Thursday, September 10, 2015

Katrina remembrance, part 2

Much like Katrina relief in general, it has taken longer to get back to finishing this story than it should have.  The beginning is the previous post from last week,  Katrina remembrance, part 1.  So as I was saying . . .

The bus began to move as Charles followed the convoy under the overpass in a circular path around a temporary cul de sac created by trash, the refuse of emergency relief.  There were white plastic and paper bags, carry out boxes,  plastic water bottles, napkins and paper towels.  In the light of the bus headlights the white plastic and paper and the clear plastic bottles created an illusion of a heavy accumulation of snow, disturbed only by the tracks of our buses.  But it was only an appearance.  The illusion was shattered as the headlights flashed across the thousands of victims watching the buses circle and leave.  This was no pastoral snowfall.   This was New Orleans on Labor Day weekend after Katrina, and it was hot even at dawn.

The silence on the bus was heavy with unspoken testimonies.  In the dark of dawn underneath an interstate overpass each had boarded this unmarked bus for an unnamed destination occupied with unknown and unnamed strangers.  Many had clung to children, dragging them through the bus doors with the unbreakable grip of a fearful parent.  Their carry-on bags, holding everything they owned, easily fit under the seats.  Garbage bags are very flexible.  How horrific must the conditions be which they left behind to justify such a leap of faith . . . or desperation?

The silence lasted awhile, broken only by the sound of shifting bodies and plastic bags, quiet sighs and indistinguishable sounds that come from deep inside.  Shock best describes it.  But there was anger and sadness, fear and relief as well.  Charles pulled the bus into the truck stop/command center where we were given more bottled water and MRE's and free fuel.  The sun was up  and we were on our way out of New Orleans to Oneonta, Alabama.

We learned a few basic things pretty quickly.  It was going to be a hot day and a hot trip. Charles told us that our bus, as wonderful as it was, was overheating quickly, straining under the load we had placed on it. And the heat inside the bus, even in the early morning, was cooking the parts of New Orleans that had stuck to our riders, to the soles of their shoes, and to their bodies, as they waded and waited in the muck and the mud of Katrina for almost a week. It was a unique aroma.

We also learned what we already knew.  The southern half of Louisiana and Mississippi was torn up.  There was no electricity anywhere.  Perhaps it was our own shock, or lack of sleep, but we naively stopped at a few exits that taunted us with towering Hardee's or McDonald's signs only to quickly see that there was no one there.  But that was okay, because we had to stop anyway and let the bus engine cool for awhile.  Everyone got off the bus and walked, some smoked, some took off their shoes and rubbed their sore feet.  In the beginning the stops were quiet.  But with each stop things changed.  The indistinguishable sounds became voices and the voices spoke words, some just small talk, then more telling stories. Tommy was particularly good at getting some of the men to begin to talk, at first about nothing, but soon about everything.   Each time we reloaded the bus the atmosphere was different. Oh it was still hot and still stunk, but there was talking.  And then there was even some cautious laughing.  And then they were making good natured fun of these Alabama boys who had kidnapped them from New Orleans to take them back to Alabama, of all places.  Little Charles, who was about ten, came up and squeezed in beside me and the bananas and the water and began to tell me about his ride on the swinging cable under the helicopter. Then he just gave me a hard time for the rest of the trip.  Thank God for a bus that overheated and gave us more time to talk and to breathe.

Tommy, being a thoughtful man, realized that there was a critical issue that needed to be raised with our tour group.  This was a load of folks from the Big Easy.  They were headed to Blount County, Alabama.  Alcohol could not be purchased in Blount County, Alabama, at the time.  The revelation was met with disbelief.  I am sure many of them were longing for either a long cool or a short stout drink.  Consequently our remaining stops involved looking for the first establishment that sold liquor. We did not find a powered exit until somewhere south of Meridian.  The only open store was a cement block convenience store.  It had armed guards.  Friendly, but armed in a Mississippi sort of way at the door.  Their sales went way up that day.  And many of the plastic garbage bag carry-ons became a bit fuller and distorted by the shape of glass bottles.  But everyone seemed a little happier.

Meanwhile, back in Oneonta, folks had gotten busy.  Early in the morning Terri had launched out to find where we were going to house fifty or so guests from New Orleans.  She called the local Red Cross with whom she had worked before.  The Red Cross worker said that it was strange that she had called, because Johnny had just came by and said that his church in Oneonta (actually The Church at Oneonta was the name of it) had just decided to convert a huge part of their facility to create a shelter for Katrina victims if Red Cross became aware of any who needed shelter.  It could house about fifty.  Terri chased Johnny down and booked the beds for our bus load.  I cannot tell what all happened in Oneonta while we slowly made our over-heated bus tour of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that long Saturday.  But I can give testimony to the results.

Charles pulled up to Lester Memorial UMC parking lot late Saturday afternoon.  Standing in the parking lot to greet us were twenty or thirty Oneonta folk, from all different churches, at least half African American.  About ninety percent of our busload were African American.  About two percent of Oneonta is African American.  So the folks who had been working all day to prepare for our arrival decided to make our guests as comfortable as possible, even paying attention to the racial make-up of the greeting party. The were a couple of law enforcement officers there too, welcoming us as we arrived, with smiles on their faces and outstretched hands.  Hands that welcomed rather than carrying out the advisories that storm victim's clothes and belongings should be immediately confiscated and quarantined, and that humans should be directed to public showers before doing anything else. Many folks who had worked all day to get things ready voluntarily left before the bus arrived so that the crowd would not overwhelm the storm victims. They all understood that there had been too much overwhelming in these folks lives already.  We walked into the fellowship hall.  It had become a mall, outfitted with everything our visitors might need.  A department store of new clothes, shopped for and purchased by volunteers according to the extremely rough list of sizes and needs made by T.J., Tommy and me on the bus ride home.  There were doctors, nurses and pharmacists.  There were computers set up with internet. There wee Red Cross and social workers.  And there was food and drinks and folks to serve it. Not alcoholic, but drinks with church ice.  Church ice is the best.  Real dinner would be served later.

We gathered our guests in the contemporary worship chairs and formally welcomed them to Oneonta. I told them of the advisory that their clothes should be gathered and destroyed, trying to be sensitive to what they had been through.  Once again they laughed at me, asking how quickly could they undress.  Volunteers took individuals or families to their homes, or to hotels, and gave them a place to shower, dress in their new clothes, and rest for awhile.  Then it was back to Lester for a dinner.  A great dinner, even by New Orleans standards. Afterwards goodbyes were said and good, clean beds were found for all.

And that was just the beginning of the adventure that came from New Orleans to Oneonta, Alabama, on Labor Day weekend, 2005.  In the next few weeks and months volunteers provided transportation for many of our guests to relatives homes' in other parts of the countries, helped wade through the FEMA paperwork, helped find employment, found houses and apartments and furniture, cooked and served meals, continued to work at the shelter at "The Church,"  and did whatever needed to be done.

And our friends from New Orleans became part of Oneonta forever, no matter how long they actually stayed.

There is so much more to the story.  Most of it I don't even know.  But twenty four hours after we got back from the first trip we made a second trip to New Orleans to pick up another bus load of guests.  It was a crazy Labor Day trip with my son Benjamin and Charles, and the U. S. Army and the Louisiana National Guard,  and hundreds of sport fishermen on a volunteer rescue mission, a time I'll never forget., but the story is too long.  You can ask me about that sometime. And it ended pretty much the same as the first story.

After the Gulf Coast came to Oneonta, Oneonta went to the Gulf Coast to work in clean up and repair.  The groups I went with were from Lester Memorial.  We cleaned out mud and muck, hauled out furniture and appliances, tore out walls and floors, sprayed hundreds of gallons of mold killer on bare frames of houses and more on ourselves, sheet-rocked and floored and painted and got lost and became at home on the floors and in the halls of two or three churches from Ocean Springs to New Orleans.  And laughed and cried.  We kept going back for three or four years.  We didn't finish.

And the job still isn't finished. 

Whether it be in New Orleans or anywhere else in the world where God's children are hurting or in need as a result of the storms of life.

So get on the bus Gus.  There are always folks who need a ride.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Katrina remembrance, part 1

It has been ten years.

We watched with a collective sigh of relief on Monday of that week. We were told that  this hurricane, which had weakened as it tripped over Florida, then strengthened to a monstrous Category 5 juggernaut in the middle of the Gulf, had now diminished to a Category 3 storm shortly before landfall along the Louisiana-Mississippi Gulf Coast. We knew it would still be destructive, but not the unthinkable apocalyptic force that we had feared.

But the sigh of relief quickly became a gasp.  And then hyperventilation.

The levees had failed. New Orleans was under water. And so were thousands of people.

Every morning that week we would turn on the news and watch as the stranded crowds at the Super Dome grew, waiting for help to come.   At night WWL-AM would broadcast continuous phone calls from those left in New Orleans, giving advice and seeking help from way down yonder in New Orleans.  Each day the numbers would swell as citizens struggled to swim and slog their way from their submerged homes to higher ground downtown, some being plucked from their rooftops at the end of a cable attached to a helicopter.  The news anchors and reporters would explain that help was on the way, that buses were coming to the rescue.  But after a couple of days it seemed that even they did not believe what they were reporting.  The whole country was watching in disbelief as no help came to the desperate Americans.  A city of a million or so was drowning in front of our eyes and no one was doing anything about it.

So Friday afternoon, I went to church.  That's what we do when we don't know what else to do, isn't it?  When I walked into the church office area at Lester Memorial UMC I was surprised to find my nephew, T. J. , already there.  For the same reason. 

"I'm going to New Orleans, " he said.

"I'll go with you," I said.

So for the next hour or so we got on the church phones looking for a bus to charter.  T. J. found one in Mississippi, owned and operated by Charles.  I think it was the last available bus east of the Mississippi.  Charles said he was ready to go.   David, the pastor at Lester, told us to go on, the church would underwrite our charter.  T. J.'s dad Tommy, my brother-in-law, after hearing of our proposed adventure, said he would go too.  I am pretty sure he just went to make sure we knew what we were doing.

We did not. But it was better than sitting at home and watching the TV, even if Katie Couric was still on the Today Show. So we jumped in the cars and headed west.  We were to meet Charles in Meridian at about eight o'clock Friday night and figure things out as we went.

We decided, being the sensitive folk that we were, that if we were able to pick up any folks in New Orleans that they would be hungry and thirsty, so we stopped and bought some fruit, cookies and crackers, and a few cases of water.  Charles showed up with his bus as promised.  I remember that we ate at a Chinese buffet restaurant before we left Meridian.  My fortune cookie read "The storms of life will not overcome."  Yeah, I know that's kind of corny, but it really did.   We locked our cars and loaded the bus.  Then we headed south out of Meridian in the excellent hands of Charles at the wheel of his bus..

As we headed south the lights of civilization disappeared.  I never really thought of Meridian as a light shining on a hill, the height of civilization, but, it was at the time.  It wasn't long before we began to see the devastation of Katrina.  The southern half of Mississippi and Louisiana were  dark.  There were no lights of convenience stores or fast food restaurants at the exits.  No lights from houses or farms dotted the landscape.  Then we turned west because New Orleans was inaccessible from the East. The Louisiana State Highway  was reduced  to a single lane.  The trees of the pine plantations had been broken in half and splintered like toothpicks, many of them lying across the road, for miles and miles, a path having been cleared by chain saws.  This was still fifty or so miles north of Lake Pontchartrain.   The bus ride was quiet.  There simply were no words.

We turned back south to approach New Orleans from the West.  There was almost no traffic.  It was close to midnight by then.  Then there were lights. Bright, bright lights.  The civilian and military authorities in charge had taken possession of a truck stop to prevent folks (like us as it turned out) from going into New Orleans.  We pulled in, still not knowing what  we were going to do. Generators were humming and personnel were scurrying.  It was hard to find someone in charge, but Tommy finally found someone to talk to.  We were told that no one was going into New Orleans for any reason and we probably would not be taking anybody out. They had serious looking weapons.  We explained that we had a fine bus and would be willing to take people out of New Orleans and back to Alabama, but the officer in charge was not impressed, but he said we could wait around if we wanted.  And so we did.  We took turns standing outside the bus in case anyone changed their mind.  We took turns dozing in the bus.  There were four other buses there. Five buses total.  We wondered where all those other buses that were "on the way" were located.  Turns out there were no more that night.

At about 4 a.m. we were told to get in our bus and get in line with the other buses and follow a military escort toward New Orleans.  No other explanations.   We were not sure what we were doing.  But at least we were heading in the right direction.   But it did not look like New Orleans, a city where the lights are never turned out.  Now there was nothing but inky, eerie darkness. The buses slowed and a military man slapped Charles' window and yelled not to open the door until he was given the word.  In the big windows of the bus faces started appearing, shadowy images passing by in the darkness like flipping through the pages of an old Life magazine full of black and white photographs.  At first there were just a few. All ages, all with looks of desperation and fatigue in the pre-dawn darkness.  Then there were too many to count, and the sound of hands slapping at the side of the bus broke the silence.  Finally we stopped under an interstate overpass just south of the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge.

Charles was told to open his door.  When he did humanity poured into the bus like water into an empty bucket. Families struggled to stay together as they strained to fit through the crowded bus door jammed with desperate storm victims.  Charles was supposed to be counting. He knew how many his bus could carry.  T.J., Tommy and I directed our passengers down the aisle of the bus, filling all the seats and finding places for the garbage bags that held all of their earthly possessions.  Finally Charles closed the door. Reluctantly.  He was the one who had to look into the faces of those straining to get on his bus.  He was the one who couldn't close the door until his bus was about eight over capacity.

The bus was facing east and you could see the glow of dawn on the far horizon.  It was around 5 a.m. I called my sister Terri and told her we had between fifty and sixty folks in our bus that needed to be taken care of and we were headed to Oneonta.  That gave her about six hours to figure out what to do about that.  We had other things to deal with on the bus.

Tommy and T.J. elected me to speak to our new guests.  Everything was quiet. I told the quiet riders that this bus was headed to Oneonta, a small town in north Alabama, where they could be taken care of.  I told them that we knew that they may have thought all buses were going to Texas, and if they wanted to get off here or in Baton Rouge that would be fine.  Everything was silent for a few moments.  I could not imagine what they were thinking, what they were feeling.  Finally a lone, deep voice spoke out from somewhere in the middle of the bus.

"We don't care where the hell we're going, just get us out of here."

That was strangely comforting.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Pendulum swings . . . a nerdy post

I am fascinated by pendulums, particularly the Foucault pendulums that can be seen in the towering halls of museums and chambers throughout the world.  (I tried to make one for a science project last century). A cable is suspended from a fixed point several stories above with a heavy weighted metal bob attached to the end close to the floor.  If undisturbed the bob hangs perfectly still above its perfect point of equilibrium, that place where the natural force of gravity holds it in place.  But it seems impossible to let the pendulum rest in its perfect place. It is just hanging there, doing nothing. Who wants to watch that?  Inevitably the bob is displaced several yards or meters,  pulled back like a swing at the park to get going, and then released.  This is what folks like me, hanging over the second floor railing, want to see. The pendulum slowly swings, back and forth, back and forth, passing its point of equilibrium in the center at its greatest speed.  It continues to swing, back and forth, constantly pulled by the force of gravity toward its point of equilibrium.  But the momentum of the weighty bob defiantly carries it past that point. It swings to the opposite side until the pull of gravity matches its momentum, where it seems to pause for a moment, then swing back in the direction from which it came, flying past the point of equilibrium and back to where it started, pausing, and starting the whole thing over again.  This goes on for a long, long time, much longer than I have to stand and watch. It is all as a result of that original displacement from the natural point of equilibrium.

There is another twist to a Foucault pendulum.  If the cable is long enough (that's why they are located outside or in multi-story halls), it is possible to observe another movement of the bob. The path of its back and forth course changes slowly.  For example, at some point, if the pendulum continues to swing, its path will become perpendicular to its original path, and then slowly move back to its original path.  The change in the path is due to the rotation of the earth.  Cool, huh?

When watching a pendulum it is easy to believe that the natural state of the structure is the movement of the bob, back and forth, back and forth, and that if it ever stops swinging it must be displaced again, to resume its familiar movement. It is easy to believe that the bob will find equilibrium only if it swings back and forth, from one side to the other, until it finds its proper place.  But the truth is, the back and forth is a result  of a disruption of the natural state of the pendulum, of being at rest in its point of equilibrium. The back and forth is merely visual evidence of the power of gravity and the fixed point, constantly pulling the bob back to its proper place, never letting the bob fully escape its grip.

I like it when the pendulum is displaced and I can watch it swing..

But in this world of humanity the pendulum seems to be swinging from extreme to extreme wildly. As it is moved by this displacement it is then subject to other pulls of this world that change its path.  The point of equilibrium is only a blur as we go screaming by at break-neck speed.  We pull against the other, displacing our world from its perfect place, as if we can win the contest with brute force, as if the bob will come to rest not at the point of equilibrium, but at the unlikely point at the extreme to which we, in our own interest, have pulled it.

But we can't.

When we exert power over another in any way, it is only temporary. The pendulum will swing. And, unfortunately, it will not stop at the point of equilibrium. The power of the other will pull it to the other extreme.  And so on and so on.

And the truth is just a passing blur.

Until we stop pulling against each other.

You go first . . .


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Listen for the bird songs. . .

Saturday. Sofa. Coffee.

 I stepped outside early this morning for no particular reason other than I could not sleep any longer.  The sun was still tucked under the covers of the eastern horizon.  Even so,  the sky was slowly lightening and the birds were tuning up.  They seem so loud early in the morning while things are still and grey, as if they are out of place, ahead of their time, prophesying that yes, another day will begin soon, no matter how unlikely or undesirable it may seem as we escape from our yesterdays under the warm, dark covers.

In times like these, it is helpful to listen for the songs of the birds.  Sometimes the songs are painfully annoying, sometimes peacefully soothing, sometimes solo, sometimes choral, sometimes melodic, sometimes just plain awful.  Sometimes it seems as if the songster is perched on your shoulder, allowing no escape from its message; other times it is so faint that this most quiet song is the one that finally makes you get up to follow its sound until you can hear it clearly.

Sometimes it seems like the darkness of night will not end.  The light of dawn is reluctant to rise. But even in the darkness, the birds begin to sing. 

Maybe the events of the past few weeks seem too dark for hope to survive.  And there is no doubt there is darkness on display:  violence, injustice, hatred, greed, corruption, prejudice, racism, hypocrisy and, the list cannot be exhaustive, just exhausting. You know the darkness. We all know the darkness. The darkness of the big world around us. Or maybe we are dealing with a more personal darkness.

But while we are yet in darkness, the birds sing.

Listen for their songs. They may seem insignificant.  But the birds still sing in the darkness, promising, prophesying of a new and better day.

It's a beautiful Saturday morning, so get up and get out.

The birds are singing.

Join them.


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