Last Thursday was routine for Re Howse, an artist who lives in Mathews, and her husband, Gene Henderson, also known as “The Pirate,” a merchant mariner.
It was kind of a special day, because The Pirate had just returned from his latest voyage, and it would a “date day” for the couple.
Mixing business with the pleasure of each other’s company, the artist and The Pirate traveled to New Orleans, dropping off Re’s treasures at places like the Historic New Orleans Collection, where tourists and others can buy them and bring them home. Her art is inspired by the sea, the coastline and local culture, and the treasures are generally ceramic. A native of California, Re was living in New Orleans when Katrina hit. After the storm she decided to come back, recognizing that a lot of people don’t choose Louisiana so much as they are chosen.
So there they were headed back on a route everyone here knows. They traveled in darkness past the mysterious swamps of St. Charles Parish on the elevated I-310, over the Mississippi River and then onto U.S. 90 in their Saturn automobile.
There was no music, just the conversation between husband and wife of how well the day had gone. And then there was the big flame in the sky.
They were in Paradis, not far from the Valero and the McDonald’s everyone remembers as landmarks. They had passed the place where the natural gas station looms in the distance like an odd small city, usually with a burn-off flame atop its stack.
“Something is wrong,” Re told The Pirate. Their last stop before heading home was a Sprint store, and they tried out their new phones, taking pictures of the big flame, burning much bigger than the regular burn-off.
The man who approached the car spoke in staccato sentences. He needed help and he needed air and he had been burned, and suddenly this couple, whose life is so centered around beauty, had the ugliness of a gas plant blast front and center in their existence, and they did what good people always do when asked to step up to the plate by fate.
Re gripped the steering wheel and headed to Ochsner St. Anne while the man in the car called his girlfriend, who didn’t believe him, and called his grandfather, telling him to be at the hospital.
Desmond Calloway Jr., the survivor of the blast at the Paradis plant, was a lucky man.
There was usually water in the car because Re spends so much time in it and gets thirsty, and since he said he was so parched she might have given him some – which would have been the worst thing – but there was no water on this day.
“I was completely calm,” Re said. “It was like when I was evacuating from Katrina and just drove and later asked myself how did I drive for 14 hours,” Re said.
They reached the hospital. Desmond would survive.
But even in the wake of such a tragedy as this explosion there was a beautimous lesson for Re.
It was a reminder.
“There is something miraculous about the body and the spirit,” she said. “It allows you to respond.” ·