Chester Martin: A Trip To South Texas - And Mexico - In 1946 (Part One)

Monday, November 6, 2017 - by Chester Martin

The following story was begun in 2009 for my family. It tells a little about our country right after WWII and the United States as your grandparents might have remembered it. East Main Street, Chattanooga, is where it starts - where Abe Zarzour and Ira Trivers famously ruled for a time...


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My Uncle Forrest Martin, and wife, Aunt Lydia (say "LIE-da") Richter Martin, sold their clothing store on East Main street and shortly moved out of Chattanooga, heading for Harlingen (pronounced "har-lin-jen"), Texas.

It was one of the few places in the U.S. that could make San Antonio and Corpus Christi, TX, look like northern cities!  Their move began on my 11th birthday,1945. I was devastated, because Forrest was one of my two favorite uncles, My dad also felt strongly about Forrest's departure from home, but Forrest was going there to manage a new drive-in theater, being built by his brother-in-law, "Doc" Richter, then of Waco. Forrest's big moment had at last arrived! This was just in time for the flood of returning veterans from World War II. There was still no TV in the country at that time, so the drive-in theater business stood to be highly lucrative. (And it was!) Dad wanted to see his brother again, and, with the invitation extended, we set off for that southernmost tip of Texas. Gas was once again plentiful and cheap after the war. My mom packed up as much food as possible to take on that lengthy (1,250 miles one-way) and we set out early one June morning in our '41 Plymouth, "bound for the Rio Grande", as an old song says.

 

Our first day's drive got us to a hot and humid place called Crowley, Louisiana, where we found a very inexpensive "tourist court" where the cabins could not have cost over $2.50 per night, or my dad would not have paid it. $2.00 tourist cabins were common in that day - mostly mom and pop operations, with no frills (including no ICE, though all had modern bathrooms and kitchenettes.)  For road-weary people, however, our unit was quite satisfactory despite the tree-frog found creeping up the painted boards of an interior wall, and the loud chorus of insects just outside the open windows. (We laughed about that tree-frog for years!) And, of course no one of us had yet been spoiled by home air-conditioning, so we didn't mind the steamy heat of that pitch black Louisiana night. Next morning, though, I gave my parents a big scare when a piece of the bacon my mom had fried got lodged in my throat and made me choke for a short time. Mom was very frightened and began poking her fingers in my mouth to try to either make the bacon go down or come back up again.  After several tense moments it slid on down, with no harm done, and, after washing some cooking utensils from breakfast, we were on our way to points south and west. Every one of us was glad to be on the road again!

 

We had come through Birmingham on the old U.S. Highway 11 on the day we left, and now, after the night spent at Crowley, we were still headed for the great city of New Orleans. I don't remember whether we stopped there, but most likely did so, as my mother had always liked it there.(She and her mother had gone to several of their Mardi Gras events). It also became one of my favorite cities later on, due to this first introduction to it, and so I think we must have stopped there for an hour or two to at least see Jackson Square with all its famous old buildings and close-by sights. But New Orleans  was always a problem to get through in those days before Interstate highways. Navigating through towns or cities of any size was always a problem then, as you had to watch for the highway route-marker signs, stop signs, traffic lights, one-way streets, odd merging traffic patterns, etc., while traveling through these unfamiliar places - without GPS - and that could be nerve-racking. It was easy to become confused, especially if there were a sudden poorly marked "detour" to contend with. Only a few northern cities had "circle" routes, or "beltways" around them at that time, so you had to go through the center of every town and city. Somehow, however, we got through New Orleans and soon crossed the mighty Mississippi River on the Huey P. Long Bridge on U.S. 90, that masterwork of engineering in its day, breathing a sigh of relief. The westward trek was much more tranquil as we proceeded on to Lake Charles, and Houston. Houston was not a very big city in those days, and going through it was not the trauma that New Orleans had been. Exactly where we spent our second night on the road I don't remember. But the third day was spent making that long turn that would lead us due south in the direction of Harlingen, our destination. It was very late afternoon when we knew we were finally on the last leg of our journey, and we pulled off to the side of the road and spread a picnic supper on a very lonely stretch of highway, with Houston behind us already. We ate in the grassy area between highway and railroad tracks beyond which paralleled the highway - U.S. 77. The terrain was all flat by now, and there was a rickety wooden gate that squeaked and creaked eerily with every slight movement of the wind all the time while we were eating, and we laughed about that gate for years - even hunted for it on a second trip south, years later. Modern aluminum farm gates did not yet exist.

 

After our evening roadside picnic, it soon grew dark as the Texas sun dipped below a flat horizon allowing for very little "twilight" like we have in our hilly country of Tennessee. The highway was very lonely, and straight as an arrow with terrain as flat as the proverbial pancake on both sides.  No trees, but only scrubby grass and low mesquite vegetation, My dad, a man of about sixty at the time, could not bear the lights of approaching cars, with their headlights glaring in his eyes for miles and seemingly full hours at a time before passing. As soon as one car went past, another would appear on the far distant horizon and take another hour or more to reach us. He really did not enjoy that part of the trip - driving at night. And our curiosities were piqued by the several huge flares of burning gas that we encountered along the way into south Texas. Aunt Lydia had to explain them to us when we finally got to Harlingen about midnight. I'm not sure I understand exactly what they do to this day - only that they are some kind of gas burn-off flares, necessary to the oil industry, but I never could understand why perfectly good gas had to be burned off! I should also relate that we crossed the famous King Ranch while on this southerly stretch of road. It is privately owned property where no commercial gas is available for nearly 100 miles. This indicated that we were definitely "Deep in the Heart of Texas", as the World War II popular song had said. But there were ample signs to scare us into buying a full tank before crossing the ranch. (It is a mere 825,000 acre plot of ground - largest ranch in Texas!)

 

Aunt Lydia welcomed us to their home at 510 East Taylor Street in Harlingen around midnight. Uncle Forrest was still at work at the "show", as he called his theater, and she fed us well at the kitchen table where we could watch for Forrest to come coasting  down the driveway. (He liked to cut his car engine off at the street and "coast" into the garage). We then had a grand reunion, and after a bit I was accorded a delightful  glider-couch to sleep on on the screened-in back porch. IF that night was hot and humid I didn't even notice as I was worn out from the long day's travels, and I slept like a log until well after sunup!

 

I'm sure Forrest and Lydia had our next day's agenda all worked out in advance, but first Forrest had to make some business-related rounds in the morning. My dad and I tagged along - first to the bank, I think, where he deposited a sack-full of money from the last evening's receipts at his  theater. He had several other stops to make, too, (doing it all without any thought of carrying a gun, either in the car or on his person.) My Uncle was very popular with all his contacts, engaging in banter beyond what was needed to transact business. Everybody liked Forrest Martin and he seemed to brighten everybody;s day. His employees would gather around him at the end of each day just to pass a few words with him.....

 

But, back at their home again in mid-to-late morning, we set out for Mexico, only about 25 miles from their door, sort of like our trips to LaFayette, Ga., or Cleveland, Tn.. Let us simply say that I was elated beyond all your imaginings! -  totally overwhelmed by the thought of going into a foreign country we had studied about at school. This was the best present I had ever had to date! Forrest drove us across the Rio Grande River, which was almost empty (because of irrigation demands upstream), and soon came to a restaurant along the main road into town, with the exotic, romantic, and imaginative name, "The Drive-In"! It definitely did not look very interesting from the outside as we approached via the short driveway through gates in a high wall, however the driveway led to an entrance, which was inside a courtyard. A low, one-story building, cool and rather dark inside, welcomed us. Nothing seemed very out-of the-ordinary at this point until lunch was served!  I cannot tell you how many courses there were because the waiters were constantly bringing interesting new dishes for us to try. (My aunt and uncle of course, already knew what to expect.) There were cool, crisp, vegetable salads to start with, which only the Mexicans know how to make correctly. Then I could not even tell you which dish was considered to be the main "entree" as there were so many.  It was at this restaurant where I first discovered "fritos" corn chips and the special salsa which went with them - responsible for my life-long addiction! Doubtless there were refried beans, rice, guacamole, white goat-cheese and the other commonly used Mexican foods. The waiters, all male, and dressed in very formal clothes, brought us large quantities of roast white-wing pheasant - a local specialty, and "cabrito" (roast "kid" - a specialty throughout Mexico). These were supposedly main courses, but I could never decide which one was supposed to be THE one! The waiters stayed busy, constantly bringing out "mole" sauces to enhance everything we ate, and it was all above first-class! It was here that I first discovered "shaved ice" added to cold beverages such as my limeade, Wow, was that ever good - and the shaved ice seemed about twice as cold as ice cubes! 

 

And so, folks, it was from that first adventure in Old Mexico to this day I have been hooked on travel and trying new foods. That slight tension experienced when crossing an international border into a strange new land has remained with me all my life and never failed to excite me. Guess I am just a natural-born traveller! Our next stop after the great lunch, though, was the famous Juarez Market there in Matamoros, magnet for generations of American tourists. It was situated in a large circus tent, and featured arts and crafts from all over Mexico. Walking to it from the car was like walking the narrow streets of Italy or Spain - many buildings with old-style barred windows on stony facades - with peeling or broken stucco below tiled roofs. One of the more delightful features of the Juarez market was the leather products, where the aromas of leather, straw, unglazed pottery mixed to permeate the entire tent interior. There were colorful hand-woven serapes, blankets, tablecloths, baskets, etc., plus a bevy of boys - my age and younger - selling toy monkeys attached somehow with string to sticks, so that they could be swung about and make some kind of noise. ("Boy want monkey?", was the cry at every turn). And there was silver. Mexican silver - worth considerably more than Sterling silver due to its weight. I chose a heavy ring with Aztec designs cast in it. I kept it for years, but it was either lost or stolen. My only other purchase of the day was a straw sombrero that said "Mexico" in green letters. 

 

Unfortunately, the old circus-tent market burned many years later and the new, more safely constructed market has never had the same atmosphere as the old tent. I next wore my new hat over to the center of town that day where there is a large cathedral facing the city square. I have a picture of me wearing it, seated on a park bench along with dad and Uncle Forrest standing beside me. A bandstand with colorful Mexican tiles was nearby which gave a very exotic feel to the place. Palms, and plenty of tropical vegetation added to the effect. We probably bought some postcards at a nearby shop, and left to go back across the border. In a large, unpaved area just north of the town center we saw a :"real” ox-cart - just like those pictured in school books of the day - and I stopped to get a shot of it. Probably gave the boy driver 10 cents or so for the photo-op. (Anyway, he seemed happy). Was glad I got that shot, as I never again saw a similar ox-cart. The hat I bought at the market is still hereabouts, and I made a pic of one of my grandsons wearing it several years ago when it still fit his head. 

 

So that, folks, is an accounting of my first visit south of the border - over 70 years ago!.I have visited Mexico several more times since then and have always loved being there. My wife and I even went to Mexico City on our honeymoon, and we have made other trips there to visit a few of the old "Colonial" cities, such as Guanajuato, Queretaro, San Luis Potosi, etc., - all before the days of the big drug cartels which have ruined the country - at least for me and my family, On Google Earth, the places we visited look totally different nowadays from back then: there would be no place for an ox-cart to fit on the busy streets of Matamoros today with all the modern car traffic to interfere!  But - back to my 1946 trip - the next day was to be almost as equally interesting as Mexico had been.....

 

(Incidentally, the picture accompanying this story is of my Aunt Lydia Martin, a Chicago native. After she fell in love with - and later married -  my Uncle Forrest, she fell in love with Chattanooga before living the good life in Harlingen, Texas. In the picture she is seen "at home", following a trip to Mexico).

 

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Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter, sculptor and artisan as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net.

 




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