My childhood landscape included humidity stained cement driveways, manicured San Augustine lawns, and cement asbestos siding houses on one end of Lay Avenue with 1960’s brick homes on the other. Hurricane force winds regularly altered the landscape, replacing shingled roofs with blue tarpaulins. We grew as accustomed as one can to the odor of rotten eggs, which became more pungent at night when darkness shrouded toxic emissions from nearby petrochemical refineries. Shrimp was king in Port Arthur, with crawfish a close second, and both were seasonally available fresh from the Gulf right out of white styrofoam coolers in car trunks on the sides of many roads.
Even more memorable was the spot that fueled my imagination more than all others and triggered emotions still not fully catalogued, a small stand of oak and pecan trees that stood in relief from concrete surroundings, sentinels guarding the passageway between houses on Franklin Avenue and a large grassy field behind Doctor’s Hospital. This crowd of deciduous formed what became a secret clubhouse for me and Kurt and Mitch and Xavier, and the other boys living on and near Lay Avenue. It was Sherwood Forest, Arthur’s Camelot, Holmes’ 221b Baker Street, Batman’s lair, World War I squadron headquarters, or any other setting conjured forth from adolescent imagination. For me, it was a holy meeting place, space where I strongly sensed the presence of God; where he was beautiful to me and where I learned that nature and imagination catapult a powerful turning to the Creator. I still pray more easily out of doors than inside any constructed cathedral. I attempted to return to this sacred space a number of years ago when introducing my wife to my childhood haunts, but found that the grove had been cut down and paved over, a magical forest reduced to generic asphalt. What remains, however, cannot be removed, because it lives on inside my thoughts and serves to remind that the Holy One is not opposed to meeting us in earthly spaces.
“Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”(Exodus 3:1-2 KJV)