August has always been a dramatic month for me.
Half a century ago, on August 28, 1963, as I sat in silence on a motionless train just outside Washington D.C., somber faces swept by like blurred images in a 35mm film run too fast: Men, women and children, framed in a rapid succession of carriage windows, speeding to hear Martin Luther King’s speak at the March on Washington.
Just 16, I was on my way to another gathering of sorts, my Yale interview in New Haven, Connecticut. My mother had decided it would be better to take the train from New Orleans, rather than to fly directly to New York. In those day, it was the more economical way to travel. An added benefit was extra time spent with her firstborn, who soon would leave the nest.
We’d been sidetracked, to let the other trains pass, and we spent the half-hour-or-so engaged in what passed for a conversation on race relations in those days.
How Sally, who — picturesquely, we thought at the time, would ask my mother before dinner, “You gonna to eat the aviators in the hull tonight?” (i.e. ‘Shall I serve the avocados cut in half with oil and vinegar in the cavity?’) — knew of the event but never even dreamed of attending. Too far away, too much money, not sure about the whole thing anyway. She’d watch it at home, on her small, black-and-white TV.
Sally had recently gained the upper hand by expressing to my father, while my mother was out of town on business, how much she loved the classic white-enamel O’Keefe & Merritt gas stove — with griddle on top, two ovens, warming and storage drawers, a fold-down cover and shiny chrome — that dominated the kitchen.
“H. K.,” as my father was known, surreptitiously gave the stove to her and replaced it with a shiny, but totally unacceptable, GE electric model, in that glaring 1960s yellow hue. Mother hated it until the day she moved out of the house. Sally was not in favor for graciously accepting the gift, delivered and installed in her apartment in ‘the projects,’ near the intersection of Louisiana and Claiborne avenues. Dad’s stock had plunged even further for what he considered his magnanimity.
The following summer, Mother bought Madewood while H.K. was out of town.
Then, like the sequence of reversals in Shakespeare’s history plays, where one ill deed begets another, Hurricane Betsy headed up the Bayou, with 150-mile-per-hour winds, on September 9, 1965, just days after I’d driven to New Haven to begin my sophomore year.
The first image I recall seeing on news reports was the mangled Werlein’s for Music sign that dominated the roof of the Canal Street Emporium. Later, I’d hear from Mother that the storm had toppled one of the towering brick chimneys at Madewood, blown down the rear of the carriage house and swept away large swaths of roof — just months after craftsmen had restored the plaster moldings in the second-floor bedrooms.
My father, to his credit, was appropriately sympathetic — from the comfort of his favorite armchair in our Metairie-ridge home.
My wife, Millie, and I, literally, were sidetracked at the Atlanta airport Marriott, which overlooks the landing strips, for four days after Hurricane Gustav in September, 2008.
We’d hopped the last flight out of New Orleans on Sunday, August 31, the day before the storm hit, on our way to a long-planned vacation, with a scheduled overnight layover in Atlanta — where we ended up staying for several days. In Atlanta, we received text messages from friends who had, ironically, enjoyed the calm and safety of Madewood during and after Hurricane Katrina, which had barely affected the house or grounds: “Roof peeling off” and “At least a dozen trees down” — before returning to Madewood to survey the extensive damages.
The longest I’ve been sidetracked was the eight weeks we spent at Madewood after Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on August 29, 2005. There was nothing to do but eat, and that we did.
Eight years later, I’m determined to lose the remaining ten pounds of the twenty-five I added during that retreat to the Bayou. My rate of loss so far, averaging 1.875 pounds per year, is not encouraging.
If only Sally were still with us. She’d know how to fix things, just as she’d fixed aviators in the hull while the nation marched forward toward Jobs & Freedom for all.