It seems no one ever has enough time.
I once found myself in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the coast of Louisiana. I was there to see if I could help.
America’s forty-sixth largest city was trashed. It looked like I imagined Armageddon would be. Everything — and I mean everything — was flattened. Especially in Slidell where I ran into one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, Al Savoie.
I stood on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, up on the levee, which predictably had not held back the water. I gazed southward, across the void, to where I knew the Big Easy lay in tatters. And that ‘s when I smelled death. Lots of it. It was an odd singular mix of sweet and sour. I’d smelled it at least once before, in Athens. I was driving a date back home, to the University of Georgia, when a sudden dark blur came into my peripheral vision. My reaction was instant. I hit the binders too late and heard the sickening thump-thump, followed by the horrible screaming.
I watched from my car window as what was left on the beautiful black lab named Bean I had run over dragged itself from the street between two parked cars and back onto the front lawn. I say dragged because only two of this beautiful animal’s limbs — his front legs — still worked. The useless rest of the dog’s body made me think of that scene in Forest Gump where Lt. Dan drags himself back up into his wheelchair.
I lie awake some nights still, remembering. Until the day I die I’ll never get that screaming sound out of my head. The owner rushed out the front door and we tried our best to comfort the beautiful animal as its breathing grew ever more shallow. He died in her arms as I smelled the smell.
And there it was again across the shallow man made lake in the swamps of Louisiana.
People were leaving still, and I could smell them. Well over a thousand of them. They lingered in the air, maybe even not knowing it was over for them.
It’s a smell I’ll never forget. Don’t draw conclusions. To me it is not an unpleasant odor. It’s just there’s nothing else that even comes remotely close to it.
The only analogy that I can think of which might help someone who doesn’t quite get it would be if the phone rang and I answered and I heard my old man say hello to me. One word and I’d instantly know it was him, even though he died in ’74.
Al Savoie built Slidell. He was the largest homebuilder in Louisiana and he would be dead from cancer at 56 three months after we met. He was a great man. One of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. His wife Sharon was amazing. They were high school sweethearts, and from what I could see they adored each other. Near the end I remember we were sitting in Al’s beautiful mansion and I asked him if he was scared. He smiled. He assured me everything was ok. He knew where he was going. Then he said something that made my breath catch in my throat.
This fine gentleman who had built a city told me he felt like he was just hitting his stride. Those were his exact words. He said that he truly wished that he could have had more time. He spoke wistfully, because he knew he had to leave, but he had enjoyed the trip and he didn’t want to get off the ride.
My old man had said the exact same thing back in ’74, right before he left.
Like I said, it seems no one ever has enough time.
- P.S.M. February 14, 2014