Texas Forgetting

Art work by E.R. Bills

So, I’m sitting in a Port Lavaca hotel room Thursday evening, March 28, thinking about winding down. It’s been a long drive from Fort Worth and traffic has been a beating. But then I open the roller-shade on the only window in my hotel room and see it.

No, not the ocean—though I can see it, too.

It’s the Shellfish.

And no, not a shellfish. The Shellfish. The Port Lavaca restaurant. It looks closed down and I don’t immediately recall why I know the place.

I’m in Port Lavaca to do some research for a new book. I wouldn’t say it’s been an all-consuming process of late, but spotting the Shellfish sidetracks me.

Then, I remember. I realize where I am.

I’ve written a lot about some pretty dark stuff. Massacres, murders, lynchings, rapes, genocide, ecocide, disappearances, expulsions and cataclysms. It would be unfair to say the stuff doesn’t leave an impression on you or, in this case, me. But if you do it long enough, you can lose track. You care about the victims and the people in the stories, or cases or history you’re researching, but when enough of it piles up in your memory, you can slip.

I slipped.

I got invited to a history festival in Houston that Saturday and decided I’d kill two or three birds with one stone (a horrible metaphor in the end). I book a room at a hotel in Port Lavaca and drive down. I visit the site of old port city of Indianola—the victim of two late 19th century cataclysms. I’m focused on the subject matter at hand and not paying attention to other details. For instance, I didn’t notice that my hotel was located right before the Port Lavaca causeway. And I also didn’t realize my hotel sat between the causeway and the Shellfish.

Forty-three years on the morning of April 1, 1981, a twenty-four-year-old woman named Kathryn Elizabeth Collins disappeared in front of the Shellfish restaurant just off the Port Lavaca causeway. A tire on her brown 1974 Chevy Caprice had gone flat and she was attempting change it, but she had no jack. A couple stopped to help, but they didn’t have a jack, either. So, they left to borrow one. At approximately 8:45 a.m., a tan van pulled up. Multiple witnesses saw the van and a man stepping out and offering to help Kathryn. She apparently joined him for a ride in his vehicle, but the tire on the Caprice didn’t get fixed and Kathryn Collins was never seen or heard from again.

In 2021, I wrote about Collins in Texas Oblivion: Mysterious Disappearances, Escapes and Cover-Ups. I devoted a chapter to her and another young lady who had disappeared in the area just three years before. Kirkus Reviews called the book “authoritative and well-researched,” and Texas Books in Review had high praise for the collection, calling me “A voice for the forgotten.”

All well and good then, but now I don’t feel authoritative or reliably vocal. I feel mute and amnesic. I am embarrassed and a little ashamed.

Sometimes I forget I’m a tourist with a typewriter—sorry, keyboard.

We try to get the stories right. We try to tell the truth. We try to be mindful of the victims and their families, and maybe help them find some closure. Maybe even help them find answers.

But then we’re on to the next story. The next disappearance. The next murder. The next cataclysm.

There are so, so many in Texas. And so many Texans are hurting. But we’re not real keen on remembering, these days. Especially on Opening Day.

While I was staring out my hotel window at the spot where Kathryn Elizabeth Collins disappeared, most folks back home were watching the reigning World Series Champion Texas Rangers (or, down here, Houston Astros) play baseball.

And a week from the anniversary of the day Collins disappeared and was eclipsed in my memory by another story, we’d be witnessing an actual solar eclipse—between meaningless sports spectacles and the reporting of well-meaning, but forgetful journalists.

In late 1984, infamous serial killer Henry Lee Lucas was interviewed regarding a number of cases in Victoria County, Calhoun County and surrounding counties, but the dates he said he was in the area didn’t correspond with Collins’ disappearance. In 1991, investigators looked at serial killer Donald Leroy Evans regarding the incident, but no connection was ever established.

I talked to employees at the hotel where I was staying, and they’d never heard of Kathryn Collins. They had to look it up on their phones. They were surprised. And so were some older locals I visited with at the Calhoun County Museum in Port Lavaca. They didn’t remember the disappearance, either. They had never even heard of it.

It was sad, but my lapse of memory was worse, especially in a year that will later mark the fiftieth anniversary of the disappearance of three girls at a Fort Worth mall. A complete and utter vanishing that, for a while, kept people away from the mall.

I have a daughter about the age Collins was when she went missing. I can’t help but be a little uneasy about her driving alone, especially at night. But Collins was taken in broad daylight. She was 5’ 5”, brown hair, brown eyes and petite. She had a young son and a boyfriend. Her son eventually went to live with her boyfriend’s family.

As another National Women’s History Month passes, I think about all that women have endured in Texas. I marvel at all their incredible contributions, and then I think about how many women I know who are talking about leaving Texas because they don’t feel safe. And I understand.

I am discomfited by the creepy, unconscionable chauvinism that is reemerging in Texas politics, essentially reinforcing the objectification and subjugation of women at the same time.

The Texas Legislature is much scarier than a suspect in a tan van—if he got you pregnant and let you live, the Texas Lege would make you keep the fruit of his brutality. And if you tried to abort it, you could be thrown in jail or sued by Christian activists.

Will the current abortion of female autonomy in Texas be forgotten?

Will future Texans even remember it existed?

Fort Worth native E. R. Bills is an award-winning journalist and author. His latest works include Tell-Tale Texas: Investigations in Infamous History and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..