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Who is Jim Cole?
Jim Cole, a retired civil/structural engineer, began writing after retirement under contract to the Houston Chronicle for short stories for their Sunday supplement magazine, Texas. Today, Jim writes for his home-town newspaper. His a well-received column, “Vanished from Victoria” is about historic architectural and business features that the City of Victoria, Texas once had but which have today “vanished” under the wheels of time.
Jim won first place in the 2002 Barbara Bush Literacy League national event for an essay to accompany a traveling exhibit of the Declaration of Independence. His 647-word essay is today part of the U.S. National Archives Declaration of Independence exhibit.
Read Chapter 1 of my new and soon-to-be-published novel,
Run With The Wind
Early August 1938
51st and Strand, Galveston, Texas
There was no way Sarah Jacobs could have believed that within 15 minutes there would be a dead man in her front yard.
The day was brutally hot. The normally cooling southeast sea breezes had vanished and temperatures soared. Sarah, sitting on her front porch in an old wooden rocker rubbed her glass of iced tea across her brow, then instantly regretted it as condensation dripped into her wide-set dark eyes. She pulled a handkerchief from a skirt pocket and dabbed at the moisture, blinking. The two overhead ceiling fans that still worked stirred the hot air.
A telephone call from her office had awakened her that day as the sun rose, and after a quick cup of coffee, she had driven to the ferry landing and crossed to Bolivar Peninsula on a mission to find Gus Morton.
August Morton, a widower and one of her older and most experienced channel pilots, had an annoying habit of going off on benders. When sober, there was no one on the Texas coast more competent.
Sarah, a widow at 33, was secretary and assistant manager for Galveston Pilots’ Guild. As such, she was responsible for arranging and scheduling pilots to guide ships both into and out of the Galveston/Trinity bay system.
On this day there was a freighter returning for repairs following an engine room fire.
She had found the grizzled old channel veteran sleeping off his bender under the palm-thatched roof over what passed for a patio at the rear of a downscale beachside bar. She left him in a café, eating the breakfast she’d bought and drinking quantities of strong black coffee. She trusted him when he promised to arrive sober and presentable at the coastguard docks by 3 PM.
Returning home Sarah found a 2-word note from her 10-year old son. “Fishing” and “Noon” was all it said but she knew what it meant. Benji’s passion was fishing and her crippled son had awakened shortly after she’d left, made his own breakfast and afterward had pulled his old and very rusty wagon full of his fishing gear, to a pier at nearby Offats Bayou.
Sarah was now fretting as she waited for Benjamin to return since it was now an hour past. She reached again for her iced tea, saying to herself, “Where on earth could he be?”
Her worries about Benji were, as most worries these days overshadowed by a longer-term issue which often crowded her thoughts: money. She needed to increase her income.
Her monthly salary at Galveston Pilots’ $125, but she needed more if she was to continue Benjamin’s treatments and therapy. On this hot day she struggled, as she often did, trying to think of other sources of income.
Benjamin had been stricken with polio in his first year of life. There had been years of doctors, hospitals, and therapy. He was better but not well. He got about with a wrist cane and one brace, on the left leg from the knee down. He pulled his ‘fishing wagon’ with a rope harness he’d devised.
Sarah knew that her son would need further treatments.
“How will I pay for them?” She said this silently to herself often these days. Over the years of Benjamin’s treatments her trust fund—once thought sufficient for a lifetime—had simply vanished into the maw of hospitals and doctor bills.
She pushed strands of her short brown hair away from her forehead, damp from this day’s heat and humidity and thought, not for the first time, about the current level of government spending in Galveston and the resultant population increase as government contractors and Army officers brought their families to this semi-tropical island-city on the Texas Coast.
“Maybe,” Sarah told herself once again, “I could rent out parts of this old house.”
It was not a new idea. This time, as the thought reoccurred she arose from her rocker, moved down the porch steps and walked to the gate. She looked along the street for Benji then turned and looked up at the house that was her only asset.
She saw a crumbling 22-room structure that had once been a grand Victorian mansion. The second and third floors had been closed for years. Some windows were boarded over. The roof leaked, and two of the side porches which supported turrets above were rotten and the turrets leaned precariously. Money she could have used for repairs and maintenance had gone for medical expenses and now the lack of maintenance glaringly showed.
Her thoughts turned once more to her great-Uncle Levi, her grandfather’s brother and founder of one of Galveston’s more prestigious banks. Would he provide advice and a loan? Her wide mouth twisted in an ironic grin.
“Yes,” she thought, “just like any man he’ll hand out advice all day as long as I don’t argue or talk back! But a loan?”
The patrician banker Weismann had been greatly offended when his 21-year old great-niece impulsively married a gentile, but today the once-frigid relations between Sarah and her only living relative had thawed.
“But,” Sarah thought as she turned back toward the porch, shaking her head, “business is business and Uncle Levi doesn’t think much of a woman’s head for business.” She climbed the sagging steps and turned at the top step, once again looking for her son. “Finally!” Benji was still 2 blocks away but moving rapidly, his aluminum wrist cane flashing in the sun. Sarah waved, noting that he was wearing his straw fishing hat which she knew he hated. He seemed to be trying to move faster than usual. “Good thing!” she thought. “He’s late and he knows it!”
She contemplated briefly whether or not to punish him for being tardy. “He knows how busy I am!” she said angrily, to herself.
Benjamin spotted her on the front steps and waved. Sarah thought he might have shouted, but the distance diminished any sound. She turned, stepped onto the porch and regained her seat in the rocker out of the direct sunlight. She picked up her glass of iced tea, leaving a wet ring on the faded porch floor and drank deeply. As she sat, wishing the creaking overhead fans could turn faster her thoughts segued from money problems to the pride she had in Benji and the progress he’d made against the enemy of infantile paralysis.
She again, this time without rising, looked down the block toward her son. He was still moving rapidly, his wrist cane flashing in the sunlight. Once not too long ago she’d despaired that he would ever walk. Now she was hoping for the day when he might run. She looked more closely. “On this day,” she thought, “he is certainly moving faster than ever.”
A block farther down, past Benjamin and his wagon, Sarah noticed the nose of a dark sedan as it slowly crept from behind the corner hedges and began a turn into Sarah’s street. It crossed her mind to wonder why the car was moving so slowly.
Sarah’s thoughts again moved to her son. “Infantile Paralysis!” “Polio!” Sarah hated the very words, and they became a battle cry for her and her son. As the paralyzed infant grew there was progress. Painful and slow progress to be sure, mind-numbingly slow, but as the months and then years passed Benji improved.
Sarah railed at the fates and at God, if there was one, over such torture for her boy as she gritted her teeth and endlessly massaged the baby’s paralyzed limbs. Her jaw would eventually settle into a hard line, making her mouth straight as it lost its tip-tilted young-girl smile. The laughing playful girl vanished and was replaced by a strong-willed and determined woman.
On the day Benji was fitted with leg braces Sarah cheered and shouted and wept along with the medical staff when her son, at 4 years old, took with crutches the first painful faltering steps he had ever taken in his life.
“Mama,” the boy said, looking up at her with his pain-filled serious dark eyes, drops of perspiration crowding upon his forehead, matting his black hair, “someday I’m gonna go to the beach and run with the wind!”
Benjamin had just now turned 10 and Sarah wished and hoped and sometimes believed that one day her son would fulfill his dream.
As Benjamin hurriedly stepped off the 51st Street curb a tour jitney turned the corner, honking as the driver shouted rudely. These open-sided, gaudily painted buses picked up tourists at the beach or along the seawall and for a few coins provided a “historic” tour through Galveston’s residential areas. Benji scrambled back onto the curb, struggling to retain his balance.
Three blocks away the dark sedan completed its slow turn into 51st Street and now, hidden by the oncoming jitney, moved more rapidly toward the mansion.
Sarah recognized the driver of this bus. He always stopped at her house and shouted about the “once-rich Jews” who lived here, adding in a sneering voice to derisive laughter, “Now those Jews know what it’s like to be poor! Look at that old house! Almost falling down!”
Benji crossed 51st Street behind the jitney, seemingly ignoring the oncoming car, and Sarah stepped down to meet him, opening the gate as he moved past. She hugged her son as the hated straw hat fell onto the walk. The jitney’s gears ground and she heard the bus begin to move away.
Benjamin, out of breath, pointed at his wagon, “Nothing today, mom,” he said, speaking rapidly, his voice trembling. “All I caught was hard-heads and piggy-perch. I gigged some crabs, but I lost my gig and the bucket turned over.” Sarah looked down at Benji, “You didn’t get your brace wet with saltwater, did you?” She silently reminded herself to make sure he cleaned and oiled the brace later today, after supper.
Benjamin shook his head at her question and turned, looking back along the street.
His eyes widened as he saw the dark-colored sedan suddenly accelerate and he heard the engine roar. Benji buried his head into his mother’s skirt, wrapping his arms around her waist, hands clutching.
Sarah too heard the approaching vehicle and looked up, annoyed that her son was hampering her movements. She pushed him away as she watched the late-model sedan speed up, cross the intersection and turn sharply to the left, their side of the street. Dust and particles of shell scattered as tires sought their purchase. The car, engine racing, jumped the curb and crashed through the rusted wrought-iron picket fence. Sarah grabbed Benjamin’s hand and pulled him with her, moving rapidly up the porch steps.
Once at the top step she watched in fascination as the car lurched to a stop, fully into her weed-strewn yard. She pushed Benji onto the porch and did not see him fall as she turned protectively to face possible danger. Benji began a frantic crab-like scramble toward the front door.
There were shouts from the jitney. The bus, around the corner, ground to a stop. Gawking tourists began scrambling out.
Benjamin reached the heavy leaded-glass front door, dragging his cane by its leather strap. A trail of urine marked his path.
A cloud of crushed-shell dust floated around the car in Sarah’s yard. The car’s driver-side door swung slowly open and, as Sarah watched in fascination, a man climbed, wearily it seemed, from behind the wheel. He was hatless, tie askew. He turned toward Sarah and as he did his strange staring eyes locked with those of her son, now at the mansion’s front door, hands scrabbling for the door handle. Had Sarah looked at her son, she would have seen panic and fear plain upon his face.
The focus of the man’s eyes moved from Benjamin to Sarah. She remained rooted on the top step. He nodded in what could almost have been a greeting as he stood, weaving, holding onto the car’s door, his right hand extended. His suit jacket suddenly gaped open and Sarah could see his chest coated with blood. The man moved around the opened car door, feet dragging, and as he did, he staggered and fell sideways onto the fender. A woman from the tour jitney, overweight, wearing sweat-stained orange-colored rayon slacks reached and opened Sarah’s front gate. Others were behind her.
Pushing himself upright, still leaning weakly against the fender, the man focused his eyes onto the slender woman standing defensively on her porch steps. Behind her, Sarah heard the hinges complain as the mansion’s ancient front door opened. She saw a smear of red on the car’s fender, glistening against the dark blue paint.
The man’s lips moved but Sarah did not hear any sound over that of the excited chattering of the tourists crowding into her yard. The man shook his head in what appeared to be frustration, tried to push himself off the fender and as he did, fell to his knees.
He needs help! What can I do? Sarah’s thoughts were jumbled, ricocheting from terror to concern. Hinges squealed again as the mansion’s front door slammed shut.
She raced down the steps, two at a time as the man crawled forward, toward her and the crowd of gawking tourists.
The orange rayon-slacked woman reached the crawling man before Sarah and screamed as she watched him collapse onto his face, then roll over onto his back.
Sarah pushed tourists aside, threading her way through them and shouting, “Get out! This is private property!”
No one listened. One man, bald and fat, stopped and picked up her son’s straw hat and placed it upon his own head.
Sarah reached the prone man, shoved the overweight gawking woman aside and knelt at the side of the stranger, now lying on his back.
His dark eyes were blank, staring sightlessly into the brassy hot sky. He was dead.