August anniversaries

Gulfport, Mississippi and Bethel, New York are 1,283 miles (2,065 kilometers) apart.

It would seem as these two locales would have absolutely nothing in common.

Yet they are forever linked by 17 August 1969.

Those who were in Bethel that day remember it fondly and wish they could go back.

Those in Gulfport that day would probably like to forget.

Thirty days after Ted Kennedy drove Mary Jo Koepechne to her death off Martha’s Vineyard, 28 days after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin set foot on the moon, nine days after Sharon Tate and four others were brutally butchered by Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenewinkel, Leslie Van Houten and Tex Watson on orders of Charles Manson, there came an August Sunday which made not one, but two, indelible impressions on the United States of America.

Woodstock, held on Max Yasgur’s Dairy Farm, a little more than 100 miles (160 km) from New York’s LaGuardia Airport, was filled with three and a half days of “peace, love and music”. The names of those who performed that weekend are legendary: Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Who. The list of those who didn’t perform may have been just as impressive: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles were among those who said no.

There were hopes for a 50th anniversary Woodstock. Many of the performers at the original festival who are still alive were invited. However, it never got off the ground and was cancelled in June. It would have been held at the Watkins Glen automobile race course, about 155 miles (250 km) west-northwest of Bethel.

Two years after Woodstock, organizers attempted a similar festival in Louisiana. They found some land on a levee along the Atchafayla River in Pointe Coupee Parish, 60 miles (97 km) northwest of Baton Rouge and 80 miles (128 km) southeast of Alexandria.

The Festival of Life was nothing short of a disaster. Needless to say, nothing like that has been attempted again in Louisiana.

While 400,000 were having the time of their lives in New York, residents of the Gulf Coast from New Orleans to Panama City were dealing with something which was certainly not peaceful.

Hurricane Camille crossed the western tip of Cuba hours before Richie Havens opened Woodstock. Once it emerged into the hot waters (30 degrees Celsius/86 F) of the Gulf of Mexico, it exploded, surpassing the intensity of Betsy, which had winds of 145 miles per hour (223 km/h) when it crossed the Louisiana coast at Grand Isle the evening of 9 Sepember 1965 and caused over $1 billion of damage and 76 deaths in what would become my native state.

Camille’s winds reached 170 miles per hour (265 km/h) as it made it way steadily towards the Florida panhandle the afternoon of 16 August. From Pensacola to Panama City, thousands of residents headed north into Georgia and Alabama.

The next morning, Camille was still on her inexorable march towards land.

The target, however, had shifted dramatically westward.

The storm had shifted to a north-northwest track, a path which would lead it straight towards New Orleans. It appeared the storm would follow a path eerily similar to Betsy’s, making landfall approximately 25 miles (40 km) east of Grand Isle.

If that occurred, New Orleans would have been utterly destroyed. My parents would have perished.

Eventually, the storm took a due north heading, crossing the mouth of the Mississippi River. It wiped much of southern Plaquemines Parish (county) off the map. Fortunately, evacuation orders were followed and nobody died in Louisiana.

Mississippi was not as fortunate.

The storm crossed the coast on the border between Hancock and Harrison counties. Pass Christian was ground zero. The small town between Bay St. Louis and Gulfport was blown away. Nothing remained standing.

Had the storm come in a few miles/kilometers further east, Gulfport would have been ground zero, and Biloxi would have been devastated more than it already was.

The wind speed at landfall will never be known. The wind measuring instruments in Gulfport and Biloxi were demolished. J

The storm killed 160 in Mississippi, but Camille wasn’t done.

Her remnants dumped buckets of rain on northern Mississippi, Tennessee and Kentucky before once again exploding in the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia.

This time, nobody had any notion of what was coming. Over 100 people perished in the Old Dominion, and floodwaters came dangerously close to leaving Richmond completely swamped. Richmond and Roanoke, two of the commonwealth’s largest cities, were spared the worst, but it was of little consolation.

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Twenty-five years ago this morning, I almost died because of my own stupidity.

It was that Sunday I moved into my dormitory at LSU in advance of my first semester of college.

I almost didn’t make. I probably shouldn’t have.

The night before, I slept maybe three hours. I left my house in New Orleans at 0600. My father followed me to help me move my belongings into my sardine of a room at Power Hall, which thankfully has been demolished and replaced with modern apartments.

This was the first time I drove from New Orleans to Baton Rouge alone. I knew the route, but every time, my dad was with me.

The first 50 miles (80 km) was fine.

Suddenly, I found myself drifting off the road to my right.

I fell asleep shortly after the St. James/Ascension parish line. I panicked and cut the wheel of my 1989 Chevrolet Cavalier sharply to the left. That took me across both lanes of traffic and into the median. By time I was done, I was facing westbound in the eastbound lanes of traffic.

If it were any other time except Sunday morning, I would have been dead or paralyzed.

I was beyond lucky that no traffic was coming either way. I crossed the median and continued my journey.

When I got to the McDonald’s on Louisiana Highway 30 in Gonzales to meet my dad for breakfast, I told him. He agreed I was very, very lucky.

Power Hall featured seven two-story units, rather than one high-rise. I am grateful I lived on the first floor. Climbing the stairs carrying things would have been hellish.

There was a communal bathroom and shower just down the hall. I made sure I took my shower early in the morning so I didn’t have others in there. I don’t recall anyone else ever using a shower at the same time I did.

I had a private room at Power Hall, so it was a little better. I would not want anyone to have to deal with me as a roommate, nor do I care to have someone else in my room. I like my privacy.

When I returned to LSU in January 1997, the department of campus housing did not give me a private dorm room at Kirby-Smith Hall, a high rise on the northwest edge of campus. After sleeping in the room for two nights, I hastily moved off-campus. Lucky for me, the person who was assigned to the room had not checked in, so I was alone. That worked out better, because it allowed me to stay in Baton Rogue year-round. I should have thought it out better when I first went to LSU.

The efficiency I lived in for the last two and a half years at LSU was a rat trap. I was desperate and I didn’t want to make my parents pay an outrageous sum, so I took what I could find. I lived to tell the tale.

There are so many things I wish I had done differently in college. Leaving LSU after my first year was a huge mistake. Not paying attention in class was another. I cry about it. A lot.

##########################################################################

High school football is cranking up. I want to be back in Louisiana covering games on Friday night. Kansas high school football is severely lacking.

About David

Louisiana native living in Kansas. I have Asperger’s Syndrome, addictions to The Brady Bunch, most sports, food and trivia games.

Posted on 2019-08-21, in History, LSU, Music, Weather and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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