Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online
At least Aunt Rita had made the trip before, so she knew the best way, a trip that involved some county roads to get back out to the highway. It still was going to be a long trip, six or seven hours, and it would be dark before they could get to Pass Christian. Jim figured that they’d just have to get as close as they could and then find a place to park the camper for the night. That would be the best thing to prepare them for the job they had the next morning and still be able to get back to Helena that evening.
About the only thing that could be done to pass the hours was to talk. Jim didn’t know his aunt very well as most of their time together had been just for short periods and years ago, and he realized he might not have a much better chance to learn about her. As soon as the talk about the destruction of the house and the town died down a little, he decided to try and change the subject a little. “One thing I guess I never knew,” he said, “is how you wound up with a guy from Helena, Arkansas.”
“Oh, John’s not from Helena,” she said. “His family is from outside of St. Louis, and Sharon didn’t move down there until she met Floyd. John and I met at a national 4-H conference back in 1959. We were just kids, teenagers, but we hit it off pretty well. In those days a long distance phone call was a big deal, so after we got home we wrote back and forth a lot, and we decided we’d like to get to know each other better. That Christmas, John managed to talk his folks into letting him take the train up to Chicago and on to Waldenville. You could still travel by train back then, although it was getting spotty, but it worked out, and we all had a great time. The folks liked him a lot, and the next summer they let me take the train to see him. I won’t go into all the ins and outs of it, but that more or less continued until we were out of high school. John wound up getting drafted, and then got sent down to Ft. Benning. And, well, the next thing he knew the whole division was going to get sent to Vietnam, and this was before it got to be such a rathole. He got to come home on leave, and, well, to make a long story short, we decided to get married before he left. So we did, and we didn’t tell any of our folks about it until we’d done it.”
“I’ll bet that went over well,” Jim said.
“Oh, good grief,” she shook her head. “I don’t think Mom and Dad were actually all that upset about it, but Mom always had these ideas about a big wedding for me and I’d just absolutely ruined those. John and I only had a couple weeks together before he had to leave.”
She took a big breath and continued her story. “I got him back sooner than I expected, but just all shot to hell. When I saw him the first time it was already pretty clear that he wasn’t ever going to walk again, and, well, he basically suggested that we might want to think about getting a divorce so I could find somebody whole. I told him no way in hell, I married him for better or for worse and that was the way it was going to be.”
She went on to spin the tale of how she’d gotten a room and a job close to the VA Hospital so she could be with him as much as possible. She told of trying to help him recover and giving him a little more positive outlook to help him with the ugly realities they were facing. After he was more or less released – he still had to deal with the VA Hospital system from time to time – they got serious about making a future. With the help of the GI Bill and other government programs, they decided that he should go to college to learn to do something he could do from a wheelchair. Bookkeeping seemed like a good idea, and he’d concentrated on classes at a small college, while she held down a series of jobs to help keep them going. After he got his degree he managed to get a job in a small accounting agency in his home town and they were there for several years, until the place got bought out and he was left without a job.
“By this time it was the height of the antiwar bullshit,” she explained, not mincing words. “There was no way we could prove it, not that it would have mattered back then, but he was mostly shoved out the door because he was a Vietnam veteran. The fact that he was a wounded war hero meant less than nothing to the jerks who bought the place out, and I suppose, it was just as well that he got shoved out because he would have been dealt nothing but shit if he’d stayed there.”
“I’ve heard stories like that,” Jim said. “Of course, I’m too young to know any of it first hand, but I’ve been sitting around one of the local bars hearing guys say that they didn’t dare wear their uniforms home. God, that had to have made them proud to have served their country! The TV was on the news down at the bar one day and there was this story about this parade to welcome some of the guys from the Gulf home. This woman was gushing about how proud they were of the guys who had served and how everyone was supporting them, and this guy at the bar said back to the TV, ‘Good for you, lady. I’m glad to see people welcoming home the people who served and I don’t want to take anything away from them, but where the hell were you when we needed you?’ I took that to mean he was still pretty mad about the whole deal.”
“John came home before that kind of thing got very bad, but he caught a lot of it later anyway,” Rita shook her head. “But to get back to the story, we decided that it was a damn good time to get out of town. We both had come to the conclusion that we didn’t care much for winter, so we decided to look down south. We just got in the car and went looking, and, frankly, we liked Pass Christian and both John and I got offered jobs. This was a couple years after Camille, like I said earlier, so prices were down, and that helped us make up our minds. Basically, we’ve been there ever since, and we don’t have any desire to leave, even after this mess.”
More than anything else that got the story telling going, and it made the trip pass quickly. While Aunt Rita and Uncle John had mostly led a pretty quiet life, they had some adventures and had made a number of good friends in Pass Christian, and they were pretty happy with their lives even though they weren’t exactly wealthy. Of course, Jim had to counter with a few stories of his own, and over the course of several hundred miles Rita managed to pull the tale of woe and bitterness with Carolyn out of him a piece at a time. “I have to say,” she said at one point, “You were smart to have gotten out of that when you did.”
“I keep telling myself that,” he said. “But then I must not be real smart, because if I was smarter, I wouldn’t have gotten myself into the mess in the first place.”
“You don’t always know what’s coming,” she told him. “After all, we went to Pass Christian after Camille tore the place up pretty badly, so we always knew it was possible, but big storms like that only hit rarely, and we figured that Camille was a once in a lifetime affair. Well, we figured wrong, and we should have known better. Maybe we should know better than to want to go back, but it’s what we really want to do.”
They talked about other things as they stopped for dinner, then sped on south. A line from City of New Orleans came to Jim, “through the Mississippi darkness, rollin’ down to the sea,” which is what they were doing, although not on a train. They made better time than Jim was expecting, and they were getting close to the coast when Rita suggested that they might not want to go much farther tonight. “We’re into the area Katrina tore up pretty badly,” she said. “You just can’t see it from here. It’ll get worse as we go farther, and you’ll want to see it. It’s amazing how much better things are here only a few miles inland than they are right on the coast.”
That was good enough for Jim; there was a truck stop close to where US-49 crossed Interstate 10, and he pulled into the back and parked among a group of semis. They got out of the cab of the pickup, walked around a little to stretch their legs, then got into the camper. Jim had left the heater on inside, although not all the way up, so it was nice and cozy. He unrolled his sleeping bag on the top bunk, and Aunt Rita curled up on the lower one in the blanket Jim had brought, and another one she’d brought from Helena on his advice. It didn’t take long for them to get settled down. “Jim,” he heard from below him as he was falling asleep.”
“I know there may not be much you can do, but at least listening to me has helped me feel better. Thank you.”
“No biggie,” he said. “We may not see much of each other, but that doesn’t mean we’re not still family.”
It was still pretty early the next morning when they began stirring, and just starting to get light outside, not that it was easy to tell from the inside of the camper with the drapes drawn. He rolled over to get a look outside, but all he could see from the little window was a hint of the big semi sitting next to him, and the fact that it was just starting to get light. Even that was hard to tell in the big floodlights of the parking lot. His rolling over must have alerted Aunt Rita, because he heard her say softly, “Are you awake, Jim?”
“More or less,” he replied. “I tend to be a slow starter.”
“I am, too,” she said. “I guess I’ve been awake for a while. I can’t help but be concerned about what we’re going to find when we get there.”
“Then I suppose we’d better be getting up and finding out,” he said. “No point in putting it off.”
Jim was feeling a little grubby – he was still wearing the same clothes he’d been wearing since Monday, but he didn’t feel quite up to changing them in the cramped camper box with Aunt Rita there. They headed inside the truck stop to use the facilities and grab some breakfast, and Jim managed to change clothes in the restroom. He would have liked to used one of the showers in the truck stop, but knew she was waiting so didn’t bother. They had a good breakfast, then headed south into Gulfport.
Almost from the moment they pulled out of the parking lot Jim could see that Aunt Rita was right: the place was a mess. There was still debris all over the place, although the roads had been cleared. Here and there, they could see evidence of cleanup, of places being fixed up, but it all looked pretty bad. It was like looking at the remains of tornado damage – Jim had been through that one and had worked at others – but it went on and on, and got worse the farther they went. Rita had them go down I-10 for a few miles, but then had them turn off onto a road that led them into Pass Christian. By the time they got close to the beach, the place looked even worse than he’d seen on TV, because TV couldn’t take in the full sweep of destruction the way the eye could. Now, he was there, and it was real.
One of the things that caught Jim’s eye was the trees. There were a lot of them down, but others had managed to ride out the storm somehow. While smaller bushes still had some leaves on them, many of the standing tree trunks had had leaves and sometimes whole branches blown off of them, leaving the remnants of the trees looking naked. They were not naked in the way that a northern tree would look in the winter, but stripped unwillingly. Jim wondered if any of them would have leaves on them next spring.
Though Rita said there was a shorter way, she had Jim drive down to the coast road, Beach Boulevard, to see the worst-hit area. At least the road was open, although there were clearly signs of debris having been pushed back out of the way to clear it and even then there were places the road was limited to one lane. Everywhere there was destruction and total devastation. Hardly a building was left standing, or at least still standing in a place that looked like where it should have been. Debris was still everywhere, sometimes in piles, sometimes just scattered about – the storm surge had been several feet over the road, although spotty in places. It was hard to say why one place had been totally destroyed, another only damaged, and a few places, but only a few, seeming relatively untouched. Apparently, Jim thought, hurricanes were as whimsical about the damage they caused as tornadoes were – they just caused more damage in all.
After a while, Rita had them turn away from the beach. There were a few businesses open here and there, but many more had been partly to totally destroyed. There was evidence of an effort to rebuild going on – Jim could see reconstruction going on in places, and could see sort of a tent camp where volunteers were staying to help with the cleanup. There were trailers here and there, apparently being used as temporary offices and the like. Jim wanted to say something like, “Jesus, what a mess,” but couldn’t bring himself to say anything because he felt like words weren’t quite enough.
“It looks like it’s getting a little better,” Rita said hopefully, words that Jim could hardly believe. “You should have seen it right after the storm. It was really bad then. At least it looks like there’s been some cleanup done. We might as well get over and see if we can get to the house.”
Jim drove as Rita gave him directions. There were signs of places being cleaned up, and of debris being removed, although there was still a great deal spread around, and it looked as if it would take an army years to haul it all away. “They really have got a lot of the streets cleared up,” Rita said as they drove down one street, which looked to Jim to be a fairly main one. “There was a house sitting right about here when John and I came to look the last time, and we couldn’t get around it. We managed to get a little closer on the next street over, but there was a pile of debris that blocked our way, and I had to leave John and walk from there.”
It was still a ways farther until Rita told him to turn at the next corner, if they could get down the street. It turned out they could – it had been cleared, although only one lane wide. Amazingly enough, there were still some trees standing here, although many were down. Debris was still everywhere, looking like it had just been shoved back rather than actually cleared. “Not too much farther,” she said. “If you can find a place to park, you better pull in when you can.”
Jim found a section of street not too much farther on that had been bulldozed a little wider than what they had driven on to get here. He pulled the truck into it, and they got out. “Right over there,” Rita pointed across the street and up it a way. “That’s where our house was.”
He looked around. Debris was everywhere, and Rita was pointing at the biggest pile of it in a couple hundred yards. It didn’t look like it had been pushed there, but dumped there by the storm. There was no rhyme or reason to it. Right in the middle of the whole pile was a complete tree lying on its side, with some branches still attached and its roots hanging free, but half buried under the rubbish. “Under that tree?” Jim asked.
“Yes, I don’t know where it came from, it’s not one of ours,” she said. “I can’t even imagine how it could have gotten there. It must have been pushed in by the storm surge and wind, and that had to have been quite a sight if you could have lived to see it. As far as I know, no one who lived on this street and tried to ride it out survived. The water had to have been, well, over our heads, I can’t really guess how deep. Deep enough for that tree to have floated with its branches hanging down, anyway.”
“You’re saying that the debris isn’t from your house?”
“I don’t know. There may be some of our house under all that junk, but I doubt it with that tree there. But I don’t know for sure. I haven’t tried to dig into the pile to see. It’s bad enough to just stand here in the street and look at it.”
“Well, let me poke around a little and get a closer look,” Jim said. “Why don’t you see if you can pick out where your lot lines are, and see if you recognize anything.” He headed back into the mess to get a closer look at what was there – and at least partly to see if he could tell what was under the tree.
Jim spent probably half an hour poking around the lot, looking at this and that, and trying to get a feel for the pile of rubbish. Most of what he could see was relatively small stuff, but there were parts of houses and who knew what, all jumbled in tightly together. Almost all of it was unidentifiable, other than to say it was lumber and things that had once been parts of houses, and quite clearly not the same houses. There were other things mixed in, toys and household goods and even a small car that had been battered and crushed almost beyond recognition.
It was, as his eye had first told him, one hell of a mess. The lot was clearly worse than others in the neighborhood, some of which only had scattered trash spread around them. From the top of the pile he could see the slabs where houses had once stood, but had been washed away. Most of the houses in the neighborhood appeared to have been slab-on-grade construction, something that was rarely done in the Spearfish Lake area, except for some commercial buildings. Frost back at home went deep enough that houses had to rest on solid footings below the frost line, something that wasn’t an issue here in the balmy south where the temperatures rarely went below freezing and then not far, nor often. It was still fairly early in the morning and he was comfortable in a flannel shirt; at home he would have had to wear a heavy jacket and a hat and gloves.
Cleaning the lot up was going to be one hell of a job – there was no doubt about that. But it wasn’t a job that couldn’t be done. Yes, there were truckloads of stuff here that would have to be hauled away, a good many truckloads – but it could be done, in fact, clearly had been done in other areas they had passed. It would be a heck of a big job without heavy equipment, say one of the loader-bucket backhoes that he used in the summer, but a pair of hands or two or three could do most of it, given time. Well, except for the tree. That was going to be a big job – but a good healthy chainsaw could take care of that problem once some of the debris had been cleared away to get to it. There was nothing to cleaning up the lot that couldn’t be done or that he couldn’t do, by himself if it came down to it – at least given the time to do the job.
It wouldn’t solve the problem for Rita and John, but it might make things go a little easier. What was more, if he was to come back down here, maybe he could poke around some and make things happen that Rita apparently hadn’t had the time or the heart to do. After all, she didn’t want to leave John alone that long with his sister, and that Jim thought he could understand – he didn’t think he’d want to spend much time with her, either.
But how could he do it? Mostly, just do it, he thought. He could come down with the camper again and set it up on jacks in the yard after clearing a spot for it. They’d start hauling stuff off in the pickup, to wherever they were dumping debris like this. He could bring some useful tools, like chainsaws, come-alongs, rakes, and shovels, a few other things. It would take time – but right now, he had a couple months worth of that and not much else to do but sit in the fish coop and wait for the walleye to bite.
Could he do it? From atop the side of the tree, he looked around the lot and realized that he wasn’t not going to do it. He didn’t know Rita and John that well, but they were family and in need, after all. He might not be able to do much for them, but at least he could do something.
He climbed down from the pile and looked around again. Yes, it would be a big job, but it was one that could be done. He realized that he’d have to go back home to get the tools he needed, get a few more clothes and things to be able to stay here that long. And maybe someone like Bob Coopshaw could be talked into coming down and pitching in for a while – two sets of hands would be better than one, especially for dealing with some items.
Finally, he went back over to the truck, where Rita was waiting for him. “I couldn’t find anything I was sure was ours,” she told him. “I didn’t expect to anyway, but at least I looked a little more carefully this time. It looks pretty bad, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, pretty bad,” he said. “But it’s nothing that can’t be fixed. It’ll look better in a month or two.”