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    Texas | Columns | "True Confessions and Mild Obsessions"

    Big Wind From Winnetka a Mere Breeze
    Compared To the Big Blow In Beaumont

    by Frances Giles
    No one could have imagined the terrible destruction that was about to wreak havoc on the lower Louisiana coast in June 1957 when a hurricane named Audrey roared in with a vengeance. The loss of life, almost incomprehensible, and the enormous property damage left its mark for probably two full generations.

    Beaumont, Texas, my home town, is often threatened by tropical storms, many of which reach hurricane strength, so when Audrey loomed out in the Gulf my mother took precautions and moved us, my aunt, my brother Butch, me and our dog Honey to higher ground. I use the term "higher ground" loosely as it relates to a city where everything is either below sea level or, at best, a couple of feet above, if you happen to be standing atop a very tall bridge. The actual higher ground was the two story orange brick building built on pier and beam which functioned as a busy general practitioner's office on the first floor, the upper story apartment being rented out. Our mother worked for Dr. Wiley Manning as his office nurse, bookkeeper, receptionist and general dogsbody. Located at 2305 Neches, the structure sat on the corner of Neches Street and Lyle Avenue in an old established residential neighborhood.

    I don't remember where the doctor and his family were at the time, maybe on vacation or perhaps they had evacuated somewhere. I just know that Mama told us to get ready to move from our house at 2980 Emile to "the office". She and my Aunt Lydia, whom we called Pee Wee, packed provisions and bedding for what might become a prolonged stay. I suppose Butch and I were kind of excited, and we had some toys, books and probably games to keep us occupied. The front door opened into the waiting room, and along each side of the first floor was a rabbit warren of examination rooms, offices and storage closets. The kitchen was at the very back, and I seem to remember that it was the only room that was ever brightly lit while the rest of the building always seemed dark and spooky, but maybe time has dimmed my bulbs. I was seven and my brother a year older.

    Mama and Pee Wee set about fixing a meal while we stayed out of the way in the waiting room listening to the howling wind and rain all around us and the rattling doors and windows. After awhile we were all sitting up front waiting for lunch to be ready when there was a sudden, shockingly loud noise followed by an awful racket, a deafening, metallic clang, clang, clang that echoed endlessly. This was rapidly followed by the unholy stench of what I now know was hydrogen sulfide gas which permeated every cubic foot of the vast space in a couple of seconds. The Evadale Paper and Pulp Mill, 40 miles to the northeast of Beaumont, produced the only smell remotely worse that this invisible, choking, foul cloud. Mind you, Beaumont, Port Arthur and Orange were home to a number of oil refineries and each one emitted a distinct smell based on what was being produced, but they were Chanel #5 in comparison. Evadale's rotted pulp sludge ranked at a 10 on the scale all of the time, but this evil vapor was right on up there, easily an eight.

    Butch, who was prone to emote via his GI tract when under stress, started to gag, choke and retch. Mama and Pee Wee raced hell for leather to the back of the building. I think I may have been too stunned to move and sat glued to the chair in a kind of concussed state, listening to the Liberty Bell echo in my head. The source of all evil was quickly located, and the Vesuvius which spewed forth its deadly fumes and threatened to bring us to our knees, maybe to our collective early graves in the Magnolia Cemetery, was none other than the autoclave. That bread box sized, stainless steel and Bakelite sterilizer, which sat atop the tall kitchen counter and was used regularly for the good of mankind, albeit on a small scale, had morphed into a weapon of mass destruction. In the interest of getting everyone fed as quickly as possible, my mother decided to speed the process along. She had put about eight raw eggs in the stainless steel pan inside and added water underneath. When she closed and locked the sturdy hinge on the little round door and flipped the switch to "ON", she effectively sealed our doom. Pressurized steam started to build and the inevitable march toward asphyxiation was set in motion. I wish I could say she had discovered the secret to accelerated cooking decades ahead of microwave and convection ovens, but, alas, she had not. In the words of one popular chef, "BAM!!!!!"

    Examining the wretched little stinkballs after they cooled was like looking over geologic artifacts from another planet. The petrified wads, formerly known as E.G.G.S., looked as if they had exploded and solidified in the same instant so that they resembled bizarre, mutated, alien life forms which appeared to have been trying to crawl desperately away from some unspeakable horror, damaged shells and rock hard, semitransparent, sepia colored proteinaceous matter welded together forever and ever, world without end.

    The lunch menu was to have included chicken noodle soup, hard "boiled" eggs and I don't recall what else. Well, the eggs were unmistakably hard, I'll say that. What I do know is that brother Butch has never, ever, and I mean ever, been able to stand hard cooked eggs since that Summer of '57. When he's been unfortunate enough to be offered platters of deviled eggs at Masonic dinners and luncheons his gorge rises instantly. Being greeted by someone who has eaten hard cooked eggs within a 6 hour window and who exhales within a 15 foot radius makes his eyes water and he develops a sensation of his tongue growing rapidly to a twin sized Sealy Posturepedic. More than once he says he's had to beat a hasty retreat, on one occasion dashing out of a restaurant in rural Tennessee after he mistook grated eggs on his dinner salad for feta. I hear about some of these little gastric traumas, when the memory of the original event comes washing over him and he's back once again in hurricane central enveloped in that deadly fog. Some wounds run too deep to ever heal.


    Frances Giles
    "True Confessions and Mild Obsessions" November 9, 2012 Column
    Related Topics: Texas Storms | Beaumont |
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