April 24, 2007
THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS...
Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call the City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.
Steve Goodman wrote that chorus in an ode to the "disappearing railroad blues" of the early `70's. Air travel had replaced riding the rails as the country's favorite mode of travel, with the romanticism and camaraderie of the nation's trains yielding to the speed and efficiency of the "friendly skies".
I first heard Arlo Guthrie's version as I drove my MG Midget from Melbourne, Florida back to my home in New Jersey. My life lay out before me like the ribbon of highway leading me north. My first taste of Minor League Baseball completed, the next 22 hours were spent winding through the South listening to Guthrie's version of Goodman's song about cars of travelers unaware that their way of life was changing forever.
I felt the same way at that point in my life.
We didn't take the train to New Orleans last weekend; Delta managed to get us there despite a couple of shaky landings. All but two of our away series this year require us to use air travel. The days of bus or train travel are mostly gone. I was anxious about a few things this trip, most importantly how we would fare against the second place Privateers. But I was interested for us to see first hand, the state of things in an area of the United States that has seen its share of "disappearing...blues".
Our connection in Atlanta found me in a window seat. Somehow Coach Fossas had gotten my aisle seat. The middle was unoccupied until a young woman in Army desert fatigues sat down between us. Our conversation revealed that she was actually in the National Guard and was returning from leave at her home in North Carolina. Her next stop was Gulfport, Mississippi, and then on to Afghanistan.
I couldn't help but ask her feelings on the National Guard being used to fight abroad, rather than being the home force as originally intended. She smiled wryly, and said that for 21 years she had her hand out once a month to accept her pay as a member of the National Guard. The money had enabled her to pay for her schooling as a physician's assistant. "Should I complain now because the situation has changed?"
Her name is Maureen, and she has two sons aged 16 and three. Her husband is regular Army and recently retired. They are all back in Fayetteville while Mom is on her way across the world to train Afghan medical personnel. She heads a fairly large team of people; it's large because the area they've been assigned is expected to see the most action in the expected spring offensive of the Taliban.
That's just great.
As we spoke I noticed a beautiful crescent moon outside our plane, and couldn't help but picture Maureen's family looking up at the same moon each night and praying for her. She interrupted me and pointed to the moon, commenting on its beauty.
I couldn't tell her what I had been thinking.
Our conversation turned to New Orleans and Katrina. Maureen's unit had been activated in the aftermath. She described how military busses were stopped enroute at roadblocks by armed civilians protecting their homes. As she later walked the deserted streets of New Orleans, Maureen was struck by the sight of armed soldiers patrolling an American city.
She described it as surreal.
One day she was taking pictures and saw a man with an automatic weapon in the window of a large downtown office building. The man appeared at the door and explained he was hired by the owner of the building to remain as a security force. He had four armed young men with him. They took Maureen and some other soldiers to the 40th floor of the building for a view which still haunts her.
The man with the weapon said he was being paid $100,000 to stay.
We shared stories of our families the rest of the way. Maureen gets kidded about being in her early forties with a young child...she chalks up the span between kids to the results of two wars, 13 years apart. She thinks her husband will do well as "Mr. Mom" in her absence. He'd better. She isn't scheduled to return until August, 2008!
At one point she softly said her hope was that the three year old would remember her when she returned. I again refused to voice my thoughts. My prayer will be that she gets home to that little boy and his brother. Remembering will take care of itself.
We stayed in Slidell to avoid any distractions the resurgent nightlife of New Orleans might present.
Our drive to UNO each day took us across Lake Pontchartrain and past the result of the devastation of that August storm. I was amazed at how much still remains to be done. Row after row of buildings and houses stood as stark reminders of the damage done. Neighborhoods consist of deserted houses, gutted and open to the wind and rain. Here and there were work crews either cleaning out debris, or rebuilding a house, and a few occupied houses were in the mix..
It didn't look like America to me.
The effect of the storm could be seen everywhere we went. The ironic part is that things are actually so much better. At least the area is habitable, and life is returning. I saw one little girl, probably about Maggie's age, riding her bike down the street, a smile on her face.
Coach Tom Walter faced many challenges after the storm as he had to relocate his team elsewhere to continue their schooling and prepare for last season. He saw to the well being of his players while his house was lost to the storm. His young son and his wife moved back with his parents for the year.
Seeing that little boy in a UNO uniform running around the field this weekend was an example of how life continues and manages to flourish under the toughest conditions.
The weekend was a series of highs and lows for me, many of them all in the course of each game.
We fell behind early the first night but came back to tie the score. But our bullpen, which had looked good recently, faltered and the first game was theirs. The second night we started strong and built what looked like a safe lead. But the next thing you know, the tying and winning runs were on base. Fortunately Joel Schmal got a strikeout to preserve a win.
Sunday was more of the same, but in reverse, as UNO jumped out to an early, and seemingly, insurmountable lead. But in the ninth we rallied from six down to get the tying run in scoring position. This time UNO got the big strikeout to end our comeback and the game.
The weekend left me disappointed about a number of things.
We're fighting hard to get into the SBC Tournament. Currently we're in eighth place and struggling to find any semblance of consistency. Our work is cut out for us to salvage the season. It weighs heavily on my mind and my heart.
But I'm disappointed more in a world where a 41 year old mother of two has to fight a war that should have been over long ago. I'm disappointed that no level of government has effectively handled the plight of so many American citizens in the New Orleans area.
It's my hope that FAU can do better from this point.
It's my prayer that America can too.