He couldn’t find his way around the cities of the world,
but he did find his way to the top.
When I think of my grandfather, I see him sitting in an old, white plastic lawn chair in his driveway at sunset with a ceramic mug of Texas pecan-flavored coffee, looking out past his endless rice fields and levies in the town of Anahuac. His Labrador is resting loyally next to the chair with ears twitching ever so often from the relentless flies, occasionally looking up at his old man with the utmost affection. My papa’s tractors, with mud and grass caked on the wheels, are resting outside the massive barn in the far right corner of the property. A few Green-winged Teal fly noisily overhead, making their way across the grassy acreage, which is being soaked for just a few moments longer by the hot, orange sun, dipping behind the horizon.
I’m six years old. I can remember sitting in the back of my papa and nana’s big blue Suburban and begging them every time we took to the road to play my favorite car game. They would both look at each other quietly, as if to say, “Let’s get this over with.” Then, my nana would cry out, “Oh, Papa! No! No! Turn back! We left our chickadee behind!” I remember giggling ferociously in the back seat, pretending to howl in a fading voice, “Oh, Nana..! Oh, Papa..! Please come back…!” My papa would grumble to my nana, with a twinkle in his eye, “Arrh! We aren’t going back for her!” This would go on for at least ten minutes. I was quite an “imaginative” child—but my family loved me. That much I knew.
It’s the day I go to shoot the bull with my papa. He and I sit in white plastic lawn chairs in his driveway. Am I surprised? He has a wet glass of beer in his hands, and he points to the fridge in the corner of the garage and tells me to help myself to whatever’s in there. I grab the last Diet Coke—my papa’s soda of choice—and plop back in my lawn chair, which unnerves me some because it has cobwebs strewn across it (and, boy, do I hate spiders).
Papa asks me about school, about boys, about my brother and parents. I politely “dish” all the answers, which are essentially a few lines of carefully rehearsed responses that will appease my grandfather without giving him too much—you can’t have your grandfather really knowing what you think of that total hunk of a guy you’re seeing.
After I finish telling him about how much I love my classes and how boys are all but the plague in human form and how dandy everyone at home is, he nods heavily. The papa is pleased. He takes a swig of his beer, takes a look at the dog, and then lifts his head back up to look out past the yard, past the fence, and past the fields.
He then swings a glance at me and begins giving me some pearls of wisdom. Let me preface this by describing my papa’s voice when in an excited state. Imagine a firecracker popping off and screeching before it bursts. My papa, when fired up, has a voice that is that ear-shattering.
Papa begins by telling me about perseverance and hard work. He was nineteen when he got his job as a laborer at a company in Ironton, Ohio, that later became Gulf Chemical and Metallurgical Corporation. He worked his way up to becoming a chemist in 1965, earning a college degree in the mean time. “I used to play pool for milk money to bring home to your nana and the kids—your mom and uncles.”
From 1965 until 1970, he was the Head of Laboratory and Research at Gulf Chemical. In 1970, he became Plant Superintendent, then Plant Manager in 1972. There were only about thirty people that worked there at the time.
The big move from Ironton, Ohio to Angleton, Texas came in 1973, when my papa had to load up the wife and kids to make their home in the Lone Star State, where he became the Manager of Manufacturing in Freeport. Then, he took a sabbatical to get his bachelor’s degree.
“You know, I took sixty-three hours in ten months at two different colleges!” My papa beams with pride at this feat (which makes me realize that my measly twelve to fifteen hours a semester isn’t so bad after all).
In 1978, he returned from his sabbatical as the Assistant to the President. The very next year, he was promoted to General Manager—the company having grown to include plants all over the country. Soon thereafter, in 1984, a Belgian business bought my papa’s company, and my papa was made General Manager and Vice-President of the company. A mere six years later, a French corporation bought Papa’s business, naming him President.
Today, having serviced the oil refinery industry since 1946, Gulf Chemical is the world’s largest recycler of spent petroleum catalysts and a leading producer of ferroalloys (which refers to various iron alloys with a high proportion of one or more other element and is used in the production of steels and alloys as raw materials). Gulf Chemical is a U.S. subsidiary of Eramet, a leading global producer of nickel, manganese, alloys and special steels. The company today has more than 14,000 employees in over 30 countries. Gulf Chemical avows that the company is committed to helping the oil industry meet its energy needs while still managing intricate environmental issues.
“You know, we were environmentalists before there were environmentalists. Before all this green, you know, environmental and recycling propaganda, we were begging people not to bury hundreds of thousands of tons of s*** so we could recycle it.”
Finally, in 1995, my papa—having started at the lowest position at this company thirty years prior—became the President and Chief Executive Officer of Gulf Chemical and Metallurgical Corporation.
I’m nine years old. My entire family is at my grandparents’ house at Lake Livingston for Easter. After mass, the four grandkids—including me—are armed with Easter baskets and ready to hunt eggs. This is serious business. We line up at the end of the wooden steps that lead to the back yard to stiffly pose for pictures in our correlating OshKosh B’Gosh outfits before egg hunting. Finally, with each of us alighning our leading foot on an imaginary starting line, we look to our parents to say, “Go!” My eye is already set on a bright green egg stuck up under the piknik table. As I hear what sounds like the beginning of a “guh” sound from my papa’s mouth, I take off.
My papa will admit he’s done very well for himself. But he’s not talking about money. Papa says that the measure of his success isn’t by his net worth or affluence, but by how well his company fared. Starting off, Gulf Chemical was worth maybe a million dollars. Now it’s worth a couple hundred million.
“My measure of success in this line of work is being able to retire with your morals and values intact. The biggest treasure I came out with was my integrity. You know, so many people leave their companies in handcuffs.”
My papa’s retirement party wasn’t strewn with business charlatans as many of these sorts of events are, but filled with co-workers that had worked for my papa for twenty years and now call him a good friend. “People knew I was hard to work for, but I was reasonable and fair.”
I’m eleven years old. My brother, my two girl cousins, and I have been swimming in Lake Livingston for hours, and we had finally been called in to eat hamburgers and hot dogs for dinner. We smell of lake water, sunblock, and that natural “I’m a dirty, happy kid” scent. My papa was taking his sailboat out once more before, which we all loved to watch. There he was on that magnificent little yellow boat, slicing through infinite glimmering ripples on the lake. We all watched in awe, with mouths full of chewed up hotdog.
I ask Papa how traveling abroad was. His job took him all over the world, to every continent but Antarctica. I’d heard stories about how he’d gone hunting with famous politicians, eaten with members of the Zulu tribe, and dined in some of the most exquisite French and Japanese restaurants. There are photo albums at my papa’s house in Lake Livingston that have countless pictures of my grandparents on an African safari, in front of the Vatican, and posing in all sorts of foreign countries.
“I did a lot of traveling. But I would have rather been at home with your nana and the kids.” I watch my papa, as he nods the faintest nod anyone’s ever seen. I can see he’s thinking about her.
He then let out a single loud chuckle, “You know, my work buddies sometimes called me Magellan. I’d always think I knew where we was going, but I’d get us all lost. I couldn’t find my way through any city in any country, but I found my way to the top!” He pauses a second, “You know, I’ve been lost in every continent but Antarctica!”
I’m fourteen years old. We—myself, my brother, my cousins, and my papa—stepped solemnly into the limousine. The rest of the family and guests took to their cars to meet us for lunch later. Papa sat across from me, with my brother sitting quietly next to him. Beside me were the girls. My papa tried to smile at me and mention something unrelated, something cheerful. Probably something about the weather or the flowers growing outside. But I knew. His eyes were dark and despairing. I can remember just looking at him, wondering what he would do now. It was perhaps the single saddest, most pivotal point in my young life when we buried my nana. It was, too, for my papa.
Papa’s eyes are dark and despairing. They’re also red and wet. We’ve begun talking about my nana, the love of his life. He clears his throat several times, with a few loud sniffs in between, before he continues talking to me. I want to tell him, “I understand, Papa. You don’t have to talk about it,” but I’m frozen. I know it’s probably good for both of us to talk about it, no matter how painful it is. I can feel my eyes avoiding his. He continues staring ahead as he begins to talk.
“You know, Jeni, I’d give all this up,” he waves his shaky, free hand in front of him, motioning towards all his land. “All of it, if I could just have your nana back. I don’t care about the money or the things I have now. You’ll learn that none of that matters.”
I try hard to gulp the lump in my throat. I look away so Papa doesn’t see my eyes misting over. He just keeps looking out past the fields. At what? Oddly enough, the dog seems to be wondering the same thing, because he looks out too, then back at my papa, then back out towards the horizon. My papa’s voice is a little shaky, but it has conviction.
“Your nana was my cheerleader. You know, I was just the boy walking the picket fence to get her. That’s why I did well in my job. My career was the picket fence, and I was walking it so I could take care of her.”
I’m twenty-one years old. My papa and I are sitting in old, white plastic lawn chairs in his driveway at sunset with watered down beers and sodas. His Labrador is lying loyally next to the chair with ears twitching ever so often from the relentless flies, occasionally looking up at his old man with the utmost affection. A few Green-winged Teal fly noisily overhead, making their way across the grassy acreage, which is being soaked for just a few moments longer by the hot, orange sun, dipping behind the horizon.