We moved from Palestine to College Station, Texas, the home of Texas A&M University (whoop!) when I about 2 years old. Upon arrival in College Station, we moved into a small, brown, wood frame rent house located on a street named Parkplace. We have always referred to it in my family as “The Little Brown House”. This house was located only a couple of houses away from Welborn Road, which at that time was the de facto Western boundary of the town. Just on the other side of Welborn Road ran a very busy railroad track. My mother often commented on how much she loved awaking at 2:00 in the morning to the shaking of the house and the blare of the train horn. Fortunately for all, I was a heavy sleeper, so the train noises never really seemed to bother me.
My very first clear memory comes from this period of my life, which is somewhat remarkable I’m told since we moved from that house when I was three. This memory involves my brother and I discussing a friend in the back yard of the little brown house. The friend’s name was Chuckie. He lived around the corner from us and came over frequently to play. My father called him Chuckie the Lucky Ducky, a name that Chuckie absolutely detested, but which delighted my brother and I to no end. Anyhow, my brother and I were standing in the back yard of our house by a small tree. This tree couldn’t have been any taller than 8 to 10 feet at the time, so it’s trunk was only about 2 to 3 inches in diameter. The lower branches had been trimmed from this tree so that the first branches started at about 5 or 6 feet, but there was a small stump where one of the branches had been cut off about a foot or so off of the ground. My brother had discovered that by stepping up on this stump while holding the trunk, he could elevate himself high enough to be able to see the top of the television antenna of Chuckie’s house. This was quite exciting news to us both, as we suddenly felt as if our world had just grown enormously bigger. We took turns stepping up on that branch stump to marvel at our discovery with exclamations of joy and wonder.
I don’t know why that moment is burned so clearly in my memory, but there it is, shining like a jewel. It is such a powerful memory, that even now, after all of these years, thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. I know that must sound crazy to anyone reading this because it even sounds crazy to me, but for some reason that I can not explain, that memory evokes a feeling of joy and a bit of melancholy in me. Perhaps it has something to do with a yearning for a time in my life when my needs were so simple, that even the thrill of such a trivial discovery could light up my world.
I don’t remember much else about this time of my life although I have heard two stories about this time period that stand out.
The first story involved the night that a chemical plant, or so my mother described it, which was located not far from our house, exploded, causing us to flee in the night. Apparently the fumes from the burning chemicals were toxic and we only had a matter of minutes to get out or die. At least, that was the way it was told by my mother. A memento of this event remained hanging on the wall of my mother’s house until her death: two bronze decorative plates, stained a mottled black by the thick fumes which inundated our house that night. (I have since researched this story and found that it was indeed a chemical plant. To quote from an AP news article dated June 16, 1960 “A series of explosions rocked the Agricultural Checmical Co. here shortly before midnight Wednesday. The firm manufactures insecticides.” So, apparently we did almost die.)
The second story, recited at family gatherings time and again, was the story of my adventure with rat poison. As my mother told the story, she was standing at the fence talking with a neighbor lady when my sister approached her all in a huff, lamenting the fact that “Joey had something to eat and I didn’t!” Apparently my sister had to repeat this quite a few times before my mother finally registered what she was saying. At that point, she asked Karen what it was I was eating. My sister held out an empty container which said “Rat Poison” with a skull and crossbones emblem printed in bright red. My mother freaked. No one knew where the container came from or how much had been in it, but at this point it was empty and my sister reported seeing me eat the last bit of it’s contents. A frantic call was placed to the doctor who ordered my mother to induce vomiting. No dice. I steadfastly resisted every effort to stick anything down my throat, so the doctor instructed her to make a concoction involving raw eggs mixed with various disgusting ingredients which he assured her was “guaranteed to make me throw up.” No dice. I drank it right down and didn’t even blink. When that failed, he had her rush me to the emergency room where my stomach was pumped. Sure enough, they found enough rat poison to kill a grown man, nevertheless a very small child. I guess sibling rivalry isn’t always such a bad thing.