Nine years later, Texas grit and spirit is still alive

Balinese ballroom

Instead of trying to write about Hurricane Harvey, the rudest guest we’ve had around here for an awfully long time, I’ve opted to post the following piece I did for the Houston Chronicle and the Associated Press nine years ago, right after Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston. Here’s why: the prediction I  made back then about how the people of Galveston would get up, rebuild, and persevere proved to be true.  And I have no doubt that everyone affected by this storm will do exactly the same thing.  The same spirit of bravery, determination, and compassion I saw back then and tried to capture in this piece is alive, strong, and obvious right now in Houston and other Texas cities, including the one that I am proud to call home.

Here’s the article that ran  several days after Ike tried its best to destroy a city that refused to be destroyed.  The photo  of the Balinese Ballroom was shot by my daughter Kara Siegel not long before it was destroyed by the storm.

The Old Sweet Song that was Galveston

(Houston Chronicle, September 2008)

Back when Ike was the president and not a hurricane, my father, the superintendent of schools in a small East Texas town, took off three or four days every summer and our family would go down to Galveston.

We’d put up at either the Galvez or the Buccaneer, the two big hotels on Seawall Boulevard, and for those few days that ordinarily thrifty gentleman (he encouraged my mother to reuse aluminum foil as many times as possible) made sure we went first class.

We’d eat shrimp and crab-stuffed flounder at Gaido’s while the waiters in pressed white jackets brought us tartar sauce and wedges of lemons, and my father would make sure we had a window table that looked out at the perfectly straight horizon where the sea met the sky. We’d drink real Coca-Colas and eat real ice cream, not the less expensive Safeway Cragmont brand of colas and Mellorine (an unfortunate substitute for ice cream that thankfully no longer exists) that we got at home.

Every day my sister and I would splash around in the surf with our father while our mother walked along the beach looking for shells. A couple of times each trip we’d ride the ferry over to the lighthouse and back again, hoping for porpoises racing along though the Bolivar Roads.

Galveston has held my attention and a good-sized chunk of my heart ever since.

Now my wife and I, empty nesters, live in Lake Jackson, an hour down the coast from the island and several miles inland. But Galveston calls us, constantly. Until Ike’s shenanigans, we’d make the drive up the Bluewater Highway, the beach road that connects Surfside and Galveston, at least twice a month on average, shelling out two bucks at San Luis Pass to cross a toll bridge that has surely been paid for since at least the Johnson administration.

We could have saved the cash, and a few miles, by taking another route up over Chocolate Bayou, past a chemical plant and an old blimp base, and finally hitting Interstate 45 and dropping down into Galveston over the causeway. But the Bluewater was the better choice. Because on the Bluewater we could roll down the windows, turn off the radio and see, feel, hear, taste and smell Her Majesty the Gulf, just beyond the saltgrass-covered dunes.

Those dunes are gone now. So is much of the highway, eaten up by the storm.

It’s painful to think of the Galveston of two weeks ago, and almost impossible to describe her. Because the old girl is as much spirit as substance, and anyone attempting to capture spirit with words is bound to come up short.

She was old avenues filled with uneven sidewalks in front of tattoo parlors, dives, pawn shops, antique markets and narrow steep stairways leading up to rooms to-let that were many, many years older than anyone wishing to let them.

She was slow-moving locals, many of them BOIs (Born on the Island), a designation on a par, there, with Nobel laureates and Medal of Honor winners. And she was — in all seasons — sunburned, bright-shirted, flip flop-shod, ridiculously hatted tourists clutching bags of salt water taffy.

Down by the wharfs, she was several streets of Victorian era buildings that we would have never ventured close to back when I was a boy, since they were on the skids then, full of dockworkers and sailors and ladies who practiced the oldest profession. Then the Strand was reborn, phoenix-like, and filled with trendy shops and bars and shady plazas.

It was at Dickens on the Strand, the second most popular festival on the island after Mardi Gras, that I sat at a table one entire day and signed seven or eight copies of my novel about the 1900 Galveston storm while watching Charles Dickens’ great grandson scribble into about a thousand copies of novels that had been written a century before he was born.

She was the old Balinese Room — gone completely now, exploded by Ike’s fury — far enough out over the surf on pilings so that, back in the ’40s and ’50s, a diligent hatcheck girl at the entrance on the seawall could press a button which set a buzzer to singing out there and, by the time the cops could get down the long, narrow passageway, all the gambling gear could be hidden away and the likes of Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra could be innocently sipping a highball and listening to the band playing That Old Black Magic.

She was the Galvez, the “Queen of the Gulf,” put up quickly after the 1900 storm to prove the island was still open for business. Phil Harris and Alice Faye were married there, Franklin Roosevelt slept and drank there, as well as a whole galaxy of Hollywood stars. I drank frothy chocolate milk with my breakfasts there as a child and, years later, had gin rickeys in the same dining room, maybe in the same chair.

Galveston was a fallen-from-grace, boozy, New Orleansy, Tennessee Williams tonic, sweet and bold as a jigger of Southern Comfort. And she was a juggernaut of progress, pushing steel and concrete out to the water’s edge.

It was her laid-back soul that bled up and down the coast, into towns that hugged the shore and into small colonies of beach houses and into one fellow sitting on the tailgate of a pickup, dangling a bottle of brew by its throat and watching his fishing line out in the surf, not caring one damn if anything struck it or not.

Now that Galveston is laid low, on life support, it’s that determined soul that will pull her through and make her find her feet again.

She never was for everybody. People who go on and on about the beauty of the beaches of Hawaii and Bermuda and the Mediterranean aren’t likely to be impressed by a place where the sand and the water are often the same shade of brown. But those of us who love her love her for what she is: sufficiently magnolia Southern to bask charmingly in the past, and sufficiently brash Texan to step lively in the present.

Maybe Galveston sings a song that only some of us can hear. But we are legion, and we are listening. And when she gets better, we’ll be back.

 

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The pen is mightier than the sword, and easier to use

 

pens

 

Let’s start  with a trivia question.

In the movie “Casablanca,” how does Humphrey Bogart make his entrance? And extra points for what he is specifically doing. The answer will be provided in due course.

Today’s title came from comedian Marty Feldman by the way, but no points for knowing that. It should, however, have provided a strong clue about our topic: the tools we use to write things down.

I rarely read anything without a sharp pencil in hand. Because I am a confirmed and constant underliner and margin scribbler. Those scribbles, in an admittedly horrible handwriting that usually only I can make any sense of, might be the title of a poem or a novel that a passage reminds me of, or maybe a memo to myself to look something up. Sometimes a well-turned phrase makes me envious, so I underline it and make myself a note in the margin to use it in my own writing.

Consequently the books on my shelves are filled with messy marginalia. Not so much because I might actually go back through them and do the things I told myself to, but more because putting my own pencil to those writers’ words somehow brings me closer to whatever truth or beauty they’ve expressed there.

There’s something about holding a pen or a pencil that provides a degree of comfort and, I think, security. I’ve watched many a student about to take a big life-altering test — like a college entrance exam — lay out their sharp #2s precisely, like surgical instruments.

Holding a pen or a pencil makes us feel smarter, I guess, and more capable of the task at hand. Sort of like holding a hammer makes us feel more like a real carpenter.

Pens can do the same thing.

I used to have an old-fashioned fountain pen, a pricey model with a bladder that had to be filled up from a little bottle of ink. I bought it to celebrate the publication of my first book, justifying the extravagance by figuring that if I was going to be a real writer I needed a real fountain pen. After all, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen would hardly have been expected to scratch out their stories with second rate quills, now would they?

Not too long after I got it I dropped the pen and broke the nib. So I ordered another one, which cost nearly as much as the pen itself, and promptly dropped it again and broke the second one. At which time I determined that the gods of writing seemed to be in agreement that I was no Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. So I put the broken pen in a drawer and have since made do with ball points and felt tips. And pencils. Nothing nudges me toward creativity like the sight and feel of a freshly sharpened pencil.

Notice, next time you watch a panel of political pundits on television on Sunday morning or a panel of pigskin pundits before the football games on Sunday afternoon, that most of the panelists are holding pens while they pontificate. They never actually use them, but I’ll bet if those pens were taken away those knowledgeable folks would come off as less knowledgeable. Because holding a pen or pencil doesn’t just help us write. It helps us think.

Now for the answer to the trivia question. The first we see of Mr. Bogart in “Casablanca” is his hand, emerging from the cuffs of a white dinner jacket, putting a cigarette in an ashtray and taking up a pencil to sign a voucher that has been handed to him by an employee in his nightclub. He scrawls “O.K. — Rick” on the paper. Then the camera lifts slowly up to give us the sad-faced Bogie, ready to take on Nazis, old lovers and various other foes.

I’ve always thought it fitting that one of the best movies ever made should begin with the leading character lifting up a writing instrument. After all, every good story more than likely began with someone taking out a pen or pencil and scribbling down a lonely idea, or maybe a fragment or two of description or dialogue.

I think I remember reading that Dickens jotted down “best of times — worst of times” on the back of a menu. Maybe not.

I’ll have to think about it. Let me grab a pencil.

A lonely, lofty perspective

lighthouse

 

We come now to the subject of lighthouses.

Of course we aren’t exactly inundated with them where I live, on the Texas gulf coast.  The closest one to yours truly, over on Bolívar Point, has been privately owned for decades and isn’t open to the public.

As a member of said public, I want to go on record as saying I wish that it was.

That coal black, kerosene-powered beauty illuminated the entrance to the port of Galveston from 1872 until 1933, when it was determined that lights installed on the ends of the jetties provided the same service, and more economically.  Since then it’s sat unused, a constant reminder of a past era.  And I’d like to be able to visit it up close and personal.

I’ve always been infatuated with lighthouses.  And the room I am sitting in as I write this – the former bedroom of a daughter who grew up and moved away – that is now my office is proof.  If there is anything close to a specific theme among all these books, maps, mementos, mugs stuffed with pencils and pens, journals, and stacks of old manuscripts it is a lighthouse motif.  There are framed prints of lighthouses and ceramic miniatures of lighthouses and coffee mugs displaying pictures of … well, you get the idea.  One of my most cherished possessions was a thoughtful gift from a good friend: a framed drawing of the Brazos River lighthouse that was dismantled years ago, with a piece of the lens from the light matted beneath the print.

It would be nice now if I could tell you that my interest in those lonely sentinels comes from visiting a good many of them, climbing up into them, and standing long on their parapets and gazing out at to sea.  But the honest fact is that I have never set foot in a lighthouse or even, I’m pretty sure, stood in close proximity to one.

Part of the romantic notion I have must comes from old movies.  You know the ones, with crusty light tenders played by actors like Guy Kibbee and Lionel Barrymore, old salts smoking stubby briar pipes and outfitted in heavy, tattered parkas and short-visored captain’s caps.  They snarl and roar a good bit, matching their mood to the sea, and usually display a heart of gold to some waif that’s been left in their care.  In the process, they offer direction in the kid’s life, stretching out the lighthouse metaphor about as far as it will go.

And many a novel I’ve read has fueled this odd enthrallment.  The lonely tower on the edge of terra firma with the vast eternal briny deep stretched out to the far horizon has provided authors with perfect settings for their tales for centuries.  One recent offering I especially enjoyed was The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Steadman, and one I read in college by Virginia Woolf was titled, appropriately enough, To the Lighthouse. There were  many more good yarns in between; one of the best was Ray Bradbury’s fine short story “The Fog Horn”, which was set in a lighthouse.

And part of my fascination comes from wondering what it must be like to live completely removed from towns and society and have just one responsibility: to keep the light burning so ships’ captains can navigate by it.  The rest of the time, the way I’ve conjured it, would be spent reading books by the fireplace – the perfect lighthouse in my imagination has a big fireplace in the keeper’s cottage – or standing on a nearby windswept cliff looking at the ocean and pondering the meaning of life.

Realistically, a day and a half of such a routine would just about do me.  Beyond that, I’d get awfully bored and have to go off in search of those towns and that society I wanted to distance myself from.

Still, there’s something soul-stirring about those tall, handsome monuments to the past that once sent their illumination crawling out over the waves to bring vessels safely home. Almost all of them have stood dark for decades, having long outlived the people who kept their lights burning.

Maybe it was the symbolism offered by lighthouses that lured me into my paying such close attention to them.  Because they are, at their most functional level – purely useful.  And, given this frantic, oftentimes mean world we inhabit, what is more appealing, really, than something useful?  Something like a light in the darkness that can bring us safely through.

I’ll go on loving lighthouses.  I might even follow through on an old goal and write a story or novel set in one.  But if I do it would probably be a good idea to actually pay a visit to one, don’t your think?  I just hope it will have an elevator.

 

[Parts of this lighthouse piece first cast its beam in a Sunday morning newspaper column sometime in the dark past.]

Some real estate I’d rather put off using

Grave

A piece in the paper caught my attention a while ago, having to do with cemeteries and the sad though necessary business that is conducted there.

USA Today, a publication I usually only read in motels or hotels that provide free copies with the breakfast buffet, had a story about people putting their cemetery lots up for sale because that particular brand of property is fetching more than it did when they bought them.

The couple in the story – Clinton and Janet Lemons of Titusville, Florida – purchased their adjoining plots in 1978 for $1,500 and have set an asking price of $4.000 for the pair.  Which is still, according to Baron Chu, a secondary seller of plots, well below the national average of $3,500 per single plot.

The article didn’t mention what Mr. and Mrs. Lemon have as a backup plan for when and if they sell their plots.  They say their price might be negotiable.  Maybe they’ll snap up a couple of cheaper places on eBay or amazon.com, which will surely add graves to its enormous inventory at some point.

I had never heard of reselling eternal resting places until I read that piece. Neither had I run across that unique job description – secondary seller of plots – before I picked up that copy of USA Today along with a Best Western bran muffin.

I don’t own a cemetery plot myself, though I suppose I should look into getting a couple for me and the Mrs.  I guess I figure that putting off that little shopping trip will somehow prolong the need for them.  Talk about your wishful thinking.

Actually, I had a plot at one time.  Back in the early 1980’s, when I hadn’t yet located my wife Karen, I arranged for a burial plot next to my parents’ graves up in a beautiful little rural burying ground called Shiloh, just outside Alto, in Cherokee County.  You didn’t actually fill out paperwork and put down money there; you staked out your place and informed the chairman of the cemetery association.  Then you were expected to make a monetary contribution to the general upkeep fund.

Maybe I didn’t make enough of a contribution, or maybe our communications got crossed up.  I don’t know.  But I do know this: the next time I drove up there to visit my mother’s grave – my father wasn’t in his yet – there was a fresh mound of dirt, a headstone, and some withered flower arrangements on what I thought was my plot.

I felt like one of the three bears when he discovered that someone was sleeping in his bed.

So, now that I don’t have an earthly spot reserved for my eternal slumber, I’d best quit putting it off and get myself a reservation.  But first off, I need to decide on burial or cremation. I have a sufficiently strong religious faith to be hopeful about the hereafter, but I also know I have a responsibility regarding this physical body I’ll be vacating.

Burial means a grave that will have to be tended and visited occasionally by family members.  It also means taking up space that can be used for better things and a pretty big outlay of cash for a place that will just be sitting dormant.

If I had a shot at a really good location, I might think about being buried.  But considering I only made Private (First Class!) in the army it’s a cinch that Arlington National Cemetery won’t be sending an invitation. And given the recent scandal involving the fired superintendent of that cemetery and how he and his staff managed to mismark over six thousand graves, it’s just as well. If I’m going to be under a headstone, I’d like for it to have my name on it.

Even though I’ve written a few books having to do with Texas history, I would be foolish to bet on the venerable state cemetery in Austin marking off a spot.

I might consider the Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abby.  But I seriously doubt my scribbling will qualify me to rest in the company of Chaucer and Dickens. Besides, they bury lots of those writers standing up in the Abby, to leave room for future generations of dead authors.  If I’m going to be buried, I’d just as soon be reclining.  Call me lazy.

Anyway, I’ve got some decisions to make before I leave for what Mr. Shakespeare called “the undiscovered country.”

If I go with burial, I guess I can call the Lemons, over there in Titusville.  But this time I’ll require a signed deed, to keep my bed empty till I need it.

When a story is more than just a story

fort ord

Forty-five years ago today I raised my hand with a roomful of other young fellows in Dallas and recited an oath that delivered us into the United States Army.  Later that afternoon I settled into the first airliner seat I’d ever been in and clutched a paperback novel I’d just bought in the airport gift shop.  It was The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, which had been published a few years before and had just been made into a film that was destined to be widely considered one of the best two or three movies of all time.

Of course, I didn’t know how good the film was then, since I hadn’t seen it yet.

Truth be told, I didn’t know much, period.  I had just turned 20, had taken an unproductive first stab at college, and had been working as a clerk at a Gibson’s Discount Center in the automotive department, an assignment for which I was totally unqualified. Finally, Uncle Sam took notice of my less than spectacular accomplishments thus far and sent along my draft notice.

Jump forward to the fact that my stint in the service would turn me around completely, send me back to college (literally, via the GI Bill) and set me on a much more responsible path.  But the nervous young guy, unable to see the future, holding that book during that long-ago airplane ride faced a challenging and daunting reality at the end of it: basic training.

When the plane landed in San Francisco a bunch of us recruits were herded into an olive drab (a color we would get used to) army bus and driven down to Fort Ord, given bowls of lukewarm soup by a disgruntled private in the late night, and taken to an old Beetle Bailey type barracks.  When everybody else stretched out on narrow metal bunks (we’d get used to those, too) I found the only lighted room in the two-story wooden building, the latrine. Where I read the first chapter or two of The Godfather before turning in and getting a few hours’ sleep until a fireplug of a drill sergeant, in the wee hours of the next morning, charged into the big room bellowing out a blood-curdling promise that our lives would be a living hell for the next eight weeks.

It turned out he generally delivered on that vow, particularly, I recall, when prodding us through double-time marches in combat boots and full gear through the surging, cold (even in August), knee-high surf of the Pacific.

But what kept those weeks from being a total hell for me was, believe it or not, that paperback novel.  In the precious few minutes of reading time I could fit in every day between physical training, classroom instruction, late night inspections, early morning inspections, long marches to firing ranges, and literally hundreds, maybe thousands, of pushups I managed to get The Godfather read before graduation.

Then, when I was sent across Fort Ord to my specialized training school – it was determined I would be a 71B10, a clerk-typist (surely not a title used now; I suspect no typewriters survive in the modern military) – I had more time on my hands to read and make my way through something like two books from the base library a week until I completed the course and went home for Christmas leave.

Here’s the point of this little saga, not uncommon to countless folks of that generation:  Those books provided, for me, much more than entertainment.  They offered other worlds to go to when I needed to distance myself from the one I was actually in.

Years later, when I became a writer and a teacher of people who wanted to be one, I reminded my students that we can only tell stories, hopefully to the best of our abilities to relate them. We can’t know what an individual reader needs that story to be in his or her current and unique situation. But if it’s a good yarn, well-structured and well-told, it might just serve a purpose we can never envision.

A paperback novel I bought forty-five years ago today in an airport gift shop served as proof positive, for me, that a book, story, play, poem, or even a song can sometimes work a kind of magic that goes beyond mere enjoyment or enlightenment. It can be therapy. It can be a temporary escape pod.

I reread The Godfather a few years ago and discovered that it wasn’t particularly well-written, certainly inferior to the screen adaption and even other books by its author.  But that’s okay.  It was exactly what I needed it to be at the time.

Happy anniversary, young Ronnie Rozelle from Oakwood in your lonely airplane seat back on August 2nd 1972.  You’ll survive boot camp.  That book you’re holding will be a big part of the reason.