One hardly knows what to expect anymore – not when it’s time for the National Anthem at a ball game or what’s going to happen at an Episcopal Mass or whether that person you’ve just met recognizes the difference between a fact and an “alternative” fact. That being how things are, I find the predictability of my visits to Rockport on the Texas coast more refreshing than ever.
Even last month, less than a year after Harvey had its way with this small town and much reconstruction remained to be done, being there was still mostly about fishing, watching the sun rise and set over the Gulf of Mexico, keeping an eye out for roseate spoonbills, and the sweet comfort of being with old friends.
Change and lack of change are in the eye of the beholder, of course. Some years ago when I still had hair, I said to a local barber that Rockport made me happy in the way that it was always the same when I showed up. He, a year-round resident and, as it turned out, quite the booster, took offense. I left the shop looking like a precursor to Kim Jong Un.
Our disagreement had little to do with facts. He could have showed me strip centers under construction and expensive new houses, and I could have told him that I was staying in the same assemblage of former tourist cabins (that’s what they were called) where I’d been staying for years. But that would have been beside the point. The absence of change I referred to was about the ineffable and immeasurable, about how it feels to be there.
I started going to Rockport sometime around 1970. When I recall the fishing we did in those early days, I have to admit that a good deal of physical change has taken place. But in essence the experience is the same.
Last week, Walle (pronounced “Wally”) and Shaaron (pronounced “Sharon”), Joe and Carolyn, and Ann and I stayed in “the“big house” that we’d enjoyed many times over the years. It was the residence of the manager of the tourist cabins when they were built nearly a hundred years ago. I once used the house in a scene in a novel, the surpassing beauty of which an astounding number of agents and publishers have failed to recognize. It’s an O.K. description no matter how many times the book has been rejected, so here it is.
The main thing Freeman had ever wanted from the place was a shelter that he could put to hard use without being anxious about damage. His friends had carpets that collected sand and fleas and were much more trouble to care for than his floors of hardwood, sheet vinyl, and, in a couple of storage areas, vintage linoleum. Likewise, the furniture was not anything that a little sweat or a wet glass would damage.
Hannah turned into the kitchen. If there was going to be a problem about her comfort, it would probably be here. That would be bad. Except for the front porch, the kitchen was his favorite room. It had once been a medium-size square space, but it had been expanded at some point before he owned it by knocking out a wall and taking in the adjacent utility room. The result was that the kitchen was now a large rectangle with a slight step down where the wall had been and, on another side, a floor that sloped noticeably. Anyone sitting on the east end of the rickety breakfast table was perceptibly higher than someone on the west end. When guests pointed it out, Freeman put the slant down to quaint charm and said he would take jacks and shims under the house and make the place level as soon as he could get the feral cats who squatted there to agree to it.
On the walls, pots and pans hung from hooks or galvanized six-penny and eight-penny nails. Drinks were served in jelly glasses or chipped coffee mugs. Two wheezing, rusty refrigerators crowned with rattling Emerson fans threatened at any minute to lose the battle with Texas heat and salt air. The part of the room that had been the utility porch was taken up by a long table covered at all times with food and drink and supplies. He had brought in most of the stuff when he arrived a couple of weeks earlier, but some of it was on the verge of fossilizing.
A few years ago, “the big house” burned to the ground. The owners rebuilt it exactly as it was before, except that the current version is air conditioned, it has three bathrooms, and it’s generally a lot more ship shape. I have mixed feelings about these improvements. We had a lot of happy times there before it was fancied up. But no matter; to me it still seems pretty much the same as always.
We used to set off before daylight in Walle’s boat and bounce full throttle toward the barrier island two or three miles across the bay. Someone in the bow would hold up a flashlight in lieu of proper running lights. After a time, we’d anchor, jump out into shallow water, and spend much of the day wading in pursuit of trout, redfish, and flounder. As a matter of honor of the sort young males are good at, we would sustain ourselves with no more than a peanut plank and some water. We wore ordinary sneakers, heavy-when-wet jeans, and we didn’t bother with stingray guards. We kept more fish than would be allowed today, and many would be too small by current regulations.
Last month, Walle, who was recovering from surgery, didn’t bring his boat, but he and Joe and I fished anyway. (The women don’t care for fishing.)
It was a mere approximation of what we used to do. We wore state-of-the-art wading boots, stingray guards, and lightweight microfiber pants and shirts. We used live bait (it was artificials only in the old days). We waded within shouting distance of the tourist-cabin compound. And Walle had made wading canes – five-foot lengths of bamboo that floated behind us on a tether, ready to help with old-man balance problems. In one way, though, it was exactly like fishing in the old days; Walle caught more fish than Joe and I combined. The first day, we stayed out but two hours. The next day, Joe was at an urgent-care facility getting an infected cut treated, and Walle slept in. I went out alone for about three hours.
We drove back to Austin a couple of days later without wetting a line again. You might say, then, that last week’s fishing was quite different from the way it used to be. But that would not be the whole story. The most telling part of the time down there was that we men still got in the water and gave free rein to an elemental part of ourselves. And as always, Carolyn, Shaaron, and Ann read and napped and enjoyed long walks and cooked as if we were a hunter-gatherer society. (Ann, who still works part-time, also took care of some business online.)
Evenings, we sat on the porch for a while and watched the bay be the bay and tried to keep the warm breeze from melting the ice in our drinks. Then we gathered at the round table that was a replica of the one that had burned and enjoyed a celebratory meal of fresh fish, masterfully prepared. We turned in early.
In all, being there was the same. Maybe more so.