Before it was cool 003

Gone to Texas

In August 1960 Dad and Mom packed us all up into a used 1953 Ford and we lit out from Iowa City, Iowa, on our way to Houston, Texas — the place that would become our familial hometown.

Sister Bonnie was three years old, sister Barbie was about one-and-a-half and I was not-quite eight. I don’t much remember that thousand-mile trip, but dad says we stopped to visit a brand new little amusement park called “Silver Dollar City” and toured Marvel Cave in a little bitty town called Branson, Missouri. We snipped the corner of northwest Arkansas and rode that raggedy brown Ford through Oklahoma into Texas.

Dad had a freshly-minted Master’s Degree from the University of Iowa and was moving on to his PhD and an associate professorship at University of Houston.

I can’t report any inspirational anecdotal youthful “first impression” of Houston 1960 upon our arrival save that we were all really damned weary after a two-day road trip on two-lane highways (the Interstates along that corridor hadn’t been built yet).

We moved into an apartment on HMC Street near the University of Houston. Fitting perhaps that in contemporary location, our no-longer-extant apartment building now lies immediately across the street from the Harris County Psychiatric Center just off of South MacGregor in the Medical Center District. Mom says the apartment manager asked if we wanted an air conditioner (at additional charge) but, ever-practical and close with the dime, she told them “no”.

So we landed in Houston in August at a big square fourplex without air conditioning. The place didn’t look like much. Just a two-story brick box containing four apartments) two upstairs, two down. As you went into the main door, we lived in #1 – first floor on the left. Mom says we stayed there without air conditioning for about two days and woke up in the mornings “feeling like we were sleeping on a sponge”. First available weekend, we went to Sears and Dad bought a window air conditioner for the living room.

One thing I do recall is that in terms of shopping, downtown was where you went. Other than neighborhood grocery stores or five-and-dimes, just about every major shopping place was downtown. One of our first trips to town was a real eye opener for me. All the stores were segregated. The big Woolworth’s had a lunch counter that was chopped up by a wall. There was a common kitchen, but two-thirds of the dining space was for whites only and the other third was a bit less cared for and had a sign on the door that said “colored entrance.” I didn’t understand the concept of a colored entrance. It didn’t look much different from the other entrance – just the room was smaller  and not as well cleaned and maintained. But the room was the same color scheme as the white room

We went to the big Joske’s department store one time. Bargain basement was slightly integrated in that white folks went there and colored folk could too – but the colored folk were not allowed into the other four floors of the main store. I slipped away from mom to get a drink of water. I found two fountains side by side. There was a big snazzy one with a cooler that said “chilled water” and a smaller, simpler one marked “colored water”. Hell, I’m an eight year old kid from Iowa at the time. The idea of “colored water” was intriguing to me. I wanted to know what color the colored water was – so I went for a drink from that little room-temp spigot. Much to my dismay, the water was clear same as any other water, but a floor manager happened to spot me drinking from the wrong fountain. He snatched my up by my collar and blabbered all sorts if stuff about “who do you think you are” and hauled me through the bargain basement looking for Mom. The way he carried on, you’d have thought I had committed some atrocity like taking a shit in the middle of the fine linens department. We found Mom and the floor manager delivered both of us a lecture about “teaching this boy his place blah blah blah” that appeared to leave mom as perplexed and confused as I was.

I learned my lesson. That “colored water” thing was false advertising. It was plain old water — just not chilled. Bait and switch — a bargain basement shill.

HMC Street had a couple of intriguing aspects for a curious young lad. It was only about two blocks south from Braes Bayou – a big meandering creek that winds through Houston. And Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) owned some apartments / motel places a couple of blocks east on Ardmore Street – he hid out there for a while during his draft evasion investigations.

Can’t say I had a lot to do with Muhammad Ali. He would reappear  in my life a few years later – but that is a different story for a different time.

I was familiar with Braes Bayou. Mom used to send me out to play and tell me “but stay from the bayou”. Of course, that was interpreted as an immediate invitation to go play on the creek bank. That changed one rainy day.

A neighborhood Buddy (name unrecalled) and I went over to Braes Bayou. The creek was running fast. I went down the bank to toss a stick into the roiling water and schluuuuuup – sank my leg into mud up to the knee. Buddy grabbed me and pulled me out before I fell into the water – but the shoe on the sunken foot was gone and my pants were a mudcake up to the knee.  I had to walk home lopsided and ‘fess up.
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John,
Went to Braes Bayou with his stockings on;
One shoe off, the other shoe on,
Diddle, diddle, dumpling, my son John.

My first day at school in Houston was interesting. The teacher asked me a question and I answered “yes”. I didn’t say “yeah” or “yup” or anything snotty. I clearly intoned the word “yes”. Teacher stiffened her back, glared down her nose and said “yes, what?!!”. I replied “Well, …?? Yes.”

“Don’t you be disrespectful in my class,” said Teacher. She grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and wagged me to the principal’s office muttering something about “manners” and “sir” and “ma’am” and carrying on about god knows I didn’t understand what.

The principal was pretty cool that trip. He explained to me that “This is Texas and we say ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘yes, sir’ hereabouts”. I was o.k. with that – once I knew what the rules were, they were easy enough to abide. He sent me back to class with a note to give to teacher – and she was calmed a bit after reading the note, although she never did really like me for the rest of that first year in Houston schools. We sort of mutually and benevolently ignored one another.

So I went home after that first grueling day at school and Mom asked me a question. “Yes, ma’am” I replied. Mom wheeled on her heels with the same outraged look that teacher had on her face. “What is this ma’am business?”, she said. “Don’t you be sarcastic with me! A simple yes or no is all that’s required!”

Just then the phone rang – it was the principal from school. He explained to mom about my visit to his office and things cooled down. The Midwest had collided with the southwest and Kirby lost that round altogether.

My children have been raised to the point that I have heard them address one another as sir and ma’am.

Also during that first year in Houston Dad became acquainted with a brilliant black female lawyer named Barbara Jordan — yes, that Barbara Jordan – and he later became active as a supporter of her political career.

In early September of 1961, the TV and radio news in Houston was ate up with warnings about Hurricane Carla churning in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. My Midwestern family didn’t know from Shinola about hurricanes, but we stocked up on water and stuff like they said we should and sort of centralized our life into the living room of the apartment. On September 10, for the first of several times in my life, I witnessed a wondrous sight. The light of the sky turned green and then golden – a sure sign of impending hurricane.

Carla hit Houston like a force-five bitch on September 11, 1961. We all hunkered down in the living room and watched out the window as a scene unfolded that looked like a live-action of the tornado in the Wizard of Oz movie. For two days, we watched as weird miscellaneous lawn chairs. Broken 2×4 lumber and chunks of tin roofing flew through the air outside. Out back of the apartments was a long carport with concrete-block walls and a tin roof. We watched as that tin roofing became another prop in the Dorothy-goes-to-Oz scenario. We watched as the concrete-block walls collapsed and trashed several cars – not including our brand new Chevrolet station wagon, fortunately.

Sometime during the night of September 11, a huge oak tree at the side of the building tore out of the ground by the roots and smashed onto the roof of the fourplex. We and the other family on the first floor opened our front doors and the two families who lived upstairs took shelter with us on the first floor. It was probably my parents’ only experiment in communal living as folks passed through from one apartment to another on the first floor and slept on floors and couches and anywhere else that there was a dry flat space and a blanket.

On the afternoon of September 12, the wind died down and the rain slacked off – but the sky was still green and golden. Some of us kids ventured outside – intrigued but duly cautious by sparking downed power lines and on the lookout for displaced snakes. Suddenly the moms shouted “kids get in here now! Immediately!!” We were outside as the eye of the hurricane passed over and come the evening of September 12, the Oz Tornado started again – this time hurling debris in the opposite direction from the day before. The outer wall of the hurricane had hit.

One of our local TV news guys got famous for covering  Hurricane Carla live from Galveston – a fellow named Dan Rather. I would have the pleasure of meeting him several times a few years later.

After the hurricane, the HMC Commune held together for a couple of days until the roof of the building was repaired and the neighbors moved back into their own apartments upstairs. The carport got rebuilt and new cars started appearing in the parking spaces. Life returned to normal.

HMC was an interim stop. Dad and Mom were continuously house-shopping. We looked at some neat places along MacGregor and in West University, but the folks wanted something different. They wanted a new house. They bought a place in a brand new subdivision called “Westbury”. It was literally on the outskirts of town on the southwest side of Houston, and our house was the first one up in a six block section. For a while, we lived in the middle of a vacant field watching other houses being built all around us. We became suburbanites.

In 1962, at 10 years old, I was introduced to four things that would change my life and mold my future – typewriters, horses, drums and Mexico. But for the moment this looks like a good place for a chapter break.


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