Those of a certain age will recall that Labor Day, already a bittersweet holiday because it brought the end of summer, was made even more somber by the presence of Jerry Lewis on TV.
For many years, Lewis hosted a 24-hour telethon to raise money to end muscular dystrophy. His guests included children touched by the disease — frail, tiny kids in wheelchairs who were a poignant rebuttal to our idea of summer as a season of unlimited vitality.
The telethon was, for many youngsters of my generation, also our first vivid proof that well-being is shaped by luck. In Louisiana on Labor Day, we often face another reminder that life is something of a roulette wheel. On more Labor Days than we care to remember, people here are either worrying about the approach of a big storm or digging out from one.
Hurricane Gustav struck Louisiana on Labor Day in 2008. There have been other Labor Days when the state was still waterlogged from hurricanes Katrina, Rita and the flood in 2016.
Ending summer each year in a state so close to the turbulent Gulf of Mexico is a gut-check for Louisianans. Why do we choose to live in a place where Labor Day so often seems like a game of cosmic dodgeball as we wait to see which part of the coast will get zinged?
The people who thrive here are gamblers at heart, as I was reminded on the Saturday before Labor Day when I stopped at the neighborhood grocery. Tropical Storm Gordon hadn’t yet cast its long shadow on the weekend, but weather reports already predicted a wet holiday. A man in the checkout line was stocking his ice chests for a few days in Grand Isle, obviously happy about the trip.
“It will probably rain the whole time,” he told the cashier, “but I’d rather watch the rain there than here.” I understood what he meant, remembering pleasant vacation days I’d spent in rented beach houses as thunderstorms pelted the roof. Being in sand and sun wasn’t important. It was enough to be miles from home, free from the gravitational pull of obligation and routine.
As the happy traveler loaded his truck in the supermarket parking lot, I remembered there are other reasons the state’s coast attracts attention besides its eroding shoreline and vulnerability to storms. People also look to the coast as a source of pleasure.
Pleasure is the enduring promise of Labor Day, one not always fulfilled. On my holiday weekend, our daughter’s car broke down, my wife got a stomach bug and the emptying clouds dampened our barbecue plans. My only victory was getting the backyard mowed before the rains came.
If I had any doubts about the end of summer, they were quickly dispelled when my son and I made a trip to the plant nursery, finding the Christmas merchandise already on the shelf.