David picked me up at 6 a.m, Saturday morning. I packed extra shoes, socks and blue jeans, a compass, water, a flask of Oban, binoculars, a space blanket and my Nikon. David brought sausage kolaches and donuts and ashes in a box marked “Mimi” on the back seat. We were in the van he bought from his dad Fred – his mother Ann’s ex-husband. I wasn’t sure how Ann would feel about taking her last ride in a van once driven by Fred Calhoun, but that was David’s call. I noted there was room for at least four sets of clubs in back. Fred was a dedicated golfer in his California retirement.
We took 225, the scenic route through the refineries of Pasadena and on across the Fred Hartman bridge through Baytown to I 10 East. David seemed to recall that Fred Hartman was in on one of his many cases with Abraham involving defense of some director and officer malfeasance. I didn’t know who the guy was and really didn’t care at 6:30 in the morning. I stayed off the kolaches until we could stop for some OJ at a McDonald’s on I-10. We headed straight east with the winter sun rising in the southeast, an orange glow over the upper reaches of Galveston Bay.
Day broke somewhere past Wallisville with David and I talking about families and work, nothing too important. I was glad he had included me on the mission. I think he was glad for me to be along. A large part of his filial duties had fallen on me with his relocation to D.C. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to do anything for Ann. She had basically been my surrogate mother for the past 10 years and I had been the one to visit her in Beaumont the day before she died. And she had died from the exact same cause that killed my own mother.
David’s cousin John was pulling up ferns from his front yard when we pulled up about 7:45. I needed a pit stop so we quietly passed through his crowded house. His girls Irma and Kathy had a friend sleeping over in bags on the living room floor. They were starting to rouse as we came through the house. His wife, Susan was also up in a few minutes and wished us well on our way out.
We decided to take John’s pickup since the roads past Village Mills were likely to be rough and wet. It was a good decision. I road up front with John and David sat on the crew seat. The truck had the Cromwell Cleaners name and information on the doors. There was a long history of cleaning in the David’s family. I thought that at least Ann’s last ride would not be in Fred’s old van. I always thought Ann never exactly got over her divorce with Fred.
John is the son of the man that David probably admired most in the world, his late Uncle Huey. David always describes Huey as the most fun and festive person he ever met. I think Huey must have been a natural charmer. He married Eleanor who I only recently met and she is still a fine looking woman. You can tell she was quite beautiful in her day. David says his friends were simply in awe of her beauty and were always ready to go if Eleanor was in on the deal.
Forrest Woodvine was our point of reference for the point of dispersal, for lack of a better term. I guess you usually hear it referred to as the scattering of ashes. I don’t know if there is a better term. He had indicated the general location of the old family fishing camp on Village Creek where Ann had requested her ashes be scattered. It’s now in the Big Thicket National Preserve. I remarked that since we were violating the law by disposing of human remains in a public waterway we might as well double down and enhance the offense by doing it in a National Preserve.
Before we had gone 3 blocks, John remembered to call Forrest. David had remarked on Forrest’s appearance. Kind of East Texas’ answer to ZZ Top – long hair and white beard. We met Forrest at a convenience store a few blocks from John’s house. He had on a broken brimmed straw hat and wire rim glasses. He looked every part the aged hippie that David swore he used to rail against. Forrest further pinpointed the site of the fishing camp and provided some additional maps. He said he would have gone with us but he had some business to take care of. I took a picture of John, David and Forrest holding the box marked “Mimi.”
“You always had to bring Forrest along to the fishing camp because he could get your car unstuck.” David remarked as we headed north on US 69. John kept up a continual running commentary on the latest happenings in Beaumont. Of special note was the funeral of the wife of one of their junior high teachers. The highlight had been where her husband got up and sang her a song while resting his hands on the coffin. Apparently there wasn’t much to say after that.
We passed through an endless stream of new subdivisions with alluring names. Like Pine Lake Forest Woods and the Willow Creek Farm Estates. All of them dumping onto a small two- lane US highway under major construction to widen it to what appeared would be two and a half lanes.
As we passed through Lumberton and Kountze, I was pretty sure that I had never been up that highway before. Right before Village Mills we crossed over Village Creek. It had rained more or less continuously for the past couple of weeks and the creek was about a quarter mile wide at the bridge which didn’t bode well for our mission. We turned off on the appropriately named Oil Field Road and John decided which road heading south to take. It was more dirt than gravel, but the oil company had seen fit to fill in the bottom of the biggest holes with gravel so we traveled along fairly easily. I thought we were matching a particular road on the map, but then the expected right turn never came. We continued on anyway until the track became too narrow and rutted to continue.
We packed up Mimi in my North Face day pack and I put everything else in my wife’s Lowe pack and we headed down what remained of the fishing camp road – David carrying Mimi. The track followed the west bank of Hickory Creek. It was remarkably easy going for about 45 minutes. We had to dodge the occasional wallow and cut through the woods at various points but overall it was relatively dry and smooth. David thought it looked somewhat familiar, but you could have been down this road 5 years ago and not be able to now distinguish it from a dozen others in the area.
We finally hit a large slough that expanded from the creek to parts unknown. We first tried jumping the fence to the west and wandered around on the adjacent property for about 30 minutes looking for a way around. We found several blinds and feeders and the remains of a bridge across the low part but that was all. We tried following a path along the creek which looked promising but hit a 40 yard expanse of dark water within a few hundred yards. Our only option was to back track a half mile and try one of the paths to our west that we had passed. We took the first promising one and followed it for half a mile over a couple of small drainages and finally hit a good road at a red metal gate marked Carl Sikes Lease 2004-2005.
My compass was coming in handy now that we were off the main track. This road headed due south in the right direction. We finally came to another gate and a very nice open pasture with signs of cattle in the not too distant past. Eastern bluebirds were flocking around. We crossed the open area to another road that headed east/west. We chose east and soon hit another gate sporting a Stop sign. Not taking this as an omen, we continued on until we hit a sendero heading due south to another deer blind. After about 15 minutes we finally hit what appeared to be the outer flood zone of Village Creek. The water was running east in the right direction, but we didn’t have a clue if we were near the old family fishing camp.
At this point I was a little uncertain exactly how we would find our way back. If we headed north we would eventually hit something. And we were on a mission.
We decided to head back east. We finally wandered past the boundary marker for the Big Thicket preserve and we knew that we were near the old fishing camp. We meandered around sloughs and thickets, but eventually found ourselves back at the gate with the Stop sign. After 30 pointless minutes of cutting through the woods we decided it was best to get back on a road.
We headed east on what passed for a road then turned south again and crossed back into the preserve. We could now see that we were on the other side of the impassible slough that had side tracked us about an hour ago. We wandered on through felled trees, upheaved concrete slabs and abandoned oil pipeline equipment.
We finally came to the confluence of Hickory and Village Creeks or at least what appeared to be that confluence. David found a nice spot. It was probably on Hickory Creek, but we all agreed that we had given it our best.
As David and John scattered Ann’s ashes the sun came out on cue and I took pictures. I scattered some of her ashes, said a silent goodbye and washed my hands in the milk chocolate water. We all said something about Ann and had a sip of the Oban. I poured the rest into the creek. I was thinking that Ann was somewhere complaining that we had screwed up our final job for her and scattered her ashes in the wrong place. In a way, that probably made her happy.
On the way back, David and Kevin discussed local politics. I was a little annoyed and then decided that Ann would probably have liked the talk. She would have relished the coming unseating of the county commissioners for their prior foolish acts and appreciated that her boys were keeping up with local affairs.
Our feet were wet, our pants muddy and our spirits a little low as we headed back to John’s truck. It took the better part of an hour and we were happy to see the truck. The buffet lunch at Mama Jack’s in Kountze helped revive us a bit even though that third slice of meatloaf was probably a mistake.
Back in Beaumont, David and I said goodbye to John and Susan. We stopped for a brief visit with Eleanor, me in my pruny bare feet. I brought the extra shoes and socks but failed to put them in John’s truck.
We took US 90 back to Houston through Liberty and some other miserable towns. We didn’t talk much.
Ann had been an author of some repute, a dedicated educator and my good friend. Mostly, she was a Texas character who knew almost everyone worth knowing. I only knew that I would always miss Ann and would always remember that she thought I had been a good friend – and that was important to me.
Before she passed she told me “You know I would do anything for you and Lisa and that little boy of yours. I am only sorry that I am not going to be here to help you with him.” That was true Ann, she just knew we would need her help with our son. She was right as usual. Goodbye Ann, we will do the best we can without you.