Posts Tagged ‘Louisiana’

October Trumpets 7

These bright little trumpet-shaped flowers appeared on my fence last year in early October. This afternoon while walking around the yard, I found them on the same fence again. More buds than flowers but no less beautiful. I had forgotten all about them, and it amazes me that they bloom defiantly at this odd time of the year. They hid throughout spring and survived the withering heat of a Louisiana summer. It just so happens that today is the first cool day we’ve had at the end of the summer, a sign of things to come later but not here to stay just yet.

Summer in Louisiana is Ordinary Time in every sense. “Winter never feels truly at home in New Orleans. An unwelcomed visitor that shows up long enough to remind us of what we’re missing, then leaves us just in time for us to forget again.” (A Love Song for Bobby Long) I guess that’s part of the reason that the changing of seasons has always been sacred to me. It affects me deeply. As much as I love springtime, the new colors, and digging in the dirt with my hands, I think I’ve always loved fall the most.

By the time summer finally wanes everything and everyone is parched and wilting. For some reason my soul usually feels that way by now. Every chance I get I have the windows in my house and car wide open during spring and fall. For a few days this week I’ll get to soak it in as we go from summer to fall to summer to fall again finally. I suppose the main reason the changing seasons affect me so much is that they mark time for me in a way the calendar never can. I feel and know for myself that time is passing. It gives me sacred time to reflect, to take in, to breath out, to mourn, to look forward, to wonder…

The school year is getting underway. The Fair will be coming round before long ushering in the holiday season earlier and earlier every year. While the long awaited ball games kick off and the post-season plays out, the parched leaves will give up their color in a brilliant show and fall slowly to the ground, over and over making room for memories. This is a time for remembering, and I don’t want to rush it. September, take your sweet time.

Dry leaves hide patches of brown grass
which crunches underfoot
Green pines tower above barren trees
against a bleak gray canvas

Fish are stirring in muddy waters
but refuse to bite
Freezers are full, the woods quiet
and guns are in the closet

Evening logs crackle in the hearth,
windows chilled by morning
The sun sheds coats by noon
but still sets too early

Tiny buds wait their time
playing dead
Others burst in early color
tempting fate

Winter has worn thin
Summer is way too far
Patience is a virtue
This is spring-not-yet


Another Wildwood Plantation, in similar style to the Beasley home





Another Wildwood Plantation, in similar style to the Beasley home

There are a few things I’ve always wanted to do before I die, as they say. I learned how to fly and received my private pilot’s license a few years ago. Check. Learn to play the guitar comfortably, half-check. Open my own little coffee shop, no check yet. Sigh.

I’ve always wanted to write a book, as well as music someday. While I love to write and manage to sound coherent most of the time, I’m generally not the creative artsy type. I admire the free spirit and abandonment to risk that artists take. They expose their most intimate selves to the world and rise or fall on their merits. That’s admirable to me, but I’ve never considered myself the fiction writer type. The dialogue confuses me. I’m far too analytical and philosophical at times to write fiction, I think, but who wants to read an autobiography of a former preacher turned… well, something else? 

As it turns out, the book I’m going to write is fiction after all, well, fiction based on fact. That seems a safe enough bridge to cross for the first time. I’ve picked up my grandmothers love of family history/geneology and have been tinkering away at it for the last six years or so in her place. It fascinates me. I want to know who I am and where my family came from. Along the way I’ve discovered some amazing stories of love, loss, hardship, and even murder. There are at least three or four stories that beg to be told. I’m starting with the story that’s fascinated me the most.

An Irish immigrant finds love and heartache in the Bayous of Louisiana, or something like that. It’s a story from the oldest known ancestor of my grandmother’s paternal line, the Burns. I’ve always had a love of all things Irish. It turns out for good reason. There are at least two lines of my family that trace their roots back to Ireland.

The young Irish immigrant is Sarah McWilliams born in 1780 in County Cork, Ireland. She came to Louisiana at some time before 1800 with her family and married a young Irish-Scot, John Burns in Opelousas shortly thereafter. After settling in the pioneer region of Morehouse Parish and giving birth to their third child, John died, cause unknown. Within a couple years this young widow met a young North Carolina boy named Gabriel Beasley fresh off the trail from Tennessee and married him. They bought a plantation and expanded their family for 10 years in North LA, while the Louisiana Territory became part of the U.S. and sugar became king over tobacco and cotton. Around 1820 they moved near Napoleonville in Lafourche Parish and slowly carved a sugar plantation out of the wilderness of the Attakapas Canal, which later became Wildwood Plantation where they enjoyed a long life together. Sarah died at home of pneumonia at age 80 in 1860 and Gabriel died later that same year, just in time to miss the destruction of the Civil War.

There are so many questions that I have about the blanks in the story. Thinking about those questions for years now has fueled my imagination about why, what, and when. Their story is romantic, adventurous, and heartbreaking all the same. Sarah’s life in Ireland and coming to America is a great story. The first love of her life died way too young leaving her a widow in a strange land with three children. A young North Carolina boy fell in love with a young widow and took her children as his own. They worked hard and built a wonderful life for themselves and their children for generations, only to die oddly enough months apart.

I’ve been doing a lot research into life back then, people, places, history, social/economic conditions, etc. It’s been really fascinating and sort of like trying to solve a mystery with whatever clues you can find. You have to take a certain license of liberty to fill in the blanks of their life and make choices about what you think happened and why they made the choices they did. I’m trying to make careful decisions about what most likely happened and also what would make the best story. This will be a work of fiction after all, but I hope to honor their story as best I can, before its lost and never told again.

Sarah’s lifespan parallels the history of the birth of the sugar plantation, the state of Louisiana, and the arrival of the Acadians. There are several other things that make the story really interesting to me. They tie together the history and culture of north Louisiana and south Louisiana which are worlds apart. Half my family is from south La and half from the north. I’ve spent half my life in each and know them well, but there is a lot of the Acadian French-speaking world of the bayous that I only know through story. Gabriel and Sarah were like other Anglos that came to the bayous chasing the sugar boom, feeling out of place and working to adjust to a different kind of life. 

This is going to take awhile, but I think I’ll enjoy it. I don’t have any high aspirations of selling the book or of many people reading it, but I will feel especially accomplished when I finish it. I think my grandmother would love it. She was so passionate about her family history and took such pride in where she came from and who she was. 

I’m working near the southern site of the story and plan to spend some time there doing some research and getting a feel for the story. I hope to make a trek north to the earlier homeplace and do the same in a few weeks. I won’t make it to Ireland though, so books will have to do. I’ll be blogging from time to time about my progress, the challenges, and nuts and bolts of putting a book together. I hope it challenges you to step out on a limb and check off one of your boxes too.

This morning I cast my vote for Barack Obama for President of the United States. It’s a beautiful fall day in Louisiana with a steady stream of locals at our small precinct located at the elementary school a block away from home. I let my 7 yr old push the buttons that I told him to. The two most significant buttons were Obama and Vote. I’ll remind him of that several years from now.

A couple years ago Louisiana upgraded to electronic voting machines which have seemed to work just fine in previous elections. At our precincts a sample ballot, as it appears on the machine, is posted outside and in several places inside the school. We had to wait in line no more than 5 minutes. A poll worker checks your driver’s license and looks your name up in the roll book. You sign in a blank next to your name. She initials next to your signature and spells your name out to two other poll workers who are handwriting two separate lists of voters. This insures you don’t vote twice, which wasn’t always the case in our colorful Louisiana history. My sister-in-law had to go to two different precincts to vote this morning because she had moved to a different parish (county) but was able to vote nonetheless. Other than that, I’ve heard of no problems at the polls.

Rachel Maddow on MSNBC said the other night that ridiculously long lines at polling places is a new kind of poll tax. I think she’s right. An hour is understandable in heavily populated areas. Never before in history have so many people voted in any election on a given day ever. There’s bound to be a wait, but six hours is absurd. How can people work and vote in those conditions? If 2000 focused the nation on hanging chads, 2008 should focus the nation on efficiency and competency at the polls. Sadly, the longest lines and the oldest voting machines are almost always found in the poorer black communities. That is inexcusable. I hope and am confident despite the outcome of today’s election that Democrats in Congress will hold hearings and hopefully press hard to resolve this problem for good.

If you haven’t voted yet, you still have time, even if you are voting for McCain. Good luck, America.

We survived Hurricane Gustav with only inconvenience. Only two houses in my family were lost or substantially damaged. At one point this week only two parishes in Louisiana had 100% power restored. As of today, over 800,000 people/businesses still have no power, a little less than half of the population. In addition to power outages local municipalities sustained significant damage to infrastructure. Many communities as far north as Central Louisiana where I live had no public water supply following the hurricane for days.

Two days after Gustav made landfall and passed through Central Louisiana the city of Alexandria sustained widespread flash flooding. Entire neighborhoods that have never seen flooding were under water. Those families lost automobiles and sustained major damage to their homes, many of which had no flood insurance. By some accounts this was either a 50 or 100 year storm for this area. My house is the highest on my street and saw no water accumulate in the street, so I’d like to think we wouldn’t flood.

It should not be understated that at least 18 people lost their lives in Louisiana this week as a result of the hurricane. One of the saddest I hear of is that the Sheriff of Moss Bluff and his wife died in their sleep from carbon monoxide poisoning from their generator outside their home. Supposedly there was only a crack in the door for the extension cord coming into the house, but it was enough to draw in the exhaust fumes and kill them while they slept on their couches in the living room with a window A/C unit running. Still others died when trees fell on their homes and crushed them. It’s just sad.

Louisianians learned many lessons following hurricane’s Katrina and Rita. Governor Bobby Jindal deserves much of the credit for the preparedness and implementation of hurricane plans for the state. It was a monumental difference from the last time. We witnessed perhaps the fastest exodus of the largest amount of people in history this past week as nearly 2 million fled south Louisiana in a four day time span, including moving thousands of hospital and nursing home patients by airlift. Those same evacuees are returning home now to find widespread shortages of food and fuel. The impact of the storm is far from over.

The national news coverage leading up to the storm was pitiful. The “story” was all about New Orleans, whether there would be a repeat of Katrina, and how this would impact the Republican National Convention. For those preparing for one of the worst storms to possibly hit Louisiana only the local news media was helpful in making decisions and preparations. I was very angry to tune in to the national news three days after landfall to find that the story was that New Orleans missed the big one and that it wasn’t that bad. The damage from Gustav far exceeded the area hardest hit by Hurricane Rita and Katrina. While we’re all very grateful that New Orleans did not flood again, it does nothing to minimize the impact felt by families all across Louisiana.

We lost power Monday afternoon. I didn’t expect to see it restored till at least this weekend, but we were suprised to have it back on Wednesday evening. Our water supply was never interrupted. During the outage we had record levels of humidity that only added to everyone’s misery. We didn’t complain and didn’t expect power right away, but after two days the need to get ice was becoming critical. The American Red Cross manned shelters across the area, but they were reserved for evacuees from south La only. Once Central Louisiana became part of the impact area, local high schools were opened for local residents as well. Basic supplies like bottled water, ice, and food were not readily available for several days following the storm.

There will be more lessons learned from this storm as well. I’ll keep more batteries on hand now. I’ll also freeze blocks of my own ice in my freezer for the days leading up to landfall, because we won’t be able to count on anyone else. Aside from a few idiots who always show themselves during times of crisis, the people of Louisiana are decent and resilient. We’ll get thru this one too. We always do.

Today is Thursday, August 27. I slept hard and late. Groggy and half asleep I walked outside to get the paper. Walking up the driveway it hit me. It’s a nice day. It’s cooler than usual but still sunny. The humidity is lower. There’s a breeze. No, it couldn’t be. It’s only August. Don’t think like that, man. You live in Louisiana.

I don’t care. It might just be. What if? Don’t ruin it. Enjoy it while you can. So I sat on the porch to read the paper, while I finished waking to the day.

Hunger brought me inside. Email, news, and work kept me there. After lunch I told Timothy, “it looks cloudy outside.” I went to brush my teeth and grab a book. He found me first, “Daddy, I want to go outside to ride my bike.” That’s amazing, “I was thinking the same thing, except I want to read.”

Wait a minute, I swear it’s cooler than before or maybe just as cool, which is cooler in the South. The breeze is blowing. Wow. Maybe it is. A strong breeze picked up as I looked across the street. Two leaves and pine needles floated gracefully to the ground. Somebody is messing with me. They know how much I love Fall.

Of all the seasons it is my favorite, I think, because I long for it most. The summer can be sweltering and thick. The fall brings mercy.

I finished another chapter. Deepak Chopra has a way of lowering my blood pressure. I smile. “I knew it!” Faint thunder rolls through the pines. Timothy announces from the yard, “I felt a rain drop!” That’s ok. I don’t care. I’m going to enjoy it in spite of the almanac.

This may not be the first day of Fall after all, but maybe it’s the first day of the end of Summer. Four rain drops later the sun came out again. Neither will it rain. This is a day full of half truths and hope. A bright yellow butterfly flies over the hedges and across the street. Birds begin singing. More leaves fall to the ground. It’s warmer now, but the breeze is still blowing. That’s ok. I know it’s coming. I’ve felt it. It won’t be long. The butterfly is back again.

BATON ROUGE, La. (Associated Press) — A man incarcerated for 47 years, longer than any other inmate in Louisiana’s state prison, gained his freedom on Thursday after Gov. Kathleen Blanco commuted his life sentence for second-degree murder.

Eugene Tanniehill arrived at the Angola prison in 1960, after being convicted of clubbing a man to death in north Louisiana with a pipe. He walked out of the gates a 73-year-old born again Christian, “the bishop of Angola”: a popular prison minister known for his rousing sermons.

“He was so effective as a preacher,” Warden Burl Cain said. “He preached nonviolence and he preached to repent, to live a peaceful, moral life. He had a great impact on our prison.”

Cain said Tanniehill flew with an acquaintance to Chicago, and planned to preach at a church in Wheaton, Ill., this weekend. Tanniehill has lined up a job at a church in New York, where he hopes to deter young men from getting involved in crime, Cain said.

Blanco commuted Tanniehill’s sentence after the state parole and pardon boards recommended his release. Cain also sent a letter to the governor, arguing that Tanniehill has reformed and should be released.

Cain said Tanniehill’s piety and kindness made him a favorite among guards and prisoners. Guards wept as Tanniehill left the prison grounds Thursday morning, Cain said, and one assistant warden handed him a $100 bill. Tanniehill delivered his final sermon in a prison chapel on Wednesday night, to a crowd of 800 cheering prisoners.

“He’s in perfect health, he jogs two miles a day, he’s sharp as a tack. He quotes Bible scripture and he’s just an incredible man,” Cain said.

Tanniehill confessed to the Grant Parish killing when he was 25. He spent four years in a local jail, then arrived at Angola — then known as one of the nation’s most violent lockups — to serve the life sentence for the killing, plus 25 years for the robbery.

Tanniehill was quick to take responsibility for the murder he committed.

“Every time the crime is brought up, it makes me repent again,” he said in a 1995 interview.

His story was featured in “The Farm,” the award-winning 1998 documentary about life at Angola.