LESS THAN ONE year after Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the gulf coast, our professional society convened for a Tech Education & Training Conference on infrastructure — in none other than the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. Scheduled years in advance, the storm actually threatened to postpone our get-together. City Leaders ensured “that area will definitely be clean, safe, and operational when you arrive.” Everyone else agreed the timeliness of the meeting’s success was poignant too. The week featured the normal collaborative ingredients: a ribbon-cutting dinner, breakout seminars, a daily keynote address — but that particular time and place emphasized the relevance of our group’s mission patently “… preparing for challenges through development of emergency response to natural disasters” and other crises. We gawked at the impressive capabilities of companies and project successes in the Trade Fair, and found these highlights especially riveting:
- D-Day Museum Tour: the Big Easy was home to seven plants that fabricated 20k of those boxy-grey ramped-end Higgins landing craft used to transport troops to beachfronts at Normandy and the South Pacific during WWII. We spent 2-½ emotional hours listening to verbal histories, watching documentaries, then learning about Nazi, Japanese, and Allied equipment, encounters, human losses, and reflections. It was moving.
- Hurricane Katrina Tour: charter buses hauled us to the Ninth Ward, St. Bernard’s Parish, and the 17th Street Canal to see the aftermath of Katrina’s destruction first-hand. There were piles of debris unmoved, collapsed homes, spray-painted pleas for help, high water lines on everything, plus boats and cars where they ought not be. Amidst the sepia-toned panorama, there were also — earth movers, FEMA villages, functioning churches, interim flood control measures, and new levees as rays of hope. Earlier in the week my taxi cab driver said he didn’t have homeowners insurance, so he was “saving up for a new roof.”
- Closing Banquet: all week our events team reminded us to “make sure you mark your name on the seating chart outside Ballroom C so your plate gets counted for the closing dinner – that’s your RSVP.” So I waited till most seats filled up to put my name on an empty spot 3/4 the way back with a decent view. When Saturday rolled around though, four of us were circling that particular table like musical chairs. What to do? Apparently some of the others invited contingent members like myself to sit there too. I started to walk away when a friendly face dismissed himself instead – kindly insisting – leaving the rest with precarious feelings like, “it’s a dinner party, be my guest, enjoy” — let the games begin.
Just then my immediate neighbor, one of the last-minute invitees, stands to approach the podium. After a few introductory words he begins to recite the poem In Flander’s Fields from memory to kick-off the evening. “Wait, Wha? Oh Dear!” I just then realized a runway extends halfway into the audience — and “this is actually one of the head tables! My neighbor’s the Guest of Honor and acting Chief!” What did I do!?
As he returns, I struggle to suppress veritable feelings of sinking by faux-pas, hoping to maintain any smithering of my contribution to the conversation somewhere below anxious chatter and above petrified silence, “give me the words lord have mercy.”
As we ate, I discovered our neighbor was a Washington DC regular spending most his time “on the Hill now” in his own words, having enjoyed an incredibly decorated career across the globe building outposts to protect the world’s protectors. We talked about growing up, youth activities, tech school, vacations, and plans for the future. In salutation, G.J. excused himself to present roses to the General’s wife signaling the end of the business event. “I made it!”
We stood as the BMOC returned for his bulletin and I tried my best to make eye contact as we shook hands in parting, “I’m the grad student member delegate from the SoTex Chapter, it was my privilege to sit next to you at dinner, Sir.”
“The honor was all mine,” he assured.
“This is a day I won’t forget,” I added as the TopCats resumed playing Jazz.
Back at the office our CAD draftsman (De La Cruz) wanted to hear all about the trip. His evaluation was, “Sometimes life’s like a box of chocolates, sometimes it’s like shrimp gumbo.”
“when your host arrives” – Luke 14:10
Title: Upside Down
Artist: Diana Ross, Diana (1980)
“Spirituality is a mixed-up, topsy-turvy, helter-skelter godliness that turns our lives into an upside-down toboggan ride of unexpected turns, surprise bumps and bone shattering crashes — a life ruined by a Jesus who loves us right into his arms.” – Mike Yaconelli