Itchy Feet

My grandfather lives in a little house in Georgetown, TX. He’s lived there for five years, enough time for the deer and armadillos to know where to come to nibble on carefully tended hibiscus plants, enough time for his bookshelves to fill with mystery novels, spy books, law dramas, “nothing with any literary merit at all,” he says. Yet for him the permanence of a book collection is off-putting. Recently, he’s taken to borrowing books from the public library rather than visiting the chain bookstore in town. For someone whose career has taken him and his family all over the world, staying anywhere for more than three years leads to ennui. “My three years are up plus,” he says of life in his little house in Georgetown, “so I’m definitely getting restless.”

Restless. No one place, no one job ever holds his interest for long. My grandfather, Arthur Garland Speight, who goes by his middle name, left his home in Longview, TX (practically due north of Houston, he says) at sixteen to pursue a mathematics degree at the University of Texas in Austin. After he graduated at age eighteen, he worked for a seismic crew in northwestern Oklahoma with Amerada petroleum. A year and a half later, he joined Shell’s exploration department in Oklahoma City. Back then, moving was the way to climb the ladder at Shell. Garland moved from Oklahoma City to Bismark, North Dakota, then to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not even marriage to Georgia Lyman held him in Tulsa for long. He and his new wife soon moved to Lexington, Nebraska, where Garland became the party chief on a seismic crew. When the seismic crew moved to McCook, Nebraska a few months later, Garland, his wife, and his new son went too. In the next three years, the family moved back to Tulsa, then to Rapid City, South Dakota, then to Pierre, South Dakota (where a second son, my father, was born), then back to Rapid City, then to Casper, Wyoming (where their third and fourth sons were born). It wasn’t until they moved to Casper, four years and two sons into their marriage, that Garland and Georgia bought their first house.

Even the house didn’t quell Garland’s wanderlust; in 1962, he moved to Shell’s Oklahoma City office “where I had taken my first assignment fourteen years earlier,” he notes with a gentle laugh. The family bought a house there, too, and settling down seemed imminent until Garland was offered the position of Division Chief Physicist at Shell’s New Orleans branch. Of course, he jumped at the job, as he did again five years later when he moved his family to Los Angeles, taking on the position of Chief Geophysicist for the Western United States region, and again a year after that, when he became Director of Exploration Research at Shell’s Houston Branch. Garland had followed Shell to six states and through five promotions before he settled in Houston. He stayed there for seventeen years.

My grandfather explains that moving so much was more than just a career move—settling down just wasn’t his style. “I’m a very restless person by nature, and I have trouble enjoying a particular job for…well, three years is the point when I start getting…diminishment of interest…and most of the time when I changed jobs, we had to move so I could take the new job.” My father tells me that moving became routine. Every once in a while, his father would just announce that they were moving. He never gave much of an explanation. “It was always an adventure to move,” my father says. “Everywhere we moved was kind of an improvement in interest level, anyway.” It helped that Garland and Georgia made each move a special occasion, often putting the family up in a nice hotel for a few days before settling into a new house.

My father vividly remembers a hotel in Los Angeles, where an orange tree laden with fruit stood just outside the window. “The immediate impression was that we had moved into paradise,” he said. My grandfather is grateful that his family was so willing to follow him around the country. “It’s lucky that we had four boys and not four girls,” he says. “Boys have somewhat less attachment to places and friends than girls do.” Moving actually strengthened the family, forcing them to rely on each other rather than on a constant set of surroundings. “It tends to make the family a relatively strong unit, because you’re changing locations and contexts, so to speak, and it’s nice to have kind of a solid foundation of people you know and know you to fall back on.” My father, unsolicited, made virtually the same comment: “It did tend to make us closer as a family…you tend to kind of cling to each other a little bit.”

I’ve noticed this same feeling of restlessness in my father, who moved us from Florida to Virginia to San Antonio to Austin to Houston in a matter of eight years. I’ve also noticed it in me. Every few years (perhaps as a product of my peripatetic upbringing), I get this feeling I call “itchy feet”—the need to pick up, move, start over. This feeling caused me to choose a high school where every friend I’d make would be a new one, to matriculate at a college on the opposite end of the country. As much as I liked living in Houston, I just needed to move.

“Moving around is, in a lot of ways, a very broadening experience, in that it exposes you to a lot of geography, and cultures, and different kinds of people, you know,” my grandfather says. After he retired from Shell in 1978 and went into consulting, he traveled even more broadly than before, going to Australia, Algeria, Indonesia, Tunisia, Tuscany, Senegal, Spain, Japan, Germany, Cairo, Korea—“pretty much all the continents,” he said, “although I never did get to Eastern Europe.”

As far as actual moving went, however, my grandfather settled down some after his retirement. In 1980 he politely refused the position of Exploration Manager for the state oil company of Israel. He did live in Malaysia for about four months in 1990, just before the Gulf War broke out. He felt a bit out of place as an American Southern Baptist oil company worker. He recalls going to a war memorial and reading a plaque about an attack by enemy planes, “and the ‘enemy planes’ turned out to be United States planes,” he chuckles. He and his wife were in Singapore watching CNN the day the war started. “I was happy to get out of there because I didn’t know what the overall reaction of the Malaysians was going to be to the war. It turned out not to amount to much of anything.”

Garland and Georgia moved out of Houston in 1986, after the oil business “tanked…went down the tubes, so to speak.” They settled in Lakeway, a suburb of Austin, where my grandfather gardened, my grandmother baked apple pies, and I fed deer as a child. Then, in 1993, Georgia was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She and Garland moved back to Houston while Georgia was being treated at the M.D. Anderson cancer center. They were sharing an apartment in Houston when she died in 1995.

It was time for my grandfather to move again—out of the old house in Lakeway, out of the new apartment in Houston, away from the painful reminders of my grandmother: needlepoint, afghans, quilts, pastry cutters, reading glasses, Baskin Robbins ice cream. He found a new apartment in Houston, where he stayed for a few years. Then, he moved to Georgetown, to the little house with the deer and armadillos nibbling his hibiscus down to a nub. Despite his feeling that it’s time to move, he realizes the paucity of opportunities for older people in the oil business. “In America, I think the general feeling is that age brings with it obsolescence…so, there’s really not a lot of opportunities in my profession,” he says. And given that reality, he can’t shake the feeling that his next move might be a move down, a move to an assisted living facility–might even be his last move.

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