In recent years I have come to an accommodation with sophistication. I was not surprised when I saw an issue of a well-known magazine which included a photograph of royalty and royalty followers sunning themselves, topless, on a yacht near Costa Esmeraldas. I have brochures from Gstaad, where I know the ski set will be occupied with apr�s ski Scrabble throughout the month of January; and from Aspen, where I know plumbing contractors will commune with modern jazz during the long, sweetened days of the summertime. I know about Ischia and Puerto Vallarta, Antibes and Biarritz. I am, in short, eminently aware of the world and its possibilities for diversion, and yet I am continually astonished at realizing that one of the things, apparently, that no one does any more is travel to East Texas.
There was a time some years ago when I was under the impression that the only vacation trip in the world was a journey to East Texas. I was living in West Texas, a separation of worlds distinct to residents of the state, if not to anyone else. West Texas was an abstract, all flatness, colors repeated on colors, invisible life and meaning, structures straight-lined and geometric, man-made, the Texas you expect when you hear the word. East Texas was an old-fashioned pastoral landscape, cows in the meadow, sheep in the corn, cotton in the fields, water in the streams and the smells of humid earth and wood-burning stoves.
My father and his father were West Texans, resident for almost as long as the land had had an authorized existence. My mother, however, was from East Texas, wooed and won to the West years ago during a casual trip to see a wandering brother. It was to visit the remnants of her original family that we began the series of summertime visits.
My uncle and aunt and my cousins lived on a farm—everybody in East Texas lived on a farm so far as I knew—at first in an unpainted sharecropper's house on land owned by a doctor, later in a white-painted house on their own land. A visit to them meant drawing water from the well by squeaky pail and rope, racing the rain from the fields to the back porch, digging up potatoes—all items of fascination to a young West Texan at the time.
Contrary to contemporary accounts, soul food was never the exclusive province nor even the invention of the blacks. Poor whites in East Texas had black-eyed peas and corn bread at nearly every meal, and rarely was one concluded by my aunt without a couple of fried mince meat pies, hot and literally dripping with the seepage of the crust. I must have consumed several hundred pounds of those mincemeat pies, right up until the day someone casually explained to me how they loosened the flesh of the hog's head to obtain the mincemeat. That went a long way toward explaining the occasional bristles I had bitten into, and it makes even the ersatz mincemeat I sometimes encounter in restaurants a trifle too strong to digest.
From summer to summer, since these visits were spaced precisely a year apart, it would be possible to plot a chart or some visual aid illustrating the years of our growing up, though in certain respects all of those summers had qualities of sameness about them. The first year we were in East Texas I walked to the country school with my cousin where some older boys coaxed us into a fight for the one undebatable reason: 'To see which one can whip." I won the fight by tripping my cousin from behind and slamming his ear on the corner of a wooden border around a flower bed. In another year my youngest brother was lost in the woods and found by a Texas Agricultural and Mechanical Experimental Station man named Mr. Bean. We watched the hogs devour a muddy pond full of desperately wiggling water moccasins; swam naked in the classical version of the swimming hole; helped still another cousin deliver ice to the backwoods farm where chickens clucked in the same kitchens with some breathtaking girls. We listened to country music on the radio, and we spent a great deal of one visit sitting in a car, shaded by a huge tree, looking at a nudist magazine—airbrushed—and considering the very nearly incredible possibilities if we could only get near some girls for a couple of hours. What we did when we finally did get near some was play basketball, something my cousin did extremely veil and something I did extremely poorly.
During one of these later years, the significant one in this particular chronicle, we also began to live baseball, more or less at the insistence of my cousin. Entirely at the insistence of my cousin, to be precise. He had discovered the sport and considered it far too important to just play around with like a game. Every morning, for hours, we shagged fly balls in the stubble of an almost-cleared field which unfortunately sloped downward and made each fall a challenge to a permanently pock-marked face. During the heat of the early afternoon we lay, along with the hounds, on a pallet on the front porch and listened to the radio broadcast of a major league game. Mentally retreaded by the excited announcer, we then employed the remainder of the daylight playing catch, positioning ourselves in shady islands around the huge lawn.
It was only a matter of time until my cousin realized the baseball day could be extended to almost midnight by catching a ride into Jacksonville—the nearest large town—on the nights the Jacksonville nine of some East Texas professional league (possibly it was The East Texas League) was playing a game. The Jacksonville park seemed fairly decrepit, the bleachers and the fences a perfect match for the unpainted sharecroppers' cabins except for the advertising signs, some of the signs worth $5 or a chicken dinner if a batter could hit them on the right spot. My cousin and I did not have funds for a ticket, but by climbing a tree on the third-base side of the park it was a simple matter to see into the game, except on the nights when we were late and the tree was already full of barefoot Jacksonville kids.
After a couple of innings my cousin would leave the tree and I would follow him out around the parked cars and into the heavily-wooded area behind right field. There was some stray illumination from the arc lights, and not far away, naturally, a grandstand full of people. For all practical purposes, however, we were in a forested wilderness, the sort of wilderness that inspires certain men and women to lie down in front of loggers' trucks to preserve it. Crickets and frogs made their darktime noises, the grass was thick and damp and high and I was uneasy, the way desert people are always uneasy when they are in the woods after dark.
The right-field fence was very nearly a picket fence, the gaps between the boards not quite wide enough to allow a baseball to escape, but easily wide enough for us to enjoy a clear view of the rightfielder, Jacksonville's star home-run hitter and my cousin's hero.