No Tongue Can Tell

1328-Ball-3.jpg

Imagine living in an island city filled with beautifully colorful buildings that look almost like doll houses. The streets are filled with smiling happy people who bask in the sunny days and enjoy the ocean breezes. Along the shore on a pier out in the ocean there is a huge ferris wheel that citizens reach on a train that transports them over the water. There is a port that brings goods and money into the area from all over the world. It provides jobs that make the citizens some of the wealthiest in the nation. This is surely a place that must be paradise, a dream come true for all who dwell here.

Now consider that news arrives of a coming storm. Reports differ as to its potential strength. The local meteorologist does not believe that it will be particularly harmful. The signs from the ocean appear to be mild. There is no reason to panic or leave. It’s simply time to batten down the hatches, get together indoors with neighbors and celebrate good fortune. You watch as the ocean asserts its power and the sky grows dark. The streets of your town begin to fill with water, but nobody is particularly worried. They’ve seen this kind of thing before. It will blow over and the sun will return. Maybe the wind will create the need for a few repairs, but nothing more.

By nightfall you become a bit more concerned and invite frightened friends to your more substantial house. Things should be just fine, but as the squalls come ashore something is very different about this hurricane. It is more frightening. Too many things are blowing past the windows. The water is inching rapidly toward the front door. You and those with you climb to the second floor to wait it out. The tension in the group becomes more palatable. Your heart begins to race and you have thoughts that you want to wish away.

Something slams into the side of the house. Suddenly there is an open hole the size of an entire room. The place is breaking apart and everyone becomes hysterical. You see water raging past filled with flotsam and jetsam and people who do not appear to be alive. The floor on which you are standing begins to crumble. You grab at a portion of your once fine home that has suddenly become the foundation of a makeshift raft. You carefully place your children on the flimsy lifeboat and search for your spouse who has suddenly disappeared under the water. You are in a panic, not knowing what to do. Should you dive under the darkness in an attempt to find her, or is it best to look after your children? You pray to God for strength and protection. You want this horrifying night to be done.

You float aimlessly for hours. As far as you can see  there is unspeakable destruction. Little do you know that it is far worse than you imagine. Perhaps it is best that you are ignorant of the true extent of the terror, because you might lose all hope if you know what has really happened. You calm your children and wait for the sun to rise. You want to cry, but know that now is not the time.

When the day dawns the winds have ceased and the waters have begun to recede. The vision before your eyes is unimaginable. You want to shield your children from the truth, but the death that surrounds you is so massive that there is no possible way to keep them from knowing what has happened. Your once majestic city by the sea is gone, never again to be one of the most important places in the country. A later accounting reveals that more than six thousand of your friends and neighbors and fellow citizens have died in the hurricane, a count that will not be equaled even a hundred years later.

The task before you and other survivors is daunting. Some have already decided to just leave, but you want to stay in this place. It has burrowed into your heart, and even with all of the pain that it has created you can’t bear to go somewhere else. You join the building process and silently hope that you will find your relatives and friends who are missing, but you never do.

Your city will become a small town, no longer destined to be as glorious as it once was. You help to build a seawall designed to keep the raging waters at bay. You work to raise the entire island, a modern marvel of engineering. You are proud of those who work to bring things back to a semblance of normalcy. You are a survivor of something so terrible that you will never be able to adequately speak of its horror. You don’t want to talk about what you lost. You try not to think about the orphanage that no longer exists, or the tiny souls from there who were eventually found buried under the sand with their caretakers next to them. Yours is a story for the ages that you will never want to repeat.

This is a true account of the great storm of 1900, a category four hurricane that moved right over Galveston Island in Texas. To this day there has never been another natural disaster in the United States that claimed so many lives. In the course of only a few hours the once thriving city was decimated, and would ultimately be reduced to a sleepy place that mostly attracts tourists and brave souls who find themselves in love with the tropical atmosphere. Many of the homes of 1900 still stand, reminders of a time when some of the most powerful and wealthy individuals in America lived and worked in the once bustling city. On a sunny day it is easy to imagine how wonderful life must have been before the true danger of being there was revealed.

The ghosts of a magnificent time and place lurk along with those who died so tragically in a single night. There is something indeed special about Galveston that can’t be described until someone has spent time there in the changing seasons. It is easy to fall in love with this town, but those who choose to make this island home must understand that danger is always possible.

After 1900, the improbable happened. A swampy little place called Houston became the titan that Galveston had been. The people there dredged a channel from Galveston Bay inland to create one of the busiest ports in the world. Houston would grow to become the fourth largest city in the United States, and until just this year would not experience anything resembling the tragedy that befell Galveston in 1900. Hurricane Harvey flooded the streets and homes of Houston, but thankfully did not even come close to killing the number of people who died long ago in the place just fifty miles south. Still those of us who have lived in Houston and visited Galveston understand better than ever the need to respect the storms that form in the Atlantic from June to November each year.

Now that hurricane season is over we have some time to relax before considering what we must do to make this area less likely to crumble under the brunt of a killer storm. The potential for disaster will roll around again just as it does each year. It’s important that we try to imagine the possibilities so that we will plan wisely and take precautions when danger becomes imminent. We more than most know what it is like when Mother Nature grows surly, and we understand the we can never be complacent about her power to change our world in an instant. Ours are the kind of stories that no tongue can tell.

Advertisements

Satisfaction

3c4342a3-24bc-4b2f-8877-de26ce0abec1

Last year my high school Class of 1966 had its fiftieth reunion. It was fun seeing people who had dropped out of my life for so long. Since then I’ve tried to stay in touch with many of them via Facebook and the occasional lunches and such that our class leaders schedule. I’ve attended a few funerals as well where I have encountered the most faithful among us. Mostly those sad occasions have been for the parents of my school pals, but now and again we gather for one of our own. I have written blogs about many of those people in an effort to honor their memories and to thank them for the impact they had on my life. It’s particularly sad to see peers losing battles with disease. It is a reminder that all of us are headed in one direction, so we need to be certain that we are getting the most out of life while we have the opportunity.

Last week we received notification that yet another among us is now gone. Harry Butler did not attend our reunion which was rather in keeping with his general personality, but I often thought of him even though I never saw him again after our graduation day. Harry was in the same honors class in which I was. Since the school chose to send us from class to class as a group we were rather constant companions for four years, but I still didn’t know him as well as some of the others. Nonetheless I was fascinated with Harry because he was one of those individuals who insisted on marching to his own drumbeat. There was always something quite interesting about him. I always believed that he would have an exciting life.

It did not take long for all of us to realize that Harry was a gifted writer with an imagination and wit that was intriguing. As someone who longed to be a journalist or a story teller I watched Harry with great interest because I believed that I would learn much from him. It became sadly apparent to me that I would never be able to equal his talent. He had a way with words that set him apart from those of us who labored away at composing. He was an artist who painted stunning pictures with his sentences and paragraphs. He was able to make us all howl with uncontrollable laughter with his essays and newspaper articles. When he created much of the script for our annual Junior/Senior banquet one year the whole class saw how remarkable he truly was.

Harry went to St. Thomas University in Houston, Texas after graduation form high school and majored in English. I lost track of him except through friends who would encounter him from time to time. I learned that he eventually went to Los Angeles to try his hand at screenwriting. I heard rumors that he had actually done well out there and I often found myself scanning film and television credits to see if his name popped up. I really did expect to see him at an awards ceremony one day because I felt that he was that good at his craft. Of course I never saw such a thing but I never really forgot about him. When I traveled to that part of the country I found myself wondering where he lived and how he was doing. I tried to imagine whether or not he had worked with famous people and what scripts he may have created.

I learned from his obituary that he had been sick since January of this year. He had developed an infection of unknown origin that caused an embolism in his brain. This is how he died and it made me so very sad because he possessed a truly remarkable brain. I hoped and prayed that his final days and weeks had not been too painful and that he had been able to read the books that he always enjoyed and listen to the music that enchanted him.

Harry’s father had been a record distributor when we were in high school. Because of that Harry always seemed to have advance knowledge of what new music would be coming our way. He enjoyed regaling us with his insider information and I delighted in being privy to it.. Harry was a character in every sense of the word and his musical insights only added to an air of mystery that always seemed to surround him.

Harry was an exceptional debater, another talent of which I was a tiny bit jealous because Lord knows that I tried so very hard to master that skill. No matter how hard I worked at it I was unable to come close to being as exceptional as he was. Harry was quite simply one of those people who thought on his feet and was able to come up with just the right retorts at just the right moments. He and his debate partner and friend had quite a run as superstars. I often thought that he might become a lawyer but I suspect that such a career was just a bit too tame for him. Harry was out of the ordinary and we all seemed to sense that.

I learned that Harry spent his work life in Los Angeles but returned to Texas after he retired. He chose to settle in Galveston where he loved reading and listening to music. He brought a former ballerina with them and the two of them enjoyed a quiet life near the sea. Even in his final days Harry managed to seem a bit exotic and to have done things on his own terms.

It’s amazing how we never quite forget the people with whom we spend our teenage years. I regret that I never really got to know Harry just a bit better or to tell him how much I admired him. I suspect that I was too much in awe of his remarkable talent in areas in which I so wanted to succeed in my own right. It was as though I saw myself as little more than a hack whenever I compared my abilities with his. Eventually I found the confidence that I had lacked back then and realized that Harry and I had very different styles. I became content to have watched him from afar and to know that maybe just maybe he had found some magic out in Hollywood. At least I certainly hope that is true. I’d like to believe that he lived the kind of life of which he had dreamed so long ago.

Harry’s death signals the passing of another extraordinary member of our class. I feel confident that he is now resting in peace with the angels and cracking them up with his razor sharp sense of humor just as he shared his gift with us so long ago. I remember a time when he proclaimed that the Rolling Stones were the best rock group ever. I argued with him at the time and lost of course, but I always thought of him over the years as that group became my favorite as well. Upon hearing of his death I heard the strains of Satisfaction in my brain and thought of his grin and sarcastic humor that always made us laugh. Thank you, Harry, for some really good times.

Truly Madly Deeply

shutterstock158350295

One of the most fascinating books that I have ever read is Isaac’s Storm by Eric Larson, a story that details the horrific events of the 1900 hurricane that virtually decimated Galveston, Texas. I have always found the randomness of the destruction that took place in that epic event to be rather profound. With no rhyme or reason some structures were totally destroyed while others that stood right next to them exist even to this very day. Thus it seems to be when nature’s fury strikes. The fact that I still have my home in the midst of all of the misery caused by Hurricane Harvey is little more than the luck of the draw because not more than a mile away there are homes that filled with water.

In the aftermath of a storm that will surely go down in history as one for the ages, I am pensive as I listen to the sounds of life slowly coming back into the world that has been my home since my birth. This time of year the school buses should be stopping at my corner to take children to and fro. I enjoy the  laughter and the excitement of the voices that filter through my window each morning and afternoon. For now there is only the wind blowing through my trees and the hum of a generator in the distance. It’s good to hear the rumble of cars moving down the road, and now again there is a siren breaking the silence with a scream. I worry what might be happening to someone, but I also smile that it is once again possible for aid to reach whomever is in need without moving precariously through a wall of water. Even as the natural routine of things has been set askew, there is the tiniest whisper of hope assuring me that in spite of the enormity of the challenges that lie ahead, we will eventually heal and recover.

I rejoice at the messages of good news coming from friends and family about whom I had worried during the deluges that fell over my city. So many, like me, seem to have weathered the storm relatively unscathed. Given the extent of the damage to Houston it is almost impossible to believe that we indeed have a foundation of intact homes from which we might reach out to the others who were not as fortunate. As I number the dozens who will soon be assessing the damage to their houses and possessions I am truly humbled. But for chance it might just as easily been among them.

I have expressed my love for my city so many times. She is a tough girl with a heart of pure gold. She is hurting now and I know we must all show her our love by being very good to one another. She would expect nothing less from us. In the past few days we have demonstrated just how good we are at doing that. There have been so many favors performed both large and small, all designed to ease the fear and the pain that our neighbors are experiencing. We are not strangers in Houston. We are family. We understand that now more than ever.

The heat here can be brutal and the landscape is as flat as a pancake, but the real beauty of this place has always been in its people. It has historically been a town where souls come to find new opportunities just as my grandfather did when he traveled from Austria Hungary more than a hundred years ago or like my husband’s great grandfather who arrived from Georgia penniless. Houston has always been filled with promises from which individuals with little more than the clothes on their backs might find the kind of lives that would not be possible anywhere else. It is a warm hearted and forgiving place as was so dramatically demonstrated in countless ways during the last few days.

We have watched our hometown newscasters dissolve into tears as they reported the human stories that have been so difficult to hear. We have seen ordinary people brave the waters with boats and trucks so that people they have never met might be saved from the raging waters. Our mayor has stood toe to toe with all of us to keep us safe and to calm our fears. Our neighbors have walked hand in hand never even noticing any of the diverse demographics that seem to be so dividing the rest of our country. We have jumped into the task of saving ourselves and saving our city without worrying about what anyone else might eventually do for us. We understand that there is no time to wait for outside help. We are Houstonians. We take care of our own. Still we are gracious and thankful for the help that is offered because we understand that this task will surely be more than we might handle alone.

I feel a sense of pride when my grandchildren and former students check on my welfare and weather the storm to bring me items that I needed to be comfortable during the long wait for the rains to end. I smile as I see them taking charge in the aftermath by immediately volunteering at shelters and gathering truckloads of donations and supplies. How wonderful they have turned out to be. I hear that little whisper that tells me we will survive when I see how considerate and generous they are. They are the face of the future of Houston. They assure me that tomorrow will be sunny and bright.

I can’t wait to hear the incessant singing of the cicadas at night. I don’t think I will mind at all when the sun is so bright that sweat rolls down my neck. i want to see the Friday night lights of high school football and watch my grandson march with his band. I long to cheer for the Texans, and Astros and Rockets and Houston Cougars once again. I want to laugh at the antics of the Rice MOB. I long for the time when I might drive on water free roads to the Farmer’s Market on Airline or to the shops in Highland Village on Westheimer. I want to have dinner at Gringo’s or Niko Niko’s and stand in line for barbecue at Killen’s. I dream of walking the aisles of HEB and munching on a burger from Whatburger or a donut from Shipley’s. I look forward to the Nutcracker Market and Thanksgiving at my brother’s house. I can’t wait to see the Christmas lights in December and the azaleas in March. I pray with all of my heart that together we Houstonians will have the means to keep our traditions alive, because they will be more important than ever as we work our way out of the pain and the loss that is all around us. 

We are not completely out of danger just yet. As the rivers rise there may be more flooding in places that have done fairly well up to now. More heartache may ensue. More need will arise. We will be tested as a city again and again. Our marathon will be long and difficult, but I know that we have the grit that we need to see the process through.

I have cried and cried for my beautiful often misunderstood city and its people. The tragedy of it all has sometimes been almost too much to bear, but I know in my heart that we live in one of the most special places on earth. I have understood this for all of my life. I am truly, madly, deeply in love with Houston, Texas and I promise not to let her down in her hour of need

These Are The Good Old Days

il_340x270-1167766621_5l2mBack in the nineteen seventies my mother and one of my brothers took a Sunday afternoon ride to Galveston Island which was about fifty miles away from where I lived. I was recovering from hepatitis and it was meant to be a relaxing excursion. My mama always believed that the ocean air was good for whatever ailments one had. Going down to the sea was one of her most frequent destinations.

We rode along the seawall built by heroic Galveston residents who refused to be chased away by the 1900 storm that killed more than 2000 people in one dark night. It was a lovely early spring day and it felt wonderful to escape from the confinement that I had endured for many weeks. My mother always knew exactly how to nurse me back to health.

Mama wasn’t much for driving on freeways so we took an old highway back home that was less traveled at the time. Along the way her car broke down, a not so uncommon occurrence for her because she tended to keep her autos until the wheels fell off. There was no sign of life anywhere near where we were and of course there were no cell phones back then. We had to rely on our own ingenuity to find a way out of our dilemma.

For quite some time we pushed the car hoping that either it would spontaneously come back to life or that we might encounter a phone booth or service station where we might find help. I soon grew quite weary. I had been instructed by my doctor not to over exert myself and the effort of moving a heavy object down an asphalt runway soon sapped what little energy I had. We decided to simply get the car out of the road and walk until we found signs of life.

It felt as though we had to travel several miles before we finally found a place of business where we were able to call my husband who rescued us quickly after that. He drove us back to Mama’s car and noticed that she had run out of gasoline which he remedied as well. The incident became one of those laughable family moments and a memory of life in times past.

I can’t help but think of how much easier it would have been for us to find the assistance that we needed if only there had been cell phones back then. It is highly likely that at least two of us would have been able to take care of the problem with a few keystrokes. The modern world with its many inventions has made our lives so much easier than it has ever been.

I often see photos of what it was like when I was young on Facebook. My friends sometimes reminisce about the good old days. We even had a politician who won the presidency with the promise to make America great again. The problem that I find with such nostalgia is that going backwards in time is not generally something that we should want to do. I like the progress that we have made and I see little point in turning back the clock. Instead I try to enjoy the days that I have right now.

My grandfather was born in 1878 and did not die until the nineteen eighties. He often laughed when people asked him to tell about the good old days. “These are the good old days,” he would always insist. He easily recalled the hardships of living without refrigeration or electricity. He remembered the first time that he saw a town lit up with lights and the sense of wonder that overcame him. He read the headlines cheering the first flight of an airplane and watched with elation as a human walked on the moon. He remembered how his grandmother treated illnesses with herbs and  what it was like watching people die of terrible infectious diseases that were eventually eradicated by modern medicine. The level of comfort that he experienced in his later life had been unimaginable when he was a child and he appreciated all of the advancements that had made the world a better place to be.

I hark back to the nineteen fifties and sixties, a time of great scientific exploration that changed the way we live and work at rocket speed. I am able to tell horror stories about attempting to type a long research paper without mistakes on an old typewriter with keys that would stick and smear ink on my fine white paper. My efforts were always so homely because I had to cover my errors with blobs of liquid paper that dotted my manuscripts like droplets of snow. If I had to have multiple copies that meant using carbon paper that left purple stains on my fingers and anything else that it touched. Creating documents was a time consuming and onerous task for me that thankfully is a thing of the past.

Like my grandfather I might list hundreds of examples regarding the difficulties that existed simply because the solutions to the various problems had not yet been invented. Any of us who did research of during the nineteen sixties shudder at the thought of spending hours combing through a card catalog in a library only to find that the very book that we needed had already been checked out by someone on a similar mission. Almost everything was in hard copy form back then. Sometimes documents were photographed and stored on little reels that had to be read using a machine that invariably broke in the middle of the process.

If I were to begin to list all of the changes that have occurred in my own lifetime it would require pages and pages. Man’s ingenuity has indeed been an engine that has driven progress inevitably forward and there is little reason for us to wish to turn back the clock which, by the way, we don’t have to wind anymore like we did in the past. The history of mankind is one of advancement with a few hiccups along the way but inevitably we seem to find better and better ways of enjoying life. I suspect that my very wise grandfather had it right all along when he would insist that these are the good old days.

Nature Unplugged

21nov2011_1__dsc7226My husband and I went camping last weekend when the temperatures were in the freezing range. Our neighbors wondered out loud if we had perhaps neglected to note the arrival of colder than normal weather, especially when they heard that we were going to Galveston Island State Park. Somehow in their minds it seemed rather strange to head to the beach in low thirty degree conditions. I suppose that most people would agree but that’s because they haven’t tried it.

We covered out plants before leaving and took the more delicate potted ones inside. We kept our smart phones tuned to the Weather Channel and equipped the trailer with our warmest blankets, lots of hot chocolate, coffee and tea. We made sure that we had coats, gloves and hats and that the propane that runs our heater was in full supply. Mike even had foam insulation to put around the hoses that provide water for our convenience. We were as well prepared as a bevy of Boy Scouts.

It was grey and rainy when we arrived at our campsite. We had a grand view of Galveston Bay which was anything but tranquil. The thirty mile per hour winds created enormous white caps on the waves that churned the water. It was a glorious site that we enjoyed from inside the cozy comfort of our trailer whose walls were buffeted by the storm. We listened to music and had the rare privilege of simply enjoying the scene around us without interruptions from phones or unexpected solicitors at our door. We felt as though we were in a warm cocoon hibernating from stress and it was wonderful. We had neither the need nor the desire to venture outside because we were surrounded by the serenity and bounty of nature.

The marshlands between us and the bay were teeming with exotic birds doing their best  to hunker down until the environment became less hostile. They were magnificent and I felt as though I was being given a rare treat because I doubt that they would have been so bold if the other humans that were in the park with us were walking about. Since all of us stayed indoors we had a rare peak at what goes on inside such an ecosystem. I most enjoyed the pelicans who somehow appear graceful in flight despite their bulkiness in physique. There were cranes and seagulls and grumpy blackbirds that attempted to take control of the area but were generally ignored.

After dark we watched a movie while wrapped tightly in our blanket with the heater warming all of the corners of our tiny home away from home. We sipped on chai tea and hot chocolate and munched on bowls of popcorn. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect evening.

The sun eventually came out and we ventured over to the Galveston Seawall where the water was crystal clear and shining like brilliant jewels. Nobody was swimming but many sauntered along in their heavy winter gear just enjoying the sound of the waves and the lack of big crowds that usually cram the beach. It was actually far more beautiful that it is in the heat of summer and I began to think of all of the secrets of the sea and wonder what the waters had witnessed during the course of history.

We followed Seawall Boulevard all the way down to the end of the island where huge ships were entering the bay. I wanted to know from whence they had come and where they were going. There was a virtual traffic jam of tankers, barges and tug boats. Along the shore fishermen quietly cast their lines in hopes of landing dinner for the evening. It was isolated and felt like a private  tour of places on the island that I had not before seen.

We drove to the historic Stand and braved the cold to walk among the shops and browse the wares. The clerks were happy to have customers and the time to tarry in conversation. I learned that many people come from other parts of the country just to live in Galveston during the winter season. Most of them had neglected to bring their cold weather clothing and so they had to make do with layering on that very cold day.

It was Galveston Restaurant Week and so we stopped at one of our favorite haunts, the Gumbo Bar. It was good to find some warmth and a special menu in honor of the festivities. We enjoyed oyster po’ boys and bread pudding and then drove to the ferry that goes across the bay to the Bolivar Peninsula. There were more ships and hundreds of birds as well as offshore oil rigs to keep our attention in the short trip across.

I had not been to that area in a long time. I had heard that there had been grave damage when Hurricane Ike hit several years ago. It seemed to have recovered rather well but as always it is a quieter side of Galveston Bay without nearly as much of the tourist trade. It’s a paradise for fisherman and those who want to catch a few of the blue crabs that inhabit the waters. I noticed a number of RV parks hosting snowbirds from northern states, people who come each year to avoid the snow and months long cold of their homes.

By the last day of our mini-vacation the temperature was hospitable enough for us to take a long stroll along the beach. We bundled up and brought a bag to use in collecting the many shells that had been left behind by the storm. I found some beauties but mostly enjoyed the fact that we were the only people anywhere. I felt a contentment as we walked silently from one end of the beach park to the other with the waves whispering their welcome to us. I didn’t need to enter the water to feel a sense of joy. I only desired to observe all of the wonders of nature that graced us in our solitary little haven.

We reluctantly left for home driving for one last time along the seawall. There were more people braving the cooler temperatures to walk on the wall built by people attempting to tame the wildness of the sea after the ocean swallowed Galveston in a hurricane of 1900. The waves were asserting themselves as if to remind us all that they are ultimately in charge. Their power is breathtaking and my last glance at them left me with a lovely memory whose image I draw upon for comfort and serenity.

Those who believe that there is nothing to do in Galveston on a freezing cold day in January have never been there to see what we did. It was one of the loveliest camping trips that I have ever made. It’s delightful to visit a place without the sometimes intrusive footprint of other people crowding the view. Go there in the winter. Linger in the quiet. Enjoy nature unplugged.