Out in what is the driest part of the south - west Texas - my idea of what is vast and open has to be reevaluated. East Coast sensibilities and treelines make the resident forget what it means to be "out there" - out where you can see the next town or store on the horizon and know you still have 15 minutes till you arrive at the destination. Erin and I, this time, are visiting the home and haunts of my father - till 94 years strong - in San Angelo, Texas a town, as far as I can tell, that no one has heard of. In the span of a day of tooling about its wide streets, its quiet downtown, and its remembered history, two big ideas emerge. One, about America, one about my dad.
Given that most everything decays very slowly out here, it has been easy to find every house my father and his parents lived in for the 20 years here. My grandfather was that peculiar blend of early 20th century entrepreneur and orphan - he ran away from home at 13 when his widowed father (a struggling itinerant Methodist minister) married his wife's sister. Grandfather Albright, Otis Powers (O.P), took off for Texas and Oklahoma. He emerged as a self-taught oil engineer in the 20s, in a place like today's Silicon Valley - the Texas Permian Oil basin - where being in the right place at the right time guaranteed your future.
We visited the homes the Albright's occupied over the course of their time here in chronological order. First, they had moved from Humbletown, a small purpose-built community for workers just outside of San Angelo to Cisco, and then back again, finally buying a small house a few miles west of the downtown. Each subsequent move - when my dad was in 6th grade, then in high school, and then off to college - was to a bigger, more ranch-style like house. The last home we found in San Angelo is currently in the middle of a large, very upper-middle class neighborhood - big yards, old live oaks, sweeping driveways. By going through time, we could see how this self-made engineer steadily took advantage of the booming oil business and climbed up and out of poverty into a respectable middle class. Since I spent some time at their final retirement home in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I know how this story ends: a large, 40-acre piece of land on the edge of a lake, a pinnacle for what must have been a hard climb up.
Our thoughts about this rise is that it emerges as a quintessential story in a time when those stories could be had by some. I can't imagine my grandfather was as destitute a young boy as in a Horatio Alger story, but he couldn't have been far from that. America's oil prosperity in the boom years swept him along. He worked for Humble Oil and Drilling, later merged with Standard Oil and became Esso and then Exxon - and I still have some minor shares of that company passed down over 100 years (very minor). Like elsewhere in my family history, the individuals that make it up were swept along by currents in the nation's growth.
The second big take-away from this life in San Angelo is more a question. How did my father, 20 years long in this far corner, emerge from that life - of drugstores, school plays, big empty country, and bushwhacking with oil men - to become an American diplomat, more at home in Asia or South America? Within six years of his leaving San Angelo for Chicago and Northwestern, he had married a German Russian emigre and set course for Japan to work in the US cultural service. What does this say about his childhood, and the choices he made?