Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Uncle Rene

My Dad is heartbroken about the loss of his favorite Uncle Rene, who died last week. Uncle Rene was the “last link” to my Dad’s father’s past. My Dad’s father, Fred, died around 1980 (I’m ashamed to admit I don’t remember the exact date), when my Dad was in his 30's. My Dad’s grandfather died before Fred married and before my Dad was even born (in the early ‘40's). There were other brothers, too, besides Fred and Rene, but they also died a while back, so Uncle Rene was the repository of all the remaining history from that side of my Dad’s family.

He was also a charming man with a wry sense of humor and a great memory for details.

When my cousin got married in New Orleans quite a few years back, my Dad, stepmom, step-siblings, and I attended the wedding. It was around the same time that the Super Bowl was being played there (in the Superdome, which Uncle Rene fondly called the “stainless steel wart”). Of course, the Super Bowl has been held in New Orleans 9 times, so it’s a little hard to avoid getting married around the same time the Super Bowl is being played in New Orleans, so I don’t blame my cousin for that unfortunate timing. (I also won't mention which time it was, since this is a sort of anonymous blog and all that.) [See Footnote 1]

Sadly, my Dad waited too long to book a room at the "Taj Mahal" hotel where the wedding reception would be held, and was forced to look at other options nearby. And, due to the massive number of rooms booked for the Super Bowl, affordable and decent hotels were hard to come by in New Orleans.

My Dad, bless his heart, tried to book a decent hotel, but this was before the internet was popular - that is to say, before one could actually look at photos of the place and read reviews about it easily. One was forced to rely on less accurate sources of information, such as the minimum wage worker who answered the phone when you called the 800 number that you looked up in the telephone book (do any of you still have one of those?), who assured my dad that the motel he booked was a fine motel, and was in a safe and nice part of town just a couple of miles from the "Taj Mahal."

I can’t remember if it was a Travelodge, or Holiday Inn, or some random unaffiliated motel, but I am thinking it was a chain, because I remember thinking it was something that you would expect to be somewhat decent, if not exactly the Ritz.

It turned out to be an extremely dumpy and disgustingly dirty roach motel right next to the freeway overpass in a crappy part of town, complete with pubes in the bathtub and gun-toting gangsters in the parking lot. And I’m not kidding about either one of those.

We checked in, but stayed only long enough for my Dad to use the telephone (this was also in the days before cell phones were ubiquitous; and at least the awful room had a working telephone) while the rest of us stood around trying not to touch anything. My Dad called Uncle Rene and asked if he knew of any hotels available near his home, because this one clearly wasn't going to work. Uncle Rene graciously offered to let us stay with him instead, and so we checked out and drove to Uncle Rene’s house.

That was the best decision ever.

In addition to enjoying an immediate welcome with wonderful iced tea and snacks, and clean bathrooms and linens, and my charming great-Uncle Rene, we were treated to tales of the family’s history, complete with a driving tour of historical homes of New Orleans that were built by my great-grandfather.

You see, my grandfather’s (and Uncle Rene’s) father was a home builder in the early 1900's in New Orleans. He was quite successful, apparently, due to some fantastic yet relatively low-tech innovations that he built into his homes.

The first fantastic innovation was to build very large and wide eaves on the house. This did two things in pre-air-conditioning early 1900's New Orleans: (1) it provided shade, thereby helping to cool the home; and (2) it allowed the homeowner to open the windows even if it was pouring rain, which it did frequently in the summer in New Orleans, to keep the house cool even during the hot, humid, summer days with storms. In a more typical (at the time) New Orleans home without such large eaves, the homeowner would be forced to close the windows to keep the driving wind-blown rain from soaking everything in the house. Then the house would be hot and humid and extremely uncomfortable. Wide eaves kept the rain out, thereby allowing the homeowner to open the windows and take advantage of the breezes and the evaporative cooling effect from the rain.

The second fantastic innovation was to “bug-proof” the homes. He accomplished this in two ways. First, most homes in New Orleans are built up on pillars, or "pilings." That way, when the City floods (as it inevitably will - can you say “Katrina”?), the house is (hopefully) sitting high enough off the ground that the water won’t come in. So my great-grandfather put metal “caps” on top of the pilings, that stuck out a couple inches from the top of the piling, with the edges angled downward. This prevented bugs such as termites, carpenter ants, and roaches from entering the home, because they couldn’t climb up to the wooden part of the house. They could climb up the pilings, but then they’d hit the metal sheet. Some bugs could even crawl upside down on the metal sheet to the edge of it, but they couldn’t make it around the edge to the other side to enter the home. Instead, they would fall back to the ground and presumably go bother someone else.

In addition, he put boric acid inside the framing of the walls before installing the plaster (this was before the days of drywall, of course). That way, if any bugs did start to get in, they would hit the bug poison and die before infesting the home. [See Footnote 2]

In hot, humid, bug-infested New Orleans, these were welcome inventions indeed!

Sadly, my great-grandfather fell on extremely hard times during the depression, and was unable to recover his fortune before he died in the late 1930's or so.

But his legacy lives on in the homes he built that are still standing today. And you can tell his homes by looking at them - large eaves, and little metal strips sticking out from the pilings.

And my Uncle Rene’s legacy lives on, too, in the memories he provided for me that day in New Orleans, and for my Dad across his lifetime, as well as for his own children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

We miss you, Uncle Rene.

* * * * *
Footnotes (Because I'm a lawyer, that's why!):

Footnote 1: Did you know that, although the Super Bowl has been played in their hometown NINE TIMES, thus giving them more opportunities than any other team has ever had to actually play in the Super Bowl at home, the hapless New Orleans Saints have never played in any Super Bowl game in any location? Then again, they are on a roll so far this year - maybe they'll finally make it to the big game!

Footnote 2: Note that boric acid is practically harmless for humans - barely more toxic than table salt - yet a small amount kills a lot of bugs. My great-grandfather had his kids (my grandfather and Uncle Rene, and the rest of them, too!) assist with the boric acid installation, among other aspects of the house-building process.

(Of course, these days if you tried that, you'd have OSHA and Child Protective Services and possibly a whole host of other government agencies breathing down your neck and threatening you with fines and jail time. But back in those days, having your children install bug poison was a viable option!)


Kristen said...

Sweet story! Sometimes a disgusting, roach-infested motel can lead to good things, as is the case here.

Laura said...

Love the story. Sounds like your family has a wonderful history and no better way to remember it than to put it in writing while you remember it!

Raine said...

Wow, that is really interesting. I always wonder how people come up with such great ideas.

And I used a phone book just an hour ago. I like them :D