“From La Porte, Texas to The Promised Land”
Reprinted fromLes Amis de Marigny, New Orleans
The monthly column
Yours Truly in a Swamp
Leonard Earl Johnson
* * * *
*From La Porte, Texas to The Promised Land
The year of the last great Cuban boatlift I was a crewmember aboard the U. S. flagged "S. S. Sealander," a container ship on a run with stops between Houston, Texas and Rotterdam, Holland. During that year the Sealander quit calling at the wharves along Houston's downtown Ship Channel and began stopping at newer, bigger facilities near La Porte, Texas – a town so far out in the boonies it was barely in from the Gulf of Mexico.
The Houston Port Authority's decision to move container service to La Porte was – and still is – a great thorny urchin in the belly of thirsty sailors everywhere. Mind you, near the new terminal existed a dirt - floored, tin - roofed watering hole named The Little Goat Ranch. It sat promisingly along the turn at Barber's Cut, on a beachhead that was easy walking distance from our ship's new berth. But it was not Houston.
The Little Goat Ranch's services were mercifully available twenty four hours a day. And La Porte eagerly beckoned but two miles inland over a deserted asphalt road freshly laid and black as a captain’s heart. It curved and unrolled between pastures dotted with long - horned cattle and live oaks awash with Spanish moss. I took a bicycle aboard ship with me in those days, and the ride into La Porte was an experience rivaling anything Dutch planning could create. But it was not Houston.
The Space Shot Motel & Bar sat at the intersection leading to downtown La Porte, or on to Houston, a distance too far for a sailor on a bicycle.
In La Porte, a meager destination if ever there was one, was a Saturday - only Spanish movie in a small wood building painted red. I never saw this business open. Always open was Rosita's Fajita Café & Gulf Coast Hobby Emporium. A lighted plastic sign proclaimed, “Eats,” in one window and, "Lionel Trains for All The Ages,” in the other. The door between opened on a large room containing both enterprises.
One warm January afternoon, I walked through that door and into the life of Cowboy Castro, a fine looking blue - eyed, brown - skinned local, with a not so fine looking purple "pick'em up truck." Among the truck's many dents and scratches stood a plastic two - foot Jesus holding a bleeding red heart in one hand and a chromium pigtail radio antenna in the other. This Texas new - age icon was on the driver's front fender. Cowboy was in the Emporium purchasing tiny red lights for this statue, "To light the world through the eyes of Jesus!" I hired him on the spot to drive me back to the ship.
With bicycle secured in the truck's bed, we followed the red - eyed beacon of Jesus over the black top road back to the Goat Ranch. There, that night, the ship’s Mate, Boson, Chief Cook, and I retained Cowboy to meet our ship each month, drive us into Houston, round us up gurgling in the morning light, return us dockside, and help us stumble up the accommodation ladder.
This arrangement went well. Houston was an alabaster city undulating on a deep pool of booming oil prices, an anything goes Babylon of the oil patch. Cowboy's purple “pick'em up” was the magic carpet that carried us there. Shore leave again was liberty for all.
Despite his religiosity and being on break from Texas A. & M., Cowboy performed his duties well and in time joined us in our in - port out of La Porte escapades.
Our favorite Houston destination was a long gray building along Westheimer Drive housing the Green Door. Neon tubing atop its flat roof showed huge chicken heads kissing among flashing red hearts and green dollar signs. Under this sign a row of green doors opened along a low slung front porch. Beside each door hung a red lantern similar to those used by old - time railroaders. If the railroader's lamp was lighted you could enter and talk privately with a scantily clad man or woman sitting behind a plate glass window. By the power vested in money pushed through a slot you could persuade your selection to stand and display further charms. It was living porno. Shocking, perhaps, but with the possible exception of Cowboy, we were depraved Salts and not missionaries.
Truthfully, Cowboy loved the Green Door and always arrived screaming Biblical quotes like, "Tis better to spill your seed in the belly of the whore than upon barren rock!" Then he would enter one of the doors labeled "Girl" and, as he put it, "Wax philosophic with the Jezebel inside."
Back at the ship one night, I suggested Cowboy join me in my fo'c's'le for a drink. After several, we passed out, awakening early next morning on the deck, under the bunk, with the ship rocking gently as it slipped out into the Gulf of Mexico.
Cowboy quickly grasped our situation and was not happy. "I've been shanghaied!" he hollered. He cursed me in Spanish and English. He threw a Lone Star beer can first at the Gulf of Mexico on the other side of the porthole, and then at me!
I hollered back, "Don't blame me, you Bible thumping Aggie. You think I want a stowaway in my cabin?"
The word "stowaway" brought us both up short and sober. He stopped fretting and agreed to make the best of our situation till reaching Miami, Florida, in two days. It was vital that Cowboy get off the ship in Miami. It was our last Stateside stop before heading across the North Atlantic to Rotterdam.
Certain he could walk off the ship in Miami and catch a plane back to Houston with no hitch, we settled in and became comfortable traveling companions. He stayed calmly in my cabin drinking beer, watching television, and feasting on food I spirited from the galley. He talked whimsically of his family's immigration from Cuba, "before the rise of Fidel," he was always quick to point out. He wondered if he might see the crimson isle when we sailed through the Straits of Florida. I reckoned not.
South of New Orleans, which sits in a hole below Sea level, we picked up Baton Rouge television, and saw film of the huge Mariel Boat Lift washing onto the beaches of Florida. Cowboy laughed aloud at Florida's "Gringo governor" greeting Cuban boat people while literally mopping his sweating brow. Then Cowboy's eyes lit up like the red - eyed Jesus on his purple truck. "Caramba!" he exclaimed. "If I can pass myself off as a boat person, I can slap slogan Commie - hating America all the way to easy street."
I was shocked and said so, "How could you, after fleeing Castro?"
"Fleeing Castro?" He peered at me with prove - it in his eyes and asked, "Are you crazy? That Castro was barely in from the hills when we left Cuba. This Castro,” he said, pointing his thumbs at his chest, “was a baby. We were fleeing poverty. I still am …"
As Cowboy was saying this, I felt the ship slow, then go dead in the water. I left him plotting his economic salvation and went topside. The Mate and Boson were walking back from a Jacob's ladder slung over the starboard gunnel. Six sunburned Cubans walked behind them. Off the stern, an unpainted rowboat with an upended oar sluiced in our wake. From the oar flapped a white cloth painted with black letters, spelling "SOS."
I followed them and waited outside the Captain's door untill they came back out.
"Excuse me," I said, "but could one of you come with me?"
"Not with the fight I'm gonna' have with that drunken Steward over six extra rooms," said the Boson. He turned off towards the crew's quarters with the six Cubans following close on his heels.
The Mate said, "Sorry, Leonard, but I've got Federal paper to shuffle."
"You better, Mate," I said, relishing the power of my mystery, "we're in waters rough enough to beach us!"
The thing was, any ship irregularity meant more "paper shuffling," and the Mate hated paper work. He let off a sigh and walked with me back to my fo'c's'le. I opened the door. "Hi, Mate," Cowboy grinned, lifting his beer can.
"Jesus H. Christ in a pick up truck!" exclaimed the Mate, slamming the door tight.
In Miami, officers of the United States Coastguard collected our seven Cubans, their number having now grown by addition of the youthful, smiling, un - sunburned Cowboy.
On our return from Rotterdam, there was no Cowboy to greet our ship at La Porte. Twelve months and as many trips passed. Then, on the day after Christmas, tumbling down the ladder, heading for the Goat Ranch, we saw Cowboy drive up in a new, air - conditioned pick'em up truck.
"The new truck's blue," he explained on the drive into Houston, "because they had no purple ones." He laughed, slapped his leg, and told us how the Miami VFW had bought him the truck.
"And that Gringo Governor of Florida," he laughed, "he got me an appointment to the National Maritime Academy at Kings Point." He grinned and handed the Mate a Lone Star. "I start in the Fall. Then I'll be sailing with you legal like."
The Mate popped the beer, rolled down his window, and screamed a wild Texas "Wa-hoo!" at three cows chewing on a discarded Christmas Tree.
"God bless us all," he said, pulling his head back into the cab, "God bless us all, and welcome to The Promised Land!"
Copr. 2006, Leonard Earl Johnson