Houston “Space City”

Houston, Texas, is the 4th largest city in the United States and THE largest city in the south. My first encounter was in 1973 when Mom, Dad and I visited there as Dad interviewed for a Medical position. We spent several days at a hotel near the Medical Center, foreshadowing events fifteen years later.

During one Junior High winter in Indiana, I remember obsessively daydreaming of a tropical setting. That spring of 1973, my tropical vision became pretty much of a reality as we ventured to Houston, Texas, (dubbed “Space City” because of it’s association with NASA) so that Dad could interview for a position on world famous Doctor Denton Cooley’s medical team. Cooley had parted ways from his world famous colleague Doctor Michael Debakey over a dispute a couple of years prior. A special driver wearing a white summer suit picked us up at the airport in a white Cadillac complete with on-board telephone and elaborate 8-track stereo, all provided by the Medical Center. We stayed at the Marriott on Old Spanish Trail in close proximity to the Houston Astrodome, the “Eighth Wonder of the World” as they called it, which the three of us visited one afternoon. I remember the tour guide discussing the huge “zipper” running through the center field “astroturf”, compelling me to make the comment; “the world’s biggest fly”, which managed to evoke several snickers from the other visitors in our group. Dad was picked up by the driver to go to his meeting, so Mom and I decided to walk to the hotel since it appeared to be only a short distance, however, the further we walked, the more remote the destination seemed to become until Mom decided to call a cab from a gas station along the way to complete the mission – the Texas heat was too intense for her. Outside of that excursion, the two of us spent the majority of our time poolside.

On another afternoon near the end of our stay in Houston, the three of us walked through a very nice neighborhood near the downtown area. The houses were very old yet very quaint and an elderly couple invited us into their home to visit. They were extremely friendly folks, and we then all went to have lunch at a pleasant restaurant nearby. Houston made a favorable impression on us all, however, Dad declined the position and we stayed in Muncie.

Immediately following my education, I proceeded to Texas once again, this time it was Dallas. “Big D” was booming during the early 1980s, especially in my chosen field and within a few days, I was gainfully employed at my first “real job”. Within a few short years I had risen through the ranks, becoming a Senior Programmer/Analyst then a Management Consultant.

1987 was a monumental year in my life. As a software professional working out of the Dallas office of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell, & Company, I was assigned to a project at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston following the completion of the City of Dallas Water Utilities project. I was originally to travel to Sacramento, California, on a project with E & J Gallo, which was said to be the least desirable travel assignment, but was diverted to Houston at the last moment.

Wyndham - Medical Center

Wyndham – Medical Center

I was put up at the Wyndham Hotel – Medical Center, across the street from M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital in the Houston Medical Center which is near Rice University. I was quick to notice how strange the zoning of the city seemed, with nice neighborhoods bordering others that were not so nice – a Daycare center would be virtually next door to an adult book store, for example.

After work one evening while ordering dinner in the hotel dining room, the waiter brought to my attention the guest sitting at a table near me. She was a very distinguished looking elderly lady who appeared to be writing in her journal with her reading glasses on, complete with the librarian style eyeglass chain around her neck. I was informed that the lady was actress Olivia DeHavilland. After finishing my meal, I moved to a bar stool near the lobby area to watch the baseball game on the lounge TV. Being near the elevators, I noticed Ms. DeHavilland primping her hair in the hallway mirror while waiting on an elevator, not noticing that the car arrived with a soft “ding.” I quickly walked over to her, pressed the elevator hold button and said “pardon me Ma’am, but your ride has arrived.” She look at me and said “My, aren’t you a nice young man. Thank you very much.” and I was forever blessed with the interlude.

Olivia de Havilland - 1987

Olivia de Havilland – 1987

Also during that project, I was blessed with the acquaintance of Dr. Red Duke, a state-wide television personality who had a news segment every week on health related issues for horses and other ranch animals. Following the project, I was invited to the Cotton Bowl by my friend Jim Becker, who as a district sales representative of Coca-Cola was able to procure tickets through Ray-Com Sports. My good buddie from Houston, Ed Meaney, was also invited. While at the game, we sat directly behind Dr. Red Duke in the Texas A&M section. We all had a great time, especially the A&M alums! They beat Notre Dame that year, who featured local Dallas athlete, Tim Brown, who was the Heisman winner that year. He ran the opening kick-off back for a touchdown, which turned-out to be the only score of the game for the Irish.

Ed and I caught a couple of Rockets games and also an Astros game where we witnessed Nolan Ryan set the Major League strike-out record, one of the many of his illustrious career which ended six years later with the Texas Rangers.

After the first phase of the project, I was assigned to another project where I traveled to Scranton, PA and Oklahoma City for a few weeks, but was then sent back to Houston for a second tour. The project had moved while I was away to an office near AstroWorld, so I stayed at the Ramada Astrodome, just across the parking lot from the stadium. Here it was nearly fifteen years later, that I was stationed on business at the exact same location where mom and I had walked to our motel in the early 1970s. In fact, I could see the Marriott out of my room window only a few blocks away. The NFL strike was going on at that time and several of the scabs stayed at the Ramada Astrodome, one of which I remember driving a Rolls Royce. He was unable to sign his name on the bill and had to have his lady friend sign for him.

Though not quite of the caliber of Wyndham Medical Center the Ramada Astrodome was pretty nice, but had it’s problems. I would usually drop-off my dry-cleaning on Fridays so that they would be awaiting my return to the hotel after work on the following Monday. One time, the laundry failed to get done and I had to return to work on Tuesday wearing the same clothes I wore the previous day, which was sort of a problem being that Houston is a very hot and humid place. Ed was continually needling me that day at work – every time he passed by my desk, he’d whisper – “what’s that smell?”

It was during my extended stay at the Ramada Astrodome that I entered the lobby area after work one evening and noticed a crowd of US Marine Corps officers in khakis gathered around the bar area. Since I was pretty much a regular there, it didn’t take long to mingle in with them and enjoyed great discussion with several of them. Since my step-father, Don Vogelgesang was a fellow “Jarhead” who had served during the Nam conflict (as most of the guys at the bar were veterans of), we had a great deal of common ground to talk about. Though none of the officers personally knew Don, many of them had heard of him. I went to my hotel room and called Don to tell him that I had just met several of his comrades in arms and he mentioned a few names which I shared with the guys after going back downstairs of which all of them knew quite well. The Marines were staying at the hotel for a logistics convention. After a while, all of the Marines stopped talking a changed to a more rigid demeanor as a stretch limousine pulled-up to the front door of the hotel with Marines in dress blues opening the back passenger door for the “main attraction” of the convention. Out of the back of the limo emerged USMC Commandant Gray in his field fatigues with a huge cigar hanging out of his mouth looking like a human bulldog. He walked directly to the bar, stopped to look at his officers, and said: “Hell, no wonder we can’t get anything done – all my officers are a at the bar!” He then laughed and proceeded to sit down and partake in a cold one of his own. He seemed interested in talking to me since the others guys in uniform seemed to know me and I was the only one in the group out of uniform. He invited me to join him and bought me one as we had a friendly chat about my job, the Marine Corps and Houston. It was indeed one of my most memorable evenings of the summer.

During the autumn of that year, there was a great deal of rain and subsequent flooding in the downtown area, which is apparently a common occurrence for Houstonians. Our office space was in a flood plane and several team members left early foreseeing problems with the traffic and inbound inclement weather. Those of us who stayed later, literally had to be rescued out of the area. I had to remove my shoes and socks, then roll-up my pant legs to get to one team-mate’s Jeep Ranger in order to get to high ground. He found a fish inside his jeep after the water subsided. Since I couldn’t get to the airport that Friday night, I stayed with Ed over the weekend. We ended up at Rockefeller’s where we watched Rare Earth. It was also about this time that we went to see Fleetwood Mac promoting their most recent album. I still revert back to those Houston days when I hear one of those tunes.

The final work on the project involved putting together the project “working papers” in the KPMG downtown office, which Ed and I were assigned to. One day as it was approaching lunch time, Ed ran to the window thinking he saw something fly by. It turned out that a pair of men washing the windows of the Pennzoil Building across the street were blown by a strong gust of wind from the side of the building, scaffold and all, and went sailing to their fates almost 2 blocks down the street. They also took out a couple of ladies walking on the sidewalk. I remember having a sick feeling in my stomach about that incident for the next couple of days.

Working in Houston was one of the most enjoyable periods of my professional life. There were great places to eat, like Goodies BBQ and Treebeard’s, great beer pubs like the Ale House and the Pig & Whistle, excellent shopping with Galleria and Sakowitz, as well as some really cool night spots like the Ocean Club and 8-Os.

Traveling to and from Houston on Southwest Airlines business class on Monday morning red eye flights and the Friday afternoon happy hour flights, where almost like a commute on a city transit. I usually flew in and out of Hobby Airport off Telephone Road via Love Field, Dallas, except a couple of times when I used the new Houston International Airport on the north side. I liked Hobby better because there was a sense of nostalgia, like going back in time to the 1960s.

Dr. James "Red" Duke

Dr. James “Red” Duke

When I was in between UTHSC project phases, I also had to attend the Consulting Skills Workshop for one week at The Houstonian, one of the top ten resort hotels in the country at the time along with The Mandalay Four Seasons in Las Colinas (Irving), Texas, in the neighborhood that I lived, and the Scottsdale Convention Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, where I stayed twice during that summer of 1987 for a couple of training seminars with Transform Logic, a software development tool we used on the UTHSC project (the Scottsdale trips provided enough material for a subsequent post – stayed tuned for it!).

Mom and Don came down to Dallas for Thanksgiving that year, I’d just returned from one of my last trips to Houston and had barely enough time to buy a smoker grill to cook turkey on, though we ended up having our Thanksgiving meal at “Mother Tuckers” on restaurant row. With the arrival of the holiday season, it signaled the end of one of the highlight years of my entire life. It almost stands to reason that something not so pleasant should mark the very end of it, which is what eventually occurred with the news of Mom’s death by aneurysm at candle light services on Christmas Eve. Fortunately, I was able to get back down to Dallas following Mom’s funeral to attend the Cotton Bowl with my buddies and though it was great to get a thousand miles away from the gloom of the previous week, I couldn’t help but shed a tear when a light Indiana style snow dusted the field at halftime – surely, her spirit passing by as an eternal farewell.

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