USA October 2009 : III – Oak Point, TX

Knew I was on a flight to Texas when my view of the safety demonstration was obscured by the cowboy hat of the man in front

It was a powerful transition, from independent young people to an interdependent family, from mountains to plains, cold to warm, MDT to CST.

Rockies from plane window, leaving Denver International

The planes kept getting smaller; this one was an Embraer. It was also broken. Few things are as disconcerting as watching a crew disassemble the cockpit of a plane you’re about to board! An hour and a half late, we did eventually leave Colorado. Europe could never really have the term “regional jet” (the very term America uses to refer to such smallish planes as these); there is no region large enough to need a jet. Where I’m from, they’re countries. Yes, even Luxembourg, a place only 50 square miles bigger than Denton County (thank you, Wikipedia) (It is a trait of my generation that we use Wikipedia as a memory extension. Another of those traits would be reading webcomics about such phenomena (and remember, kids, you have to mouseover!)).

Staying with families is something I’ve waxed lyrical, not to mention philosophical, about; at its best, it remains the most fascinating way to learn about a place and its people. Total and overwhelming cultural immersion, but in a caring environment in which one relaxes; at its best, there is much letting-down of guards by all. By the time I left I knew who came home when and from which school; the sound of the automated garage door opening alerted not just Tawny the (adored if rather spoiled) dog but me as well. I learned who liked what foods, who did what chores and who I would have to fight for the computer at various times of the day.

A family uprooted from Leicestershire, where I formed Kellie’s acquaintance, to their home in North Texas. A house of five daughters, three of whom at home at least some of the time; Kellie is at college in nearby Denton, but returns on evenings and weekends from time to time, while her two younger sisters are still at home. Two older sisters have flown the proverbial nest and are elsewhere in Texas.

That there is a substantial mass of writing from my time in Texas comes down to a couple of factors; I was there for longer, had more time to myself, but crucially had access to a computer where I wasn’t feeding dollar bills into a box or having to borrow it. Thus, the sprawling narrative messes sent home to friends and family, from which I have done my best to be extremely selective.

Before I can talk much more about life in Oak Point I should tell the story of how I got there. The following is cut together from emails to Erin, my dad and a couple of friends:

It should probably be illegal to do what I have just done. That is, arrive off a delayed flight, collect your rental car and proceed to drive into the Dallas rush hour, having never driven abroad, or driven an automatic.

Still, I didn’t hit anything/one, I didn’t get arrested and I’m safely arrived at Kellie’s house.

They didn’t meet me at the airport, which was what made the drive so, ahem, interesting! I literally had to work out how this automatic thing worked in the parking lot (see, toldya my US English was coming back to me…) and then drive out onto the highway. It was, as you said, easy, just as soon as I’d managed to stop my left foot from reaching for a pedal that wasn’t there any more.

I flew from Denver to Dallas/Fort Worth, an airport slightly larger than Manhattan. Now Kellie had informed me that I absolutely had to rent a car in Texas because there is simply no other way to get around. So, I proceeded to the car rental place and, at great expense and after a 20-minute display of incompetence from the small Chinese man at the Avis desk, got myself a shiny silver Ford Focus. On the way to my car I passed a line of shiny yellow Chevy Corvettes, lamented my poverty and youth (they won’t rent fast cars to the under-25s, boo) and then got in. I then proceeded to teach myself to drive an automatic car on the wrong side of the road in that most forgiving of driving schools, the Dallas rush hour. There should be a law against what I did last night; there is no way on earth that a 21-year old foreigner who has never driven outside his own country and never driven an automatic car in his life should be allowed to go straight out into rush hour traffic. That I survived the experience without hitting anything, killing anyone or getting arrested may have more to do with luck than judgment. None of this mattered, however, when, on a quiet stretch of highway I discovered the Sirius satellite radio and, more to the point, the fact that the United States of America has a station devoted entirely to the music of Bruce Springsteen. I kid you not. There I was, “Born in the USA” blasting, windows down, on Interstate 35. I’m not ashamed to tell you that I cried a little. OK, maybe I’m a tad ashamed, but still, it was a moment I’ll treasure. That and the sheer terror of the drive itself, will stay with me for a long time.

I never found the address on Carroll Blvd that Kel had directed me to, but she eventually found me after I called her and told her which street corner I was on. “Carroll and Pearl,” I said, mangling my vowel sounds almost like a native. Realising how frazzled I was by the drive, she guided me home; I stuck to the back bumper of that Toyota like my life depended on it.

We pulled in to Oak Point. Not for the first time on the trip, I felt like I was walking into a computer game; rows of perfect houses, manicured lawns, sprinklers, streets with names like Opal, Diamond, Sapphire. Perfect, plastic bubble. Automated garage door swung up, I parked up on the drive, engaged “P” and stepped out into the heat and humidity of the Texas night.

And straight back into air-conditioned heaven.

After 9 days of running around like a maniac, I have time to relax now, which is nice. American suburbia amazes me once again; this house is huge. I was welcomed into it by her mum last night like I was the prodigal son or something, and her various little sisters kept bringing me plates of food and fetching my bags. A stay at his place comes highly recommended!

If it had been a cartoon, bluebirds or fairies or something would have done it, but here in Texas it was merely three beautiful daughters who set about hanging up my coat, carrying my suitcase and fetching a plate of food; crackers with ham and cheese, slices of apple and grapes. Simple, home food, for real people.

I slept the sleep of the dead, or at least the exhausted.

I awoke the following morning to the sun carving through the Venetian blinds, bright slashes of gold across the bed. I wandered into the kitchen to find a note, signed “Mom” (Deana asserted her position as my adoptive mother for the week!), telling me two important things; firstly, that I should get my own breakfast, and secondly that Kellie had backed into my car on her way to college. The fact that, having worried endlessly, spent huge amounts of money and been utterly terrified, I had got the car there in once piece only to find this in the morning…I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry or revel in the delicious irony.

What I neglect to mention at the time is that Deana insisted I return the car to DFW the following morning, assuring me that she will take me wherever I need to go. Thus was forged an unlikely but intriguing week-long bond, conversations on countless drives through north Texas, of which more later.

Writing home:

I am once more shocked by the way property value translates over here. It’s much the same experience as the one I had when I visited Bernie in Naperville; people from relatively ordinary backgrounds in the UK are able to buy what would be million-pound houses over here. I have the ensuite guest room, kingsize bed etc, biggest television I have ever seen and a garden that disappears into the woods behind the house. I now understand why Kellie uses this as her evening/weekend retreat from campus! Am being pampered somewhat by family, which is nice after 4 nights in a somewhat spartan hotel and another 4 on Erin’s sofa. Some time to get my head around everything that’s happened so far. Nice to eat healthy food too! The road does not lend itself to eating healthily…

To a friend, two days later:

Is really lovely to be here in the Hill family home. I haven’t seen Kellie all day, but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. I’ve been chatting with her mum endlessly, talking about anything and everything, and then her little sisters came home. Chrissie (Christina, the littlest at 15) is lovely, cute as the proverbial button. Tonight we had to make dinner together while ‘Mom’ fetched Claire from school play rehearsals, and by the time we’d finished we had this little conspiracy going whereby I wouldn’t make her eat mashed potato if she didn’t make me eat broccoli; out of these silly things are borne the beginnings of trust.

It helped that the oven looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise; there were things she knew that I didn’t, not least how to avoid burning dinner.

Claire, the next one up (16, possibly 17, I forget) is much more Kellie-like, loud and extrovert, and introduced herself by telling me in huge detail about the kind of person she thinks she is, how tiring her day was, all this stuff. Chrissie finds this hilarious, she keeps shooting me little looks over the top of her textbook, as if to say “Don’t listen to her, she talks too much.” This is why I love staying with families when I travel. There is a novel to be written based on my observations here, I’m sure. This is corny as hell, goddammit, and I’m sure Holden would call me a phony for doing it, but Chrissie reminds me of his little sister Phoebe.

The ghost of Salinger walks, and not just in my parenthetical remarks.

Chrissie protests wildly that she’s not American, genuinely upset now that she’s lost the accent that first marked her out upon her return from my homeland to hers. I used the word “littlest”, and it seems appropriate for her, for that’s exactly how it appeared. Chrissie has always been small for her age, I’m told (a piece of exactly the kind of family folklore/legend that mothers love to slip into conversation). It seemed to fit the fragility I saw in her, buffeted by the maelstrom going on around her.

I got an introduction to the (in my humble opinion deeply elitist and slightly creepy…) world of Greek fraternities and sororities last night; it’s Homecoming weekend at the University of North Texas, which seems to involve barbecues, football games and self-congratulation. Another fascinating piece of sociological evidence! I’m still a little freaked out by them, it still looks to me like a strange, elitist little club, but by the end of the week I’ll have a better idea…

This was an opinion that would be changed by the face-to-face meetings with so many members of XΏ (and various others). This was the sort of thing I wrote to Dad – dry, intellectual observations. A different sort of observation I wrote back to Erin, a world away. She was deeply suspicious of the Greek fraternity/sorority cult(ure), to say the least:

One day, Kellie would very much like the opportunity to prove that not all sorority girls are intolerable. I suggest we all meet up in LA in a couple of years’ time; I’ll just stand back and watch!

A little dig at the idea of introducing two, ahem, powerful personalities.

Is it wrong to find one of them attractive? The accent is getting me a long way, even more so down here I think, where there are lots of people who have never met a real live Brit. Last night I got beer in exchange for saying “Harry Potter” a few times. No, really.

In all the fuss about labels and Greek letters, I had perhaps forgotten that they would be human beings! My suspicion had been fuelled by Erin and her friends, very definitely not into the Greek scene and mildly derogatory about anyone who was. As I probably should have predicted, however, the girls of XΏ (and guys of whichever fraternity they were working with for the parade; my memory fails me!) were without exception lovely to this Englishman.

More journal extracts:

Cicadas outside. Air-conditioning inside. Encountered my first scorpion. First day to really slow down and consider everything that has gone before.

Went to Dallas yesterday, stood in Dealey Plaza and did the Sixth Floor Museum. It is really quite chilling to stand at the window of the sixth floor of the schoolbook depository and look down on the road below. There are crosses marked on the tarmac where the bullets hit. Between that and the footage of Jackie leading little Caroline and John Jr through Arlington National Cemetery, it’s really quite upsetting; regardless of the politics involved, you’re watching footage of a man cut down in his prime, reported to a level of detail most people never receive. Still, it’s one ticked off my lifetime list of must-sees, really, and in that sense was hugely rewarding.

Utterly unremarkable pic of the former Texas Schoolbook Despository. Note X on the tarmac.

I’d been fascinated by the JFK assassination ever since, at the age of 14, my form spent an entire term studying it. Our teacher was an ex-British Army captain, tank commander in Bosnia. Our investigation culminated in our hefting a Lee-Enfield around to get a feel for what it’s like to reload a bolt-action rifle three times in quick succession. It was thrilling to assess those angles and distances with my own eyes, not in a diagram or photograph. We stood on the Grassy Knoll, examined the Picket Fence. Even the memorial, an architectural curiosity.

At the weekend, Kellie is appearing in a Homecoming parade, whatever one of those is, and I get to watch college football.

When I told my father all about this, he had an epiphany. Not about American values, guns, trucks, alcohol or football, but about The Monkees.

Cheer up, sleepy Jean
Oh what can it mean?
For a daydream believer
And a Homecoming Queen

Pride. It was a word I had never really associated with the University of Leeds. I suppose, had I thought about it, that I would have considered myself proud to be attending a good university, a “real” university, but this vague notion was a world away from the observable, tangible, fierce pride in the University of North Texas that I experienced that hot, bright Saturday morning, Homecoming. Their pride wasn’t based on anything more than this being their university, their adoptive hometown, their community. And boy were they going to shout about it. The obligatory, ubiquitous marching band was everything you imagine it to be, trombones waving from side to side, “band geeks” straight out of teen movies. Cheerleaders, floats from every conceivable fraternity, sorority, sports team, campus organisation you could think of and several that I’m fairly sure no-one had heard of before they arrived, bedecked with tissue paper and boundless enthusiasm. Oh, and candy. Lots of candy.

A couple of weeks before I embarked on this trip I had attended the first home game of Leicester Tigers’ season. The Tigers play rugby union, not England’s first or best supported sport, but probably the second. To much fanfare, the new Caterpillar Stand had been opened, upping the capacity to 24,000. This is more than many Premiership football clubs pull on a regular basis, and, I thought, pretty impressive. The capacity at Fouts Field? 30,500. The attendance at the UNT v FAU game? Over 23,000. For a college football game! I’m still not sure what surprised me more, the statistic itself or the fact that I could find this information out in the newspaper the following day over breakfast. Actually, there’s one more thing that trumps them both; they’re building a newer, bigger stadium.

All this for a game so tedious you need a brass band trained in formation shuffling to keep the crowd’s attention…

As if my general safety and sanity were not enough for my mother to concern herself with, she was particularly concerned that I would be spending my birthday abroad. Her concerns would prove unfounded. Not only did I have cards (special credit to the friends that managed to send me US dollars in theirs!) but I had cake, an adoptive family to sing to me and a steak dinner with Kellie. What more could a lone traveller ask for?

The cake and singing took place not on my actual birthday but on the Sunday two days prior to it, with the rationale that everyone was present on Sunday to take part in said ritual. After church (an invitation to join in was offered, which I politely but robustly declined after a rambling, fascinating discussion with Kellie the previous night on another long night drive), we had lunch. Afterwards, Deana suddenly disappeared and, with more assistance from her daughters, back in Disney-fairy-godmother-magically-making-plates-appear mode, a cake materialised, complete with candles and Blue Bell ice cream(a substance so enthusiastically endorsed by George W. Bush that he had the stuff flown into the White House all the way from Texas, or so the legend goes). I was duly sung to, and all was warm and fuzzy.

My birthday itself, therefore, was something of an anticlimax, at least at first. With Kellie busy, Deana and I were left once more alone. We killed time, exploring Denton’s junk shops, me taking the photos I hadn’t got round to taking yet. By now though, Deana knew that there was nowhere more likely to keep me entertained than a bookshop, and what a bookshop it was! Recycled Books, North Locust (seriously, where else but Texas could you find a street called Locust? Not grasshopper or cricket, cicada even, but locust, as in plague of…), Denton, Texas. Simply put, the best, most eccentric and largest secondhand bookshop (bookstore, I suppose) I have ever seen. Supported no doubt by the student population and evidently the hub of the local artistic/musical community, Recycled was cool. Gig posters, local bands’ CDs, writing classes advertised on the walls. To emerge with only what I could fit in my suitcase took a massive effort. I stocked up on hard-to-find American short stories for the journeys ahead (Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow), a delectable piece of travel writing (although is it travel writing if you live there? It can’t just be “place-writing”, can it?) by Lawrence Durrell (the irritable, impulsive Larry in his brother Gerald’s childish-but-endearing tales of Greek islands and picnics) about Provence, and something I refer to as “that book by the girl who lived with Salinger for a year” ; this was Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, which I proceed to read in Baltimore.

Deana and I sat in the square in the shadow of the Courthouse, reading our new acquisitions while squirrels knocked pecans out of the trees.

The Durrell work led me, months later, to buy his Alexandria Quartet in an Oxfam shop in York and discover a quote that sums up so much of my experience in America:

We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.

Lawrence Durrell, Justine

It seems to me that this applies not only to individuals but to nations; America’s national psyche, its shared beliefs, habits, attitudes, exist because of its landscape. And, of course, because of the technology that allowed it to be conquered; America is a child of its time as much as its place.

Dinner proved to be a proper Texas steakhouse with Kellie. As I told her that night, it was at least the second-best steak I have ever eaten, the competition being from Paris’s Latin Quarter the previous summer. And if a little Texan steakhouse can get close to a place a stone’s throw from Notre Dame, it’s probably doing something right. It was only once I left that I realised my jacket smelled of woodsmoke.

We drove down to the lakeshore, looked up at the stars and talked about everything and anything.

Real live cowboys

Sandwiched in between Sunday and my birthday was a Monday spent in Fort Worth, the other half of the two cities twinned by an airport and precious little else. Fort Worth; hard to know where reality ends and the theme park begins. As far as the cattle drive was concerned, definitely theme park, staged twice a day for the tourists to snap away at. Country and western drifts out of every bar, restaurant, shop. Shops that will, incidentally, sell you just about anything with either a silhouette of Texas, the words Fort Worth or a picture of a longhorn on. Yep, even oven gloves.

One place that was very definitely real was the Ponder Boot Company’s outpost in Fort Worth. A concession to the 7m tourists (according to the proprietor) who pass through Fort Worth each year. Its location seemed to be the only thing conceded to tourism, however. This was a boot shop in the old sense. Completed boots vied with alligator and ostrich skins for my attention. A pair of boots identical to the pair they had made for President Reagan were perhaps the highlight in terms of sheer ostentatious workmanship, but the whole place was one giant still-life, a time-capsule hidden away from modern, kitschy Fort Worth by a screen door.

Over Mexican food in Fort Worth we set to the God problem.

Fascinating conversation with Deana, finally talking about faith. One of those where you wish you could go back and listen to it again, so little of it can I remember.

I left with a deeper understanding of faith. My conclusion, not motivated entirely by tact but also by a genuine observation, is that we inhabit different worlds. No, that’s a cliché and a cop out. We inhabit the same world, obviously, but we interpret it in such different ways that we might as well not. I live in a world defined by observable fact and, where I have no observations of my own, a certain amount of trust in those who seem to know their stuff.

A document I regard as a collection of ancient near-eastern stories, allegories, myths, legends and documentary evidence of an interesting man who wandered Galilee for a while, is an absolute source of truth. Of course, sometimes it seems like exactly the kind of backward-thinking that I can’t abide; first decide your conclusion then find the appropriate bit of scripture. But the simile that occurred to me was that it is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. For her it makes things bigger, more majestic somehow, for me it makes them so much smaller. For me to interpret her world in my way is impossible, as it would be for her to truly understand mine in her terms. Mine are Greek ideas, absolutes and laws. Hers are in some ways just as fixed, but entirely different. We like to think that these ideas, these absolutes, are somehow outside anything as petty or earthbound as scripture, but sometimes I wonder. All the same, when you have no doubt that the book is right about this man, then you are committed to believing that he is your sole route to salvation, from the ordinary to the holy and that is a powerful notion to grapple with, wherever you come from.

Monday also meant the start of the week for those not on an extended trip, and that meant Claire sighing dramatically over a textbook on the dining table in that “I don’t think you can actually help me but I’d really like you to at least ask” way. There is a peculiar overlap between “high school” and “college” (for UK readers, insert “school/sixth form” and “university” respectively); Claire was busy taking advanced algebra classes that she could get college credits for. Had I turned up to university in England and attempted to get credit for my A-Levels, they would, to quote my great-uncle Henry, have looked at me as if I had crawled out of a piece of cheese. School and university are, to an Englishman, two entirely separate processes with disparate aims and methods; in the US, there is an occasional overlap. To my mind it stems back to the less structured, rigid nature of US college. My degree, (BA Philosophy at the University of Leeds) like most English undergraduate courses, required a fixed number of credits, an equal number of which had to be completed in each of three years, preferably half in each of two semesters each year, running roughly September-January and February-April with exams in January and May. Short of failing modules in “regular” time, there is no concept of summer studying, and every module takes place in one or other of these semesters. Arts undergraduates in England have huge amounts of independent study freedom relative to their US counterparts; we tend to complain about the lack of contact time, but it seems infinitely preferable to being treated like schoolkids. That said, the opportunity for second-year students to still be wondering about their major, to take “Intro to Theatre” (a lecture I sat in on with Erin at CU Boulder) seems a great idea, and a little less philosophy in my second year might have made for a better/happier/more productive time. Then again, without working in the summer (no band gigs at festivals then!) I’d still be a student in the American system, and therefore I’d never have encountered the American system, and therefore I’d never have had this discussion. Hold on, I’m getting philosophical… The right answer here is as impenetrable to me as the algebra that started this wild digression in the first place.

My plan had extended no further than Texas; indeed, my stay there, eight days, was in my mind always a time for reflecting on what had happened thus far and for planning the second half of the trip. Nightly I would retire to my bedroom, run myself a hot bath and, with the Rough Guide to the USA, consider where to go. Up through Arkansas, Tennessee and beyond? Not if the Hill family got their way. One last piece of advice(couched as series of anecdotes involving a gaggle of daughters, the D.C. subway, hired bicycles and malevolent automatic doors too lengthy to recount here) had me on a plane to Baltimore Washington International.

Leaving Dallas in the pouring rain. Just about on time though, so should make connection in Charlotte.

I’ll miss that house! I got adopted for the week and gained a couple of adoptive little sisters into the bargain. As I opened my bedroom door this morning I found he note that Claire left me. I thought I was coming to visit Kellie, I ended up visiting a whole family, a rich, exciting, challenging experience that has altered the shape and feel of this trip somewhat. Texas has been stranger than I thought possible in the English-speaking world. So far, geographically and culturally, from everywhere, even the rest of this country. Back to the lone traveller now.

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3 responses

  1. Pingback: Albums of the Year 2010 « Pour Down Like Silver

  2. lisa

    i just happened onto your posting. i live in oak point, texas. i was thoroughly enthralled with your blog. if you are not a writer you should be. lisa

    June 22, 2012 at 3:02 am

    • Tom Sweeney

      Thanks, Lisa! I’m a writer of sorts, I suppose; I’m working on some long-form fiction in between doing things that pay the bills. Glad you like it, anyway.

      July 18, 2012 at 1:17 pm

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