Thursday, May 21, 2009

Katrina, and the axe with red ribbon

My parents, LeRoy and “Billy” LaRive, were tenacious and strong willed Cajuns. They survived many hurricanes in Old Gentilly New Orleans, pounded by both wind and flood. At 85 they thought this would just be another one.

Nothing could get them to leave, the many phone calls from family and friends, or police going directly to their front door. They didn’t see the possibility of how bad it could get, and told every person who called a different game plan, whatever they wanted to hear. In the past Saint Raphael Church on Elysian Fields Avenue had been considered high ground, and parking cars on the neutral ground across the street had always been sufficient. This time it was not.

At first it looked as if the storm’s effects had passed with the eye, and several phone calls reveled that they had weathered it fine. A few hours later the levee broke, inundating the area with over ten feet of water. No one ever heard from them again.

A few days later a picture was found in the Lafayette paper of a boatload of people who had supposedly been taken from rooftops. My entire family agreed it was them in that picture, but the trail grew cold as they were picked up on Robert E. Lee Boulevard and brought to I-10/610. Friends and family searched the internet for listings of names, but we had no word from them, nor were their names, to this very day, compiled on any list.

At the time of this writing, October 7, 2005, their bodies have not yet been properly identified. A few days ago we got a call from “Family Finders” saying that they thought they had found my father by an ID he had on his person. It is also possible that my mother is there, as a Chaplin said there was also a “Jane Doe” with no identification. They requested my DNA, and this alone will take two weeks. We are not allowed to view the bodies, or see the Coroner’s report until a funeral home picks them up for embalming. So far, there is no one who can tell us if there will be an autopsy, though on the news last night it was said that all elderly bodies will be, and a time of death will be difficult to attain. It is our hope that we can trace just what happened, but all indications are that they were transported without documentation, lost in the mad shuffle. I try not to think about what their last moments together was like, how they ended up together, and speculation can drive you insane.

Since all of my dad’s personal information was destroyed by water, our memories are the only tools we first had. We knew little or nothing about what insurance he had, a burial plan, or anything of his assets.

At the time of this writing Gentilly is still inaccessible. A few days ago I woke up again at 2:00 thinking about all possibilities, haunted by faces. I packed a sledge hammer from my garage, my hard hat and safety boots, and headed to New Orleans on September 26, 2005. I was determined. I stopped for a BLT sandwich, a cup of coffee, and got on I-10. Traffic was moving at around 80mph and I kept up. Past Baton Rouge the pace increased to a bit over 90 mph, bumper to bumper, with weaving tail-gators. My mind swam with the last three weeks, and the three households living with us from St. Bernard who had lost everything, and suddenly I started feeling sick. Large mouth-fulls of bile came up and I spit them out of the window. The white sports car riding my bumper pulled back. After about ten of these I started feeling a bit better.

Suddenly, I was in Metairie. Lights were on, and in the half-light of 05:00 it didn’t look that damaged. Traffic went well until Bonneville, and then abruptly stopped. For an hour we crept forward, and finally saw large blinding directional spotlights over the interstate. I surmised that to be the check point. I spoke to several other men in trucks next to me and they were all trying to get to St. Bernard. WWL radio was saying there was a mix-up between NO officials and State Police, and that the corridor to St. Bernard was closed. What’s new! Every one of these men was very angry and frustrated. When I finally got to the lights a huge New Orleans cop with folded arms answered my request to enter Gentilly, with, “No, not today.” Those who were turned down for St. Bernard filled the side of the road and all parking lots, waiting for a decision…

I exited and entered Metairie, thinking I may find a back way into Gentilly. Both Veterans and I-10 was backed up, so I drove all the way to the Lakefront without a problem. Several police cars blocked the bridge over a levee, so I parked and walked over to them. I singled out one with a kind face and told him my story of trying to get into my father’s house for the paperwork we will need to bury them. Though standoffish in the beginning he warmed up, telling me that getting in was pending, and a week away. I tried with ten cops to escort me but no one would. I asked him if he was in the city during the storm, and he got very emotional. Tears flowed down his cheeks as he told me about the bodies, the looting, and the damage to the city he loved. He explained to me that the two officers who committed suicide had other problems in their lives, and this was just too much for them to handle. He got choked up talking about that too, and I realized this man was very drawn and tired. A truck driver came up and gave each of us a bag of beignets and powdered sugar, and we ate them wafting the smells of rotten garbage and seawater, while swishing away huge black flies. I remember when one would land on their skin; they would jump like being electrocuted. I thanked him for his time, knowing I would never be allowed entrance here, and traveled as far as I could to Downtown, blocked by cement and sand bags, then made a huge circle back to Veterans. I was not let through. There I met a man waiting in a parking lot who was trying to organize his crew to meet up in Gentilly. We talked about his company from another state coming down to help in the cleanup, and I thanked him for helping out. He looked at my car and asked what was splattered on the side. “I threw up.” I said.

Suddenly he looked at me hard and said “I have an idea!” He went to his front seat and pulled out an extra pass given to his company, and had me sign my name along with his. “Here, betcha’ this will do it.” I thanked him several times, not believing this stroke of luck, and as I got into my car he yelled out: “Sorry about your folks.”

Leaving that parking lot I immediately found an open gas station and filled up, then proceeded to I-10 for a brazen third attempt to get in. I-610 was now open and traffic flowed through, finally, a corridor to Chalmette. A line was formed at the Elysian Fields exit and I waited about a half hour as we crept along. Suddenly it moved faster, and a young black woman police officer barely looked at the paper and waved me through. I descended the ramp into hell.

How many thousands of times have I exited here? But what I came upon was like a nuclear holocaust, and unrecognizable. Except for a few linemen trucks and police cars the place was entirely deserted, lifeless, dead. Everyone ignored me.

I looked at the houses and saw that the water had risen to four feet here, but as I kept getting closer to the lake it got deeper. The devastation was oppressive. Every plant was dead, and the once beautiful old trees on the neutral ground were uprooted in piles, or crashed through heavy terracotta roofs, the hallmark of design in this community. It seemed like every window and door was a dark cave, and the houses empty shells. The smell of death, putrid and rotten gagged me, and flies came into my open window. One was jet black with a light red head, almost human. I saw sprayed florescent marking on every house, an X indicating the day it was checked and if any bodies were inside. That was the only color I remember, as everything had a cast of gray, even in full sun. There was no sound, no hum of life but for the crackle of a radio way off in the distance. I heard a kind of sobbing, and realized it was coming from me.

By the time I reached St. Raphael the water level on the side of the buildings topped 10 feet. I made my turn down Prentice and a left on Marigny, where I had quietly walked home from school so many years ago, and parked in front of my parent’s home. I stood in the street putting on my boots, and studied the area. It was too much to take in, as everything was glazed in gray mud, and piled upon each other. I can describe it no other way. A squirrel was sitting on a telephone line with its head up against the post, it didn’t move from the time I arrived or left. I think it was dead. A bright orange cat scurried across the street close to the ground and disappeared. Suddenly I got sick again and got rid of the beignet in fit after fit of nausea.

Through the threshold, where so many memories had entered and left, was now mounds of soggy, rotting cushions and furniture piled against the walls. I saw footprints and realized it must have been the rescue workers trying to determine if they were still in the attic. The florescent markings on the front stucco said “0” then 9/9, so no bodies were found on that date.

I started exploring from one room to another but started gagging again. I went back to the car with the idea of using some aftershave I keep on the dash to splash on my beard and hair. It worked.

Slowly the gravity of this moment hit home, and as I searched for the strong box that had my father’s important papers, I understood my parents for the first time, from a horrific perspective. The same encyclopedias and the yearbooks that ended in 1967 were swollen with water, still in the same original place so long ago. The water had risen several inches into the attic, and the melted sheetrock had fallen on top of everything, with dirty pink insulation hanging like flayed skin. In the hall I found a small hand axe with a red ribbon around it, and a claw hammer with its handle wrapped in electrical tape, leaning against the wall. It hit me that my father had told my brother in the last phone call that he had a way through a vent on the roof in case of a flooding. The ribbon was just like my father, his country heritage. He wanted to find it in the dark, or with a flash light. Very practical.

His chests of drawers were swollen tight, and I felt emotions I can’t describe as I battered them open with my sledge. I took everything from his top drawer and realized that this was his most cherished possessions. Children’s teeth, old knives belonging to his father and grandfather, clay marbles from his youth, disintegrating holy pictures commemorating the death of a loved one, service medals, old watches, rosaries, coins, nitroglycerin pills, belt buckles, straight razors from his barbering, trinkets and little colored rocks from memories lost forever. There on my mother’s dresser were boxes of baby pictures turned to black mush, and a plastic oriental statue that had taken the same position for forty years, now lay on the floor.

I had to move the bed and a pile of chair cushions to get to their closets. I broke a window with my sledge to get some air, and realized with a shock that I hadn’t even tried to open it. I saw the bars they had put up so long ago because of the growing crime in that area, and my reason for moving to Acadiana. New Orleans was their home and they would never leave it, never again. The closet was drenched but untouched, and his collection of western boots sat in rows. I took a bayonet he had placed for easy accessibility, and wondered at what kind of world would make it necessary to place a weapon for easy reach, even behind the safety of barred windows. A lot of thoughts rushed through my head, and I was a bit overwhelmed by them. My father had taught me long ago that men do not cry, men say “ouch!” and I stood in the middle of their bedroom choking them back, every one. He would have been proud.

I found some papers in the attic that has proved valuable in determining where they are to be buried, insurance, and so forth, and piled that in the back of my car. Along with that I took an old bowl my grandmother had given us, their marriage silverware, a few other memorabilia worth nothing but a memory, and that rusty hammer and the axe with the red ribbon on it.

Sounds so simple now, but at the time I could see that what lay in this muck was the tangible things they had acquired during their life, and most was unrecoverable. What I carried to my car amounted to about twenty pounds. Twenty tangible pounds with memories attached. Not their memories mind you, but my own, and though I have washed them, and will keep them through my life, I realize that all that was worthwhile in their lives is now found in the House of God.

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