WONDERFUL, EXCITING, GALVESTON
By William R. Carr
Things seem to happen to me in Galveston that generally don't happen elsewhere. I don't know what it is about the place, but it is somehow "different." I've never actually shipped out of Galveston, and it's never been one of my regular ports of call. Though I've always enjoyed my several brief visits there, I suppose it's a good thing I don't go there very often, because not all of my experiences in Galveston have been on the good side of the ledger. Exciting, yes, but not good. In fact, during my most recent visit, I momentarily had a vision of ending my days there, on the floor of a seedy little motel room, and never making it home again.
a lot going for it — and it used to have a lot more going for it than it does
now. Not only was Galveston the largest and busiest port on the Texas coast, it
was, and is, the Riviera of Texas. With its mild climate and fine beaches right
along the city's lengthy seawall, the tourist trade has always been one of the
city's major economic mainstays. Additionally, Galveston is a major fishing
port, with a large fleet of commercial shrimp boats and charter boats for sports
fishermen. It also has a major yacht basin that accommodates all sorts of
recreational vessels of every type and size. As both a vacation Mecca and
booming seaport, the city of Galveston has a unique mix of attractions that
seldom favor major cities. While much has changed in recent decades, Galveston
remains a major tourist destination.
Years ago, Galveston was a much busier port than it is today, and it was known to seamen as a "wide open" port. That, basically, is sailor lingo for a port where seamen can have a good time — and live either the "good life" or "bad life" (depending upon one's perspective). The laws were lax enough, or ignored enough, to allow the kind of an easy-going (some whole say, vice-ridden), environment that seamen generally love. In addition to the usual variety of tourist and local attractions, there were numerous seamen's bars, strip joints, and open prostitution. In other words, it had just about everything that the typical seaman would want. That included hiring halls for all the seamen unions, which provided the beached sailor with plenty of opportunity to find a berth after expending the last payoff on riotous living. It was reputed to be a great place for seamen to live, ship from, and visit.
Unfortunately, I missed most of that. During the waning years of Galveston's wide open era, my seagoing career held me almost exclusively in the Far East. San Francisco was the closest thing I had to a state-side home port, though I spent little enough time there. Back in the early and mid sixties, Galveston was hit by the depredations of the times. Like so many other American cities, it began to self-destruct. First came ravages of urban blight, then the even more destructive urban renewal programs (which usually meant totally gutting a city by tearing down most of the downtown business and residential buildings to make parking lots). No doubt, the city fathers considered this "clean-up" to be progress, though it finally left downtown Galveston a mere shadow of it former self.
Along with the self-destruction, other things had happened, or were happening to, to undermine Galveston's unique situation. Perhaps the most important, and negative, development was the expansion of the Houston ship channel and the port of Houston. When the channel was dredged deep enough to accommodate most of the largest cargo ships, Houston (a major industrial center), became the major port, taking the lion's share of the ocean freight business away from Galveston. One of Galveston's problems was that it is situated on a narrow, low-lying island. Because of this, it has always been subject to the ravages of hurricanes. More damaging to Galveston's situation as a seaport, however, traffic to and from the island is restricted by bridge and ferry access. For these reasons state authorities, as well as shippers and freight companies, favored Houston over Galveston for major port expansion. In spite of some port expansion in Galveston, such as a new container terminal, the port of Galveston continued to lose business, and has finally become little more than a relative backwater compared to Houston.
time I ever visited Galveston was in 1969, aboard the Columbia Steamship vessel,
SS Columbia Mariner. I'd signed on the Columbia Mariner as third mate in Saigon,
and we'd left Vietnam, proceeded to Hawaii and the Canal Zone, and then called
at Galveston to discharge a cargo of Hawaiian sugar and to back load for another
voyage to Vietnam. About four months later we returned to Galveston where I paid
My impression of Galveston during those two visits was rather bland, and nothing of note occurred to give those visits any special significance in my memory, though I do recall that on of the strip joints was about the raunchiest I'd seen. But no stateside port could hold a candle to the Far East ports I'd been accustomed to, when it came to seaman recreation. I could drink a few beers and walk around town, but "fun" was never really a part of any stateside port call to me. Of course, I had a family in Saigon at the time too, thus, for me, both home and fun were only to be found on the west side of the Pacific. I remembered Galveston at that time, however, as being a "real" city. My shipmates told me, though, that it had already deteriorated considerably from what it had been. It was no longer the open port they once admired, and the combined blights of urban decay and urban renewal had already begun to make major inroads into the city-center. One of the nicest things about Galveston, from a seaman's point of view, was that downtown was a conveniently short walk from the docks, something that is all too rare in many ports, especially since the advent of containerization.
The next time I chanced to call at Galveston, was ten years later, in 1979. It was a changed place. The feeling of a "real" city was gone. Downtown was a combination of empty business buildings and parking lots where buildings had once stood. The life of the city seemed gone, and much of it resembled an eerie sort ghost town — something that became typical of so many American cities. American ships calling at Galveston became so few and far between that all of the seamen's unions eventually closed down their halls there in favor of Houston. Yet small enclaves and vestiges of old Galveston remained. Happily, one of the main streets near the waterfront had been largely spared the wrecker's ball. This was "The Strand," and a few adjoining or nearby streets. The Strand has since been spruced up as a tourist center in recent years, preserving most of the old buildings. It now makes up the major part of what tourists know as the "historical downtown area" of Galveston. Along with the buildings and tourist oriented businesses, survives the remnants of the "bar district." Though the city has attempted to "clean" things up, and apparently considers those bars as blights to the city's desired image, they have held on as Galveston attempted to reinvent itself. The major clientele consists of seamen from the few merchant ships that continue to call, fishermen, bikers, and the general red-neck and cowboy class that comes into town, or from the surrounding neighborhoods, from time to time for a little urban recreation. It's sort of a ghostly representation of what Galveston once offered mariners.
In spite of this downsizing, Galveston is still one of the better liberty ports in the country for merchant seamen. That's not saying very much though. There are so few American ships left, and so few seamen going ashore in the various ports, that the traditional seamen's haunts (and what might be called the sailor's shore-side infrastructure), have just about dried up and withered away even in the largest and busiest ports. Often they have been upgraded to trendy tourist areas which no longer cater to, or appeal to, seamen. Though this has happened in Galveston, there are still several establishments where an old sea dog can feel at home. That's particularly fortunate for us old salts who knew how things used to be and enjoyed the traditional seaman's life.
Because of the demise of the "sailors'" waterfronts, and changes in the maritime industry itself, seamen themselves are becoming a changed breed. Many younger seamen have never known the traditional seamen's life — i.e., work hard, play hard, and drink hardy. And, of course, most important of all — a girl in every port. That, of course, was what attracted many, if not most, of us older seamen to go to sea in the first place. Today such things are merely the memories of a few old romantics. Oh, there's still plenty of good liberty ports around the world, but today ships are in and out of port so quickly that all the fun, and the quality of life, is gone. The only thing that can attract young men (and now young women), to go to sea is the promise of making plenty of money. Even that promise is receding. Many of the new breed of seamen no longer even bother to go ashore at all, especially in foreign ports, and most who do head for the nearest shopping center, which is usually a long cab ride from the waterfront.
A few of us still party hearty whenever opportunity arises, and Galveston is still one of those ports where it can be done. Nothing to compare with Manila or Shanghai, mind you, but better than many other stateside ports.
9 April, 1979
Not all things that have happened to me in
Galveston have been of the adventurous or negative variety. For example, in 1979
I found my long lost brother there.
My younger brother, Pat, who I'd introduced to the sea, disappeared at one time and hadn’t been heard from in about two years. His last known whereabouts was Manila, Philippines. I’d last seen him in 1977, in Guam, before his departure for the Philippines and my own departure to return home to Illinois after my ten year odyssey in the Orient.
I guess it was a mistake, but one of the last things I'd told Pat was, "If I were in you're position, Pat, I think I'd go to the Philippines, find me an agreeable Filipina girl and open a little bar in Manila or Olongapo."
So Pat had decided to go try his luck in the P.I., and the last anybody had heard from Pat was a few letters to our mother. Pat had got hitched up with a gal in Manila. I knew then that Pat had taken "find an agreeable Filipina girl" too seriously. Not that there was anything particularly wrong with marrying a Filipino, but I hadn't envisioned anything for Pat as binding as marriage. Then, after those two or three letters, there was nothing. Knowing the hazards of the Philippines, I was a bit worried about my younger brother, and hoped I hadn't been the cause of something really disastrous. After two years of not knowing whether he was still alive, I was seriously considering a trip to Manila to try to either find out what had happened to him, or at least pick up his trail. Fortunately, a highly unlikely chain of events and circumstance led to our reunion in Galveston, Texas, of all places!
I’ll pick up at a point down that chain that saw me down in Yucatan, Mexico. I was the captain of a geological survey vessel, the M/V Cecil H. Greene, owned and operated by Texas Instruments, of Dallas, Texas. We were surveying off the coast of Yucatan, operating out of the port of Progresso.
Only days after I had taken command of the vessel, we suffered a crippling breakdown in our air gun compressors (used to simulate explosions for submarine seismic work, rather than using high explosives). The only remedy was to go to Galveston for repairs.
We arrived in Galveston on April Fools’ Day, and were there about two weeks. In the wee hours of the 9th, I was staggering back to the vessel at pier 38, from the Strand, when I decided to take a little detour over to Broadway to see if there were any bars over that way that I’d been missing. When I reached Broadway, which was only about three or four block out of my way, I spied a bar located at the corner of Broadway and 41st Street. It was called the Bon Ton.
It was late, and there wasn’t much business. I sat myself down at one end of the long U-shaped bar and ordered a beer. I looked up at a familiar looking gentleman way down at the far side of the U, facing me. Low and behold! It was my long lost brother, Pat!
Pat was the last one in the world I expected to run into in Galveston. We might have met up just about anywhere else in the world and been much less surprised. In Manila, Singapore, Guam, the Middle East, or anywhere in between — the meeting would have seemed natural — but not in Galveston, Texas. I had imagined that if Pat survived anywhere, it would have been somewhere between the Gulf of Suez and the Philippine Sea. I thought this mainly because that was where the oil activity was, and Pat had been working in oil patch out of Singapore prior to our prior rendezvous in Guam. I never dreamed that he would end up in the Gulf Coast oil industry. After all, why would anybody ever want to go and work there?
He was working for Western Geophysical Services as a chief engineer, a company he’d worked for previously out of Singapore. He had connected up with the lady owner of the Bon Ton bar (whom he later married), and was a joint proprietor in the business. I learned that his Philippine marriage had fizzled out after he’d returned to the States. He had planned for his Filipino wife to join him in Galveston (had, in fact, sent her the money for a ticket), but whenever she called his Galveston apartment, she kept getting his "room mate," who happened to be female, and more than a room mate.
But for that job with Texas Instruments, and the busted air compressor, I wouldn't have been in Galveston. And but for that little detour for that last little bar hop of the evening, Brother Pat might still be lost today. I certainly couldn’t have found him in Manila, Singapore, or Guam.
GALVESTON PART II — Thanksgiving 19__
Galveston is one of those places where
things just seem to happen. That’s part of its charm—and its danger. For
example, I was in port there on a Lykes ship one Thanksgiving evening only a few
years ago. Many of the bars had Thanksgiving dinner for the patrons, and I
certainly had my fill that night, going from bar to bar. But in one place I
found myself coming to the aid of a damsel in distress. It was a quiet little
place, being one of the few that hadn’t put on a holiday spread, and most of
the girls who usually worked there were apparently off to enjoy the holiday
When I entered the bar I noticed that there were only three customers, all sitting at one table, and one barmaid. Pretty drab, I thought, but I’ll have a beer and move on. I sat down at the bar and ordered a beer.
The three customers at the table, Vietnamese fishermen I later learned, had apparently been partying for some time, as their table was covered with empty beer bottles. The young Korean barmaid had obviously spent some time with them, as I noticed she was pretty tipsy.
She served me a beer and, as is the custom in such places, asked me if I would like to buy her a drink. Thinking that she would probably drink it down and return to her other customers, I accommodated her. Still, I thought her company might make the otherwise drab atmosphere slightly more interesting during the short time it would take to finish my beer. How right I was!
To my surprise, the lady seemed to have totally abandoned her Vietnamese customers in my favor. Perhaps their generosity had run its course and run a little short. Before long two of the fishermen departed. The other, however, stayed on. He got up and positioned himself behind the bar as if he were the bartender. To my surprise he abruptly announced that the bar was closed. I thought this a little strange since I was familiar enough with the place to know that the lady was the one in charge, and that it was at least two hours shy of the usual closing time.
My companion, showing some annoyance at the fisherman’s announcement, said the bar was not closed. She hoped to absorb another dollar or two before closing time, and made it clear to me that she didn’t want me to leave. She assured me that the bar wasn’t closed until she said it was.
Not taking the hint to leave, I continued drinking my beer and enjoying the pleasant company, wondering what the fisherman was up to. After two or three more insistent closing announcements, he came around the bar and grabbed my drinking companion by the hair of the head and started beating her about the face right in front of me.
Being a rather traditional male chauvinist warthog, myself, but of a more western variety, I found this conduct totally unacceptable. “Unhand that fair damsel!” I demanded. But he ignored my well-intended directive.
Seeing no other recourse, I got a hold on both of the gentleman’s wrists to restrain him. After he’d calmed down a little, I released him. Much to my disappointment, he grabbed the girl by the hair again and resumed beating her. Seeing little else to do at the moment, my peaceful drinking activity having been interrupted, I grabbed him again.
The young man demanded that I unhand him immediately, giving me fair warning that he was a kung fu expert. He said that if I didn’t let him go, he’d be forced to unleash himself upon me and "hurt" me. This warning caused me to tighten my grip, with the distinctly uneasy feeling that maybe I had a figurative tiger by the tail. But I was unwilling to allow him to resume his woman beating activities. To do so, just didn’t seem like it would be the right thing to do, although I was beginning to wish that I’d left when he’d first mentioned that the bar was closed.
He commenced struggling like a wildcat and finally managed to break my vice-like grip and break loose. He then grabbed something handy and clobbering me over the head with it, opening a small gash over my left eye. I don’t know what it was but, fortunately, it wasn’t a heavy blunt instrument, and readily gave way to my shiny cranium.
At about that time, much to my chagrin, I saw that I had a fight on my hands. Not being much of a fighter (nor even that great a lover), I found the prospect rather distasteful. This guy was not one of those skinny Orientals one can easily push around. Though short in stature, he was muscularly built. But, at that point, combat seemed unavoidable and I was already committed.
My antagonist apparently managed to get in at least one good kung fu kick (which I didn’t notice at the time, but a massive black bruise on the front of my left thigh later attested to). But then, in spite of his proclaimed martial arts prowess, I quickly managed to put him on the defensive, engaging him in a regular knock down and drag-out (minus the knock-downs), that ranged all over the back of the bar and into the kitchen. Not that my Southern Illinois haymakers were having any great effect. He was pretty good at ducking and backing away from them.
Meanwhile, as I determinedly pressed on with my attack, the girl formed a cheering squad to cheer me on. She remained at my elbow yelling encouragement. “Keell him! Keell him!” she was yelling.
“I’ll kill the son-of-a-bitch!” I found myself declaring in return, as I backed him further into the kitchen, certain I was on the verge of getting in a knockout blow.
Then, when he backed up against the deep sink, unable to retreat further, I knew I had him. "Piece of cake," I was thinking. But, in the twinkling of an eye, the subject of my wrath reached over and grabbed a great big shiny butcher knife!
I paused, and he and pointedly laid the
knife on the counter behind him. There he stood—upright, defiant, and smug,
daring me to press my “advantage” further.
At this point I took to doing some quick thinking. You know, some mental calculations — potentials, probabilities, and the like. What were my chances of getting in that knockout punch before he could bring that knife into play? What were my chances of getting a hold on his knife arm and preventing him from inflicting some embarrassing lacerations, or worse? It’s amazing how thoughtful one can become on such short notice. It's amazing how much thinking a guy can do, on occasion, in the merest fraction of a second. In what could not have been more than a second or two, I concluded that I’d be well advised to alter my plan of attack — perhaps go a little easier on young man. Maybe I ought to offer him a plea bargain. Maybe a deal.
“Hey, wait just a minute,” I said, smiling in a friendly manner. Straightening up from my aggressive crouch, I put my hands up, palms forward. “Maybe we ought to talk this thing over. What do you say we have a beer?”
Fortunately, and much to my relief, he was
agreeable. Maybe neither of us would have to kill the other.
Thus, we reached a truce, and all was peace again. The fisherman, again assuming the role of bartender, graciously providing me a beer and a damp bar towel to wipe the blood and sweat from my brow. He inquired of my health, and I of his. Had he hurt me? He wanted to know. “No,” I said. “Did I connect with any of my Southern Illinois haymakers?” I asked. “Not so much,” he said. “Good,” I said, “but I sure was trying.” We congratulated each other in not having done too much damage, either to ourselves or the bar.
But for my concern that he might later resume his disciplinary action against our mutual friend, it was as if we were now great friends after mortal combat — a phenomena not uncommon among combatants. He didn’t seem to be a bad sort at all. He even empathized with my action in defense of the young woman. She resumed her seat beside me, and he remained behind the bar.
Still, I was skeptical of leaving them alone. Yet I clearly couldn’t stay there forever as a peacekeeper. I had to be aboard ship early the next morning for payoff. I suggested that the lady leave the bar with me to avoid a possible replay of the fisherman’s earlier affections, but she declined my offer of further protection. True to her responsibility to the bar, she wouldn’t leave her duty post. She said she thought everything would be alright, and the fisherman promised not to resume his chastisement after I left. Having done all I could, I had to leave the two to hash out any lingering differences on their own.
I returned to that bar the next evening to see how things had turned out. The girl said the peace had held after my departure, so I guess I might have saved her a bruise or two, and maybe the necessity of purchasing a wig. So the trouble and struggle had not been totally in vain. Of course, it wouldn't have happened at all had I left at first call.
I asked the barmaid to show me the knife her fisherman friend had pulled on me, to see if it still looked as big as it had the night before. She accommodated, and it did. It was a dandy—one of those wide-bladed stainless steel affairs, with an aluminum handle!
Having paid off my ship that day, and being homeward bound, I regretted that I was not able to remain in town long enough to renew my acquaintance with the fisherman under friendlier circumstances. Though the girl never admitted to me that he was her “boyfriend,” my queries elsewhere confirmed that he was (at least in the typical bargirl context) — that the relationship was well known and had been going on for some time — and that the gentleman was thereabouts considered a “nice guy.”
I gained a better understanding as to what
had led to our confrontation. The lady, it seems, had caused her fisherman
friend to “loose face” in front of his friends, who had been with him when I’d
first come into the bar. He had been posing as the boss of the place (since the
owner and other girls were conveniently absent), and the barmaid his woman —
eager to satisfy his every whim. When I came in, much to his annoyance, she had
abandoned him and his friends for me. Worse, she had never even returned to
their table so the fisherman could maintain even the semblance of the illusion
he had so meticulously, and theretofore successfully, cultivated. Worse yet, I
had ordered a second beer, and showed no signs of an early departure!
An astute businesswoman, and dedicated employee, his gal undoubtedly thought it might be slightly more profitable to bestow her undivided attention on me. Perhaps prospects of dividends at the table of her friend had dwindled as the evening had advanced. Unfortunately, alcohol had probably also slightly clouded her judgment. The fisherman felt the slight rather acutely, and considered the embarrassment unforgivable. When his friends left, he determined to teach her a lesson she’d never forget. He had tried to spare me the burden of being a witness, but I’d failed to take the hint to leave when he “closed the bar.” Rather than allowing my presence to frustrate his intended course of action, he proceeded to administer his particular brand of saving grace anyway.
Well, that’s Galveston. It can be an exciting port of call.
GALVESTON PART III —THE INNOCENT BYSTANDER
When Something Might Have “Almost” Happened
January 15th, 2002
paid off a ship at Los Angeles, California, I was confronted with the prospects
of the long drive home to Southern Illinois. Since it was winter, and I had no
particular need to rush, I decided to take the scenic southern route. I headed
south to San Diego, then east through the great American desert southwest. I
took my time, getting off the beaten track somewhat, dropping down into the
Papago Indian reservation of southern Arizona, and then, after a call at El Paso
and Ciudad Juarez, down into the Big Bend region of southwest Texas. I stopped
for the night at Del Rio, and then proceeded on eastward toward the Gulf Coast.
Galveston had always been one of my favorite ports back when I was shipping out of the Gulf, so I set my course for that city. There I figured I’d have one last fling before heading north into cold country and the peaceful rewards of home-life that awaited me at my final destination. My wife, who ordinarily would have been waiting for me at home (and thus caused me to go straight home without any extracurricular activity), was in Hawaii, visiting family.
I arrived in Galveston late in the evening of the 15th of January, 2002. After checking into a hotel and cleaning up, I walked to the nearby convenience store where I found a taxi awaiting a fare. I was off to the Strand for a night on the town. The Strand is a downtown street which (besides hosting many historic buildings and businesses devoted to the daytime tourist trade), is the last refuge of a small group of bars that appeal to the likes of merchant seamen, would-be cowboys, and other renegades in town for a delightful debouch after a long voyage or cattle drive. They represent some of the last remnants of what was once reputed to be the most wide-open and fun port on the Gulf Coast.
Those bars are quite different now than they were in the good old days though. A few decades ago, some of the places were downright rough, being the hangout for a pretty tough breed of bikers as well as seamen and and the ordinary run of Texas Mavericks. Most were taken over by Koreans some years ago, and Korean girls seem to have a knack for the bar business, catering to a broad array of male customers, including us riff-raff, in a very diplomatic way. You might say the place is a little more civilized now.
As I sat peacefully drinking a beer in one establishment, chatting with one of the girls, we heard violent yelling out in the street. All the girls flocked to the door, and went outside to see the action. Naturally curious, I followed to see what the ruckus was about.
Two men were squared off by the edge of the curb in front of the bar, and an older fellow was yelling angrily at a young man. The older fellow was somewhat distinguished and respectable looking, with a well trimmed white beard. I’d noticed him earlier in a bar just around the corner. But the deadly serious tone in his voice indicated that he wasn’t to be trifled with. The younger man lacked the appearance of respectability, but he didn’t appear dangerous either, and was definitely not the aggressive party in the altercation.
It looked for all the world like there was going to be bloodshed, as the older man had his hands in his jacket pockets with the telling demeanor that indicated he had some sort of death-dealing instrument secreted in one of them.
Until I caught that impression, I was approaching the pair with the idea of maybe trying to mediate the argument in hopes of preventing wherever appeared to be in the offing. But as I approached, the man with his hands in his jacket pockets, turned to me and asked in a forceful voice, “Where do you come down in this matter? Do you want some of this?” To make his meaning clear, he pointed one of his jacket pockets ominously in my direction.
Like the younger man in the argument, I was wearing a military field jacket. In the eyes of the older man I suppose the jacket tended to put me in younger fellow’s class (and maybe in the same “unit”). He probably thought I was the young man’s friend, coming to his assistance.
I was a little taken aback at the intense and violent demeanor of the older man, especially as his attention was directed toward me. What the older guy referred to as “some of this” seemed to indicate something at hand in his pocket. I imagined it was either a knife or gun—most probably the latter. It seemed the older man was threatening the very life of the other, and at that moment was offering me some of the same.
“I’m on the side of right, wherever that happens to fall,” I said, halting in my tracks. I could see that interfering, no matter my good intentions, might not be the wisest of all possible options at the moment.
Apparently satisfied that I was not a partisan of subject of his wrath, the older man focused again on the subject of his anger. By the serious intensity of his rhetoric, I had the distinct feeling that at any second a tragedy might occur.
Now thoroughly disinclined to interpose myself between them, due to a serious yellow streak I felt creeping up my back, I still thought I had to do something to prevent being witness to something terrible, for the tension deepened as the elder party resumed berating and threatening his adversary. The air was electrified, and it seemed a spring was about to snap.
“Run, you son-of-a-bi---!” I yelled at the guy in the field jacket, as a critical juncture appeared to be at hand. I didn’t finish the last word because it suddenly occurred to me that I shouldn’t be calling a total stranger a son-of-a-bitch. Yet, perhaps there was unconscious reason in my madness. I didn’t want to leave the impression that I was a friend of the younger man, nor unduly antagonize the older man.
The guy in the field jacket had been standing there almost silent, as the other berated and threatened him. When he did speak, his voice was too low for his words to be distinguished. He appeared to be trying to reason with his antagonist, and seemed oblivious to any mortal danger. But he heard me. While the older fellow glared up at me in angry frustration, the guy in the field jacket turned and walked briskly across the street.
A tense moment ensued as I wondered what attitude the older gentleman would take to my interference. The moment passed without anything passing between us, thankfully, and I returned to my beer in the bar as the bearded man walked away toward the corner.
The girl I’d been sitting with told me that the bearded man was the owner of both the bar I was currently in and the one in which I’d seen him earlier. She said he did have a gun in his pocket.
A few minutes later, that owner made an appearance. I wondered what his intentions were, seeing me there. He’d come to explained that the man in the field jacket owed a considerable bar bill and he’d been trying to get him to pay up, or else — he was fed up with the guy. I was relieved to learn the white bearded man was the “good guy,” and probably wouldn’t have shot the other man anyway. Yet I was not totally convinced that I had not prevented him from doing something he would have regretted, for he’d worked himself into a towering rage from which there appeared no honorable retreat.
I apologized for interfering, but told him, "It looked to me like you were about to do something that you'd regret." After his few words with me, he returned to his other establishment.
About a half an hour later, proving to me that he was a little short in the upper story, the man in the field jacket came in and sat himself down a couple of barstools down. To my surprise, he asked me for a beer.
Quite frankly, at that time and place I was in no mood to either buy him a beer or appear to be his great friend and benefactor. Against what my natural inclinations might have been under other circumstances, I thought it wise to get rid of him as quickly as possible. I told him that I’d learned what the big argument was about, and that he had come to the wrong guy to ask for more credit. I felt a tinge of guilt as he stood up and ambled out of the bar. I don’t like to treat people that way. If I’d run into him elsewhere, even later that evening, I’d have gladly bought him a beer just to hear his story—but not right there in the lion’s den!
When he left, the girl said that he wasn’t a bad guy—just broke, and always thirsty.
GALVESTON PART IV —THE MUGGING ary 16th, 2002
ary 16th, 2002
Muggings are pretty common in American
cities these days I’m told. Somewhere there is probably a statistic that says
just about everybody will be mugged at some time during his or her lifetime. As
a merchant seaman, however, I’d knocked around the world for the better part
of half a century without having the honor of such a common experience. And I’ve
been in a lot of pretty disreputable places — in fact, I seem to gravitate to
them. However, my number had never come up until recently in the city of
Galveston, Texas. This incident occurred only a couple hours after the incident
It was late evening on the 15th of January when I finally arrived in that fabled port city after the long day’s drive from Del Rio. I drove along the Seawall looking for a certain nice little motel I’d stayed at some years back. Failing to see or recognize it, I took a turn away from the Seawall with the intention of retracing the route I’d just come. Before I got back onto the Seawall Blvd., however, I saw an older motel, which advertised rooms for $22.00 a night. Thinking the place would probably be as good as any, I turned in to put an end to my search and long day’s drive.
When I got out of the car, I could see the place was a bit seedier than I’d noticed at first glance. When I got to the booth that served as a lobby, I found the manager’s window closed. A hand lettered notice read, “Illegal activities are not allowed,” or something to that effect. Determining that maybe this wasn’t such a good place to stop after all, I returned to my car to resume my search for another motel. I was just pulling out of the motel drive when the manager came running up from across the street (apparently having been to a store just around the corner), and asked enthusiastically if I’d like a room.
He was a likable looking old guy, with a drooping white walrus mustache, so, in spite of my reservations, I found myself asking, “How much for a single?” He named his price and I threw caution to the winds in taking the offer. When he showed me to my room, I noticed another little red flag. The door lock showed signs of prior forced entry. But there was a second heavy deadbolt, which could be fastened from the inside. It appeared sound, and he assured me that it was.
In spite of some reservations, I accepted the room. I should have followed my instincts and high-tailed it to another place right then. But I’d already paid my money, and was in a hurry to get into a room and take a shower so I could head for Galveston’s infamous night-spots. And, of course, I didn’t want to hurt the old guy’s feelings. So, lamentably, I resisted the distinct urge I had to back out of the bargain and demand my money back.
I cleaned up and caught a taxi to the Strand, where I commenced my “last fling” before heading home to Southern Illinois.
After soaking up enough beer to adequately quench my thirst, and the bars beginning to close their doors at about two the following morning, I hailed a cab to return to my motel.
When I disembarked from the taxi and was walking into the motel parking area, I didn’t like what I saw. My car was parked slightly off to the side of my room, in front of one of the adjacent rooms — that being the nearest space for me to park. Just beyond the car, I could see the motel room, two doors from mine, wide open and dimly lighted. Inside I could see dark figures moving about, and there appeared to be a “bunch” of them.
Obviously, my neighbors were African Americans. Not that I’m particularly prejudice, or believe in racial profiling, but I nevertheless had a distinct foreboding. “Oh, oh,” I thought, “I certainly don’t like the looks of this! I hope they aren’t waiting up for me!” But I saw no alternative but to proceed to my room with the hope that the neighbors were civilized.
As I approached my room, I found a black woman standing near the front of my car. She was stocky and very black complexioned, with a shiny round face topped by short-cropped hair with about a dozen short braids sticking out at varied angles. When I got nearer, she flashed a big white smile, and said “Hi!”
I said, “’Evenin’, how ya’ doin’?” As I was about to pass by her, her boyfriend came out and abruptly asked me for $3.00 so he could go buy some beer. The gentleman was middle-aged and medium build. His head was nearly shaved and his face was rough with a short stubble of beard that showed signs of graying. He had a prominent ridge over his brow, but there was no obvious malice in his demeanor. Still, I didn’t like his manner.
Somehow I didn’t feel that it would be a good idea to stop and dig in my pockets for money, even if I was inclined to make a donation. So I declined to donate to the cause as respectfully as I could.
“Sorry, but I just blew my wad,” I said, as I continued to my room, hoping that would be the end of our acquaintance.
No sooner had I unlocked the door than I was jumped from behind and propelled violently into the room with the gentleman trying to throttle me. I managed to shake him loose, but found myself in a violent struggle. For a briefest moment, I thought I was getting the best of my attacker. He was slightly smaller than I, and I had some strength on him, but he was as wiry and agile as an alley cat. More importantly, he knew what he was about. The woman, who had followed into my room, was helping the assailant by trying to trip me up, as he yelled instructions to her. The struggle only lasted a few harrowing seconds before the tide turned against me and they succeeded in landing me flat on my back.
While the woman’s efforts had been ineffectual (though adding greatly to my confusion and difficulty), my primary antagonist managed to put me down in a maneuver that was as neat as it was unexpected. He dropped to his knees and lunged forward, hooking his left forearm behind my ankles and pulled. This, with a quick shove at my mid-section with is his right hand, accomplished his purpose and I lost my balance and went down backwards. It was a swift, simple, and very effective tactic, and it turned the tide against me in a twinkling of an eye. No sooner had I landed than he was on top of me.
I’d fallen backwards into the most awkward circumstance. I found myself practically immobilized between the bed and wall, with the man sprawled on top of me pinning me down. Needless to say, finding myself in this unhandy and vulnerable position was a real disappointment. In an instant I had been bested, when I’d thought I had been gaining ground. The only good thing was that my head had come to rest on my soft awol bag, rather than the carpet-clad concrete floor or plaster wall.
It didn’t seem right. But it was obviously all too real. Nightmarishly so! It occurred to me that I’d just lost the battle that could easily cost me my life. And the brief struggle had winded me. I was feeling my three score years and, at that moment, a great lack of reserve energy. I was panting like a dog, and stopped struggling momentarily to take a breath and assess the situation. It didn’t look good to me at all.
My assailant was face-down on top of me with his head buried just beneath my chin, and the full weigh of his body concentrated on my upper torso. His right leg was braced up against the bed, allowing him to put more weight on my chest. I was rendered almost helpless, and felt like a turtle on its back. Only main strength could dislodge him, and I wasn’t at all sure that I could muster it up.
My situation was desperate, but I had one advantage and one chance. I conveniently found my hands at his throat, though the way his head was pulled down it felt like a foot thick manila hawser. His head and neck seemed fused together into a hard log attached to his body. I still had a chance, I thought, if the girl didn’t ad too much weight to my predicament.
She wasn’t standing around idle by any means. As soon as I went down she was prancing around my ankles like an animated black demon doing a death dance over a fallen foe. In an instant she bent down and had her hand in my right front pocket.
This was about enough, I thought. I can’t lay around and take this! But just as I was about to mount a desperate effort to choke and dislodging my assailant, I noticed something. The balance of power had taken another ominous turn in my assailant's favor, and my situation suddenly appeared totally hopeless. A large, Case-style, jack-knife caught my eye. It was in my assailant’s left hand, half-open, poised where I could see it, but ready to be put to immediate use if I continued to struggle.
He had apparently pulled it from a back pocket as soon as he had landed on top of me. The knife was held in his left hand in such a way that all he needed to do was to bring it down forcefully on my ribcage to open it the rest of the way — and in so doing, maybe slip the blade between a couple of ribs.
There was nothing I could do to prevent the knife from coming into play if my assailant wished to employ it. My chances of moving my right arm far enough, fast enough, to attempt to grasp his knife arm in time appeared less than promising.
The woman extracted the money from my pocket. “We got it!” she said in wide-eyed glee.
“Get the wallet! Get the wallet!” the man ordered insistently.
The fact that my antagonist held the knife where I was sure to see it, and yet had not already put it to use, gave me the only glimmer of hope I could then muster. There was the distinct possibility that he didn’t intend to use it if he didn’t have to. I knew that the surest way of getting cut was to renew my efforts to dislodge him.
With the gravest of forebodings, I decided to gamble on the only chance I appeared to have — ignoble surrender (while nurturing the fervent hope that the couple was not bent on murder as well as robbery). I let him know that he’d won fair and square, and that I wasn’t going to struggle any more.
“Okay, man,” I gasped, “You’ve got it! Go ahead and take the wallet.”
That side of me being pressed against the side of the bed, I shifted my body, ever so carefully, so the woman could get to the big prize.
My thoughts were racing as I kept my eye on the knife hovering over my ribcage and felt the woman digging into the pocket containing the wallet.
It’s amazing how much serious thinking a fellow can do on such rare and fleeting occasions. I thought about the prospects of ending my career right there in that crumby motel room. I knew that it could easily happen, and I wasn’t at all enthused about the prospect. I thought about the manner in which the news might reach my family — how devastating it would be to them. I didn’t like the thought. I thought also of how ridiculous it would seem to them, and seemed even to me at the moment. What was I doing in Galveston in the first place? Of all places — in a seedy old motel — hundreds of miles away from any point on my supposed route home? I could imagine the unspoken epitaphs with reference to “the victim of folly.”
There I was, as helpless as a baby in a crib, with my very life in the hands of a crazed couple, intent on extracting a donation for their cause (whatever that was).
It also occurred to me that the man might just take a measure of pleasure in inflicting a little collateral pain and suffering on me as a parting gesture, just prior to making his getaway. After all, I’d probably made him work a little harder than he’d expected the job had called for.
I hoped for the best and braced for the worst. In seconds I would either be off the hook, or in a renewed life and death struggle. I kept my eye on the knife. If it plunged, I might be able to deflect it. Maybe... I might get cut up, I thought, but I might survive.
Fortunately, they were satisfied with my
wallet, and weren’t intent on murder. When the woman got that big fat billfold
she said, with genuine joy, “Okay, we got it! We’ve really got it!”
and they were off without further adieu. They left with such swift dispatch
that, by the time I got to the door, I didn’t have the foggiest idea which way
they’d gone. Their room was vacant.
In spite of the loss of my wallet and pocket money, I was feeling mighty lucky at that particular moment in my life, and I’ve been rejoicing that I came through the experience with a full hide ever since. Though I was later rather sore of neck and muscle, I was pleased to note that I’d come through without so much as a bruise. My only flesh wound was a small scrape on the back of one thumb. And (though my wallet was a fat one), I’m sure the couple was at least slightly disappointed at its contents. Their big prize was a single one hundred dollar bill and a single $5.00 U.S. Note. I thanked my lucky stars that my payoff check and most of my cash were still safely stashed deep in my luggage in the trunk of the car. The lady and gentleman had kindly left my keys in my pocket.
By the way they handled me, as a team, I’d say that devilish pair had had previous experience in such activities.
THE POLICE TO THE RESCUE!
As you might imagine, however,
I was pretty shaken by the experience. But I had another unpleasant one coming.
I immediately ran and got the motel manager to dial 911. I don’t know what I expected to accomplish. The offending couple was gone, and I knew the likelihood that my wallet would be recovered was pretty slim. But I’d always imagined that calling the police was the right and proper thing to do when something in the nature of an armed robbery or mugging had taken place. In the end, I need not have so troubled myself.
Three officers in two cars arrived on the scene in short order. One of them began asking what happened, and I started to explain. I told him how I had been accosted for three dollars just outside my room, then rushed from behind as I unlocked my door to enter. I told of the brief struggle in my room.
Then, when I told him how I’d been robbed inside my room, he said, “Wait a minute, you just told me you’d been robbed outside the room!” and accused me of changing my story!
“How can we get the facts straight if you change your story?” he asked. I was dismayed at the apparent communication barrier that seemed to develop from this. From that point, it seemed he was more interested in poking holes in my account of the incident than the fact that an armed mugging had just taken place. The line of questioning became more like a cross-examination of a suspect — much more accusatory than seems seemly in an interview of the victim of a violent robbery.
“What were you doing at your car?” I was asked. That sort of threw me. My car was parked right outside, with its front end only a few feet from my motel door. It was parked parallel to the facing motel doors, right in front of the room in which the couple had been staying. I had merely passed by the front of my car on the way toward my room, and the woman had been standing near the front of the car as I’d approached my room. The officer apparently wanted to put some sort of significance to the possibility that I had been out at my car, or had gone out to it.
It didn’t take long to see that I wasn’t going to get anywhere with these public servants. Things went downhill from there, and I suspect my annoyance at their line of questioning began to show itself. I was asked if I had been drinking. When I answered in the affirmative, that fact seemed to take on much more significance than the fact that I had been mugged.
I was finally asked for a description of the assailant and his accomplice. I said they were black, and that the man was of “medium build.” The officer, rather than waiting to obtain more details, asked, “Medium build?” as if he’d never heard of such descriptive terminology before. And so it went...
Because the police officers had been picking at my story and description at practically every word, they neither got the story nor the description of the attackers straight. I don’t believe they managed to get anything of value written down at all.
Though I was still excited and shaken from my experience, I find it difficult to believe that I was so inarticulate as to present a serious communications problem. As for the few drinks I’d had earlier, my recent experience had proven most sobering in nature.
Before I was able to complete the description, one of the officers (apparently the senior officer present, who had been standing off to the side, just outside the door), abruptly said he’d heard enough. He suggested, very pointedly, that it was within their discretionary powers to take me into custody.
Incredulous, I took that to mean that the investigation of a mugging was over, and if I didn’t drop the matter, I’d be arrested. So I took the hint and decided not to bother them further with my personal problems.
Much to my chagrin, they left without bothering to take a close look in room the offending pair had occupied (the door to which was still open and the TV on). Nor do I believe they inquired as to who had been registered in that room.
They apparently made a judgment that went: Here’s an old drifter of some sort, with a cock and bull story about being robbed; wearing a field jacket; staying in a seedy old motel; who admits he’s been drinking. Why bother? Let’s just write this one off as a non-event. I’m sure that’s what their official report of the matter must reflect.
Though I’d planned to stay in Galveston another night, having lost my wallet with my driver’s license, I decided it would be wise to cut my losses and get out of town as quickly as possible, which I did. I sure didn’t want to be caught driving without a driver’s license in Galveston. If a guy can be arrested for being mugged, no telling what would happen to a guy caught driving without a license.
When I got back home, I
shot a letter off to the Galveston chief of police (by email and snail mail),
relating the details of my experience.
Interestingly, as I checked out the Galveston police department’s web-page, to get the mailing address, I happened to take a look at the photos of the Texas “Ten Most Wanted.” One of them bore a striking resemblance to the gentleman who robbed me. It was either him, or someone looking remarkably like him. I brought this to the attention of the chief of police in my letter.
While the chief of police did not extend the courtesy of a reply to my letter, a detective was assigned to the case. He communicated with me by email on the 28th of January (twelve days after the mugging), and gave me some updates as to his findings. He said that the questioning officer on the morning of the mugging had file a complete and very detailed report, and that he found out who was registered in the room from which the assailants had come.
The detective had visited the motel, and found the person registered on the date of the mugging, and his girlfriend, were still there! I found this quite amazing. The man didn’t fit my description (he said he was stocky and short), and after interviewing him didn’t believe he could have been my assailant. But, he said, the woman fit my description “perfectly.”
I thought it highly unlikely that the woman who participated in the robbery would still been there, but the detective said she’d probably stayed because she was dependent upon her boyfriend for room and board.
The detective had a lengthy interview with the woman, and said she had been very evasive. She said she hadn’t seen me, but that she had thought she’d heard a scuffle or struggle in my room (which was separated from hers by another room). At first she’d said she had been asleep. Then she changed it to watching television.
Of course, there was nobody in her room after the mugging. So, if she had been asleep, or watching television, she must have felt compelled to leave, for no apparent reason (forgetting even to close the door), before the police arrived. So she had definitely been there.
The detective believed the woman was the accomplice, and that she had been in her room that night with another man (my assailant), without her boyfriend’s knowledge, and that the assailant had left the area right after the mugging. I thought this scenario very improbably. More likely, her boyfriend at least had full knowledge of the mugging, but had been smart enough not to take an active part because he was registered at the motel.
Now, while only two people had been involved in the assault and robbery, I had previously seen a “bunch” of people in the second room down from mine. The “bunch” was more than two, and I believe I told the officer, at least “three.” I now believe there were two couples in the room, the registrant and his girlfriend, and the two assailants.
I had received this
information in an email on Wednesday, the 30th of January.
Surprisingly, the detective said the woman had agreed to take a polygraph test.
He was to pick her up that day for the test. I answered by email that I didn’t
believe she would avail herself, and she didn’t. When the detective went by
the motel, the manager told him the pair had left, saying they would be back the
following Friday. They had paid for their room a week in advance, and the
detective apparently believed they would be back. I told him I didn’t think
they would return. They apparently didn’t.
The detective searched the room on the 5th of February, finding it abandoned — and had been abandoned since Friday, the 1st, (The Friday the couple were supposed to have returned!). Since some of the lady’s personal belongings had been left behind, as well as some drug paraphernalia, it appeared their departure had been abrupt. Though the parties were now long gone, the detective’s interest in the case seemed to increase. He wanted me to come to Galveston and identify the woman from a photo line-up, believing he at least knew whom one of my assailants was.
I requested that he send me the photo line-up. On February 18th, the detective faxed me a photo line-up with a picture of the female suspect included along with several other black women. The quality of the faxed photographs was very poor, but there was only one photo that matched the description of the accomplice in my mugging.
Much to my disappointment, the photo I identified was not the suspect the detective had interviewed! The photo of the woman the detective had interviewed was one I hadn’t even considered. She simply didn’t match my description. How the detective thought she had matched it “perfectly” is a matter to wonder at. Unfortunately, however, the hairstyle was the most notable and striking thing about the accomplice. There could be no mistaking it, but hair-dos can be easily changed.
Clearly, the woman the detective suspected had been in that motel room that night. She’d admitted that much! That meant that there had to have been two couples in the room that night. The two that pulled off the mugging had both cleared the immediate area that morning! The pair the detective interviewed most definitely had intimate knowledge of the other couple and the crime. Now all four were gone, and the chances of catching any of them slim.
Unfortunately, this circumstance had the peculiar effect of shutting down the investigation entirely. The detective said he was going to ask his Assistant District Attorney to screen the case. He didn’t offer any information on the woman I’d identified, nor indicate that he would do any more follow up in the case. In other words, since I was unable to identify his suspect, he was unwilling to consider other suspects or try to cope with a broader, and more complicated case, involving four people. In any case, all parties had long since “disappeared into thin air,” as he put it. Since then, the detective has not responded to any of my email inquiries. At no time did the detective ever respond to the fact that my assailant closely resembled one of Texas' Most Wanted — a convicted murderer, wanted for a "parole violation," of all things! With a $1,000.00 reward for information leading to his capture. Case closed!
In June of 2003, again returning home from pay-off in Los Angeles, I again breezed by Galveston. This time, my wife was with me. She wanted to see the scene of the crime.
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