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September 6, 2005

Killing My Childhood

Roy Meachum

For the past week Pushkin and I have walked around downtown Frederick, as usual. But really only a part of me has been here. My English pointer buddy has not said how he feels about the place he spent a week last October. That was his first time in New Orleans.

The news reports have torn my soul apart. I saw an aerial map and could zoom in on places where I grew up. My former home is covered with four feet of water, Pat Kelly tells me. The school where I spent seven years, Holy Cross, sits under 20 feet of water, Dr. Steve McKenna said; he has children still in our home town. He went to Jesuit High.

My friends all moved out years ago, in the white flight that decimated New Orleans. There are only enclaves of non-blacks in the City Care Forgot, as Big Easy once was called. We were never that laid back; it was only by comparison with our cousins - other Americans - who had not seen Tampa's Ybor city. To cite another example of a subtropical ambiance.

Walk around the French Quarter and you find the overhangs, the shelters on old buildings from the constant, summer rain. I've seen the pictures. I know the Quarter survives. It was the site of the original Nouvelle Orleans, the highest point in the city.

The Café du Monde stands, as it has for nearly 200 years. The last time we were there we stopped for café au lait and beignet, which are covered with powdered sugar: one reason why New Orleans boys wore white tux jackets. They didn't show sugar.

There are reports my old neighborhood, on the wrong side of St. Charles Avenue, suffered wind damage in addition to the water. If you've ever been on New Orleans' last streetcar ride, you will remember the rows of trees along the avenue; I've seen no evidence but suspect they were decimated.

Without looking at the maps, I can tell you the destroyed neighborhoods are chiefly downtown, where the blacks are. Or in my neighborhood. They oozed over the boundaries that separated us, during the segregation years. I am what I am because "coloreds" were never far away. We lived with each other. They were great teachers for a blond kid who wanted to listen.

Supreme Court decisions sent my schoolmates into their white suburbs, the places that were first inundated from Lake Ponchatrain's waters. There may be a Biblical justice there. I've heard from nobody but it's not hard to guess they were at least in Baton Rouge before Katrina came howling by.

I've really stopped looking at the television. Man's inhumanity to mankind continues unabated. What nature started people have finished off; they're killing my childhood, robbing me of an existential piece of my soul.

Not until Friday, four days after an NBC anchor stood on Bourbon Street, covered with slime and water, did serious help arrive. CNN's Jeanne Meserve provided the most compelling reportage and commentary; she told her audience the water was half way up her thighs on Wednesday.

And I sit here on a cloudless Frederick morning wondering why President Eisenhower could send the 82nd Airborne to protect children integrating Little Rock's Central High, and George W. Bush had to wait on the National Guard to muster and organize. I am totally distraught.

The paratroopers (or some other regular Army division) could have poured into the city Tuesday night and taken charge, comforting and rescuing, chasing the looters and confiscating their guns. As a friend said, New Orleans should have come under martial law. It didn't. And I sit here in a raging requiem.





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