Tuesday, September 26, 2006

My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys

This past weekend was the anniversary of Hurricane Rita. (On an inconsequential note, it was also the anniversary of my first post on this site. Rita received slightly more national attention.) On hearing that the commemoration would include a cattle drive in Cameron, led by General Honore, I knew right away that I had to be there. To be honest, I thought maybe I could put together a longer piece tying together stories of Rita and stories of Katrina, looking at the events of the past year in a larger essay about the two very different communities affected by the storms of '05. I was hoping, immodestly, that I might even be able to sell such a piece (now, the four of you know you're my only real readers, but I have to admit that I do sometimes fantasize about seeing other people; it's not cheating if it's just in my head, right?). Alas, the longer piece was not to be (at least not yet), so you'll have to settle for my vague impressions in this forum. Tant pis.

The cattle drive was scheduled for 9 a.m., at the corner of Trosclair and Jimmy Savoie roads. When I asked directions, my father told me just to go to the end of the earth and hang a right, which ended up being surprisingly accurate.

Cameron is due south of Lake Charles, which is where I grew up. It's the Parish seat for Cameron Parish, the largest parish in Louisiana, running along much of the western Gulf Coast of the state. The people of Cameron Parish are largely fishers and shrimpers, oil and gas workers, cattle ranchers and farmers. As I drove down from Lake Charles, I was having a hard time imagining these people at the center of a national media event. I needn't have worried.

I stopped at the Boone's Corner convenience store for my morning coffee. Several older guys in camouflage baseball caps were milling about, heckling each other and the bemused woman behind the counter:
"You going down there?"
"Yeah, he's going. He's gotta talk to the governor."
"Gonna get you a free hotdog?"
"I got some ducks to pick up. That's the only reason I'm going."

Clearly these were men with a proper sense of perspective.

Along the route, the marshy prairies stretched out low and wet and wide, and I remembered taking long drives out along these roads to work off some of my teenage angst. Not many buildings on the horizon, but then there never were that many buildings to be seen here. Where there had been homes, though, now there were only slabs or piers. On empty lot after empty lot, only the concrete steps the once led to the front porch remained. By some estimates, as many as 90% of the homes here were destroyed. If you want a strong visual, check out the beach photos from what was once the Cajun Riviera, Holly Beach. Acres of beachfront camps were tossed aside, disappearing in the marshes or raked back into the gulf. I once spent a 4th of July down at Holly Beach, swimming and crabbing, setting off bottle rockets. I remember a parking lot full of pickup trucks parked around a local bar, the cajun crowd overflowing into the lot, supplementing the music from the bar with their truck radios. The good news, which I heard repeated everywhere I went, was that there were no reported deaths resulting from Rita. The people of Cameron had learned the lessons of Katrina and had mostly wisely evacuated.

The riders were already gathering at the starting point when I arrived. There must have been 70 people of all ages on horses of varying ages and condition, warming up for the ride. A three-year-old girl rode in front of her mother. An eight-year-old had her own mount. Everyone, it seemed, wore cowboy boots, some tucked under pant legs, others, knee high, pants tucked in. I saw four or five different kinds of spurs.

The serious cattle handlers were taking their horses through their paces: a rider would suddenly make a quick dash near the cattle pen and then swing the horse around, pulling up. The true cattle horses were wild-eyed with excitement, and they whinnied from time to time all around. Ernest Broussard, the trail boss, looked the part. A big man on the ground, he's a giant on horseback, and everyone looked to him for direction. He wore a shirt advertising his rodeo credentials and a pair of the tallest boots around, and he scared the hell out of me when he dashed by, just a foot away, warming up his restless horse.

Not a single journalist was on hand for the start, although some local newspaper and t.v. reporters did show up eventually, and I saw an AP photagrapher from New Orleans later in the day. A woman with a camera asked me who I was "with." I stammered something about being an "independent journalist," which is one of the more ludicrous phrases to pass my lips in some time.

Soon the politicians began showing up: Governor Blanco, wearing flower-embroidered jeans and looking more than a little awkard in a tiny leather hat with chin tie. Her ass-skyward mount into the saddle was less than graceful, but once up there she seemed to know what she was doing. Mary Landrieu arrived in double denim and hopped on a speckled horse like she'd been doing it all her life. Then Mitch Landrieu showed up with General Honore. People largely ignored the politicians, but everyone wanted to shake Honore's hand, have a picture taken with him, tell him how much good he had done for the people there. I overheard one man telling him, "You may not remember, but that night you asked me what we needed, and I said we needed some helicopters. You turned to the guy next to you and said, 'Got that, Ford? We need two 'hooks, a Black Hawk . . .' The next morning by 9:30 it looked like Iwo Jima out there. We saved 2, 3 thousand head of cattle because of that.'" Honore was given a horse named Preacher, and he took him through a couple of parade turns before lining up with the others. Later I saw the mayor of Lake Charles on horseback, looking like a man who often wears cowboy boots on his day off. I overheard someone ask if "Chairman Powell," the Bush Administration representative for the recovery, had found a horse yet. "Yeah, he's on, but he's never ridden." David Vitter was at the ceremony at the end, but I don't think he rode--I didn't see him on the trail, and he was wearing the standard Republican casual, loafers and blue button-down, when I did see him on stage.

Fortunately, the parade of politicos headed up the drive, with the real riders hanging behind and actually managing the cattle. Being horseless, I was relegated to the rear in my Jeep. As soon as the politicians had cleared out, the gate to the pen was opened, and the cattle--horns long and short, stretched out wide or curving down--began to trot out. Almost immediately, one of the steers broke from the herd, tearing across the Trosclair Road and through the tall swamp grass on the other side. Three of the cowboys headed after it, lassos at the ready. As they circled around, disappearing in the swamp grass, the steer lurched up from the ditch and barrelled across the road just in front of my Jeep. A cowboy yelled, "Ho!" and crashed out after it, finally throwing a rope over it and bringing it in.

I must admit, this was a bit more excitement than I had expected. For better or worse, though, that was the full extent of interest for the day. After a half-hour ride that went two miles down the road, we arrived at the tents and stage for the official event, sponsored by Shell Oil and America's Wetlands. About as many people showed up for the staged event as actually participated in the cattle drive itself, and they seemed none too impressed by the speeches. I saw one woman at the drive with a poster, "I lost my cows, so I don't need your bull." Fair enough.

The politicians said what needed to be said. They made a fairly strong economic argument for restoring the Gulf Coast. But of course, they were preaching to the choir. They mentioned the staggering material losses--20-30,000 head of cattle, 80-90% of the structures--and were thankful that no lives were lost. General Honore addressed the crowd in French and said it was good to be home. I lasted through most of the speeches, ate my free hamburger, and headed back to New Orleans.

On the way back to Lake Charles, I stopped off to look at a house where I had spent part of my childhood. (You probably won't believe me, but it was just off Black Bayou. I come by my blogger name honestly.) The old clapboard house was gone, and in its place was a half-finished McMansion, straight out of the suburbs. Tant pis, indeed.


Post a Comment

<< Home