South Padre Island

Editor’s note: Yes, there’s life out here in the shabbier reaches of what one honest-to-goodness writer likes to call the docks of Blogistan. It’s not robust, I’ll grant you. But there’s a pulse.
As we begin to think about beginning to prepare to hit the road again in the next 10 days or so, I’ll pick up the narrative in south Texas, where it sits in tatters on the side of the road awaiting a good blow out of the Gulf of Mexico to scatter it once and for all.

I sit here in the Paoli branch of the International House of Bitterness, listening to “Moondance” and thinking about cold Friday nights in early March when I’d accompany my mom to the train station to retrieve my dad at the end of another soul-crushing week of work in the financial mines. When my old man stepped off the train, my mom would slide deferentially into the passenger seat for the 3-minute return trip. We’d soon traverse the little bridge that arcs high above the tracks on South Valley Road. A yawning blind spot on this humble span always elicited a kind of faith in your fellow man, or at least a faith in civil engineers. Soon were were safe at home, where my dad would pour himself a stiff drink and get the coals burning for steak night.
We were good WASPs, after all. No fried fish on Friday for us.
Only later, when I became a fellow traveler on the road to vegetarianism, did I realize cooking a steak medium-well was tantamount to rendering it into footwear suitable for a winter’s march to Moscow.

No wonder my hippocampus finds a portal to a long, lost childhood in the aroma of A-1 sauce mingling with burning flesh.
Them was the days.


Dec. 11 – Having paid our respects to the fallen heroes of Palo Alto, we drive through Los Fresnos and on to Port Isabel, from which Zachary Taylor’s troops departed on May 7, 1846. We take the bridge across to South Padre Island.
(A glance at Zachary Taylor’s Wikipedia page produces some intriguing nuggets. At least nuggets more interesting than anything that’s likely to follow in this ragged journal. “Old Rough and Ready” was a veteran of 1812 (Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? Goddamn right it does, bitches!) and various Indian wars. He earned his nickname, the story goes, as a result of the Battle of Lake Okeechobee on Christmas Day in 1837, though his troops were more or less butchered by the Seminoles during a frontal assault through the middle of a swamp. He rode his Mexican War exploits right into the White House. Taylor was the 12th president of these United States, having defeated the unforgettable Lewis Cass in the 1848 election. Speaking of swamps, he was the only president elected from Louisiana, and the last to own slaves while in the White House. He died in office on July 9, 1850, five days after attending a patriotic hootenanny at the Washington Monument, bequeathing the nation one Millard Fillmore. While scholars finger gastroenteritis as the likely culprit, contemporary reports were far more colorful, suggesting he succumbed to “bilious diarrhea,” or “bilious cholera.” Bilious is an underutilized adjective, I think.)
Pelicans, pelicans everywhere. They’re soaring, swooping and swerving in and out of our sights. A popular refrain, at least popular in the demographic which includes my mom, pops into my mind: “What a funny old bird is the pelican. Its beak can hold more than its belly can.” This comes from a 1910 limerick by Dixon Lanier Merritt:

A funny old bird is a pelican.
His beak can hold more than his bellican.
Food for a week
He can hold in his beak,
But I don’t know how the hellican.

Dixon Merritt was an old-school newspaperman. He served as editor and columnist for The Tennessean. He was Outlook magazine’s Southern correspondent. He even did a spell as state director of public safety. He was a founding member of the Tennessee Ornithological Society. A man of substance. Yet if he’s remembered at all, it’s for a few lines of avian doggerel.
He also taught at Cumberland University. The idle dreamer in me can’t help but wonder if Merritt was in Atlanta on Oct. 7, 1916, to see the Cumberland Bulldogs take on the Georgia Tech Engineers. Cumberland staggered into gridiron immortality on that southern Saturday afternoon. The Bulldogs were bludgeoned, 220-0, in the most lopsided game in the annals of college football. One theory on the epic bloodletting is that Georgia Tech’s head coach had become disillusioned with the penchant of sportswriters to rate teams on the basis of victory margin, and set out to prove a point. He was John Heisman, and his name still attaches to a rather famous trophy. Heisman was reputed to have been quite an eccentric fellow. A coach, he once said, should be “severe, arbitrary and little short of a czar.” It would’ve been cool to have been there.
Back to the bridge, the Queen Isabella Causeway, which has its own tortured history. On Sept. 15, 2001, four days after the world changed forever, a barge loaded with steel rammed headlong into a support piling around 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Two 80-foot sections of the 2.37-mile span collapsed. Unsuspecting drivers heading home after a Friday night on the town flew into the dark chasm and plunged 85 feet into Laguna Madre. Three people survived. Eight didn’t, including local surfing legend “Harpoon Barry” Welch, 53, and his 23-year-old wife, Chelsea. They left behind a 2-year-old son, William.
We cross without incident and pull over on T-shirt row. With its well-stocked warehouses of T-shirts, sweatshirts and coffee mugs, South Padre Island can go toe-to-toe with Wildwood, N.J., or anywhere else, for that matter, in a battle royale of tourist kitsch. After striking out on the T-shirt quest, we pick up a couple gas station tacos and head north on the lonely beach road. We find a little oasis – Beach access No. 6, to be precise – and eat lunch with an inspirational view out our back window. Waves roll and churn in the Gulf of Mexico and crash onto the surf, and we get to enjoy it for free. After lunch we play on the beach for a while. We were going to give Lester a chance to have a little fun, but the stiff wind, still blowing hard toward Matamoras, freaks him out.

Lester looks for cover on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

Lester looks for cover on the Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

It’s cold out here. Damn cold. Becky checks the water. When she reports it’d be suitable for a soothing bath,  I decide to take a swim.
And I won’t regret it. I recline in the surf, enjoying the solitude of a deserted beach. I let the foamy waves batter my shoulders as two pelicans swoop overhead in search of lunch.
Afterward, we figure it’s time to do some driving. My mom’s birthday is just five days off, and we’ve still got nearly 2,000 miles to go.


The less said about the fat, white man in the Gulf of Mexico, the better.

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