BURAS TO BOOTHVILLE/VENICE
This is my last entry to write. Day 119 was the second to last day of our journey, but I was much more prompt in posting remarks on Day 120 back in November. I promise to refresh everyone’s memories after this goes up as well, just for closure. I promise the lag time in the last two weeks of posting—which ended up taking two months of writing—came not from laziness but from a different place of processing… Now back home in Minnesota, with time to digest and scour the full audio/video footage from each interaction, transcribing each word, utterance, gesture, image, diving down the rabbit hole of tangential research. I find myself both finishing one performance and beginning another. It’s the bow that leads to an encore that leads to a reprisal.
I will take the opportunity of this last, to also be a first.
(long pause, sigh)
Mr. Earl Armstrong is a rugged individual, you might say. He has a photo in his home of an alligator he roped. The alligator is wearing Earl’s cowboy hat. Earl is a cattle rancher, he’s worked the crane in the oil fields, he’s from Pilottown, Louisiana and grew up doing whatever you had to down there to make your way—fishing, trapping, gillnetting. Earl wields an air boat like a primary vehicle, not only taking him out behind the levees to check on land building projects, but offering his equipment up to contractors and CWPPRA to be involved in the action. Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana is his home from the very tip end of the Delta to the bridge into New Orleans, and he really doesn’t need to go anywhere else. Everything he needs is right here.
Mr. Earl Armstrong is also sentimental. His relationship to the river, the waters of this region are not explained by his blue jeans, chambray top and cowboy hat. As we sat across from Earl at his kitchen table, his eyes welled up with tears, he took a long pause and sighed, “I get emotional with this,” he ekes out. The eighty year old Earl that we were speaking to was suddenly transformed, and his 14 year old self was staring out a single-paned window at Holy Cross Boarding School in New Orleans, watching a familiar ship pass by along the Mississippi River. It was 2 o’clock in the morning and the priest wondered why he was awake. Did he know this ship? He did, he knew the familiar rumbling of the plate glass of the windows as the ship’s pistons fire when it passes, bringing him back home, some 90 miles away where the ship had passed before and will pass soon again.
Mr. Earl’s father figures much into his story—from lighting the Coast Guard lanterns together down Southwest Pass before they moved to Pilottown to crawling to safety together through the high winds of Hurricane Camille, to tracking down the house on the barge, to understanding how land is built, to getting lost together in an effort to evacuate for Katrina.
Apparently Earl’s family lived down Southwest Pass when he was young, and for a long time, his father, and his grandfather before that, had been lighting the guide lights for the ships passing through. First they were kerosene lanterns that would last only about seven days, and the ships would signal a light was out by riding up close to the warf and yelling out. His grandfather would have to take out his skiff and row out the several miles to replace the lantern and the fuel. Eventually, by his father’s time when he was helping out, technology had advanced and they were using batteries.
Living on Southwest Pass, much like living in Pilottown, is really like living on the edge of the world. You can only get there by boat, and while there’s a bit of land for roads and walkways, and there was even a barroom on either side of the Pilottown island run by Earl’s dad and the other by his uncle, groceries were harder to come by. Earl’s mom would make up a list for the packet ship and have groceries delivered for a while, but then when Venice started to boom with oil and gas, they started boating over there to a couple markets that opened up.
Pilottown was especially vulnerable to storms. Homes were built up on pilings with X braces on all of them. For Camille, the women had evacuated, but Earl, his father and his uncle had stayed behind, holed up in Earl’s house, thinking it would stand. Then something shook the house and all the clothes from the back bedroom started flying down the long hallway to the front of the house and out the windows. A tornado had struck and the braces below had all snapped. The house was unstable, so the men decided to head over to the pilot’s station—a two-story concrete building down the walkway. The winds were so intense, they had to crawl, gripping each other and the railing, so as not to fly away themselves. Hurricane Camille is registered as having nearly 200mph winds, the most intense wind speeds of any storm to hit land ever.
The pilot’s station made it through the storm, but not much else did. Afterwards, they went to check on a few elders of the community that had stayed in their home. Everyone was aunt and uncle, even if they weren’t. Uncle Tom and Aunt Lou were ok, but Uncle Joe, he’s the one that cut their hair,—his house was facing a new direction. Apparently it started “drifting down the damn river,” according to Joe, who was taking it easy, not walking anywhere for a bit, he told Earl and the others.
Pilottown rebuilt, though, and Earl and many others lived there until 1974 when the school finally closed. However, even after Earl moved up to Boothville, his dad stayed back. It took a lot of convincing and eventually a house on a barge to seal the deal. That’s right, one day, his dad is down in Pilottown and spots a house on a barge headed up to Venice, so he calls Earl up and tells him, hey, this is coming your way. It will be there in about an hour—passed here about fifteen or twenty minutes ago. You should go check it out, make an offer. And Earl wants to jump on this, of course, because he’s eager to move his daddy up from Pilottown to live next to him in Boothville. It took a little back and forth, some bargaining with the guy moving the house, but Earl got the deal sealed by next morning, rolled the house up the highway on a big truck and cemented it onto the property right next to his. Father and son back together again.
“Those girls would go with me driving cattle, penning up and all,” Earl said, “you know I had horses for them, they’d ride horses…” Now sometimes cattle will go in the marsh and the horses can’t go after them. Instead, Earl or the girls would get off their horses and go after the cattle on foot. So on this one occasion, Earl is walking in the marsh to drive some cattle out, and he heard a little coon hollering, “they kind of cackle you know,” he explains. Earl finds the little tiny coon hanging onto the cut grass and his eyes were just open by the looks of it, so he went over and picked it up, placing it on top of an old tank battery that was left behind from the oil company. He figured the mama would find it there.
When Earl comes out of the field, his daughter Laura asks what was he fooling around with out there. He tells her about the coon. “A little coon!?” Earl said, “yeah.” “How big? His eyes open?” Laura indignant. Earl said, “yeah.” So, they all move on and Earl forgets about it. They pen the cattle, and as they are cutting cattle out, Earl’s son Jimmy asks where Laura’s going? She was going up the bayou with the out boat.
Earl knows exactly where she’s going. He says, “I betcha she’s going get that damn coon that I told her about.” And first thing you know, there she comes back, she’s got him in a rag with just his head sticking out, and she said, “he’ll be alright. I’m gonna take care of him.”
“That coon stayed with us for ten years,” Earl exclaimed! “I mean he was this round, I built—, I got the cage I had to build over there for that coon, and sometime he would get out!” Apparently the girls would not always remember to close the gate all the way and the sweet little raccoon would find its way into the barn, nestled in the hey. Earl would be tasked with fetching him out with a horse pail, swooping it over him and catching him by the back of the neck, holding his back legs away so he wouldn’t scratch you all up on the way back to the cage. Somehow the girls and the coon had a different, more benign relationship, as he’d go to sleep on their shoulder according to Earl. He says his daughter Laura has still got a trove of animals such that it’s like McDonald’s farm up at her home in Folsom.
“I said that son of a gun will build land if they put islands out there, you know, to stop this current, cause they old people showed me and my daddy and my uncle, that on the river when you get a high river there’s logs come down the river five foot round and you know eighty foot long some of them, come from up north, and plenty places where those logs would wash up on the bank the river would be spilling over the ridge you know where the sand settles on the edge of the river and hit these logs and go around these logs like that and form a big sandbar back there and build land, and I never ever forgot that….”
Mr. Earl Armstrong learned from “they old people” and his daddy and his uncle about how to build that land. Put some islands he’ll tell you, out at that diversion in West Bay, and the land will come. He spoke up and spoke up and spoke up to those CWPPRA people who were saying they were on the hook. But Earl shot back. He said, “well where you think we at?! We live down there. If you all close this we’ll never get nothing again. You know this’ll be it. You know it’s gonna be known as a failure. It’s gonna be known that nothing happened—it scoured everything out, and I’m telling you, the only failure is is you all. You never did nothing, you need to make some islands back there!”
Aand thanks to the support of a Mr. Paul Kemp from the Atchafalaya, the islands got built. by 2016 four islands had been built and now, according to Earl, you can walk back there.
They call it the “birdsfoot delta,” but the way Mr. Earl sees it, and has drawn it out on a 8.5” x 11” sheet of printer paper, well it’s a “bird toe delta” these days with all the silting in of every major pass excepting the Southwest Pass. Pass a Loutre is filled in, Tiger Pass is filled in, Cubit’s Gap is blocked up, South Pass unnavigable, Baptiste Colette—they dug this, he said, just about a mont ago. But according to Earl they are bottlenecking everything down to Southwest Pass to try to funnel all the sediment out through to the Gulf that way. But it’s not working, that’s why it’s not a good plan. He’s got it all worked out on paper, and he’s always out there checking things out on his air boat. Not only that, he knows the history, the times when it was working right, but it seems nobody’s checking with him on that.
Earl says, however, “well I’m not going nowhere on no watch, and I’ll say as much as I can until they tell me to shut up, and I still ain’t shutting up.” I said to him, I think that’s a good thing.
(Mud lumps for another day).