Where Gratitude Abides

Hurricane Ike innundates the Galveston Seawall Memorial to victims of the 1900 Storm

Two months after Hurricane Ike ravaged the Texas Coast, ferry service once again connected Galveston Island with the Bolivar Penninsula. The primary link between the island and coastal communities to the east, the ferry is both a luxury and a necessity. Each trip carries a combination of residents, fishermen, commuters, and sightseers intent on nothing more than the simple pleasures of crossing the water: feeding seagulls from the after deck, or watching dolphins off the bow.

Hurricane damage to the ferries and their landings was significant after the storm. Even the channels required dredging, filled as they were with sand and silt deposited by the surging water. The need to transport heavy equipment and emergency supplies to communities like Crystal Beach and Port Bolivar was primary. But in time, even before full service was restored, anyone could come along for the trip.

One day, a woman ahead of me in a grocery line mentioned to the checker that she’d made a special trip to Galveston to ride the ferry, I asked her why. “Because I could”, she said with a laugh. “It sure felt good.”

In the beginning, there was much that didn’t feel at all good. Twenty-foot-high piles of debris weren’t good, nor were the boats dry-docked in front yards and parking lots. Homes reduced to empty, concrete slabs evoked despair in families displaced without adequate temporary housing. The bureaucracies drove everyone crazy, and more than a few people became convinced their insurance adjusters, FEMA officials, or state insurance pool administrators were the devil incarnate.

But in time, the mountains of debris began to disappear. Waterways were cleared, and marina slips sounded. Shrimp boats began working the bay, and new fences appeared around yards. Young, wind-bent trees were straightened and staked, even as leaning and broken power poles were replaced, one by one. Though individuals continued to suffer, and suffer grievously, it became clear: for the communities of the upper Texas Coast, the time for relief efforts was over. The road to recovery had begun.

Portofino Harbor ~ September 15, 2008
Portofino Harbor ~ November 15, 2008

Shocked by the level of Ike’s destruction,  many people initially had despaired of recovery.

Entire neighborhoods had been wiped off the map. The Topwater Grill in San Leon was gone, as was the fishing fleet that supplied area restaurants. The Classic Cafe, Skipper’s Café, Okie’s Liquor, and Joe Lee’s restaurant were nothing but shells. Even Maribelle’s, an infamous waterfront bar with a history of dead bodies in the restrooms and live bodies competing for the title of “Miss Wharf Rat” was swept into the shallows of Galveston Bay.

But by November,  despite some small business closings, the Classic Cafe had reopened, the Topwater Grill announced plans to reopen, the shrimp boats were trawling, and regular progress reports were being posted throughout the area.

As restaurants began re-opening in Galveston, an important announcement was made. One of the Island’s traditional holiday events, Dickens on the Strand, would take place as usual, though events would be limited to daylight hours, partly to allow people to see the progress  being made toward restoration of the city’s justly famous historic district.

Even in small communities like San Leon, Bacliff, Crystal Beach, and High Island, restaurants and gas stations opened. High-end bed and breakfasts may have been traded for rows of mattresses with granola bars tucked under the pillows, but time and effort were stitching life back together.

Once basic services were restored, an unorganized but effective grass-roots economic recovery movement developed, as people began to put dollars available for hurricane relief back into the local economy.

Groups with regularly-scheduled luncheon meetings traveled to Galveston, and ate in the reopened restaurants.  People made a point of heading to the Island for weekend recreation, buying gas for their cars in the little towns along the way, or in Galveston itself. Needing something from the grocery, people patronized the smaller Mom-and-Pop stores that were trying to survive, rather than going to Target.

Now and then, someone would criticize the emphasis on reopened restaurants, bars, and shops by saying “That just benefits people with money to spend.” But no one heard the merchants or their employees saying that. Everyone knew what it took to get “back to business,” and what it took was customers and their money.

September 14, 2008
November 3, 2008

The weekend that Benno’s on the Seawall opened, a friend and I drove to Galveston for dinner. As we waited for our meal, the door opened again and again. Each time another customer stepped in, pure joy washed across the faces of the owners and staff. Customers meant dollars; dollars meant hiring; and hiring meant independence and stability.

As the owner said, “Don’t give me a thousand dollars. Eat in my dining room, and pay me ten dollars. While you’re bringing me that ten dollars, you’ll park your car out front, and other people will know I’m open. When you’ve finished a good meal, you’ll tell someone you enjoyed eating here, and I’ll have another customer. I don’t want a hand-out. I want business.”

Buying “local” has its costs, of course. For some months, gas was more expensive in Galveston. A sandwich there could be a dollar or two more than in Houston neighborhoods, and prices at the Mom-and-Pop stores certainly were higher than at Wal-Mart.

But as those businesses met their payroll and paid their suppliers, the entire community benefited. When it comes to recovery, cheaper isn’t always a bargain. Sometimes, more expensive has terrific side benefits for everyone in town. The businesses knew that, and they helped one another in every way they could.

Still, recovery is more than reopened businesses and rebuilt homes. A deeper recovery begins when people are able to take a breath, give a sigh, and finally sense the stirrings of new life.

In recovering communities, people talk about more than grief and loss. A woman whose home was damaged provided shelter for a homeless family — but also partied at the Renaissance Faire. A retiree whose fishing boat was carried away by the surge signed on with a demolition crew, worked sixty hour weeks, and returned to wade fishing at San Luis Pass. After days spent repairing the landscape around their church, a group of women stopped to exchange cuttings for home gardens yet to come. None had forgotten the storm, but they understood there is a time to move forward.

While water still surrounded piles of debris, confusion and a sense of helplessness were understandable. But in time, people began to say, “There’s still a lot to do, but we can do it. We got help. We were given a hand when we needed it. But now we can go on, and build on our own success.”

The Beached Whales Boat ~ Clear Lake Shores

By the time Thanksgiving arrived, holiday banners were flying in Kemah.  After services of Thanksgiving, dinners were served at community centers and schools around the area. In Dickinson, a woman whose home had been destroyed drove to Houston to serve Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless. In Bacliff, a couple living in an RV smoked turkeys and briskets for anyone who wanted to stop by.

Even in the midst of so much pain – even with houses swept out to sea, businesses destroyed, families separated, jobs lost, lives disrupted and dreams destroyed — much remained. Hope rose with each day’s sun, and fears ebbed away with the tide. Was a sofa sitting in a ditch at the base of the Kemah-Seabrook bridge? Did a dollhouse still wait to be plucked from a bed of seagrass? Was that a Mercedes buried in the beach sand, or a piece of pink planking washed up from Maribelle’s bar? By Thanksgiving, such oddities often went unnoticed and unremarked.

Instead, it was the signs of recovery that counted: literally as well as figuratively. One of my favorites, a row of plywood turkeys with surfboards, proudly proclaimed, “Thanks to Ike, We Finally Got Our House Cleaned.”

Other signs were less humorous, but more significant. A restaurant marquee posted the longed-for phrase, “Now Hiring.” Optimistic signs tucked into windows promised, “Open Soon.”  But best of all were the simple signs — hand-lettered or spray-painted, vibrant on fences or nearly hidden in debris — that invited celebration.

“Thanksgiving’s Coming,” said one. “Give Thanks for Whatever’s Left.”

Comments always are welcome. I’ll be traveling later this week, so my responses may be a little slow, but I will respond. In the meantime, a happy Thanksgiving to all.
Published in: on November 22, 2015 at 8:03 pm  Comments (49)  
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Let Us Now Praise Working Fools

In the beginning, I learned to call it “helping.” Helping wasn’t a burden, a demand, or an imposition. Helping was something people did naturally, and being allowed to help around the house was considered a perfectly acceptable way for children to enter the mysterious world of grown-ups.

Trailing behind my mother with a dust cloth, or venturing into the yard to carry bundles of sticks for my father garnered smiles of approval. I enjoyed approval, and so I looked for opportunities: cutting flowers to make the house pretty, or picking up my toys. I collected windfall apples in a bucket; pulled low-hanging cherries from trees;  set the table and dried the silverware; folded the wash cloths; put newspapers in their box. (more…)

This Reaching is Alive Yet

“July Fourth 1934” ~ J.C. Leyendecker

While it’s possible my mother saw J.C. Leyendecker’s cover illustration for the July 7, 1934 issue of The Saturday Evening Post, it’s certain that she celebrated that July 4th with her own mother.

It would have been one of the last celebrations they shared. In November of that year, my grandmother died: leaving my sixteen-year-old mother to care for three sisters, cope with the vicissitudes of life during the Great Depression, and bear what she perceived to be the shame of poverty.

She rarely talked about those years unless questioned. When I asked if she remembered anything from that last July 4th with her mother, she laughed and said, “I know there would have been watermelon!” (more…)

The Ghosts of Camels Past: From Winsome to Weird

Doug Baum & Gobi check out El Paso’s “Tumbleweed Times”

I suspect Mary Shirkey would have enjoyed meeting Doug Baum, founder of the Texas Camel Corps. Clearly, she would have enjoyed meeting Doug’s sidekick, Gobi: especially if they met during the camel’s seasonal shedding, when Gobi’s fine, undercoat hair could be collected.

Mrs. Shirkey seems to have had entrepreneurial tendencies, combined with a decent amount of chutzpah. In a letter written to Secretary of War Jefferson Davis from San Antonio on August 12, 1856, Henry Wayne, the U.S. Army Major charged with overseeing Davis’s Great Camel Experiment, described the results of his encounter with Mrs. Shirkey as the camels traveled from Indianola to Camp Verde.

Published in: on June 17, 2015 at 8:59 pm  Comments (72)  
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The Ghosts of Camels Past: From Tunisia to Texas

At the entrance to Old Camp Verde

North of Bandera Pass, the Texas hills soften, then flatten and spread into ranch land, orchards, and towns. Where the former Great Western Cattle Trail intersects Verde Creek Road, a turn to the east brings you to the parking lot of the Camp Verde General Store and Post Office: an establishment with a century and a half of history, an abundance of modern wares, and a significant commitment to retailing.

But if you turn west, away from the store, choosing instead to follow the narrow, two-lane road along the cypress-lined banks of Verde Creek itself, you’ll come to the ruins of the general store’s namesake: the original Camp Verde. Established in 1855 as headquarters for Jefferson Davis’s so-called “Great Camel Experiment,” the camp had a short but memorable run as the U.S. Army’s only North American caravansary.

Published in: on June 6, 2015 at 8:16 pm  Comments (92)  
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