Monday, May 21, 2007

The Country Highways

Four trips to Dallas this month ...

On the first of these trips, I wanted to reach Dallas as soon as possible, so I didn't take my usual back-country route. Instead, I took I-35 to save 30 minutes. It was the usual, nerve-wracking journey you expect on I-35, but it was fast. I made it to Dallas in exactly three hours. The next day I again took I-35. I made good time till I reached Temple. Then traffic slowed to a crawl, due to a multi-car pile-up. As a result, I lost the 30 minutes I might have gained, and then some. So I swore never again. Never again would I travel I-35, the Highway of the Damned.

On my second trip to Dallas (this time accompanied by my wife), I took the country highways from Austin to I-45 (a freeway not nearly as intense as 35). It was a great drive, very relaxing, with better scenary than usual due to the recent drought-ending rains: great expanses of grass filled with wildflowers, lush green cornfields, trees thick with leaves, cattle, horses, goats, even a few llamas, and the red-brown Brazos and Navasota rivers running fast and high in the sun. And the towns—Taylor, Thorndale, Thrall, Milano, Rockdale, Hearne, Calvert, Kosse, Groesbeck, Mexia, Richland—with their frame houses, 19th century brick downtowns, courthouses, gas stations, railroad yards, schools, football fields, churches, VFW halls, cemeteries, and Bar-B-Q stands.

Your food choices are better on these roads. You see the same fast-food places that line the Interstates—McDonalds, Taco Bell, and so forth—but not as many, and you see more locally-owned, mom-and-pop places. You can spot the better places by the number of cars in the parking lot at mealtime, especially the number of cop cars. There were four DPS cars packed in with all the other cars in the parking lot of Zapata's in Taylor one morning, so we knew it must be good. Inside, it was busy and noisy, the waitresses were friendly and kept your coffee cup full, the migas were tasty, and the salsa hot as Hades. Just the way you want a Mexican breakfast. On the return trip through Mexia, we lined up for the lunch buffet at the Drilling Rig, where western movie lobby cards hang on the rustic walls and the tv stays tuned to the Weather Channel. We greatly enjoyed the filet mignon, also the peach cobbler. Every time we travel these roads, we discover new eateries, locally owned places with better food than you could ever find at the big-name places on the Interstates.

On two of our recent trips back from Dallas, we stopped at a fruit-and-vegetable stand on the east side of Rockdale. The old lady heard us drive up and came out of her trailer house. We bought a watermelon and tomatoes from her the first time, and the second time another watermelon and a dozen fresh eggs from the farm next door. Both times, we spent no more than four dollars, money kept out of corporate hands.

The speed limit is 70 on these roads, till you reach a town, where it drops to 55, then 30. It’s easy to forget and keep going 70, especially if the town is miniscule. I forgot to slow down in one of these towns on the return trip last Thursday, and—whoops!—there he was in my rearview mirror, the DPS trooper with his flashing lights. I pulled over, feeling sick. "Just what I need," I said, "a speeding ticket."

“Where you been?” the young trooper asked as he took my driver’s license.

“Been up to Dallas. Now we’re headed back to Austin. Been dealing with a death in the family.”

“Sorry to hear that. I’ll just give you a warning.”

I thanked him, he wrote out the warning, and we wished each other a good day.

And it really was a good day, all things considered. My heart was heavy with the loss of my father, but we were in the country with the wildflowers, and the red-brown Brazos and Navosota were brimming, and the cornfields and pastures, green from the rains, stretched towards home …

Next week we return to Dallas, for my father's memorial service on Tuesday, May 29, 1 pm, at the Columbarium at the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.

Written Long Ago

In my earliest memory of my father, he is carrying me into the Galveston surf. I am afraid of the waves. One wave splashes into my nose. I start crying. My father laughs and carries me back to shore, back to my mother and my shovel and pail. He is young and broad-shouldered, and ahead of him lie more than 50 years of life … more than 50 years of memories that come back now … following him around while he did yard work … riding with him in the blue white-topped Ford … watching him carry my stolen tricycle back to me in the orange sunlight … jumping off the Greyhound bus into his arms, my grandmother and the bus driver laughed … asking him to lift me up one more time to see his father in the casket … fishing trips on the Brazos, looking up at the stars while he explained time and the speed of light … in his newspaper office, he would staple together sheets of yellow paper for me to draw my own comic books … the day after Kennedy was killed, our drive to Dallas … helping him deliver papers in the pre-dawn hours … the night of the big flood, we were up all night covering the story … the road trip to Colorado … the day the prisoner escaped from jail … the time he yelled at me because I couldn’t work the clutch … the night the newspaper office burned … our fishing trip to the Coast in ‘72 … his struggle with alcoholism … the years of my bitterness … angry words … the weeks after my wife left, taking the car with her, he stayed with me so I could use his car … the phone calls, the jokes he told … my new wife and I visiting him in Garland … his small garden … his failing health, the wheelchair … last Christmas when we sat up late talking while the rain pattered outside … so many memories, so many more … the final memories, his cold hand gripping mine and shaking it to let me know he heard and understood … the day he died, after struggling so hard to breathe, suddenly he was still, and I knew this day had been written long ago … that, on the day he carried me into the surf, it had already been written … and that these days too, the first days of a life without him, these days too were written long ago …