The Last Mountain

©Stephen McDonnell 2002

draft April 27. 2002

3. Waterproof Louisiana Spring 2002


WWII Photograph from Time Magazine of Flying Tiger Pilots at Yunnan, China

Waterproof Louisiana, North of Natchez Mississipi Spring 2002

I didn't think I would ever go to China. Lady luck - or was it misfortune - found me researching a book on the Flying Tigers while I was working as a newspaper reporter. It had been one of my boyhood obsessions to find a real American hero, I was even more eager after September 11, 2001. All my life I had wanted to write about the exploits of the few American pilots in China who fought the Japanese at the beginning of World War II. To think that a few men could change the tides of war, if not history, astounding. After reading about Frederick Townsend Ward, fighting in the Taiping Rebellion of 1850­64, I was doubly in awe of the Western adventurers who altered Chinese history. Or so I thought.

My research had taken me to Slidel to look into the archives of the Frederick Townsend Ward China legion, then on to the United Air Force's Chennault Air Base and finally to Waterproof Louisiana. The sleepy town was huddled against the Mississippi, the levees keeping back the floods, while Spring was slowly arriving, flower by flower.

General Claire Chenault

Just before interviewing some old timers who knew Claire Lee Chennault's I received a call informing me that I had received a grant from the American Information Services enabling me to fly to China ­ where the flying tigers had made a name for themselves. They say be careful for what you wish for. The Chinese say a voyage of a thousand lin starts with one step.

Maybe it was the Southern rainstorm after the interview. The soft rain was so warm, like taking a shower outside. If there was a turning point in my life it was that moment, as I lifted up my face to the sky and listened to her whining. The thought of leaving my girlfriend and job behind had taxed my brain.

Sun light had turned to cloud darkness, as we talked on the porch, the photo albums had come out, brown colored with time and musty smelling, the smell of the South; mothballs and something else, a cloying rotting stench. Ice tea was served with little sprigs of mint. I remember the interview had gone well. My joy had been short lived because my old girl friend's blouse had become sodden as we dashed for our rental car. Like all Southern women, she hated messing up her appearance. She had stepped into a puddle, ruining some of her favorite shoes; what is it with women and their shoes?

"God, Garry, why did you park so far away? Now look what you have done ­ I look a mess for the governor's ball tonight in Natchez. Why couldn't I've found a normal guy - like Doug."

Doug had been her childhood sweetheart, a quarter back who now owned a quarter pounder hamburger chain; his only claim to fame was, after doing four rows of cocaine post LSU football game, he had banged some cheerleaders, male and female, then passed out in a cheap motel. A wise ass reporter had found him there, expecting to do the hero's interview and instead he had gotten the player's face splashed in the papers. She dropped him for me. The wise ass reporter. Women are fickle.

Looking back I figured it wasn't so much her blouse, and the impromptu wet T shirt contest, that had bothered her. Rather her blond hair had lost its "spunk", the curls had deflated, and she looked like a dog left out in the rain. She was screaming like a magpie, blaming me for bringing her to this God forsaken back hole. She used words Southern bells were not supposed to utter, forgetting Scarlet O'Hara's advice. She kept it up all the across the Atchafalaya basin, scaring the cranes from their roosts - even making the alligator's cover their ears. God that woman could bitch.

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