Through the Darkest of Nights: Testament XXX

Every few days over the next several months I will be posting installments of a novel about life, death, war and politics in America since 9/11.  Through the Darkest of Nights is a story of hope, reflection, determination, and redemption.  It is a testament to the progressive values we all believe in, have always defended, and always will defend no matter how long this darkness lasts.  But most of all, it is a search for identity and meaning in an empty world.

Naked and alone we came into exile.  In her dark womb, we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth. Which of us has known his brother?  Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?  Which of us has not remained prison-pent?  Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?      ~Thomas Wolfe

All installments are available for reading here on Docudharma’s Series page, and also here on Docudharma’s Fiction Page, where refuge from politicians, blogging overload, and one BushCo outrage after another can always be found.

Through the Darkest of Nights

Katrina

    Shannon and I left Camp Casey in early September and flew to New Orleans, she wanted to be there, to talk to evacuees, to bear witness to the destruction of America’s fourth largest city.  The raging winds, torrential rain, and massive flooding of Hurricane Katrina have been devastating, but even more devastating is the knowledge that thousands of Americans were left behind to die.  By their neighbors, by the police, by their own government.

    Bush was eating birthday cake with John McCain while hundreds of Americans drowned in the streets of New Orleans.   The next day, he was prancing around on a stage with a guitar while hundreds more of them died in the toxic floodwaters.  He stayed on vacation as New Orleans and America’s Gulf Coast were decimated, none of the craven advisors of that craven president dared interrupt his antics to convey to him the horror of Katrina’s devastating impact.  So the death toll passed a thousand and kept climbing, as a stunned nation watched the horror on live television.  The belated response from the Bush White House, when it finally came yesterday amidst nationwide outrage, was a photo op.

    At the airport in New Orleans Shannon and I saw an older couple sitting off by themselves at their departure gate.  They looked dazed and exhausted, but relieved to be on their way home.  We sat down next to them, introduced ourselves, and Shannon asked if their flight would be leaving on time.

    “We hope so . . .”  The woman seemed willing to talk despite what she’d been through, or maybe because of what she’d seen and endured, maybe because she needed to talk.  “Do you have family in New Orleans, Shannon?”  

    “Everyone who needs help is family, as far as Jericho and I are concerned, we came here to help, in any way we can.  The Red Cross is asking for volunteers, so we’re planning to stay here for a few weeks to help them with relief efforts.”

    “Your kindness will be much appreciated.  So many people are suffering . . . so many have died . . . we thought we were going to die too.”

    Her husband comforted her.  Shannon and I exchanged glances.  “I hope we’re not intruding . . . ”

    “Being kind is never an intrusion.  I’m Jakob Brandt, and this is my wife Elsie.  It’s nice to meet you.”  

    “It’s nice to meet you too.  Are you from Germany?”  

    “Yes.  We flew here from Bonn last week to visit a friend of ours, Michael Carpenter . . . we’ve stayed in touch but we hadn’t seen each other for more than fifty years.”

    “That’s a long friendship.”

    “We have a special bond with Michael, we met during the Berlin Airlift.”  Elsie smiled, remembering a crisis that generated a far nobler response than Katrina had.  “Jakob and I were 10 years old, Michael was a young transport pilot in the Air Force.  On his landing approaches into Tempelhof, he’d drop candy and chocolate bars to the children who came every day to watch the planes come and go.  Sweets and chocolate floated down to us on little parachutes.”

    “The Airlift.  One of America’s finer moments.”

    “Yes Jericho, it certainly was.  During the Russian blockade, we’d watch American planes land at Tempelhof. . . in terrible fog . . . in thunderstorms . . . in heavy snow during the worst winter Europe has ever known.  Nothing could stop them.  Nothing.  They landed a minute apart, sixty planes landed every hour, around the clock, they kept coming, one after another, all day long, all night long, bringing food, supplies, and medicine to a suffering city of two-million people.”

    Jakob squeezed her hand affectionately.  “The people of Berlin needed a miracle to survive, and America gave them one–a miracle from the sky.”  He looked at Shannon, and then at me.  “Can you tell me what happened to that America?  Where has it gone?  How could this have happened?  The people in New Orleans just needed some buses, a few planeloads or truck convoys of food and water . . .  but they got nothing, days of nothing but excuses and lies and threats from the police.”

    Elsie looked at us too, I saw the bewilderment in her eyes, the disbelief.  “We were told help was coming . . . we waited and waited, but no help ever came.”  

    Shannon spoke her mind.  She’s been known to do that.  “I can tell you why no help came, I can tell you why in one word–Bush.”

    “We heard that sentiment expressed more than once.”  

    “Where were you and Elsie when Katrina hit, Jakob?”

    “In the French Quarter, in a hotel.   Michael was stranded there with us.  The staff kept telling us the National Guard was coming to help us, that eighty buses were on the way, that we would all be evacuated within a few hours.”

    Elsie nodded.  “There were several hundred of us, we all packed our things and waited in front of our hotels.  We stood out there, an hour passed, then another, then another . . .  but no one came.  Twelve hours went by, no National Guard, no buses.  Jakob and I just looked at each other, wondering how this could be.  We were in a major city in the middle of America, in a country that could send planes filled with food and water to Berlin every 60 seconds for a year . . . yet no one could get into New Orleans to help us.”

    I was too ashamed to say anything.  

    Jakob noticed my expression.  “It’s not your fault, Jericho.  I think every American knows whose fault it is.  We were on our own, by the second night it was clear we weren’t going to get any help, so we organized ourselves, everyone contributed money and we hired ten buses to come for us.  We waited for two days, but those buses never came either.”

    “Our hotel was running low on food and water, all the hotels were . . . on the fourth day they told us we had to leave.”

    Shannon stared at Elsie.  “They kicked you out?”

    Elsie nodded.  “They told us to go to the Convention Center, they said there’d be buses there.  Then they locked the doors and left us all standing there on the sidewalk.  So we started walking, we finally saw some National Guard troops when we got into the center of New Orleans.  They wouldn’t let us go to the Convention Center or the SuperDome.  So we asked where we could go to be evacuated, they told us to go back to our hotels, they said we’d be notified.”

    “Elsie explained to them that we’d been locked out of our hotels, but her explanation fell on deaf ears, we asked if they had any food or water, they said they had none to spare.   So there we were . . . 300 people with no where to go, no one to help us.”

    Shannon couldn’t look Jakob in the eye, she was as ashamed as I was.  “What did you do?”  

    “Well, we found out there was a police command center on Canal Street so we went there, but they told us the same thing.   We talked it over and decided to stay there.  Our only hope at that point was that the media would notice us and report that the police weren’t doing anything to help us.  Several hours later a police commander finally came out and told us to walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway, he said there were buses waiting on the other side of the New Orleans Bridge to evacuate us.”

    I’d seen a media report about that.  “He was lying . . .”

    “He lied about the buses to get rid of us, he was adamant that we had to leave, so we started walking to the Expressway, it was a way out, buses or no buses.  When we passed the Convention Center some of the people stranded there . . . young mothers with babies, elderly people, some of them on crutches, others in wheelchairs . . . asked if they could come with us.  We helped them get their things together and set off for the bridge.  We were approaching it when we saw it was blocked, armed sheriff’s deputies were lined up across it.   They fired warning shots over our heads.”

    “It was dark, we thought they were shooting at us.”  Elsie started crying.

    Jakob put his arm around her.   “Everyone scattered, except a few of us.  They let us get close enough to talk to them, we told them a New Orleans police commander said there were buses waiting for us on the other side of the bridge.  They told us there were no buses.   Michael asked if we could cross the bridge anyway, he told them we were in desperate need of food, water, and shelter.  They looked at us like we were criminals, they told us Gretna was not going to become like New Orleans.”

    Elsie composed herself.  “We turned around, what else could we do?  We camped overnight on the Ponchartrain Expressway, the next day we saw groups of people approach the bridge, but they were all turned back by those Gretna sheriff’s deputies, with gunfire, or with threats and verbal abuse.”

    Shannon was seething.   “Every one of those deputies should be prosecuted.  They’re the criminals.”

    “Elsie and I are German.   We’ve seen criminals in uniforms before.”  Jakob was pale with revulsion.  “SS thugs had the same glint of racism in their eyes as those Gretna deputies, the same glint of sadism.”  

    We sat in silence, the horror of what happened on that bridge, the inhumanity of it haunted us.

    “How did you finally get out, Jakob?  Jericho and I saw TV reports about a group of people huddled together on the Expressway, and responses from authorities that they would be taken care of, but there were no more reports about them.”  

    “Oh, we were taken care of alright . . .  no doubt about it.  By a Gretna sheriff who drove up, threatened us at gunpoint, cursing and swearing at us the whole time he was there, and then by a police helicopter that hovered above us, using the blast of its rotor blades to blow our tents and belongings away.”

    “Those . . . unspeakable . . . bastards . . .”

    Elsie’s eyes filled with tears.  “They are, Shannon, that’s exactly what they are.  That attack scattered our group once and for all, people just drifted away.  No one knew what to do.  Jakob, Michael, and I slept under an overpass that night.  Two more days passed, we were too exhausted and weak to walk very far, we had no food or water left . . .”  Elsie turned towards her husband.  “Tell them . . . tell them what happened next, Jakob.   I can’t, I’d start crying again and wouldn’t be able to stop.”

    “Alright Elsie . . . alright.  Well . . . the next morning, we saw an Air National Guard helicopter fly overhead . . . it landed about two miles away.  Michael told us he’d be back with that helicopter if he had to fly it himself.  I don’t know how he found the strength to walk that far after all we’d been through . . . he’s eighty years old . . . he looked like a ghost, we all did.  I don’t know what he said when he got there, but the crew of that helicopter came for us, they flew us here to the airport, we said our goodbyes, and then they flew Michael to his daughter’s home in Lafayette.”

    We heard a boarding call for their flight.  Jakob smiled.  “Michael must have talked to the airline too . . .”  He looked at us with a gleam in his eye, a gleam in his eye for a hero, a gleam in his eye for an old Berlin Airlift pilot who was young again that morning under that overpass so far from Tempelhof, a gleam of pride in his eye that there was at least one man in that city of death and shame and dishonor who hadn’t forgotten what being an American is supposed to be about.

    We watched Elsie and Jakob Brandt board their flight back to Germany, we watched it roll down the runway and climb into the sky, carrying them back home, away from New Orleans, away from this crime scene with George Walker Bush’s fingerprints all over it, away from America, away from this country that’s staring into the abyss of heartless corporate fascism and sees it staring back, staring back at them through the empty eyes of its photo op president, the empty eyes of its bought and paid for politicians, the empty eyes of its hostile police, the empty eyes of its dead victims from Nasiriyah to the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.        

     

24 comments

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    • RiaD on July 31, 2008 at 8:27 pm

    to catch up on these…..soon, i promise rusty, soon i will get to these…& be utterly astounded yet again at your writing, no doubt.

    thank you for your continued patience, as i scramble to catch-up on some stuff in real-life/time

    kisshugs♥~

  1. you drew between those two historical events. Very telling.

    Today even politicians talk about how they are running on the “less government” platform. But in the immediate post WWII era people were very aware of what government could do. Now we live in an era in which we( well not us but you know what I mean ) accept the notion that government just

    serves the interest of business and conducts war.

    Last night I got into a friendly argument with one of the RNs I supervise about universal health care and she made that crack about people expecting the government to do everything and I said,” Well we now live in a time where we are encouraged to believe government can do nothing” and she looked at me like I had turned into a martian.

    By the way Rusty TN is damn hot right now ND is looking mighty inviting at the moment.

  2. … was very hard to read.

    The juxtaposition of the Berlin airlift to what happened on the Gulf Coast is heartbreaking.

    And it still goes on, is still going on.  Almost three years now and it’s still going on.

    Thanks, Rusty.

    • Alma on August 1, 2008 at 5:18 pm

    Amazed me on this one, my friend.

    Wonderful use of history to point out what they could have done compared to what they did(n’t) do.

    End of second paragraph from the bottom.  Quotation mark that doesn’t belong there.

  3. From D.C., to Texas, to New Orleans — wiery from all this travel!  Just kidding!

    This episode is excellent and so showing and heartbreaking.  Our efforts with military airlifts to help Germans compared to our efforts here for our very own people — seems surreal — it always has.  And, remember, too, that we got to the tsunami victims in Indonesia in two days to help them.

    Thanks, Rusty!  Reliving it all hurts with the same intensity!

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