In the annals of Houston, Texas fires, two stand out above the others: the refinery fires in Texas City, and the Mykawa Road railroad train chemical fire. My uncle was involved in both. Aunt Marian told me once when I was thinking about being a fireman that her husband, John Joe, went to Mykawa Road to put out a horrific fire involving a derailed trainload of toxic and explosive chemicals. It was extremely dangerous, and firemen were beginning to die. Fifteen or sixteen hours later the front doorbell rang and her heart sank. One of the kids opened the door and there stood Uncle John Joe. She told me she was so relieved she almost cried. She said that there wasn’t a spot on him that wasn’t black, including some of the whites of his eyes. He was not only exhausted, he was scared to come into the house and bring the chemical stench and the ashes and smoke into the house with him. She told me he took his clothes off on the porch, I think, and she drew him a bath, and he bathed several times, took a short nap, and got back in his car to return to Mykawa Rd., which was by this time, one of the most famous fires in the history of Houston, Texas, and it was making national news.
My Uncle John Joe was also a member of the Order of the Hibernians, a group of Irishmen who congregated together on occasions to celebrate their heritage through drink. I saw a photo of my uncle when he was younger and was amazed to see the striking resemblance of Henry to his father. Henry was Uncle John Joe’s third son who died a homeless drunkard. Uncle John Joe may have fit the mold of the men in Frank McCourt’s books, “Angela’s Ashes” and “’Tis,” but he didn’t go too far with the drink, and instead raised a fine family. As David once told me, “Our family is nuts, but you know, for some reason, I like us.”
One time Uncle John Joe and I were alone together. His wife, my father and mother got up from the table and left the room. Uncle John Joe didn’t hesitate. He opened up to me and he almost wailed.
“I feel so horrible. My son is a drunkard, a worthless fool of a bum. I raised a bum. I feel so horrible and ashamed. I can’t believe one of my own children is a bum. A bum! I am so ashamed. ”
I didn’t say anything. All I could do was listen, and Uncle John Joe told me how terrible it felt to have his son Henry become a drunken derelict. Henry was still alive at this time, but Aunt Marian and Uncle John Joe had already reluctantly learned to provide only “tough love” to Henry, and they encouraged everyone else in the family to do the same. Any financial help you gave Henry would be spent on the booze. (See “Angela’s Ashes” and “’Tis.”) I know what they went through because Henry and I were really close, and I always received the latest, tragic news.
I have dozens of stories about Henry, but here is a tale that ends up being a great gift that Henry’s older brother, David, gave me.
When I went into college, Henry was still a senior in high school. Henry came to me one Saturday evening and asked if I wanted to go out looking for girls. He suggested that since I was a college guy, it would impress all the girls that he knew, and we could go meet girls. I jumped at the chance, being desirous of a lasting relationship and a happy marriage with one woman since I was eleven years of age and encountered the wonders of puberty.
Henry and I went out every weekend for a few months. We never met women, but we did meet Mr. Bud, Mr. Falstaff, Mr. Lone Star, Mr. Pearl, Mr. Schlitz, and my personal favorite, the elusive Mr. Darkbeer. It was during one of those wearisome evenings of drinking under the guise of cruising for women that a terrible fog came up. To this day I still remember the thickest fog I ever saw in my life. I was driving my parents’ newly restored Volkswagen. The fog was so thick that I had to bring the VW to a stop because no one in the car knew if we were even on the road. Unfortunately, we stopped in the middle of Capitol Ave., and a lady in a huge Cadillac smacked into us. She was driving excessively fast for such poor driving conditions, but I received the traffic ticket because at the intersection, she was on the right and I was on the left. (At that time, in Texas, the one on the left was at fault in a wreck.) The Volkswagen my parents had just spent a lot of money on fixing up with mechanical work and a paint job was totaled. I was thrown from the car on impact and knocked unconscious for well over an hour. Henry told me later that it took so long for me to “come to” that he began to fear that I was dead. The police report noted that a bottle of beer was found in the car I was driving.
I never went out looking for women (drinking) with Henry again, but I began to hear stories. Stories of Henry coming home dead drunk, found in the morning asleep at the wheel in the driveway while the car was still idling, found in the front yard of a girl’s house he liked and her parents calling the police, disappearance binges, Veteran’s Hospital stays to dry out, detox and hallucinations. And worse. For years I carried with me the shame and blame for Henry’s excessive drinking.
After Peggy and I moved to Albuquerque, David, Henry’s older brother, came to Albuquerque because of his job. He was a well-trained technician who was sometimes asked to travel to out-of-town clients to repair equipment they had purchased from his company.
I confessed to David. I told him the story about Henry dropping by to go check out the ladies, and because I was the oldest, I always managed to buy beer, and that’s how Henry got started drinking. I had initiated Henry’s tragic decline.
David looked at me and confidently said, “You didn’t start Henry drinking. Henry started drinking when he was in the seventh grade. Do you remember Henry being in the 4-H club?”
“Yeah. I think I remember that.”
“Didn’t you think it was a little strange that Henry wanted to learn how to raise cattle and chickens?”
“Well, I wondered about that.”
“Walter, Henry wasn’t learning about pigs and farming. He was drinking. Henry joined the 4-H Club because there were some older boys who got beer and whiskey and Henry was getting drunk in the seventh grade.”
I was shocked. Later I realized that Henry’s young mind had been probably ruined at an early age. At the time of my conversation with David I even wondered if Henry’s short time in San Antonio at the seminary wasn’t really an effort to get him away from that crowd of young drunkards, a dryin’ out phase, so to speak.
I love David very much for telling me those words. They were words that gave me relief, if only partial. They took a world of guilt away. Unfortunately, Uncle John Joe’s guilt may not have been erased until he was given a full pardon by his Creator, a gift he surely deserves.