Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Back to Pearlington

This was probably the best mission/youth/church trip I’ve ever been on and I’ve been on a lot. It was almost like I had handpicked the people who came. Maybe God was feeling especially generous with me on this one.

We took a small team composed of our pastor (Anne Clifton), a contractor who runs his own mission trip each summer to Mexico (Damon Renaud), three hardy and enthusiastic college youth I’ve known all their lives (Chelsey Fields, Kyle Wilson and Stephen Cottingham), then a couple of retired geezers-Beaven and myself. Seven people is the perfect number to use a 12-passenger van. You take out the back seat at the rental place and use the back for luggage. The drive is so much more fun when everybody is in the same vehicle.

I brought a portable DVD player and we watched a couple of movies. The one we enjoyed the most was “Little Miss Sunshine” which is about your typical dysfunctional family taking a long trip in a van. Their clutch goes out mid-trip and they end up having to push the thing to start then run along side of it and hop in when it changes gear. We kept intending to try this the whole week. The closest we came was periodically Damon would start without Stephen and yell out the window at him to “Run, Stephen!”

Maybe you had to be there. But the gist of the experience is that we had a lot of laughs. We had the kind of laughs you get by trusting and loving each other.

For our third trip to the Gulf Coast we went back to Pearlington. We fell in love with the town the last trip and I’ll try to explain why.

The town, except it’s not really a town, is so small and compact that you can get a real feel for it. You can drive around in 20 minutes or less and see it all. The streets are numbered in one section so if you know Shirley Thompson on Eight Street and your project is on Ninth Street you can just walk over to check on her. It’s a poor town that was poor before the hurricane but it’s so friendly that it feels rich beyond words. The Missionary Baptist Church serves lunch to all the volunteers in Pearlington and it’s the best example of Southern cooking you will see. On Fridays they always have fried fish and it’s everything I dreamed it would be. It was only topped by the fried chicken I got on Saturday.

One day on our way back from lunch we saw a white car in a ditch. The water drainage in Pearlington is by way of deep ditches by the road. The ditches are well over three or four feet deep. They’re so deep that one time on our last trip, Ila Hitt fell in it and she just disappeared from sight. One minute we saw her and the next minute she was gone. I still laugh at the memory. My point is that this ditch was deep enough that you thought to yourself “There’s no way they can get this out.” And who do you call? Pearlington isn’t the kind of place that has AAA offices around the corner.

But what Pearlington does have is people. The poor city slickers who ran off the road were amazed when every single car that came by stopped and got out to help. After much head scratching, enough folks had stopped that they were able to just lift the car up and out of the ditch.

Our assignment this time was the best we’ve ever had: we were to build a deck for a lady named Angel. What kind of church wouldn’t be thrilled to be working for an Angel? It was a big enough job (500 square feet) to challenge us but we had enough people and enough time that we knew we could do it. And it just so happened that a deck is the next thing on my To Do list for Beaven so I was overjoyed to have him work under Damon’s expertise.

But the best part of working in this town is being able to go back to check on what you did on your last visit. On our last trip we began the drywall work on Shirley Thompson’s house but we never got to finish. It’s always hard to leave and go home if you haven’t gotten to complete your project. So one of the first things I wanted to do in Pearlington was check on Shirley’s house. And, because the town is so compact, I could just walk over to her house from where we were working. I was excited to see Shirley standing out in front of her house. And, as an added bonus, Evelyn was standing there talking to her. We did a little work on Evelyn’s house last trip—mostly just standing around trying to figure things out. We were sent to pour concrete supports for her deck but it never worked out.

I was able to talk to both ladies and get an update. I will be able to go back to Angel’s house on our next trip to see her sitting on the deck with her neighbor watching the world go by while her son plays.

She got the money for the deck through a grant. Angel ordered the deck in a kit from Lowe’s who delivered everything she was supposed to need. But Lowe’s didn’t provide instructions beyond a picture of what the finished deck was supposed to look like. So the first day Damon spent some time counting bolts and lumber to work backwards and figure out how to build it. Once he had a plan in his mind we started digging post holes. Then we mixed cement to pour for the foundation. Gradually, it came together. Rain threatened to hold us up a couple of times but it never made us stop before we were ready.

Angel had evacuated before the storm but her neighbor stayed and told us what happened. She started her story with the phrase we had already heard many times: “I was here for Betsy and I was here for Camille.” She thought she would just ride this one out like she had all the others. After the initial wind and rain stopped she went outside to look around. This was the eye of the storm. She was standing in the street when the eye passed and said the water came down the street “just like you were filling your bathtub.” They all piled into the family boat that had sat unused for years. The water got so high that the boat was at the same level as the power lines thirty feet above ground. They used the wires to pull themselves over to the school. I asked her if she lost any of her family that day. She told me they could hear her nephew screaming until he drowned. There were no tears in this story. It’s been 16 months. Maybe all the tears have been shed. But she told me that if the nephew had been with her son, he would have been able to save him. He had already pulled a grown man up out of the water.

I developed what I call my “spoon obsession.” Everybody told me the same thing: the hurricane came and just blew everything away. They would point to the woods and say their whole house had disappeared. I understood that the rubble had been bulldozed and carried away but I was sure there would be some small piece of the household left. I took more than one walk in the woods looking for a spoon or a plate or maybe a soggy videotape. I never found anything left by the hurricane. It still puzzles me. Out of entire houses full of “things” why didn’t at least a few of them turn up? Was the storm that violent that it carried things away more completely and farther than I expected? Did the people comb the woods that thoroughly in the last year, that they found every single spoon? I had heard one story of a guy who had a plastic box of his military records show up two miles from his house. Where were all the spoons?

I finally found the closest thing to what I was looking for on our last day. In Angel’s front yard I looked down and found embedded in the dirt the unmistakable shape of the metal brackets that hold the ceiling fan blade. I guess it had broken off the motor and off the wooden blade. All I could see there in the mud was the metal bracket. That was all that was left.

Next week, I’ll report on our fantastic guided tour of New Orleans. It was a lot of what I had seen on TV but now I’ve seen it in person. Everyone needs to see it for themselves.

In the meantime, I found a great blog to check out:

The thing I like about it is that is shares the news from all the different agencies working in Pearlington. I read in one blog that some people have a goal of having the town rebuilt by the second anniversary of the storm. I think that’s an attainable goal if we don’t slow down. It will be just eight months from now. When are you going?

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