GALEN HOLLEY: Riding with Uncle Harold down the ‘Seven Bridges Road’

By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

It’s the summer of 1996. Uncle Harold is dressed in khaki shorts, and a T-shirt with Joe Camel shooting pool. His thick, chestnut hair is spilling out beneath a Navy blue hat trimmed in gold. He throws himself into the driver’s seat, and the truck feels like it’ll tip over. He turns the key, and the voices sing.
“There-are-stars-in-the-Sou-thern-sky.”
The Eagles, the soul-squeezing harmony, the lyrics Harold loves to dissect when he’s hunkered down evenings and well into the good whiskey.
“Let’s run down to the corner and get us some shrimp. Just take a minute,” he says. His thick arm over the back of the seat is like an anaconda. He’s looking through the back glass, squinting behind tinted, prescription glasses, his heavy cheeks drawn up in a grimace. His face is close to mine, his breath musty and warm.
Harold thumps his ash out the window, shifts into first. We lurch forward, crunching over broken shells and white sand, rolling past the cattails and broom sage that hides his yard. He raises his bare foot off the clutch. The sole is as tough and charred as a Bedouin sandal. He smells of oiled leather and malty beer. This is my father’s brother, this broad, hulking bear of a man, whiskers like a walrus, shoulders like 20-pound hams on either side of his neck.
I plan to drive into New Orleans tomorrow, I tell him. It’s about an hour from his little house in Gautier.
“What for?”
Harold frowns, flicks his cigarette out the window, shakes his head. “Nothing but meanness going on over there.”
The Gulf drew him away from Pontotoc County when he was a young man, but not even the enticements of the coastal life could lure him more than a few miles away from his spot on the bayou.
“They stop you and frisk you in Slidell, now, on your way in,” he says, smirking. “If you don’t have a gun, they give you one.” It’s hard to tell his laugh from his cough.
Once he married a woman with hair like Crystal Gale. Then his house burned, and he got chemicals spilled on him while inspecting a barge. The accident took his strength and left him only his elephantine girth.
“There-is-moon-light-and-moss-in-the-trees,” The Eagles say, as if describing the calls Harold would make to his brothers and sisters years later, early morning hellos, just to talk about the sun coming up on the bayou.
He lights another cigarette, gives me his credit card and a key to his house. “Just be careful,” he mumbles. What little Harold ever had, what little he needed, he considered as much his family’s as his.
It’s November of this year, day of the LSU-Ole Miss game, and a friend from New Orleans and I are having a Mardi Gras good time watching at my place. It’s cold and quiet in the country.
The game ends and I’m alone. I call old Harold, the bayou pirate. We talk about Archie Manning and his boys, about politics and religion, about whether or not the world is coming to an end.
“Harold, you remind me of this character from James Lee Burke’s novels, named Clete Purcell,” I tell him, and proceed to describe the hulking, self-destructive, unfailingly noble sidekick of Burke’s favorite hero, Dave Robicheaux. Harold seems pleased.
He ends the conversation the way he always does, by saying, “I love you, son.” It’s as if he knows, somehow, that this conversation will be our last.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.