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Monday, September 26, 2005

Heart & Soul of New Orleans, Part II

As I left the hangar, the first sight to greet me was that of a Lubbock police officer driving a golf cart manned with three small children in the seat beside him. The smile the officer wore may have been bigger than that of the children as he raced around in circles with them by his side. Everyone got in on the act.

The sun had been down for about 15 minutes by this time and it was fairly dark save for the light of the large lamps attached to the outside of the hangar. Still several men and boys, including a couple doctors and officers, were joined in basketball games to the right where goals had been set up. On the fringe of the light, there were a few tossing footballs back and forth. What struck me by the scene outside was its sense of normalcy. No one acted as if anything was out of place. Everyone and everything about this place and this evening belonged.

What attracted my attention, however, was off to my left and that is where I headed. Here there were rows of metal folding chairs set up and facing a small band. The band, presumably of Lubbock, sat together tightly with their instruments-- a man and two women in their 40s. They had invited one of the evacuees to join them and he now played a guitar while singing.

Smokey J. Blues was what he called himself. I later saw him on the local evening news in the context of a story about New Orleanians deciding to make their homes in Lubbock. He proudly announced to the camera, "Watch out. West Texas has a real blues-man now . . ."

Indeed, we do. I would have thought he and the band had been practicing for weeks. He led them through one song and then transitioned seamlessly into "Amazing Grace." Actually, I had my suspicions at first, whether they had practiced. But as the evening wore on, and more and more of the evacuees would take a turn playing/singing with the band, I was convinced otherwise.

I must admit that I had now lost sight of my original reasons for coming out to the Reese Center. I looked around me to find doctors, nurses, volunteers, police officers and many, many evacuees standing around the centerpoint of the music. Those of us who'd not lived a life filled with these sounds were completely silent, motionless, and transfixed by the scene. The evacuees were a bit more vocal and tended to find participation a bit more attractive.

I slowly crept over to the chairs and had a seat to watch Smokey. He was a tall, lean man. He wore an old heather gray t-shirt under some tattered overalls. His outfit was only completed by his old brown boots.

I must have been no older than 10 or 11 when I first heard my uncle play a CD of Robert Johnson. Since that time, the Blues have always had an affect on my soul. If you don't know the story of Robert Johnson, he was portrayed a few years back in the movie, "O, Brother Where Art Thou," by the young black guitarist picked up at the crossroads in Mississippi by the three escapees. The real Robert Johnson is said to have had little skill with the guitar before his meeting the devil. But one night he found himself, at midnight, at the infamous crossroads, trading his soul for the privilege and ability to play the Blues.

Unfortunately for Robert Johnson, while he was great, he did not make much of a name for himself while he was alive. He died in the night, like the playwright Christopher Marlowe, in a bar fight.

When I listen to the Blues, I am constantly reminded of Robert Johnson's story. Here was a man who had sold his soul away and, I believe, it was not so much a gift from Satan but a realization of what he'd done that created the Blues that Robert Johnson was able to weave into song. I hear something similar in the Blues played today. Here are a people of deep religious convictions that grapple with despair, pain, and things that are darkest. And the product, the music, reaches down to the bottom of your soul.

Where can they find such despair mingled with such hope? I have no clue. Despair and hope, for me, are mutually exclusive realities. To see another side, that is why I love the Blues.

As if to punctuate this thought, then, I found myself "counseling" one of the evacuees a short time later. After Smokey had finished playing and wandered off to join the basketball game, I'd gone back to walking the hangar in need of someone that might need me. I again emerged into the warm night air to hear a woman wailing on the microphone. Her wails were punctuated by various "Amen!"s.

Seeing my Bible in my hands, a doctor approached me and leaned in. He told me this woman on the microphone had lost her sister. He believed she could use a little ministry. As the doctor finished telling me this, the woman put down her microphone and hurriedly made her way for the hangar.

Following, I caught up with her inside and pulled her to the side. Sitting on a nearby air mattress, I asked her to tell me her story. It was not, however, as much a story of terrible times as it was a sermon on hope. Her plight was typical of many of the survivors: she and her family had stayed behind only to find themselves atop their roof, an island in a sea of filthy water. They were rescued by a passing boat and taken to Houston. From there they were transferred to San Antonio. From San Antonio to Lubbock, Texas. Her sister never made it out of New Orleans, where she had perished in the flooding waters.

In thinking of this woman now, and for the rest of my life, I believe the most poignant image for me was that of a family walking through the dry area of New Orleans dragging a white sheet behind them. The voice-over of the reporter informs his viewers that the white sheet contains the body of a relative. They are unwilling to leave her behind.

This woman did not have the chance to rescue even her sister's body. And yet she schooled me on the ways of faith, on the reasons for hope, and on what the future could hold. That, right there, is the foundation of the Blues.

I emerged from the hangar again to listen to the music after this encounter to find a small, wiry-looking evacuee with the microphone. She was probably no older than mid-30s but looked and sounded much older. She was so tiny but here voice betrayed her great heart and great amount of faith. For me, her song-- her message-- was a perfect punctuation for the night and I excused myself from the crowd of people as she ended.

Again, she sounded as if she'd rehearsed for weeks for this appearance before us. Perhaps, if you count a lifetime of Sundays, she had. I imagine she'd never dreamed of this, though . . .

And I contemplated this as I walked away with my Bible tucked under my arm, a smile on my face, and listened to her singing:

I lay awake at night
(echoed by others) I lay awake at night
But that's all right
Thaaaat's alright
I know that Jesus
Jesus, He will keep me
My, my, my Jesus
Jesus, He will keep me
Afterwhiiiiiiiile . . .


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