Thursday, October 8, 2009

Biloxi, 1969

(First in a series on family vacation memories).

My summer of '69 was spent along the Biloxi Gulf Coast. I was four, my brother was two, and my cousin Jeff was about 18 months old and an only child for a very brief moment in his life.

I'm sure this vacation was a big deal at the time. My dad owned a very well-maintained 1963 Buick, probably his only possession of any value prior to his marriage to my mother when he was just 21. Since having my own kids, I understand the sense of freedom and promise they must have felt after being chained to the difficult life of having babies. Babies really cramp the style of people who like the social life; who want to hit the road in 1963 Buicks; who are still young.

In 1969, my brother was newly potty trained and this meant it would be a lot easier to hit the beach, stay in a motel. We all went in one car with my daddy driving, his first-cousin, Donald, riding shotgun, smoking his pipe. Kurt got the place of honor in the middle of those two, a mini man among giants, free of safety seats and restraints. In the wide back seat, "Miss Clara," (Mr. Donald's wife), their baby son Jeff, me, and my mama.

I was only four so I remember the things four-year-olds remember, or seem to remember. I remember gun metal skies with lightning streaking across. August in the Gulf region meant a conveyor belt of thunderstorms and, unknown to everyone at the time, a deadly storm was plodding along toward our little redneck riviera. The grown-ups formed a protective barrier so we were able to see a new world and not worry about forces of nature or traffic jams.

In my little mind, going to Biloxi was a great expansion of the world. It was far away. A two and a half hour drive and when you crossed the border into Mississippi, everything was different: kudzu, pine forests, different colored asphalt, blue signs, rebel flags, tighter drinking laws. Even New Orleans loomed big with stacks of interstate ramps that switched us over to a round about easterly route, overlooking the CBD, and shooting us off to Slidell.

Because this pulls from a four-year-old's memory, I offer you flashes of what sticks in my mind: the dolphin show at this giant metal covered amphitheater; actual waves in the Gulf compliments of a soon to be bitch of a hurricane; a ferry ride to Dolphin Island; cloth training diapers hung on the motel patio; and lots of time spent in the kiddie pool with a new friend.

Our hotel was nothing more than a Holiday Inn. I remember we took home the logo towels and used them for swimming lessons for years. And, I remember the lamps in the room. I don't actually remember the lamps, but I remember Mama, Daddy, Clara, and Donald talking about them. They loved the lamps.

Hurricane Camile cut our time short in this first Biloxi excursion. We left in a haste of quick packing and dark skies and lightning, at the time thinking the storm would come our way like Betsy did in 1965. I knew that my parents and Clara and Donald were worried because Betsy was bad enough for them to give them stories to tell all their lives. We packed back into the car to head home, listening to staticky AM news reports, and watching hostile skies.

Hurricane Camille hit on August 17, 1969. While hippies danced in the mud in Woodstock and people died in Vietnam, Gulf Coast residents had to look in the face of the dark side of nature. When we returned home, we all spent the storm together at my grandparents' house across the road from our house. We were spared the full force of the storm. we are on the "good" side. I remember hearing rain and wind throughout that night. My grandparents' house had a tin roof so debris and rain knocked hard. But, the household felt relief around the hurricane lamps, plotting the storm course based on Nash Robert's broadcast which switched to only radio once the power went out.

The devastation from Camile affected my community greatly. Betsy survivors shipped clothes, food, and money to the neighbors on the Gulf. I parted with a beloved doll. And, Mama, Daddy, Clara, and Donald thought about those lamps. Those lamps they loved and joked about stealing. They regretted not taking them.

I don't think the motel where we stayed survived. Soon after, a new one was put in its place. We rode the beach again after the storm seeing slabs left over from the tidal wave, the SS Camile boat that landed in a place of honor to come a monument to the storm. That storm would be the worst people would see...for awhile, at least.