Uprooted & Re-Placed

I had just celebrated my fifteenth birthday and was enjoying a leisurely summer vacation the day my Father came home from work early. I don’t recall anything else about that day, but I remember nearly every detail of what unfolded after he and my Mother called us together.

My Brother, Sister and I were hanging out on the back porch of our home in the Hudson Valley of New York when we heard Dad arrive. Even though he was only twenty or thirty minutes early we were surprised to hear him, he always kept a very regular schedule. He was talking to my Mother in the living room in a low voice, and then Mom called to us, “Kids, come in here for a minute. Your Father has something he wants to tell you.”

My Sister and I looked right into each other’s eyes. She was holding a glass of iced tea which she dropped onto the stone floor. It smashed and splashed around our feet, but we remained frozen in place. We both knew something momentous was about to happen. Words surfaced past the tightening knot in my gut and I heard myself say, “We’re moving.”

How I knew this, I cannot say, we had never moved. In fact, it was something that we hardly even contemplated as a real possibility. Sure, Dad worked for an oil company and we knew other families that had been “transferred,” but we had never imagined it happening to us. But, that was exactly why Dad had come home early. When he announced that, “We’re moving to Texas,” my Sister sank to the floor and started to cry. I, however, let out a loud whoop and led my brother in celebration. My view of Texas had been shaped by the movie The Alamo and countless westerns, I imagined that “moving to Texas” meant moving to a ranch with horses, mountains, cactus, and cowboys for neighbors. When Dad added, “Port Arthur, Texas,” I couldn’t know that our destination would be hundreds of miles from anything resembling a mountain and that our new home would be a gritty refinery town in the middle of a salt marsh – a landscape that was better suited to alligators and mosquitoes than cactus and cows.

My enthusiasm about moving dampened over the course of the coming days when I wandered into the surrounding woods to say goodbye to some of my favorite places. I can recall my last visit to a small pond near our home, as I sat beside its banks the refrains of a song that was popular that summer kept playing over and over again in my head – the Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses Couldn’t Drag Me Away. Still, I tried to remain enthusiastic, my love of seeing new places kept my sense of adventure alive, though that enthusiasm was to be tested in the few short weeks before we moved.

The sadness about leaving our beloved home was unintentionally mixed with dread when my parents arranged to have us meet another family that had been transferred from Port Arthur to our area. Their family had three children too, the oldest of which was an aloof college-aged girl who held court over our assembly. While our parents were socializing, my Brother, Sister, and I pumped the younger kids with questions about our new home. Their impressions were vague and the lack of specificity frustrated me. In fact, I recall that their strongest impressions of Texas seemed to revolve around the quality of the lunches served at the Port Arthur school cafeterias. My curiosity was intense and I kept pressing for more substantive details when, finally, their older Sister turned to us with an exhausted disdain and said, “Would you please stop talking about that place! Port Arthur is where the train ends and they dump the ashes.”

Talk about ashen. The starkness of that image haunted me for days.

Our last few weeks in New York passed in a blur of packing and goodbyes. I will never forget my last glimpse of our home on the morning we left. We had already moved out of the house and been staying in a local hotel. That morning, as we prepared to caravan across the country in our two cars, we took one last spin by our house. The finality of that moment left us all in tears.

Once we were on the road, my wanderlust took hold, and I enjoyed taking in the roadside sights. Though, an unspoken anxiety rode with me all of the way down to Texas. I remember looking at myself in the passenger side mirror of the car and the plate glass windows of the gas stations we stopped in; I wondered what kind of impression I would make on our new neighbors and in my new school. I had never really “fit in” with the neighborhood gang in New York… what would the kids in Texas make of this quiet and introverted “Yankee?”

After days on the road we finally approached Port Arthur from the east, driving through the bayou country of Louisiana. When we crossed the state line I somehow expected everything to change, but there wasn’t a mountain or cactus to be seen. In fact, as we neared Port Arthur, the scenery became more and more featureless as the bald cypress swamps and piney woods gave way to coastal prairies and marshes. There were few trees and the landscape was flatter than any I had ever imagined.

At last, we approached the “Rainbow Bridge”, a tall arching span that crossed the Neches River and served as the gateway to Port Arthur. As we crested its imposing arch, there was dead silence in our car. In the distance we could see Port Arthur spread out in the August haze looking gray, and, frankly, grim. The city seemed dwarfed by the surrounding refineries which were belching out impressive plumes of steam and smoke. Towering gas flares lined one side of the highway before us.

My Father tried to cheer us up by saying that, “At night, when the refinery lights come on, it looks like Manhattan.”

My brother, always quick to the draw, responded by saying, “Yeah, but it smells like Trenton.”

Still to this day, whenever I detect the rotten egg smell of sulfur, I think back to that moment. Locals liked to tell us that it “smelled like money.”

Our first full day in Port Arthur turned out to be inauspicious, the city had been suffering through a drought, but on this day the skies opened up and it rained in a way that none of us had ever witnessed. Blinding torrents of water fell and the streets filled up to the curbs. Our new home, which was located on a freshly minted suburban street occupied by other “management” families, became an island surrounded by floating colonies of fire ants, swimming crawdads and eels. The kids from the neighborhood were out blithely riding their bikes through the streaming streets enjoying the break from the tropical heat. We waded out and joined them, taking our first measure of them, and them of us.

Early on, there was much about Port Arthur that fascinated me – a spin around the local radio dial turned up radio stations where the hosts were speaking an odd kind of French (Acadian / Cajun) and you could feel the steamy presence of the nearby Gulf of Mexico. A ship canal ran through the heart of the city and there were times when you would glance up and catch your breath when it appeared as if a towering oil tanker was driving down the street a few blocks away. Much of the city, except for the exhausted looking downtown area, felt new compared to our hometown in New York and for those of us who lived on the suburban fringe there was a sense of optimism. Those were the days when the people of Port Arthur still proudly talked about being a part of the “Golden Triangle” – the vital hub of the oil industry - without the sense of irony or sadness that came in later years when the plants started closing down and the jobs drifted away.

One thing that struck me about Texas right away was how friendly everyone seemed to be and I sensed an opening for myself. Perhaps I could recast my social role – why be the “loner” when being “the kid from New York” seemed to carry some weight with the locals? Eager to fit in, I fed off of their stereotypes of New York and tried to assume a citified coolness.

I had some initial success breaking into the social network in our neighborhood, but frankly, I was surprised by the attitudes and habits of the other kids I encountered on our street. I thought Texans would be very different from the rebellious “hippy” youth of New York. Instead, I found that the kids in Port Arthur had happily adopted the druggy part of the counter culture without giving a second thought to the political or cultural awareness of the ongoing “youth rebellion.” Instead of the virtuous cowboys and cowgirls that I expected to meet, most of the kids seemed like hardcore partiers intent on getting high or sneaking off with the contents of their parent’s liquor cabinets and pilfered cigarettes. Slowly, I drifted back into my usual role as a loner.

After the novelty of our first few months in Port Arthur wore off, depression slipped into my life. Everywhere I looked, I felt an absence, and our tiny fenced-in suburban yard and the weedy vacant lots on our street offered no solace. I missed the woods and snow of New York, the smell of burning leaves in autumn, lilacs, roses, dogwoods, the hills and mountains that ringed our home, stones and rocks of any kind, cool mornings, and open windows. The oppressive heat kept us crawling from one sealed air-conditioned place to the next. I continually thought about moving back to New York and had repeated dreams (which still occur to this day) about making the long trip “home.” There was no doubt in my mind about where I belonged, but with each passing week our hillside garden and home in the Hudson Valley felt more distant and out of reach. One day, my Mom could tell I was depressed when she picked me up after school; when she asked what was wrong, I told her that I missed birch trees.

(Why birch trees? There were so many things that I missed – I could have said anything. But this was a very specific longing. I had always loved the white bark of the paper birch trees around our home in New York and now they seemed emblematic of something quintessentially northern that would never take root in the mucky soil of the Gulf Coast .)

Having decided that the neighborhood gang in Port Arthur was not for me, I was on my own once again, and without woods to escape to, I retreated into the world of books. Port Arthur had a handsome public library and I was a regular visitor. My parents had always encouraged us to read, and I became voracious - reading just about anything, on any topic that caught my attention. When I discovered Thoreau’s Walden, it was a life changing experience. His poetic and detailed descriptions of the Northeastern landscape enriched my own memories and his sage advice to “march to the beat of your own drum” reverberated in my heart. I recall spending up to an hour with a single page, reading and rereading the paragraphs until I was satisfied I had understood his intent.

I was well into my junior year in high school when my loneliness finally overwhelmed my natural shyness and drove me to seek out friendship. I recall surveying the school cafeteria one day looking for a group of kids to join when I saw a bunch of guys that I vaguely knew through some of the different school clubs. They seemed like a reasonable group – they weren’t jocks, or druggies, or rednecks. In fact, I could recall having interesting encounters with several of them. A little reconnaissance was in order, and I sat at a nearby table and eavesdropped on their conversation. They struck me as being down-to-earth, yet funny and smart. The die was cast. The next day I worked up my courage and sat down at “their” table.

I remember they were surprised when I set my tray of food down to join them, but they didn’t chase me away and I did my best to play it cool. When I returned the next day they seemed more befuddled, did this Yankee kid really intend to join our gang? They teased me a little bit and made it clear that they were inside the group and I was being tolerated, but toleration never felt so good. Slowly, over the course of the coming weeks, the toleration seemed to move to acceptance. Though, I still had not passed the final test – I had not been invited to join them at “Camp.” They often talked excitedly about their visits to what sounded like a wonderful place – a small cabin in the woods north of the city owned by the family of one of the gang members. They talked about a creek, the dense forest, and of course the rowdy misadventures they had gotten into when they were there. I was literally dying to go – I missed being close to nature so badly I could hardly stand it, and even more importantly, I knew that if I was invited it would be a sure sign that I was finally “in.”

Months passed, but the invitation finally came. After school one chilly Friday night a small group of us jammed ourselves into an old Volkswagen Beetle and rode off into the piney woods. Camp was located on the banks of Big Cow Creek in Newton County, the easternmost county in Texas. I would later learn that the area was known as the Big Thicket and was considered to be the “biological crossroads” of America. But on that first trip, I was simply thrilled to be getting out of town and was enjoying my new status as a friend. That night, when we arrived at Camp, I knew I was encountering something entirely new to my life experience – our first order of business was to prime a well pump so that we would have water to drink, and then light a fire in an old wood burning stove to heat up the cold wooden shack.

Later, as I finally laid down to go to sleep, I remember watching brilliant stars as they slowly passed between the cracks of the rough plank walls above my head. I think it may have been the happiest moment of my teenage years.

The next morning I got up before the rest of the guys and slipped out of the cabin to take stock of our surroundings. Sand roads threaded the woods leading past other “camps” that were tucked into the trees. Everything was still and quiet in the pre-dawn light. The pine and smoke scented air awakened all of my senses.

I followed the sand road that led past my friend’s camp down to the creek bank where a thick layer of mist hung over the stream. Recent rains had swollen the creek and leaf bare trees rose from the flooded banks. As I edged closer to the water I saw a wide sand bar with sand so white I had to look twice to be sure it wasn’t snow.

I climbed down the steep bank, jumped over a small side channel of the stream, and stepped out onto the rippled sand. In the distance I could hear owls calling to one another from the deep recesses of the woods. Their weird hallucinatory hoots were unlike any sound I had ever heard before. As I looked around, I could see that the sand bar seemed to be anchored by strands of small trees which formed natural allees around the stream channels. I walked up to the trees; there was something familiar about them that caught my attention. The young trees had speckled reddish twigs and the older ones had pinkish white bark that was peeling off in paper like flaps… birch trees, in Texas!


River Birch Reflections

That weekend brought many other revelations and joyful experiences but none more heart-warming than my discovery of the birch trees. (I later learned they were river birch, “the birch of the South.”) When we returned to Port Arthur the next day I was carrying a small birch sapling I had dug up with my bare hands in a paper sack. I planted it in our yard – my first act as a Texas gardener.

During the short remainder of our time in high school, we returned to Camp as often as we could – about every other Friday one of us would manage to get permission to borrow a car and off we would go. I can recall one night when we were driving up the stars were blazing so brightly that we turned the car lights off and drove down the arrow-straight road guided only by the milky way. Just before we turned the lights back on a dazzling meteor streaked across the sky, I thought of it as a beautiful omen and carried the image around with me for weeks.

Once we arrived at Camp we entertained ourselves in countless ways… We would hike through a nearby State Forest, float or canoe down the creek, go skinny-dipping, chop wood, build fires, swap stories, share our dreams, practice shooting rifles and shotguns, sing Hank Williams songs, chase armadillos, drive across the border to Louisiana, explore dirt roads, drink Jack Daniels whiskey and Schlitz beer, and occasionally make-out with a girl friend who had gained permission to join us for the day. I grew to love the place with a fierce intensity and felt a connection to Texas that would have shocked me during my first year in the state.

I learned to savor the “Southernness” of the place – the pine trees, magnolias, sweetbays, and tupelos, the greasy small town cafes and dusty back woods general stores. It took a little longer, but I even grew to appreciate the sticky summer heat and torrential rains. There was nothing quite as peaceful as hanging out at Camp on a rainy summer afternoon – we would prop-up the plywood boards that served as shutters for the screened windows and watch the rain slip off of the leaves of the surrounding trees. It was a different kind of beauty, but it was beautiful, and I was beginning to think of it as home.

Fate intervened just a few weeks before I graduated from High School when, once again, Dad came home from work early. This time, only my Brother and I were there to hear the news that we were moving to Houston (my Sister was just finishing her freshman year at college.) I was crestfallen, but my little Brother was elated. Port Arthur had been very difficult for him – he had not found a circle of friends or the green refuge from the city that I reveled in. My parents timed the move so that I could graduate with my class, and we moved the day after the ceremony. Houston is not far from Port Arthur, and I was about to head off to college anyway, so the impact was insignificant compared with what I had experienced three years before. Still, “home” was once again a question mark.

For the next few years, when people asked, I often called Camp “home” and I returned with my friends many more times. I spent my freshman year of college at a state university in East Texas just an hour or two from Big Cow Creek. Several of my Camp buddies were attending the same school but I was miserable there despite their company and our proximity to the place I loved so much. Filled with growing doubts about who I was and what I was to become I grew almost desperate to preserve a moment that had already passed. The more I insisted on trying to hold onto the intimacy of our high school brotherhood, the more distant those days seemed.

The individual members of the gang were all heading in different directions - we were scattered between four or five schools where we were all developing new circles of friends and were busily trying on new selves. On occasion, our Camp reunions turned tense, and sometimes it felt as if we were just going through the motions. Our brief golden moment of camaraderie and discovery was fading into memory. Still, our memories are powerful things and I will remain forever grateful for white sand and slow moving water, fog shrouded mornings, belted kingfishers and barred owls, long-leafed pines silhouetted by a full moon, the peeling pale bark of river birch trees and the small band of brothers who made me feel at-home.

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