So, here’s the set-up. It’s Friday Night in the small East Texas town of Kountze. And Friday Night means football. It’s fall, 2012. The Kountze Tigers suit up and when the time comes they charge through the opening in the back of a large inflatable football helmet. They are led by a player carrying a flag that reads: “I can do all things through CHRIST who strengthens me. Ph 4:13.”
To the cheers of the crowd, of the pompom waving cheerleaders, and of the jumping tiger-pajammaed mascot, the team bursts through a larger banner stretched across the front of the inflatable helmet and continues its charge to midfield. The ruined remains of the banner, which had a snippet of Hebrew 12:1 written across it, “and let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us,” are quickly removed from the field.
Was Paul exhorting his listeners to use Christ to become better football players? Would the author of Hebrews have seen the Kountze Tigers’ shredded banner as an appropriate expression of Christian faith? The jokes are too easy; neither one opens up the mystery of why Kountze–Kounze! of all places–is suddenly in the national news. A tiny town of 2,000 on the edge of East Texas’ Big Thicket, Kountze is aptly described as being in the middle of what used to be known as nowhere. But, in the Internet Age, there is no longer a nowhere. Once the visuals made it to the web, all the ingredients were there for a mix and stir made for the media flash in the pan: Christian advocacy, high school football, public education, those earnest young women with all that spirit, faith, and spunk packed into those adolescent bodies.
While lawyers have argued over whether or not the cheerleaders’ use of these banners is protected free speech, (currently, the ruling is that it is), the Kountze Tigers have played on. At this particular game, the cheerleaders, with bandaids marked “Ph 4:13″ beneath each eye, made sure that chapter and verse were on display all night long as they high kicked, flipped, and danced their way through the game.
I wonder what they’ll think of all of this once the media attention has moved on and life in Kountze returns to normal.
As it happens, I was in Kountze this past summer, months before the cheerleaders put the town on the front page of the New York Times. I had not originally planned on going to Kountze, but I needed a break from leafing through hundreds of photos in the Museum of the Gulf Coast’s archive down in Port Arthur, so I drove into the Thicket with the vaguely formed idea that, in doing so, I’d be able to place a violent memory that has haunted me for over four decades. I’ve long known the year of the memory–it was the summer of 1969–because one of the memory’s clearer strands has me sitting on a couch with my siblings watching, as if through the cloudy filter of a cataract, the milky movements of Neil Armstrong. And I know, in a general sense, that the event I remember took place somewhere in East Texas, because my siblings and I all recall my father having driven us from Florida to the house in Texas where the myopic tv reported the unthinkable news that NASA had just put a man on the moon. So, doing the math, I know the memory comes sometime shortly after I turned eight.
I don’t remember much beyond that–only heat radiating off the parking lot outside a Western Auto store and a toy someone bought for us. A wheeled contraption with orange paddles for your feet. We’d take turns standing on the paddles, trying to coordinate a peddling motion that would translate into movement. As long as you could keep moving, the toy was yours.
Until I started reading my father’s correspondence this summer, I couldn’t have told you where we were or how long we were there. And when I learned that we had, in fact, spent a month in East Texas in 1969, I was baffled. Where did that time go? What did we do for four weeks? I ask my siblings and it’s like we have collective amnesia. We devolve to the reptilian. It was hot; it was Texas; it was July, 1969.
We all remember the last day of the visit or the stay or whatever it was. We had made the trip to help dad’s aging Aunt Kate move to San Diego to live with Cousin Ray, who was already caring for two of the other aged aunts (there were seven in all). This was a labor of love Cousin Ray could afford thanks to his having had the good fortune of buying a plot of oil-rich land outside San Diego after returning from the war.
This is my version of what happened. It came back to me when I was in graduate school. I had started writing poetry again, after a long hiatus, inspired by a vibrant community of friends and artists and artist-friends. Effing in ineffable, we called it. I’d been poking around in my own past, in my family’s past, doing work that is probably fairly described as therapeutic. “Moving Aunt Kate” was part of that project:
I can see his marvelously olive hands
pause in their pruning,
the roses jumping idly before him.
At the sound of the screen door being kicked open,
he squints, trying to get his eyes to focus
in the blasting sunlight, but my father,
under his straw hat, can’t tell
I am the looming shadow in the doorway.
He returns to his work in the yard.
I stand there, watching,
just as Aunt Kate stood in that other doorway
so many years ago, saying to herself:
I can’t I can’t I just can’t follow you.
Not here. Not step foot out of this house.
I cannot, will not,
to be made to participate.
Not in this.
While the men make trips back and forth,
moving through each room of the shattered structure,
out to the back porch, and on to the bonfire,
she runs her fingers across the mantle,
finds and traces the outline of her husband’s badge
framed and resting in a bed of bluish velvet
discolored by the years of uneven light;
she feels the cracked spine of her Bible,
a four leaf clover, an obituary on every page.
Surely this they will not burn.
The men, the children: we all
move around her. She sits on her damp bedspread,
looking into boxes full of broaches,
studying the purple light trapped inside,
a light unprotected by carbon under the constant force
of the pressure of the weight of all time.
She sits and waits
with all the days she has had
and all those that are ahead
frozen in clear paste.
Aunt Kate, we’re burning you alive,
we’re emptying your closets,
hauling the rustling bundles of Sunday finery,
the tattered around-the-house frocks,
the shopping and the mourning attire,
the coat hangers
the hats in their hat boxes.
We’re taking it all,
the clatter and the commotion,
while you watch the two little boys in the backyard
feed item after item into the fire,
laughing as they roast your possessions alive,
“Hot shoes. Hot shoes for sale, get’em while they’re hot.”
Aunt Kate we’re burning you out of us. We are two little boys and it’s only a fire. And the men,
they just keep coming and coming and we don’t want them to stop. It’s going to take us all afternoon to cook
everything in this house and you are being rooted out, your haunted face peering through the
kitchen windows, watching the smoke climb through the trees, your gray hands folded together.
But this is Texas not that other place.
And it’s 1969. Not that other time.
I know because out of the black and white shadows
flashing on the screen we discerned men walking on the moon,
stomping around in the dust,
a six minute delay between what they said and what we heard.
We are sitting on the furniture that can be sold,
eating potato chips and drinking pop,
having a good time helping Aunt Kate make the move
as she wanders room to room
tracing patterns in the dust,
her silence lost beneath the shouts
of excited children
wishing there were more to burn.
I’ve got to walk away now.
I know she was packed into a cadillac
by a loving relative
who cut a huge arc, a rainbow in the red Texas landscape,
moving out of the front yard, away from the house,
and on to the silent interstate.
And I know that we piled into the family wagon
and pulled off in the other direction
never to see you again.
And I know, eventually,
(it must have been years later) the phone rang
and he didn’t say a word.
Just placed the receiver in the cradle
and returned to his dinner.
and that when we finally moved,
up in his closet, lost behind the suitcases,
we found a brown paper bag
on which he had written
in a broad green El Marco script:
We were afraid to work the staples free,
afraid of what might be inside,
afraid even to shake the bag
and guess at the contents.
Left to herself
in the corner of the closet,
Aunt Kate didn’t make the move.
I headed up to Kountze with the half-formed thought that I’d be able to find Aunt Kate’s house just by using my memories and my own inner compass. Admittedly, the journey didn’t have much likelihood of succeeding. Driving up and down streets hoping that there’d be some environmental trigger that would provide a frame for my memories of the visit in 1969? That’s the best you’ve got?
But it could’ve worked. Kountze is a small town; it doesn’t show signs of having changed all that much over the intervening decades; and I have had moments over the course of my life when an ambient spatial sense has suddenly locked in for me and, instead of an infinite number of options presenting themselves, there’s only been a tunnel leading, through twists and turns, to the half-remembered destination. (One of my siblings has, according to family lore, “a photographic memory of things that never happened.” My own hazy, on again, off again, felt-sense of a connection between memory and place is, doubtless, a lineal descendent of my sibling’s seventh sense.)
And sure enough, when I got to town, I felt something when I drove past the Family Dollar on Pine Street, Kountze’s main drag. The light. The parking lot. The shape of the Family Dollar’s facade. Was this previously a Western Auto? The Western Auto? The parking lot?
No, it was just a false memory, the manifestation of a urge for connection. How do I know this? Subsequent research in my father’s correspondence makes it clear that we didn’t stay at Aunt Kate’s house or in Kountze, itself, in July. I don’t know yet where we stayed, but I will. I just have to keep working my way through my father’s files, my father’s memories.
A small point, you say? I’ve barely begun this journey and I’m already in the thicket?
Here’s how my father’s memory worked. This comes from a longer description of a period in 1934 when circumstances drove him, his mother, and his grandfather to leave Port Arthur to live in a log cabin in Buna, another small town some twenty miles east of Kountze. (Neither Kountze nor Buna appear in the 1930s census; in the 2000 census, both towns had fewer than 2300 residents.)
Buna was located on the endge of The Big Thicket.
As we advanced [across a field to their new home], the cluster of buildings separated into a little one-room log house, the house which had a chimney of clay-daubed sticks, an outhouse, a tool house, and a big barn.
(26 October 1990) I somehow got the impresseion then and there or, perhaps, later on [with] further acquaintance with our latest home that it was in looks and vintage like the cabin in which Abraham Lincoln was born. Later, I remembered the move as one back in time “more than a hundred years.”
I’m not certain how we got settled in–in a light rain, I do remember, so that a fire in the fireplace was cheering and my mother soon had water boiling for coffee on the kitchen stove. The furniture got taken in and beds set up.
One of my grandfather’s mules was ailing under heavy gnat attacks. My grandfather put him in the barn and put smoke pots of somekind to keep off the gnats, which they did not. My grandfather said it the animal lay down, that was the end, and he kept urging it to stand. However, it stood without shaking its tail of flapping its ears, slood passively. The next time I looked in, the mule way lying down and my grandfather sitting with a look of despair on his face. And so the first day and part of the night was impinged upon by the mule’s dying. Later, as I looked back
(27 October 1990) Turns out that “later, as I looked back . . .” may be a permanent cliff hanger. Since I can’t remember the rest of it, it was certainly not memorable, but as a cliff hanger . . .
Well, anyway, now, as I look back, I think my grandfather was trying to keep some of the past alive through trying to keep the animal alive. I can’t remember what happened to the carcass, but I believe a neighbor (the only one for miles around) who had pulled Uncle Chappy’s car out of the mud with a team of horses, returned the following day and hauled the mule away.
This move to Buna took place when my dad was ten. He’s recalling it more than fifty-five years later.
Driving around didn’t exactly get me nowhere: I did find the Kountze public library, which had an open port to a trove of newspaper archives, and I also stopped in at the Hardin County Genealogical Society’s headquarters. A converted one room chapel, the rows of pews still in place, and two older folks who, despite our mutual best efforts, couldn’t quite get a handle on what I was looking for. A street map of Kountze from 1969? A phone book? Every idea I had was an instant dead end.
After I’d thanked them for bearing with me and was heading for the door, I passed a stack of crumbling newspapers, tongues of more recent paper at intervals sticking out, sequentially marking off the years. Improbably, I was granted permission to leaf through the collection, the yellowed paper fragile in my hands.
Here’s a snippet from the front page of the weekly Kountze News the week after the moon landing:
The snakes, apparently, were not happy with the moonwalk and were “on the prowl for something to gnaw on.”
I read the death notices. I looked for real estate news. Yards sales. Unsystematic. Haphazard. But there was no magic discovery. That would take more time.
There are two constants in the memoir my father composed at my request: moving (at least a dozen different addresses before he was twelve) and travails at school. The second constant guaranteed by the first: always the new kid, always making his way through the perilous, unforgiving world of the young. Every perceived difference an opportunity for embarrassment, humiliation, shame.
Buna was a particularly bleak moment in the family’s history. The configurations of the “family” changed with every move, with cells breaking off, then returning–as long as the addresses stayed in Port Arthur. But way out in Buna, there was just the family’s nucleus: my father, his mother, and her father. It’s not clear if Mae Coles, who was calling herself Mae Miller by this time, had anyway to make money out at the cabin. It seems likely not and that the family depended on the other Coles’ offspring to bring food and cash to keep Mae, her father, and her son alive.
There’s nothing ennobling about poverty, no catalogue of insights that the repeated experience of hunger delivers. Out at Buna, these three people weren’t members of the working class; they weren’t the working poor; they were three generations of dirt poor at the furthest edge of their collective desperation.
Here’s what the trip to school involved:
I was to go to the bus stop with Elfert–Viola no longer went to school. I had to get up before daylight. And it wasn’t daylight before I had to face ordeal of the bridge over the slough. My mother walked down to the bridge with me and would sometimes insist on crossing just ahead of me, holding a flashlight, or she would walk out always holding the light so that I could see. I crossed that strangest of all bridges [described earlier as "a lone-plank wide walk with a single handrail. Since the planks were wobbly and the handrail feeble, crossing was rather like tight-rope walking, not that I have ever done it. I suppose crossing was, also, rather like walking on stilts through the mud."] in the fog and in the rain and in moonlight bright as day, but I never got used to it and I never crossed unafraid. When I got across, I’d call back to my mother than I was safe.
That was only the first obstacle, the beginning of the daily fear. To get to the front gate of our neighbors, I had to pass through the barnyard. There was gigantic (or so it seemed to be) rusty farm machinery sitting and lying about, harrows with spikes and some sort of vast metal column of what looked like circular spears. If the moon was up, I had no problem finding the path, but in the dark, mist and fog, rain, I was afraid of falling on some piece of machinery or having it fall on me in a medieval way, finishing me off. The family had a yardful of hounds–the yard was a little dust bowl, not a blade of grass growing. Every morning, the dogs started howling and yelping as soon as I got across the bridge, the noise getting louder and louder as I approached the gate. Every morning someone came out and yelled at the gofs and to me, “They ain’t going to hurt you. They just like to make a racket.” Nevertheless, I waited outside the gate until someone, grumbling, came and got me.
. . . Elfert’s mother made a couple of biscuit and bacon sandwiches, wrapped them in newspaper or brown bag paper, and put them in a bag–his lunch. Elfert was not fond of school, and more or less had to be driven from the house, feigned or real illness not sufficing as an excuse for staying on. I was always frightened to death that his mother would keep him at home and I’d have to find my way to the creek and paddle myself across [alone].
The bus stop was at “the highway” and the way to the stop was a trail that wound around like a maze to a wide creek full of vast cypress trees. The creek had to be crossed in a row boat. The boat leaked and had to be bailed before we took off (my job) and then as Elfert paddled. When we reached the far side, the boat had to be tied up, the paddle and the lantern “hidden.”
The wood was full of strange noise and the calls of birds, the croaking of frogs, the hooting of owls. More than once the lantern light fell on glittering jewel eyes glaring at us. There were snakes in the creek, among others, water moccasins, and the sight of them wriggling along made me tremble with fear.
Needless to say, we always arrived at the bus stop damp, if not always, wet and sometimes soaked. There was always dew, often mist, sometimes fog, and sometimes rain. The rowboat could leave one with wet feet and a wet bottom.
Back in Port Arthur, I spend an evening at the public library, and turn up another piece of this borderless puzzle:
I have no memory of my father ever mentioning his mother directly. I knew–his four kids, his wife, we all knew–that his unpublished novel, The One Best Alternative, about a young man who must return from college to take care of his increasingly disoriented mother, was semi- if not entirely auto-biographical, but there was no telling where the facts became fiction. The fictional mother had a husband, which we knew was fictional, since we knew somehow that our father had never met his father. The fictional mother ends up in a mental hospital, where she dies, her final act turning her head away from her grieving son. Where did fact become fiction in this scene? Was he really there when she died? Did she really turn her head away?
These are not questions one could ask while my father was alive. But the answers to these questions could well be somewhere in the thousands of pages he left behind.
This is a piece of my current memory project, Archiving the Archivist. The project is introduced here.
Banner images of the Kountze Tigers come from an excellent spread in the Beaumont Enterprise.
The image of the Kountze cheerleaders comes from the NYT.