Yes, that really is a category in our family. For some reason, three of Greta’s cousins have gone into engineering and ended up in Texas, and we got to visit them all.
Our first stop was in Houston, where Joe Ballard is an engineering major at Rice. Joe grew up in Manhattan, Kansas, where Linda and four of her sisters went to Kansas State. Her youngest sister Becky married Steve Ballard, a local boy, and they stayed in Manhattan and raised their three kids. (We missed seeing Joe’s big sister Audrey in Chicago as she had to prepare for a meeting and couldn’t come out to play.)
Joe was a serious football player in high school, but missed his senior year due to a knee injury. So with a year of eligibility, he went to prep school in Connecticut for a year, then matriculated at Rice. He’s been playing mostly on special teams (I hope that is the right term, says the blogger who watches 0.5 football games per year), and is in his junior year as a mechanical engineering major.
Joe lives with three of his teammates, and when I asked his advice on where we should stay in Houston, he said we should just park in their driveway. I loved the idea, and figured this would probably be the most unusual accommodations Greta would experience on the whole trip.
We arrived at Joe’s and were having a beer to celebrate Greta’s having navigated us through Houston Friday rush hour traffic on her own, when cousin Sam Adams showed up. Sam grew up in Indianapolis, the older son of Dawn and Bill (previously profiled here). Sam went to a Spanish immersion school, and continued his language focus with French, eventually studying abroad in France, and ending up being practically adopted into a French family, whom his family stills sees often. Sam arrived at Rice a year before Joe, and is a chemical engineering major.
Greta and I went out for tacos with the cousins, then came back to Joe’s where we hung out with the roommates. I guess my expectations for a houseful of football players had been shaped by being at the UO for so long, but these guys didn’t meet those preconceptions at all. First, although large, they were still within one standard deviation of normal-sized human beings. Second, they were all very smart and engaging, and as charming as we had come to expect Southerners to be. We had a great time talking and drinking beer – which was the third surprise, as all of them had no more than one, as they had practice at 6:00 the next morning. (Sam had a bit more, being the non-teammate who could sleep in.) They are pictured below with Greta as the five-foot scale figure: Sam on the left, Joe next to him, then Cole and Nick. Not pictured is Robby (who gave us excellent advice on camping in the Chisos Basin at Big Bend), and Cole’s lovely girlfriend Maddy.
While the college boys didn’t meet expectations, their house did. A combination of second-hand furniture and beer brand décor, it showed one major innovation since my days of living in such a household – there were screens everywhere. The living room had two big TVs, in case you needed to watch two games at one time, or watch one game while playing video games on the other. Despite this change, it felt just like all the roommate guy apartments I’d ever lived in, and gave Greta some idea of what environments lay in her future.
We had Vietnamese food with the cousins the next night and really enjoyed ourselves. My first memories of Sam and Joe are as part of a pack of five little boy cousins, running through large family parties wreaking havoc. And even as they’ve grown up, I’ve tended to still think of them that way, as that pack became high school boys and retreated to the nearest basement man-cave, only to emerge for feedings. So spending two evenings with them without any other family around was enlightening. They have both turned onto thoughtful, smart and entertaining young men. Joe still has a year left in school, and so is not planning too far ahead now. Sam is graduating this spring, and is planning on joining the Navy, training to be a submariner. After basic training and OCS he’ll send a year in submarine training in Charleston (Greta told him about the good restaurants.) I spend a lot of my normal life with college students, and being with Joe and Sam reminded me of everything I like about them – their energy, enthusiasm, insights, humor, idealism. It was fun for us both seeing these guys, and seeing the young men they’ve turned into.
We moved on to Houston, where we saw Ben Robinson. Ben’s mom is Linda’s sister Paula, whom we had visited in St. Petersburg (profiled here). Ben grew up outside Dallas and in Louisville, but the family roots in Kansas were strong, and he returned to Kansas State for both his undergraduate and masters’ degrees. During those years Ben saw a lot of the world – his mom was living in Shanghai, and Ben would visit her there for extended periods, or else they would meet up in some other cool place.
Ben moved to Houston, where he now has another one of those jobs I can’t understand. As far as I can tell, his engineering company makes products used by other engineering companies, both hardware and software. Ben is involved in developing and marketing those things.
We went over to Ben’s apartment (which showed he had definitely moved beyond the frat-boy collegiate decor), and met his roommate, a veterinarian from Oregon City. We asked how he could stand the Houston weather after growing up in Oregon, and he said he had moved to Houston partly because of the weather; we’ve never gotten that response before.
Ben is enjoying the young professional life in Austin, and gave us some insight into what that is all about, placing it squarely on the Portland-Brooklyn axis of hipness. (Ben intermittently sports a man-bun these days.) One gets old and forgets that there are just good places to Iive as a young person, surrounded by lots of peers and lots of things to do.
I didn’t get a picture of Ben, nor do I have a lot of conversation to recall. While we were at his apartment, I started to feel really sick, so I just went back to the trailer and crashed while Ben took Greta out to dinner at his favorite joint. She said they had a good time, talking about our trip and other cousinly things. We have to thank Ben for providing this opportunity for Greta, which led to her feeling very mature, sitting in a hip restaurant with her cousin, without any of the parental generation in sight.