Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Drainage Infrastructure, Fatherhood, and Jean Valjean

Houston, the "Bayou City", is known for the many bayous that drain the flat, low-lying city. I grew up there. White Oak Bayou, Braes Bayou, and Buffalo Bayou were familiar names to me as a child, having heard weather reports giving their condition after many storms. There were forks of the White Oak Bayou that ran adjacent to my elementary school. I can remember standing at the school fence during recess, staring out at the bayous as they wound their way through the neighborhoods. I wondered where they went and where they were from. They were like mysterious roads to adventure in my mind, travelled only by vagabonds and, occasionally, teenagers with more freedom than me.

On my way to becoming a teenager myself, an occasion arose that presented me with a chance for urban adventure. As a boy scout, I needed to take a "city hike" to fulfill an outdoor activity requirement. So I asked my father if we could take a hike in the bayous. To my delight, he agreed, and my father, step-mother, and step-brother donned our hiking boots and sunscreen one Sunday afternoon and drove to a convenient entry point.
We hiked five miles, as I recall, and discovered many preteen treasures along the way. Abandoned grocery carts became spacecraft, sticks became light sabers, and skateboard-riding teenage yahoos became river-dwelling aliens of suspicious character. It was such an unusual and adventurous day that I have always remembered it fondly.

Fast forward 30 years or so.

There is a creek, a bayou of sorts, that runs through our university. At one point it goes underground and reappears on the other side of campus where it soon joins the Brazos river on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. My boys and I were there the other day with some time on our hands. So when Jono asked me if we could go explore it, how could I say no?
Much of the creek is kept like a park. It was clean and lined with flowers. It was 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, so needless to say, the campus was quiet and void of all student activity. The world was ours, in a sense. Where the creek passed under a bridge we saw a colony of Martins. There were a twenty or so, flying in and out from under the bridge, presumably bringing food to their young or building their mud nests. They flew around our heads chirping and I acted brave, though I wondered if one of them might swoop down and peck me on my bald head.

At the point at which the creek goes underground, there is an arched tunnel. Our eyes adjusted as we entered the relative dark. At this point we began to see what I call college graffiti. College graffiti differs from its gangsta counterpart in that it is not territorial, obscene, or written in a made-up language. Instead, it's more philosophical or at least humorous. My point is, it was rated G. G-raffiti. Ha! I just made that up.

My thoughts alight on the story of Jean Valjean, carrying his future son-in-law through the sewers of Paris in Les Miserables. I decide not to burst out in song, despite knowing all the words to the musical.

After a hundred feet or so, the arched tunnel divided into three rectangular "hallways". We went down the only one that was dry until we couldn't see anymore. Adventure beckoned us further, but we were without lights or insect repellent, and mosquitoes were beginning to mock us. "Come to me, my pretty!"

So our bodies came back, but our imaginations lingered on and wondered about secret destinations underground, inhabited by half-troll philosophy majors who spent their days spray painting poems and social criticisms on the sewer walls, only to be read by Jean Valjean and the likes of me. I hope the boys still remember it in 30 years.


Redlefty said...

Based on the pics I don't think you have to worry -- those memories should stick!

Crabby Paddy said...

PT- I think you should write a book some day. I know the right topic will come along and you'll have to write a book. I'll be waiting for that day. Sadly, I don't do a lot of pleasure reading, but I would definitely read your book.