The holiday season is a time of tradition, celebration and remembrance for the extended Laiche and Duplessis families, and this year is no exception.
Since 2001, the family has gathered for an annual Thanksgiving weekend camping trip to plot plans for their now-legendary New Year’s Eve bonfire.
When this family builds a bonfire, it is no small matter. In the past, they have built a traditional tepee-styled bonfire, a replica of the south end zone of the Tiger Stadium, and an 80-ton Link-Belt hauler crane. Typically, the bonfire represents an aspect of the year, whether personal or cultural, that the family wants to commemorate.
The first one was to honor cousin Luke Villar, who was killed in a St. Amant shooting.
“We always have to keep in perspective what we are going to burn and what it can mean. We thought about paying homage to Paris and building an Eiffel Tower, but we didn’t want to burn that,” Jason Pugh said.
This year, the cousins decided to build a Navy Douglas SBD Dauntless Aircraft A-24 to honor veterans and to commemorate the life of a beloved father, uncle and Navy veteran Aynaud Jean-Baptiste “AJ” “Ben” Villar Jr., who died Nov. 6.
“Most of Dad’s military service in the mid-50s was spent working on aircraft carriers,” Lance Villar said.
Adrian Laiche said the family wanted to build something patriotic.
“We went to the Empower Air Show hosted by the World War II Museum in New Orleans, and then our uncle passed away,” Laiche said. “This is a combination of it all.”
The replica of the naval aircraft is built to scale, with a 42-foot wingspan and a 9-foot tail. Construction of the plane has taken approximately eight men working 10 cumulative days to complete. This year’s workers include Mark Blackwell, Caleb Duplessis, Chad Duplessis, Chris Duplessis, Cody Duplessis, Courtney Laiche, Tyler Laiche, Chris Odom, Jason Pugh, Lance Villar and C.J. Young III.
“We were all between the ages of 15 and 18 when we started doing this.” Laiche said.
“A lot of families aren’t as close as we are. Our getting together each year to build a bonfire showed everyone just how close we are. We’re still doing this 14 years later. Cousins aren’t always this close. We are as close as siblings are in other families,” Laiche said.
Finding the wood to build these elaborate bonfires has become increasingly difficult each year. Usually, friends of the family offer wood. “If the water is up, like it is this year, we cannot even get close to the wood,” Jason Pugh said.
Another concern is finding the particular type of wood that they need to build the bonfire. “Willow and sycamore is the straightest wood that grows in this area. Oak has too many breaks and edges in it,” Pugh said.
This year, the wood came from private property in Geismar.
What has, perhaps, impressed fellow family members and onlookers so much in the past has been the attention to detail given by the family to each bonfire built.
“So far, on everything we’ve built, something moved or we added a visual affect. On the train we built last year, the bell rang. On the crane, the wrench lifted up and down. This year, the propeller on the plane will spin,” Villar said.
This family holiday tradition has been woven into local legend.
“It’s pretty exciting. One year, I was in the grocery store with my cousin, and I overheard someone say, ‘Did you see the big pirate ship bonfire?’ We said, ‘That’s us,’ ” Laiche said. “Even if people don’t remember our family name, they remember that we are the bonfire people.”