My father moved our faded-red trailer house from Alexandria, Minnesota, to Texas in the late summer before I turned nine. We lived in a trailer park on the edge of Buffalo Bayou near Huston until March of the next year.
A boy my age lived in a trailer near ours. There were as many kids in his family as ours. His dad was either sitting in a chair outside their trailer or fishing from a chair on the dock extending into the bayou. It seemed to me that he smoked and sipped an amber drink from a large water glass in both places. My new friend took it upon himself to teach me lessons about a culture different from what I had known on the road.
He told me copperhead snakes from the bayou could kill a kid. That was enough warning to prevent me from teasing a sibling or someone else like I had done with garden snakes in Minnesota. I learned later that, despite the extreme discomfort from a bite, very few people die from copperhead venom. His harshest warning was about Cottonmouths. He said that water moccasins could be in the water or just hanging in the tree moss ready to drop onto a passing victim. I watched the trees in the trailer park but never saw one except in a movie. He told me about alligators too. I never saw a gator but suspecting they were lying in wait for a kid kept me well away from reeds and deep grass near the edge of the bayou.
Not all things from the bayou were bad. I learned to like catfish. Our neighbor family frequently had fried catfish with their grits for breakfast. I got my first taste when my friend shared his breakfast leftover at school lunch.
That fall I saw my first Gulf Coast water as storm surf pushed by a hurricane skirting the south Texas coast. We left the trailer park when the hurricane rain and the high seas started to push the bayou water over its banks. I’m not sure why we went to Galveston but I was impressed by the water breaking over the sea wall and crashing onto the street that bordered the wall. When we returned days later we saw the water marks on the bottom of the trailers and bayou debris piled under them.
I learned to call ladies mam and men sir at school. My trailer park friend tried to warn me but I didn’t learn the lesson until the teacher confronted me. The teacher asked me a yes or no question and I said, “Yeah.” I was quickly and firmly informed that the correct response to such questions was, “Yes mam,” or “No mam.” Not doing so was considered inappropriate and even insulting to an adult. And, I learned that y’all could be used in place of you or you all.
The whole class practiced for a Christmas musical. Perhaps because I was the new kid or had no apparent musical ability, my part was small and would have no impact on the program if I was not there. My role was to toot a small tin horn at the appropriate place in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.
“Little tin horns, little toy drums.
Rudy-toot-toot [toot the horn] and rummy tum tums.
Santa Claus is coming to town.”
It could have been that I didn’t listen well or just could not hear well. I missed the cue most of the time. The teacher rebuked me in front of the class every time I missed. I don’t remember being in the pageant.
The most important lesson I learned in Texas was that punishment can really fit the crime. I’m not sure if my friend learned the same lesson. He and I walked to school together and on weekends we wandered the trailer park and nearly everywhere else except the edge of the bayou. It was usually warm so most people kept their doors and windows open all day long. In our wanderings we saw some kind of chocolate bar on the sill over a lady’s sink.
One day we saw her leave. I do not remember whose idea it was but when she was out of sight, we ran into her trailer and grabbed two large squares of chocolate. We hid behind her trailer and ate them quickly.
Shortly later I was deservedly punished for sure! My friend probably had the same consequence. Ex-Lax was not the chocolate treat we thought it was. The strong laxative did its work and the next day our mothers took us to her so we could apologize.