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26 August 2015

The Old Cajun

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There are times as a traveler when circumstance conspires, for once it seems, in your favor, and an encounter completely likely, but nonetheless difficult to realize, comes across your path. It can happen anywhere, and in this case it happened to us virtually in our backyard. We took LA Highway 1 south, basically the whole way south, until it turns east to go to Grand Isle, but we turned west instead, down a road that passes by a mangrove swamp crossed here and there by long boardwalks. Next to one of these, we parked and got our things. We were going to visit an uncle’s camp, located on the other end of a boardwalk, over the tidal mud of the marsh and mangroves.

Camps, for the vast majority of people, are humble affairs. Even many big camps in this part of Louisiana are still fairly utilitarian. Our uncle’s camp, raised a good 12 feet off of a small bulk-headed rise on the shore of the bay, is big enough to sleep over a dozen, but it’s mostly a collection of simple rooms tied by various levels of walkways and platforms to the dock, where that day we spent most of our time processing a windfall of shrimp. During a break in the process (you need breaks), I noticed a boat returning to the neighboring camp. “Who’s that?” I asked. “Oh that’s Mr Luke,” I’m told. “Let’s go say hello.” So we left the shrimp in the coolers and crossed the short lawn between camps.

At his dock, Mr. Luke was tying up his boat. It was laden with buckets and milk crates of muddy oysters he picked that morning. He asked if I wouldn’t mind lending a hand, and of course, I didn’t. So I hauled the oysters out of the boat while he talked. He’s in his 90s, a thin rail of a ropy old man wearing muddy flannel and a sun-bleached trucker hat, still fishing and picking oysters nearly every day. He lives in his camp year round and very likely subsists only on some savings and a great deal of trade, which is what the oysters are for. We talk about all sorts of things, it’s the kind of conversation that I realized later should have been recorded. But alas, it was not. All I remember now is the salty, earthy smell of oysters, the worn wood of the dock, and the choppy Cajun-English of Mr. Luke’s voice. When I carried some things into his camp for him, I was struck by the bare simplicity of his house, the clean dignity of it all. It just seemed like a decent way to live. More than his words, his life story, or his appearance (all of which were admirable), it was his home that made the greatest impression on me. There was a lesson on life hidden in this place.

The point here is supposed to be Mr. Luke, but it’s a point that’s hard to make. Like most of the best encounters, the time I spent with Mr. Luke was sprung upon me. I didn’t expect it, and so I didn’t prepare for it. I didn’t even stop to think that I should write down some of his stories or try to sketch his way of speaking. In the absence of his life story, his parables, his dialect, or even a picture of him, you’ll have to do with this echo of an encounter. Take it as a reminder to keep your eyes, ears, and heart open, for even at the end of a dock at the bottom of North America, there’s a friend to be made, and there’s something to be learned from him. I’m looking forward to returning to visit: I have a feeling Mr. Luke has more lessons to teach.