written both of them myself, I always still pulled the better grade.

I love seeing the two of them together at reunion and am, ironically, not at all jealous. I’m just a lucky girl to have a such a good friend that I still dearly love and not the least because she helped me snag Big Johnny.

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July 21, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Skeleton from the closet

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I scrawled the directions on a piece of paper near the telephone, my husband — in the background — more incredulous all the time.

“You’re gonna turn at Aunt Bessie’s old place,” the voice on the line said.

“But I don’t know where she lives. You know, I haven’t been out there since I was just a kid.”

“You’ll know it by that blue Chevy parked in the yard,” he explained.

“You sure her car’ll be there?”

“It’s been there for at least 20 years.”

My brother was giving me directions to the cemetery in East Texas where my uncle was to be buried. My husband was giving me grief for even thinking about trying to find it. Half the drive was a two-lane highway; the other half was red-dirt roads only traveled by the people who lived down them. My last obvious landmark would be the Arcadia Four Corners Grocery, a store that never had much business, and by now was long closed. A battered, lone stop sign still marked the crossroads in front of the Four Corners, although the chance of two cars being in the same area at the same time was — as they say in this part of the country — slim and none.

I had been in that store a lifetime ago. My family occasionally stopped there on our way to my grandmother’s house, a place where we chased chickens and milked cows. As a visitor from civilization, I was never comfortable with the bathroom out back or the black potbelly stove that dominated the living room. I did, however, manage a taste for the sweet well water we drank from a dipper after the silt had settled to the bottom.

I always bought grape Nehi soda at the Four Corners and poured peanuts in it — not because I liked the taste, but because it was the East Texas thing to do. Friends today ask me, “What was the point?” And I can’t really tell them. It made the grape soda salty and no longer refreshing, and it made the peanuts — washed by the soda — rather bland. The only fun was the foam, caused by the salt in the carbonation. But that wasn’t even much fun when the indelible grape soda foam washed onto my clothes. I never did it unless we were visiting the country from our home in what my mother considered the city.

“You’ll come to a “Y’ and you need to stay right,” my brother continued. “You’ll take the second road to the left. It’s down quite a ways.”

“How will I know if I’m going right?” I asked. My husband, still pacing in the kitchen, shouted, “Why don’t you use the mobile phone in Bessie’s car to call for help?”

I cut him a look while the voice on the phone said, “Well, if you come to an old burned up barn, you’ve gone too far. Turn around and come back.”

In the end, I decided it would be best for me to go too far, then come back.

My uncle had been the kind of person most families kept in the closet. In mine, he was a hero. We all wanted to be at the funeral.

Uncle Richie was my mother’s baby brother, although he looked much older. He was sick or dying for years, and there was much speculation about how much of his original organs remained after the hard life he’d led. We were certain he’d lost one lung to cancer. Despite that fact, he continued to smoke and cough, sometimes falling into breathless, ragged attacks as he exhaled a long drag from a filterless cigarette. His illness never stopped him until the last year. His body, always weak and frail, was a contradiction to the reckless, carefree life everyone said he lived.

I am the youngest of six children, and my memories are shaded by the eyes of a child and remembered as legends told in a family.

In one of my few personal experiences with Uncle Richie, he breezed into town in a huge pink convertible. The car seemed the size of a living room with buttons everywhere for making windows and seats go up and down. We all took a ride around the block with the top down, a one-car parade, waving to our neighbors.

My brothers, all three of whom have a Texas passion for vehicles, tell me Uncle Richie had two separate pink 1955 convertibles — a Plymouth and a Ford. One had a hardtop that rolled down into the trunk with the push of a button. We still have a picture of Richie — taken in the late ’50s — on the hood of a convertible. He’s wearing baggy pants, a sleeveless T-shirt and a hat, cocked on the side of his head. He looks carefree and full of fun. It’s the way I most want to remember him.

It’s that man, perched on the convertible, who must have been a draw for the ladies. By last count, he married eight times — the first time on a dare. The women were mostly redheads, voluptuous and crazy. The family rumor mill had most of these women on their way to or from mental institutions, both before and after relationships with Richie, which only added to his curious stature.

I remember most the beautiful, seemingly worldly, Lottie Jo. She smelled of fields of flowers and Juicy Fruit chewing gum. She wore billowing, soft clothes with blouses that hung off both shoulders, showing sprays and sprays of red-brown freckles the same color as her hair. She was the mother of at least two of his children — my cousins — who, by the time Uncle Richie was dying and they were contacted, wanted nothing to do with him.

All Richie’s relationships seemed to end violently and with threats of murder and mayhem — all from women. One burned his new home as it was being built at my grandmother’s home place. Another threatened to burn my mother’s home, and that must have been near the end of his life as he became more and more bedridden in a back room that once had been mine.

Uncle Richie made a living gambling, but it was hardly a living, as my mother said, and his unreliable lifestyle was the downfall of all his marriages. Gambling, however, was the true love of his life.

There were stories of a suitcase filled with cash on one visit, while the next trip my mother would complain he was in town to borrow money. Of all the people who borrowed money from my mother, he was the most likely to pay her back.

“Oh, he forgot about a little,” my mother said. “But not much. Everyone forgets a little bit. He was just like one of the kids.”

Many years ago, Mother bought her younger brother enough clothes to go to Las Vegas for a stint as a card dealer. It was the longest period of time when he was out of our lives.

Later, when he came back to Texas after allegedly being run out of Vegas, he was among an anti-elite group of gamblers who seemed to know about any game in town. He played in barrooms, trailer houses and back alleys. It was a shock to me as an adult to be told these little towns could draw regular, semi-high-stakes card games. It couldn’t have been the glitzy scene portrayed in movies, but there were still fortunes made and lost, and shots were still fired when someone felt wronged. In Richie’s case, the shots were most often fired at him and not by him.

“He didn’t play a straight game,” they said of my Uncle Richie.

He had his own brand of ethics, though, and one of his rules concerned the big cities. He steered clear of Houston and thought the people much too cold and calculating. He told the story of a game one night in a Houston bar where someone came looking for a hit man. Richie said he watched as others at his table flipped a coin and decided who would do the killing.

“I never knew if it was the winner or the loser who got the job,” he said later.

It was a damp Texas morning when I drove my own convertible to Pleasant Grove Cemetery in Shelby County, between Center and Timpson, to say goodbye to the family legend. I retraced a route I hadn’t seen for more than 20 years and had never driven alone. The dirt roads could no longer have been familiar, but I was drawn in the right direction and never made a wrong turn. It just took me a long, long time to get there. My mother said she was so surprised to look up and see I was there, just as she and others started to make their way to Uncle Richie’s gravesite. I couldn’t have been any later and still made it on time.

My mother was in her element with these country people. The suburban town she’d lived in for my lifetime was not her home. This was. Everyone was related in some way or another to her — to me.

I stood among the pine trees and the graves and heard my uncle called a Texas pioneer. All the sins of his life were forgotten and he was honored for his roots. The mournful crowd heard solemn words, but I preferred to think of Uncle Richie with a gleam in his eye and an ace up his sleeve. Life was a game for him, and how he loved the game.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

July 19, 2012 at 10:25 pm

Heads down

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Ann, Mel, Denise, Tracie, Pam

This is my very favorite photo from my girlhood in Port Neches. I am in the very middle of this fine group of strong and beautiful women. Two sisters on the left side of the photo and two nieces on the right side.  It was taken in 1966 in my front yard on 14th Street in Port Neches with those big wonderful cars in the background. Those are the sized cars that acted as living rooms when I was a kid growing up. Toys, games and food strewn everywhere. No seatbelts, of course, because we would sleep on the floorboards and in the back windows, always hanging on for dear life.

As the youngest of six with an age spread of 16 years between me and the oldest, I have my siblings’ kids as surrogate siblings of my own. We were really close growing up, and when I’d babysit them a bit, but we grew less close as time and years marched us down different paths.  I remain closest to my niece Pam, who is only four years younger than me, and who came to live  with me for a short time my senior year and when she was in eighth grade. She is the little one at the right side of this photo with our longtime favorite hound, Bossy, in front of her beautiful face.

Pam fell in love with a future coach for the area when she returned to Bridge City and was sitting on the school bus one day. David handed her his tennis shoes and said, “Will you hold these while I throw this paper wad?” More romantic words were never spoken. Her heart was his ever after.

Her older sister, Tracie, is also a favorite but never lived with me. She is now the doctor in the family and we are all very proud of her.

My sister, Mel, is another story. An Army wife, she’s been married to Cliff for 50 years this year. She would come and go at our house when he was stationed overseas. In the years before I came to understand the true cost of war, I can remember her crying when the news came on and the reports of the deaths and casualties would be reported each night for the Vietnam War where my oldest brother was fighting.

But mostly, I remember her playing the 45 record on her player. Just one song, over and over again:

Soldier Boy, oh my little soldier boy. I’ll be true to you . . .   Yes, I know all the words.

Then, at the very left end of this photo, is the oldest of my family and the leader of many of our adventures, my sweet sister Ann, who is Pam and Tracie’s mom, and who we all lost to lung cancer and 50 years of smoking, dating from the time she was 15 years old.

I spent summers and Christmas vacations with Ann and had the time of my life, ate my first pizza, and read, read, read. Her kids had all the Dr. Seuss books that I came to love and later bought for my own kids. But, better yet, her husband had some graphic novels and detective stories stashed under his bed. That’s where I learned my love of superheroes, science fiction and murder mysteries from his old copies of Perry Mason, James Bond, Doc Savage and Honey West.

I can remember being horrified by the old tabloids he kept with stories like “The rat ate my baby’s face” and “I shot my wife’s lover and buried the body.” Yes!! And, when I’d come home, my mom would wonder why I was such a terrible insomniac.  If she only knew . . .

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July 18, 2012 at 3:36 pm

A mystic passage home

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A mystic passage home

The first momentous leg of my  journey is down Farm Road 365, the old Nome and Neches highway, and one of my favorite strips of road in the world. I come in today by daylight when you can mark the change from city to country, from higher land to swamp.  I’ve driven it the other half the time by night because mostly this is a day trip for me. Drive in first thing, drive back in the deep dark.

On this road, the bayous rise to meet the pavement. You never want to veer even feet from the road because of the mush that is the shoulder. Still, everyone lets their cars roll all out on this flat, sea level stretch of 35 miles from here to there.

I let Vinny build up some speed, and we both feel young again.  We remember everything. We see everything.

Rodair Club

The Rodair Club in the big city of Port Acres was a hot spot of Cajun music, dancing and drinking when I was growing up. I remember well the wooden floors and two-stepping to Jolie Blon as a little girl and later a young teen. Although you can’t find it easily and it has been closed since 2004, it is a place of legends in my hometown and located off this road near where Hillebrandt  Bayou almost becomes a part of the roadway.

I grew up so close to Louisiana that Cajun is as much a part of my heritage as fast cars, football, cowboy boots and Hank Williams. One of my best running buddies from high school who later stood up for me at my wedding to Big Johnny was Penny Bedair who would say, “I’ll be dare in da morning, sha.” (Say it out loud now, and you’ll get it.)  I lived off and on with Penny and her aunt and uncle my senior year and experienced my first blackened whatever for meals cooked by her kind-hearted, kid-hearted aunt.

Then, there’s another spot that makes me edgy and I won’t dwell on long. But it is the site where a family of five was murdered in one of the biggest news stories of this small town. I got to the home of one of murderers before the cops got there and later interviewed the second murderer for a copyrighted story that was my ticket to the bigger newspapers. I learned a lot covering that story, mostly about me and how much I would never know.

Bayou view

I have always felt that if aliens landed, their ship would go unnoticed among the swamp gas and refinery fumes on this stretch of nowhere that was once covered in frogs one night when I came through and is routinely spotted with sea birds by daylight with egrets and cranes in the ditches. The colors from the sun and swamp are amazing in the early mornings and again on the trip back to the city, late at night, when I make this visit in a day. It is a beautiful, mystical stretch of land when the moon is full and the stars are bright.  You see aliens, feel God and commune with all who have gone before you and all who will come after on this long, lonely strip of road.

I drove this road late, late at night with my kids sleeping in the backseat on my way home from my mom’s funeral. She had died suddenly, and I was still reeling with surprise and regret. I was telling old stories and really just talking aloud to myself when I started describing to them how, as kids, we had so many fireflies come out at night. How we would catch them in jars and keep them in the closet. How it was sad that my kids had never seen fireflies, being city kids and growing up in a different time from the good old days.

Then, in the trees along the bayou, I saw a flicker. A few seconds later, I saw another. “Hey, kids! Wake up. I think I saw a firefly.” Then more. I got really excited and the kids finally looked up. Fireflies flooded the trees and the swamp, meeting the stars at the horizon in one of the most amazing sights of my life. And I had witnesses.

A sign? I like to think so. This lonesome stretch of road made me see the universe and my small place in it like no other place I’ve been before or after.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

July 17, 2012 at 7:03 am

On the road home

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Class of 1972 graduation invitation

I have a couple of work days ahead and then a road trip of about 90 miles to my hometown of Port Neches and the 40th reunion of PN-G class of 1972. (Can you see the embossed date on the old invite?)  I will be blogging a bit about old sights that are new places now, old friends who are wiser and the drive home with Vinny. He still has those prom dresses in the back seat so we’ve got several chores and some packing to do before we hit the road. But we are getting excited.

My writing career begins

I was not much for home as a kid and left when I was 18 years old and am as surprised as the next guy that I have made my life — after different lives all over Texas, Michigan and the East Coast — this close to home.

I would argue that Houston is not the super-sized Beaumont that I once thought it was when I jumped over it for the media Mecca of Dallas. But then, the Golden Triangle is not the same and certainly Houston has become the international melting pot of the world. It helps that I work in the Texas Medical Center with its combination of academia, scientists and healthcare professionals.  There is always something new to learn and something amazing happening. Not to mention the poor, homeless and tragically sick who I pass by every day on my way to my “Laverne and Shirley” style office in the basement with windows lining the very, very top. It’s a big world I live in and a small world I go to.  How many times will I say it next week? It’s a small world, especially in this technical communications explosion.

We’ve all grown up, and where we’ve been is just as important as where we are and where we wish we will be some day. Today, I’m a better person because I live and learn. Occasionally, I admit my mistakes and grow some. But at my heart and in my soul’s code, I am the smart girl who was editor of my high school newspaper more than the dancer who was on the drill team. I am the nerd who wanted to be popular. And, in my long travels, I’ve finally discovered that no one feels like they fit in — even the prettiest, funniest and the most popular. Everyone’s story — at its heart — is about a loner who creates conflict and drama in an attempt to make the world a less lonely place.

Mel and her soldier boy, Cliff

It will be fun if melancholy. I will see my surviving sister Mel who is celebrating 50 years of marriage to her soldier boy Cliff. I will think of how she was my parenting model for fun with my own kids because she was the one who always planned beach and camping adventures and threw me my first birthday party back when I was at Port Neches Elementary. My kids can thank her for the fun we still have.

I will see those oldest and dearest friends, my old block where some of my neighbors still live and Oak Bluff Cemetery where my folks are buried down the sidewalk from Tex Ritter. I also want to check out my talented nephew who plays trumpet at some of the music spots and an old photographer-friend who is probably just as surprised to have loved the Beaumont Enterprise as much as I am to love Houston.

As an old police reporter, the towns I covered are marked by the crimes and stories I covered as much as the memories of hometown friends. I remember most Karen Silkwood and her home in Nederland and Janis Joplin whose home is now a museum after I reported that it was set to be condemned – back in the 1970s and before I left the Beaumont Enteprise. How about the family that lived under the Rainbow Bridge at Thanksgiving back in the day?

That brings me back to growing up in Port Neches and memories of driving over that steep bridge on my brother’s motorcycle with him on the back and me at the controls. Could I have been 16? It may have been junior high. I can still see the speedometer as clear as it was yesterday.  It was buried at 90 m.p.h. with me riding the brakes and Wayne hollering with glee all the way down. He has such a wicked laugh that makes you want to join in and not think about the mischief he’s led you into. I have never been so scared in my life and that includes coverage of murder and mayhem in far bigger cities than Beaumont.

I’m still not where I’m going so my Commuter Chronicles may be a long, long blog. Home is just a stopover.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

July 15, 2012 at 10:27 am