It’s Throwback Thursday again, when we revisit our favorite summer articles from the past. Today we’re not only throwin’ it back to a June 2011 post, but way back to Summer 1961 memories. Let’s get nostalgic.
By Jim Lestelle
Like termites, mosquitoes and hurricanes, it comes around every year, because it’s summer in New Orleans. For me, summer doesn’t necessarily mean swimming or camping or anything so self-centered, relaxing or escapist. Instead, summer brings back a surge – sorry for the metaphor, New Orleans – of memories of an event that shapes still who I am and what it means to be alive at age 61.
But why are things different this year, in 2011? It’s different because 50 summers have passed since the year 1961.
At age 10, in 1960, I was thrilled beyond measure at the thought of doing something my family seldom was able to afford: taking a vacation. My parents had arranged for us all, including my brother, to visit a great-aunt in New Mexico, a place I never could have described had I been asked, but that was nevertheless exciting to think about. To my disappointment, though, not long after the announcement, I was told that my father’s health was forcing us to cancel our plans.
The next summer, however, 1961, he told me that the opportunity to travel would indeed come to pass, that he wanted to make it up to me, so I was finally shipped off to New Mexico. My brother, five years younger, would go instead to the home of another great-aunt in Jeanerette, La. My end of the deal was the better one.
I boarded the flight at Moisant airport with my great-aunt – my first air travel. From the plane I could see my father inside the terminal wearing his typical summer, window-pane, short-sleeve, button-front shirt, topped by the wide-brimmed felt hat he always wore – felt, even in the summer. I believe he thought it fashionable, and maybe it was, in 1961 in New Orleans. He waved. I waved, though I’m certain he could see me.
After six weeks in the “Land of Enchantment” – time spent exploring caves; feeding my aunt’s box turtles, which I had not-so-gingerly learned to coax into tricks that, like a circus barker, “defied imagination”; reading; writing in a journal; visiting my uncle’s medical office – my aunt suddenly one day came to me: “It’s time to go home, Jim. We need to leave tomorrow.”
It seemed abrupt, and it certainly was disappointing. I had my own bedroom. I stayed up late to watch television. I dined frequently at the country club – something I had never known in New Orleans – where I was introduced to the Shirley Temple cocktail. But, next day, as planned, we left.
The flight home was uneventful, though it still seemed odd to be returning on such short notice. As the wheels touched down at Moisant, my aunt turned to me.
“Be sure to look at your watch so you’ll remember what time you landed.” I did. 12:15 p.m.
The taxi ride to my grandmother’s house, where my great-aunt, who was one of my grandmother’s five siblings, always stayed when she visited, made me sleepy, so right to the guest bedroom I went when we arrived. I was groggy, but I nevertheless heard my grandmother on the phone in the kitchen. It was one of those odd moments we all have, just between wake and sleep, when we understand at some basic level what is being said but really cannot act.
“Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Hmm. I see. Well, it’s all over now.” What an odd conversation.
An hour later, my mother arrived. Hugs. Kisses. After all, it had been six weeks, and I had never been apart from family that long. Quick, to the backyard with her, though. Another oddity. Why were people acting so strangely?
In her arms, she told me. “Jim, your father died.”
What? Had he really been that ill? I mean, all of a sudden? And when was someone going to tell me that he had been truly sick? Parental relationships with children thankfully are different today. Were they concerned I couldn’t have managed or understood?
The first thing that came to mind was the final image I had of my father standing in the terminal, waving – summer, window-pane, short-sleeve, button-front shirt and wide-brimmed felt hat, even in summer. Next, the tears.
At 11 years of age, what else is expected? And what was I supposed to do? This was new territory. But what I really wanted to know, for a reason I probably never will fully understand but which I think still of today, was this: “What time did he die?”
“Why do you ask?” my mother replied.
“What time did he die?”
Have you ever glanced at a clock with a second hand, just after the hand has jumped to the next second? And for some reason it appears the clock has frozen, because the span between the precise moment at which you look at the clock and the point at which the hand moves on to the next second seems far, far longer than the time span it actually measures?
That was the feeling. That’s still the feeling I get every time it’s 12:15.
This summer – 50 summers after I last persuaded those box turtles to perform, 50 summers after I launched that journal, 50 summers after those airliner wheels touched down – my brother and I will perform a New Orleans ritual to mark those 50 summers. We’ll refurbish our father’s tomb.
And who knows? Maybe we lay not flowers at his tomb, but a summer, window-pane, short-sleeve, button-front shirt and wide-brimmed hat.
Jim Lestelle is president of Lestelle Communications LLC, and a former news editor of The Times-Picayune. “I Remember New Orleans” is a summer series about memories of the city. Please submit your memories at firstname.lastname@example.org.