Wayne Miller

On History

In December 1961, George Trabing
shot Winifred Jean Whittaker

and left her body beside the Trinity River
in one of the long twin shadows
of the I-10 overpass.

In August 1988, George Trabing
took me out on Trinity Bay
in his twenty-five-foot sloop
and taught me how to sail.

Past the bridge he cut the engine
and I felt us lock suddenly into the wind
dragging overhead—invisible,
unrelenting machine.

Trabing was in a “narcotics-fueled frenzy”
when he murdered Whittaker

while searching for more drugs
“on the Negro side of town”; when he

attempted to assault a fourteen-year-old girl,
then returned her home;

when he burglarized a house in wealthy
River Oaks for $7. In the subsequent trial,

which lasted three months,
the prosecutor sought the death penalty

but did not succeed.

The Trinity River enters Trinity Bay
by way of the Anahuac Channel,

which was cut through the marsh-pocked delta
by the Army Corps of Engineers

and on the map looks like a straw
thrust into the bay’s broad bladder.

Those afternoons George took me sailing,
I don’t think we ever went over

to the northeast side of the bay.

He drank cans of beer from a plastic cooler;
I drank 7-Up. He taught me to tie knots
and watch the mainsail for luffing.
Those afternoons

were a favor to my father, who still had to work
while I was visiting from Ohio.

George—who’d become a professor
after fifteen years in prison—
had his summers off.

Trabing was finally arrested
in the lobby of the Auditorium Hotel,
which, I’m shocked to discover,

became the Lancaster—and where,
on September 10, 2001, I had drinks
after seeing Salman Rushdie read.

The event was picketed
by Muslim fundamentalists; police barricades
maintained a channel through the crowd.

I don’t remember what Rushdie read
or anything he said. I remember
passing through that compacted organ of anger

and into the vastness of the theater,
bright red and lit with sophistication.
The protesters remained outside,

and Rushdie was the only person
facing their direction as he spoke—
and, of course,

it was September 10, 2001.

The family of Winifred Jean Whittaker
must despise George Trabing—
who is surely both abstract

and the very most powerful expression
of real. They would be right to say
it was a racist travesty of justice

he became a professor
and remained for the rest of his life
in Houston—their town—walking free

with his title and the prestige it carried.
They must find it horrifc
he could spend twenty years running

a master’s program for prisoners,
that he had the means and time
to own a boat and teach a boy to sail.

My god, why did my father
let George Trabing take me out
alone on his boat?

To show friendship, to offer trust?
As a teenager, my father

had wanted to be a priest,
though by 1988 he’d long since become
an unshakable atheist. I know George

was his good friend, and no doubt
my dad thought I would enjoy sailing.

Beyond that, it was a religious decision—
an atavism, a proof of faith—
I’m pretty sure.

Dare I say?—

Of the men I spent time with as a child,
George was among the kindest
and most generous—and he offered me
a respectfulness I didn’t, at twelve, deserve.

I sometimes flip through the Royce’s
Sailing Illustrated
he gave me,
and I recall his insistence
that a sloop rolled by the wind

would quickly right itself. Surely
he told me that only to allay my fear

when the boat heeled hard and I yelped,
thinking we were going over.
He is to me both an abstraction

and a very powerful expression
of real. Which is why I’m still here

in the library this late in the afternoon,
retrieving articles from 1961-2
on “George Trabing.”