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Remembering Biloxi

A modern American city washed into the sea.

by Michael H. Thomson
August 31, 2005

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Remembering Biloxi
One of the first scenes I remember from Biloxi was chasing my panicked sister down the beach as she ran with a small sand crab attached to her toe.  Little did I know then that Biloxi would become a place dear to my heart and my life…
 
In 1979, the Air Force sent me to Biloxi for six months to learn how to repair satellite communications equipment. By that time, I had been in the service thirteen years and this was a major change in career fields. I was slightly challenged by the prospect and somewhat awed that I was the oldest in my class, which was composed of mostly high math achieving teenagers.  As class leader – based on rank – I became a dad, an uncle, and I think – at least to one – a grandpa. I was included in their parties – many accompanied by bonfires on the beach near the historic Biloxi Lighthouse. During that time, I learned Biloxi   well enough to appreciate its charm and its history. The biggest memory I retain of Biloxi was the smell of the sea – and – fish. At that time Biloxi's economy was driven by the seafood industry. Each year at the Blessing of the Fleet the local Roman Catholic Bishop in full regalia would float out into the bay to give his blessing to the gathered fleet of shrimp boat fisherman who made their living in the Gulf of Mexico.
 
While learning electronics in Biloxi, I met a woman who would later become my wife. She had three children, so when she and I married I had a ready-made family later to become an expanded family when we sponsored her brother-in-law, sister and her three nieces from a Vietnamese refugee camp in Malaysia to Biloxi.  (see The Story of Do Van Khoai)
 
Shortly after our wedding, I was reassigned and our little family moved to Alabama. My wife's family stayed in Biloxi and this resulted in many visits to that fair city over the years. I watched my three nieces succeed in high school and excel in college. All became self-sufficient   acquiring their piece of the American Dream. My own children with their Biloxi heritage did just as well.  Biloxi became a place for family gatherings and later, weddings,
 
Time never stops moving forward and years later my civilian job as a recruiter in the trucking industry brings me to Biloxi-Gulfport on a regular basis. Massive changes are taking place in both those cities brought about by a new state gambling law. Barge based casinos start showing up everywhere. Biloxi becomes a Mecca for gamblers. Vietnamese and native shrimpers are now dealers and pit bosses. That change was somewhat sad to me because I enjoyed Biloxi when her most memorable feature was the smell of the sea and the aroma of seafood in nearby restaurants.
 
Nevertheless, despite the changes, over the years, Biloxi has retained a special place in my heart and I'm sure in the hearts of my family who were nurtured there.  So it is with profound sadness I have watched the almost total destruction of Biloxi by Hurricane Katrina over the past few days.
 
Casinos, the remaining fisherman's shotgun houses, and grand mansions have all been leveled by the massive storm surge of the Gulf of Mexico. There is nothing left.  The scenes on TV are very reminiscent of the recent Tsunami in the Indian Ocean. It is too early to speak of the death toll, which I'm sure, will be massive.  As of press time, Do Von Khoai and his wife, Mang are unreachable although there is no doubt – due to their proximity to the sea that their home is destroyed.
 
I am generally not a pessimist, but from what I've seen in the past few hours, I have no doubt that I will never see my beloved Biloxi again…

Update: Biloxi, September 2, 2005, Do Van Khoai and his wife Mang called their daughter Christina in Houston to report they were safe. They had been sheltered at Biloxi High School. They had use of their vehicle and were able to visit their home which had been washed off its foundation and was located several yards away. They were able to go into the home and retrieve valuables. Tomorrow morning they will be met by two son-in-laws at the Biloxi Walmart who will transport them to Fredericksburg, Virginia and their
new home - at least temporarily.

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Ainsley Jo Phillips from Anderson, Indiana USA writes:
September 5, 2005
My folks were married on February 8, 1947, and their honeymoon night was spent at a hotel in Indianapolis that is now condiminiums.

The name of the hotel at the time was the Marrott Hotel (not to be confused with the Marriott chain).

From there, the honeymoon continued in the form of a road-trip through the South with most of their time in one place being spent in New Orleans during the Mardi Gras.

As for Biloxi...

My uncle moved down there a few years later with his second-parents cousins and worked in civil service at Kessler AFB until 1963 when he moved to Gainesville, Florida to work on his Master's Degree.

After that, he taught at Tampa for awhile before, eventually, teaching at the University of Kentucky in Lexington until he quit to pursue his PhD fulltime at Indiana University, starting in the fall of 1969.

In the fall of 1973, he became a temporary professor at Iowa State (handpicked by another professor who had to take some sick leave off, thanks to a brain tumor) and was invited to stay but didn't want to be tenured in a place with such cold, snowy, and slick winters.

Same situation re: his position the following year at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Took a year off, during which time he lived in Baton Rouge and sent out applications while relaxing and enjoying the area.

In 1976, he went to Texas Tech in Lubbock, where he would be tenured and stay until his retirement in either 1991 or 1992 (I believe the former).

Has been back in Bloomington ever since--a place he called the center of the universe.

Back to Biloxi...

Finn (Uncle Kermit's cousin) lost his wife, Lillie, in 1959.

He started dating a lady named Bernedette (Bernie, for short) sometime in the area of 1962, but they didn't end up getting married, and, instead, he married a lady named Amelia somewhere in the area of 1966.

He passed away in 1969 (a few weeks before Camille tore through the area), and Amelia survived the storm when the nursing home she and Finn had been living in since around 1967 didn't experience anything more than a power outage.

She passed on in either 1972 or 1973.

Anyway, as I was growing up, we usually spent at least a week in Biloxi during the summer.

Between the summer of 1953 (I was born in December of 1952) and 1966, the only years I can remember when we didn't make it into Biloxi were 1961 and 1965.

We spent some time there during the summers of 1970 and 1971 then didn't return until 1976 on our way back from visiting Uncle Kermit in Texas.

We made trips there at different times after that.

My last time there was in 1991, and my folks were there in 1997 in celebration of their Golden Anniversary.

They made a day-trip over to New Orleans to attend the Mardi Gras parade and said that it certainly wasn't the same parade that they'd attended fifty years before.

Most years when we visited Biloxi, we'd included at least a day-trip to New Orleans in our plans, but this was the first time for going back during Mardi Gras time.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I have lots of memories of this area, too, and would love to hear more of yours.

I write (among other places) at this site called Blogit.com, and I'd love to invite you over there.

Here's a URL to find out more--one that will take you to my blog called Hot Off The Griddle!!! where I pull everything together and give you (if you decide you like it there) the opportunity to subscribe.

http://www.blogit.com/Blogs/Affil/?20873/Blog.aspx/GriddleCakesUp/

A lot of us would enjoy having you there, I'm sure, as many of us have been sharing our memories of the area at this time.

Although this is, to date, the only article I've read by you, I notice that you have some titles that intrigue me, so you'll find me spending more time with you from now on!

Hugs!

AJ :o)

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