Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Texas, 1979: I Got Here as Soon as I Could

 

Drive Friendly I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as soon as I could. It is a popular bumper sticker in Texas. In a way, it describes my life.

My wife Quilter and I are natives of Ann Arbor, Michigan. It was a nice place to grow up between the 1950s and 1970s, when the two of us were growing up. When I graduated from college? Not so much. In 1979, Michigan was going through a recession which was emptying out the state. Jobs were not to be had, perhaps especially in Ann Arbor. The supply of labor was sky high due to new Michigan graduates who wanted to stay. Thanks to the Michigan recession, the supply of jobs was about as low as a submarine’s keel at test depth.

Quilter and I could have lived in my parent’s basement (literally – they had a suite built into it). Back then, when you were married and had a freshly-minted BS in Engineering, you did not go that route. Besides, thanks to the engineering bust of 1972-74 (when I started college and no one else was crazy enough to major in engineering), the demand for freshly-minted engineers was at record levels. Outside Michigan that is.

I landed a job in Houston, Texas, during my final semester. The job had three big draws. The Houston labor market was smoking hot, Texas had no state income tax, and … I was going to work on the brand-new Space Shuttle program. In 1979, you did not get cooler than that.

79 Chevette
Wheels, circa 1979

I had never been in Texas before, much less Houston. Lockheed, the company that hired me, did not pay for a trip down there. (They did pay to move our worldly possessions — which were not all that much.) We packed up the furniture (and books) in a moving van, stuffed our little four-door hatchback with everything we figured we could not live without, and took off on a three-day road trip to Houston.

In many ways Houston was further from Ann Arbor than Houston is from Oxford, England, today. I spoke to my editor there yesterday by Skype.

SONY DSC
Remember these? Not if you’re under 45.

Now kids, it was like this. There was no Internet in 1979. Nor cell phones, much less smart phones with all sorts of useful apps. Yes, you could speak to someone on a landline telephone across the whole country, but back then that was this thing called a “long-distance phone call,” which you paid for — by the minute. It was expensive, too. And sometimes long distance was across the road. (A year before, it had still been a long-distance call from Nassau Bay on the south side of NASA Road 1 to the Johnson Space Center on the north side.)

You wanted a hotel reservation? You went to a travel agent. (Back then every town had one — right next to the shop where they sold buggy whips and poodle skirts.) Route planning? Get a triptik from Triple A. (Fortunately, my parents were members.) Credit cards? If you were right out of college you had a gasoline card, and maybe a Sears or Penney’s card, but not BankAmericard (now Visa) or Mastercard.

Triptik
State-of-the-art navigation, circa 1979

I had a Phillips 66 card, an Amoco card, and that was it. We loaded up on traveller’s checks — special paper instruments you bought at the bank to exchange for goods when you travelled — and used them for purchases other than gasoline. We hoped we could find enough of the right kind of gas stations along the route. Did I mention that the second OPEC oil embargo was going on and gasoline prices were sky high? If a station had gasoline, that is.

Mark Twain once said all you need is confidence and ignorance and success is sure. Quilter and I had plenty of both. So we blithely got in our car and set off for Houston on Memorial Day Weekend in 1979.

We followed US 23 south through Kentucky into Tennessee, and spent an evening somewhere between Nashville and Memphis. Our car had no AC. Back then, AC was an option on economy cars. You did not need it much in Michigan. We really noticed its lack by the time we hit Cincinnati. (I had been there three months earlier, when the temperature was 23 degrees below zero. It was making up the deficit in average annual temperature.)

We reached Texas at the end of the next day, spending the night in Texarkana. Why were we moving so slowly? Well, kids, back then the maximum speed limit on the Interstates was 55 mph. As a Yankee in the South, I figured I was fair game for the local constabulary if I exceeded it. I stuck to it, as did most everyone else with license plates from states north of the Ohio River. Except for the ones stopped by the side of the road, having conversations with the local constabularies.

55speedlimit
The Sun Has Riz, The Sun Has Set, and We Ain’t In Ta Texas Yet

At the motel we stayed I got a first introduction to Texas. The desk clerk asked if we wanted to join the local club. It was only $1. Why would I want to join a club? Texas then had dry counties, where alcohol could not be sold, except at private clubs. The county we were in was one of those. How … interesting.

The next day we drove down US 59 to Houston, using Texas 2-55 air conditioning (two windows down at 55 mph). Then all the cars ahead slowed down and started swerving. When we reached that spot we saw an Armadillo running back and forth across the road. You would not think those critters could move so fast on those tiny legs, but they did. I wondered why everyone was avoiding it. Thinking they knew something I did not I decided to do the same. (Later I learned if you drove over them, they would jump and hit your engine mount at 55 mph. Bad news for the armadillo and your car, both. Good news for the mechanic who fixed it.)

Armadillo
Why did the armadillo cross the road?

We reached our motel in Houston by early afternoon. We got our first lesson in Houston geography. I had asked for reservations at a Triple-A rate place in southeast Houston. The Space Center was in southeast Houston, right? Except our travel agent’s idea of southeast Houston was Old Spanish Trail at the Gulf Freeway. The Space Center was another 25 miles down the road. By Michigan standards (back then at least), it was a long drive. No problem. We checked in for the day — the next day was Sunday. We would scout out a motel a little closer, and move there.

For two kids from Michigan, Houston was something. The heat and humidity were breathtaking. Literally. Someone had left the oven on somewhere with a big pot of water boiling. It was still May! On top of that, the place we stayed had palms filled with guinea pigs. At least they sounded like guinea pigs. When we looked more carefully we discovered they were grackles. Big ones, viewing us through hostile eyes. If they had been four times larger they could have been the velociraptors from the then-unwritten Jurassic Park. Michael Crichton must have spent time in Houston.

Grackle
Got my eye on you, bub.

The next morning we decided to take it easy. It was Sunday. Texas then had blue laws preventing the sale of most goods except groceries and gasoline, so we could forget buying stuff we needed but had forgotten about when starting out.

We turned on the television. VHS TV. Broadcast. Local stations, and local shows. Cable was the latest thing, and there were few cable networks — most national channels were rebroadcasts of some city’s independent stations, like Ted Turner’s in Atlanta. CNN was a year from being born. No satellite radio, either, or national radio talk shows. Besides, this was an opportunity to learn about our new home.

A show was going on. It seemed to be something about local restaurants. This guy was screaming into the camera about SLIME In The Ice Machine (I could hear the capital letters), and How He Would Leave His Wife If Her Kitchen Were THIS Dirty. He was wearing a white suit, had strange blue tinted glasses, and appeared to have some strange, flat mammal perched on his head. It certainly was not human hair.

marvin-zindler
Our welcome to Houston

After five minutes of watching him, Quilter and I looked at each other. Finally she said “Let’s go back. The people here are weird.”

Instead, we stayed. It was the beginning of our life in Texas. Locals assured us the guy we were watching was weird. He was a local television personality, known for his eccentricities. Houstonians proved a friendly and cosmopolitan group, with a mix of Southern hospitality and folks who’d relocated from every corner of the world. I enjoy visiting elsewhere, but Texas is home. I got here as soon as I could.

There are 73 comments.

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  1. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor

    He’s telling the truth about 1979, kids. Hard to believe, I know, but it’s all true.

    Except for one thing.

    Seawriter, come on. No one obeyed that speed limit.

    • #1
    • January 24, 2016, at 5:48 AM PST
    • Like
  2. Trink Coolidge
    TrinkJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Great account of that time . . . and your on-the-road beginnings.

    You brought back so much. I still miss those Triptiks.

    You remind me how much we take for granted.

    Glad you found your way home. (Would love to hear more about the culture there in NASA during the heyday of the shuttle program.)

    • #2
    • January 24, 2016, at 5:51 AM PST
    • 1 like
  3. TG Thatcher

    Thanks, Seawriter.

    • #3
    • January 24, 2016, at 6:05 AM PST
    • Like
  4. Jeff Petraska Member
    Jeff PetraskaJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Too bad you didn’t have a cool car like mine, Seawriter.

    That black Levi interior would have made your trip so much more comfortable.

    I paid $4628, out the door, brand new in 1978. You may have even seen it in Ann Arbor while you were there.

    • #4
    • January 24, 2016, at 6:08 AM PST
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  5. Merina Smith Inactive

    I relate too. We took a few trips like this too. Once, our car overheated in August while driving across Southern Utah and we had to turn the heat on while to cool down the engine. So miserable. Made the baby very unhappy!

    I just went to Texas for the first time a few years ago. I love it too!

    • #5
    • January 24, 2016, at 6:12 AM PST
    • 1 like
  6. Saint Augustine Member

    I’ve heard that guy once: “SLIME in the ice machine!” Only once. Spent too much time overseas. (And maybe I’m too young.) (And I learned to strongly dislike local Houston news.)

    • #6
    • January 24, 2016, at 6:34 AM PST
    • 1 like
  7. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: Seawriter, come on. No one obeyed that speed limit.

    You did if you were on a tight budget, did not want to arrive late at your first job, and wanted to avoid this guy:

    Especially if you were from out of state and fair game. Cannot tell you the number of cars with Michigan plates which went zooming past on an Arkansas Interstate which I passed a few minutes later on the side of the road in earnest conversation with Officer Friendly.

    Seawriter

    • #7
    • January 24, 2016, at 6:44 AM PST
    • 1 like
  8. iWe Coolidge
    iWeJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Great story – looking forward to meeting you in person!

    • #8
    • January 24, 2016, at 6:48 AM PST
    • Like
  9. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Saint Augustine:I’ve heard that guy once: “SLIME in the ice machine!” Only once. Spent too much time overseas. (And maybe I’m too young.) (And I learned to strongly dislike local Houston news.)

    I think a lot of Houstonians dislike local Houston news, too. Cannot remember the last time I watched local TV, and the Houston Post (then the liberal paper) shut down in the 1990s. (Of course the Post exes infiltrated the Chronicle and pulled that far left afterward.)

    Seawriter

    • #9
    • January 24, 2016, at 6:49 AM PST
    • Like
  10. Arahant Member

    So, when you and Quilter were going to high school, did either of you have a math teacher named Mrs. Koen?

    • #10
    • January 24, 2016, at 7:15 AM PST
    • Like
  11. Susan Quinn Contributor

    What a poignant trip down memory lane! They still have triptiks–you can download your own online. It’s not nearly as much fun as meeting with a AAA person with her orange marker, and flipping through page-by-page, noting the construction zones, going through your trip. Sigh. Thanks, Seawriter.

    • #11
    • January 24, 2016, at 7:17 AM PST
    • Like
  12. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Arahant:

    So, when you and Quilter were going to high school, did either of you have a math teacher named Mrs. Koen?

    I did for either 10th or 11th grade, but I do not remember which. Quilter had Kiesling.

    Seawriter

    • #12
    • January 24, 2016, at 7:22 AM PST
    • Like
  13. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    The signup for February’s Group Writing is underway. Our theme in February is Special Days. We need nine more Ricochetti to volunteer to post a conversation about some special day. It can be a holiday, a memorable event, or some day special to you personally. Learn more or sign up by clicking the link.

    If you have never posted a conversation before, give it a go. This monthly series is intended to get those who have never posted before started.

    (Start signing up people – I am getting nervous.)

    Seawriter

    • #13
    • January 24, 2016, at 7:27 AM PST
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  14. Leigh Member

    Hey — TripTiks still exist! I actually got one not that dreadfully long ago. Didn’t have GPS, and easier than unfolding paper maps to reroute if something went wrong with my MapQuest directions.

    Actually, seeing that it’s free with AAA membership, I might do it again. I don’t have so much confidence in my GPS but that I like a hard copy to check it by.

    • #14
    • January 24, 2016, at 7:34 AM PST
    • Like
  15. Arahant Member

    Seawriter:

    Arahant:

    So, when you and Quilter were going to high school, did either of you have a math teacher named Mrs. Koen?

    I did for either 10th or 11th grade, but I do not remember which. Quilter had Kiesling.

    Seawriter

    Mim was my mother’s first cousin.

    • #15
    • January 24, 2016, at 7:43 AM PST
    • Like
  16. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Arahant:

    Seawriter:

    Arahant:

    So, when you and Quilter were going to high school, did either of you have a math teacher named Mrs. Koen?

    I did for either 10th or 11th grade, but I do not remember which. Quilter had Kiesling.

    Seawriter

    Mim was my mother’s first cousin.

    Small world. Is she still around? I had to go to my yearbook, but when I saw her picture I could hear her voice.

    Seawriter

    • #16
    • January 24, 2016, at 7:48 AM PST
    • 1 like
  17. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gJwCKYy2o8w

    • #17
    • January 24, 2016, at 7:49 AM PST
    • Like
  18. Songwriter Inactive
    SongwriterJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Seawriter – Love the post. I can identify…

    At that same time, my family lived in LaMarque, just down I-45. Houston was the place to go for movies, rock concerts and prom dates.

    Marvin Zindler tried to give my father grief over some pointless issue in the late 70s. There was no story there, so it all went away quickly.

    The humidity of the Texas Gulf Coast is something that must be experienced to be understood.

    You failed to mention the mosquitos and the palmetto bugs (large flying roaches).

    • #18
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:04 AM PST
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  19. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Songwriter: You failed to mention the mosquitos and the palmetto bugs (large flying roaches).

    We encountered those after we arrived. (A few days after, but still . . . )

    The apartment we moved into had been finished a few weeks earlier. It was built on a former woodlot, and the area was filled with four-inch-long wood roaches. I remember saying to Quilter, “I know they say everything in bigger in Texas, but isn’t that carrying things too far?”

    As for the mosquitoes? They were huge, too. Northern Galveston County was mostly still rice paddies. There is a story one landed at Ellington AFB (as it was then) and they pumped in 1000 pounds of JP4 before they realized they were fueling a big mosquito.

    Seawriter

    • #19
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:11 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  20. Pencilvania Inactive

    Great adventure story, SW! I’d like to see some of Texas sometime, but I can barely take PA’s heat & humidity, don’t know how I’d do.

    Aaron, thanks for that clip, it brought Marvin to life – hilarious!

    • #20
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:18 AM PST
    • Like
  21. Liz Member

    We had a rotary phone and I’m only 37 (good grief, how unpleasant to see that in print).

    Great story, Seawriter.

    • #21
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:21 AM PST
    • 1 like
  22. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Does anyone else have problems with the comments disappearing when a page gets full? I cannot see them when comment 20, 40, 60, etc. appears. Then when the first comment of the next page is posted all of them reappear.

    Seawriter

    • #22
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:21 AM PST
    • 1 like
  23. Arahant Member

    Seawriter: Small world. Is she still around? I had to go to my yearbook, but when I saw her picture I could hear her voice.

    No, she passed on a few years back. She was in her nineties, so she didn’t die young. One of her sons (my second cousin) still lives in Ann Arbor.

    As you say, though, it is a small world. Mim grew up in Macon and my mother in Columbus, Georgia. When a job brought me to Michigan, my mother said, “I think I have a cousin in Michigan. Let me make a few phone calls.”

    She was quite a character and always had stories. She went to university at the same time and place with John Birch, for instance.

    As for her voice, her dialect was probably not the sort most of your teachers had here in Michigan.

    • #23
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:22 AM PST
    • Like
  24. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Pencilvania: Great adventure story, SW! I’d like to see some of Texas sometime, but I can barely take PA’s heat & humidity, don’t know how I’d do.

    Oh . . . no problem. Visit between mid November and mid-March. That is when smart Houston recruiters bring students from the frozen north down for plant visits. The poor fool college students imagine the weather is like that year round.

    Seawriter

    • #24
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:25 AM PST
    • Like
  25. Arahant Member

    Seawriter:Does anyone else have problems with the comments disappearing when a page gets full? I cannot see them when comment 20, 40, 60, etc. appears. Then when the first comment of the next page is posted all of them reappear.

    Seawriter

    Everyone does. Max is working on it. Just change the page number in the URL one back for now.

    • #25
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:25 AM PST
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  26. Liz Member

    Yes, alerts have been bonkers for days.

    • #26
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:26 AM PST
    • Like
  27. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Arahant: As for her voice, her dialect was probably not the sort most of your teachers had here in Michigan.

    Nope. But mine is not what most folks have in Houston either. I do remember that Gaw-ja accent of hers. I think most of us found it charming. She was Miz Koen before Ms was cool.

    Seawriter

    • #27
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:26 AM PST
    • 1 like
  28. Arahant Member

    My brother moved down to Houston (for the first time) about the same time you did. I don’t remember what year he moved down but it was in the 79-81 time frame. He was married there in ’82 and moved back north in ’86 during one of the oil busts. Then he later moved back so they could be nearer to his wife’s family.

    Houston’s a great city. Most of my memories of it were from going down to his wedding and visiting when they had their son. Then I did some consulting that involved being down there. The day before his wedding (in July), I was sitting out on a lawn chair reading a book in the hot Texas sun. At the wedding. lobsters had nothing on me.

    • #28
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:35 AM PST
    • 1 like
  29. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter

    Arahant: My brother moved down to Houston (for the first time) about the same time you did. I don’t remember what year he moved down but it was in the 79-81 time frame. He was married there in ’82 and moved back north in ’86 during one of the oil busts. Then he later moved back so they could be nearer to his wife’s family.

    Half the state of Michigan came to Texas between 1978 and 1981. One of the reasons I moved to Texas was because the job was in aerospace. If two industries are ever contracyclical it is aerospace and energy. I figured if there was another aerospace bust energy would be booming, and if there was a energy bust aerospace would be going great guns, and regardless, in Houston, I would have a job.

    Challenger happens in January 1986, followed by Houston’s energy bust later that year. And suddenly, for the first time evah both are dead and I am in the middle. Oops.

    I was lucky to hold onto my job. A lot of my friends in energy and space did not.

    Seawriter

    • #29
    • January 24, 2016, at 8:42 AM PST
    • Like
  30. RightAngles Member

    I enjoyed your story. My parents grew up on the Gulf Coast. Mom said you could hang your wet bathing suit on the porch railing and a week later, it still wasn’t dry. She said only Gulf Coasters understood the Morton Salt slogan “When it rains, it pours.” She said in the height of summer, the salt in the shaker formed a solid moist ball.

    • #30
    • January 24, 2016, at 9:10 AM PST
    • 1 like

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