Thursday, September 01, 2005

New Orleans...the Beginning of My Life

Major Mike

At seventeen, I boarded a red-eye in Detroit and headed to college. A hockey bag full of clothes, my orders to my ROTC unit, and a fresh trim were all I had with me. I was leaving Michigan in the late summer, on my way to freshman NROTC orientation…about week before registration and classes beginning.

I was leaving the relative calm of a Michigan summer, because the fall promised a turmoil I wanted no part of. It was 1974, and I was not going to college at U of M…home to repeated ROTC building burnings, and nearly continuous campus unrest. I was not going to my first choice on my NROTC list either…Holy Cross put me on a waiting list…a lucky break for me.

I was headed to my second choice, for in the interim, I had decided that the northern states were not the place for me to jointly enjoy my college and NROTC experiences. I would return to the south. A part of the country that nearly without fail has supported and respected military service. I was heading to a school I had never seen, and to a city that was as foreign to me as space travel.

As I emerged from the terminal in New Orleans I was immediately showered in blinding sunlight. I was embraced by a humidity and brackish wafting, that an experienced Creole cook could likely wring a gumbo from. Breathing generated a sweat.

I immediately hailed a cab and began the trip to Tulane University…then self-dubbed…the Harvard of the South. The cabbie, at 7:00 in the morning, took a route from the airport I never took again. Later, I would come to understand he was avoiding I-10 morning traffic, but the route seemed unnecessarily circuitous. There were times during the trip that I felt I would not make it to the NROTC building…the trip along River Road does not give the unfamiliar passenger a comfortable feeling that he will arrive at his destination.

The winding trip along the Mississippi River levee was an introduction to the neglected and poorer areas of the western edges of the city. Level porches and plumb walls were as rare as a fresh coat of paint. Rust was feeding on rust. Corner bars managed to flicker one in five neon signs. And those visible at such an early hour were uniformly dressed in wife-beaters, dirty long trousers, suspenders, and the occasional straw hat. To a middle class, suburban Detroiter, I had just been beamed to Mars.

At no point during the trip did I have the feeling that I would actually arrive at the University. I wasn’t overly concerned for my health and well being, but I was pretty certain that Tulane was not located in this third world country I was traveling through. So, I figured when the cabbie had driven my $20 worth, I would be left on my own to learn the language, retrace my way to the airport, and then return home. Instead the cabbie stopped on Ferret St. and pointed to the east…I had arrived, intact, to the rest of my life.

Aside from the continuous, overbearing embrace of the world record level of humidity, I would soon be embraced by a unique and wonderful tribe called the Marines. Midshipman Schneider greeted me at the door, and I was grateful to hear that I wouldn’t need much of my hair trimmed. My elation was almost immediately quashed when Midn. Schneider quickly added, “Only about 4 inches all around.” My ears would not be touched by hair for the next 24 years. I was welcomed into my service with four days of PT, drill, study, and shoe shining. But, I was hooked. This new tribe was energized and professional, and what I would learn in the next four years, would set me up for all of the successes I have enjoyed since.

I would become inculcated into the flow of the University. I would survive fraternity rush in a place where the standard rush program was boatloads of boiled shrimp and crawfish, and the beer supply for the Cannae wedding.

I almost immediately changed my major from Engineering to Cultural Appreciation. I frequented The BOOT, where nickel beer night only occurred five nights a week. I single handedly paid for several pinball machines in Tin Lizzies by my frequent and nearly continuous deposits made into the coin slot of the Odin machine. I discovered Bruno’s and The Maple Hill restaurant, where the “Killers” (16 oz beers) went down like water. The streetcars, Camellia Grill, gumbo, po-boys, crawfish, oysters, and Bourbon Street soon followed. For a meat and potatoes kid from Michigan this was a flight on the Concorde.

Miraculously, I managed to stay in school as the semester went along. I was floored, when for the first time since arriving in New Orleans, I was turned away from a bar…a mere two days before my 18th birthday …I went next door.

I was swallowed up by art, music, food, ambiance…although a bit rudimentary, the smells, the taste, and of course the partying.

I did manage to graduate in the usual four years. But you don’t leave New Orleans and New Orleans doesn’t leave you. You are prisoner to the juxtapositions. It becomes part of you, and you become part of it.

New Orleans can be a bit ominous, but inviting. It is part Southern charm, and part Cajun crass. The meals can be seven course or eaten with ten fingers. The doughnuts are square and without voids. It is interspersed with dive bars and historic churches…neither regarding the presence of the other as particularly out of place. It has street performers, scam artists, and winos. It is also has jazz, some very fine artists, and the most innovative cuisine in the world.

And yes, it has Hurricanes. It is frequented by the hurricanes that Mother Nature provides, and it is home to the ones that Pat O’Brien’s sells. The ones made locally at POBs are, of course, preferred over those that nature brings, but nonetheless, each are New Orleans fixtures.

New Orleans has been devastated by Katrina, but it is not destroyed. New Orleans is really more about attitude, history, culture and people than it is about buildings. The city was illogically built on the most unsuitable site, but any effort to correct that engineering and social mistake would meet with a resistance only matched by the force of the hurricane that has damaged her. New Orleanians, a completely eclectic mix people, heritage and culture, have a mettle that has been tested over hundreds of years. The city, and its people, will come back…and likely stronger.

As a son of New Orleans I am in pain when I see the devastation that Katrina has wreaked. But I also know that this wonderful city has all that it takes…with the help of all of its transplanted sons, adopted sons, past visitors, and the kindness of the rest of America, to come back as America’s favorite, unpainted lady.

God bless those in need. Help where you can.

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