BAY ST. LOUIS, Miss. – If you want to learn a little something of Hancock County, there are any number of pleasant folks hereabouts who will kindly show you the sights and tell a tale or two.
But if you want the true lowdown, you will go with Jerry West. You will learn some good shortcuts for navigating the streets that slice across Highway 90 at angles confusing to an outsider. You will learn who lived where before Hurricane Katrina struck, which businesses are open and which were destroyed. You will learn where they might build condos.
But listen and watch closely and you will learn something far better than all of that.
Jerry lives up in Jackson now, hours from his boyhood haunts of Waveland and Bay St. Louis. A loving and protective family has decided that the rubble and confusion of post-Katrina life in Hancock County is not the best place right now for a man born with Crouzon syndrome, a condition that required seven childhood operations on his skull and left him needing a little extra time and patience from the world.
But Jerry is able to come down for a visit now and then, on weekends and holidays, and when he does you can sometimes find him at the FEMA trailer on his father’s lot in Bay St. Louis. Katrina showed no mercy here, on Felicity Street just up from the yacht club, leaving giant pickup sticks where once stood elegant homes, including the Wests’ 110-year-old residence.
“I’ll tell you what,” says Jerry as he surveys the debris. “We don’t have nothing left. Just memories.”
“I loved it. I had peace and quiet, I had my own room. My room used to be over there. I had a kitchen, I had a bathroom. I loved it.”
But then, “The water came through, all the way from Louisiana to Mississippi.”
'We might not have a home left'
When the surging waves fell back to the bay and Jerry and his father, Charles West, and Jerry’s Springer spaniel J.J. (for “Jerry Junior because I’m his daddy”) returned to Felicity Street from the shelter where they rode out the storm, “I told J.J. we might not have a home left.” That was true and then some.
Gone as well were the precious mementos of a lifetime: diplomas from Hancock High and the community college where he studied independent living, trophies from the Special Olympics, plaques and proclamations honoring Jerry’s civic involvement. Katrina’s theft of the red and white suit he wore for 20 years when he played Santa at the South Mississippi Regional Center for the handicapped and mentally challenged seems especially cruel this time of year.
And it was worse. Jerry knew three people who perished in the storm itself and a fourth who died in an accident shortly afterward. “It’s hard to lose someone. … And it’s kind of bad when you lose a town, I want you to know.”
But Jerry retains an optimism that is like compound interest on the affection invested in him by a community that has clutched him tightly to its bosom since he first moved to Waveland with his family from New Orleans in the ’70s.
People from all around Hancock County have always responded warmly to this sunny man, now 36, steered gently but firmly into the world by family members -– in addition to Charles there is mom Connie and brothers Charlie, 38, Fred, 33, and sister Mary, 28 -– who were determined that he would always be “treated like one of us” in Mary’s words. Connie’s approach with Jerry was seized as a model by other moms in the area who had kids with special needs.
Jerry is innately “phenomenal,” says Mary, who currently lives in Jackson too, but she feels strongly that her brother’s ability to meet his challenges is a result of how “people cling and evolve together” in a place like Hancock County: “I would bet money that Jerry would not be the person he is if it were not for that community.” She cites examples from Jerry being taught how to drive by football legend Brett Favre’s father to then-Waveland Mayor John Longo Jr., father of current Mayor Tommy Longo, giving Jerry his first job when he was 15.
Mayor Favre's a fan
Mention Jerry’s name to a current mayor, Eddie Favre of Bay St. Louis, and, amid a hellish session of trying to explain how he will keep his city solvent, his face lights up. Favre hopes when summer rolls around that he’ll see his old buddy “out there working his behind off” as usual at their church’s annual crab feed. “God bless him,” he says.
Given this, it comes as no surprise that when you ask Jerry to take a minute and think about what he misses most after the storm, he doesn’t even wait a second: “Visiting my friends, my family and everybody else I knew, the people I grew up with, old-time people.”
It is those people, that family, these towns that held and molded a man who adds his own unique flavor to the Southern ways of “y’all” and courtesy titles for first names – “Mr. Wayne” and “Miss Laurie” – and the standard greeting of “hey.” A man who loves motorcycles and trucks and talking on the telephone. A man who lacks any inclination to judge other people, his father says.
Even “Hurricane ’trina,” as he calls the killer storm, is something he regards almost matter-of-factly, not angrily. “I didn’t cry,” he’ll tell you, but “I was upset because the town was different.”
Ask Jerry if he can show you how things and people are doing here, four months after the storm, and he is ready. “I’ll show you around, but it’ll be hard.”
Down Felicity Street he takes you, with constant narration and a little second-guessing of himself because it is all still so hard to sort out. “See that house right there, with the camper? That’s Bill’s house. Right here, that’s Paul’s house. He works for Bay P.D. Right there, Dave and Leslie. Used to be Mike’s house … Right here! No, somewhere. Right here? Him and Morgan and Tricia.”
Happy reunions, hugs and punches
Few folks are out and about this morning, but Jerry especially wants to check up on some of his oldest friends, Lonnie and Tina Falgout on Wolfe Street. There’s a happy reunion beneath the family’s waterlogged canal house, hugs all around, and the Falgouts want to know how Jerry’s job as a Wal-Mart greeter is going in Jackson, where the company was able to transfer him from the Waveland store.
“Are you running that Wal-Mart over there in Jackson yet?” Lonnie asks, bemoaning Jerry’s absence at the Waveland store. “That’s the only way we can get any baskets, if you’re working, Jerry.”
There are stops at a Bay St. Louis gas station and the Waveland Wal-Mart, where there is literally no one among the dozens of shoppers and employees whom Jerry does not greet or hug or punch fondly on the shoulder. “Hey, Tara! Hey, Duane! Hey, Britt! Heeeeey, Judy!”
At the veterans' memorial on the beach in Waveland, Jerry grows a little quiet. Here and the now-destroyed American Legion Post 77 just up Coleman Avenue are two of his favorite places in Hancock County. But the most favored of all is the Waveland pier complex a few hundred yards to the east, its concrete walkway and green pressure-treated pilings now in ruins, the decking that stretched into the gulf gone with Katrina’s winds and waves.
Every year, Jerry bought a $25 pier pass so he could spend his afternoons there fishing for specks and drums, catfish and hardheads. “I’ll tell you what, I love it. People love it, summertime, wintertime, all year. I go down to the pier and see all my rangers sitting there and we talk, talk, talk. They’re my family.”
And all of this is what Jerry wants back now. Jackson, where his father has bought a new house, is “nice, but it ain’t home.” He is grateful for the help from Wal-Mart and the Red Cross and others in relocating there, and he understands that some time must pass after “Hurricane ’trina” before he can return.
'We're going to be OK'
But “we’re going to come back, we’re going to rebuild, just not right now,” he’ll tell you over and over. “We’re going to be OK.”
So if you come down to Hancock County in a few years, when the debris is all gone and the houses are rebuilt, take a drive down Coleman Avenue in Waveland. They will have a new city hall and the businesses will be back, the cash registers waiting for your tourist dollars.
Park below Beach Boulevard next to the veterans memorial with its flags flapping in the gulf breeze and stroll out onto the pier. Breathe the sea air and watch the gulls soar against the brilliant blue sky and look for Jerry.
I hope you will find him there, back in a place where Jerry and everyone else still have something far more dear than all the physical objects they lost to Katrina, back where he belongs, back home. Ask him how the fishing is and tell him Mr. Mike says "hey."
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