It probably was a Sunday, because the Light House Restaurant at Port Isabel, Texas, was packed. The Mexican waitresses were dressed immaculately in pale tan dresses, trimmed with darker brown collars and sleeve bands...perhaps also the bottoms of their long skirts were trimmed in the darker brown also. All parts of their costumes that were starchable were starched and immaculately pressed. Their professional bearing and efficiency was really impressive to watch - even for an 11-year-old boy. We ate another great meal of which I mainly recall the salad. We left the restaurant and walked over to the nearby Port Isabel Lighthouse while waiting for the next launching of the boat to Padre Island.
Long since, Padre has been connected to the mainland by the Queen Isabella Causeway - where you can zip across to the island in your own car in no time.
But in the 1940's the only method of transportation was by boat. Less than a dozen people went over with us, and everyone soon disappeared to his own chosen sector of the island. There was only one building over there - a U.S. Coast Guard station. Aunt Lydia had advised us on the way over that if we wanted to change into bathing suits we could either do it by turning our backs on one another...the women turning one way, and the men the other. OR, we could use the Coast Guard building. (I elected to use the building even though there was just one big room without benches or lockers) The Gulf waters were warm and friendly on that cloudless south-Texas day. It was fun as always to splash about in the salt water, although I never had any skill at swimming. Only one regrettable note to remember on that day: I lost my identification bracelet - a piece of jewelry worn by boys at the time. It was solid Sterling silver, with my name engraved on it - almost as prestigious as having tattoos or body-piercings at present. That bracelet, my mom had assured me, had a fool-proof locking device to prevent its ever coming off by chance, so I never gave a second thought to wearing it into the gulf waters... Well, it was my mom who discovered later that it was no longer on my wrist. I was devastated, but instantly realized that it was useless to think of hunting for it. To this day, I occasionally wonder if a fish got it, or somebody found it, or if it is still buried until the end of time in the sands of South Padre Island. I can smile about it now, but not at the time!. Not to worry, though. I survived. I was having too much fun to let that single incidentt ruin any of my good times.
Our third, and final, day in the Lower Rio Grande Valley took us west from Harlingen to the (genuine) ranch home of a Mr. and Mrs George, good friends of my aunt and uncle. The Georges owned orange groves and so I got a brief peek at the workings of one of the Valley's main industries - citrus fruit - with a "real" ranch-house as headquarters. Irrigation was an on-going matter of business, and Mr. George had at least one Mexican helper who knew all the right things to do with the pumps, hoses, valves, or whatever. Mr. George even knew some Spanish and through the use of that and some sign language he could get his helper to do whatever work was needed. While we men-folk were being shown about the work area, the ladies were off in the kitchen helping Mrs. George prepare the lunch. I don't believe there was a single "store boughten" item in the whole place, and the main entree for the big feed was barbecued rabbit - raised right there on their farm! I did not know it was rabbit until AFTER I had eaten a good portion of it! (Tasted just like chicken, as the saying goes!) But now I promise you it was good eating until I found out it was rabbit! - and I have never wanted to eat rabbit again to this day! (Sorry, folks, I am just far too squeamish a city-dweller to even like the thought of it!) Mr. and Mrs. George were aging when I knew them, and their children had long since gone. Their house had all the indications of having been "lived in". It was a two-story frame house and had a fine breezeway in the middle. There were small placards of funny sayings in the bathroom, hallways, kitchen... And it had doorstops made out of anything heavy enough to stop the doors. I have one of their old doorstops, as Uncle Forrest brought me, years later - a log of an extremely dense and heavy tropical hardwood which I planned to carve. Forrest had talked Mr. George out of it as a present for me, but I found it too nice a curiosity to ruin by some clumsily botched effort of mine to carve it. It is still perched in my studio as I write this, and probably hearkens back to the days of Santa Anna.and Pancho Villa - when the "Mexican War" of the 1840's was raging through the area. That log might be more valuable as an antique than a carving-block! Or maybe I should try to create a new story or two using that very interestingly-shaped antique log as inspiration.
My mom, my dad and I - all three of us had loved the "Magic Lower Rio Grande Valley" - and I had gotten to like my uncle's drive-in theater a lot. The projectionist, a great talker, showed me all about how the two-projector system worked - how the arc-lights worked, and how the signal to switch from one reel to the next was produced. I found one 35 millimeter frame from a Donald Duck cartoon on the floor - a frame that was spliced out of a film edit - and I still have that single frame as a prized memento from 1946! I felt like I was pretty well educated about the theater business and knew things my buddies back in Chattanooga didn't know. Another big feature of my uncle's theater was the pre-show music they played over and over every night as the cars were streaming in: Benny Goodman's version of "Sentimental Journey" was what the WWII boys all wanted to hear. My uncle's "Valley Drive-In Theatre" had been professionally designed and landscaped, and won several garden-club awards in the Valley for its artistic appearance and constant maintenance. Also in the Magic Valley, all the farm roads of the day were lined with royal palms which lent a very picturesque effect to the landscape. You would be driving along on one of the roads and see in the flat distance how there were several other roads in each direction to your side. "The Valley" definitely had a largely man-made charm which set it off from other parts of Texas. My aunt and uncle became integrated and involved citizens there, but never forgot their Chattanooga roots.
Fun times generally have to come to an end, and so it was that the next day we got back into our '41 Plymouth and started home from the "Magic Valley", as they liked to call it. The return trip was uneventful, but we always remembered that we had seen some old American industries in action: the oilfields of south Texas, the orange groves of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, and then, in Louisiana we saw the home of the then-famous Godchaux Sugar Company. At Lake Charles, my dad insisted that the car needed servicing, so we stopped at a reputable-looking garage. The man said we needed a new set of tires, and my dad agreed. Since dad was a Federal employee, the man said he was obligated to get new tires on our car. (Tires were still scarce after the war). After several hours' wait we were on the road home again, cruising on new rubber. Dad must have paid "cash" for those tires for this happened decades before credit cards appeared.
At home finally, I was anxious to show my trophies to my friends...the hastily acquired prickly pear cactus, gingerly ripped (literally) from a Texas roadside, my new silver ring from Mexico, and the "Mexico" hat, which Mrs. Jackson ( a neighbor) put on and proceeded to do a funny impromptu dance - in the middle of our street - laughing: "This is how those Mexican people dance down there". The elder Mrs. Jackson heard the fun and came out to welcome me back home, and seemed to know all about prickly pears, said they were good to eat. I shared a few of my "Fritos Corn Chips" with the neighbors...possibly the first ever brought to Chattanooga. (They were available along the border, but never seen before in Chattanooga groceries.) I also brought a newspaper back from Matamoros, Mexico, and the rib of some kind of large fish from Padre Island, as well as a menu from "The Drive In" restaurant in Matamoros. And all this stuff was very meaningful to an 11-year-old boy!
Today (2017) on Google Earth, the entire Lower Rio Grande Valley looks very different. The long lines of royal palms are missing, and - except for the historic lighthouse - Port Isabel has mostly changed. Padre Island now looks more like Miami Beach or Cancun, Mexico; the Coast Guard station appears to be completely missing. Harlingen was for a long time - much later - home of the so-called "Confederate Air Force", and Brownsville may presently be headed toward becoming home for NASA's newest facility.
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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.