Winter 1999
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TCU Magazine "Class Notes"

The sea around me

By Joan Hewatt Swaim '56

It's a smell I can't forget, the smell of the sea. On a breezy night, sitting on my dock at Lake Granbury, it comes wafting in on these inland waters bringing salty memories.

Daddy, aka Dr. Willis G. Hewatt of TCU's biology department from 1934-1975, taught, among other subjects, courses in invertebrate zoology and general science. For many years, beginning in 1936, as part of the spring semester curriculum, students in these two classes accompanied the professor, his wife, and two daughters on an Easter holiday field trip to Galveston and, later, to Rockport on the Texas gulf coast. The trip was short (Friday through Monday was all the "spring break" the university allotted then), but stuffed with sea-searching -- on the beach, the jetties, the boat, in the marshes and mud flats, and in the after-catch makeshift lab set up in one of the apartments we rented for our stay.

What a great time we had! Of course, the teacher made it great. He loved the sea, and his enthusiasm was catching. "Oh, yes!" he would say, "why that's the ghost crab, Oxypode albicans"; "Oh, yes! that's the little sand crab, Upogebia." "This beautiful purple clam is Donax," and on and on. The excitement of discovery was always fresh. A student would pick up some beastie from the beach or the water and bring it wonderingly to Dr. Hewatt to identify. He would not only identify it but always made it seem that he had seen it for the first time and that the catch was really quite remarkable, and go on to tell, Kipling-fashion, how the beast got to be just so.

I recall that, years later, after I had wandered far away from that time, I visited the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where I gravitated to a marine habitat exhibit in which my experienced eye caught a crystalline shrimp, rock barnacles, a sand-camouflaged sea star, anemones that, furled, blended into the rocky terrain, and a lobster barely visible in a small cave in the rocks. A young boy and his parents came up beside me, searched the scene for a few minutes, shrugged their shoulders, and ambled on to the next tank. I so wanted to pull them back and show them the wonders the sea water held, to make their eyes light up with knowing as had the eyes of so many TCU students (and my own!), but I was reticent to insert myself into their family outing, and let the moment pass.

The last trip I made to the gulf as the professor's daughter was in the spring of 1953. Although I was enrolled in TCU that year, I was not officially a student in one of the good doctor's classes, but, as usual, I was allowed to tag along. We left the parking lot behind the Winton-Scott science building at noon on Thursday in a caravan of eight cars, Daddy's and seven volunteered by the students. Mother and Daddy were in the No. 1 car with their passengers, and each subsequent car was tagged with a number that showed boldly through the rear windshield. Control of speed and organization came from the No. 8 car, because each one in the caravan was to keep the car in back in view at all times. It worked well, until that lead car hit the metropolis of Houston, which at that time had no freeways, throughways, or loops to avoid the city streets. The way Willis Hewatt drove through that city, or any city, made it hard to keep any attempt at organization intact, and he was usually found impatiently awaiting his charges on the southern outskirts of Houston.

Another of his schemes for control involved me, and I didn't really know it until years later when he admitted that he had intentionally placed me in the car driven by one Don Perry, whose other passengers were Hubert Parrott, Jack Temple and Tom Evans. If you had known, then or since, those carefree (?) football players, you, too, would have surmised that if any rowdy behavior was to surface on this road trip, it would come from this group. What better way to keep that in check than to have the professor's daughter, sweet Joan (?), in amongst them?

In Rockport, I remember we stayed at the Oak Shore Apartments at Fulton Beach, to which the students were assigned not only their sleep accommodations, but also their housekeeping duties. All were expected to share in the cleaning and preparation of meals. I wish I could recall some of the delicacies served under those circumstances!

Although precious in memory, the trip to the gulf at Easter would not have been enough to have set that briny smell in my olfactory system these many years since. Every summer of my youth, through my freshman year in college, was spent on the Louisiana coast or in tidewater Virginia, and one year, when I was 11, in Puerto Rico. Daddy would be offered a summer teaching position at the LSU marine installation on Grande Isle, or at the Virginia Fisheries Laboratory at Gloucester Point, or that one year's leave of absence from TCU to direct the invertebrate zoology program at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez. He never left the family behind (except for one boring summer, in the days prior to discovery of cause, when there was a polio scare sweeping the nation, and it was deemed safer for "the girls" to keep them close to home). With that exception, Mother, Beth and I went to every location and on virtually every field trip from that location with Daddy and the students.

My clearest visions of those days are of the teacher-father standing on the beach or reef or marsh in his old beat-up tennis shoes and swim trunks, holding a sea creature in his broad flat palm, with a group of rapt students gathered round, listening in on his expertise; and of my mother's quiet, gentle, reassuring presence managing the troops. The specific places and people have become fuzzy with time, but sitting on my dock, I can feel the fine sand between my toes, hear the rhythm of waves, and savor the sweet feeling of clean after showering away the sticky salt. The flavor of it all is lodged in my nose and my mind. I can sense the sea on Lake Granbury.

-- Joan Hewatt Swaim is author of Walking TCU: A Historical Perspective. She retired in 1995 as coordinator of bibliographic control for the Mary Couts Burnett Library after 18 years of service. She now lives in Granbury, where she and her 8-year-old grandson Asher take turns smelling the "sea" on Lake Granbury.