Laughter and tears

Searching for the Laughter. I spoke Friday evening to the First Baptist Church of Moss Point, Mississippi. Many of their people suffered extensive damage from Katrina, the entire area is still digging out and rebuilding, and Pastor Michael Perry felt his people needed some laughter. He invited me to bring my easel and markers and do some caricatures and tell some of my funny stories. I was glad for a break from our usual routine over here.

The traffic out of New Orleans on a late Friday afternoon used to be a nightmare, particularly heading east toward Slidell, so not knowing what to expect, I left early. With almost no one living in East New Orleans, the traffic was alarmingly light. I arrived at Gulfport ahead of schedule and decided to take a 30 minute break and throw a little business to the Krispy Kreme folks. I ordered two glazed and a small coffee and bought the latest edition of the “Sun-Herald.” The contrast between what these folks on the Mississippi Gulf Coast are going through, recovering from the storm, and what New Orleanians are experiencing was stark in some ways, the same in others.

Three hundred homes on the Gulf Coast will have to be checked out for their historical value before owners will be allowed to rebuild. The Mississippi legislature has approved a bill which will lend rebuilding homeowners up to $25,000 at zero-interest for 20 years. Some coastal towns are discussing elevations and stronger building codes as their communities come back. Meridian is trying to find trailers to house its evacuees. Mardi Gras parades will be held as usual on the coast. Oxford was burying legendary football coach Johnny Vaught, 96, who had assured former player and now pastor, Gerald Morgan of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, “I’m ready. I know Jesus Christ has forgiven me for my sins.” The news from tiny Pass Christian, location of the state Baptist conference center and wiped out by Katrina, read: “Today is the last day for ‘Right of Entry’ forms to be turned in.” Fellow writes in to “Sound Off,” that he returned to his slab–the only thing left of his home–and found that the American flag he had erected had been stolen.

I said to the Moss Point folks after dinner, “Let me tell you what happened today at our associational offices.”

I arrived this morning to find Baptist volunteers from Arkansas and Kansas rebuilding the sidewalks in front of our property. The city had had to take out our big tree and the walk to repair a busted water main not long after the hurricane, and it’s been a mess. Under Freddie Arnold’s direction, the men were pouring new sidewalks. I went over and introduced myself to them, expecting the usual friendliness and bonhomie. Instead, they were quiet and intent on their jobs. Later, we ordered po-boys for lunch and the men sat around the table in our break area, had prayer, and dived in. I joined them and we swapped names and I tried to get a little conversation going. No luck. Finally, it occurred to me what was going on. They were still in Katrina shock. The devastation throughout our city had stunned their minds, sapped their strength, and depressed their spirits. We live with it every day, but they were still adjusting. So, I decided to try something.


“You folks from Arkansas,” I began. “Anyone raised on the farm?” Several lifted hands. I said, “I grew up on a farm in Alabama.” No response. “Following the mule and everything.” “I know about that,” one man said, and a couple nodded. I said, “Any of you remember Jerry Clower?” “Oh, yeah, you don’t forget Jerry Clower,” one said and several smiled. I said, “He was a friend of mine.” And I told them of the time I was pastoring in North Carolina and the secretary buzzed me, “Jerry Clower is on line one.” I punched in and said, “Hello?” and heard this voice on the other end, “I UNDERSTAND YOU HAVE A MULE FOR SALE!!” I laughed and said, “Where are you?” “I’M OUT HERE AT THE AIRPORT HOLIDAY INN!” “Let me buy you lunch.” “THAT’S WHY I CALLED YE!” On the way to the restaurant, Jerry told me his publisher had asked him to write another book. The first four had all been best-sellers. “He sent me a list of 35 subjects,” Jerry said, “and wants a chapter on each one. Said he wants each chapter to be COMMODE-LENGTH.” I laughed and said, “How long is that?” He said, “That’s what I asked him. He said ten minutes and I said five.” That Christmas, my secretary gave me a copy of that book, “Life Ever-Laughter.” I have not timed the chapters.

“Let me tell you my favorite Jerry Clower story,” one of the men said. And we were off. Pretty soon everyone was smiling and several were trying to come up with their own contributions to the story-telling. It was a different group that went back to work fifteen minutes later. Laughter will do that to a person.

I love that line from Abraham’s wife Sarah after she gave birth to a son at the age of 90. She named him Yitzhak (okay, Isaac), which my Hebrew professor said means “laughing boy,” and said, “God has made laughter for me.” (Genesis 21:6) The truth is our God has made laughter for each of us. Problem is a lot of us are not getting our minimum daily requirement. I know I haven’t been.

This time last year I was knee-deep in radiation treatments to eradicate all traces of the tongue cancer for which I’d had surgery the previous December. Toward the last, it was pretty rough–blisters in your mouth, sunburned neck and shoulders, taste-buds gone–and those are the good parts. To add a little laughter to my life, I pulled out old Reader’s Digests and went through one a day. Over the years I’ve read these little magazines with a sharpie in hand to circle the stories and lines worth re-reading, so to go through an old copy takes only 30 minutes or so. Just the good stuff.

I may need to do that again. We who live in Katrina-land need laughter, wherever and however it may be found. That’s why you won’t find me trying to deprive some of our local people of their Mardi Gras parades. If that will help them deal with their dreary existence in this sad place these days, it’s a small price to pay. (Someone told me that when Billy and Ruth Graham moved into the North Carolina mountains, they came across a moonshine jug in the woods. A reporter asked Mrs. Graham what she thought of that. As I recall, she said, “The people up here have a hard life in these mountains. Perhaps they feel they need that to get through these difficult winters.” I appreciate the grace of that.)

The Tears. The Louisiana legislature is in special session this week, called by Governor Kathleen Blanco to resolve issues concerning our levee boards and New Orleans’ excessive government. What looked like a slam-dunk to most of us turned out to be one more frustating lesson in Louisiana politics. Shall we consolidate all our local levee boards into one with overall, professional authority to assure proper coordination and the safety of our region? And how about the seven tax assessors in New Orleans? Can we downsize them into one office the way the rest of the world works, particularly with a smaller population? And can we quit having two sheriffs for Orleans Parish (one civil, one criminal) and act like every other county and parish in America? Apparently not. One of the representatives for the wiped out section of New Orleans said, “I don’t know how to vote until I contact all our people and find out what they want.” I wanted to scream, “Have you ever heard of LEADERSHIP?”

Tears of frustration. The rest of the world, particularly Washington, looks at our state and local politics and makes judgments about the sanity of all of us down here.

Tears of sadness. My grandchildren’s beloved Beignet died today.

Beignet (pronounced ben-YAY) was a West Highland terrier, bought when he was 6 weeks old–snow white, the absolute cutest dog on the planet, sweetest, best temperament. He brought so much joy to Neil and Julie and their three children. He would recognize me when I drove up, and look at me like he was about to say something really profound. They named him for the little French pastry on which you sprinkle lots of powdered sugar and eat with cafe au lait. The children called him my grand-dog.

This is the time of the year when the neighbor’s Sago palm tree produces its red fruit. Our nine-year-old granddaughters picked some yesterday and dropped it in their back yard where Beignet proceeded to eat it. In the early hours of this morning,the family heard him being sick and Neil rushed him to the vet. The family went in to visit him later this morning, taking along his favorite toy, a stuffed animal they had repeatedly asked him not to chew, but which even smells of him, and laid it beside him. He was unconscious with a tube down his throat. The vet called later to say he had died. The family will bury him Sunday afternoon in the Slidell piney woods behind the Gatwood grandparents’ home. It’s the first time these grandchildren have lost a pet to death and they are broken-hearted. We all are.

Anyone who has ever loved a dog, and more importantly, been loved by one, understands.

One thought on “Laughter and tears

  1. Joe,

    On the ASPCA website’s list of toxic plants, the sago palm is listed second (first is marijuana). There are many common yard and house plants that are toxic to pets — just do a search on the Internet and you’ll see.

    This is a classic case of “I wish I knew then what I know now.” No parent wants their children to go through the loss of a beloved pet. We will be sad for many days to come.