Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hurricane Ike Destroys Bolivar

The Bolivar Peninsula is no more. A family friend flew over the land and saw that virtually none of what was, even remains in piles. Most people never heard of it, so they won’t miss it. But for me, Caplen, Gillcrist, Crystal Beach and Galveston, they represent not just whole summers but three to four generations of memories that have just now literally been washed out to sea.

The whole peninsula had a way about it that differed from the flashier Galveston that always got everyone's attention. No one traveled to the Bolivar Peninsula that did not already know of its hidden charms. It was drive thru land, as the lure of the ferry and the Strand and Guido's and the bungee jump, bumper cars and rent-a bikes along the seawall kept people from stopping along the way except perhaps for gas or a loaf of bread to feed the seagulls.

People who lived at the beach year round were easy to spot. They wore clothing that had been line dried to the point of fading and most of them smoked. Most of them had tattoos that were politically incorrect, and had them long before they were trendy. The women wore nail polish but no makeup. They had leathery tan skin that if you touched felt unspeakably soft. Men wore jeans and t-shirts 99.9% of the time and baseball caps. They were lean but not thin, strong but not muscular and frequently unshaven. These were people who lived by their hands, via carpentry, painting, sewing, baking, fishing and selling all they made. They cleaned whatever they caught and ate it. They invoked Jesus’ name and cursed with equal ease and didn’t think much of people who came to the beach but didn’t want to get sandy or know how to handle tar (baby oil works great), or who wanted to know where the nearest “Wi-fi” connection might be found. (Try Houston).

Their homes were often pink and grey and they would own at least one boat, one dog, one trailer and a pickup truck. They could fix air conditioners but most didn’t bother to own one, as fans worked best year round. Phones came to the peninsula grudgingly, (1984) and few bothered with TV or cable, much less computers. All that salt air and moisture made electronics beyond a good stereo a real waste of time.

That none of the businesses or homes still exist, even as piles of debris require that I remember them as they were. There was the obligatory shell shop for souvenirs, Milt’s Fish Market for bait and fresh caught goodness, and Claud’s, a store which sold everything one could possibly need at the beach except food. These stores had been here since my Grandmother was young. There were even hand written notes mentioning them as places to go for goods posted in the beach house that served as a summer place to survive with 9 kids before air conditioning for my family’s family since the 1920’s. It's hard to imagine the Bolivar penisula without these places where a man with Harvard law degree and a man who didn't finish high school would be indiscernible from one another as they swapped fishing tips and discussed lures and baitwells and the best "spec" they ever caught.

Looking at the pictures, there is mud and devestation, and I remember the “newcomers” like Mama Theresa’s Flying Pizza, which quickly became mine and my brothers and eventually our children’s favorite spot on Fridays. There wasn't a chain on the entire path, in fact it was a big deal when in the late 90's, a McDonald's opened in Winnie (15 miles away), and a grocery store (The Gulf Mart) opened so that going to the beach no longer meant packing food for a week or driving to Winnie, Houston or Beaumont for more. These places always seemed new because I could remember a time when they weren't there.

I searched for the waterslide, surely it remained. That contraption was something of a controversy to my elders. "Why should we pay to go on a waterslide when you have the entire ocean here?" It was not an easy arguement to combat. Still, eventually, a trip to the slide became part of the beach regimen, just as surely as crabbing with turkey necks, smores and a night of competitive poker, hearts and speed solitare. A second waterslide tried to muscle in on the territory (2004), but beach goers of the Bolivar Peninsula were terribly loyal and annoyed whenever anyone tried to one up anyone else, so the second place struggled along until the first place announced that it was okay and that they were actually friends.

Danny’s Donut Shoppe kept fighting to survive, selling Kolaches which the few in the know people swooped in on Sunday after mass at Our Mother of Mercy to purchase. It went out of business at least three times a summer. Maybe the guy was out fishing, but at least three trips out of five, the shop was closed during hours it was supposed to be open. The beach was like that.

Maybe we should have known that the peninsula’s days were numbered, that everything at the beach gets worn down and eventually destroyed but there was a permanent feeling to that thin stretch of Texas Coast. Whenever someone sold their beach house to someone not family, there was a feeling of shock and concern…that the next people would not be beach people. Most people who came to the beach, became beach people or sold. One could spot the early sellers. They'd try to give their beach houses fancy names and "modernize." It became quickly apparent they didn’t like the fact that there were only three radio stations one could get in clearly, one Christian rock, one talk and one country. Cell phones were essentially useless and they'd be shocked to discover people didn’t have answering machines. As far as I knew, there were only three atms along the entire strip and most places didn't take credit cards.

When people opened new businesses, everyone would look on with amazement to see if they could stick. Some did, like the Sand Piper (on the bay side, great fish), and some didn’t, like the Pier, which when Hurricane Rita hit in 2006, left the large stumps of the pier itself, standing in the surf.

What I will miss though, are those experiences that were uniquely East Texas Coast Beach. I’ll miss hearing the old church lady imitating Kate Smith at the end of mass on 4th of July, singing God Bless America and beach combing while remembering which house was the one where we saw an alligator that had swum down into the gulf, sunning itself. I’ll miss the neighbors that would walk up to introduce themselves because your bonfire looked fun and the beer was cold. I know I could go riding in the back of a pickup truck along the shore to gather driftwood for a bonfire almost anywhere, but there was something to it here. I'll even miss the crazy beach lady on her tractor mower who would get grouchy if your flipflop touched her property line when walking back to the house.

But mostly, I’ll miss the memories of bringing new people to the beach house and watching them discover that despite the seaweed and jellyfish in the brown warm surf, the tar on the beach, the stickaburrs in the grass and the fire ants and mosquitoes, that standing out on the wooden deck, staring at the ocean, sipping a freshly made drink of something, they would breathe in the salt air and marvel at how much they loved this place.

Now I know places can be rebuilt but here, we just don’t know if there is anything to build on yet, or even how to begin. It’s too soon to know if any of what we knew could be restored. By all accounts, there's just nothing there of those 85 years of memories but memories. For now, I just miss that place that described my childhood summers and almost every birthday until I was 24 and hope that in Heaven, I get to drive down highway 87 and turn onto Martha's Vineyard and find a strong southeast wind and a grey house up on 18 foot piers with family inside it sitting at my grandfather's butcher table, chopping up the ingredients for Gumbo.

Arial View before Ike...

http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Green+beach+house,+TX&ie=UTF8&ll=29.495683,-94.531804&spn=0.001735,0.003259&t=h&z=19

For more information/pictures of what was and what is...

www.bolivarchamber.org/Portals/0/CaplenShores.jpg

www.nytimes.com/2008/09/16/us/16bolivar.html?hp

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was "raised" in Bolivar. I left it with my family and now live in Brownsville Texas, "on the border, by the sea". I am a nurse practitoner, my children are in collegebut they are all aware of my childhood stories living in a carefree society where children roamed the streets safely, played tricks on neighbors and awaited "Halloween" where we were allowed to stay out, egg homes and schools and then meet the next morning to clean oue mess up. I wish all my friends good luck cleaning and rebuilding a childhood paradise. Lisa Ortiz Garnett

Amy said...

I don't really have ties to any one geography that floods me with memories. But I am sorry that your special place is in such a state. Prayers to all those recovering.

JimmyV said...

Touching story. Sounds like a loss for a true society. Many prayers.

Mr. Green of St. Thomas said...

It's actually Dannay's Donuts. They did really well in the last few years. By my recollections, there was always a line.

Anonymous said...

This was an awesome tribute to the most special place- Thanks! Love, your little sister whom you taught how to use a casting net

Pat (Sanders) Sleesman said...

I have seen pictures of the family beach house and can't comprehend that it is all gone. My hearts go out to you. God has allowed your summer beach home to be taken. I assume He needed more materials for your heavenly home. Materials that can only come from Him watching how you remember and "rebuild" this summer home. Blessings to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Beaumont, TX. I have so many fond memories of going to "the beach" as we called it because everyone knew we were talking about Crystal Beach. We rented friends' houses every summer and mom would let my sister and me bring one friend each. We would stay for 1-2 weeks every summer. In high school, every weekend included a road trip to the beach for the day where we'd turn down at Swede's store, line our cars along the sand and crank up Houston rock stations and cruise up and down the beach all day. I've taken my children to the beach and just last summer rented my friend's cabin for a week, having the best vacation our family has ever had. My husband and I would sneak away to the Tiki Hut bar and mingle with the locals that I so wanted to be like. I love Crystal Beach and could live there in a hearbeat. I'm just sick that those people have to go through this and I will miss "the beach" so much. I hope those great people can rebuild their lives. Thank you for writing such a wonderful tribute to a wonderful place.

sharon said...

I live in Beaumont and my sister in law has completely lost her cabin in Crystal Beach just pass the Crystal Palace Motel. We have stayed many many summers, springs, falls, and winters in that cabin along with other friends that have cabins that they are not sure of what is going on at this point. This was a very nice memoir to "The Beach". I know it will be back stronger and better than ever, I just don't know how long that is going to take. Me and my husband will miss laying around on the beach people watching drinking our can Miller Lite and then grilling at the cabin, then maybe later going to the Tiki Bar and listening to any of the great bands that often play there. Love also going to have a Stingarita at Stingaree's and going to Sharkeys to listen to the fun but sometimes grumpy DJ threatning to turn the music off until some drunk guy removes his drink from the dance floor. Also going to the "Big Store" and happy that I could finally grocery shop there and still pay about the same I would in Beaumont, and looking at all the crazy other stuff they'd sell. I am so sorry for all the people that have losses in that area. Mine in Beaumont is very minimal compared to Bolivar area and Bridge City, TX. (another devestation) I will truly miss "The Beach" until I can return again!

MightyMom said...

I've seen the before and after shots.

it's enough to make you cry.

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Beaumont. My Dad built a beach house just down from the North Jetty in Bolivar in 1962 after Hurricane Carla. I spent countless hours fishing off the jetty. At age 12 my Dad would let me take our boat out to fish in front of the Fort. At 14 I could fish all the way to the end of the jetty but my favorite place was at the sunken cement ship. When the season opened it was shrimping out of Bolivar Yacht Basin. What freedom and what memories! Memories of Buster Bait, Claudes, McDaniels Grocery, Milts, Swedes Store, cruising Crystal Beach, surfing, riding the ferry to Galveston and going to the Bamboo Hut!
I moved from Texas in 1975 but am still friends with people I fished with and played with in the 60's. I have been gone a long time but my heart is still heavy for those that have lost so much. My prayers are with you all!

James Mitchell said...

I am 23 and was born in Houston and moved to a small West Texas town when I was a kid. My cousin owns American Rodsmiths and a bayhouse on Bolivar. The waters of Bolivar have been the place for so much fun and even the testing grounds for many of American Rodsmiths fishing rods. I have spent many many weekends and even a couple full weeks there. I fell in love instantly, the people and the atmosphere made me feel at home. My dad has a travel trailer slot at the Bolivar Yacht Basin and as of 1/31/2009 we will be back. With places like the BIG STORE and Coba's Cafe not to mention Stingarees, places that make you feel welcomed and not rushed. The people of Bolivar live a slower paced life and I envy them for that, and maybe one day I can claim the title of resident. A community I have fallen in love with and I will help to rebuild!

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