I’m sure many of you have been watching the progress of Hurricane Rita this morning, and have probably heard that the town of Lake Charles, LA, took a major hit from the storm. Your main knowledge of this place may come from the Lucinda Williams song or a few other scattered pop culture references. For me, this is more personal, as Lake Charles is the closest thing I have to a home town (attended most of middle school and all of high school there), and my parents still live there. They wisely left in anticipation of the storm — I’m certainly hoping that other family friends and childhood buddies made the same choice.
I’ve always had a bit of a love/hate relationship with Lake Charles — moving at the age of 12 almost inevitably means that you’ll hate the new place of residence and long for the old. Still, I grew to think of the town as home. As I moved away, first to attend college in Jackson, MS, and then to Las Vegas for graduate school, I began to see the town as provincial and self-important. Native residents always seemed to hold a pride in the place that I didn’t necessarily think it had earned or deserved. They rarely left it for places with better economies or more interesting and complex cultures. Yes, it was home to major petrochemical plants that, at least for a while, formed the backbone of the local economy, but also created a miniature version of SE Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” When oil took a nosedive in the 80s, Lake Charles had to rethink itself economically. In time, and with the encouragement of a governor known for his love of gambling, the floating casinos came in to stem some of the economic losses. To my knowledge, the jury’s still out on that decision.
Distance, and perhaps age, has also given me the opportunity to rethink my disdain, and my attitude has certainly softened. When I took my wife there for the first time, I was able to re-see the town through her eyes. I suppose I’d always taken the beautiful old houses near downtown, the live oaks with Spanish moss, and the unique mix of Cajun and Texan culture for granted, but as I heard Jan talk about what an interesting and beautiful old town it was, I began to consider that maybe I’d been too harsh. I remembered that, for instance, Lake Charles had once been home to a recording industry: Dolly Parton made her first recording there, and the classic Phil Phillips song “Sea of Love” (since remade by 80s supergroup The Honeydrippers) also came from the local recording scene. The Sallier Oak stands (hopefully still) as a reminder of the romantic stories surrounding the town’s founding in which pirate Jean Laffite played a prominant role (aptly-named Contraband Bayou is, according to legend, still the hiding place of a large portion of Laffite’s treasure). Maybe their are some good reasons for all of that local pride.
While I don’t ever see myself “having a reason to get back to Lake Charles” permanently, I’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on post-storm developments. I’ll worry about family, friends and acquaintances. And I’ll hope that when I do get back for a visit that the things local residents take pride in will be more than memories. Even if they are just things remembered, I can rest assured that the city will do justice to those memories as it does one thing that it’s good at: recreating itself while remaining changeless.