An Appointment in Jasper

I rolled out of New Orleans Saturday afternoon when I saw the smart people leaving. They were packing all over town, loading everything. I had figured it would be okay to stick around for at least part of the blow, but when I saw that the internet cafes were being boarded-up, I turned the van toward Claiborne Avenue and rode across the city limits into Jefferson Parish, then took Causeway Blvd. to the Airline Highway—Highway 61.

It was a two-hour bumper-to-bumper trip to the Louis Armstrong International Airport, five miles. I saw a lot of people turning around and heading off toward I-10, but I wasn’t taking the interstate, because I hate it. I measured progress in feet but wasn’t impatient. The engine hummed the way I’d meant it to, when I had dropped about $2,500 into the old Dodge van everybody had thought was a lemon. Sure, it’s a gas-guzzler. It’s also an eight-cylinder van hauling a lot of weight. The only answer to higher gas prices is to make more money. Now that Einstein’s dead that’s my theory. Of course, there are other answers, but only the hippest people consider nationalizing the entire privately-owned capitalistic-greed-driven warmongering-money-making energy apparatus from oil to electricity and beyond.

I mean, take it away from them. Give them some compensation but not much. They’ve already been compensated literally trillions of dollars out of our pockets since oil was discovered and electricity was installed in Newburg, NY.

Highway 61 was always the best route to Baton Rouge until they built the interstate back when I was avoiding Louisiana like a pack of feral dogs. I must have hitchhiked back and forth between New Orleans and Lake Charles 10 times in 1957 and 1958. I always took Highway 90 from Lake Charles to Iowa, turned north on 165 to Kinder, east to Baton Rouge on 190, and down Highway 61, which ran four blocks past where we had lived in Metairie until Sidney’s death.

As I expected, the road opened up after the airport, and I settled into my 50 mph routine. I didn’t know where I was going after Baton Rouge. I would make up my mind when I arrived. I could go east and back to Biloxi to watch the surf, or West to Lake Charles, which is where I really wanted to go. I had been thinking about paying my respects at the graves of my stepfather, and my grandparents and mother. The hurricane might come up the Mississippi River and crash the levees around New Orleans. If it could do it there, it could destroy the levees in Baton Rouge too, so the state capital didn’t look much better than New Orleans. The storm looked like it was going to Lake Charles as well, but I went there anyway.

With a smooth engine, new shocks and springs, brakes, wheel cylinders, strut bushings, tie-rod bushings, new rear transmission mount, new universal joints and a recent-enough grease job and oil-change, I rolled west into the Louisiana darkness, and it all started coming back..

The town of Basile was still only a few eye-blinks. The traffic had thinned considerably after the turnoff to Alexandria, which is high ground compared to south Louisiana. I had thought about going there but the place is a bad memory, so I left it alone. It’s where my lost boyhood chum Jim Morris had moved after New Orleans and married some starched money-monger who dampened his spirit and imprisoned his soul in a tissue of lies snagged in a web of money and kids he didn’t want and didn’t need. His own fault, really, for being so obsessed with women.

I passed the city limits of Opelousas feeling surprised. I had forgotten about Opelousas, though it had always been an important stopover.

This time I remembered again that it was a special place as far as remembering Sidney Havenar went. The first job I ever had was when my stepfather took me with him at age 12 to renovate the Delta Theater for Southern Amusement Company. He was their troubleshooter then. Sid could fix anything. He knew movie theaters from door boy to manager. We had stayed in a small motel. Contour curtains had just made it to Louisiana theaters, and Sid was installing them. New seats set semi-circular were being installed, and one of my jobs was to tighten the bolts.

We had eaten every meal in the Palace Restaurant. I had eaten fried oysters for breakfast, dinner, and supper for nearly a week. It was a dollar a dozen then. Before he finished the job, however, Sid’s own father had died in Houston, and he and Mickey had sent me off to Hathaway to stay with the Ritters while he buried Don Havenar.

Don was heavier, but he and Sid were mirror images. For many years Don and Mary Havenar owned “Don’s,” a well-known little steak house that catered to wrestlers like Gorgeous George and the Zebra Kid. The steaks were great and their barbecue sauce was treated like an atomic secret. Then the Astrodome bought the place and turned it into a parking lot. I never heard what happened to my vivacious, red-haired step-grandmother from Alabama.

I had stopped in the Palace several times over the years, and had always been remembered as “the kid who ate fried oysters every meal.” Opelousas has grown a lot since then. As soon as I was past the built-up portion there was the old town square and—the Palace Restaurant! Open. I could hardly believe it and couldn’t resist. Although I wasn’t hungry I parked and went in. Looking down the block I could see the Delta Theater, but the marquee was different. It read, “Delta Concerts.”

An older woman was behind the counter. It looked like closing time. I asked for a coffee.

“The coffee’s all gone.”

I asked her how long she’d been in the restaurant.

“Eighty-one years,” she said. I laughed. “I am so glad this place is still open.” I briefly told her the story how I had eaten every oyster in the place one week in 1953. She wasn’t impressed. So I asked for a hot chocolate. She hesitated a moment, visualized it, and went off to make one.

A lone man at the counter had heard my story, and asked if I were coming from New Orleans. Then he proceeded to tell me that he had lived in this place and that place in New Orleans. In a few minutes, the lady put an excellent cup of hot chocolate before me. It was real milk heated on a stove, chocolaty, sweet, old-fashioned, homemade and good. If you think of the crappy hot chocolate you get in convenience stores and fast food joints and imagine the opposite, you’ll know what I mean. I drank this amazing hot chocolate in the middle of fast-food Louisiana in early September, 2008. It cost $1.50.

I drank it fast, because I didn’t want to hear any more about former residences in New Orleans. I paid, tipped, said goodnight and left. I walked to the Delta and saw it had a nice paint job, gray and blue. I tried to remember the fire escape but couldn’t. I didn’t even remember that the theater had been on the town square.

That’s what I mean, when I say memory is tricky. It’s very selective. I had walked past that square three or four times a day for nearly a week and had nothing in my memory of it. I could remember kneeling on the theater floor though, tightening nuts with a wrench. You know how theater floors are. Even clean as a whistle, you know that chewing gum, buttered popcorn and soda pop has covered every spot at one time or another. I remember the contour curtain going up, the inside of the projection room, the carpet we tore out of the lobby. Most of all I remembered Sidney Havenar, and realized that he had given me my first job.

Whenever I think of Sidney, I think of what might have been. But I’ve been through all that, haven’t I? How everyone might have had happier, more stable lives. How I might have had sensible male guidance. How I might have gone to Annapolis or West Point and never screwed up and become a hero of our time and saved the world from another Hitler.

If you’ve been reading this, you know about some of the problems I had growing up in Lake Charles, and afterward, when my sister Pat locked me up for possession of marijuana and lsd. You know what I think of the place and the people I grew up with, the bullies, the ignorant teachers, the alcoholic parents and their friends, and the family that had taken a hands-off attitude to something they wanted to think of as between me and Pat. You know how I avoid the place. But this time Lake Charles held no terror or dread for me. There was a hurricane on my tail and I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt like a stormy petrel. You know what a stormy petrel is? It’s a Maxim Gorky.

Being back in New Orleans had set me to thinking about Sid again. How he might have been murdered and what I owed the man for the five years that I was his adopted son. The press of events following his death in 1957 had impelled me forward and far from the past even as it receded day by day like a city falling below the horizon in the rearview mirror. I had thought about him so little after his death that it had become a habit to not think of him. Evidently, it was too painful, and for years, as I’ve said and alluded to, I was so screwed up I couldn’t find much to feel grateful for. But now that I see my life as a firefly, I see many things to be thankful for; and Sid is one.

At the junction of Highways 165 and US 90 in Iowa is a honky-tonk. There has always been one near there. I was thirsty so I went in for a coke. It was full of Calcasieu Parish drunken screwballs of course. Mostly Cajuns and some like me, anything from Polish to Irish. Big men flirting with women, showing off for each other and copping a hug a kiss or a grope from one or all of a group of sexily-dressed women they had either come with or wanted to go home with. They were playing the juke box and taking turns dancing with them and hooting and hollering and pounding their chests. It was another competition of course. May the biggest loudmouth win. The women didn’t turn me on at all. They were young, curvy, overdressed and brittle-looking, except for a fat one who hung back. As I seated myself at the crowded bar and ordered a coke, a guy near me shouted, “Hey, are you a narcotics officer?” I smiled at him and everybody laughed. I was thinking, “Let them guess, and let them guess wrong.”

The woman bartender started a conversation with me, and when I told her I had gone to LaGrange High, she indicated her husband standing in a shadow at the end of the bar.

“That’s Joe, my husband. He went to LaGrange.” He came over and shook my hand. But he had been four years behind me, and neither of us seemed to have a common acquaintance, so the conversation went nowhere. I didn’t want it to. I took my coke out of the noisy bar and sat on the front porch among a bunch of dusty barstools by a rail and listened to a woman give a man hell for “letting that goddamned woman touch you!” He kept telling her that it didn’t matter, that “She don’t mean a damned thing to me.” Finally she let up after saying, “I’ll take my shoe off and break her fucking head if she touches you again!” He called someone with his cell phone and walked out into the yard talking. She went back inside.

I sat there smoking and considered the waning moon hidden behind gathering clouds of Gustav. The wind picked up just a bit. The large woman came out, didn’t notice my presence, and stood with her back to me, text-messaging for about 10 minutes. Then she turned to go back inside and saw me.

“Oh! I didn’t know you were there!” I laughed and she went away. She was probably the narc. I was tired as hell. It had taken 10 hours to get within 11 miles of Lake Charles, a 2.5 hour trip on the stinking interstate. But I wanted to go the old way and didn’t give a damn how fast I went. If I had gone that way I would have missed the Palace, the hot chocolate and the memories of Sidney. I went back in and inquired and Joe told me there was a truck stop less than a mile away. I drove there and crashed.

I woke mid-morning Sunday. It was hot and sultry, but the sun was shiny and hot. I got a cup of coffee and took old 90 until it became Broad Street in Lake Charles. Everything was different. There’ was The Green Frog, called something else now, a nice restaurant in the 50’s, and Bevo’s, a classy night club back in the postwar days, where Sid’s crowd went for drinks and all-night carousing. There had stood the truck stop where Roy and David and I were busted for burglarizing the Second Avenue swimming pool. There was old man Baillo’s small mansion. “Mr. Baillo” had owned Southern Amusement Company. I had met him briefly only once. His “company car” was a Lincoln Continental Mark I. I rode in it many times.

At Ryan Street I turned left and took Sid’s route home. Ryan to South Ryan, left on Weineke Street, right on East, left on Elm. The old house at 1745 Elm was still there, but with vinyl siding and a brick front. Sid would have liked that. There was a large locked gate at the side of the house and, finally, a paved driveway that went past the gated fence to the edge of the rear patio that Sid had built while I watched.. He had built the eave of the roof around a small camphor tree so he wouldn’t have to cut it down. It was gone and the patio had been entirely enclosed. The two pecan trees in the front yard were gone. The pear tree and fig tree in back were gone too. But the place looked comfortable and neat with a front lawn of St. Augustine grass, finally. Grass doesn’t grow well beneath pecan trees, so it had been a sort of patchy Bermuda grass with exposed soil from (me) raking up the pecans and leaves every year

It took me awhile to find the cemetery, because the miles-square area hadn’t had a single house between McNeese University and the cemetery when Sid was buried. Now it’s all built-up and instead of wide open fields of sugar cane and cattails and whatever else, it resembles every other look-alike. dreary "development” in the country; capitalism minus taste buds.

It took about a half-hour to find his grave. I had visited it only once before, after returning from the Marine Corps in 1963. Most of the graves in that cemetery have bronze plaques at ground level, but now small granite stones and even a few religious symbols (crosses) mark some graves.

The bronze plaque had turned a uniform pale green and was quite nice-looking. It read:

Sidney M. Havenar
Capt. US Army 359 Engr GS
Born May 16, 1914 Died May 2, 1957

I fell on my knees and placed both hands on the plaque and said “God thank you for Sidney Havenar in my life. I’m sorry it took me so long to acknowledge him.”

It was hot and the wind had died. I stayed like that for a long time, just saying stuff. For a little while I talked directly to Sid as if he could hear me. Who’s to say? Anything in God’s Universe is possible. That’s the way I see it. There are a million possibilities for any mind, and I figure I might as well make it interesting, because I don’t know a single thing about God. I imagined Sid was listening, nodding, saying, “It’s about time, Mike.” The thing I remember him saying most to me, because he said it so many times, is “Patience, Mike, patience.” It took me a long time and a long train of frustrations to learn it.

After awhile I got up and looked around, deliberately locating the grave near a large monument of hands in prayer with a recitation from Timothy in the Christian bible: "I have fought the good fight..." I fixed the location in my mind in case there’s ever a next time. But I don’t think there will be. This feels like my last go-round.

I looked at the sky and it looked the same. I got in the van and drove to Fourth Ward school but it was gone and a medical clinic across from St. Patrick’s Hospital stood there instead. But Drew Park next door looked the same. I’d had my first real fistfight there with Bobby Kirk, and lost. The coach had refereed it. I was in fifth grade. I drove to the lake and down Lakeshore Drive toward the old drawbridge they blew up. I was looking for the Shell Beach Marina, but it was gone. There were new improved mansions along the lake, and many private piers with boats, but the old Burton mansion was still king of the lake. It’s a red-brick ante-bellum mansion with tall white columns and sits back off the road like a castle, unapproachable except by appointment. Burton had owned the bank and the still-present shell yards across the lake in Westlake and was known as the richest man in Lake Charles. I imagine he is in the bone yard by now, too.

I turned around and waved at an old guy walking a dog and drove out past the Golgotha Jail and the vanished Lyric Theater at Broad Street and drove over the Earl K. Long Bridge to Westlake. A pier of that bridge sits exactly in the spot where my grandmother’s house had stood when I came to join the family at age two. When they moved the house, I had tried to get back inside, and my grandmother had forbidden it. I set up such a howl that when her back was turned, one of the workers picked me up and put me in the back door. I was sitting in my grandmother’s rocking chair watching Main Street go by, when she discovered me missing, stopped the house, climbed in and relieved me of my post.

Do you know anybody else who rode down the main street of his hometown in his own house?

The town was bigger and uglier. The chemical complex on old 90 has grown like a cancer. God knows what sort of chemicals are leaking there now. When I was very young, most of the surrounding area had been swamp and marsh. Swamp came right onto the school grounds, and there were huge magnolia tress all over town.

Thousands and thousands of flamingoes would fly off and turn the sky pink. There were cranes by the thousands and alligators so long they could block Highway 90, and did. Olin Matheson, Exxon, Humble, Shell, Cities Service, Esso, and dozens of chemical companies I probably never heard of changed that lovely scene to acres of dead cypress trees. The flamingoes and cranes went god-knows-where and never returned. Now even the dead cypress trees are gone, replaced by parking lots. The old First Baptist Church where I had first heard the Word sitting next to my comfortable grandmother had been closed for decades and now it was gone, replaced by a casino. This had been a hard-shelled Baptist town. When my grandfather’s funeral cortege went through Westlake, men stopped and removed their hats. Everybody knew George Lee. He was umpire at the local softball game. He would come home from the game with pecan pralines wrapped in cellophane and hide them around the house for Pat and I to find. Another time he brought us a softball, which I confiscated. I remember him sitting in the kitchen with his hands on his knees, whistling while Mam-ma made his breakfast, and her turning, saying, “What are you so happy about?” I recall he liked his eggs sunny side up. I can see his knife cutting them in half and the brown toast he dipped in the yellow yolk. I can see him chasing me around the house wielding a croquet mallet for something I’d done. I could outrun him, but I was scared that he meant it. What I couldn’t see were the two serious wounds he had received in the WW I battlefields of France. I think he was the first guy I ever ran from. But he wasn’t really my grandfather—he was my real grandfather’s brother.

I had to ask directions to the old cemetery, though I had been there four times. I half-remembered where they were buried, but I looked all over the graveyard for two hours before I found them. Three graves in a row, from the left: George, Mam-ma, and Mickey Lee, my mother. I went to her grave first, strangely exhausted, and laid my hands on the foot of the concrete cover and thanked God for my mother. After awhile I did the same at the other two graves. Then I sat on Mam-ma’s grave and cried for awhile, and on Mickey’s and wept some more.

I don’t let myself mourn much. But I had to finally. It took about 30 minutes before I felt washed-out from it. I couldn’t do that at Mickey’s funeral, there were too many people about. I had missed Mam-ma’s funeral because nobody had known where I was. I remember George’s funeral but didn’t know what death really was then. I had hardly known him but I thanked God for George too. His stone read:

George Lee
US Army 28 Infantry 1 Div

I forgot to write down the dates and particulars of the others. When I walked back to my van, I felt like the old man that I am.

I tried to stay on Highway 90 to Texas but finally had to take the interstate over the Sabine River to Orange. I went into a convenience store to ask where 90 started up again and asked an old man coming in the door. He squinted at me hard like he recognized me and said flatly, “Ninety’s gone” He said I had to take the interstate because they had broken 90 up, and every time I found it I would have to return to the interstate anyway. I told him I hated the interstate.

“I do too. They’re evacuating Beaumont,” he informed me. “Come on and follow me up to this state park. That’s where I’m going.” I asked him where it was.

“About 40 miles up the road in Jasper.”

My grandmother had been born in Jasper in 1900 when it was a lumber camp in the heart of The Big Thicket, which is said to be the “most-biologically-diverse forest in the United States.” It was also where a black man was dragged to death behind a racist car a few years ago. Though I had heard the word of her growing up there in a shack in a turpentine camp, where her father was a first-generation Irish lumberjack, I had never had any curiosity about Jasper or any intention to go there.

“Okay, I’ll follow you there,” I said.

Two hours after leaving my grandmother’s grave site, I was driving around her birthplace. It seemed too much of a coincidence so I figured it was the hand of God. Since I don’t know anything about Him or His ways, I let my imagination freely roam over the infinite possibilities which are limited only by my weak imagination. I imagined that Mam-ma’s spirit had guided me there. But for what? Apparently, for a nice bath.

The public campground was too full and the private one too expensive. A fellow told me of an overlook by the dam where I could park and sleep, so I went there. Two other cars were parked in a shady area and down an eroding bluff over bared tree roots was the lake that lapped at the nearby dam and swimmers, all black except one, and he was packing up to leave. Three men sat under a nearby tree smoking something. . I put on some dungaree shorts and took off my shirt in public for the first time in years because of the scars and walked down to the water to bathe. I waded out to my waist in the warm brownish water and gave myself a good wash. I shampooed my hair and swam a short distance, not trusting my lung power anymore. I dried off and went back to the van and laid down to rest and went to sleep listening to the other swimmers leaving. I heard someone arrive as I passed out.

When I woke about an hour later it was pitch-dark. I was standing in front of the van smoking when I heard the heavy clomp of a boot. I couldn’t make it out in the dark so I got back in the van, the interior light illuminating me, and saw a large biker come up out of the bushes of the eroded bluff to his chopper. I started the engine and left, catching him in the lights with his head down so he wouldn’t be blinded and I could not see his face. I drove away remembering this was Texas and thinking I didn’t want to be bedded down in a dark place with a biker nearby who might be broke or just plain mean. He might be the fugitive I feel like sometimes.

I drove a road I had never traveled before, thinking I was headed for Corpus Christi. The State Police had a roadblock at one point, but let me continue when I told them I was headed to Corpus. I drove all night. It was perfect. Just the way I like it: dark, hardly any traffic, just me and my coffee and cigarettes and the Grateful Dead playing from my laptop to earphones.

Just after dawn I saw a sign for Austin and went that way instead. Everybody has nice things to say about Austin, but I’ve always been suspicious of the place. It’s the seat of the government of Texas, as crooked and unjust as any place on earth. Bush Country, LBJ Country, and ten thousand other villains I bet. I’d driven past it at least twice without stopping. This time I gave it a chance. I drove around the north end of town on Koenig Street until I found a coffeehouse with wireless and spent the day in there reading the news, doing my mail, and writing. When the sun started sinking and rush hour was over, I bought a city map and studied it for awhile. Then I toured the whole damned town.

I went all four directions and crisscrossed the city twice. I saw the beautiful state capitol building and lots of other famous and expensive places. I went to the University of Texas district and found a coffeehouse but there wasn’t any parking. Everywhere I looked I saw young people with nice cars that someone else probably paid for. There were a lot of students, and few old people like me. Every house looked to be in the half-million-dollar range and much higher. Finally I found the working class area on the east side, but it didn’t look like anyplace I’d want to hang out. At midnight I headed for Corpus Christi. I didn’t need to be in the most liberal city in Texas, where people are probably equally divided between McCain and Obama, and 100 percent for “the right war.”

Yeah, I’m talking about you frigging “liberals.” What a bunch of hypocrites. You’re against the war in Iraq because it’s a Bush lie. You are for the war of vengeance in Afghanistan, because you think a liberal will be fighting it, but it’s another lie. It’s another wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time, and you don’t know diddley-shit about Afghanistan, Pakistan, India or China, but you think it will be fine. It’s another “cakewalk.” Just bring in more bombs, more troops, more planes, more bullets, and more death. It’s going to be just fine. You are headed right down the rosy path to another nine-eleven, and I’m not going to be surprised by that one anymore than I was surprised by the last one.

I reached Corpus Christi about dawn and drove past it on the modern freeway they’ve built to screw up Padre Island. When I was here 30 years ago it was a nice place, not expensive, plenty of free beach, hot showers if you bought a $5 yearly permit for Texas State Parks, and not many houses. People were too smart to build much here then. Developers got their hands on it somehow and are trying to turn it into another Fort Lauderdale. There are about 5,000 new houses, canals for their expensive boats, condominiums, hotels, shopping centers, and a $6 daily fee for parking on the wide sandy beach. You have to drive 10 miles to find a free beach. I got here with $120 in my pocket, its 20 days until my Social Security pittance arrives, and I’ve already been hassled by the beach police. The only comforting thought I have is that there is absolutely no hurricane protection, and a category 3 would flush the whole damned thing out to the Gulf of Mexico.

No, I’m not a Luddite or a communist. I’m a stormy petrel. The hurricane is behind me.


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