Whether you’ve been day sailing in Galveston Bay or managed an offshore jaunt to another Texas port, everyone has to come home. Tacking or reaching through the Gulf, moored buoys mark the shipping lanes and jetties. Chirping and moaning across the waves, their bells, whistles and horns speak an ageless sea-language, and patterned flashes of light make them easily recognizable even for the night watch.
Slipping through the bay, there are day markers to look for – numbered red triangles and green squares on posts – or smaller red and green buoys. If you have a chart (you DO have a chart, don’t you?), you know what to look for. When you find it, you know where you are.
Probably the most well-known aid to navigation in Galveston Bay is Marker #2. Attached to a scarred post that’s been replaced a few times, the red triangle alerts boaters to the beginning of the Clear Creek channel. A traditional navigational mantra reminds boaters to keep “Red, Right, Returning”. Coming in from sea, the prudent skipper keeps red markers on the right, green on left, and the vessel in between for safe pasage.
Because Galveston Bay is so shallow, it’s always safest to enter the channel where the markers begin. Sometimes folks will cut into or out of the channel between markers 2 and 4, where the water still is deep enough to carry smaller boats. But generally speaking, boats line up and take their turn, counting down the markers through the Channel into Clear Lake.
At least they did before Hurricane Ike. Now, an eye for debris, a compass course or great familiarity with the channels are the only sure guides to safe passage because many markers apparently are gone, washed away in the surge. I say “apparently” because channel markers have begun to pop up in odd places - a green marker in a pile of debris at Lakewood Yacht Club, a red light on a pier in Seabrook shipyard.
Last week, I was startled to find Marker #4 propped up against a fence on Second Street in Seabrook, just across from the Post Office. Surrounded by piles of debris and household goods that had been brought out into the sunshine to dry. it seemed less a guide to navigation than a memento mori for a way of life.
Looking at it, I became curious. If “Red, Right, Returning” works so well on the water to guide people home, what mantra could there be for people trying to rebuild lives on land? Imagining a set of rules for this road to reconstruction, I remembered the words of Varnish John, the old man I met early in my brightwork career. It was John who told me in a cafe one afternoon, “After the big ‘un, you start where you can start, and do what you can do.”
When I first heard those words, I paid them little mind. They sounded reasonable, if ordinary and just a little trite. Today, they resonate with extraordinary truth. My little corner of the post-Ike world is full of people starting where they can start, and doing what they can do. The gestures are so small, so quiet and undramatic they hardly are noticed. The story of the wine rescued from the Frascone winery in Oak Island is one such story. Spending an afternoon pulling wine bottles out of a ditch is a perfect example of “starting where you can start”. But there are other, even smaller, “starts” much closer to home. Taken together, they tell the story of a community returning to life, one step at a time.
A live-aboard at Lakewood Yacht Club was lucky – his boat survived. On the other hand, his dock was picked up by the surge, shattered into pieces and thrown onto the grass next to the parking area. Watching him carve pieces of the broken dock into even smaller chunks with a hand saw one afternoon, I asked what he was up to. Grinning like a kid, he said, “I’ve got a new slip, and I need dock steps. I figured I might as well make myself some that will be a little special.” Special, they are. Measured, trimmed, nailed and power-washed, they’ve become a functional and attractive reminder that you start recovering by doing what you can do.
For residents and visitors who regularly cruise down FM 2094 in Kemah, there’s nothing functional about the Schmidt jack-o-lanterns. The family has been hanging decorations from their huge trees for as long as I’ve been around, and that’s twenty years of Halloween fun. They’ve added a few skeletons and ghosties to the collection, and a few purple and green jack-o-lanterns over the years, but the effect is utterly charming. To see it back this year, so soon after Ike, was comforting beyond belief. For strangers, it’s a cute yard decoration. For the neighborhood, it’s a tie to the past, an affirmation that traditions will endure, and a slightly defiant gesture that proclaims the circle of neighborliness and community has not been broken.
Speaking of community, the Sea Scouts were out and about last Saturday, raising a little money by selling breakfast tacos, hotdogs and nachos to folks roaming the nautical flea market. Based at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Pearland, Texas, Ship 468 sails out of Lakewood Yacht Club (where most of my boat photographs were taken) and has a few of their own Ike-related issues to deal with. One of the girls said, “It will take some time and money to fix up our boats, but we’ve got the time, and we can earn the money”. You do what you can do.
There’s no question that even youth can have the resiliance, discipline and disposition to deal with disaster. When I asked if I could take their photo, they poked and prodded at one another good-naturedly, reminding each other to button their uniforms properly and “look sharp”, even in the midst of their ordinary and slightly-hurricane-trashed surroundings. Watching them, you could feel their confidence in their ability to cope with the challenges of life, and sense that the crew of Ship 468 understands what it means to work as part of a team.
One of the realities of disaster recovery is that the smallest victories can require a little teamwork, even when the members of the team don’t know each other. I assume – but don’t know – it was one of the anonymous crews of debris-removers who spotted the sports trophies glittering in the sunlight beneath the mess at the base of the 146 bridge in Seabrook.What I do know is that someone’s heart was touched enough to pull the trophies from the tangle of fiberglass and wood, lining them up along the sidewalk’s edge. They sat there for days, untouched, undisturbed, as though displayed in a formal case. They were someone’s trophies, and they were waiting to go home.
One evening, I couldn’t stand it any longer. Driving into Seabrook, I parked and walked back toward the bridge. I had meant only to take a photograph of the trophies, but looking at them, I discovered some were marked with the name of a Seabrook school, and the name of a person. The debris-removers had done their job, and now it was time for me to do mine.Pulling a couple of plastic bags from the bushes along the sidewalk, I picked up the trophies, and carried them home. The next day, I washed them off and polished away the few bits of rust that had formed. When they had dried, I re-bagged them, and headed off to the Seabrook Post Office.
Trophies in hand, I waited in line until one of my favorite clerks was available. Once at the counter, I explained the story, and asked if she knew how I could get in touch with the man whose name was engraved on the plaques. She thought for a minute before saying, “You know we can’t give you any specific information. But, I can tell you that we deliver mail to his residence. And, if you were to leave those with us, we could be sure that they make it to his house.”
Later in the week, I stopped by the Post Office to mail a few things to my mother. As I was heading for the door, my favorite clerk looked up from her paperwork and said, “By the way ~ we got those trophies delivered.”
Varnish John was right. You start where you can start, and you do what you can do.