_A suburban high school student finds love (sort of) when his sleepy Louisiana town—and his plans to rob the grave of Adolf Hitler’s horse—gets rained on by Hurricane Katrina. A true story._
Street art by Banksy. Photo by “artbymags”:http://www.flickr.com/photos/artbymags/2835472499/ via Flickr
This Halloween, my friends and I want to dig Hitler’s horse up. It’s not that we’re criminals, or racists, or have some desire to see Nordlicht ride again, trample the non-Aryans and breathe ghostly, racist fire. It’s that we live in Destrehan, a mind-numbingly dull suburb of New Orleans, and Nordlicht just happens to be buried at the nearby LaBranche Plantation, a historic site that boasts of Hitler’s horse—and twelfth president Zachary Taylor’s bathtub—on its brochure.
Destrehan is a unique type of boring. Because it’s twenty-one miles away from New Orleans, it’s far away enough to capture the country atmosphere but close enough to let its inhabitants feel connected to the city. This puts Destrehan residents in a peculiar situation. A few miles farther away and the boredom would be intense enough to cause accidental suicides, likely by means of gunplay, electrical experimentation, or trying to find new ways to masturbate. A few miles closer and we would be in nearby Metairie, a suburb that wants so badly to matter to anyone that it has filled itself with enough shopping malls and movie theaters to exhaust even the most energetic fourteen-year-old girl. Stuck in the middle of these two extremes, we are just struck by an odd sort of quiet, a boredom that inspires victimless crimes like unburying Hitler’s horse and using the bones to build a coffee table, lawn chair, or matching cutlery.
Destrehan isn’t completely without appeal, though. If charm had been a hurricane, it must’ve come like Katrina, slamming into New Orleans and hitting Destrehan with just a tip. That said, the only historic charm to be found in Destrehan is lined up on the banks of the Mississippi River. The coast is dotted with plantation homes including the Destrehan and Ormond plantations. The Destrehan plantation itself was built in 1787, making it the oldest plantation home in the lower Mississippi River Valley. Recently, Destrehan’s place in history was recognized when the stretch of River Road separating Destrehan from the levee was designated a “Mile of History.” The title is misleading though. It is, in fact, 2.7 miles of history. The choice to call it simply the “Mile of History” may have been because “2.7 Miles of History” isn’t nearly as catchy, but I don’t think Destrehan really has enough history to fill 2.7 miles. I don’t deny the grandeur of the plantations, but the history isn’t nearly as rich as the plantation owners. What, after all, actually occurred in Destrehan? In the seventeenth century, our coast was visited by Jean Baptiste le Moyne, Pierre le Moyne, and Henri de Tonti. They visited Destrehan. They passed through Destrehan. They cruised through before heading on to bigger, better things. One of the only notable historical events to occur in Destrehan is the stopping of a slave rebellion in 1811, a slave rebellion that actually began in the neighboring St. James parish. Many of the slaves, along with their leader Charles Deslonde, were sentenced to death, shot, decapitated, and had their heads stuck onto poles along River Road, the “Mile of [not necessarily good] History.” Just down the road is the site of the 1722 German and French settlement Bustard’s Cove. Today it’s one of the few cow pastures that still exist along River Road. So to recap, the “Mile of History” shows: places we owned slaves, places we killed slaves, and a cow pasture. St. Charles historian Fay Louque said this to the _Times Picayune_ about the designation of the “Mile of History”: “We’re doing this for the tourism so busloads of people can come to visit.”
Oddly, the busloads do come to Destrehan. They come not for history and not for cow pastures, though, but for religion. Almost every Sunday, hundreds of people are herded into Destrehan to attend mass at the Covenant Church, an “outreach” of the Jesse Duplantis Ministries. This gargantuan stadium-church, owned by televangelist superstar Jesse Duplantis, is the perfect church for people who love crowds as much as they love the Lord. Unfortunately, this enterprise is in no way good for Destrehan. While tourism in New Orleans brings in countless dollars for the city, this type of tourism in Destrehan brings countless dollars to Jesse Duplantis. He lands at the New Orleans airport in his multi-million dollar Falcon 50 private jet, and then, after showing off his jewelry to (and forgetting to tip) the person who fueled his plane (my brother), he hops into his Hummer 2, Corvette, or Lexus SE and speeds over to the Covenant Church in time to give a sermon. The Lexus isn’t necessary though, not for Jesse or anyone. The church staff is happy to let you in regardless of your appearance or intention. In fact, once you drive past the church-owned traffic cops, there is a church employee standing in the road, directing you into the parking lot. If you’re unfortunate enough to live on the other side of the church, you may find it hard to get past this employee, as he believes it is his sole duty to save your soul and will wave you in quite determinedly, saying, “No! This is where you want to go!”
It’s no wonder most kids in Destrehan want to escape. The monotony can become too much. By seventh grade, my friends and I were quickly growing up, with all the angst of a teenager but none of the means to get away. The typical day consisted of us playing Super Smash Bros. on Nintendo 64 then walking to the gas station to get Icees. We’d sit sweating in front of the glass storefront, spinning the wise words only teenagers can.
“Man, this place sucks.”
“I know, dude.”
But some of us found ways out of Destrehan. My friend Danny was particularly determined. While we all talked about getting out of Destrehan like convicts planning to break out of a minimum-security prison, he was equipped with a spoon to dig out. By eighth grade, he was spending every weekend out of Destrehan, getting rides from his parents, older friends, taking the bus in and out of Metairie. The rest of us stayed back, though, and things didn’t get much better. We still played video games and drank Icees, but we made the best out of what we had, forming stupid bands with intensely serious yet unremarkable names, teaching curse words to our friend who moved here from Korea, and making plans for things we’d never do, like become pro skaters or unbury Hitler’s horse.
Finally, in 2005, there was a little excitement. Hurricane Katrina was making its way toward us, so me, my mom, dad, uncle, grandma, grandpa, three badly trained dachshunds, one elderly little pooch, my well-mannered dog, and my chubby cat all made our way to my grandma’s house in Alexandria. Alexandria is a lot like Destrehan in that it’s boring. It’s bigger though, with a rundown, country feel to it, has almost no restaurants, and it’s even farther from New Orleans or anything else worthwhile for that matter. By the time we could return home, though, New Orleans wasn’t so great anymore. It was empty and mostly destroyed. The hurricane hadn’t done nearly as much damage to Destrehan. There was no flooding. Two of the trees in my front yard had been snapped off their roots and were leaning against my house. Shingles were thrown everywhere, siding ripped off. Destrehan was a bit of a mess but one you could live in, one you could fix within a year.
My grandparents and uncle had both lived in New Orleans. My uncle’s house was slightly flooded, but my grandparent’s house was completely destroyed so everyone came to live with us, including my uncle’s three dachshunds and elderly mutt Gladys. Gladys, who has since died, was a small black and white dog who was so weak and thin she shook, could no longer control her bowels, barely walked but sometimes hopped around the yard, rocking back and forth like a bucking bronco. She was so small a creature, but without even a voice, she summed up everyone’s feelings about the hurricane’s aftermath. Upon returning home, with big brown eyes wide open, she looked up at the house with its missing siding, the trees resting against it, and shit.
Destrehan wasn’t decimated. It just had a remarkably different feel to it. For several weeks before FEMA showed up to help get the town back in order, there was no school and nowhere to go for the kids, and everyone’s parents stayed home, glued to their television sets, watching the news or trying fervently to catch up on missed work. The kids just took to the streets. I remember feeling like a young outlaw, not knowing why. I may have been living vicariously through New Orleans again, wanting to be in the “wild,” untouched. My friend had just gotten a car, a beat-up black Civic. We sped along the boulevard (the only boulevard and main roadway in Destrehan) going nowhere in particular, just looking out at the houses, sometimes picking up this girl we both liked. She was pretty funny, too. I’d known her almost all my life. It was laughable. When some people talk about being in love, they say it’s like being the only two people in the world. None of us were in love, but looking around, it really seemed we were the only two people in the world, except of course there were three of us. All around us just silence and emptiness.
**Aaron Friedman** is from Destrehan, LA. He is currently majoring in
English-Secondary Education at LSU. One day he hopes to be a household
name like Winston Churchill or Fridgidaire.