About 3 in the afternoon we head east out of Houston in a rented car, skirting bayous and wooded lowlands, past Baytown toward Beaumont, but more specifically, to a small town east of Beaumont called Vidor.

We pass huge oil refineries, with acres of pipes and tanks and fiery tongues of flame in the afternoon overcast. Along the way, the Gulf reaches watery fingers inland. There are clusters of seabirds and herons in backwater inlets. At Baytown, out of the corner of my eye, I see the tall steel crane of a seaport dock and rusty steamers taking on cargo.By the time we reach Beaumont, the sky is clear.

A few miles farther, at Vidor, we drop off the freeway and head north 7 miles on a blacktop highway, looking for a trailer court and a convenience store. Then, on the lefthand side we should come to Northwest Circle Drive.

There it is, a narrow, blacktop road. Allie and her husband, Loy, live at the end of it.

For 30 years we have talked about today, about someday coming to Vidor, where Veloy's roommates from college, Allie and Sybil, grew up on the edge of "the Big Thicket," where Allie could stand on the back porch with her gun and pick off water moccasins.

There it is, now, the home she and Loy built several years ago, a rustic two-story house with a colonial facade, surrounded by acres of low-cropped grass on the edge of high, thick trees and back country.

Sybil is here, too, with her husband, Hal. They have fixed us a Southern meal - chicken and dumplings, with cornbread and authentic pecan pie.

As we eat around a large table, the sun slowly falls behind the distant trees. They reminisce about the crazy days of college, about short-sheeting beds, boyfriends long gone and exploratory menus that caked the walls of their dormitory oven with all sorts of strange substances and smells.

They go through a litany of children, and in some cases grandchildren, recounting the years. There are wisps of gray hair. We are all old enough that there are no points to prove or egos to satisfy, but just a comfortable, well-savored renewing of old ties, a re-acquaintance of where were all are, and where we have been.

For a time, Allie says, there was an alligator in the small pond down by the trees where her boys swim. We smile, relieved that most of our kids are grown now and beyond the angst of alligator ponds.

Allie's husband, Loy, works at a chemical plant nearby, where he runs a computerized part of the chemical processing. A few years ago he had to have a kidney and pancreas transplant, which took its toll on him and has been a major strain on the family.

Sybil teaches school. Her husband, Hal, is in industrial sales.

Allie's son, John, the youngest of two sons still at home, has built a "potato cannon" from PVC pipe. We go out on the back porch where, with a loud bang, she shoots a baseball-sized spud into the darkness, way out into the thicket.

It is getting late. We need to get back to Houston, where we want to visit NASA in the morning.

On the way back, we come across a radio station that plays music from the big band era - Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo and the like.

Skirting through the night in our rented car, I think of the shore birds and herons out there beyond the headlights, bedded down for the night in the darkness. A Glenn Miller song from during the war fills the interior of the car, recorded on Victor records on May 20, 1942, 26 days before I was born.

Is this music nostalgic, I wonder, because I have heard it before, from a distant planet almost, vibrating through the walls of my mother's womb?

Highway 10 reconnects with Highway 8 near Houston, rising on a newly built maze of freeway ramps.

As we rise and curl through the air on a ribbon of concrete and steel, the sounds of Benny Goodman spill from a broadcast aired in Chicago in 1938, with the mellow lyrics of "Liltin' Martha Tilton," sung before any of us were born, whether here near the thicket or there, in the shadow of mountains, long before we ever knew one another - my wife and her roommates, who have soared tonight over the fragile past, viewing, as from a plane, the rugged and mellow landscapes - a 30-year garland of experiences re-woven in tender reminiscence.