Everybody has a past, but not everybody can access it. Most of the time, the past accesses you. It’s trite to say I’ve been on a journey this past year, but I don’t know a better word to describe cutting loose, physically and emotionally, the bonds of the present and traveling around the country by bicycle.
The reason it’s hard to access your past is because oftentimes it no longer exists. Houses get torn down, people die or move away, and the physical touchstones that were the well of your past are simply gone. Memory is rarely reliable, what with its distortions, omissions, and slapdash paint jobs, covering up pain or trauma with the whitewash of forgetfulness or memories that retain the good and none of the bad.
Nonetheless, the past is very much alive and well. It’s a foundation but also a web, something upon which we stand but also a network of people, places, and experiences that daily tell us where to go, what to do, how to live.
I made up my mind after returning from my ride to Canada that I was going to try to re-live my past, or at least as much of it as I could still lay hold of. Not re-live it in the literal sense, but while recognizing that life runs “As dooth the streem that turneth never agayn,” it is possible to peer back in time and see bits and pieces of what was, to make sense out of the present.
One of the people I admired most I met in college, George Forgie, who was a professor of history. Is, actually. He gave a simple analogy of history that has stayed with me my entire life: “Viewing history,” he said, “is like viewing a large mountain. Up close you can see the fine details but not the big picture. From afar you can see the significance but not the fine grain. History is like that. When history is recent you can’t see where it fits in, and when it is far away, you can’t see the details of life that made the history occur.”
This is so apt. When you are young you experience the minutia and the intensity of growing up, but when you are old you cannot see the pieces of the mosaic of life that made you what you are, or just as importantly, what you are not.
When I rode through Houston I visited a few places that had been important to me, and had a few serendipitous moments along the way.
We moved to Houston for the second time in 1972; I started third grade at Braeburn Elementary. The old school was torn down several years ago and a new one raised in its place. Gone was the vast playground, replaced with a rather imposing modern building. My teachers there were Mrs. Apel Smith, Mrs. Broughton, Mrs. Owen, and Mrs. Livingston. Except for Mrs. Broughton, they were all African-American. They were some of the best teachers I ever had. Mrs. Smith nicknamed me “Mouth,” and my girlfriend was Joy Silverstein until she started getting better grades than me in, well, everything. Mrs. Smith also gave me one of my life’s great lessons.
I was always in trouble, always talking out of turn, always clowning, always complicating her teaching day. One day she accused me of doing something that I hadn’t actually done, a rarity. “But I didn’t do it!” I protested indignantly. “It isn’t fair!”
Mrs. Smith pulled me close, to within an inch of her face. “Guess what, Mouth?” she said, slowly, evenly, hard as a knife edge. “Life ain’t fair.”
She knew something about the fairness of life, or the lack thereof, as an African-American who was one of the first to teach in what had until recently been the segregated South. I often thought about her, about how committed she was to her students, and about what she must have had to overcome. She was a great teacher, affectionate but strict, understanding up to a point, and most of all imbued with a desire that we leave the third grade with a command of our subjects. She succeeded, except for my handwriting.
Next I rode over to Jane Long Academy, formerly Jane Long Junior High School. Our vice principal was David C. Harsch. He was short and fat and feared by all. In those days we got beaten with a huge wooden paddle, and Mr. Thompson would hold you down in his office while Mr. Harsch beat the shit out of you. Our parents, all parents, fully condoned it, although at the beginning of each year they had to sign a “corporal punishment waiver.” I never knew a kid whose parent refused to sign it, but there were always whispered rumors about some lucky kid who could supposedly never get “pops.”
For all the brutality, Mr. Harsch cut me slack when I needed it most. Given my constant disciplinary issues, he could have expelled me from school permanently. But when the beatings didn’t work, I got assigned to “in school detention.” We had a drill sergeant type lady named Mrs. Miller who supervised all of us reprobates in a room set off from the rest of the school. It was called the SRC, the Student Referral Center, and you were sent there until you had completed all of your classwork. Most of the inmates were already academically behind, to put it mildly, so it was a convenient way to get them out of circulation permanently.
I got put into the SRC the first time for spitting a loogie on the handrail of the stairwell when a teacher who was behind me, Mr. Campbell, put his hand in it. “SRC for you, Seth,” Mr. Harsch had said. I found out that you didn’t have to simply do your “classowork,” but rather the actual teacher’s lesson plan which no teacher ever fully did. In other words, it was an undoable amount of work. But I simply knuckled down and did the work so that I was out in three days, record time. The second time in the SRC I had been caught selling fake drugs, but again I beat the system and was out in three days. My final SRC assignment was for breaking out an entire row of fluorescent lights with a combination lock. I still remember being in Mr. Harsch’s office. “Back to the SRC for you, Seth,” he said with a smile.
“For a month.”
Next I pedaled over to my old street, an oak-lined avenue called Braeburn. The trees were big and beautiful then and bigger and more beautiful now. Forty years is a lot of growing, and one thing that Houston has a lot of is rain.
My old house, 5409 Braeburn, is one of the only houses on the street that is original construction, built in 1942 by Mr. Judson. All of the other houses were gone, replaced with modern homes. But there was my old house; it had once been pretty large but now looked tiny compared to all the modern, massive homes. “I wonder if they would let me take a few photos?”
“Why don’t you go knock on the door?” Kristie said.
“Yeah. Worst they can do is call the police.”
“Right.” I went up and knocked.
A very nice lady in her 50s answered the door. “Yes?”
“Hi, I used to live here and was just taking a walk down memory lane. I wondered if you’d mind if I took some photos of the outside of the house?”
“Of course not. Would you like to come it? It’s a mess, I’m afraid.”
“Really? I’d love to.”
She let us in and it was just as I remembered it. They had lived there for the last 23 years. The lady’s husband was there, home-officing due to the covids. “He used to live here,” she said to her husband.
“Well please come on in and look around. Does it look familiar?”
“Yes, it does, exactly.”
The guy studied me for a minute. “Your voice is really familiar,” he said.
“Yeah. I’ve heard it somewhere. Do you live in Houston?”
“LA. Last time I lived in Houston was in 2006.”
“Where did you live?”
“Off of Braeswood.”
“Do you have kids?”
“Did they play soccer when you lived here?”
“My youngest did.”
“I have no idea. It was a long time ago.”
“I coached soccer for a long time.” He pointed to the photos of his teams on the wall.
I studied them. “My son played for that team.”
Scot laughed. “Is he in any of those pictures?”
I studied them some more. “No.”
“What was his name?”
Scot nodded. “I coached him. I remember you. Your voice, anyway. You had short hair and no beard back then.”
We looked at each other for a moment as the weirdness washed over everyone, my son’s former soccer coach living in the house that I grew up in. But then I realized it wasn’t weird at all. As Bryan Kevan had said to me when I first started bike touring, “Meeting people in strange places is totally normal when you tour. What would be weird is meeting them if you never left your couch.”
This was the corner of the yard where we had our vegetable garden. It seems so small now, but as a kid I remember the bitter hugeness of it as I had to weed it out under the frying Houston sun. We always had fresh, juicy, sweet tomatoes, endless buckets of cucumbers, watermelons, squash, and strawberries. No matter how much we fed the insects and birds there was always so much more left over than we could ever eat. There was no way I could have known that my mom’s cooking, made of garden vegetables, would fashion my palate for the rest of my life.
This was my old bedroom. My bed used to be up against that far window, and my desk was where the bed in this picture is. There is another window behind that bed. One time I got bored, took a roll of toilet paper, and set the end on fire, unrolling it out the window. The flames raced up to the roll and almost burned the house down. Moral: Fire burns up.
Next I went to my old high school. It too has been rebuilt but this part of the building remains. I barely graduated, #437 out of 617 graduates in 1982. I was on the debate team and went to nationals my senior year, a big comeback from my junior year when I got kicked off the squad for stealing. I always thought that wasn’t as bad as Norm who sold massive quantities of drugs and never got in trouble for that. Also, our squad stole hundreds of books from the University of Houston library, and they littered the debate shack. Our debate coach, David Johnson was blasé about that kind of larceny as well.
Johnson was a sadistic fuck who verbally abused and intimidated everyone. It was great training for law (for some) and for a lifetime of psychotherapy (for others), but he consistently had the best teams in the nation. Despite his cruelty, debate trips were always incredibly fun, traveling to far-flung hell holes like Lubbock (LaButtocks as we called it), Plano, and wherever he sent us. Our squad was so huge we traveled in a bus like a football team, only our debate squad, unlike our football team, won virtually every tournament it entered. I still remember Johnson demanding a private phone line for the debate shack. He told the principal, “You give a phone to a football team that hasn’t had a winning season in fifty years. I’ve never had a losing one.” He got the phone.
Next we visited the Bellaire city swimming pool on Evergreen. It looked completely different and I didn’t recognize it; I used to practically live here in the summer. Turns out that my memory was defective; the pool I frequented was on 5th Street, not Evergreen.
The only thing really exciting that ever happened at the pool was the time that Robh Ruppel and I made a bomb and detonated it at the check-in counter. It blew a hole in the brick foundation; if anyone had been standing there it would have seriously injured or killed them.
Our escape plan? Light the fuse and run.
We heard it detonate as we raced through the park, where Tim Van Meter, the local hoodlum, was sitting on a park bench. “What are you little faggots running away from?” he asked.
“Uh, uh, um …” we said.
He grabbed us each by an arm. “Don’t uh-uh-um me, you little fuckers.”
Moments later we were apprehended by the chasing lifeguards, who took us back to the smoking rubble. I was sure we were going to be hanged.
But in those days, instead of receiving the prison term we deserved, we simply got screamed at by Chuck Overmiller, the guy who ran the rec center. Robh was a star swimmer and I was, well, a delinquent. I still remember Overmiiller, enraged.
“Robh!” he roared.
I thought he was going to say, “I can’t believe you did this!”
But instead he ignored the bomb completely and said, “I can’t believe you are hanging out with HIM!”
Finally we rode over to my mom’s old house on Amherst. I never lived there as I was in college by then, but I had a lot of good memories. My grandparents were still alive then, and so was my dog Fletcher, who lived into his early 20s. Fletcher was the only real friend I ever had, and the only time he bit me was when I tried to wrest a blood-soaked bone out from between his jaws. By the time he died he was blind, mostly deaf, and could hardly walk, but he still loved enchiladas.
My last memory of Fletcher was in that house. My mom had thrown a party the night before and had catered Mexican food. There was a giant steel pan of enchiladas left over. I was up early and my mom had set the entire steel tray down on the floor for Fletcher. With shaky legs, and the only sense still working being his sense of smell, he stood in the middle of the giant steel pan, feet covered in cold cheese, happily munching on a chicken enchilada. “Fletcher, boy!” I said, scratching his head.
He couldn’t hear me but he could smell me. He stopped chewing, let the enchilada fall, and raised his muzzle to my face. He licked me vigorously and with so much love.
He died a few days after that.
Would that we all went out with so much happiness, satisfaction, and grace.