Moderately cool, dry air floods the house. Though the air in the house is no cooler than it has been for much of the past several days, it feels better because the suffocating humidity of the past week has been sucked from the air, courtesy of a finally-working air conditioner. We were without AC for a week, an awful experience these days in which refrigerated air has become almost as important as oxygen. It has not always been so with me. I grew up in South Texas, first in a border town and then in a coastal city, with no air conditioning in my home until I was a junior in high school. We somehow suffered through the beastly summers with temperatures regularly in the nineties and relative humidity levels to match. I do not understand how I survived and I do not understand why people settled that part of the world ante-AC. But I did and they did. My experience did not kill me, though it probably disfigured me for life in some fundamental way—my psyche was no doubt irreparably damaged. I’m sure the way in which I view the world was colored by my dismay that humans would willingly put themselves in and remain in such an uncomfortable environment. But my memories of dismay are blurry. In fact, I remember only a little about circumstances in which I found the temperatures and humidity almost unbearable. Those circumstances almost always involved black, oscillating table fans with black metal blades. The fans brought a modicum of relief, but they also brought sharp pain when, in the middle of the night, I would stretch and, in the process, thrust my fingers into the spinning blades. I’ve written about that before, I think. If not, I’ve surely thought about it.
In spite of the inhospitable conditions of summer in South Texas, living there had its high points. Lots and lots of fresh citrus—limes, lemons, oranges, grapefruit. Luscious, just-picked vegetables from roadside stands. Fish and shrimp, most of it alive and fresh from the boat. Opportunities to catch our own fish and crabs. And my friends and I used seine nets to catch our own shrimp that we used for bait when we’d go fishing for speckled trout and assorted other fish, including the occasional flounder, that took the shrimp bait. Though my memories of those times are far dimmer than I wish they were, I still recall times when life on the Texas coast was spectacular. I suppose the reason I didn’t move back to the coast after college was simply a matter of employment; work was more abundant in the big cities of Houston and Dallas. I might have stayed in Austin after college, except the employment scene there was even worse at the time. A huge population of students—then about 40,000—was hungry for jobs. I didn’t have the first clue where or how to apply for a job, especially in such a competitive environment. So I fled.
There have been times I’ve wished I’d gone back to the Texas coast. I remember the small towns that I found so appealing, in part, because they were small and the populations were heterogeneous. At the time (I thought), Mexican immigrants lived in peace and harmony with Anglo “natives.” I liked that. It was, to no small degree, a myth, but I liked what I believed was true. I liked the simplicity of the small towns. Though I thoroughly enjoyed Austin and its cosmopolitan atmosphere (and its extremely diverse student body), I felt a kinship of sorts with the small towns. Perhaps that was because I used to travel with my father through those towns, where he would stop at lumber yards, chat with the owners, and sell carloads of lumber to them. He’d take their orders, then make arrangements with sawmills to ship their purchases to them, via railroad. Some of the lumber he bought was from the Pacific northwest. Some was from Texas. Some from Arkansas. At the time, I knew nothing of clear-cutting. I knew nothing of logging companies destroying swaths of old-growth forests. And today, even though I know more than I knew then, I am not ashamed of my father’s role in selling lumber. He, like damn near everyone alive at the time, simply did not understand what logging was doing to the environment. And he knew that, at least in Texas, the sawmills from which he bought lumber were involved in forest management in which they would not clear-cut and would, instead, replant timber in areas from which they harvested it. God, I’m really going off course here.
So here I am in Arkansas, in the middle of the forest, living in a house that is, once again, cool and comfortable. And I’m thinking about life on the Texas coast. I am certain it is very different today than it was when I was growing up. The population is much more dense. The little towns are much larger. The sleepy villages on the coast where, back in those days, you could buy a little frame house right on the water for a song, are no longer sleepy. They are weekend retreats for people with money and time to kill. They are tourist resorts whose economies have changed as the fishing industries have declined. Even after I left, I remember hearing stories that suggested Vietnamese immigrants essentially took over the fishing industry along the coast, thanks to their experience and their willingness to work harder than the next guy. I wonder if they, too, are suffering the economic pain of declining catches? I suspect so. Overpopulation and greed take their toll wherever you go.
I feel sad today. Sad that my childhood memories are like vapor. Sad that the few memories I have of life on the Texas coast are of a life that no longer exists. Sad that I can’t recapture any of it, even if I go to visit. The world in which I lived has changed. It’s no longer the happy hamlet of my youth. I do so miss the isolated life I never had, the life on a farm where the only interactions with people were limited to weekly trips to the market. I really never had that life. But I miss it. I miss that life I wish I’d lived. Life on an island off the coast of New Brunswick or perhaps a spit of land on the Atlantic coast of North Carolina or Maryland. We should be able to implant distinct memories in our brains, vivid, lifelike experiences with images as sharp as a print from the very best Leica camera. I remember a film from many years ago in which that was possible. People could buy “vacations” which involved implanting experiences of things like African safaris in their brains. I remember the name of it (I’ve probably written about it before). It was called Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, and it starred Raul Julia as a character named Aram Fingal. Now it’s coming back to me. I’m certain I’ve written about it. Now I’ll have to look it up.
It’s 6:20 p.m. and I think I’ll drown my ennui in wine. Exercise would be better, but I’m already nursing four ugly and monstrously “itchy” chigger bites on the upper rear of my right thigh, suggesting I’ll be better off staying indoors. We had no problem with chiggers when I lived on the Texas coast. Our nemesis was the mosquito. I prefer the mosquito; it’s an enemy that at least is visible. Maybe I should rethink where we live. I do not want to cope with chiggers. I just don’t. But we’ll see, won’t we? We will, indeed.