New Orleans residents lost homes and loved ones to Katrina. But they have their pride -- and their Saints.

Marching on

August 27, 2006|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,SUN REPORTER

New Orleans — New Orleans-- --You notice their differences, sure, but what you really remember are their similarities. They all have a different story and they all have the same story. It's amazing, really.

You should know this much: There are two questions you can ask any of them -- and you have to ask - and you'd better be ready to sit on that barstool until closing time because the answer isn't short and it isn't simple.

The first seems inconspicuous, but if you do ask it, you'd better mean it. How you doing? is an invitation to a tale of woe that serves as oral history as much as an emotional purge; a detailed critique of government and political leaders; an explanation of all that is wrong with insurance companies and all that is right about everyday people. You'll hear a story of love and of loss and of lost love.

Inevitably, the first question leads to the second. There's no earthly reason for the two to be linked, but they are. They are because these are passionate people and their lives, their dialogue and their routines are guided every single day by these two questions.

You ask any of them, How bout dem Saints? and you're going to hear about years of frustration and just as many years of faith; hatred for an owner and love for a team; countless instances of blown opportunities and yet a renewed sense of hope that right now is as strong as ever.

In fact, they're so crazy about this hapless football team that one year after a hurricane chased everyone out of New Orleans, season-ticket sales have hit record numbers. As the team prepares to return to the Superdome this season, about 60,000 fans have already purchased tickets to every single home game.

And sitting in each seat of the Superdome will be a Saints fan, tired and alive and excited and beaten down and hopeful. Each different, each the same.

Blackie and the bayou

The first thing you notice about Blackie Campo is his hands. They're huge, each of them big as a baseball glove. The rest of Campo has the same color and texture, his dark skin aged more by the sun than by time, which is nice to say when you have 88 years of life behind you.

Deep in the bayou, Campo sits in a white plastic chair on the dock that he, a son and a grandson recently rebuilt. Campo's been a fisherman his entire life, right here in Shell Beach. In fact, he points to the empty lot across the road and explains that storms had destroyed his home before - in 1947, 1956 and 1965.

One year ago, he was evacuated from the area and watched Katrina's wrath on a television. Campo knew his house wouldn't win the battle - the waters here rose about 15 feet - but he also knew that he'd return to the marsh and try to erect house No. 5.

"My daddy was a fisherman right over there," he says, pointing toward Lake Borgne, "back when we didn't have reels and all this stuff. This is home to me. I don't know how to be nowhere else. I took my first breath right here, and this is where I'm gonna take my last."

He lives in a white trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The fishing business has dried up for now. No more guided tours for Campo, but he does provide gas and bait for the few who still come through. His house used to stand right across the street from the dock. The whole thing, it just disappeared. He did find one of his Saints jackets, though, and he did find a football given to him by Saints owner Tom Benson. "The damned thing was three blocks away," he says, "Can't find a house, but found me my football."

Since the Saints began play in 1967, Campo had missed just one game until last season. For years his seat has been right on the 50-yard line and he went to every game with the same seven buddies. When he renewed his ticket this year, he could track down only three of his friends, though.

"I like the football, but even if they lose, I just like being out there with all those peoples," he says. "Long as I'm around, I'll be out there watching dem Saints."

He says those final words well aware that doctors say an aneurysm near his heart could strike at any moment. He seems about as scared of that as he is another hurricane.

Campo rises from the seat, talking about the fish salad Mable, his wife these past 66 years, is making for dinner. He shakes your hand - his mitt swallowing whole everything it comes in contact with - and wishes you well. And you feel guilty because you know that it's Campo, a son of the bayou who has a Saints ticket but no house, no business and not a lot of time, who deserves some good fortune.

Sgt. Rescue

The first thing you notice about Ray Byrd are his eyes. Dark and piercing, they'd seen so much and now they store it all somewhere deep inside. These eyes had been opened wide by everything they'd witnessed, and Byrd looks like he is trying really hard to close them again.

He starts right in. "Did you see that game last night? Have you ever seen something that ugly?"

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