Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Cattail
Wes Boyd
2010, 2011



Chapter 2

When he was first thinking about his trip down to the hurricane-damaged area, Roger knew he could have rushed down there in a day and a half. It didn't work out that way.

What with one thing and another he was late getting on the road, and a night stop would have gotten him down to the coast around dark. If nothing else, he wanted to hit the place fairly early in the morning so he could have some light while he was looking for a place to help out. He wasn't in all that big a hurry to get to the Gulf Coast, and for that matter wasn't really clear on where he was going. This trip would take him into a part of the country where he'd never been before, so rather than rush ahead he decided to take his time and enjoy himself. With a few exceptions, like getting around Indianapolis, he stayed off the four lanes and tried to stick with the two-lane state highways. He even took the Natchez Trace Parkway for a hundred miles or so, and that was a pleasant change of pace from the four-lanes.

One of the things that his neighbor Larry had tipped him off about was that Walmarts were pretty good about letting RV'ers park overnight in the back part of their parking lots. He'd learned from Larry that staying away from campgrounds is called "boondocking," and that was pretty much how he wanted to operate. The first night he stayed in the parking lot of a Walmart in Evansville, Indiana, and the second night at the one in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.

If there was any kind of a volunteer center to guide people like him in the Katrina-damaged area at the time, he never found it. He headed south to Gulfport and started asking around. It didn't take long; by the middle of the day he was pointed toward a crew working on repairing houses in the inland part of Pass Christian.

There was no doubt that Katrina left a hell of a mess, but what the rest of the country saw on TV was mostly right on the coast, where there were places of near-total devastation. A mile or two inland things were nowhere near as bad, but most of the developed areas were right along the coast, so that made it worse. Inland, there were any number of places that needed a little or a lot of work to make them livable. It wasn't the biggest problem down there, but it was a big problem.

Roger was just a little bit surprised to discover that the crew he was pointed at was mostly Amish -- all in their uniform of black pants, blue shirts, black suspenders, and wide-brimmed straw hats, ranging in age from barely needing to shave on up through full gray beards.

He found a graybeard who seemed to be more or less in charge, explained that he was sort of a jackleg carpenter, and asked if they could use any free help. "Yah, there's more than enough to do," the Amish man replied with a smile. As Roger was getting himself organized he talked with the graybeard, who proved to be named Aaron, and found out that this group was all from near the Amish community of Shipshewana, Indiana, not all that far from Wychbold. Roger was familiar with it -- there's a big trade fair there that he and Colleen had been to on several occasions. This group was all but neighbors!

As he was getting his tools from the storage compartment of the RV, Roger pulled out his toolbox with the power tools. "I don't suppose you use Skil saws and like that," he said to Aaron.

"Nay, we don't," he nodded. "That would be unseemly, but I can't believe that the Lord would mind us nailing a board that an English had cut with one. However, power hasn't been restored here yet."

"Not a problem," Roger smiled. "There's a generator in the RV."

So Roger became the saw guy -- not that there wasn't any amount of sawing going on with handsaws. The generator only had power enough to run one saw at a time, but that was fine, since he was sawing so much lumber that the saw would get uncomfortably hot to handle and he had to change off. Fortunately, one of the saws he had with him was one that had been handed down from his grandfather. That old gray Skil would work all day and half the night -- they built tools to last back in those days, not fall apart almost immediately like a lot of the modern stuff.

Roger could quickly see that the gang of Amish didn't mess around. They worked fast, but they also did good work and wouldn't put up with anything mediocre. Roger was used to working all day -- or at least had been until he retired -- but that was mostly standing in one place and running a machine. On top of that, he realized that he must have gotten soft over the summer with all the sitting around he'd done, and by the end of the day he was just about totally exhausted.

He was putting his tools away for the night when Aaron came over. "You've been a big help today," he said. "Would you care to share supper with us? One more among a group as big as we is not a problem."

Roger was in the mood to eat but wasn't sure he had the energy to cook it, so he agreed. The two of them walked a couple blocks to what Roger guessed was a city park, where the group had set up camp. Even that had an Amish air about it -- the camp was all old wall tents and tarps, and cooking was done on a big open fire. There were several Amish women, all in their blue dresses working on dinner. They were all good cooks and put on an excellent feed -- Roger had memories of his great-grandfather telling tales of the huge meals with all the neighbors helping out at threshing days back on the farm way back when; it must have not been a lot different.

After dinner, Roger sat around talking with the Amish for a bit. It turned out that they'd already been there for several days, just working on house repairs like they'd done all day today. They'd arranged with their English neighbors for a bus to bring them down to the coast along with a truckload of supplies and tools. Other Amish had arranged with "English" -- non-Amish -- friends to have supplies trucked down to them from time to time.

As it was getting dark, Roger commented to Aaron that he was getting pretty tired, and thought he'd better head back to the RV and get some sleep. "You're going to be here tomorrow?" Aaron asked.

"No reason to go anywhere, unless you don't want me here." Roger replied immediately.

"Nay, as I said, you were a big help, and we're happy to work with you. What I was saying is that we'll be having breakfast about six and you'll be welcome to join us."

"I'll be glad to," Roger smiled.

The next day they were back at the same project, rebuilding a roof; the old one was so damaged that Aaron decided it'd be better to just rip the it completely off and start over with new trusses. Finally they got to the point where there wasn't much sawing to do, so Roger was up on the roof helping nail down shingles when Michael, one of the crew who he'd gotten to know a little, turned to him and said, "Brother, you're getting a little sunburned."

Roger had put on SPF 40 in the morning, but it hadn't held up to the sweaty job. He was wearing a baseball cap, so his balding head and face weren't too bad, but his ears were hurting, now that Michael had brought his attention to it. "Yeah," Roger told him, "Maybe I'd better crawl back down and get some more lotion on."

"That would be a good idea," Michael said solemnly, then added, "Do you know why we wear these hats?"

"Tradition?"

"There's that," Michael smiled. "But we don't use suntan lotion." Roger went and slathered more SPF 40 on and figured that was the end of that. But after dinner with the group that evening, Michael presented him with one of the traditional Amish wide-brimmed straw hats.

For the next several weeks Roger was an honorary member of the Amish crew. They did a lot of repair and rebuilding, some projects taking only a few hours, others lasting days. The women weren't just along for the ride and do the cooking; they helped the homeowners with cleaning up and things of that nature. It was a happy crew, and he was proud to be part of it.

Naturally this crew didn't work on Sunday, and that was fine with Roger, who needed a little rest himself. Besides, he soon discovered that about once a week he had to take off with the RV, find a place to gas up, empty the holding tank, do his laundry, and find a place where he could plug the laptop into a phone line so he could check his e-mail. At first he had to drive clear back up to Hattiesburg to do that, but later things improved to where he could manage it in Biloxi. Stocking up on groceries wasn't really all that much of an issue since he was eating most of his meals with the Amish.

Over the next few weeks things continued pretty much the same from one day to the next -- except that Roger developed quite a farmer's suntan under the autumn Mississippi sun and shook off the effects of a summer of not doing much of anything. Before long he was probably in the best shape of his life, at least since he'd left the Army -- swinging a twenty-ounce framing hammer all day will accomplish that, and he did it as much as he ran a Skil saw.

By the time October was drawing to a close the Amish crew was looking forward to heading back home -- not that there was any less work to do, but they had homes and farms that had to be taken care of. It had been a stretch for their neighbors to cover for them as it was. Some of them planned to come back later and stay for a while over the cold months when they couldn't do much farming. Roger was sorry to see them go, and told Aaron and the others that he hoped he might be able to work with them again sometime. Some people may consider the Amish to be a little weird, he thought, but they were the salt of the earth, and their dedication made them very heartwarming to work with.

Roger wasn't ready to head back just yet. He was enjoying himself working hard, and was pleased to see what little he could do was having an effect -- not that it counted for much in the overall scheme of things, but every little bit helped. He decided to rest up for a day or two, then find someplace else where he could be useful.

It shouldn't have been a surprise, but he found it hard to sit on his butt and relax, since he had gotten used to working again. He managed a day of sitting in the shade in a campground reading a book, but it really didn't hold his interest. He discovered from his e-mail that Erin had been TDY in Kuwait, but she was back in Germany now. Reading between the lines it seemed like she was getting serious about some guy, and both of them looked to be putting in their twenty. He'd pretty well figured that he wasn't going to be seeing Erin at home again for any length of time, but this made it seem even more real. More and more Erin and Colleen and Ford seemed to be fading away into the past.

After a day Roger packed the RV back up and headed on down to Gulfport. By now things were a little more organized, and he had some idea of who was doing what, and where that was. Without much looking he got involved in a Habitat for Humanity project that was putting up several new houses. This was a little interesting in that the houses were prefabbed by a Habitat group in New York. The houses weren't complete, but wall panels, roofing trusses, and the like had all been premade; the shell of the houses went up pretty quickly, although interior finishing took about as much time as ever.

It was really different to not be working with the Amish crew. There, everybody knew what they were doing, even the youngsters. More importantly, with the exception of himself, everybody pretty well knew everybody else, and everyone was pretty disciplined. That wasn't the case on the Habitat projects. While generally speaking the volunteers were no less committed to the project than the Amish, there were a lot of people who didn't know which end of the nail went into the board, and those who did know had to keep a pretty close eye on the ones who didn't.

One of the things with the Habitat crew was that they were understandably not as close as the Amish. Usually lunch was provided, and occasionally morning coffee, but they were pretty much on our own for the other meals. People stayed where they could; several people camped out directly on the building site, while others stayed elsewhere -- private homes, motels as far away as Hattiesburg, you name it. The days weren't quite the dawn to dusk of the Amish either, but it did get intense at times.

The biggest difference was that while the Amish crew pretty much stayed the same day after day, at the Habitat job there were people coming and going every day. Roger never really got to know some of the people before they were gone, never got much idea of some of the skills people had. In fact, he hardly ever knew how many people were going to be working until they got going in the morning, and not always then.

The group finished the first house in a week and moved on to a different site. For whatever reason, they didn't have quite as many people working on the second one, and with about half the crew again changing from day to day, Roger didn't always notice the difference. He parked the RV right on the site -- it was a good place, since he could plug into both electricity and water, which hadn't always been possible before because the service's availability was often spotty. About the third day on the house it was hot and very humid, very uncomfortable. As the day wound down people began to drift off, and as the sun was getting close to setting there were just two left on the site -- Roger and a woman who had just showed up that day. He was very glad to have that day over with and even more glad that the site had water, because when he knocked off, the first thing he did was head to the RV and take a shower. The shower stall in the RV was almost big enough for him to turn around in, and it didn't have a lot of pressure, but it beat having nothing. He pulled on shorts and a T-shirt, and went outside to sit under the awning and sip at a beer.

When he got outside, Roger noticed the woman setting up some kind of a dome tent, so figured she planned on staying the night. Thinking back over the day, he remembered her working pretty hard -- not a master carpenter by any means, but she seemed to know what she was doing. Feeling neighborly, he wandered over to where she was setting up her tent and asked, "Would you be up for a shower and a beer?"

"Good God, yes," she said, the sweat of the hot day rolling down her face. "This is November, for Christ's sakes! What the hell must it be like down here in the summer? You've got a shower in your RV?"

"It's not much," he smiled, paying a little more attention. "But you're welcome to use it."

"That would be wonderful," she smiled. At first guess he took her for about his age. She had long black hair pulled back into a pony tail. She had dark brown eyes looking out from under long bangs, darkish skin that didn't look like it was all tan, and she was a little shorter than he was, maybe five feet six or so. She wasn't thin; solid but not by any means overweight. "I'll be right over as soon as I get some clothes to change into," she continued.

She dug around in the trunk of her car, a ten-year-old Mustang, Ford expert Roger noted as he headed back over to the lawn chair under the RV's awning. One of the things that Roger hadn't bothered to throw in when he left Wychbold was lawn chairs, but he'd found a couple undamaged and unmatched ones alongside the road back in the first days with the Amish crew and appropriated them. He'd barely sat down when she walked up. "Thanks," she said. "You're a lifesaver."

"No big deal," He replied. He went inside the RV with her and showed her the setup. "It's not large, and there's not a lot of hot water, but there isn't much pressure so it's hard to run out. I'll go back outside so you can change clothes in here."

"No bother," she smiled. "Like I said, you're a lifesaver."

Roger got a Miller Genuine Draft from the refrigerator, grabbed a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, then headed back outside. He never smoked very much, but right about then he thought the weed would taste about as good as the beer. He settled back in the lawn chair, lit up, and thought about the job, what would have to be done tomorrow, and whether there would be enough people to do any of it.

He didn't pay attention to the time, but eventually Roger heard the woman open the RV's door. "Grab a beer for yourself from the refrigerator," he called out.

"You need one?" she asked.

"No, I'm OK."

A moment later she came out. She'd changed out of her jeans and sweat-soaked T-shirt into a black one-piece swimsuit and short shorts. That was revealing enough to confirm his earlier observation: she was solid, but not overweight. Her butt had avoided that spread that middle-aged women often develop; she had a decent sized chest, not too small, and not too big, which in his mind was worse -- Colleen had huge boobs, and he knew they had often been uncomfortable for her to put up with.

"That felt wonderful," she grinned. "I feel almost human again. It's been a couple weeks since I've had a real shower, and a once over from a bucket of cold water just doesn't get it after a while."

"Yeah, and the humidity doesn't help much," Roger agreed. "I swear I just saw a catfish go swimming through the air."

"No fooling," she shook her head as she sat down in the other lawn chair. "I've actually seen worse, but I was younger then and could take it better."

"Where was that?" he asked, just making conversation.

"Indonesia," she replied as she cracked open the can of Millers. She took a swallow and continued, "I spent two years there with the Peace Corps, about twenty years ago. Some of the time it wasn't too bad, but there were days when it was just downright terrible."

"What were you doing in the Peace Corps?"

"Teaching English, mostly. A lot of people there know the basics, but they're hard to understand if they haven't had a native English speaker to work with and correct them. By the way, I'm Catalina Smith."

"Pleased to meet you, Catalina," Roger smiled. "I don't think I've ever met anyone named Catalina. I'm Roger Bishop, by the way."

"I can't recall that I've ever met anyone else named Catalina either," she laughed. "I often wondered why I was named that, and it was only a few years ago that my mother came clean with me. It seems they made me in the back seat of my granddad's '58 Pontiac."

"I've heard worse names and worse reasons," he told her, thinking '58 Pontiac meant that she had to be younger than he was, although possibly not by much. "I mean, consider yourself lucky your granddad didn't have an Edsel."

"Yeah, that would be hard to handle," she laughed again. She had a nice laugh, he thought. "Are you down here on vacation, or what?"

"No, I'm retired," he told her. "Ford offered me an early retirement last spring. I'm a widower, my daughter is in the Air Force, and I didn't have anything better to do. How about you?"

"I've been off work since last spring," she explained. "See, I have a short attention span. I can only take about two years on a job before I'm so bored that I have to move on to something else, so when I'm working I save up my money so I can do what I want to do until the money gets low. I'm good till next fall, and with some temp work I might just stretch it out a bit more."

"Nice setup if you can get it," Roger replied, more than a little impressed. "What is it you do when you're working?"

"Mostly what I did in the Peace Corps, teach English as a foreign language," she said, taking a sip of her beer. "Italy, Japan, the Ukraine, Japan again, and this last time Korea. The Japanese and the Koreans pay pretty well, a lot better than the Europeans. I'm a certified high school English teacher, although I've only done a little of that in the states, just short-term subbing. I spent a year teaching American embassy kids in the Congo, and I might take a term at something like that again, but hopefully someplace that's a little more civilized. I've taught English as a second language on the community college level, and I've done all sorts of other odds and ends, too. Drove a truck for a while, showgirl in a couple places when I was younger, assistant manager at a couple resorts, hostess at a Club Med one time. I'm flexible."

Roger shook his head. "It sounds a whole lot more interesting than spending twenty-six years on an assembly line."

"Well, I intended it that way," she smiled. "I did OK in high school, but I didn't realize that I was getting burned out on classrooms until I got to college. I barely managed to graduate and get a teaching certificate. The only job I could get was as a long-term sub; the kids were hideous and didn't care about learning, like most of the kids I went to high school with. The job only lasted one semester, and by the end of it I was like, 'I'm going to spend the next thirty years doing this?' So I started looking for ideas and wound up with the Peace Corps."

They sat there talking for quite a while, mostly with Roger pulling the stories out of her since it was pretty obvious to him that she had a lot more of them to tell than he did. Spending his life at Ford Saline just didn't compare to the kind of things she had done. She'd been working on a Habitat project in Seattle, strictly as a volunteer, of course, when Katrina hit the coast. Among other things she was a Red Cross certified disaster aid worker, so she headed down to the Gulf within days. Mostly she'd been working with shelters, but according to her that got to be a drag after a while, and when they consolidated the shelter she was in she decided to go looking for something else to do. She'd worked Habitat projects before, so there she was.

"It really is a mess down here," she said. "It makes me feel good that I know I can help out a little."


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To be continued . . .

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