Nine years later, Texas grit and spirit is still alive

Balinese ballroom

Instead of trying to write about Hurricane Harvey, the rudest guest we’ve had around here for an awfully long time, I’ve opted to post the following piece I did for the Houston Chronicle and the Associated Press nine years ago, right after Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston. Here’s why: the prediction I  made back then about how the people of Galveston would get up, rebuild, and persevere proved to be true.  And I have no doubt that everyone affected by this storm will do exactly the same thing.  The same spirit of bravery, determination, and compassion I saw back then and tried to capture in this piece is alive, strong, and obvious right now in Houston and other Texas cities, including the one that I am proud to call home.

Here’s the article that ran  several days after Ike tried its best to destroy a city that refused to be destroyed.  The photo  of the Balinese Ballroom was shot by my daughter Kara Siegel not long before it was destroyed by the storm.

The Old Sweet Song that was Galveston

(Houston Chronicle, September 2008)

Back when Ike was the president and not a hurricane, my father, the superintendent of schools in a small East Texas town, took off three or four days every summer and our family would go down to Galveston.

We’d put up at either the Galvez or the Buccaneer, the two big hotels on Seawall Boulevard, and for those few days that ordinarily thrifty gentleman (he encouraged my mother to reuse aluminum foil as many times as possible) made sure we went first class.

We’d eat shrimp and crab-stuffed flounder at Gaido’s while the waiters in pressed white jackets brought us tartar sauce and wedges of lemons, and my father would make sure we had a window table that looked out at the perfectly straight horizon where the sea met the sky. We’d drink real Coca-Colas and eat real ice cream, not the less expensive Safeway Cragmont brand of colas and Mellorine (an unfortunate substitute for ice cream that thankfully no longer exists) that we got at home.

Every day my sister and I would splash around in the surf with our father while our mother walked along the beach looking for shells. A couple of times each trip we’d ride the ferry over to the lighthouse and back again, hoping for porpoises racing along though the Bolivar Roads.

Galveston has held my attention and a good-sized chunk of my heart ever since.

Now my wife and I, empty nesters, live in Lake Jackson, an hour down the coast from the island and several miles inland. But Galveston calls us, constantly. Until Ike’s shenanigans, we’d make the drive up the Bluewater Highway, the beach road that connects Surfside and Galveston, at least twice a month on average, shelling out two bucks at San Luis Pass to cross a toll bridge that has surely been paid for since at least the Johnson administration.

We could have saved the cash, and a few miles, by taking another route up over Chocolate Bayou, past a chemical plant and an old blimp base, and finally hitting Interstate 45 and dropping down into Galveston over the causeway. But the Bluewater was the better choice. Because on the Bluewater we could roll down the windows, turn off the radio and see, feel, hear, taste and smell Her Majesty the Gulf, just beyond the saltgrass-covered dunes.

Those dunes are gone now. So is much of the highway, eaten up by the storm.

It’s painful to think of the Galveston of two weeks ago, and almost impossible to describe her. Because the old girl is as much spirit as substance, and anyone attempting to capture spirit with words is bound to come up short.

She was old avenues filled with uneven sidewalks in front of tattoo parlors, dives, pawn shops, antique markets and narrow steep stairways leading up to rooms to-let that were many, many years older than anyone wishing to let them.

She was slow-moving locals, many of them BOIs (Born on the Island), a designation on a par, there, with Nobel laureates and Medal of Honor winners. And she was — in all seasons — sunburned, bright-shirted, flip flop-shod, ridiculously hatted tourists clutching bags of salt water taffy.

Down by the wharfs, she was several streets of Victorian era buildings that we would have never ventured close to back when I was a boy, since they were on the skids then, full of dockworkers and sailors and ladies who practiced the oldest profession. Then the Strand was reborn, phoenix-like, and filled with trendy shops and bars and shady plazas.

It was at Dickens on the Strand, the second most popular festival on the island after Mardi Gras, that I sat at a table one entire day and signed seven or eight copies of my novel about the 1900 Galveston storm while watching Charles Dickens’ great grandson scribble into about a thousand copies of novels that had been written a century before he was born.

She was the old Balinese Room — gone completely now, exploded by Ike’s fury — far enough out over the surf on pilings so that, back in the ’40s and ’50s, a diligent hatcheck girl at the entrance on the seawall could press a button which set a buzzer to singing out there and, by the time the cops could get down the long, narrow passageway, all the gambling gear could be hidden away and the likes of Bob Hope or Frank Sinatra could be innocently sipping a highball and listening to the band playing That Old Black Magic.

She was the Galvez, the “Queen of the Gulf,” put up quickly after the 1900 storm to prove the island was still open for business. Phil Harris and Alice Faye were married there, Franklin Roosevelt slept and drank there, as well as a whole galaxy of Hollywood stars. I drank frothy chocolate milk with my breakfasts there as a child and, years later, had gin rickeys in the same dining room, maybe in the same chair.

Galveston was a fallen-from-grace, boozy, New Orleansy, Tennessee Williams tonic, sweet and bold as a jigger of Southern Comfort. And she was a juggernaut of progress, pushing steel and concrete out to the water’s edge.

It was her laid-back soul that bled up and down the coast, into towns that hugged the shore and into small colonies of beach houses and into one fellow sitting on the tailgate of a pickup, dangling a bottle of brew by its throat and watching his fishing line out in the surf, not caring one damn if anything struck it or not.

Now that Galveston is laid low, on life support, it’s that determined soul that will pull her through and make her find her feet again.

She never was for everybody. People who go on and on about the beauty of the beaches of Hawaii and Bermuda and the Mediterranean aren’t likely to be impressed by a place where the sand and the water are often the same shade of brown. But those of us who love her love her for what she is: sufficiently magnolia Southern to bask charmingly in the past, and sufficiently brash Texan to step lively in the present.

Maybe Galveston sings a song that only some of us can hear. But we are legion, and we are listening. And when she gets better, we’ll be back.


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