Wednesday, January 07, 2009

My "What I Did Over Christmas Break" paper


I’m back from a week in Port Arthur, Texas working on two houses damaged by Hurricane Ike. I’ve started the new year with a bazillion projects so I will get right to the topic.

Beaven and I had a blast. I don’t know about the two teenagers we took with us. We knew it would be a small trip when we ended up with only three kids but we told ourselves this would be an exploratory expedition to test the waters and go home to tell all their friends so we would take a huge group next year. Then one of the kids got strep throat and ended dropping out at the very last minute—too last minute to cancel the trip so it ended up being just Raelee and Mary and two old farts. You have to be impressed with them for nothing else than the mere fact that they were stuck with two old people they barely knew who were probably older than their grandparents.

We went through an organization called Southeast Texas Interfaith Organization (SETIO). The Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is still trying to get permits to move their stuff into the two camps they want to build. But we would have used SETIO anyway since they will let youth on their jobsites and PDA won’t.

SETIO arranged our work and the first morning we went to Rosie’s house. It’s actually her daughter’s house but the daughter works and Rosie doesn’t. We met her daughter, Lurleen, but Rosie was far more interesting. Even though Lurleen worked in the state prison as a secretary, Rosie still had better stories.

It's all about the stories anyway. I've watched folks come to the Gulf Coast for over three years now, helping recover from Katrina and now from Ike. They come with tools and energy, with ideas of rebuilding a whole house in a week. By Tuesday they realize they can't do it all in a week and by Friday they realize it never was about the building, anyway. It's always about meeting and talking to people. Listening to their stories of the storm and their life stories. There's something about the people who choose to live here on the edge of the land, whose neighbor is an occasionally angry ocean. They are a hearty bunch, filled with a great sense of humor and a sturdy sense of who they are and what it takes to live where they do. They understand the risks they take by living in hurricane-prone territory but they always think they're strong enough to handle whatever life gives them. Sometimes that's because they've had hard lives before and are used to it. Sometimes it's just because they are strong people.

Whoever they are and whatever they have to say, I always enjoy knowing them and hearing what they have to say. My life is always enriched by their entrance into it.

Port Arthur itself was protected by a great levee system but Bridge City, down the coast from there, took enough water to fill Rosie’s house to the ceiling.

By the time we got there, the house had been mucked and mostly gutted. Mucking is where you shovel out the four feet or so of wet mud filled with dead fish, live snakes, raw sewage and crude oil. Imagine our delight that we missed this stage. The next stage, gutting, involves pulling out the wet and moldy sheet rock and insulation on the walls and ceilings. This was right up our alley since it doesn’t involve any skill at all except a strong back.

The first thing Monday morning, Raelee and Mary started breaking up the ceramic tile floor tile floor to remove it. Then I got the phone call from our pastor who was visiting her mother in Houston. Anne wanted to work with us that day but I had told her to keep it a surprise for the girls. So I left to meet Anne at the town Walmart and when I got there I found this van in the parking lot and called Ann over to pose in front of it. I just couldn't resist.
This one will be framed I’m sure.

Anne and her family followed me back to the house to surprise the kids and we went back to work. Anne’s brother-in-law, Rich, helped Beaven pull the rest of the insulation from the ceiling. Raelee and Mary gave Susie's dogs a bath when they finished breaking up the kitchen tile. Anne’s mother, another Mary, worked with me to me wash dishes. This wasn’t just tidying up after dinner, this was dishes that ended up underneath waves of mud and muck. They all had to be washed before they could be stored. Rosie has a FEMA trailer for now and won’t have room for most of her stuff until after the house is rebuilt. So she was storing most of their things.

I have to say something about the FEMA homes now. They finally realized you can’t make people live in travel trailers for two or three years, especially the kind that has formaldehyde in them. So now they bring you what looks more like a small manufactured house. Both of the homeowners we worked for had handicapped trailers, which are bigger than the standard issue ones. Rosie’s trailer had two bedrooms but still not much floor space. This temporary housing is just a small increment better than the old style travel trailers but anything is better than those.

Rosie is dealing with a really bad back as a result of more than one car wreck. She used to drive an 18-wheeler with her husband and was in a lot of wrecks. This might indicate poor driving skills but we heard more about his poor skills as a husband than his driving. She told us she sent him packing as soon as the kids were grown because he was abusive to them all.

When we got there Monday morning she didn't move around much but just sat in her chair. She was very quiet and we could barely understand her because she spoke so softly. But after two days of getting to know us she ended up trading fruitcake recipes with Mary Clifton and telling the kids how to make tamales and how to skin an alligator. I think if we had encouraged her she would have had us all lined up making tamales. She told us stories of picking fruit and vegetables all over the south. Her family sometimes lived outdoors or in their cars. They sometimes cooked over an open fire on the ground. You can’t meet people like Rosie just anywhere. The kids in our church certainly aren’t apt to find women like her unless they venture outside their normal circles. But where else can you learn how to skin an alligator?

Monday evening, almost as though on schedule, Raelee sprained her ankle. This has become a tradition of sorts. She broke this ankle for the first time at summer camp a few years ago. Since then she’s broken it once more and sprained it countless times. This is the time I’m grateful to be working with kids in high school rather than elementary school. I knew that she knew far more about her ankle than I did so I just let her tell us what she needed to do. She knew the drill and we went through the steps of calling her mom, finding some ice and a wheelchair, buying a brace at Walmart and deciding what to do on Tuesday when we were scheduled to work all day at Rosie’s house.

So we decided to do our sightseeing Tuesday instead of Friday. We piled up in the van the next morning and drove down the coast. At Crystal Beach we found the devastation Ike left in his path. The roads were cleared but there was still cars piled up like toys on the beach. Some were buried in mud up to their windshields.
Some cars were were upside down and thrown about. We saw buildings battered and collapsed.
Then we saw the things that always startle me the most.

In the middle of gigantic upheaval there is always the flotsam and jetsam of life—the coffee cups and plates, mardis gras beads, baby dolls, clothing, mattresses: everyday items you find in every house- remnants of daily living. It was all tossed around like clothes in the drier. But there's always been one thing I couldn't get out of my mind. Where were the spoons, the most basic tool of living? I call this my “spoon obsession” and shared this idea with Mary, the teenager, not Mary Clifton the pastor’s mother. She understood what I was talking about and set about to find one. She found a softball and a plate but no spoon. Plastic spoons don’t count, I told her. Neither did the whole silverware drawer she showed me. My quest for one single spoon buried in the sand goes unfulfilled.

After giving the girls some time on the beach, Beaven took us all to Gaido’s Restaurant for dinner mostly because he was so relieved to see this venerated landmark still alive and kicking. They are famous to most Texans who have visited Galveston any time in their lives and our family always included a meal there whenever we came in the past. I think they may have been one of the first places to open after Ike. I bought a book about the storm and it shows Gaido’s serving food to the first responders. It offers white cotton tablecloths and an attentive and professional waiter who understands service. I could tell this guy had worked at Gaido's for decades.

Back at Rosie’s she kept us entertained with her stories but the girls were startled by how racist she was. She often used a racial slur and added “black” to the word. Maybe this was a common term for her. It just sounded redundant to me but it totally freaked the girls out, who could only refer to her language choice by its initials--the “BN” word. It turned out that her daughter was named after George Wallace’s wife because Rosie had campaigned for him the year she was born. The astounding thing was that, at the risk of racial profiling, Rosie appeared to be Hispanic. She had an accent and a general appearance of someone from Mexico. Her mother was from Brownsville but she said her grandmother was born in Mexico. You would think people who have been discriminated against for their race would be more tolerant toward others in the same boat.

She was still, in spite of her prejudices, a loving and generous woman. She gave us treats as well as some of food and clothing donated to her her after the storm. Sure, it was stuff she didn't want but she wanted to give us something. She was not a selfish person at all. She had stories everyone needs to hear. Especially the skinning an alligator story. You never know when you might need that information. But, by Wednesday afternoon, we finished what we could do at Rosie’s house. We exchanged addresses and promises to stay in touch.

Thursday morning we ended up at Butch and Bertie’s house in another part of Bridge City. There we found people as different from Rosie as night and day. Butch is a WWII veteran who loved to tell stories even though his voice was frail and whispery. He trailed a small oxygen tank behind him everywhere he went. After the war he worked as a welder at the Texaco oil refinery and the fumes he breathed left him with COPD that now requires the constant oxygen. But he couldn’t keep still when there was work to be done so one of our jobs was to keep him still. And that was probably the hardest job of all. Our job at their house was to move books. The house had been completely gutted except for the ceiling. They had only taken about 18 inches of water and were lucky in that their electricity was still working in the shell of a house. They had lived there 52 of the 58 years they’ve been married. So you could imagine they’ve collected a few “things.” But we still weren’t prepared for the amount of books Bertie has. About four rooms held stacks and stacks and stacks of books. For starters, she used to own a bookstore. “OK,” I thought, “this is her inventory.” But she told me these were just her own books that she has read or plans to read or even re-read. She was having trouble getting organized because the minute she saw a book she started thinking she might want to read it so she didn't want us to put that in the “throw” pile or even the “store” pile. I totally understood how she felt. I knew I would be doing the same thing with all of my books.
Bertie was also a multi-hobbied person, too. So it wasn’t just books—it was the genealogy papers, her mother's family photos, art supplies, the quilting books and her collections of tote bags, mugs and even a ballpoint pen collection. I lost track of her hobbies after a while.

Then we kept finding more and more piles of books. And in the middle of it all she told us she had already thrown away about a third of them--the ones with water damage. There were also Butch’s books, already separated out from hers and sent to the garage, mostly westerns and books on the war. I’ve never seen so many books on the war. I’ll bet he had every one ever published.

We didn’t stay very long at their house because we could see that neither Butch nor Bertie could rest as long as we were there. We finally got them to sit down and eat lunch with us on Thursday. By Friday, we were worn out ourselves. Raelee’s ankle was still swollen and my own ankle was starting to feel gimpy from standing so much. We stayed until lunch and then headed back home to Garland.

Through the marvel of electronics Raelee produced a power point presentation for Sunday morning by working a little on it each night back at the “camp/church.” It wasn’t hard to give her this responsibility since she knew more about it than I did. I’m starting to notice nowadays that some of this new stuff is easier for the kids to do than me.

Sunday morning we showed our slide presentation with a Casting Crowns song in the background. I tallied up the expenses and submitted them to the proper committee. And we’re starting to plan next year’s trip.

Come with us.

1 comment:

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