My name is Zeke. I live in the bayous outside of New Orleans. I am proud of being part of the Cajun Navy─as we were dubbed by the news media. Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coastline with the ferocity of an attacking enemy army with a category four. The winds and rain were devastating to anything that stood in their deadly path.
I’d had a similar experience with Katrina in August of 2005. The memory of that awful time is forever burned into my soul. That’s why I volunteered to take my air boat, along with my best friend, Bovary, and try to do some good for those poor folks in dire need. The U.S. government is slow, as usual, to respond to a crisis of this magnitude.
My partner, Bovary, and I talked about making the trip as a team. He’s been my closest friend as long as I can remember and we shared most of our major life experiences together. We considered ourselves rough-and-tough, battle-hardened men after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and living through Katrina and its aftermath of destruction. Helping others in need was in our blood. We’d want them to do the same for us.
We chipped in together and bought a used airboat where we hunted alligators and boa constrictors. We also earned a meager living by taking tourists out into the swamps and bayous to show them swamp wildlife. We felt we had already experienced everything in our lifetime we could endure until we volunteered to help in the rescue effort during Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.
We packed up the truck hauling the airboat and drove hard for ten hours. The closer we got to the eye of the storm, the fiercer the wind and rain grew. At times we could barely see out of our windshield. We drove on into the storm, braving its worst. We slowly pulled up to I-45 near downtown Houston to find a large segment of the highway already underwater. The rain was relentless and unforgiving, but Bovary and I had been through many violent storms that made lives miserable and wreaked widespread destruction.
We stopped at the water’s edge, unloaded our boat into the rising waters, and headed toward the towering buildings of the inner city. I looked up in front of us and saw something amazing─water crafts of all kinds and sizes scattered along a two-mile stretch of liquid highway. I peered through the grey, misty vision before me and was transported back to Venice, Italy, where there are no streets, only waterways and boats, the only means of transportation in their water world. Only this was no vacation. People were dying.
We drifted out onto the water to the nearest boat carrying first responders, easily identified by their bright yellow life vests and fireman’s helmets.
“Ahoy there!” I yelled. “What can we do to help? We’re with the Louisiana Cajun Navy effort.”
One of the men in the other boat smiled. “Are you on Facebook or Twitter?”
“Yes, I am. Why do you ask?”
“We’re getting inundated with distress messages from people needing to be rescued. They’re giving their names, addresses and situation. If you go online, you can respond to any one of them that you care to. There are thousands of people begging for help.”
“Thousands?” I asked, incredulous. “All I see are about twenty boats out here. How are we gonna help that many people? Where’s the rest of the country? Where is the God damn government?”
The man shrugged as he loaded supplies into an adjoining boat.
I continued through the biting, wind-driven rain. “I don’t understand. We had plenty of warning about this storm! They sure ‘nuf messed us around during Katrina and many died needlessly. You’d think they would have learned.”
The other boatman flatly stated, “My crazy Cajun friend, you’re preaching to the choir. Unfortunately, this is all we have, so we must do whatever we can to achieve the highest level of good. The longer we chat about this, the less people we can help. This storm is here to destroy lives. We need to go, now.”
I was stunned by his words, but they made sense in the dire situation we were wrestling with. The rain came in sideways, stinging our faces like a high-pressure jet.
“Where can we grab a bite to eat? We rushed down here and forgot to eat.”
The man in the other boat reached behind him into a cooler, grabbed a cloth bag and tossed it into our boat.
“Here are some provisions of water and food that should tide you over for a while. Remember to go onto Facebook and Twitter for updates, and God bless you two for coming. I’m glad to see you’ve brought your foul weather gear.”
We said our goodbyes and drifted away on the movement of the rushing waters. We turned the craft to the right and ventured away from the other boats. The wind and driving rain suddenly dissipated as if a faucet had turned off.
“We must be in the eye of the monster, Bovary. It will pick up soon enough,” I said. It became eerily quiet except for the sound of the water lapping against the concrete walls of submerged buildings.
I turned on my phone and found the Facebook app. There were countless people begging for help. A lady from Florida uploaded a picture of a room full of elderly people with water up to their chests. One lady was holding onto a walker, one was in a wheelchair, another stood with a sorrowful, pleading expression. I showed it to Bovary.
A recorded voice accompanying the photo said, “The residents at the Gladys Hutchings Elderly Center on Ballard Street are in desperate need of rescuing. Someone please help them before they all die!”
I played the recording again for Bovary and said, “This is where we need to be, old friend.”
We fired up the boat fan and tried to get directions on the GPS but electronics weren’t working so well with all the moisture around and under us. We finally got the directions but not to the exact spot as it normally would. There was no sign of the elderly center when we reached our destination so I turned off the motor and we slowed down to a drift. The neighborhood was completely flooded, with cars barely sticking through the surface of the rising floodwaters. Then I saw something protruding out of the water. It was a street sign: Ballard.
We were on the right street, but didn’t know where the elderly home was, and time was quickly ticking away for those folks in the photo. I wasn’t sure when that shot was taken or how much further the water had risen since.My heart began to race as we drifted along through the houses and buildings.
Bovary must have felt the same pang of fear because he began to yell, “Hello! Can you hear my voice? We’re here to help!”
He yelled the same message over and over but no answer came, only ominous silence. The water was so high, it was covering the names of the businesses on the street, including the one we were seeking. We could have passed it without even realizing it was there.
“Where the hell can they be, Zeke?” Bovary pleaded.
I turned on the fan, moving to the right between two brownstone buildings. Panic grasped my chest, squeezing the breath out of me. I had no clue what to do, but turned off the engine once again to listen. Two minutes that seemed like hours passed. Panic traveled to my throat, making me sick with fear that we’d get there too late. Then I heard it. It was faint at first, then the volume of musical notes coming toward us across the water began to grow.
“Bovary, do you hear what I’m hearing?”
“Sure do. It sounds like some mighty fine piano playing to me.”
“Yeah, some good ‘ol gospel music. It’s coming from that direction.” I steered the airboat toward the music and bumped into the front of the elderly home.
“Zeke, can you believe this? That is the sweetest music I’ve ever heard.”
I yelled this time, “People inside, we’re here to help you! Stay calm and we’ll be right there!”
I steered the boat to a window that had been broken by the pressure of the water against it. Bovary and I cleared the jagged shards clinging to the frame and crawled inside. The front door, more than half submerged, would have been impossible to open. We found the room the music was coming from and were greeted by one of the most surreal and beautiful sights either of us had ever seen─an old man sitting on a piano bench, water up to his waist, plunking away at ivory keys. The residents were taking it all in just like this was a normal day and this fine man was there to entertain them on a quiet Sunday afternoon. Truth was, his playing kept them all calm so they wouldn’t be afraid.
He had a captive audience.
Those lovely people were saved, along with many others. We lost count of the people we rescued over the days and nights traversing the waterways of Houston.
Later, we had the privilege of speaking with the “piano man.” His name was Dexter Brown and he was a long-time resident at the home.
He wanted to personally thank us with a grin. “I had the situation well in hand.”
I laughed and replied, “In hand is an understatement.”
As he extended his right hand to me, I noticed that his left hand, partially covered by a black brace, appeared to be mangled. I asked, “What happened to your hand? Were you injured during the storm?”
Mr. Brown told us his story:
“I was a classically trained pianist living in the slums of New York. I was a natural and had high hopes of getting my mother and me out of the ghetto by becoming a professional performer. I was on that very course when the unthinkable happened. Some of the local boys didn’t like the idea of me being so “uppity” in that lowlife neighborhood and decided to take the thing away that made me different from them, and what I loved the most – my ability to play piano.
“I was walking home one afternoon after practice for an upcoming performance. A few agent scouts would be attending to hear me play. I was well on my way out, but the local thugs had other plans for me. I rounded a corner close to our apartment when the boys jumped me from behind, put a sack over my head and knocked me to the ground.
“One of the boys yelled, ‘Hold him down and lay out his left hand!’ At least three sets of hands forced me, face down, onto the concrete. It was dead quiet for a few moments, until I felt the first hammer strike on my opened left hand, then another, then more rained down upon the muscle, tendons and bones. I heard myself screaming. Just as quickly as it started, it ended, along with my hopes of ever playing the piano professionally. The boys ran off into the night, howling like wolves after a slaughter.”
Bovary and I were speechless. “You haven’t played the piano publicly since that happened to you? That was a long time ago.”
Dexter Brown, grinning from ear to ear, quietly stated, “I never had a reason to until that day. Something came over me. I played like I was giving that lost performance, the one I was scheduled to give so long ago. I’m glad I did. I’m happy you two enjoyed the concert.”
Bovary and I are back home now, happy and sad to have taken part in history. We set out to find people in trouble, and we did─but we also found beauty in tragedy, courage in chaos. Maybe God gave Mr. Brown that ability just for that moment, so he could calm the fear in all the dear, old hearts who attended his long-overdue recital that day.
Larry Yoke has been writing short stories and poems since a child. Now his writing entertains and contains current social messages taken from the pages of today’s headlines. His poetry and books have won national awards in 2018, 2019 and his writings have found their way into several anthologies, three for poetry and one for writers. He has proven his mettle as an established author worthy of reading. His books are found on all the online book stores, his social media and author sites.