Driving Miss Zeta

I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit when the bespectacled clerk at Budget Rent-A-Car asked if I’d be driving 75 miles or less. “I’m afraid,” I said “that we’ll be going a good deal further than that.” My wife smiled too as he went out to pull the twelve passenger van around, several tons of gleaming white American steel that would carry us to Beaumont and back.

Months earlier; in fact, the better part of a year before the Southern Region Business Conference, I was drafted. The seasoned Zetas of the Alpha Kappa Zeta (AKZ) chapter of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority (Inc.) decided that it would be great if someone were to rent a large passenger vehicle so that they might avoid the chore of driving the hundreds of miles between the capitol and the eastern corner of the state. It would be fantastic, in fact, if that someone were, for example, me.

The sun was out in force when I pulled up at the house on San Bernard St, the Archival Center for Texas Chapters and the geographical home of AKZ. I was greeted as warmly as the day merited as I loaded the quartet’s luggage into the voluminous cargo area. A few weeks before, I had hit upon the notion that there might be many generic, rented white vans at a large gathering, so I mentioned to my wife that a magnet noting that this van was the one from Austin might help our passengers find it better. She took my minor musing and went to town, designing and ordering a pair of large vehicle magnets bearing the chapter name, hometown and the Zeta crest. Seeing them on the side and rear of the van, the ladies of AKZ were duly impressed. Soon, everyone was seated and the A/C blasted the heat away as we pulled out at 12 o’clock sharp.

The wind gusted as I regained my large vehicle driving skills, sometimes making the experience more like sailing a boat or a kite than driving. My subcompact just doesn’t compare to the Zetafied behemoth I piloted. By the time we departed US 71 for Interstate 10, I had recovered my sea-legs. We had assembled an assortment of CDs for the trip, but they proved largely unneeded as the ladies provided interesting and humorous chatter aplenty. 241 miles and almost 6 hours later, we pulled in having stopped only twice, our tardiness attributable to an afternoon meal and my scrupulous attention to the speed limit.

Late for registration, but not for the show, luggage was stowed and costumes changed for a night of the performing arts. Threatened with the horror of Praise Dancing, we dodged a bullet when a higher power intervened and the precious moppets perpetrating the abomination suffered an irreparable technical glitch. The main act, though, brought the house down with her remarkable vocals and Motown show-woman-ship. Most of the room seemed to be in the aisles by the end, with even the most rarefied of officers shaking their…well, what happens in Beaumont stays in Beaumont.

Friday brought the events we had come for. My wife, the smart and stylish Christina Taylor, is the Zeta Male Network Coordinator for the Southern Region. Now, I’ve only been to one previous event with Zeta Male activities, and she is new to her post, taking over for an ailing soror. Therefore, we had only the vaguest idea of what to do. In line with the program at the previous conference in Fort Worth, she scheduled visits to local museums, of which Beaumont is heavily blessed. However, as there were only three men registered, there was none of the (apparently) usual accouterments, such as a separate hospitality lounge. On the other hand, we did attend the opening ceremony and luncheon, which I’m told is uncommon. We mustered the other men, Dr. Beck and Dr. Smith, whom we had met previously, and headed downtown.

Downtown Beaumont has a great deal more character than the outskirts. When a Beaumontian invited the crowd at the luncheon to enjoy the city’s many fine restaurants, then proceeded to rattle off the names of a few different national chains, I wasn’t entirely certain it was a joke; no-one else laughed aloud, anyhow. The central city is a mile or so off I-10, atop a small hill (perhaps the mont that is so beau?). Architecture in Romantic and NeoClassical styles predominate; while many storefronts show neglect, it is clear that there is a great deal of effort being put into revitalization of the early 20th century buildings. The Texas Energy Museum is on the northeastern edge of the grid of streets, many of which are named for Texian revolutionaries, a stone’s throw from the Neches River.

The museum is a modern one, with neither dust nor must to be found, except where intended to convey atmosphere. Exhibits are sponsored by energy firms (that is to say, oil companies). A thorough treatment of the process of petroleum formation was given via the many interesting geologic displays. The transformation of crude into refined products was explained in a disco-esque refinery model and spectacularly disorienting first-person trip through the stages of distillation. Narratives about early explorations were given by blank-faced dummies onto which video of an actor’s face was projected, producing a convincing, albeit eerie, effect. With time running out before the luncheon back at the hotel, we took group photos in front of the museum and headed back.

Of the three registered men, I was the only one present without an official capacity. The rest of the Network begged off of the planned afternoon excursion to the Texas Firefighter’s Museum, as they had other roles to fill. With the present Zeta Male Network reduced to myself, and the organizer being my wife, alternative plans were made. Incidentally, Ed Norton is great as Bruce Banner, and when at Suga’s, try the grouper.

Saturday had us up early and breakfasting before packing and taking one last swing by the vendor tables. We brunched with AKZ, and then I went to get the van. The warm, humid morning air gave way to rain just as I stepped out the door. I sat in line for a bit, as the only dry place to load luggage was now the portico, with ZZ Top turned up levels unbecoming a plain white van. The magnetic signs did their job, as the ladies found the van easily, directing the porter with the luggage right to it. Quickly we loaded, and quickly we left. Several miles west of town, the rain intensified. A few miles more, and the rice paddies blurred into invisibility, as did the truck ahead. For ten minutes or so, the only proof that we weren’t alone on the soaking coastal plain were the emergency flashers of the cars around us. Undeterred, and in what I’ll take as an indication of both their faith in my driving and their love of conversation, the chapter continued talking unabated through the storm.

The downpour halted, and the skies cleared, and we drove on. We encountered a blocked bridge, tasty truckstop treats, a Houstonian detour, and even some other traveling Zetas. Coastal plain gave way to prairie, ZZ Top yielded to James Brown; prairie rolled into hill country, the GFoS handed off to King & Clapton. We slipped back into Austin as the afternoon approached evening, depositing each of Christina’s sorors at their homes, a veritable tour of the eastern neighborhoods of Our Fair City. The sun became more and more burnt orange out the window of La Morada as I folded tacos al pastor with my favorite regional officer.