I stop off in Missouri City, a bland suburb southwest of Houston, to visit my ex-highschool sweetheart. The timing couldn’t have been better…I meet Joyce at her real estate office just before noon, and find out she’s already made plans to “do lunch” with her three sons (ages 21 to 30). I had not seen the four of them together since the mid-1970s, when her boys were little tykes. It was almost like a planned “reunion”, but our luncheon gathering couldn’t have been more relaxed and spontaneous. Amidst all the jocular interfacing, I could perceive a strong bond these three sons had with Mom Joyce. As she confided with me later, her boys like to be around in order to “look after” her. There’s some sort of sweetness rolled up into that protectionism. They just don’t want Mom to be duped by some high-rollin’ Houston con man, that’s all. Getting back to the lunch hour, I couldn’t resist recalling the “date” that Joyce and I had at our 30th highschool reunion in 1986. I called on my lady friend at her parent’s house, and there was Henry and Bernice, looking the same as they did thirty years ago. Sure, they had aged over that span of time, but their facial features were still as familiar as I remembered them. It was uncanny, but that wasn’t the last blast from the past. As Joyce and I were departing, there was Bernice, standing at the doorway with her all-too-familiar admonition: “Now, you two don’t stay out too late, you hear?” I was rolling my eyes and gritting my teeth to keep from guffawing all the way down the sidewalk. Joyce’s youngest son, Dan, who had come up with her, followed us to the car. I’ll never forget his astonishment as he remarked: “Mr. Early, how could you put up with that while you were dating my Mom?” I just turned to Dan and said “She was worth every minute of it”. He acknowledged me with a simple understanding smile. Those are the unforgettable moments. As I’m telling this story, Dan is laughing uncontrollably, without a hint of his irreversible disease. Joyce had told me earlier that he was succumbing to cancer, yet here he was, full of life and vigor, as if there was no end to his enjoyment of being alive. Several droplets of joy and sadness rolled down my cheeks. Dan died a year later, and I’m sure he’s still smiling from up there. I say goodbye to this beautiful foursome, a little drained emotionally, but still feeling so fortunate to having spent several precious hours with such a loving and respectful family. As I’m wending my way to I-10, I suddenly realize that I can disparage where people live all 1 want, but it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when it comes down to who these people are, and what they mean to me.
I elevate myself onto I-10 which soon merges with Loop 610, as I head east towards I-45. I am a captive in the incessant flow on five lanes of concrete, looking down on America the Ugly. What a stark contrast to the leisurely rambling into and out of the small county seat capitals on tranquil two-lane highways. The freeways accentuate the antithesis of traveling on the old roads – there are no shortcuts to anyplace worth going. Looking back on all those hundreds and hundreds of miles of photo-trips throughout Texas, undoubtedly the high point of each journey was the anticipation of arrival at the next town. It was the sensation of discovery, peering through trees and over rooftops as I passed the city limit sign. Then there was the ubiquitous water tower with the high school’s logo of their mascot plastered all over its belly. And all of a sudden, the courthouse clock tower appears over the low-scale downtown buildings. I don’t mind tellin’ ya’, it always gave me a rush. Anyway, the midday traffic is running smoothly, so I can comfortably gaze out over the infinite urban sprawl, interrupted here and there by distant concentrations of skyscrapers (there’s downtown and then there’s satellite cities). Fifty years ago, Houston was a slow-paced, civilized mid-sized city. Air-conditioning and freeways changed all that into the metromess that it is today. After what seems like an interminable stretch of driving, I finally reach the turnoff to the Gulf Freeway and head south to Seabrook. Halfway to Galveston, I miraculously find the right exit, which just so happens to have a very handy Holiday Inn right down the street. Ah yes, my good ol’ reliable convenience stop, where I can use an indoor public telephone and, if the timing is right (in this case, it was), be sated with happy hour hors d’oeuvres. I’m really looking forward to visiting Doug and Sue Ward, who live in the vicinity. Sue is my son Ted’s mother, an appellation I prefer rather than ex-wife (we were married for only five months, for the sake of Ted being born in wedlock). Sue and I have been corresponding more than ever over the past years, and a close friendship has evolved through our communiqués with each other. I try for several hours to reach the Ward residence, but to no avail. Disappointedly, I retire to the back parking lot for a night’s sleep in Ol’Blue.