Some Blues

The scene at the San Gabriel morgue, stopover for Katrina's dead

I have met the dead before like this, supine in a physical and mental darkness, in a very small place called Dong Ha that was nestled hard up against what was in 1968 the South Vietnam side of the DMZ, where I was sent on courier duty from Danang now and again when my Marine Corps superior officers were in a particularly eager mood for me to be killed. A trip to Dong Ha was always an overnighter, and the transient barracks (a large tent) abutted the graves registration operation for all of I Corps, the northernmost sector of combat in that war. That's where the bodies came, and they came in a steady, 24-7 stream, to be tagged, bagged, and "sent home." And they came year after year, far past my tour of duty, for a long, long time.

That transient tent in Dong Ha was the eeriest and most unsettling spot I have ever visited, and it had nothing to do with machine-gun and small arms fire, with grenades and mortars, with incoming rockets. The dead were there. Their bodies were there, and their spirits were there. You could feel them. All night long, if you were listening, you could hear them, and I rarely slept there.

I didn't sleep on the tracks at St. Gabriel either. I got to my feet and dusted myself off and walked back to my van. I had not felt the dead in this place, nor had I heard them. Only their corpses are here, their casings, and they are invisible. No Press on recovery efforts, no images of corpses. Press blackout on all aspects of the morgue, no images of corpses. The symbol of "dead body" around here is a gleaming Peterbuilt pulling an insulated, odorless, refrigerated 18-wheeler trailer. This works on the same principle that holds that no images of body bags or coffins coming back from Iraq "respects the dignity" of grieving families and "softens," I guess, the collective loss. The dead you can't see become simply numbers, and numbers are clean unambiguous things. They are easier to work with than, you know, the other.

"No Press on recovery efforts, no images of corpses."
photo: Holly Northrop/
"No Press on recovery efforts, no images of corpses."

I was depressed, and not in a good mood either, as I sped along two-lane blacktops through the cane fields and pasture land of southeastern Louisiana. I slipped a Van Morrison CD into the player. It a gift from a friend who had labeled it simply "Some Blues." I had never listened to it. The second tune up was "Ordinary People," which I had heard before but had no strong remembrance of. I listened to the song once through, turned off the volume, and drove in a stunned silence for a few miles. I opened all the windows in the van, cued the song up again, put the volume to Max, and began to exceed the speed limit.

The song opens with Van singing with unfaltering passion and intensity, "Ordinary people just don't comprehend/Ordinary people just don't seem to comprehend . . ." and the first verse ends with, "Nobody watching you, you gotta take care of yourself/(pause) Real thing . . ."

A guitar break-and-run erupts at this point, up there tight and high and LOUD, a high-hat drum ride insistent and perfect underneath the guitar but out in front of the also-perfect backalley keyboards. It reaches "chicken skin" level in seconds, and BURNS for 1:40. I clocked it.

At that moment, I began to feel Katrina's dead. And when Van tore into verse two, the Earth moved a bit on its axis for this Katrina gypsy:

"When I came down your avenue
Blew you every
Blew you every which way
When I came down your avenue
Bloo hoo hoo you ever which way
Nobody watching you, you gotta take care of yourself."

And then, I could HEAR her blown-every-which-way dead. I heard them, but their voices were coming from far away. From over in Florida and Alabama. From over Mississippi way. From Plaquimine and St. Bernard Parish. From St. Tammany. From Orleans Parish�the East and the Lower Nine�and Jefferson. And from the other side of the Mississippi River.

I could not understand what Katrina's dead were saying any more than I understood the dead in Dong Ha. I believe there is a Language of the Dead that we aren't meant to comprehend from this side of the crossover.

Who knows? Maybe all they're saying is, "Nobody watching you, you gotta take care of yourself."


Real thing . . .


Editor's Note: The following story was reported prior to the federal government's announcement Saturday that it would no longer enforce its "zero access" ban of the media in the recovery process. The announcement was made in response to a lawsuit filed by CNN. The descriptions of denied access and press "blackouts" here represent the situation at the time of reporting and have not been altered.

« Previous Page