GONZALES — As the calendar turns from November to December and turkeys make way for holly and Santa Claus, the Laiche and Duplessis families know where to find their young men.
They’ll be outside working on the bonfire.
Constructing a special bonfire on family property on La. 74 and setting it ablaze before revelers on New Year’s Eve is a tradition the men have continued for 13 years to honor the memory of slain family member Luke Villar.
Villar, 18, was killed during a 2001 armed robbery in St. Amant.
The families always had burned brush piles and even built tepee-style bonfires to usher in the new year, but after Villar died, the men decided during a Thanksgiving camping trip to honor him with a special bonfire, said Courtney Laiche, Villar’s cousin.
“He liked bonfires, and he liked family,” Laiche said of Villar. “It’s just a good way to get together and stay united.”
The men discuss what to build over the Thanksgiving holiday and, during the first weekend in December, haul willow trees from friends’ property along the Mississippi River to 28 acres belonging to Laiche’s parents.
Every weekend through December is taken to construct and perfect each year’s bonfire, Laiche said.
The bonfires are usually modeled after something taking place in current events. Last year, the families burned a 28-foot space shuttle in honor of the end of NASA’s space shuttle program.
They constructed and burned a fleur-de-lis when the Saints went to the Super Bowl in 2009. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, they built a Blackhawk helicopter after watching them fly between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
Other years, the men have built a tank and the south end zone of Tiger Stadium.
This year, ideas were more difficult to come by, so when a locomotive engine was suggested, the men all agreed.
“We’re kind of winging it this year,” Laiche said.
On the Saturday before Christmas, Laiche, Villar’s brother Lance Villar, Chad and Caleb Duplessis, and family friend Mark Blackwell braved the cold temperatures to work on the locomotive engine and tender car measuring nearly 10 feet tall and 40 feet long.
Laiche said the men will spend all their spare time until the bonfire is complete, usually on New Year’s Eve.
“We thrive under pressure when the game’s on the line,” Chad Duplessis said.
The men will light the bonfire at 8 p.m. Wednesday and set off fireworks at midnight.
People ask them how they can burn their masterpiece once it’s completed, but Laiche said, “That’s what we build it for.”
The bonfire will burn until daylight and remain hot for two or three days, Laiche said.
In 13 years, there have been only two injuries, including a smashed finger and an accident with a chain saw.
Small arguments are more common, Laiche said.
“Feelings get hurt all the time, but you get over that,” Laiche said.
No alcohol is allowed during construction because there are five chain saws typically running, Laiche said.
Safety is important to the men.
“We try to design it so we know how it is going to burn and how it’s going to fall,” Laiche said.
Laiche welcomes visitors who are interested in taking pictures or getting a closer look at the bonfire but warns them not to stop their cars along La. 74. Instead, pull into one of his family’s driveways, he asked.
“We’re friendly,” Laiche said. “We might have the dogs out, but come and take a look anyway.”
The time spent together is what is important to the families, Laiche said.
Lance Villar enjoys the annual bonfire because “I get to hang out with them,” he said.
“If there was more of this, the world would be a better place,” said Laiche, gesturing to his cousins.