I was fourteen years old in 1953. I had hitchhiked to Texas that autumn. A man in a diner in Beaumont said if I was looking for work I should see a buddy of his in Austin and he gave me a name and an address.
It took two days to get there because some boys in an old coupe took me a hundred miles out of the way and threw me out and I woke up in some weeds by the side of the road near Waco.
But the tip was a good one. Ed was studying geology on the GI Bill and he had big plans and if I stuck with him we would go places. In the meantime, I could sleep in his room and contribute something from whatever I might earn.
I set pins in a bowling alley down by the Colorado River. I cut mistletoe from live oaks for a contractor who picked up a gang every morning at the state employment office shape-up. Then I got a job washing dishes at a barbecue drive-in restaurant on Guadalupe, part of a chain called Pig Stand.
I learned about race in Austin. Toilets were segregated, as were buses. I observed, at the bowling alley, and on the morning shape-up, and in the Pig Stand, that the best worker in each place was a young black man. A type I also met later in the Army. Dignity in the face of relentless malice and stupidity.
Another thing my fourteen-year-old self discovered at the Pig Stand was the charm of older women. Carhops on roller skates, occupying the precarious outer porches of respectibility defined by divorce, childlessness, dyed hair and lipstick. And names like Dixie. Many were veterans of the War. Nothing nicer than to take a break in their cabin on the graveyard shift and soak up their banter, their wisdom, their sadness, their kindness.
Ed’s address was on San Gabriel around W. 28th. His room was the ground floor of a converted garage accessible from the alley behind. Ed was frequently away, on business trips, hunting trips, family visits. He was gone over Christmas that year. I was content with the company of the carhops, and with Wash and Leroy, the black cooks at the Pig Stand, but I got invited to have a Christmas drink with the people on the upper floor of the converted garage. A sad little family in one room. A soldier, his wife, a nebulous teenaged daughter I was meant to notice. I remember sipping something dreadfully sweet. And that it was snowing.
After Christmas, Ed announced that our big break had come. He bought a Ford Ranch Wagon and we drove to Arizona to re-open on old lead mine—an episode I have fictionalised in The Wulfenite Affair. I did learn to drive on that trip. I watched Ed, and in the middle of the night, somewhere in the vast empty stretches of West Texas, Ed crawled in the back to sleep and I took over. By morning I was pretty good.