Monday, June 28, 1999
There’d been an even better solution to finding a place to stay last night. We just didn’t know it. A short drive west led to Civil War-era Fort Morgan, long abandoned on a hot spit of sand. There, a ferry left to Dauphin Island, where a tasteful billboard boasted No Buildings Over Three Stories High, a welcome contrast to overstacked Gulf Shores.
The island had once been called Dauphine, after the wife of the son of the king of France. We might have stayed a week—it was that low-key. But nothing had been listed in our guide books, and it was getting too warm to risk leaving the dog in the truck overnight. And while, several times, we’d found unlisted motels that took pets, it wasn’t worth taking a chance, only to get stranded at midnight on a sandbar.
The ferry also let us avoid Mobile, then Biloxi, a possible industrial detergent of a town. The drive afterward was so unpressured that, as I stood idly addressing postcards in the air-conditioned lobby of the Bayou La Batre post office, Tom had to find me, saying, “You know we’re running two hours late.”
“Late?” I asked. We were slowly wandering towards a relative of one of Tom’s neighbors. “What time is it?”
“You’re joking. I figured eleven.” I’d stopped wearing my watch.
Tom shook his head.
“Sorry. You’d better call and apologize. Tell her we’ll be there in an hour.”
One reason I’d been taking my time is I thought we’d left plenty early. The other is I knew, at any major intersection, we could shift off the back roads to a parallel highway. Which is what we’d have to do.
Tom came back smiling. “It’s okay. She’s holding lunch for us.” And the morning detour proved a good choice once we got to the main road, which was a mess.
“Oh, no!” Glenna laughed when we told her how we’d come. “That strip’s all K-Marts and casinos. You can’t avoid them.”
Glenna was in her seventies, widowed, and living with one of her sons. Their big excitement, recently, was her grandson going off to West Point.
“It’s the first time he’s been away from his family,” she explained. “And cadets aren’t allowed to contact anyone for six weeks. So everyone’s a little worried that he’s homesick.”
She doubted it. The appointment was something her grandson had wanted for a long time, so was more than simply political. He’d been a member of high school ROTC, had terrific grades, was a class leader, a minor athlete, and even went to church.
“They’re spending a quarter of a million dollars on his education,” Glenna went on, “and he’s not even the first from this area to go. His high school has something of a reputation.”
It also turned out there was an organized support group which counseled waiting relatives. “We’re told to keep sending them cards and letters, saying how they’ve made us so proud. And when the boys finally do call, we absolutely can’t let them complain.”
“Why would they do that?” Tom questioned.
“Well, on top of being on their own for the first time, they’re also in basic training. And we saw some movies. They work those boys hard.”
“A quarter of a million dollars,” I later told Tom. “That’s double Ivy League rate. Though I suppose you can’t die for Harvard.”
Leaving Glenna, we stayed pretty much on the interstate, since we’d learned the ugliness of local side roads. And we already had complicated directions to our next stop—more or less. At one point my friend Daryl said on the phone, “Just stop and ask instructions. Cathy and I know how to thread our way past all the farms. But we can’t remember the actual street names.”
Reaching that point of confusion, Tom stopped at a gas station. I took one look at the obviously low-paid attendant, and instead quizzed a preppy-looking guy gassing his Mustang.
“Follow me,” he grinned. And we tried to keep up.
Cathy and Daryl lived in a perfectly landscaped house, something of a trick considering the humidity.
“They say you get used to it,” Cathy laughed. She and Daryl had lived in the South since grad school. “But it’s a lie. You just learn to work around it.”
She wouldn’t work in their garden much after nine AM.
Still, they’d done a terrific job. The center of their yard had a small gazebo and a shallow pond.
“We had to add the pond,” Daryl grinned. “Last hurricane knocked out a huge tree. Left a big crater.”
“It also took off the gazebo roof,” Cathy added. “Though it could have been worse. Some people lost houses.”
Being raised in New York,I’d always liked hurricanes—by the time they reached us, it meant a little extra rain, great lightning, and a day off from school. But the idea of losing your house kind of threw me.
After dinner—Tom was hoping for Cajun, but Cathy chose Tex-Mex (“It’s the best around.”)—we talked about college friends. A couple of people had gotten a lot of what they’d wanted, but—as Cathy pointed out—“If you hold on to dreams, you cut yourself off from other possibilities.”
She’d expected to teach at the university level, but was heading up a high school English program. “Sometimes,” she laughed, “it’s hard making kids understand why school’s so important—especially here. There was a natural gas strike a couple of years ago, and a lot of people became instant millionaires.”
“We don’t even own the mineral rights to this house,” Daryl explained. “The previous owners kept them. That’s they way things work around here.”
“With all these kids having money,” Cathy went on, “there’s almost no incentive. “I had to sit down with one of my students recently and ask, ‘Are you a genius? Are you a millionaire?’ When he answered ‘No’ to both questions, I said, “Well, you’re just gonna have to study.”
“Can the gas go away as quickly as it came?” I asked, thinking of oil wells that suddenly go dry.
“Maybe,” Daryl admitted. “But these people aren’t stupid. All their money’s conservatively invested.”
At least, it didn’t get lost in casinos.