“WHO’S THE HELL KATRINA?”
-Graffiti on Division Street home, Biloxi, MS, Fall 2005
The singular origin of the Colony is up for debate, but a general agreement is that the two that first put tents out in the field behind the church were Hambone Matt and Polesaw Pete. Hambone was an M.F.A. fiction candidate living on Lake Charles in western Lousiana and teaching introductory English classes at a school on the shore out there. Polesaw Pete was an engineer from the I-66 corridor west of Washington D.C. I didn’t discover either of these facts for weeks because when you spend all day cutting down trees and ripping out drywall you don’t want to talk about things that take energy to think about. You want to drink beers, pass a pipe around a campfire, and listen to Owen play “Country Roads” and “Wagon Wheel,” smilingly content with the southern stars and the smell of wood smoke in your hair. And we all left our pasts behind us for the first couple weeks. There wasn’t a history, only the present of East Biloxi.
It wasn’t all stars and smiles though…the colony had a sense of elitism towards short-termers and always did. It did toward me as well until a couple weeks in, and then they were the best guys I ever knew. It gave me a strange feeling in the pit of my stomach by January to think of the dozen that frequented that firepit on the southwestern corner my first night. The firepit isn’t even there anymore— when Gerry left, he took his pit with him and left Owen and Rohde to build a new pit across the field.
In its heyday though, it was the best mix of Southern sprawling drawl, Darryl, Darryl, and Darryl, Jack Daniels, a profound dislike of the sweetness of Southern Comfort, a love of the smell of sawdust and the camaraderie that a self-familiar tree crew dropping tons of wood everyday inevitably acquires.
- Billy. Team Termite liason, officially recognized by Harrison County and wore the badge like a gold star to prove it (it was easy in those early days of chaos and need to acquire such badges and recognitions, temporary medical licenses and checkpoint bypasses. Hell, even Jungle Jim had one.) Billy once told me a story of getting into an argument with his mother on their way up through eastern Pennsylvania, getting left on the side of the road, hiking to a truck stop, catching a ride a hundred miles north on the highway to the next rest stop, and low and behold managing to catch up with his mother at that very stop. That sort of resilience was all over the place down in early autumn Biloxi. Billy’s humor kept the fire going lively back then before he got his wisdom teeth out and then the night of the crosses turned everything to shit. In Billy Beckett’s ever-famous words, “I cuddle…but I don’t mean it.” Or better, “You know how a girl knows she’s had an orgasm? Because my clothes are on and I’m in my truck driving home.” Billy and Gerry were the unquestioned leaders of Team Termite, Gerry a notch above Billy only because Gerry was one of the best natural leaders Hands On ever saw.
- Gerry. Gerry was the leader. Gerry with his easy-going demeanor if you worked hard for him, Gerry whose boss took his Manhattan $150 a plate steakhouse managing stint over for him so that he could come haul trees off of impoverished family homes for three months. Gerry who profusely refuses any bourbon sweeter than pure JD. Gerry who silently led work under the sophomoric noses of Dingo and Scuba, a job he didn’t ask for, that he never asked for. The day Gerry packed up his truck and left was a sad day—it’s no coincidence that it predated by days the exodus of no less than a dozen long-termers, most previously on the fence for staying through the holiday. A college winter break trip advisor asked him to quiet down so that their group could sleep easier. Gerry was the lifeblood of Termite Camp.
- Polesaw. In the Lord of the Flies allegory I played with in my head, Polesaw was Roger. Clearly this is a tough role to hold up, although Polesaw crushing Mohawk Alex’s cardboard house could be argued as analogous to Roger killing Piggy. However, the day Mohawk Alex represents intelligence and civilization will be in so many words an interesting day for Katrina reflections. At heart, Polesaw was probably a good guy, I never knew him well enough to see it as clearly as others. I do know that he loved Termite, and loved the work he was doing down here enough to get transferred to work in the area. That’s all I got. He also had glasses and had to go to the E.R. for chest pains once. He also started the Colony with Hambone and at one point may have vied for Sarah’s affection with Billy. Billy won.
- Owen. Owen the JMU grad, the youngest of the original Termites and a good-hearted friend trying to figure it out same as me. Owen kept the fire going with his guitar each night. He rocked us like a wagon wheel, took us home on country roads, and at points also invited us to sit on his face and tell him that we loved him. Owen loved hitting on girls and he loved Safety Meetings. He hated bars and never once went to the Pub, with the exception of his birthday.
- Hambone was by far the sketchiest Termite, and for those reasons didn’t quite find his niche on his return trip back to camp (he left after three days.) When not being an elitist dick Hambone was busy lusting after Elli and then when that didn’t work out, anything really. He bought Jane and Cora a comic book about lesbians that he said they reminded him of, and then tried to move in between their mattresses upstairs. Later he brought his students’ college essays to camp over Thanksgiving and made fun of them to everyone. I apologize for the harsh profile, I’m sure he had better qualities, I just didn’t get to see any of them.
- Monkey Mike was the pretty boy Termite, literally. Mike was an actor in the real world, Sex in the City, Law and Order: SVU, a couple other shows that escape me. Hard worker in the field, climbing up trees and navigating limbs with ease of a chimp. When he came back to camp he switched gears from trees to projects; last I left him, he was putting together a collaborative reading of A Christmas Carol between D’Iberville High School students and HOUSA volunteers. Monkey is a great guy with good intentions that tried to smooth things between factions when the admin vs. long-termers battle began to fire up. He never really acquired the same grizzle that the other Termites had but he fit in just fine.
- Ronnie. Ronnie was great, and Ronnie was nuts. Last I heard he’s in jail now in Louisiana for ending a barfight by coming a little too close to ending the guy. I went to the LSU homecoming game with Ronnie and some other guys. As we approached his brother’s house, he pointed out the separate parking lots and types of fights that he had been involved in at each (“Circle K? That’s where we had the bat fight. Winn-Dixie, that was just a fistfight. McDonald’s though, that was a shitshow. Last time I ever bring a bat to a gunfight.”) Ronnie’s brother Jeremiah told me the next day while showing me his Desert Eagle that the McDonald’s fight resulted in a ricochet bullet that landed in Ronnie’s leg a quarter inch from his femoral artery. Landed him in a wheelchair for three months. Ronnie was a do-er, and when he wasn’t cutting trees he was calling up every town name he could find on the Mississippi and Louisiana coastline, setting up donation lines. Intensely well-intentioned. He also had numerous less than politically correct one-liners that everyone cautiously laughed at and shrugged off. You know, because he was kind of crazy. Hungrier than a refugee. Skinnier than a Holocaust Hebrew. That kind of thing- what do you do with someone like that? A Termite once and always, I hope I see him again someday.
- John-boy. John was an EMT in training from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and if you got him in conversation was one of the nicest guys you could find. He loved his Jack (I know it must seem by now that we all did, but he really loved his Jack. The John-boy special was a shot of Jack and a Bud over and over until the darts stopped hitting the wall. He also got everyone JD memorabilia from the factory on his break, and was profoundly disappointed at the new information that Jack Daniels’ real first name was in fact not John but Jasper.) I got along great with John, no one couldn’t. He was also always laughing at something. Last I heard, the constant smile was getting him into trouble at Air Force boot camp.
- Rohde. I’d be remiss not to comment— Rohde lives and dies Termite. Rohde made the Termite safety manual and the graphic on the cover. Rohde came into camp about a week after I did, and has been good friends with Billy for over a decade. Rohde is the only person other than myself that has admitted to passing out in the car wash next to the pub. Rohde has also had sex with over 100 women, including probably 3 or 4 from camp alone. Rohde loves rabble-rousing and he loves drinking. Rohde is one of the nicest people ever and always has a smile for a brother. Rohde and Owen were the only Termites left in late December.
- Jojo. I consider Jojo a Termite whether or not he considers himself one. Jojo originally came with a church group from Tennessee in early October. Jojo is maybe 5’2” on a good day, little blonde guy with a Memphis drawl and a big ole’ smile. One time Jim the Cook bet Jojo 20 dollars he couldn’t drop a tree on a 20 from 50 feet away. Jojo won the bet and got it on film. Jojo also carved a hand out of a tree trunk with a chainsaw on Thanksgiving. Jojo also wants to be an actor— one time I was privy to a conversation between Jojo and Monkey Mike where Monkey proclaimed that Jojo definitely could “fill a niche.” I always thought that such a niche would be a small one, like maybe a notch in a tree trunk signed Jojo
- Andre 6500. Play on Outkast and the name stuck. I think a 6500 is some sort of really good chainsaw. On bad days Billy used to downgrade Andre to a 3250 or a 960. That sort of semantic prodding stopped after Andre’s second week when everyone realized he was the best saw on Tree Crew. Andre 6500 is one of the best individuals I have ever met in my life. He always had one of those good-natured twinkles whenever he interacted with anyone, and never got down or upset. He also was reading Still Life with Woodpecker. All the ladies loved him because he was the best person in the world. All the guys loved him for the same reason. I’ll miss Andre.
In my first week at camp I kept a low profile to feel everything out, especially the social experiment of the field behind the church. I sat on the edge of the colony’s campfire circle at night, taking it in and trying not to offend. Termite tried so hard to be tough back then…it was still a young movement back then, saturated with a sense of invulnerability that pops up with such close-knit groups in environments of spontaneous society. It hadn’t yet encountered any of the sort of trouble that would eventually disband the members one by one.
I wasn’t exactly sure where I stood with Termite until the day Alec got kicked off of tree crew. Alec was an obnoxiously loquacious business school graduate from Manhattan that made terrible pantomimic jokes no one laughed at. He was tall enough to be more of a help when out in the field, but unfortunately all he did was get in the way, endanger himself, and annoy everyone. Alec was a medium-term three-weeker, but one of those three-weekers people assumed was still in his first week through the entirety of his stay. Alec was also the only person I know that got kicked off of two crews in the same day. But one story at a time.
Termites live and die by the chainsaw. I used a chainsaw maybe twice while I was at camp, but it was always a treat to go out with Team Termite every now and then (before I got caught up in the Mold Movement) and drag branches out to the street with them. It was good outdoors work, sawdust and fresh air and less dust than interiors work. The day Alec got kicked off of tree crew we had spent the morning bringing down some trees in an alleyway yard north of Division on a dead end street. In the confusion of Sarah taking Polesaw Pete to the ER for chest pains that morning, no one noticed Alec attempting polesaw operation at the edge of the yard. I think it was Rohde that finally sauntered up to the guy and asked something to the effect of
“Alec, what are you doing? That’s a live tree. Put down the saw.”
Alec proceeded to walk around the yard and look at nature for the next hour while the rest of us sawed broken branches and pulled wood to the curb. None of the Termites would even acknowledge the guy, but he brought it upon himself. At one point Ronnie and I were taking a water break and Alec comes up to us. There was a dog barking up the street. Alec puts his lanky arms behind his neck and leans back, smiling.
“Man, what is the deal with that dog? Just love to put it out of its misery and throw it in the debris pile, right?”
“Hm.” Ronnie made some guttural noise that was a mix of clearing his throat and politely acknowledging that Alec had spoke. He then put his water bottle back down on the trailer and walked back up toward the site. I left him and followed Ronnie’s purple and gold LSU sweatshirt up the driveway.
The next site we worked at before lunch was clearing space for a FEMA trailer on a pile of wrecked foundation. It was on a small street parallel to Division a little ways from the first site, and all that was left of it was stuff, stuff, stuff. A broken grandfather clock, books, a diploma, some medals, and hundreds of unused bullets. Someone had spray-painted a name and phone number on a piece of the debris, and that was a common sight back then. Who knew whether it was the homeowner or a concerned neighbor that had taken the time to identify the destruction; in October many Biloxians still hadn’t even come back to survey Katrina’s gifts to their lives. I was part of the first group on site, as we had split up into two teams and left Gerry and Billy to do a quick job with the Kubota. John-boy, Rohde and I walked around the yard. I knelt down and picked up three books in a broken box surrounded by glass. The respective topics were Eastern philosophy, the mechanics of sailing, and American West warfare. I bit the inside of my cheek. John-boy started picking up bullets and putting them in boxes. Rohde and I pulled some broken furniture to the side of the road. Alec stood around smiling like an idiot.
Once Gerry and Billy arrived, the lack of feasibility of using the skidsteer to clear a lawn covered with bullets was quickly vocalized. We left the site with a cow skull we’d found in the road next to the rubble and went to Yankie Stadium for lunch. The only people who would even look at Alec by that time were Chelsea and I, in the tersest of acknowledgements to his moronic jokes, not wanting to be thought analogous by association. We ate on the back of the truck out of Styrofoam Salvation Army food containers, and marveled at our luck, pecan pie dessert under the Mississippi sun.
After lunch Team Termite found themselves surveying a fucker of a tree leaning against the side of a house on Water Street, one block from the Gulf. Water Street was by and large a wasteland of foundations and the pieces of houses that once occupied them, but this house was salvageable once the tree came down. It was probably 120 feet tall and a precision job if there ever was one. Ronnie, Rohde, and 6500 got up on the roof of the house and I roped up chainsaws to them with a primitive pulley.
For the first half-hour there wasn’t really much to do on the ground. You couldn’t bring the whole tree down immediately or you’d destroy the neighboring house. There was maybe 12 feet of space next to the house in which to drop the pieces from the west side. It was a thought job. Billy and the Kuboda took this time to consolidate the 8 foot pile of debris in front of the house away from the entrance and toward the road. Regardless, as John-boy and I stood ready to clear whatever we could and Gerry barked advice to the roof, Alec sat in a rocking chair and laughed at himself talking like a grandmother. John-boy and I just kinda shook our heads.
The homeowner came down from the second floor apartment behind his wrecked home and offered John-boy and I drinks. We each took a soda and sat apart from each other. The sugar hits pretty hard when you’ve been drinking water and sweating trees all day and I zoned out for a second before Gerry put his hand on my shoulder 3 minutes later.
“Will, do me a favor and get up and walk around and stuff, will you?”
I felt terrible and stood up to walk toward the street. Gerry stopped me again.
“Sorry, it’s just I want you and John to be moving around. Carrie’s coming by in a couple minutes to pick up Alec and take him home.”
I looked at Gerry and nodded. Behind us, Alec had his eyes closed in the sun and was rocking in the old, gray-white chair.
Nurse Carrie arrived with Amy de Huff a couple minutes later. I tried to stay away from the fanfare, and walk small branches back and forth between the back of the house and the debris pile out front, but it basically went down like this from my point of view.
Gerry: Alec, Carrie’s here to take you to another site.
Alec: (confused) What?
[I leave and come back 90 seconds later]
Gerry: Look, you’re a liability to the crew! You don’t help out, you don’t do anything, you put yourself in dangerous situations, and I don’t want you out here with us.
[On the roof, 6500, Ronnie, and Rohde have stopped working to watch this. Rohde is smiling.]
Alec: Well did you ask everyone else? Isn’t this is a democracy?
Gerry: No, this is not a democracy, or if it is you better believe it’s my democracy. No one wants you here. Look around. No one. Now leave.
[John-boy puts his arm around Alec and pulls him aside. I walk back to the front of the house and purposely circle it completely on my way back just to avoid the two of them.]
The fanfare ends with Alec kicking a branch into the debris pile on his way to Carrie and Amy’s car. I later heard that Alec got taken to Jammin’s interiors crew, and that Jammin kicked him off that crew two hours later for the same shit.
The rest of the day goes beautifully. Ronnie gets his saw stuck no less than 6 times. 6500 calls the final angle as the sky begins to set orange through the trees in the gulf. Billy supports the tree with the bucket, Andre makes the last cut, and John-boy, Ronnie, the homeowner, and I pull the weight away from the house with a rope. Perfect drop. Gerry breaks out his harmonica and plays “Ode to a Fallen Tree,” the jingle Termites play at the end of any big job. I laugh and watch Rohde, Ronnie, John-boy, and 6500 do their jigs in a small circle around Jer. Rohde, 6500, and I get in the back of Jer’s trailer on the way back to base, not before the homeowner’s son pulls up alongside and plays the first 30 seconds of “Pour Some Sugar on Me” for us. Jeff and I smoke Marlboros, drink Trump Ice, and close our eyes sitting below the bucket of the skid steer as Irish Hill Road approaches.
Alec would return to camp that day to complain to Dingo and DC about how he should be allowed to go on any crew he wanted. In his remaining couple of mornings, he would stand awkwardly near the Termites sharpening their saws every morning and wait for Jer to affirm the status of Alec’s worn welcome. At one point Dingo approached Jer at the campfire to talk about it. I don’t know what was said but Alec never went on a tree crew again. I would pull him aside every now and then and tell him to just go out on Interiors, work his ass off, get the attention of Jammin, and if things went well maybe Jer would give him the o.k. I don’t know if Alec understood what I was saying, but I’m pretty sure he just went on Interiors Alex’s crew for the rest of his time there.
The last night before Alec left, Rohde, 6500, and I were at the pub with some other friends (it’s hard to remember who’s ever at the pub on any given night). I’m talking to 6500 in the corner by the jukebox when all of the sudden a chair moves quickly and Alec is standing threatening someone. We investigate. He’s trying to get Rohde to go outside and fight him. Rohde sits back in his chair and laughs at Alec. I talk down drunk Alec, buy him a beer, and tell him to leave Rohde be. I tell him that Rohde can’t touch the work he’s done down here, that Alec had a great effect on the community and he was going to go back to the world of finance and be happier for that. Alec snorted and said something elitist about Manhattan and about how he would kick Rohde’s ass in a heartbeat. I leave him with someone he’d come with and go back to the dartboards table to sit with Rohde.
“What’d you say to him?”
“Brother, this is exactly what happened. Alec was sitting there, I sit here, I ask him what he’s drinking. He says a Long Island Iced Tea. [I smile] Yeah, yeah, I know, but that wasn’t it. I just nodded and kept talking to him about how he was leaving tomorrow.”
“So why’d he get mad?”
“I guess because at the end I told him he couldn’t possibly fathom how happy I was to see him go.”
6500 and I shake our heads, admittedly smirking, right as John-boy rolls up out of nowhere with that goofy John-boy grin and 4 John-boy specials.