An Aside – A Journal Entry
Visited my hometown in Texas with my children for Christmas and New Years and kept a sort of journal at night while the children slept. Here is a little excerpt that I had a good time writing:
Beaumont looks well, but so different from the place I grew up in. You don’t see the children out on the lawns and all that the way you did when I was smaller, but that’s probably a sign of the times, really. My old school, Regina Howell, where we all went for Elementary school, has been torn down and a new fancy structure put up in its place. It’s a pretty impressive school building now, and I’m sure it’s so much better for the children now. But I miss the old school, of course. It’s only natural that I do, as so much of my youth was spent there.
I can remember standing on the old blacktop in front of the school talking with Craig Theall (sp?) about the Apollo 11 landing on the moon which we, along with the world, had watched the night before. What a momentous thing that was! And they were still on the moon while we were talking about it! And how walking to that school one could duck out and hit a shell road that wound back into what was then woods, though now is more and more homes. But winding through that road and those forests we could believe that dinosaurs once walked that area. In fact there was a little lake there that we were convinced was the footprint of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. We would wander there after school many times. And to our minds it was a sort of a small trek to get there and we felt that we were in deep woods. One could sometimes see mist on the top of that little lake and we would sit and listen to the forest sounds all about us and skip the white shells we found under our feet from the shell roads of the oil companies. We talked of great adventures and of being out on safari lugging great guns to shoot nameless monsters and animals.
In fact the oil fields behind our school were our playground, though we weren’t supposed to be out there at all. If I close my eyes I can remember the look and feel of those shell roads and the ditches and woods that we ran reckless through. Howell (the main road that the school was on, ended at the back of the school at the shell road. We would wander out there on our bikes or on foot, usually on bikes. I remember that shell road would break off to the right, though I don’t remember too much about where it went. My recollection is that it just sort of petered out aways down to the right and there was probably a sump there. Straight ahead, though, was a different story. The back of the school was bordered by a large mound of hills. They were pretty steep and flat on the top, covered in trees. We used to ride our bikes up there, like idiots, where any slip would have meant a cracked skull or broken limbs. On the other side of those hills was a very deep ditch. I can’t remember now too clearly if it was a cement ditch or not, though I think it was not. I remember a lot of ground cover, sort of brownish weeds all over the place. But the shell road went over this ditch, which opened into a sort of larger field all around. But following the shell road one could see a dark tunnel of trees. This was where we went, riding our bikes along the way. At the end of this long road we came to a fence put up by the oil companies, with a cattle guard below it. It was posted “No Trespassing” of course, and we’d pass our bikes (good old Stingrays) through the metal slats of the fence gate to one of our number who had already climbed over. Once on the other side of this gate we could ride out into the larger oil fields. This was open territory, and was a wide, wide field dotted with large oak trees and crisscrossed with the white shell roads. You could see the heat shimmer in waves over the dry shells and the crickets and cicadas were in full throat. Not a lot of breezes out there, to be sure. Hot, hot, hot. A real Texas summer day. And we would ride!
There was such a feeling of freedom out there! I can’t think of feeling that free anytime before or since, really. Time had no meaning. The only gauge of time we had was the sun. When it was up we were alive. When it fell we packed it up and got home, taking as many liberties as possible, as many small diversions as we thought we could get away with in getting home. No longer riding but walking, wheeling our bikes along as we watched the light leeched from the sky and the world about us tinted itself green on into the dark blues of nightfall. It got quieter then and what sounds there were grew close and more distinct, sharper. Our day was winding down and our talk drifted off, our souls resigned to having to reenter the world where we were not kings.
But until then, sun in our faces and air whistling about our ears! Legs pumping fiercely on the pedals, plumes of white dust skirling behind our tiger tread tires, the chopper handlebars vibrating in our sweaty palms. The bikes would sway, cantilevering left and right with each revolution of our Keds. We rode in tight formation, three, sometimes four abreast. In our minds we were 633 Squadron or Gregory Peck in Twelve O’Clock High, heading for Nazi occupied airspace to tangle with ME109′s or Stukas. At one time we all had the black plastic Vroom engines mounted between the spars of our bike frames, throatily rumbling great power to our wheels! In the absence of those were Bicycle cards clothes-pinned to our spokes, clattering away. And the smell in our nostrils was the heavy scent of oil and tar, dry weeds, decomposed reptiles and fetid water. And we loved it!
Zooming past rocking cricket pumps we would skid into the lot of a sump, leaping from our mounts which tottered and fell into the weeds. We climbed the old pumps, our rubber soles clanging dully on the sheet metal steps which wiggled and jangled, crusty bolts clinging still. We were living Jonny Quest adventures in our minds.
The largest oak tree in the field we picked to be our home base and where we would build our tree house. And we did. We brought bits of lumber to the tree and nails and hammers. We clambered about that great stout tree and hoisted each other up into the branches and laid the foundation for that treehouse. It was rickety, to be sure, but perfect in our eyes. I forget now how many levels there were, how many floors, but maybe six or so. The sixth or last was merely a spike in the uppermost branches of the tree. One would balance on one foot and hang on for dear life to the spike and look out over the whole of that oil field, the branch swaying with whatever breeze happened along.
One day we were working on this treehouse when we saw a plume of white shell dust in the distance. Before it ran the large truck of a lineman for the oil company. We tried to blend into our tree but to no avail. The truck swirled into our lot and a large heavy man in a pith helmet clambered out. He was clothed in those sort of khaki work clothes with heavy belts and thick boots and he was sweating to beat all, wiping his jowly face with a white handkerchief. He eyed us up and down and asked us what we were doing. “You know you’re not supposed to be out here,” he said. We knew it. Hell, we’d slipped our bikes past those No Trespassing signs a million times. He smiled at us when he spied our makeshift treehouse.
“Whatcha got going on here?” he said. “Looks pretty good! Make sure that’s nailed in solid, boys. You don’t want to get hurt up there.”
He eyed us once again, wiping his face down. We were quiet, waiting for what, we didn’t know. Then he seemed to come to some kind of decision with himself and spoke to us again.
“Listen, you shouldn’t be here, but if you won’t say anything I won’t say anything. If you see another truck, though, you need to get hid, lickety-split.”
We agreed and he broke out a metal cup and gave us water from the big coolers mounted on the front of his truck. He talked to us about how to make the structure stronger and where to put supports and stuff like that. We were blown away.
I think about how that probably wouldn’t happen in today’s world of insurance scares and all that. How lucky we were then. Just a different world back then, for sure. We felt like we really accomplished something there, making friends with that fella. And how lucky that he saw the worth in what we were doing and was willing to go to that place for us.
I’ve written about those fields before. How there was a long ride to one spot that had a railroad tie bridge over a creek. We would hang out there in the scorching heat and toss shells into the running water and look down on the pancake turtles sunning themselves on driftwood below. Dragonflies circled noisily on paper wings, helicopter eyes darting past. One could see copperheads and cottonmouths sliding along the bottom or coasting the surface then undulating gracefully into the brush. Sometimes we hunted them, beating the water with long sticks plucked from the shoreline. A scene right out of Lord of the Flies, boys in bloodlust, pounding the water, flipping a snake up onto the hard chalky road, killing it with repeated whacks of the sticks, or spearing it through the head, its fangs bared. Crazy stuff. Boys being boys, people would say then. Cruel most would say now, including me.
But it was what we did then. It was part of growing up in that time, in that South. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It helped shape me, as so many other things have as well. We really got to be children then.