- Going to Texas
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In 1946, a year after World War II was over and just before school started, my ten-year-old brother and I (twelve then), and my father and his new wife—all of us nearly strangers to each other—piled in her bulky green Buick and drove west from Nashville. We were on our way to a small town in central Texas called Gatesville. Crossing the Mississippi River, putting my head out of the window to stare at its broad muddy width—the last boundary of my well-known southern world—I left Tennessee.
Of all the journeys I've made, the trip that made the greatest difference to my life was the one that took us to Texas in that sliver of time between the atomic end of World War II and the beginning of the Korean War. Like many others when the long-awaited peace arrived, my life was completely rearranged.
The only Texan in the car was our new mother, Mabel Winters Culbert. Married earlier that month, she'd been introduced to my father by mutual friends when he was stationed at Ft. Hood just outside of Gatesville. My brother Billy and I had already gone through a great deal of change. He'd spent the past three years with relatives in Pennsylvania, while two aunts and an invalid grandmother in Nashville had taken me in. Luckily, we belonged to an extended family, one whose bonds still held.
Our mother, hospitalized in 1943, was diagnosed as incurably ill with schizophrenia. Following medical trends in the Forties, her doctors ruled it would not help the patient or her children to see each other. So no matter how often we begged to visit, we were not allowed. Our father, our grandmother, our aunts and uncles could see her at Tennessee's Central State Mental Hospital on the outskirts of Nashville; we were forbidden. To avoid passing on the stigma of mental illness in the family, all of the adults apparently agreed we would be best protected by silence. This secrecy permeated our lives. As little was explained, we understood little. Not until I was grown would I see my mother again. Neither my brother nor I had witnessed any manifestation of her illness. She was taken away after she attempted suicide—a fact we didn't know until we were adults. We were at a birthday party; when we came home, she'd disappeared. For me, her schizophrenia meant grief—a slow trickling kind of grief when I suspected she might not get well, followed by tears and more grief when told she could not.
In late May of 1946, I rode to Pennsylvania to reclaim Billy with our father, a colonel in the field artillery, released at last from the army but still active in the reserve. Except for two brief visits, we had lived as only children for three years; now together again, we hardly knew what to say to each other. I was deposited in Nashville with my aunts and grandmother once more while my brother was allowed to go with our father to Lake Mead, Nevada, a place where they could both fish and get to know each other again. To my father, being outdoors was both a pleasure and a comfort. He found the natural world a consolation, and he intended to pass [End Page 23] that comfort on to his son. After living in Nevada for six weeks, he obtained a divorce—at that time, insanity wasn't one of the legal causes for divorce in Tennessee. When I think of my father's shuttling us all over the country that summer in his little black used La Salle coupe, I realize it...