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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.