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A road trip in time

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Just last week, I told this story of my gambling Uncle Richie and the road trip I made alone to his funeral. This is one of my favorites, told in the days when both my oldest brother and mom were still alive and when we’d first begun to lose treasured family members. I come by my commuting naturally and as a lover of a good road trip.

Services for Uncle Richie

PUBLICATION: Houston Chronicle


 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,” said my oldest brother who was giving me directions to the cemetery in East Texas where my uncle was to be buried. My husband, on the other hand and not two steps away, 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.
uncle-richieMy 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 of his life.
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.
So, 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

December 16, 2016 at 9:31 pm

A spiritual reminder of going home again

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Image by National Geographic

How my Viking ship looks in my memory, courtesy of National Geographic.

Perhaps my most religious experience in my life was giving the eulogy at my mom’s funeral, now more than 10 years ago. I am always reminded of that day as I prepare to make the road trip, once more, to my native Port Neches, a singular community on the crossroads between Texas and Louisiana.

The community is unique in its diversity, that is. Grandmothers may speak French as often as they speak Spanish or country. The Beaumont Enterprise had a Louisiana edition as well as an East Texas edition when I worked there, and my job included calling French-only radio stations for obituaries. I could spell Atchafalaya and Opelousas as well as Anahuac and Kountze.

In my hometown tropics, the swamp can become a flood during hurricane season, displacing thousands and making hurricane season a way of life for us with our generators, flashlights and outdoor stoves. It’s where, when I was growing up, anyone with a job at the plant could have two cars and a boat right out of high school. Where the conservatives carry guns, have grandchildren with beautiful sun-resistant skin and turquoise eyes, sport ink that is so old no one even thought of adding colors and consider boats and motorcycles as common of transportation as cars.

The "real" Viking ship that sailed my mother's dresser for 40 years.

The “real” Viking ship that sailed my mother’s dresser for 40 years.

In the city, if I have electrical or plumbing problems, I call a repairman and pay a hefty price. Back home, my nieces and nephews call their brothers and sisters and the job is done for a return favor down the road. Everybody has a “low boy” to haul that extra ‘frig to the camp, and it’s nothing to install your own hardwood floors.

It was February 2002 when I got the unexpected call from my girlhood friend and former neighbor from that rowdy crowd of kids on 14th Street. She said she was riding with my mom to the hospital, and the last thing my mom had done was handed her my business card and said, “Call Denise.” I was just halfway across the Lake Houston Bridge, still an hour away from my mom and my hometown, when my girlfriend called back and asked me to pull over on the side of the road.

It hit me hard that I did not get there in time. I’ve chased that phone call and that ambulance many nights in my sleep. I’ve anticipated better; I’ve fulfilled promises. But, in the end, I’m trudging through the mud with leaden feet and no voice to call out.

The family eulogy was the least I could do to honor my mom for my independent soul that made me doubt how badly she needed me on the last day of her life. Of course, it should have been Charles standing there in the pulpit, giving the family’s message at my mother’s funeral. As the oldest son, he had always been our spokesman, and we were still aching from his loss while still at his liveliest at a very young 60.

Charles had died of lung cancer just four months earlier and while the world was still reeling from 9-11. I stood by my mom in the shadow of a lonesome pine as a 21-gun salute rattled me to my very bones. You would never suspect by her Depression-shaped exterior how little time her heart would beat after this terrible heartbreak.

Lifelong Methodists, my mom had joined the Mormon church in the last few years of her life, and we respected her choice to have her service in the Port Neches church she attended and loved. However, my surviving brothers and sisters wanted someone to speak for the family and the duty came all the way down the line to me, the sixth and baby of our family.

None of the speeches I’d made as a lifelong communicator nor the years as a teacher could have prepared me to give the eulogy after my mom’s unexpected and quick death. The crowd couldn’t have been more familiar with my brothers and sisters, their kids who are like siblings to me because of the birth order of my family, even mom’s great-grandchildren and distant cousins from miles around. And then, of course, the old neighborhood of my girlhood running buddies, many or whom are still in my hometown and some of whom have moved back to 14th Street. The crowd couldn’t have been more familiar but I couldn’t have been more cotton-mouthed and shaky.

I remember opening my bag of remembrances as I began to speak. I explained how Charles should have been there instead of me. But, like Charles, I could make them laugh at the memories but I’d also make them cry for the loss.

Then my mind is blank. My next memory is of reaching for the final item in my bag — a Viking ship I’d made in fourth grade that still held pride of purpose on Mom’s bedroom dresser. In between the shaky beginning and the smoother ending, I feel now like I was possessed with the Lord’s spirit, leading me through about 30 minutes with hardly a thought of my own. Needless to say, it went better than I could ever have hoped.

I stepped down and into the loving arms of my oldest sister and surrogate mom who congratulated me in her cigarette-deepened voice. “You did so good, Baby,” she wept, squeezing me hard and long, a memory I hold dear now that I’ve also lost her to lung cancer — another striking characteristic of my hometown.

It was only a few weeks later that I had my first and only dream where God spoke directly to me. He told me I was being prideful to think the eulogy had anything to do with me. He said He used me to honor my mom, assured me she was in a heavenly place and left me to contemplate the virtue of humility.

I wish I could capture and revisit the feeling of peace His words gave me. I would like to hold it like an experience instead of a memory, again and again like the many fireflies that appeared to me on the swampy road from Port Neches back to Houston and in the next few days on my bike rides in Kingwood.

I felt closer to my mom in those intimate days after her death than I ever did during her lifetime. The experience gives me a warmth that I never knew in her company. My relationship with my mom was a bumpy road with a quite respectful journey’s end.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

September 4, 2013 at 9:33 am

Thelma, Louise and Me

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You know you are in for a Texas-style road trip when it starts with the question, “Do you mind if I bring my gun?” Vinny and I always feel pretty safe on the Big City streets, but we are never ones to encumber our guests. Thus, we hit the much traveled road from Houston to Dallas for a weekend at my girlfriend’s ranch, only miles from the original Southfork for the TV series, “Dallas.”

All the law and order talk was highly appropriate for my travels north because the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex was the sight of this old cop reporter’s heyday. The towns and streets become places in my mind instead of places on the map. I revisit big stories, and, in my case, they were mostly murder and mayhem in a day when crime wasn’t so common place.

First inkling that I’m reliving my glory days is the big city of Ennis, Texas. I covered a man’s murder of his four young kids, his wife and then himself. Turned out he was a religious zealot who had become more and more introverted until he saw no way out. Sound familiar? Everything old is new again.

There’s always a small town near a big metropolitan area that becomes known as an easy place to stash your unwanted victims. Kennedale was that place when I was covering cops in the area. When I was at the Beaumont Enterprise, we had the nearby beach front for unsuspecting joggers to trip over a long dead murder victim. High Island comes to mind.

Nearby is Mansfield where I wrote a really fun story of the police chief. He was a legend in the cop shops during those days because he had solved a hit and run with good old fashioned detective work. At the scene of the crime, he picked up some pieces from a headlight and stashed them in an evidence bag. Only miles away, he was at a gas station, filling up and spotted a car that looked like it had been in a wreck. He took his chards of glass and fitted them perfectly into the broken headlight for an arrest.

Then, I’m in Arlington, my true stomping ground and one of the first suburbs where a huge mall was built. That’s where I attempted to solve the tragic murder of young Cheryl Calloway who already was a cold case when I moved to town. I spent weeks revisiting the clues and witnesses and wrote a beautiful story that I read over and over again in the classes I taught at University of Houston. I’m sure my students got tired of it, but I never did. It almost had a happy ending when I received a tip in the mail. “I know who killed that girl,” it read simply. I thought I’d solved the case, and so did the cops  . . . until the suspect passed a lie detector test.

The cops did give me credit for solving a diamond salesman’s murder. But first, they credited me with being a big pain in the ass. I was the only reporter who took a family’s story seriously and ran a missing person piece. As you CSI watchers know, no one gets serious about a missing adult. But this gentleman had gone missing with a trunk full of diamonds and it made for good headlines. When the story ran, a bartender spotted some familiar details from one of his regulars. The poor guy was found dead in a traditional unmarked grave, having been killed the day he’d gone missing.

Of course, I can’t tell stories of the olden days without thinking of the biggest crime ever in Dallas – the murder of John F. Kennedy by lone gunman Lee Harvey Oswald. On the 20th anniversary of that tragic day, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram had a team of reporters revisit the event. My assignment was an interview with Marina Oswald Porter. I was the only reporter she spoke to that year, and we had a very brief but unforgettable chat. She reminded me that she was only 19 years old at the time her husband killed the president and then was killed himself. She had lived another 20 years by the time we spoke and was 39 years old.

“Who were you at 19?” she asked me. “How can you compare yourself today to that person?”

During my tenure in Dallas and Fort Worth, the old Texas School Book Depository building was the source of many news stories. Should it be demolished? Sold?  The subject was very controversial. Most folks wanted to put this terrible event in the past.

Historic minds prevailed, and it has now become the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza. I recently revisited the finished site and was pleasantly surprised. I probably enjoyed myself because it is as much a tribute to the newspapers in the area as it is a record of the tragic events of the day. The exhibits weren’t gratuitous or political; it was a simple chronicling of a pivotal time in history. Those were the days when you could be proud to call yourself a newspaper reporter.

Written by commuterchroniclesdbh

September 4, 2012 at 5:52 pm

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