Traveling these days just isn’t as pleasant as it was before the coronavirus pandemic, but sometimes it’s necessary. And traveling to the funeral of one’s only brother isn’t a fun trip under any circumstances.
My wife and I spent most of the weekend on a trip to Houma, La., to attend the funeral of my brother, Ralph Dunagin.
Some people reading this may remember Ralph for his editorial cartoon “Dunagin’s People.” A two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Ralph also co-authored a comic strip called “The Middletons” and wrote the captions for “Grin and Bear It.”
He worked at the Orlando Sentinel for about 40 years as an editorial cartoonist, editorial board member and art director before retiring in 2001.
He and I were born in Hattiesburg and grew up in the country near Petal, where we finished high school.
Our parents were proud of both of us, and I don’t think they showed any partiality to either.
But after our mother died, and Dad was in a retirement home in McComb, I took him to buy some shoes. He was approaching 90 and beginning to show some mental decline.
When the female clerk, who knew me, asked him if he had any other children, he told her he had only two.
When he got through bragging on Ralph as a world-famous, syndicated cartoonist, with other fine qualities, he nodded at me and noted, “I have this one too.”
I took it as a joke, and told some co-workers at the Enterprise-Journal about it. One of them quipped, “I thought you said your dad was losing his mental capacity.”
Ralph was an artist from the time he was a toddler. My parents recognized his talents and found someone in Hattiesburg to give him a few private lessons.
After high school, he went to Pearl River Junior College on a football scholarship for a year, and then joined the Marines.
Assigned to an aircraft carrier, he got out of standing guard duty by volunteering to be a barber on the ship. He was as gifted with the clippers as he was with a drawing pen. The skipper would request Ralph when he needed a haircut.
After the Marines, Ralph majored in commercial art at the University of Southern Mississippi, got married and moved to Florida.
He and his wife Mildred, who passed away in the mid-1990s, reared their daughters, Cindy and Terry, in the Orlando area.
About five years ago Ralph and his second wife, Karlene, moved to Houma, where her daughter and family live.
He and I were literally and figuratively as close as brothers, and we shared many hunting and fishing trips together, from boyhood through our early retirement years until his health began to decline.
After the funeral, we celebrated his life at the home of his step-daughter Julia Bourque’s family. Ralph’s daughter, Terry, played a video she had put together with nostalgic photos that brought back a lot of memories.
He would have enjoyed the party, and maybe he was there in spirit.
It’s a six-hour drive from Oxford to Houma, including two brief restroom stops each way.
In old, normal times, we probably would have stopped about half way for lunch. These days we pack snacks to eat in the car.
The biggest surprise of the trip was difficulty in making hotel reservations. The first three I called — apparently the preferred ones in Houma, including one we had used on a visit to Ralph and Karlene earlier — had no vacancies.
On two calls, I asked the receptionist why all the hotels in Houma were booked.
“I can’t say,” one replied. “I can only report that a private contractor booked all of our rooms until August.”
We got reservations after going through an online booking service. Our room, in a rambling, old-style motel, was clean and, as they say in the AT&T commercial, “just OK.” There was no breakfast or nearby Waffle House.
The offshore workers surely got better accommodations and probably better pay than the retired publisher.
Ralph could have made a cartoon out of that.