BILOXI ON HIS MIND
Gulf Coast resident staying with friends in La Grande
Aug. 29, Bob Vallette had a plane ticket in hand and was set to fly to his home in Biloxi, Miss.
But no plane went there that day. Hurricane Katrina hit, flattening huge sections of the old Gulf Coast city, causing devastation rivaling that in nearby New Orleans.
Vallette, staying in La Grande with his friends Bengy and Jerry Marshall, followed the news on television. He was worried sick over the safety of his daughter, his granddaughter and his many good friends.
But he also counted some blessings.
"I was fortunate," he said. "If my plane ticket had been for a day or two earlier, there's no telling what might have become of me."
"Fortunate" is a word Vallette uses a lot when he talks about himself. And with good reason.
Born and raised in Illinois, he joined the Navy during World War II at the age of 17. He saw duty in the South Pacific, and counts Japanese kamikaze raids among his war memories.
After the war he lived mostly in the Pacific Northwest, in San Francisco, Seattle, and for a time during the 1980s, La Grande.
It was then that he met the Marshalls, who have remained close friends ever since.
"We've known each other more than 20 years, and we have a relationship that just clicks. I call him Papa," Bengy said.
Vallette's 53-year-old daughter, Shirley, owns a ranch about 30 miles west of Biloxi. When he retired from his job with a Seattle printing company about 10 years ago, he decided to move south, to be nearer to her.
And things went well. He made a home in a 250-unit Biloxi apartment complex. He made many friends. He also became involved in community activities, taking special pride in volunteer work he did for the local veterans hospital.
Then times weren't so good. Last December, Vallette, 79, had a near-fatal heart attack.
It was the kind of heart attack that required defibrillation, that most extreme of emergency measures.
"I was dead, but up in heaven they checked the list and said they weren't ready for me yet. They said when they're ready, they'll come and get me," he said.
Following resuscitation, his health ordeal continued. He had open-heart surgery, an experience that definitely tested his spirit.
"Don't ever have open heart. You can't eat. You can't sleep. You're just hanging on by a thread," he said.
Later, there was more trouble when he developed a hernia. He had surgery for that as well.
He made a good recovery, but other problems loomed. The owners of the apartment complex where he lived decided to sell the building. It would be torn down to make way for new development.
"Every one of us, all the men, women and children living in those 250 units, was evicted," Vallette said. "We had no choice but to move."
Vallette decided to visit the Marshalls while his daughter looked around for a place for him to live. He arrived in La Grande in June, planning to stay a couple of months.
It took some doing, but back home, Shirley located a senior living center that looked just right for her father. Vallette made plans to return to Biloxi, buying the plane ticket dated Aug. 29.
Then came the life-altering event known as Katrina.
While the drama played itself out on the news, Vallette, with the Marshalls' help, made repeated attempts to contact his daughter at the ranch east of Lake Pontchartrain.
Nothing seemed to work, said Bengy Marshall. She said she finally got a call through to authorities and was put on hold for a long, long time.
"I spent four straight hours Wednesday and Thursday listening to elevator music on the phone," she said.
Ultimately, the U.S. Coast Guard told her a search and rescue team would head Shirley's way. But as far as anybody knows, the team never got there.
At the ranch, Shirley and her male companion secured animals in the barn. Then they took refuge in the house. They didn't leave for four days.
Luck was with them, apparently. Trailer homes all around were flattened by tornado-force winds, but the stout house and barn held up. Even the animals survived the winds and rising water.
After the storm passed, Shirley's companion climbed on the roof of the house and tried to call Vallette on a cell phone. This time, after so many failed attempts, he got through.
Later, a call came through from Vallette's grandaughter, Jody Harris. She and her children had taken refuge in the attic of their house in Biloxi, and were fine.
Vallette was elated to find his loved ones were alive and well.
"They were all right, but I could tell the experience was hard on Shirley. She was very emotional," he said.
So for Vallette, his friends and his family, the future isn't what it used to be.
The senior living community that was to be Vallette's new home is no more. His stay with the Marshalls will be much longer than expected.
His hosts aren't troubled a bit by that. They say their home is his for as long as he needs it.
"My husband and I have a reputation for taking people in when they need it. This time, it just happens to be a good friend," Bengy said.
Vallette's health, though holding up, is a concern to all. Not long ago, he found himself running out of the medication he takes for his heart.
He turned to the Department of Veterans Affairs for help. Initially, there were problems with identification and location of his health records.
He managed to get an appointment at the veterans hospital in Boise, but only limited help was forthcoming.
"I did not see a doctor there," he said. "They gave me a 30-day supply of pills and told me they would not give me any more."
Lonnie Shoup, a local veterans' advocate, stepped in, arranging for an appointment at the Walla Walla veterans hospital.
Vallette said he was treated quite well there.
"I got right through, and they were very kind to me. A doctor checked me, and I have another appointment in October," he said.
Down south, his daughter and granddaughter are struggling to put their lives back together.
Many of their personal belongings and his were ruined in the storm.
Shirley, a medical transcriptionist, still has a job because the company she works for decided to relocate in a nearby town.
But grandaughter Jody Harris, a schoolteacher, is out of work and has no immediate prospects.
They're both staying on, taking things one day at a time.
"This experience has drained Shirley," said Bengy. "We're hoping to get her up here for Thanksgiving."
Vallette, meanwhile, feels a little restless.
He keeps himself busy doing odd jobs for the Marshalls, but somehow it isn't enough.
He thinks often of Biloxi, and the things about it he has come to love: the beauty of the sunrises and sunsets, the old mossy trees lining the streets, the fleet of fishing boats on the water, and most of all, the people.
"I'm not going back right away, but when they start reconstruction, I'll be there to help," he said.
"I love being active. It's how I keep going."