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Lost freedom on the Fourth of July

Monday, July 3, 6:44 p.m., St. Bernard, Louisiana — Before — before the hurricane — things were different.

Everyone looked forward to July because it was so special to all of us. Almost every weekend during the summer, I would spend at the camp we had in the Violet Canal, but the Fourth of July was different. The water was different then. The water was alive that day. It was bright and it was smiling because my entire family and the people raised as my family were out on that water, cooking things on the grill and laughing.

The Fourth of July was my favorite time of the year. It meant an entire week with my cousins and my aunts with their amazing stories to tell and my uncles who give my family its magic.

Every year on the Fourth, there was the annual parade. The boat parade! The water balloon fight.  Most people would have spent the entire week before the Fourth out at their camps, filling water balloons and keeping them locked away in ice chests. We would use empty two-liter soft drink bottles to fill the balloons, pumping the water in.

The parade started at noon, sometimes starting in the Horseshoe area, other times in the canal called Happiness. We’d throw balloons down to the people in the boats, and they’d throw them at us.

Uncle Wayne would always cheat. He had his race boat, gorgeous and glistening with glitter red. You could hear the engine from down the canal, but we were the closest to his camp. To me, it was thunder and drums. With a rev of the motor, he tore down the canal, through the locks, and barreled us down with the wall of water he threw towards us. Last year, we lost one once-white lawn chair, three cameras, and Aunt Tudy’s glasses.

After that, we would head to Marunga, the shallow water. There, we would swim — we would swim and ski. God, I miss skiing! I miss climbing, rising, from that water as my dad’s boat tugged me out. One ski, the other leg dragging behind as long as I could hold it there. Then, up!  Out of the water! Bend the knees, lean back, and touch the waves below. Over the white crests of those waves, then the jolt back down to the surface. Zipping and holding the rope just right so that I skim the waves until I’m skiing along the side the boat. That was what the water meant to me. That freedom and power.

My cousins, my uncles, my dads — all of us — would pile onto a plywood board tied to the flatboat by a thick rope, and we would ride! We’d all try to push each other off as the board sped along the water, racing. When the boat stopped suddenly, the water would rush over the top and take us all down. There’s freedom on that board, too, standing up alone on that splintery wood without the bindings of a lifejacket, soaking wet and hair flying wildly.

That’s freedom. That’s risk and bravery and bliss. The water itself is freedom, and I miss that more than anything else. The hurricane took so many things away from my family, but more than anything, all of us miss the life we had on the water. My dad and most of my uncles grew up at my grandfather’s fort, Martello’s Castle, surrounded by water in Lake Bourne.

There was a special culture back there, one that will never come back, and the most frightening thing is that it took just one morning to lose it all. Just one single morning. The levee broke, the locks buckled beneath the water, and the waves flooded in, drowning the camps and drowning the life we all loved there.

That’s why the Fourth of July isn’t important to me this year. That way of life is gone forever. My canals are filled with hidden perils now — pieces of camps, of houses and business, lurk beneath the muddy water.

Our camp stood behind the levee that kept us from the ship channel. That’s where the levee broke. We don’t even know where the camp we built is anymore. I will never spend another day back there with my cousins and uncles and aunts, just feeling the water swell in my hand. That’s lost forever. It won’t ever come back, no matter how much I wish and hope and dream that it will. 

The hurricane took possessions away. It broke homes and broke spirits, but it killed a culture I will always — always and forever — miss with my whole heart. 

I don’t know how, but I will find a way to rebuild what we had there.

Samantha Perez is a Reporter for Youth Journalism International.

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