Vickrey: The Endless Pull of Hometown Memories

(Resident Bob Vickrey wrote: An old pal of mine that I grew up with in the Houston suburbs enjoyed my take on our small town of Galena Park. As I reread the story today, I realized that I was humming Simon & Garfunkel’s “Homeward Bound.” It brought back some very fond memories, and I’m curious if any of you can relate to my own experience.)

By BOB VICKREY

My friend Gary drove slowly up 10th Street past my old family home until we reached the end of the block. “Look, isn’t that corner house on the right where David Warnell lived?”

We crossed Center Drive and continued our exploration of the old hometown as we tried our best to recall our former neighbors’ houses.

I had returned to Houston several years ago to reconnect with old friends whom I now see only infrequently after moving to Southern California decades earlier. When my boyhood friend Gary Burnet learned that I was flying into Hobby Airport, he volunteered to pick me up and take me on a nostalgic tour of Galena Park, the modest working-class eastside town where we had both grown up.

Stately, towering pine trees had once dwarfed the humble post-WWII wood-frame houses there, but had disappeared many years earlier after being poisoned by the toxic fumes belching from industrial smokestacks along the Houston Ship Channel. The dramatic change in vegetation made the neighborhood much harder to recognize now.

“How could we ever forget those noxious smells that came from nearby refineries?” Gary recalled. The air was so thick with toxic residue that it could peel the paint right off your Ford Fairlane. I reminded him that we eventually became so used to those odors that we thought everywhere else smelled funny.

The industrial lifestyle was an unspoken part of our lives, as our high school friend Geren Graham found out during his first semester at SMU. He told us he had difficulty sleeping in his college dorm room because it was so much quieter than his bedroom back home. He had grown up just blocks away from busy Clinton Drive, and had been lulled to sleep each night by the ground-rattling 18-wheel big-rigs that rumbled toward their nightly delivery destinations along the banks of the ship channel.

As we continued our sightseeing, Gary and I both admitted we were having bittersweet feelings as we toured these seemingly familiar—but now somewhat disorienting streets. Some of the houses were rundown and in disrepair and appeared in desperate need of a fresh coat of paint. But who knows? Perhaps the intervening years had conveniently washed away some of those same blemishes from our own era. Even one of our former after-school haunts, the Dairy Mart, had long-since closed and now was nothing but a ramshackle shell of a building. (Although we also had to admit that even in its prime years, the structure wasn’t exactly a Frank Lloyd Wright work of art.)

As we cruised along 10th Street, I began remembering how many college athletes the street had produced. I counted two all-star football players and a former TCU basketball star that lived within only a few houses of one another. In the same block there was also a Baylor Hall of Fame track and field athlete that had once lived under the same roof as I did—my brother Ray.

Gary pointed out the house where a famous Nashville musician had lived. In our athletically-inclined town, Glenn Spreen’s musical arrangements for Elvis Presley, Neil Diamond and Waylon Jennings (among many others) reminded us that our neighborhood had produced more than just sports stars.

Vacant lots on our street were naturally utilized as playgrounds for the scores of kids that lived on the block. I spotted one particular lot near our old house where we spent our daylight and early evening hours in unsupervised football, baseball and basketball games. We hung out during long summer days in happy packs, and for the most part, breaking a neighbor’s windowpane with a hard-hit line-drive was about the closest we came to getting into real trouble.

I pointed out the Chambers’ big vacant lot near our house and reminded Gary that it was the only playground in our neighborhood that maintained a basketball net on its backboard goal. It was such a luxury back then that allowed us to relish the sound of the ball swishing through a real net, instead of hearing the jangling sound of a bare rim.

This is the street in Houston where Bob Vickrey grew up.

When Gary and I reached our former high school campus, suddenly things began to look a bit more familiar. There were several additional buildings surrounding the original campus, but we could still make out the initial footprint of our old high school. We decided to venture inside and test the nostalgia factor that would surely surface as we walked through the front door.

Just as expected, the ethnicity of the student body was much more diverse than when we had been in school in the early 1960s. But one thing about the school had not changed. The students who passed us in the hallways greeted us with big welcoming smiles. In fact, one young man asked us if we were former students, and we assured him that we had attended in another era long before he was born—although he likely figured that one out all by himself.

“James” offered us a short tour of the campus as we peppered him with questions about his favorite subjects and activities. We were duly impressed by his intrepid curiosity about two senior citizens our age. He wanted to know about our families and work backgrounds, as well as what our college majors had been. When Gary and I finished our visit that day, we drove away with a renewed sense of pride in where we had gone to school.

But just down the street, as we peeked through the chain-link fence surrounding Dement Field, I wondered if it was only an illusion, or if the football stadium had dramatically shrunk in size. Its seating capacity seemed only a fraction of what I had remembered. I suppose over the years that my imagination had blown it into Cotton Bowl-size proportions.

Nevertheless, this rustic shrine to Texas’ number-one pastime was where our Yellow Jacket teams faced their Gulf Coast rivals each Friday night during the fall months—which effectively shut down businesses all over town. On weeks when there were Friday home games, a “Closed” sign would appear mid-afternoon inside the front door of Woody Thompson’s barber shop with a note attached that read: “See you at the game!”
The frenzied hometown fans that packed the stadium each weekend symbolized the unifying spirit and camaraderie of small town America back then.

High school students preparing for the Friday night football game.

Our family has been gone from Galena Park for decades, but the pull of the past is strong, and I’m once again drawn back to these familiar streets and playgrounds as I savor bittersweet memories of those early years.

At sunset, the lights from nearby refineries still light up the night sky and give off an orange-tinted glow as the warm humid air of Houston’s long summer evenings slowly envelop you.

It’s all so familiar now, almost as I remember it—this place called home.

Bob Vickrey is a native Houstonian whose columns appear in several Southwestern newspapers including the Houston Chronicle. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California. You can find more columns on his website: www.bobvickrey.net

 

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5 Responses to Vickrey: The Endless Pull of Hometown Memories

  1. M says:

    Thank you, Bob. Another wonderful story.

  2. Bruce Schwartz says:

    What a great story !

  3. bruce brough says:

    Bob,
    We think of you every time we pass the YAB!

  4. 'Joy' says:

    What fun! Looks like his high school days were a fun trip as was his re-visit to those memorable times. It was delightful for me to ‘visit’ along with him. Thanks!

  5. Fay Herzog says:

    Bob, I loved your story and I could relate it to my experiences of visiting my old neighborhood in Amsterdam.

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