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An Odd Fellow’s Memorial Day May 25, 2009

Posted by The Typist in 8-29, Federal Flood, home, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, NOLA, Remember.
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I was born in 1957 and so I am reckoned one of the last of the baby boomers, that generation borne by the parents who went through World War II. I grew up in a neighborhood full of fathers who had served in World War II, some later in Korea, and frankly I do not remember anyone making much of Memorial Day.

It was the sort of day when the grownups would sit outside, cocktails in hand and laughing; one of the last days before the heat became unbearable, when they could reenact the ritual they knew from the days before air conditioning of sitting out and visiting with the neighbors; a day when the children would run wild up and down the lawn-flanked, oak-shared lanes that ran behind all our houses, as tipsy as our parents on the first days of summer freedom. The fog man might come by in his war surplus jeep pumping God only knows what sort of poison out in a bright, white cloud to keep down the mosquitoes, and the kids would run after him and into the cloud yelling, “the fog man, the fog man”, our small bodies sucking up the DDT while our parents drank bourbon and branch and let us run wild.

Most people’s childhoods must seem an idyllic time looking back from the age of fifty-something but ours seems particularly so as I watch my children grow up without a pack of children on the block and among neighbors who mostly don’t socialize as our parents did. The place we grew up, the upper-middle class suburb of Lake Vista with its cul de sac streets and the shaded sidewalks called lanes that ran behind the houses and up to broad parkways that bisected the neighborhood, was certainly Edenic compared to most every other place I’ve lived.

By the early 1960s it was full of families whose fathers had made something of themselves after the war, professionals and small business men who had done well. These were not people who came home and joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars or the American Legion, the ones who kept their old uniforms and decorations to pull out on Memorial Day to parade down the street. Those were not our fathers: men who after the war were busy trying to finish school or start careers with small children and wives they married so young, who were busily trying to sort out and make something of their life. No one in our neighborhood joined those groups or marched in those parades.

Our father’s did not talk much about the war to us even as we ran through the neighborhood armed with plastic replicas of the very weapons they had carried, acting out the hundreds of old war movies that were a staple of television of the time. We did not much go in for Cowboys and Indians, but preferred to play act the battles of the TV show Combat! For my own father perhaps it was the one experience he told me of, huddled in a beet furrow somewhere in France pinned down by machine gun fire and raked by mortars. He huddled in that furrow, dug small shelves into the mud and lined them with tissue and tore down his Browning Automatic Rifle which had landed in the mud.

He was one of the few survivors of that event, and while he never spoke of it except in outline (and to proudly recount how he cleaned his BAR) I can readily imagine laying there in the dark and the rain, cleaning his weapon while around him most of the young men he had trained with for this day lay dead or dying, some of them perhaps crying out, others fingering the rosaries like the one I still have, the one my mother made for my father to take with him. If to these men Memorial Day was not a time to remember what they went through but to celebrate their survival, to relish friends and family over cocktails on a buggy, summery afternoon I can find no fault in that.

I grew up in an era when the little cardboard bank calendars, the ones with the bank’s name in faux gold leaf and a mercury thermometer in the frame, still listed Confederate Memorial Day (observed on Jefferson Davis’ birthday on June 3rd in most of the South, so soon after the current observance). Perhaps that is a small part of the lack of enthusiasm for the official Memorial Day. And this far toward the equator a Monday in late May is not the first day warm enough for the beach or a big picnic in the park, not by a long shot. If anything, Memorial Day is likely as not to be the first truly miserable day of summer, when the mercury in those little calendar thermometers would first climb above ninety and the breeze in from the lake was as full of water as the pitcher that sat on the patio table and we were just as sweaty.

So come Memorial Day down in New Orleans we might catch the President laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on the 10 o’clock news as we crawl into bed, stuffed with grilled steak and itchy with bug bites and sleepy from too much beer in the sun, but the reason for the day will largely escape our notice. As the air conditioning whistles us to sleep it might occur to us that summer, at last, has truly arrived, as wet and heavy and ominous as a blizzard turned inside out.

Memorial Day has a new and special significance for me: this is the day I arrived home. In May 2006 I left the children with their grandparents in Fargo, N.D. to be put on a plane later, hitched the boat to the back of the car and started south. Three days later on Memorial Day, 2006 I parked the boat in a marina yard in Mandeville, and made my way across the lake to the small house on Toulouse Street that is now our home. When I sat down to write about it this time last year the real significance of the date finally began to sink in. The first years it was, “oh, this was the week the kids and I got to New Orleans”, but not a day fraught with meaning.

I read those old words (trying to recall how many beers in the sun proceeded that post) and I once again recall that drive as if it were yesterday. It occurs to me that taking a short cut down Polk in Lakeview–over broken streets that already looked like Patton’s Third Army had rolled over them 20 years before the flood, lined three years ago with houses that looked like the combat-broken landscape of the war movies of my childhood–I had missed passing all of the large monuments of the cemeteries.

I can’t quite name them all unless I jump in the car or on the bike and ride up and down City Park Avenue but a few some to mind, the firefighter’s memorial from the days of the old volunteer fire companies and the mounded hill that covers the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks mausoleum in Greenwood, the tall Grecian column just across the street that memorializes I don’t know what (but will have to wander over later and find out), the pharaonic family tomb that squats in a corner of Metairie Cemetery just off of the interstate.

Somewhere behind the perpetually uncared for broken clock that stands at the head of Canal Street in Greenwood Cemetery lies the Hilbert family tomb where my father and brother lay with my mother’s family. Someday when my mother and her sister are not around to question me I will put up a stone that says Folse atop the one that reads Hilbert, but I don’t want to be buried there among the Hilberts. I have no idea what anyone reading this should do with my remains, but that tomb is not the place. It will not be my own tiny monument in that field of raised tombs.

I often spoke of building a raised tomb when I lived in Fargo, anxious that I might just be tossed into the ground like the rest of them, wanting my far off branch of the family to have a proper memorial of the sort someone from New Orleans expects. Now I think: better to be cremated and hope I have friends who survive me who will know what to do with those ashes, the places that were significant enough to me to be fitting. The thought that those friends will know what to do is probably memorial enough, to know I will be remembered.

For now the only personal monuments I care about are the ones I have built here, the Wet Bank Guide and this one, Toulouse Street, and the pieces out of the Wet Bank Guide that make up Carry Me Home. I don’t want to be remembered for myself but rather as just another of the people who came home, that one cross you see in some pictures with a flag planted, or a spray of flowers in the endless fields of green and white that are military cemeteries. I want to be remembered as one of them all, as someone who helped to tell their story.

As we planned for the next Rising Tide conference the other night, the talk turned to how New Orleans has changed, and its people with it. Someone madet he comparison that occurs to me over and over again: that of the people of the Federal Flood to those of the Greatest Generation. Orleanians are thought indolent and silly with our devotion to festival and food above all else but all around me are people who have been through a profound trauma most Americans can barely imagine. They survived the biggest displacement Americans seen since the Civil War, returned to a city more like Europe after the bombardment and battles of WWII than anything ever seen on this continent, have struggled for years (still struggle today) to live here and rebuild.

These are a people who have seen death and devastation, known loss and disappointment that is painful to catalog, suffer from a traumatic stress that is not post traumatic stress because it is not yet over, may never be over for people of the generation of the flood, and still they get up on certain days and march down to the appointed place and eat and drink and dance and are happy. They are at once not that different from my parents sitting out on Memorial Day and at some deep level they are profoundly transformed. As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Flood they are people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made the case for why we should be here. Few people since the days of the pioneers have a stronger claim to a place.

Some will think it irreverent and disrespectful to say this on Memorial Day, even as soldiers patrol in far off lands and on this day sacred to soldiers some may die, but I have said it before and I will say it again. I look at the people around me and all they have been through and all they have accomplished to remake their home and I think: there is no finer place to be an American today than in their company, here in New Orleans.

* Yes, I’ve cribbed this title from last year’s post, but it still seems apt. I will leave it to the burrowing graduate students of New Orleans history, the ones I imagine pouring over our blogs a hundred years from now as our own generation scoured the letters of civil war soldiers, to figure out if I was onto something or just lazy.

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Comments»

1. Adrastos - May 25, 2009

Wow, we’ve only known one another for 3 years? Feels like longer and I mean that in a good way.

My father never spoke about the war very much either. It did, however, make him anti-gun and camping. Someone mentioned camping to him and he groaned and said: “I had a bellyful of that during the war.”

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2. candice - May 25, 2009

I moved back home six years ago on the ides of march. Rebuilt enough of my life just in time to get cast astray again in 2005.

Now that I think of it, you probably knew some of my cousins hanging out in that area of lakeview in the sixties.

My generation’s fathers were mostly in vietnam, and they don’t talk much about it either. (My parents as you may know are your age – they had kids earlier than the norm.)

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3. Tim - May 26, 2009

They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Well, we ain’t dead, so I guess I know what that means.

Peace,

Tim

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4. Marco - May 27, 2009

Bravo!

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5. mad - May 31, 2009

I remember those fogging machines. And I also played every day in the white clouds of poison, oblivious to the traffic and the DDT. And I started to go bald by age 16 and got kidney cancer at age 51.
My father spoke nary a word to his kids about his war experiences, though he did transcribe his wartime diary to preserve his memories, and he revered his enduring friendships with his war buddies almost to the point of excess. Our family did not go camping either, nor did my father own a gun. He is long gone now, as is most all of the officer corps with whom he celebrated so many painful memories. The youngest among them died a few months back. Memorial Day, indeed.

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6. Charlotte - June 2, 2009

Oh, Mark.

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7. We Are Not OK « Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans - May 29, 2010

[…] have been home four years this weekend and will crib a link because I’m not in the mood to write about the holiday I know think of […]

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