Location: marengo, il, United States

Monday, December 13, 2004

The Sand Dollars

The wife and I talked about this trip for over a year. The romantic aspect of returning to visit Padre Island where we first met twenty years ago beckoned to us both, while our three boys showed a bigger interest in camping out near sand dunes, riding the surf of the Gulf of Mexico or combing spacious shorelines, looking for treasures that might wash ashore there daily. In fact, we all did.

They, these beach-poor children of mine, had listened to all of our tales that we told them as they grew, and of my times spent there and their mother’s chance meeting of the sun-bronzed beach bum she eventually married. To sleep once more under a Texas sky, to trudge slick-washed beaches barefoot and hold hands again, to climb and hurl oneself down huge wind-swept dunes piled high by steady ocean breezes, or to possibly catch the elusive scallop and later steam a batch of the tasty morsels over a blazing sparking campfire encouraged everyone to help scrape enough money together to finally realize this dream.

The timing of events came together perfectly. Joel had enlisted in the Air Force the month before. His basic training got underway at the end of June while Ali’s summer break from school began on the first of the month. Our anniversary fell on the fourth, so I scheduled myself off the calendar for three weeks, leaving plenty of time for us to drive from Chicago and back without rushing.

Then Alma called. That kid sister of mine is a nut for anything involved with the beach, so she got an invite to join our fun. Then her eldest son James and his new girl friend heard about it. One of her daughters had a few days to spare, so she volunteered to come along too. Shaking my head at the prospect of fitting everyone plus luggage and tent and coolers and bedrolls inside our seven-passenger van, we nonetheless got underway in due time. Things will work out; they usually do somehow.

It takes two days to drive down to East Texas. Outside of Nacogdoches a neon sign reads “Alligator Annie’s”. Our van pulled off the main highway there to climb up a washed-out rut of a driveway that leads to my sister’s piece of property.

The place almost resembles a giant Monopoly board, complete with live animals. One large tin-roofed house sets among a stand of tall conifers, while spaced apart in her grass-and-sand backyard set several other dwellings of differing shapes and sizes. Cats and dogs run free, or lounge in the sun. A prissy tiny long-haired thing greets us with mighty yaps and a slobbery dog-grin while we spill out of the van and stretch before going inside. But then Alma shoots out the back door to greet us half-way, and we all stand in the shade of her pines and hug. Soon after a round of her sweet iced tea, James and Tracie arrive in his pickup truck.

“Howdy, Ma. Hey, Uncle Hess. Hi, Aunt Alicia. This is Tracie, ya’ll. Good grief, look at your kids! Man, they got big, didn’t they?”

We unfold maps, gauge routes and catch up on the latest news while the boys search for lizards. David takes to the dog, Swamp Baby, and Swamp Baby bites him a few respectful times. Somehow they cope.

“Anyone have to pee before we leave?”

Alma pulls her door shut and locks it. After telling her animals to keep an eye on the place, she says to me,

“We have to stop in town first. I need to sign some papers at my bank before we take off. It won’t take long, I promise.

She gives me a helpless look as I envision another little house arriving here in the near future, riding on the back of a large trailer. She has history, this short sister of mine. But my spirit raises as she mentions two more things.

“You follow my truck into town, and then we can stop at Whataburger right after I’m done. We can drop by and pick up Susan last.”

Oh, the smile on her face. Man, and the smile on mine.

Not only is the passenger problem suddenly and tactfully dealt with, but I am promised another fat Whataburger, my second one for the day. Now if a reader has never eaten one of these things, I would be forced to recommend a visit to the inner borders of Texas for just that reason. It cannot be justified here with any type of words that I have ever owned, so I won’t even try. I only mention it now to torture my over-wrought taste buds, who themselves are kindly returning the torment. Let’s move on.

We bumped down the hill behind her red truck. A green one bounced after us with James at the wheel. Tracie waved to one of the boys in the back seat as our caravan then picked up speed on the main highway, heading due south.

Texas is huge. Texas is too damn big, actually. It can’t be driven across in one day, and for two, the trip has to be driven fast and forever. We set an easy goal to reach Galveston late in the evening of that day, which put us half-way to Padre Island. A motel for the night sounded reasonable. James wanted Tracie to at least see Galveston Island before they headed back the next morning, while we planned to continue down the coast to Corpus Christi for the second leg of our journey.

He never counted on getting busted.

After a big meal in Galveston, the group gathered around an outdoor pool where we passed the evening lounging and watching all the fun. Later he excused himself and Tracie, saying he had a spot down by one of the docks he wanted to show her. The moon down there is brilliant, he claimed, as we all winked and hooted at them both.

The next morning, after checking out and over breakfast, he recounted how they had slowly cruised the wharf area, searching for a place he remembered from summers ago, when a patrol car passed them going the other way. James saw the brake lights go on, but the black-and-white turned a corner and disappeared from sight behind a warehouse. Feeling uneasy, he told Tracie maybe it’s time to just leave, when the car suddenly appeared behind him again. Emergency lights flashed for a moment, and then stopped.

“Oh, boy.”

The officer, looking the part of a lean Texas Ranger, bent over and stared inside at the couple, and then he asked from behind mirrored sunglasses,

“What ya’ll doing down here?”

James usually slants to his right when he drives, with his left hand on the wheel. He turned and replied to the officer,


The man stood up some and shot back,

“You’re what?”

James gave the man a doe-eyed innocent look.

“We’re just piddling, officer.”

The officer stood up straight and adjusted his glasses, giving the truck a once-over.

“Well, you can’t be piddling down here. I suggest you move it on out and find you somewhere else to piddle.”

“Yes sir.”

“And don’t let me catch you down here again. You got that, son?”

“Yes sir. We were just leaving, anyway.”

Tracie almost wet her pants, trying not to laugh.

From our booth we could see the ocean across the highway and the kids began getting antsy, so we hurried through our breakfast, paid the bill and prepared to go search for a good spot to let them get their feet wet for the first time. The wind had picked up during the meal; outside we walked to our vehicles as flagpole halyards beat snappy rhythms to hurry us along.

“Piddling weather,” James yelled, as he opened Tracie’s door.

Some miles farther south Alma made a sharp turn onto a shell-encrusted road and stopped. Doors flew opened and there went the boys, running head-long for the surf with their mom and her red basket of towels not far behind. Alma and Susan, and then James and Tracie trailed along, leaving me by myself for a moment.

Texas may be big, but it isn’t all that crowded, so I stood outside next to the van with the driver’s door open, and slipped out of my jeans and into a swimsuit before another car came along. I stepped back into my flip-flops to avoid the burning sand, and then walked the short distance to where the pounding waves rumbled.

Leaving the roadway with its miles of scrub grass on either side, I stepped out of my shoes, leaving them in a safe place. Then before me I saw a band of yellow-brown seaweed. It meandered up the beach to my left for as far as the eye could see. To the right lay the lumpy ribbon as well, stretching to infinity. I could barely hear the squeals of David over the strong breeze as Eli chased him along the water’s edge, throwing gobs of wet sand at his smaller sibling.

The weed felt pleasantly rubbery as I crossed, and then I had to stick out my tongue as Alma yelled from behind her camera,

“Smile for me, brother!”

“How disgusting is this? There must be tons of this stuff here. And see how far it goes?”

The waves deposit things on the beach. This day’s smelly load was just another in a line of odd things seen, so we grumbled about it while the kids joyously learned the taste of the sea. After a half-hour of high wind and salt-coated glasses, we gathered up sandy towels, collected our sand-filled shoes, swapped a few more laughs with our relatives before they drove north, and then our small band took the southern route for Padre.

Men don’t need maps, so I got us lost a few times. I can’t understand how they can change a simple road to make it go in unseemly directions at times, nor can my wife understand why I won’t listen to her telling me it’s “that way”, so I suppose we are even on that deal.

After stopping in Corpus to buy more needful items, and after an hour of finding the moved stores to buy such items, and after complaining about the crazy city planners gone mad since my last time in this fair town, we arrived.

Padre Island. Far away from humanity. Beyond the bounds of crowded insanity. Sparse of humans, miles of emptiness, owned by the laughing gull and home to the wind. Be quiet, children. For we are about to enter paradise.

To be continued


Blogger James said...

James/The Piddler yes that would be me. Impressed with the recollection of our trip cept you forgot one of the funnier stops. Remember the little shade tree mechanic that had worked on Mom's truck the year or two before. She/we had to stop and say thanks again for rescuing her from evils and sending her back home safely. Do you not remember the black hole store? Where a few of our crew had went inside to look....only to never return. Then a couple more of us decided to check on them....then we never returned. You were scratching your head trying to decide if YOU should venture into the BLACK HOLE(people go in , but never come back out)when we ALL exited the unique store laughing about the what-all we had visioned inside.

Tracie and I had a GREAT time exploring the island. The Moody Garden was impessive.

Tracie now sees why YOU are such a special person to US ALL! She was amazed by your guitar and story telling abilities.

You always painted great stuff on canvas. Now you are doing it with your words!

Hope we manage that canoe trip this spring. We NEED to do this soon!!


7:27 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

ACK! A critic!

7:37 AM  
Blogger Hannah said...

Ok, I want a whattaburger (whatever it might be).

Once again, the master storyteller pulls all the stops, and plonks me right in the middle of his tale.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Gone Away said...

There are TWO Whattaburgers in Lawton... :D

8:26 AM  
Blogger bumpy_beth said...

Oh man, yall had to say whattaburger didnt you??? Do you know how far i will have to drive now to get one of those??

Also, love your stories.. Its an inspiration for me. I hope that my marriage will last like that... and that we will be able to look back on it the way you do.

Also.... hello, im not as smart, but read mine, lol...

10:56 AM  
Blogger Jay said...

If you think driving across Texas is long, you should try it up here in Canada. Most of our provinces take 3 or 4 days of driving to cross, and none of it is too populated not to change out in the open...though this time of the year, we're putting on snowpants instead of swimsuits...bleck.
Great story, you have an amazing eye for detail. Was the 'romantic aspect' lost at all by bringing that many people with you? I guess we'll find out in the next installment...

2:42 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

Hannah why would you want this horrid thing dad thinks is so wonderful? lol And yall it's spelled Whataburger lol... Only one T... But, Dad brovo... I wondered about that trip...

4:13 PM  
Blogger Erin said...

One more thing... Gone I thought you were in England or something like that...

4:14 PM  
Blogger James said...

Just for the record....Tracie and I had a #1 Whataburger w/ cheese today in honor of YOU and your stories.
I had a order of fries ,she the onion rings.
The meat was nice and hot of coarse melting the cheese onto the toasted bun. Mayo,mustard,lettuce,tomato,pickles,and onion.
I had it with everything on it(the way you liked em)
plus a L A R G E choc. shake that was Soooooo thick I needed a spoon instead of a straw.

I hope you enjoyed them!

Why am I thinking I'm going to get a virus soon from Harry???? sorry bro!

6:42 PM  
Blogger Gone Away said...

I WAS in England Erin - but now I'm learning to be an Okie. ;)

7:04 PM  

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