Flying out in a few hours. Trying to remember the feeling ten years ago when I was flying down to volunteer months after Katrina. I was a 50 year-old, father of three, and I was terrified. Travelling alone. The prospect of working with people I had never met. And then, of course, what would I find in the ruins of a great American city?
Long story short: I survived, even after being robbed as I slept in my hotel room. I hated parts of it, but the experience changed my life. A year later, I made the trip better by adding a healthy portion of UNH students, five of whom were from my initial New Orleans class. And I had the time of my life living through through their eyes and reactions to the experience. An ice storm in Boston cancelled my flight home and I had to stay over the weekend. As a result, I got to experience my first Mardi Gras Indian parade. I got home two days late, after three flights that began before daybreak in Jackson, Mississippi. I ended up missing a Monday night class for a course I was teaching for the University of Rhode Island library school and I was worn to a nub. As we exited the turnpike to head to our home, my wife, sensing my exhaustion said: “Well, you don’t have to go back next year.” My silence said otherwise. And she knew it.
Somehow, I’ve spent one sixth of my life doing this thing year in and year out, and it hasn’t grown old. Ten years and some 250 students later, it remains just as fresh, just an exciting, and just as exhausting as it ever was. My wife, and my now adult children, and my friends have grown accustomed to it. It is a part of me and happily, they like me enough to put up with it and my conversations that begin with, “Well, it’s just like this or that in New Orleans…”
The students in this, the tenth New Orleans course are in the mid-Atlantic, passing through Pennsylvania en route to a sliver of Maryland and West Virginia, respectively. The day began with worried calls from parents, rightly concerned by reports of flooding in Louisiana. I too, have been worried, monitoring conditions continuously, calling friends in New Orleans, and was able to report that while New Orleans was soggy, things there were OK. And after hours of studying weather.com the 1579 mile route between Durham, NH and North Rampart Street appears strangely free from rain.
So, I go to bed. 3:45am will come soon enough. As always, I am worried for their safety, but confident that I will see them, perhaps wet and bedraggled, tomorrow afternoon, along the parade route of the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade. If not there, we’ll reconnoitre at the community center that we will call home for the next week. And then we’ll embark on another one of those weeks in New Orleans, that messed up, enigmatic, magical place, that year after year manufactures experiences that none of us will ever forget.