Wednesday, May 21, 2008

One Danged Classy Antidote for the Blues


I spent my last stint at work at my employer's Boothville, Louisiana base. Boothville is very near where Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August 2005. The buildings at our base were among the few that remained standing after Katrina. The few homes that survived had water up to the rooftops.

It was the first time that I'd driven back to Boothville since that fateful storm season of 2005. Although perhaps 70 percent of the pre-Katrina residents have moved back to Plaquemines Parish in the last couple of years, the business infrastructure is still skimpy. It's sad to see ruins of houses and businesses and realize that those buildings in many cases represented the hopes and dreams of an entire family.

All of our local employees at the Boothville base lost their homes. That's why I try not to whine over losing a mere automobile. (We pilots had time to evacuate the helicopters, but not our cars.) It was sad to note that some of the local folks never came back, and that I might never see them again.

One night, I got a bad case of cabin fever after work. I didn't feel like cooking for myself, and I just wanted to get away. I got in my car and drove the hour and ten minutes north to Belle Chasse.

I drove along Highway 23 with the window open, Steppenwolf blasting from the speakers. Then, a strange thing happened: sadness jumped me and bit me squarely on the ass.

Now, I've never been one to shy away from sadness. In fact, when I know it's there, I tend to confront it and explore it. But I'd been ambushed. I felt utterly unprepared for the onslaught of blue.

Looking back, I shouldn't have been surprised. I'd been feeling more homesick than normal, which perhaps was prompted by the fact that Dylan and Rhonda both seemed to have a harder time than normal with me going away. There was the quasi-ghost town feel of Boothville and the surrounding communities. And then, within weeks of each other, two of my coworkers had died.

Jim was in his late forties. I'd been somewhat of mentor to him as he moved into our larger aircraft and the IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) program. He was a big, gregarious guy, quick to laugh, and quick to tell a story. He died of complications of colon cancer.

Bill was in his late fifties. I didn't know anyone who didn't like him. If I could have flown with him every day, I might have volunteered for a pay cut: he was that good, and that likable. He died of leukemia.

Both of the guys occupied that strange netherworld between acquaintance and friend. It's a realm, I suppose, so often occupied by coworkers we like but don't see on our time off.

All I knew at that moment was that I'd miss them.

I ejected the CD, and drove the rest of the way with no sound other than that of the road meeting the tires. I had dinner in Belle Chasse. I left half of it on the plate. I didn't have much appetite. I went to a supermarket to buy provisions for my remaining days at work. As I ambled through the aisles, I began to notice that people seemed intimidated by me.

That's not usually the case. Although I'm just shy of six-five, and I weigh in at 240, I've always considered it a responsibility to avoid intimidating people. I try to come across as a friendly guy. I hate bullies, and I sure as hell don't want to come across as one. Besides, when you're a big guy, folks are quicker to pull a weapon.

I came to a display of sunglasses, and looked at my face in a mirror. I nearly stepped back. I looked like a guy who hated the whole world. No wonder people were shying away from me.

I loaded the groceries in the car, and began the drive south on Highway 23 to Boothville. I pushed the Steppenwolf CD back into the player. Two minutes later, I ejected it again.

Twenty minutes into the drive, my mood was still in the cellar. Then, I came upon a pickup, driving below the speed limit. A light came on in the cab, and I saw a woman hold a map up to the driver, a man. They both laughed and squeezed each other's arms for a moment. They were married, no doubt about it.

I held on to the laughter and the warmth I'd seen between them. It made me feel a little better. I pulled into the left lane to pass, and as I neared their rear bumper, I spotted a sticker. It said:

I'M HUNG LIKE EINSTEIN,
AND SMART AS A HORSE.

At first, I just chuckled. I thought about those words a little more, and soon, I was convulsed with laughter. Tears flowed too. Maybe they were coming from a different place than the laughter, but I didn't care. It all felt good, and it all felt right.

After I collected myself, I turned the air conditioner off, rolled down the windows, and pushed the Steppenwolf CD back into the player. Every few minutes, I'd think about that bumper sticker, and laugh again.

A juvenile sense of humor can be just the emotional balm a guy needs.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Laughter can be such a healing force!

(and yes, you had me laughing by the end of this!)

~Kelly

David said...

Hal,

Funny how laughter can pull the cork outta that bottle and let us get loose of the stuff inside, if just for a little while.

Loved the bumper sticker.

David

Bob Barbanes said...

I worked out of the Venice base for nine of the thirteen years I was with PHI. Believe me, even during its best days Boothville/Venice could give *anyone* the blues.

Even the commute was bad. There's a refinery on Hwy 23 in Belle Chasse that emitted an odor most foul. Every time my carpool buddy and I would pass it we'd go, "Well, there's another five years off our lives."

Personally I'm glad I got out of there when I did. I've never been a good candidate for suicide, but I think it might have been different if I'd stayed.

debby said...

I love bumper stickers. I once saw a bumpersticker that read, "If it wasn't for marriage, men and women would have to fight with total strangers."