Category: Archive

Inside File: Memories now gone with the wind

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

My father-in-law is semi-retired. A onetime criminal lawyer, he has taken to selling real estate in recent years.
Given the events of recent days he might well be considering a change of job, or a fuller retirement.
Who knows. Getting him on the phone has not exactly been easy. But we’re confident in his ability to deal with just about anything. He’s a former Eagle Scout who served in the U.S. Navy on aircraft carriers.
Besides, he has, at the very least, a tent with a mosquito net and a flashlight.
Given what we’ve all been seeing on television, Tom is well ahead of the game.
He lives with his wife Gretchen in Diamondhead, one of a string of shoreline communities just over the state line from Louisiana that took the hardest and most direct blow from Katrina.
He recently moved there from neighboring Pass Christian, a town with a catchy name and an idyllic situation. We visited there a few summers ago.
The beach at Pass Christian was a treat for the kids. Endless and wide, the sand felt good between the toes.
The waters of the Gulf of Mexico were warm and inviting, though a little on the brown side.
This was not due to anything questionable in the water, but rather the mud and silt deposited by the Mississippi River which enters the Gulf a few miles to the east at the astounding rate of five million gallons every second.
The coast road ran right behind the beach and across it were the generously-gardened Victorian holiday mansions built by the elite of Chicago and other Midwestern cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
It was a straight shoot from Chicago down to New Orleans on the Illinois Central Railroad, and from the New Orleans it was a pleasant jaunt to Pass Christian, with its soothing Gulf breezes and boundless sea views.
The Midwest connection was in part a lure for Tom. He’s an Illinois native who gave up on freezing winters.
Pass Christian, was, he professed, just the ticket; the anti-Florida.
So we stood in this easygoing place a few summers ago and we stood in downtown New Orleans, a city first settled by French traders in the early 1700s.
The place from where New Orleans sprung was the highest ground in that part of the Mississippi Delta, a seemingly perfect location for a port that would be the staging area for exploration and a conduit for trade in furs and other treasures that abounded on the new continent.
The city grew with the years, its French, Spanish, Creole, Cajun, African and Irish aspects blending into a uniquely American social gumbo.
It became known as the Crescent City because of its shape, and the Big Easy because of its reputation as a slightly off-the-wall party town.
But as we all know now, it was a town living on borrowed time.
And that was actually obvious because the high ground of three hundred years ago was all the time sinking.
Three centuries is no time if you’re talking about rock, but no time if you’re talking mud.
So that passing ship along the Mississippi, or the industrial canal, was not so apparently high in the water simply because its hold was empty.
It was because the water was high, all that water beyond the walls, bulwarks and levees that, up to a few days ago, kept river, ocean and adjacent Lake Pontchartrain at bay.
But it was exciting to be in New Orleans and such party-pooping thoughts were invariably, and quickly, dispelled.
New Orleans was, like Las Vegas, one those cities that definitely had to be visited if the chance arose, even if only once.
It was, for sure, a little shabby and down at heel. But that was part of its charm. And it was a little over an hour’s drive from sleepy Pass Christian, a place where the stroller could buy Gulf shrimp straight off the boats for a fraction of the prices prevailing in Chicago, or New York.
Behind the old waterfront mansions was the regular, everyday town, nothing particularly fancy.
And to make it more attractive again there was the water and its unerring ability to draw off the tensions of the bustling world.
A good spot indeed for semi-retirement.
But again, like New Orleans, the hard-nosed observer could, if so inclined, take account of certain other realities.
The Gulf coast is a soft coast, an underbelly. It bears no resemblance whatsoever to, for example, Ireland’s western seaboard. There are no Cliffs of Moher or Dooagh mountains in these parts.
When Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, Tom and Gretchen decided to hit the road. They made for Gretchen’s daughter’s place in Atlanta.
It was the smart move.
At the last minute, Katrina turned slightly east of the Big Easy and cast her swirling eye over Waveland, Diamondhead, Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian.
I spoke to Tom a couple of days after Katrina had passed, at a moment when the full extent of the calamity in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast was only beginning to unfold.
He and Gretchen were preparing to leave Atlanta and head back home to see if home was still there.
I had never been to Diamondhead, so it was hard to imagine the before and after. But I had been to Pass Christian so it was easy to conjure up the before.
So what of Pass Christian, I asked.
“Pass Christian is gone,” Tom replied.

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