Down Wind

When my father was fifteen he packed his clothes in a cardboard suitcase, and, over his mother’s tearful objections, caught the bus from Elton, his tiny hometown in the heart of South Louisiana’s rice country, across the border to Port Arthur, Texas, a port town at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. It was home to the nation’s largest oil refinery. He moved in with his uncle, Madison Baszile, and finished high school in Port Arthur.

Madison was the most important man in my father’s life. He initiated him into the world of men offering advice on everything from love, sex, and marriage (“Before you marry, go three deep,” which meant before you tie yourself down, research the person’s family back three generations, so you’ll know what kind of people you’re really dealing with) to financial matters (“Never touch the lump” — which meant save your money, spending only the interest you earn, if you have to, but never the principal — an idea he overheard while moonlighting as a cook for the white oil executives at Texaco).

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