Table d' hote: An exceptional man
I spent a very happy New Year’s Day and weekend with my son Seth at a Presbyterian Disaster Relief work camp in Houma where a couple dozen other volunteers from around the country were dedicating their time helping with the continuing hurricane relief effort in bayou country.
Seth and two men from his church in New Mexico had driven down, and I was invited to join them and two ladies from Florida who were also volunteering a week of their time at the camp.
Our group of six was assigned to help an 82-year-old widower named Henry Hebert from Chauvin, chipping, scraping and painting his home which had been raised above the original foundation to prevent flooding.
Henry greeted the crew in a dirt smeared undershirt with a hole torn in it. He stood beside a late model Crown Victoria that he later explained he had restored himself after it went five feet under during Rita.
As for the shirt, Henry joked that we should have seen the young woman who ripped the hole in it the night before in her haste to tear the shirt off him.
We soon learned Henry Hebert works as hard as his help. One morning the crew arrived to find he had cleaned up several wheelbarrows of concrete from the work area and moved the debris to another location.
“I had to get up before the light to do that,” he told us.
Henry cooked a gumbo for the crew one day and made ham poboys on another. While everyone sat around his kitchen table, Henry entertained his help with Cajun humor and amazing stories from his exceptional life.
At the table we learned about the death of his wife 13 months ago, and how he cared for her during a 20-year struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease. Hanging on a wall beside the table were his two Bronze Star medals and photos and articles from his war years in the army.
He told us how he was hospitalized during the war and shrank down to 85 pounds after drinking bad water.
Another time during the Battle of Leyte in the Philippines, a civilian approached Henry from behind during the heat of battle.
“All of a sudden he popped up and asked me to protect him,” Henry said. “I recognized him from pictures. He was Ernie Pyle. The Japanese were shooting all around us. I told him to just keep low, we’ll tell you when to get up, we’ll take care of you.”
Pyle, the Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent lived to report another day thanks to help from Henry and other foot soldiers in the invasion battle that helped turn the war for the Allies.
Henry later said matter-of-factly that he was assigned to guard Gen. Douglas MacArthur and was there during the signing of the peace treaty with Japan.
Another time in the Philippines he was in a group of soldiers when Ferdinand Marcos, who would later become president of the country, rode up on a white horse.
“He came and talked to us,” Henry said. “He said anytime we came back we were welcome, but at that time all I could think about was going home.”
As the work on Henry’s house wound down, and his help prepared to leave, the old man who has lived his life well and served his country heroically thanked his crew for its part in lending a hand in hurricane ravaged Houma and Chauvin.
“You know how many homes have been damaged?” he asked. “If I wouldn’t be so old, I’d join ya’ll. I’d join the clan like you, doing the work.”