Cajun Navy

 
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published: 4 January 2017
by: Darlene Denstorff

It stopped raining long enough on New Year’s Eve for the extended Laiche and Duplessis families to ignite their annual bonfire, this year paying tribute to the Cajun Navy’s efforts during the August flood.

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Chad Duplessis put the finishing touches on their annual family bonfire structure on New Year’s Eve. This year’s was a replica of an airboat as a salute to the Cajun Navy.

Waiting for the rain to stop was a fitting end to 2016 for many of the family members. Several were impacted by the August flooding, including one of the bonfire builders who is still waiting for his flooded house to be repaired.

Chad Duplessis, of St. Amant, spent the last day of 2016 putting the finishing touches on the 27-foot-long airboat replica. The airboat was perched atop a debris pile of building materials and logs.

Duplessis said the debris pile was “about as big as the one that was at my house.” He said that while he was the only one in the bonfire-building crew whose house flooded, other family members were affected by the August storm.

And, Duplessis said, many in the crew were busy during the flood helping neighbors evacuate, and after the rains stopped, they helped with recovery efforts.

So when the group of cousins started talking about what to construct this year, the idea of a salute to the Cajun Navy seemed appropriate.

The cousins started the tradition of building a nontraditional bonfire 15 years ago 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.

The men usually discuss what to build over the Thanksgiving holiday and during the first weekend in December, they haul willow trees and other needed supplies to the backyard of Sherry and Dooney Laiche’s Gonzales property.

This year, traditions were bit different, as bad weather and work on flood recovery efforts reduced the amount of time the men had to build the wooden structure.

The bonfires are usually modeled after something taking place in current events. The families burned a 28-foot space shuttle in honor of the end of NASA’s space shuttle program a few years ago and 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.

The families gather on New Year’s Eve at the Laiche home for a party to light the bonfire and set off fireworks.

Sherry Laiche said this year’s party crowd was smaller than the usual 250 people, “but we did what we always do.”

At 9 p.m., the rain stopped long enough to torch the structure and fireworks went off at midnight.

The structure included a replica 426 supercharged Hemi engine, seats and controls.

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Codu Duplessis tosses a log from atop a replica of an airboat. The bonfire, which was lit New Year's Eve, honored the work of the Cajun Navy in the August floods.