If it is so that one lives in his progeny, then I would ask that the stories that I am about to tell be passed on at least to my grandchildren. In this way, I might survive a little longer. Besides, I think my children have already heard most of these tales.
The Olden Days
Clermont Harbor Summers
Gallier Street: the formative years and the war
Clermont Harbor – the Return to the Native
Sins of the Father
Fires and Storms and other acts of an ever-loving God
Where does one begin to review childhood years? They were so very long ago, and the images are not always clear. It was not a very special childhood, but it was mine, and that makes a difference. I suppose that there were the usual joys and sadnesses, parties and measles, but some memories may be considered special by my children and grandchildren, for their experiences may be far different.
My earliest memories are of our little house at 1701 Mazant Street, corner Derbigny. It still exists, a small double with a little side yard. But it all seemed large to me then, and I can remember when my father erected a fence so that we could play in the yard, unattended. We had a chinaball tree to climb when adventurous and a garage with secrets to explore. There were banana trees against the fence, and I could climb up to the garage roof and slide down a banana tree. My mother would get angry with me, because there was a kind of oil in the banana tree that would stain my pants.
There was a small area behind our back steps where no grass grew. In dry weather, the soil would crack into hundreds of amorphous shapes. I once asked my mother if the cracks were little earthquakes, and she said they were. I worried about that, fearing that one day they would get bigger. But I did not worry inordinately, for life was good and every day was an adventure.
The garage had wonderful things to see. It contained my father’s hip boots and maybe some other hunting equipment. (He had bought hunting gear, including a gun, because he thought he would like to hunt ducks. After finding out how cold, wet, and generally miserable it is to have such fun, he sold the gun.) The garage also had a big, old trunk. It may have held a number of my father’s theatre seat indicators, but I always had to open it because it looked like it would contain something mysterious.
We also played with a supply of unused punchboards, left over from one of Dad’s enterprises. These were gaming devises that were distributed to outlets like grocery stores. Each consisted of a board containing many rolled-up chances, which could be punched out individually by a stylus and unrolled to see if it was a winner. This venture might have involved Papa, my Dad’s father, as well, but it had obviously been unsuccessful. Also left over were some of the prizes, and these too became toys for us. I remember specifically little but heavy metal elephants that were to be used somehow in striking matches. One day, a few years ago, I saw one for sale for $8.00 in a flea market. I have regretted that I did not spend the bucks to buy it.
I have already mentioned a couple of endeavors of my father that may begin to reveal him as a person, but perhaps it is only fair at this point, both out of respect for the memory of my parents and also for the benefit of the reader, to describe the two people who made possible all the stories that follow.
Wilfred Louis Guerin was born when the 19th century ended, in 1900. His parents were from old French families that had been part of the building of early New Orleans. They were French speaking at home, and Wilfred had to learn English to go to school.
He was the second oldest of his siblings, who seemed to treat him with the same deference that they would allow an older person. His schooling proved that he had a fine mind, but a mind of his own. Having attended St. Aloysius College almost to the point of graduation, it seems that he quit because he thought he earned the gold medal for scholastic excellence, whereas that medal went to another student. Never one to overstate the value of higher education, he looked upon a business career as not requiring the pedigree of a diploma.
My father was a gifted salesman, and this talent provided the livelihood the family enjoyed. He was also authoritative and fiercely independent. Despite his small physical stature (he stood about 5’3”), he was an acknowledged presence. It was said that when he entered a room full of people the crowd would part, like Moses making a path through the Red Sea. He was known not derisively as the Little Napoleon.
The combination of a good mind and ambition led my father to create several new concepts for which he received patents. When only 21-years-old, he headed a corporation with a $500,000 backing and was said by Who’s Who to be one of America’s coming millionaires. Despite these and other ventures, including the Clermont Harbor Hotel, Dad never became wealthy. It was not from lack of trying; nor did his reach extend beyond his capabilities. Each endeavor met with forces not of his own making, World Wars I and II and the hotel conflagration being examples. But he accepted these failures stoically. There was no Willie Lohman in my father.
Perhaps because of his early promise, he married very young to a woman my mother referred to as “a gold digger.” After they honeymooned in Paris, the marriage lasted only a brief time.
I mention the failed marriage because it may shed light on the betrothal a few years later of a man of old French Creole heritage to a woman who was a first generation Sicilian-American, born in poverty and who completed only six years of grammar school. It is only my guess that my father’s marriage to my mother was an act of reformation, of maturity. In her, he saw a person willing to be supportive of him, a homemaker type willing to commit to the raising of a family. Though she was lacking in formal education, my mother made good use of her faculties and was solid in her direction.
Carmela Cali was very Sicilian, one of eleven children of Rosario Cali and Francesca Bongiovanni. Though Rosario had been trained as a barber, they were probably of peasant stock. They came over on one of the “cattle boats” that ferried poor Italians from Palermo to New York. To illustrate the character of my grandfather, he preceded my grandmother to this country and worked at odd menial jobs from Wisconsin down to Louisiana, probably with a stopover in Chicago to work at the railroads or cattle yards, all to save enough to return to Sicily and bring back his wife, pregnant with my mother’s oldest brother.
My mother was born in Thibodaux, Louisiana, where her father worked as a field hand on a plantation. After a few years, the family migrated to Hammond, where they had a strawberry farm, subject to the vicissitudes of the weather in a day when no one even dreamed of crop insurance. Probably the whole family worked on the farm, but continued to be poor. Like my father, my mother had to learn English to go to school. She told us of bringing strawberry sandwiches to school. My Uncle Joe, the first-born, moved to New Orleans when old enough, and instructed his young wife that he never wanted to see a strawberry in their home.
I know that there was at least one early frost that ruined the strawberry crop. Perhaps that was the reason that the family eventually moved to New Orleans, where my mother worked as a sales clerk at Kaufman’s Department Store and as a switchboard operator for the telephone company. It was probably about this time that she met my father,
The entire Cali family maintained their Sicilian heritage in many ways. My grandparents, who never learned to speak English, continued to be the focal point of weekly visits to their home at Aunt Mary’s house during my childhood. Some of the family had St. Joseph altars; the women were never without their fava beans. Till her death, my mother would kiss a piece of bread before throwing it away. On numerous occasions when she pulled various things out of her purse, her fava bean would come out and bounce on top the table; she would just smile and put it back.
For the most part, my father acquiesced in my mother’s old world customs and devotion to family. There were, however, at least two exceptions. The first was an abhorrence of the aroma of Italian cheese; he simply did not allow it to be on the table at home. The second is more complex, and illustrates my mother’s capacity to be her own person. It involved her desire to name me after my grandfather, Rosario Cali. Dad would not accept this, but settled for her suggestion of the name Russell. Mama told me sometime in my adulthood that she knew that the two names had the same stem and therefore one could be translated for the other. As I have said, she used her faculties, though not formally trained, very well. To my knowledge, she never let on to my father how she chose my name.
Disagreements must have occurred between my parents, but they must not have been terribly obvious to the children, as I have difficulty recalling many specifics. There was, however, one minor incident that I remember well, even though I could not then and cannot now give any background to explicate her remark. It happened one day when I innocently asked why ships were referred to as “she.” Her answer was, “Because they are hard to control.”
Thoughts of those visits to Aunt Mary’s cannot go without mention of her wonderful cooking. In those days, my mother would pile all of us into a yellow cab on Saturdays, and we could ride from downtown to 4801 Camp Street for 25 cents. There, we would eat delicious pasta in a red gravy, with Italian sausage (homemade) and panee meat. In the evenings, we would be joined by my father and others from the family, and the men would play low-stakes poker while the women cooked, did dishes, and discussed various family pregnancies.
My mother also learned to cook Italian as Aunt Mary did, but she had also learned French Creole cooking from my father’s mother. As I recall, my parents, during the early part of their marriage, lived with my father’s mother and father. We did indeed have the best of two worlds when it came to matters of the palate.
The Olden Days
For my first few years, I shared our home with Wilfred, Jr. and Roland, my two older brothers, and of course my parents. Gloria came along in 1937 when I was four-going-on-five. Wilfred was always skinny then, and we called him “skinny-galoot-the barber.” He would get angry when Roland and I would tease him. And tease him we did; I particularly remember an unsophisticated joke we often made about the little beret he wore. We probably picked on him at least partly because he was very obedient and set the standard for Roland and me. Even then Wilfred was already studious. I think he had the first world globe I ever saw. Roland was always rough- and- tumble, ready for action, and Mama had to discipline him often. He had long ringlets for hair, and refused to get a haircut. Mama said that if he didn’t get a haircut that she would pack a bag and leave, causing Roland to capitulate.
On finding that her threat worked, Mama used it again and again with Roland, to the point that he would often, out of a clear blue, call out her name. She would answer from wherever she was, and he would say. “I just wanted to know where you were.”
The house was not very comfortable by today’s standards, but we had never experienced modern heating and cooling and therefore could not miss what we did not know. Heating was by space heaters, which would have been turned off at night. I remember that on one cold, rainy morning, there was ice inside a windowsill, apparently the result of leaving a crack in the window for ventilation. Wilfred remembers actual icicles, inside the window. When I would dress for school on such a day, my mother would stand over a space heater, spreading out the shirt I was to wear and letting it get warm, while I waited under the covers. It would feel ever so good as it wrapped me inside.
The dog days of summer were not terrible for us as we spent our whole summers in Clermont Harbor, where there was usually a good breeze to moderate the temperature. I do recall, however, that when we would on occasion go to Bay St. Louis to shop, the heat would be steaming off the pavement there. A similar experience was to be had on the day we returned to New Orleans at the end of each summer. The heat was stifling, until we got used to it, but it was in the meantime something that fed into a deep sense of loss, having left Clermont behind for another nine months. It caused an uncomfortable lump in my throat, but then it was always good to see our friends from school again.
The house on Mazant was what we now call a “shotgun double.” It was small, and Dad had added a room to the rear to accommodate his elderly godmother, a spinster. She was known as Nanain Zutre. I remember her only vaguely, as I was very young when she died. It seems she always wore long, black dresses. Undoubtedly, she helped Mama a great deal and was certainly accepted as part of the family. In those days, there was no Social Security or other assistance for the elderly, and my guess is that Nanain Zutre was virtually penniless. I still wonder whether others in the family may have contributed to her during that period.
We occupied the larger, owner’s side, and rented the other to a succession of different tenants. These were hard times, as they were Depression years. I remember that one tenant had a small baby and could not afford to pay the rent; my mother bought milk for the baby. Another tenant had a little boy about my age. I guess we did not like each other, as one time he started calling me a bad name, the meaning of which I had not the slightest idea, and so I called him the same name back. This went on and on until my mother heard us and stormed onto the porch and told me to come inside right away and never to say that word again.
Telephones at that time must have been something of a luxury. Perhaps Dad had negotiated the use of our phone in establishing rents due from a tenant, but there had to be a good reason that he had cut through the baseboard beneath the phone location, making it possible to pass the phone through the wall to the tenant. Wilfred’s mention of this brought back my mental image of that cut baseboard; even then, I think I might have viewed it as somewhat bizarre!
One neighbor was afflicted with tuberculosis. While I thought she was a tenant, Wilfred is probably correct in his thinking that she was a neighbor from across the street. As she did not have a phone, she would sometimes ask to use ours. I can still picture my mother, washing down the phone with a wet cloth after the lady left. The phone, by the way, was the stand-up type, with a receiver that hung from a holder off to the side. I believe that it had a dial, which would have been the “modern” type, but I know that we had a party line. That meant that sometimes when one would want to use the phone, there would already be someone else on the line, as the line was shared, often by more than one other family.
The dial system, incidentally, was considered by my mother to be the downfall of the telephone company. Her argument was based on experience: one of her jobs after moving to New Orleans from Hammond was that of a telephone operator. She knew that with the advent of the dial system, many switchboard operators were put out of work, and therefore Bell Telephone was going backward instead of making progress. She was very unforgiving about this and probably this is why we did not buy bunches of telephone company stock in the 30’s.
The immediate neighborhood did afford some conveniences. Dan Wagner’s meat market and grocery was across the street, and the Kinlers had a bar a block away. The latter I recall for one particular reason, that being that Dad would sometimes take me with him when he would walk down the street for “a cool one,” and one time he sat me up high on a bar stool and gave me a small glass of my very first beer.
Shopping at Dan Wagner’s was certainly because of convenience. Mama and Dad always thought that Mr. Dan had a way of putting his finger on the scale, thereby increasing his profit. Dad even bought his own little scale to check the weight of meat purchases from Wagner. But it was something of an adventure for a child to go inside the market. I remember that he sometimes had exotic things to see, like live bullfrogs, whole sides of skinned cows, and maybe big fish. Acquiesced
I cannot remember the stove my mother cooked on, but we always ate well, in spite of the times. Breakfast on those cold days usually consisted of hot cereal like cream of wheat or grits or oatmeal, buttered toast (cut in fours) and coffee-milk. Mama always emphasized that we should spoon around the outer edges, which was not too hot. The butter on the toast would make little round splotches on the surface of the coffee when I would dunk my bread.
What I know we did not have in those early years was a refrigerator: we had an ice box. Just as its name implies, it was a wooden structure with doors and a compartment for a block of ice. It was serviceable, keeping food fresh for days while the ice would eventually melt down. An iceman would come regularly to deliver replacement blocks of 25 or 50 pounds. The reason I recall the icebox so well is that I would delight in finding a screwdriver and take the screws out of the icebox doors. This did not make my mother happy.
My mother was always a kind person, devoted to her much loved children. Of Sicilian parentage, her life was her family. She grew up poor, and though she went through six grades only, she did very well with the education she had. But she was not educated in the field of child psychology, as can be concluded from her threats mentioned above to “pack a bag.” Our little house also had a closet. There were probably other closets, but I remember the one Mama put Roland in when he had a fight with me. He didn’t stay long, because I was crying for her to let him out before he would suffocate. I guess that he then stopped picking on me, since I saved him to be “bad” another day.
Mama would sometimes walk us to Bunny Friend playground. I must have been young, because whenever we would go I thought we were going to see bunnies. It was a nice neighborhood park, lined on one side with weeping willows. Those trees supplied Mama with her tools for discipline. When we would get rowdy, all she had to do was say, “I’m going to get me a switch.” With that, she would pull down one of the long thin branches of the willow, strip it of its leaves, and pop it like a whip. I don’t think she ever used it on us, but it was powerful motivation to listen.
On occasion, Mama would go shopping to Canal Street, taking the Desire streetcar for transportation. We were thrilled to see her return, partly because she would often bring back some sandwiches from one of the stores, probably the Woolworth lunch counter. They were really special, for they were cut diagonally, unlike the four square sections we had with a homemade sandwich. For this reason, we eventually invented a phrase by which we would ask that our at-home sandwiches be “cut Canal St.” They seemed to taste better that way.
It was at Mazant Street where I believe we experienced Depression era happenings, more so than at Clermont Harbor. I remember that from time to time, down-and-out people would knock on our door and beg something to eat. My mother always responded, usually by making a sandwich. My father would refer to those folks as “poor devils.”
My mother delighted in telling a Depression story over the years. It must have taken place in our last years at Mazant, for Roland was old enough to go to the store by himself. (Of course, times were different in that respect, too.) It was also Mama’s way of expressing her deep Catholic faith mixed with a little superstition. It seems that the incident took place when she had not enough money to buy a pair of needed shoes. But she had a dream in which she was waiting for the St. Charles streetcar and in that dream were two nuns. One she recognized as St. Theresa (the “Little Flower”), who acknowledged that she was in fact who she seemed to be, and inquired as to whether this was the right streetcar to take. Mama assured her that it was, and noted the identification number of the streetcar. Probably the next day, no longer dreaming, Mama was asked by the lottery salesman to take a chance. Remembering those numbers, she ventured one nickel. It was later that Roland made his trip to the store, there to find that the numbers were heaven-sent and carried thirty dollars home in a shoe box.
I guess that she bought the shoes, but knowing Mama, she probably decided that the old ones could do a little longer.
The connection with St. Theresa, in the minds of my parents, was not happenstance. Her mother, after all, had been a Guerin, and Dad for years wore a second class relic (or was it third class?) pinned to his clothing. Years later, when they were in Europe to visit Roland and me, they made a special trip to Lisieux, in France, the birthplace of Theresa.
Some people found enterprising ways to eke out a living. There were the regular visits of “criers,” riding their wagons or old trucks through neighborhoods and selling clothes poles, watermelon, shrimp, etc. They could be heard from a distance as they approached, yelling “Hey, Lady, I got watermelon…red to the rind,” or “I got okra, turnips, cabbage….” Some such folks were buying, rather than selling. They would cry out that they would buy “old gold.” It was a sign of the times that people would part with whatever meager family heirlooms they might possess.
Another way for one man to make a living was to sell magazines. In order to cover more market, he employed little boys – like me – to sell all the magazines in a canvas bag. It was my first sales job. He did not offer me money, but promised that if I sold all the magazines he would give me a little camera. I did sell all, and he reneged. My mother, however, had been aware of the promise and came to my rescue. Some of those old snapshots that still exist were probably made with that little camera.
One of the saddest times at Mazant involved a little boy named Elmo, who lived next door. I think he was younger than I but sometimes we would play together. It happened one day when I had already started school but I was home sick. Gloria, who must have been a toddler, was in the living room with me when Mama came in crying. Elmo had gone to the hospital for a tonsillectomy, routine in those days for children. Unfortunately, he hemorrhaged and died.
I must have been five when Roland started kindergarten at William Frantz public school. Wilfred was already there and of course already excelling and making it tough for the rest of us. But Roland would cry when leaving home, and for that matter, continue to cry in school. Mama would try to make him laugh at the door, by saying, “Play music on your lips, Roland,” and he would do what one must imagine by waving his index finger up and down over his trembling lips. It didn’t work longer than a few seconds and so I got put in school early to keep Roland company. There were other changes in the next couple of years, involving transferring to Catholic school, but that’s basically how we came to be in the same class level from then on through college. Of course, Roland learned to cope after a while, and like Wilfred, excelled at every grade from then on.
I have very little memory of Frantz school, other than recess with chocolate milk and two graham crackers and taking naps on a blue blanket with elephants on the fringe. Oh, yes, we learned to tie shoestrings. There were many shoestrings hanging from a nail on the wall, and periodically we were told to get one and try to tie a bow. Once, I succeeded in tying a knot with one loop and proudly showed it to Miss Stematina. (That’s what we called her; we found out years later that she was Miss DiMartino.) She told me that that was fine, and that I should try to get the other loop in.
I also remember that one Christmas we had a pageant in which each of us was to be one of Santa’s helpers. I was to be one of his helpers, a farmer, and so I was dressed in denim overalls and had a red kerchief on my neck. My job was to walk in procession with all the other helpers, but I also had to push a wheelbarrow full of farm products. For this purpose, my mother had bought for me a cute little toy wheelbarrow, which did fine in rehearsal. Come the big day, I showed up with that little red wheelbarrow, only to be told that I did not need it, as there was a real full-sized one already loaded with fresh carrots, lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, etc. and I was to push it in the parade. I knew when I saw it that it was a daunting task. The contents must have weighed more than I did, and it took all my strength to move that thing. Even though I was only five or six, I knew then that there were professional educators who hated kids.
Clermont Harbor Summers
It was always a relief to get back to Clermont for the summer. Life was simpler there, and I don’t remember that we experienced the Depression in the same way. It must have been the same for my parents, however, because my father’s work was not always profitable. He sold cars for a living, and did well most of the time. He was a member of the Hundred Car per Year Club when cars were still not owned in every family. (Even today, I am told, that level of production would be very high.) But after the Crash of ’29 and the bank holiday, many people simply had no money. My mother used to tell the story of how one day Dad sold a new car for cash – that’s green dollars in full, not financed money – but Mr. Cathey, the owner of the dealership, chose to pay office employees their back wages. Dad and other salesmen had to wait.
Still, Dad lived an idyllic life for the most part, commuting to New Orleans by the L&N train. Mama did not drive, but we had two grocery stores in Clermont and there were sometimes deliveries to the door of other items, like ice, newspapers, and donuts. And of course we caught our own fish and crabs.
Mention of newspapers reminds me that the train delivered the New Orleans papers. They were thrown out of the baggage car in large stacks tied together with wire. Lengths of wire could always be found near the depot, and we would collect some to make our own fishing leaders. We really did not catch too many fish that would be capable of biting through the fishing twine, but it was nice to think about such possibilities. Hence, we made many stout, wire leaders.
Clermont was more of a community then than it is now. It was prettier, too, with nice homes on the beach and elsewhere. Our neighbors the Chalonas were wealthy and had a mansion and private tennis courts. Another house in our block was an old Victorian, probably dating back to the nineteenth century. Next to it was Dr. Smith’s lovely home, and then the Hills’, about whom there were some interesting stories. There were only two telephones in Clermont in those days, one at Chalona’s and the other at Ladner’s grocery.
Dad served as president of the Clermont Harbor Civic Assn., possibly for several terms. One of his successful innovations involved property owners putting up lights by their front gates. Another was providing stencils to paint names of association members on their fences; Wilfred helped make the signs. He also championed the support of the one community pier, with a gentleman’s agreement that no other private pier should be built. Our pier was wonderful, all 900 feet of it. Sometimes he would catch a couple of beautiful “yellow mouth” speckle trout from the end of the pier before going to catch the L&N commuter.
The Louisville and Nashville commuter train was a story in itself. The first railroad came through that area in 1870, and by the end of the 19th century, the L&N was promoting the coast to New Orleanians with advertising, including its booklet, “Along the Gulf.” (I have a copy in Clermont.) In my father’s day, the train stopped at several fishing villages and camps along the way to the coast, like the Rigolets and Chef Menteur. I don’t know how far it would go before reversing back to New Orleans, when it would pick up passengers at Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, Waveland, and Clermont Harbor. The same businessmen rode the commuters every day. They bought books of tickets, one of which was offered to the conductor for my first train ride; on being informed that it was my first, he refused the ticket.
The travelers knew each other, and looked forward to their daily interchanges. I imagine that the morning ride was consumed by reading the newspaper, and that the afternoon trip was more social. Someone often brought a small bottle of spirits for the return, and Cokes were then bought by the participants as mixers. They had their own cocktail hour before disembarking at their respective stops. As I recall, the trip took just about one hour. My Dad, by the way, was able to get off and catch his trains right in front of his office on Elysian Fields near St. Claude.
Many people yearn for the return of the commuters. It has been tried, but without success due to the priorities of the freight trains.
But the pier lent itself to community, for adults and children alike. One of Wilfred’s favorite philosophers is Teilhard de Chardin (a French Jesuit mystic theologian and renowned paleontologist). In his writings, he said that it was well that God made the earth round instead of unendingly flat, as this caused people to cross paths back and forth and to intermingle, thereby building the earth community. The other way would have meant people continuing to go out in different directions, never to cross. In the same way, the pier caused us to interact with others, and thus there were no strangers. A long sand beach, on the other hand, was like the flat earth, where strangers remained strangers.
Our pier therefore was a meeting place, for adults and kids alike. When it was at its full length, there was a stairway down to the water at midpoint and another at the end, with a large pavilion. There, parents could watch their children below while others simply sunbathed. After the ’47 hurricane enough was salvaged to build a 600-foot length, and it was Dad’s idea to roof only part of the pavilion. Some people called it the “pier with the hole in the roof,” but it worked. On all four sides, there was shade, but in the middle, those who wished to could lie in the sun.
In order to get to deep water, one still had to go out another 100 or200 yards. From time to time, there would be a platform that could be reached with an easy swim. On top was a diving board that we used when it was in good repair, but I never knew who was responsible for its construction.
Our first house in Clermont was half a block up on Forest Avenue. I don’t think I can really remember it, but it must have been really small. I think that Dad and some friends had built it themselves. That early house was rolled on logs down to the beach lot probably when I was about three. It was then expanded to include an L-shaped porch, where we spent our time when not on the beach. It was comfortable, having two bedrooms to the front and what we called the “long room,” essentially a large third bedroom. We had a bathtub but no shower and no hot water heater. Later, we enclosed an outdoor shower. Mama’s stove in the early years, I believe, was a little two-burner kerosene job, but she surely could cook some good meals on it. Washing machines and dryers were things of the future, so we washed clothes in the tub with the aid of a washboard and Octagon Soap. At the new, expanded house on the beach, we progressed to a refrigerator and an electric stove. I seem to recall that Dad introduces the addition of the latter with a bit of fanfare.
In a stream of consciousness vein, it is hard for me to think of Octagon Soap without remembering an incident on the front porch. Clermont had bugs. Electric lights attract bugs. Dad thought that by hanging a jar of water underneath the porch light, we could control the number of bugs. For sure, many of the little pests scrubbing and a shampoo with Octagon Soap to make me smell like…Octagon lost their lives in that jar, but nobody ever thought of emptying the jar and putting fresh water in it. One day, baseball bat in hand, I was demonstrating to Gloria how Ernie Lombardi (a good hitter for the N.Y. Giants) would swing a bat. Bad mistake. I hit that jar and it spilled all over me from the head down. Like Lady Macbeth, I could not believe the old jar had so much bug juice. It took a bar of Octogan Soap to properly shampoo. All the perfumes of Arabia would not have sweetened that one little head.
Mama did have help in those summers when we were four little children. Usually, our nursemaid was in the person of freckle-faced and redheaded Lydia LaFontaine. She must have been in her early teens then, and there was no prospect of other employment for such people. She was happy to stay with us for her pay of $3 per week plus food and clothing that Mama would give her. She loved us and we loved her. (A year or two ago, I was able to find out that she is still alive and living in Waveland. Wilfred and I visited her, and she remembered each one of us well. She is a widow living comfortably in a nice home, her husband as I recall having been an engineer. Naturally, she is no longer red-haired. Both she and her husband have some Choctaw blood, and he was “on the rolls” of the Choctaw nation. She is a cousin of Russell LaFontaine, who now cuts my grass and does other jobs for me.)
One summer, Lydia could not be with us, the reason I do not know. She was substituted for by a girl who may have been her cousin. What I remember about her was the tale she spun more than once about the messages that someone in her family could read in spider webs. These were war years, when everyone prayed that the war would be over soon. The messages were written in the webs, which this person would seek out in the woods. They would make predictions about the war, and we would listen with rapt attention. We loved such stories in those days, as we did when “old man Charley Schwartz” told us about days long before when there were panthers around Clermont Harbor. He never saw one, but his uncle did, and old Charley had heard them scream sometimes at night. In answer to a question, yes, they were probably black.
At the end of one summer, we did not return from Clermont to our little double on Mazant Street. This would have been about when I entered the second grade at St Mary of the Angels, probably about 1939 or ’40. For years, I assumed that Dad had simply sold the house, but it was not until well into my adulthood that Wilfred informed me that Dad had lost the house, apparently a Depression foreclosure. I now tie this into a vivid memory that I have of one Christmastime at Mazant when I had the flu or something. Dad was crying, and I asked Mama why and she said it was because I was sick and we couldn’t go out. I never felt any guilt at being sick, and I probably understood that it was for a different reason that I could not comprehend.
That was the only time in my life when I saw my father cry.
Gallier Street: the formative years and the war
We rented a house then, the address being 2314 Gallier, right across from the main building of the Catholic school. That was the beginning of living in a succession of houses in the 2300 block of Gallier. After a year or two at 1914, Dad must have been getting back on his feet financially and we were able to buy 2320. In the meanwhile, however, he did not want to have to move from 2314, which had been put on the market. There was a real estate sign displayed horizontally from the side of the house, and he asked me to go and hang my weight on it when he was not looking. In this way, at least for a while, the sign was removed from visibility from the street.
Later, Dad became a real estate agent himself.
It must have been about this time that we took a drive in the area around DeSaix Blvd. I remember it only vaguely, and it might have been earlier. The gist of the recollection is that Dad was showing us the area in which we might buy – or perhaps build – a home. What I remember clearly is that the subject was discussed about us children losing all our friends. Someone, maybe Mama, said we could make new ones, to which Wilfred said, “Yes, and we could teach them to play ‘kick the stick’.” That was a game we played when we did not have a ball. We played with a stick, which we would place between two bricks, and kick it. Then we would run the bases just as we would in any ball.
We moved to 2320 Gallier, probably when the Putfark family purchased 2314. I recall one funny story about them. It seems that Mama had sent over some sample of food in a saucer, but after a substantial time, the saucer had not been returned. Perhaps she finally inquired about it, but I remember Mrs. Putfark’s explanation. The saucer was a deep one, and Mr. Putfark liked it especially well to drink his coffee. There was a habit on the part of some older people to pour their coffee into a saucer from which to sip it.
The Putfarks, by the bye, lived two doors down from the Hastaks, who had a small grocery and loved classical music. It was in front of their store that I woke up when being carried home by Ashton Mouton and others after I had knocked myself unconscious sliding on ice at the school playground. I woke up, saying “Put me down, put me down.” They did, and I went out again. They got me home, where I became conscious but suffered a severe headache for the rest of the day. My parents may have called Dr. Brierre, but my treatment was that I did not have to go to school that day.
Wilfred wonders whether our ability to purchase 2320 was an effect of the war economy. That would probably be a correct assumption, as the timing would be right. The fact of the matter was that the depression was replaced by a different kind of horror, World War II. These were serious times, even for our young minds. Relatives like cousin Frankie Cali and friends like Sidney Prendergast went away to war. We had scrap drives and victory gardens. Ladies, including Mama, knitted woolen sweaters and socks for the boys in the frozen foxholes of Europe. There were songs and slogans that we were aware of daily: we knew that loose lips could sink ships, and we sang wistfully of the blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover. We celebrated Rosie the Riveter and the lady streetcar “motormen” who were much engaged in the war effort. Like any child of nine or ten today who might wonder about the real existence of tooth fairies, I speculated on whether there were indeed gremlins who could sabotage machinery. At St. Mary of the Angels school, we taped windows and practiced lying on the floor with our hands behind our necks in case of an enemy air raid. We had a Victory garden and painted “V…-” on our mailbox, the symbol, in Morse code, of the letter “V” for Victory.
In spite of the seriousness of the war, we were still children, and played as such. One pastime was in the making of model warplanes from kits. We knew most of them, whether Allied or German or Japanese. We could identify the Hellcat, the Flying Tiger, and the Spitfire as well as the Junckers bombers or the Messerschmidt fighters. Sometimes we would carve reasonable facsimiles from blocks of wood with our penknives. Wooden porch furniture at Clermont would be turned over to allow an imaginative child to climb underneath and feel that he was in the cockpit of a P-38, going 500 mph with an enemy plane in the crosshairs.
Rationing of everything from tires and gasoline to sugar and meats was serious business. People who got around rationing some way or who hoarded goods were thought of contemptuously. It may have been acceptable to swap one type of ration stamp for another, but not encouraged. No matter how one managed, privations were the rule. Nonetheless, Mama was creative in always having a sufficiency on the table. She bought dressed rabbit from the Authement family (even though we raised pet rabbits in our back yard), and Dad managed to get regular deliveries of pouldieu (spelling?), a kind of small duck that was plentiful in the Cajun country. (Interestingly, as that kind of duck was once a staple in the Acadian communities, it was exempt from the Catholic prohibition against meat on Fridays. It was also justified because its basic diet was fish.) Mama learned to make hot dogs and luncheon meat go further by breading them, in the same way as in good times one would “panee” veal. And of course, there was very little waste. Even the fat left over from frying would be carried in a can to a large metal drum at the school; from there it was somehow used in making explosives.
A curious story about the scarcity of nylon stockings emerged during the war. As I remember, nylon was used in the making of parachutes and therefore stockings were hard to find. A school friend, Herman Dewey, reported that he had to wait in line stretching around the corner from Maison Blanche in order to buy one pair for his mother’s Christmas present. At least some were available; often, they simply could not be found. As a result, ladies took good care of the ones they had, and tried to prevent “runnings.” One day, a peddler rang our bell, and I answered the door. He asked for my mother, and as he made his pitch I stood next to her and listened. He was selling packets of powder for ten cents each, which was to be mixed with water to make a solution. What he claimed was that if she would soak her nylons in the solution, they would not run. She was disbelieving and scoffed at the idea. Unabashed, he demonstrated by stringing a nylon over one hand and jabbing at it with a pointed wooden stick. It did not run. Mama was still incredulous, but decided to risk twenty cents and bought two packets. By the end of the war, she had worn holes in the stockings she treated, but never once did they run. I have often wondered how the stocking manufacturers were able to keep that powder off the ready market.
Wilfred’s memory adds to the list, ranging from ships, including landing ships, tankers, LSTs, being built at Paris Road, where we could see them as we drove out to Clermont Harbor, to swapping empty toothpaste tubes (plus the price of a new tube) for new, full tubes. He reminded me of the scrap heap alongside our school. What I recall about that is that there was some sort of a contest as to which organization could collect the most scrap iron. Our school, or perhaps the church parish, surprisingly won: someone had donated an old ship to the cause!
Being almost three years older, Wilfred remembers some things more clearly than I, even when some incidents apply to me. One case is point, he says, was Mama’s hearing me running toward the house in Clermont, shouting what she heard as “Your pants are in it!” He believes that I was screaming, “Japan’s surrendered.” I do recall something of the incident, beginning with my walking home with either my cast net or crab nets, when Mrs. Hill stopped me to report the great news. She grabbed me and kissed me, and I excitedly dropped the net or nets to run home and communicate the news. On reflection, I wonder whether what I was saying was, “War in Japan is ended!” Anyway, I later retrieved what I had dropped by the roadside.
Other recollections of Wilfred include German POWs at Camp Leroy Johnson at the lakefront (now the site of UNO), and Dad’s waking him up on D-Day, shouting something like, “they’ve landed in France!”
Dad must have been listening to radio news in that instance, but I am reminded that the daily headlines in the newspapers were about the war. I once asked him what kind of news the papers could have every day when there would no longer be war. In spite of the seriousness of the news in those days, the most important thing for us children about the afternoon edition, called the Item, was the funnies. When we would hear the thud! of the paper hitting the front steps, one of us would yell “first!” and someone else would yell “second!” In that way, we could determine without a fight who had dibs on the funnies. I remember that one day, when my two brothers were quicker than I, I still yelled “third!” and they cruelly laughed at me.
Oh, how terribly I still feel the pain of another cruelty! Wilfred questioned whether my opening paragraph’s mention of “parties” is accurate; he is probably correct in pointing out that in the 30’s and 40’s we did not have parties. We did of course celebrate our birthdays, but parties as such were not the norm. But that is not where the cruelty comes in, but rather in the memory of a party at the home of our cousins Gwen and Beverly Beck. They had parties, at least two of them. In one, I almost died of mortification; in the other, I almost died of strangulation.
The first involved a game in which each child was to guess the number of beans in a jar. The one who had the closest guess was to win a prize. I let everyone else go first, while mentally I computed approximately how many beans were in a layer, and then multiplied by what appeared to be the number of layers. When I gave my result, both of my cousins screamed that I must have known the number, for I hit it on the head exactly. My aunt, their mother, agreed with them, and awarded the prize to someone else. Not only did I not get the prize, but I was effectively accused of cheating in front of the whole party.
The second near-death experience involved the same cast of characters. It happened during the lighting of the candles on the cake, when one cousin was letting the match burn too short. The other said, “Watch someone say ‘ouch’, and about that time she did just that. I had one of those flat, round peppermint candies in my mouth, the kind about the size of a thick quarter. When I heard the word “ouch” I inhaled to laugh and the candy plugged up my throat so tightly that I could neither breathe nor swallow. And nobody knew until I turned a noticeably different color from everyone else. I don’t remember clearly how I got it down, but I recall that Dad was there, and got some butter on a spoon and melted it over the stove and made me swallow it. Of course, the peppermint was already down, but I guess he just wanted to make sure.
Wilfred must be right. I don’t remember any other parties, certainly not any at the Beck house.
“Making do” during the summers of the war was easier in Clermont Harbor, partly because we always had an abundance of crabs and fish. In addition, for at least one summer, Dad became a poultry farmer and raised chickens. He made cages and bought a large number of little chicks and proceeded to feed them. Unfortunately, they began to die in numbers, and Dad found out that the cause was a change is the drinking water. He then acquired pills with which to treat the water, and we dined often on “springers,” so named because they were never allowed to grow to full size. Besides, it was easier for Dad to separate the bird from its head when it was still small. One little twist and a pull did the trick.
On balance, the years on Gallier Street were good ones, the last residence there being at 2338. That’s the one my children remember from their childhood days. 2338 was the nicest of the three, and had been remodeled before Dad bought it. I remember that he did it as a surprise: not even Mama knew that he had been negotiating for it. One funny thing that I recall probably will give some indication of my father’s personality for those who did not know him. Friends, the Dannekers, were visiting 2338, when Mr. Danneker asked how my father liked the new style faucet in the bathroom. It was one of those that had only one spout, joining hot and cold lines in the middle; previously, there had always been two separate spouts, one for hot and one for cold. Even though the new style could give you either hot, cold, or mixed, in other words, do anything the separate ones could do plus, my father said he did not like it. My mind’s ear can still hear John Danneker chuckling as Dad attempted to explain why.
Enough for now about Gallier Street. It was Clermont Harbor where we really lived. From the day after Labor Day, when I would experience that pit in the bottom of my stomach, until the end of May, we thought of Clermont. Finally, when the school term ended, we would pack the car with clothes, luggage and ourselves, and merrily drive old Highway 90 at 40 mph to Clermont. (It was during the war years that people were encouraged to drive 40 mph for gas savings, and remarkably, most did it, voluntarily. Posters were everywhere in evidence, asking people to ask themselves, “Is this trip really necessary?” Can any of us imagine George W asking his supporters to support such economies? After the war, people resumed normal speed, except for Dad.)
Clermont Harbor – the Return to the Native
On rare occasions, we would go over to Clermont for a day or weekend before school was out. If it were not yet a certain date in May, perhaps the 15th, we children were not allowed to go swimming, no matter how much we’d beg, because there was in Mama’s conviction a knowledge that until that date, there was present in the water a “chill.” This was a conviction born of perhaps generations of Sicilian wisdom, unshakeable even though the temperature might be 90 degrees plus.
In the summers, we – the kids – lived in our bathing suits. Sometimes we would even sleep in them: it saved time both at night and in the morning. Regardless of the advantages, the mix of wearing only swim trunks and having two older brothers could be hazardous to one’s health. There was the time, for example, when Roland and Wilfred discovered that with the aid of a length of stout bamboo they could pole vault over a pine bush in the front yard. Always the optimist, I reasoned soundly that if they could do it, so could I. That was mistake number two; number one was wearing only a bathing suit. As I attempted to lift my body over that pine bush, something fell short. Maybe it was that I hadn’t run fast enough in my approach, or perhaps I didn’t have the arm strength, or – probably – the pole was faulty. Anyway, I landed in that bush, crowding out the nest of wasps that claimed the territory first. They were at once dislodged and angry, as bad a combination as two brothers and a bathing suit. The swarm stung me on every uncovered part of my body and followed me as I ran toward the house, shouting, “Help, help.” My mother thought that I had stuck a flounder spear in my foot or worse. I do not recall the treatment, as we did not often go to doctors in those days, and there were few around anyway. Probably, my mother bathed the stings in something like Epsom Salts and plastered them with bicarb.
I do remember that it was too painful to wear a shirt for several days, and for this I caught heck from some members of the family a day or two after the attack. We had taken a drive to Bay St. Louis, and my father noticed that there was a good movie playing at the theatre. No sooner than he suggested that we attend, someone in the family realized that I would be persona-non-grata at the movie house for not wearing a shirt. Instantly, I then became person-non-grata in the family, as we did not get the chance to go to many movies in those days. Alas, I felt twice cursed by fate.
The only day when we usually wore clothes and shoes was Sunday, when we would go to Mass at either Clermont or Lakeshore. Roland and I would often be the altar boys. Our favorite priest was a Holy Cross missionary, Fr. Victor. He was poor. He made no bones about the fact that he depended on the New Orleans people’s contributions to keep him financially afloat. He had to travel every Sunday to four places to say Mass. They included Clermont Harbor, Lakeshore, Bayou Caddy, and I think Ansley. In one sermon in which he appealed for help, he said that he had been to Bayou Caddy that morning and there were four people there and the collection amounted to forty cents. One day, while exploring a wooded area, I came across an electric heater that looked OK. I brought it home and plugged it in, and finding that it worked, my Dad suggested that we give it to Fr. Victor. He was much appreciative, he said, because he was often cold in his home.
Eventually, the poor man had a nervous breakdown. The last I heard of him, he was recovering at Holy Cross High School.
Even though it would be too late to go fishing after church, we – Dad and one of the boys, never two at a time – would find ample time on other days to go out to Guerin’s reef in our skiff.
Our skiff was indeed a wonderful one. Dad had it made by someone in the area according to his specifications. It was 16 feet long and had a live-bait well. Each side was made from a single cypress board, as was the transom at the stern. Except for the flooring, its superstructure was made of just three pieces of cypress.
We caught fish from that skiff, many fish, and all we had to do was row out about five or six hundred yards to our very own reef. It was not, of course, really ours, but we did feel a certain sense of proprietorship because it was Dad’s creation. I was with Dad the day he negotiated with a man near the old White Kitchen to dump a barge load of dead oyster shells in front of Clermont. Dad had collected a sum of money from neighbors, friends and other residents of Clermont, to purchase the shells. He had put up the first amount, and the contributions were probably in the ten-dollar range. The man with whom he contracted said – and I recall this clearly, that the dead oyster shells would not result in a live reef. Dad retorted, “You let me worry about that. You just dump the shells.”
Dad was right. In a year or two, everyone who fished, fished at Guerin’s reef. It was productive for years, even though we knew that “the natives” would tong live oysters during the cold months. (Those are the months that everyone knows contain an “r”.) Because the whole idea was Dad’s, and of course because he controlled the plan with the barge captain, the reef was situated due south from our home. He had the shells dumped in a location from which one could see clear up Forest Avenue between the trees. Well, after all, it had to be somewhere.
Only one of us boys at a time was allowed to fish with Dad from the skiff, but he managed to go out frequently enough that our turns came up regularly. There were certainly the weekends, but in addition, sometimes he would catch the early train from New Orleans and there would be time enough to go out in the afternoon. The fishing was not as good as it was in early mornings, but the afternoon trips were always a welcome surprise. As Wilfred points out, we rotated turns, and Wednesday “counted” only if we caught a minimum number of fish.
In a way, afternoon fishing had an advantage over early morning fishing for at least two reasons. The first is obvious, in that as much as we couldn’t wait for our respective turns, getting up before dawn was hard. Then, Dad would go get bait while the designated boat tender would have to wade out to get the skiff where it was anchored about 100 feet from shore. Sometimes it was still dark and sometimes the water was cold. I didn’t always enjoy the wade out. The second problem was at the other end of the trip. Dad never liked to quit fishing until at least an hour went by without a nibble. By that time, I was tired and felt the need of the sleep hours that I missed, and so I would position the oars to lie parallel to each other from the well to the bow, and they would become my bed. Believe it or not, I could sleep on those oars.
There was reward on the return to shore. That was when the fish would be scooped out of the well and brought in to Mama. She could clean a few of those fish in minutes, and serve them fried crisp with grits and coffee in the time it took to tie up the boat and get the tackle in. That was really living! There was not even sufficient time to clean up before eating, hungry as we would get, but this did not please my grandmother (my Dad’s mother, who would occasionally visit). She would tell me forcefully, “You’re going to get leprosy!”
Besides fishing on Guerin’s reef, there was floundering. In its usual form, this was done at night with a torch, or flambeau. It was a home-made device that made for a great flame at the end of copper tubing wrapped with asbestos rope and fed with kerosene from a tank worn over the shoulder. (I wonder nowadays whether breathing that burning asbestos might have anything to do with my asthma.) In my early years, I would accompany Dad as we would walk slowly through shallow water and spear flounders and sometimes catch soft-shell crabs. I believe that I took to this sport more so than Roland and Wilfred.
Even now, it is a singular delight to be out on the last bar under a dark moonless night studded with thousands of stars, my vision searching the bottom for a pair of eyes or the outline of a flounder tail interrupting the little wavy lines of sand on the sea floor. At such times, one is at once truly alone and at the same time a small bit of an enormous cosmos.
During the war, there was a blackout on the beach roads, and so night floundering was prohibited. People were not allowed to light a match or smoke a cigarette on the beach; car headlights had to be painted black halfway down, and porch lights had to be covered with half a tin can. We had to have blackout shades on our front windows. All this was because of German U-boats in the Gulf. We never heard officially then about sinkings in the Gulf waters, but we could sometimes see the fires on the horizon at night. It is hard for me to believe that what we witnessed was way out in the deep shipping channels, as we could at times even see powerful searchlights darting across the water. I believe that what we saw has not been mentioned in published accounts of U-boats and Gulf shipping events. What we saw was not on the high seas, but in the shallows of the intracoastal waterway. I believe that those U-boats came in close enough at night to attack barges just a few miles out.
We did from time to time find suspicious flotsam and jetsam, probably the result of nearby sinkings. On one occasion, one of us found a piece of a life preserver on which could be read part of the name of a boat. For whatever reason, Dad thought it important enough to call the FBI in Gulfport, and an agent came down to Clermont and collected the life preserver. I still remember how out-of-place he looked in his suit and tie in Clermont Harbor.
Another time, we found floating against the seawall what looked like part of a large torso. We could distinguish the heart and other organs. A witness who had some knowledge of anatomy thought it might be human, but we let it continue to float away with the tide. It was large, and might have been pig or cow. We never knew, but it was hard to discount the observations of the witness: Wilfred believes he was our neighbor, Dr. Smith, who in fact had been trained as a physician.
It was during those years that I learned to flounder during the day. I would go out in late afternoon at low tide and walk between the bars and come up with enough flounders to keep myself in spending money. I would come in just before dark and get our scale and then go house-to-house, selling my flounders, still kicking on the stringer. They didn’t come any fresher.
It was a grown-up belief that flounders could only be speared at night. I guess they believed that the fish had an aversion to shallow water during daylight hours. Anyway, after being told authoritatively many times that one could not catch flounders during the day, I finally got my revenge on grown-ups one day when I was dragging a stringer with several flounders behind me. The bars led me right under our long pier, where two men, observing my spear, asked me what I was doing. I replied, “I am floundering,” to which they laughed boisterously. I let them revel in their mirth a few seconds before pulling my stringer out of the water for them to see.
Wilfred and Roland also liked to flounder during daylight hours, and we developed a system. We would take parallel bars, and when one would scare up a flounder, he would blow a whistle and the others would come running. Together, we had a good chance of finding the flounder, buried somewhere between the bars. We also kept a log, containing information about where, when, how many and the size of each flounder. I was the acknowledged champion, but Roland speared the biggest of all, which was recorded at something like 26” and 51/2 pounds.
As we always had plenty of fish, Dad did not mind my selling my flounders, but he bought all my soft-shells, at 50 cents apiece.
I have a photo of myself holding my home-made spear in one hand and a flounder in the other. That fish might be the first that I ever caught by myself. I recall that it was landlocked when the tide went out, and I chased him around between bars. The spear pictured was probably one of those we made from old broomstick handles and nails. We would drive the nail in and then hammer the head flat to make a kind of barb. As mentioned in the wasp incident, Mama, from the earliest, had a fear of those spears and would caution us about their danger. Her admonitions sounded like the line in “A Christmas Story,” about Red Ryder bb guns: “You’re going to shoot your eye out!” The difference was that she would say, “You’re going to stick that thing in your foot.” That’s exactly what I did one day, while practicing spearing an imaginary flounder in the front yard. I cried as I stood in the bathtub and watched the blood flow and she washed out the wound. Fortunately, the point had entered just between two metatarsal bones. I wondered later how she knew that such an accident might happen.
There were other activities in those early years. One involved keeping little triangular gardens that flanked our front-yard wading pool. Each of us, including Gloria, was assigned a triangle, and Dad offered a prize for whoever would grow the prettiest flowers. He would buy the little packages of seeds, but we would do the selecting of which flowers were to be grown.
There were also many trips to the woods, especially to the area we called “the high spot.” The locals called it Jackson Ridge, which confused us because we knew that the Jackson house had been east of the next marsh. (It turns out that they were right, as Andrew Jackson Jr. once had a plantation that encompassed that whole area.) It is now known as Buccaneer Park, but when we were young it was just a forested wilderness. There were birds, of course, but truthfully, not much other wildlife. Nonetheless, it held a fascination for us and we spent many hours of exploration. Once, when Wilfred and I were on a hike through those woods, we observed a brush fire that threatened to rampage through the area. We did our duty as young citizens and began beating out the fires with pine branches. The hot smoke and fire did not dissuade us as we experienced real adventure, and finally we prevailed.
There might have been someone else besides Wilfred with me, but it would not have been Roland. I know that because of an incident in the following school term, when the teacher, a nun, invited each of her class to tell of an adventure that happened during the previous summer. I told of the above fire and how we saved the forest. Roland raised his hand and said, “Sister, I don’t remember that.”
The well-known competition between Roland and me continues to this day. Obviously, we are both to blame; Mama always said that it takes two to make a fight. But I sincerely hope that those who read these stories will laugh with me as I tell them. Earlier, I mentioned a photo of me with a flounder. Roland gave me that from Mama’s effects. Another snapshot features a very large gar hanging from a tree in our front yard. I am also pictured in the foreground near the gar.
I well remember the night that Mr. Prendergast excitedly came up to our house and said to Dad to get his rod and reel, because there was a big redfish splashing the night waters and making a ruckus. I can still picture several adults lined up on the seawall, poles at the ready. Maybe I did not have a big rod, but I had a handline, and threw that out with a chunk of bait. Pretty soon, I felt an enormous pull, and after fighting the leviathan for some time, managed to bring it to the seawall, possibly with the aid of a gar rig we ahd make of wire. On seeing that it was a gar and not the big red he expected, Mr. Prendergast said very conclusively, “I think I’ll go home and go to bed.”
The fact that it was a gar did not reduce my enthusiasm, and with considerable help I hauled it in and hung it from the tree to see – and show off – in the next day’s light. That’s when the photo was taken. Unfortunately, it was badly damaged in the Betsy flood, but one can still make out Gloria, and perhaps Roland, and I think a girl we knew as “Precious” Bomboy. Mama even scribbled a few names at the bottom with the year 1944. Gloria and Precious are near to me in the foreground, and seem to be asking me for details of the adventure.
That photo was given to me by Roland not too long ago, with the explanation that I should have it because it is a picture of me, but he remembers that he caught the gar. I did not comment, but accepted the transfer gratefully.
Sins of the Father
But back to gardening, there were times when Dad would make us do yard work that was not fun, sometimes on Sunday. Being conscientious young students in a Catholic school, we would complain that what he asked of us was servile work, forbidden in our catechisms. The dialogue would go something like this:
Russell: Dad, it’s servile work, not to be done if we are to keep holy the Lord’s day.
Dad: It’s OK to do two hours of work.
Russell: No. Two hours is a mortal sin. Less than that is still a venial sin.
Dad was not easily defeated, and asked a priest what kind of manual work was servile, and was told that if the work was artistic, like gardening, then it was not sinful. From then on, any yard work we were told to do was for beautification purposes.
I did a lot of work with Dad in other ways, more fulfilling to me. For one thing, I made real estate signs for him and would accompany him on some of his business errands. He would pay me for each sign, but perhaps I was interested in observing his sales techniques and business methods. His ethics, I believe, were impeccable. More than one story can be told to support that observation, and I continued to be told that by people who knew him, even years after his death.
One story I recall particularly well. It represents the ethics of not one but two people. One morning, Dad went to see Mr. Carr (there is more about him in my little booklet about the hotel), and on returning home, he obviously felt very good about himself. The story was that he had gone to see Carr about several lots along either Forest or Oak, to see if he, Carr, might want to offer them for sale. As it worked out, Carr said that he would be willing to sell to Dad. They agreed on a price, and Dad drew up the paper work, complete with the required “earnest money” to make for a legal real estate contract. Both were happy. Dad then drove to the site, and proceeded to erect a “for sale” sign. About that time, a stranger drove up and asked Dad if he was the owner of these lots. Dad hesitated, and after consideration, said yes, that he was. That man agreed to buy the lots at a price higher than the one Dad had negotiated only minutes before. Again, the paper work was done, and upon completion, Dad returned to Carr and told him the whole story. He offered to let Carr be the seller to the third man, with Dad being the agent. Carr, also a man of great reputation, refused, saying that he had made a deal that he was happy with and that it should remain as done.
Real estate transactions must always be in writing, but the days covered in this writing were still those when much business could be done on a handshake between gentlemen. One such agreement between Dad and Mr. Chalona, our neighbor, was meant to be of that type. Chalona owned a long stretch of ground along the beach road to Bayou Caddy. It was low, bordering on a marsh. Dad suggested that the elevation be raised by digging a canal behind the lots and using the fill to raise the level to buildable standards. In effect, it was to be a “borrow pit.” It was agreed that Chalona would pay for the dragline costs, and Dad would supervise the work. When completed, the project was to be handled by Dad as agent in sale of the lots. The project was begun, with Dad spending many days doing his job. Unfortunately, Mr. Chalona died during that period. Dad waited a respectable time before making an appointment with Chalona’s son, who was representing the family interests. Dad asked that the agreement made with the father be honored, and was refused. He lost his investment in time and effort, but mostly he was hurt personally. I remember his words, “He is not the man his father was.”
That canal is still in evidence. It can be seen by looking west just as one approaches the beach road from Lakeshore.
There was another occasion when Dad was emotionally hurt, and though the timing of this story is out of sequence, I feel that it must be told. It is perhaps the only way that I can in some small way right a wrong. I must jump way ahead to my last week in Clermont Harbor before being inducted into the army. Dad had just sold a house on Poinsett to a man who was either a principal or in the office of the superintendent of public schools in New Orleans.I took a ride with Dad to deliver a bottle of bourbon as a thank-you gift to the buyer. That’s all there was to it, as he had done many times before to show his appreciation for business. On this occasion, however, he asked me to get out of the car so that he could introduce me to the man as he handed him the gift over the fence. He made the mistake of saying that I had just graduated from Loyola with an education degree, at which time the man handed him back the bottle. Dad was taken aback and tried to explain quickly that no favors were sought, that I was about to go into the army for three years, but the man would hear none of it and just walked back into his house. True, Dad had made a minor mistake in not realizing how his intentions may be misinterpreted; but that man made a major mistake in misjudging severely someone who had not even the ability to be obsequious. My father was not always right, but for all who really knew him, he was as straightforward as any man I ever knew.
Stories that I find amusing about the interaction between Roland and me should not lead one to conclude that we did not get along well. The fact is that we did, and did many things together. One was playing softball on Sunday afternoons behind Bankston’s ice-cream parlor. It was the city boys against the country boys, played in what was literally a cow pasture. We both played outfield, as I remember with him in left and me in center. It was good, friendly competition with the locals, and it was good for Bankston’s business, as we did draw a crowd of adult onlookers. Dad, of course, was one.
One painful recollection involved a big pine tree stump in center field. I had a bead on this high fly to deep center when that stump came out of nowhere and I levitated through the air for what seemed several seconds in slow motion. Having performed a complete somersault over the stump, I eventually landed on my back.
I had not caught the ball, nor did I walk without a limp for some time. The pine stump showed no emotion and gave no indication that it would move. It was, after all, there first.
Pine trees were ubiquitous in Hancock County, all of southern Mississippi being known over the years as the Piney Woods. As I have discovered in my research for the book project with Marco, some of the “first growth” pines in the early days of logging in the area measured a full 150 feet in height. Some of the tallest that we knew were behind the Chalona mansion, and I wonder whether they were remnants of what must have been a magnificent forest before our time. Because they were so tall, they naturally were the targets of lightning. More often than not, it seemed that heavy thunderstorms occurred at night. It was at once both exhilarating and frightening to lie in bed during one of those storms and feel the house shake as ear-splitting thunder followed immediately behind a blinding lightning flash, all the while hearing the rain pelting on our tin roof as though it were a huge drum.
When the lightning and the thunder were close together, it meant that the strike had to be close by. More than once, on the morning after, we would go into the woods behind Chalona’s and find the tree that had been felled. Usually, the break would be about eight or ten feet above the ground, and all around it and alongside the huge trunk would be thousands of toothpick-size splinters, dry as old bones, the result of an internal explosion in the tree from the tremendous heat generated by the lightning.
A tree of lesser stature but equally mortal once graced our front step. That was until Aunt Nancy, Uncle John, and cousin Johnny paid us a surprise visit. We were of course happy to see them, as Johnny (pronounced then as “Jawnny”) was one of our favorite cousins. Little did we guess then that he would later transplant to Waveland and become a long-term mayor there. Johnny was always an affable person, intelligent and self-assured. He probably took after his sweet, cheerful mother, more so than his father, who was rough around the edges and somewhat boisterous. Uncle John was one of those who often do not look before they leap. Nonetheless, Dad liked Uncle John, and would have been happy to receive him except for the fact that he had commuted to New Orleans that day.
Without Dad’s presence, Uncle John must have gotten bored. Maybe he needed exercise. Anyway, he happened to see our axe somewhere and figured he would do a good deed. He chopped down that small pine that shaded our front step, and like a cat with a dead mouse proudly announced the fact to Dad when he returned. Dad was furious. I think his words were, “John, how could you do such a thing? I was growing that tree there to shade the front step.” He made no effort to hide his displeasure.
Another incident concerning Uncle John probably happened too much later to be considered recompense for the above injury, but I still wonder. This involved Dad’s purchase from Sears of a lightweight mahogany hull. It was to replace our cypress skiff that had been lost in the ’47 hurricane. It so happened that the hull was damaged sometime before being shipped to Dad. Was it coincidence that Uncle John was working in that department of Sears at the time? One can only guess. Anyway, the boat was still useable, as the only damage was to its nose above the water line, and so Dad took possession after a substantial discount was granted. One could not read much into Uncle John’s laughing denial.
As I have indicated, Clermont was different then. Bankston’s was right on the corner of Bordage and the beach, and it was a center of attraction for all alike, weekend city folks or the locals. Bankston’s was primarily an ice cream parlor, but it contained a few other attractions, like shuffleboard. They also played music, which was amplified through what were known then as “loud-speakers.” There was not a lot of choice of music, as it was all country pieces, like “Cryin’ in the chapel.” That was perhaps the saddest of all, and I am reminded of one of the native who was listening earnestly to the lyrics and commented, “That’s the kind of music that makes you just sit down and medicate.”
But there was also live music, sometimes at the end of the pier. A number of country boys, all friends of Gloria, were budding musicians, playing guitars, fiddles, and washtub. As far as I know they were self-taught, and some progressed to playing on New Orleans radio stations.
One particular local band played at a bar on Forest Avenue, and they drew crowds. The leader was a nice boy named Lenny. He was missing his two front teeth but didn’t seem to mind. Gloria loved them all, and even I would sometimes attend the dances, and believe it or not, dance.
Clermont changed a great deal in the post-war years.
Fires and Storms and other acts of an ever-loving God
Dad’s hotel burned the day after the grand reopening in 1946. I know the date well, because it was the day after Roland and I graduated from grammar school on June 1st. A very happy day was followed by one of great sadness. As I have written a booklet about the hotel, I will not go into the whole story here, but I was in the Cristadora car with Mama when we joined Dad in Clermont. He had received an early morning call from Uncle Lloyd with the bad news and so had rushed over, accompanied by Wilfred. When those of us in the Cristadora car arrived, the sight was summed up well in Mama’s words, “Down to the ground and still smoking.” Then she cried.
Dad tried to make the best of a bad situation. He soon bought out the minor partners, and proceeded to subdivide the land and sell off lots. A separate building called the Pavilion was not destroyed, and it was being converted to apartments by Dad.
The matter of the Pavilion contains in itself a story worth the telling. It was a handsome structure, someone said modeled on the Parthenon. That might have been so, as the hotel had Greek influences in its architecture. It certainly was not of the size of the Parthenon, but it did have two rows of columns, one inside the other, totaling 48 in all. It was initially intended to be an entertainment building and dance hall for the hotel guests. When Dad took over the hotel, he leased out the Pavilion to someone who had a fine new dance floor installed. Big name local bands were engaged, the first, if my memory is correct, being Sharkey’s.
The Pavilion was actually being operated before the fire. Wilfred remembers how proud Mama was to walk in on opening night, wearing a corsage and hearing someone say, “There’s Mrs. Guerin.”
The conflagration of the hotel obviously was bad news for those leasing the Pavilion. I can only assume that they asked Dad for a release from their lease, but what I do have in
Dad’s effects is a copy of a letter from Dad doing just that. It was the right thing to do.
As stated, there was much change in Clermont at this time. The Pavilion, which I helped to convert to apartments in the summer after the fire, was totally demolished by the hurricane of 1947. I still have fond memories of that place, because in the years that the hotel was not operative, the Pavilion stood open to anyone, as there were no doors or screens. One day, when I was very small. Mama had been letting us play by the pier when a rainstorm developed. It was closer to go for shelter to the Pavilion, where Mama entertained us during the storm. What I remember was riding on her foot as she recited, “Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross.” Perhaps it was one and the same with another rhyme, but I also recall, “Rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, she shall have music wherever she goes.” I must have been quite small.
The Pavilion was just one of the casualties of ’47. It was a major storm. We lost our home on Forest and the beach, plus another rental property on Oak St. We never found a board of our house, or our 16 ft. cypress skiff. There was a story told later, however, about a white skiff that came floating by as some were trying to make their way back to the railroad. They boarded the skiff, perhaps saving their lives, but told also of having to fight off the snakes that were trying to get into the boat.
Our part of the Gulf Coast had not had a major hurricane since 1915, when a schooner was propelled right through a wall of the new Clermont Hotel. Nonetheless, Dad being a cautious person, we had headed back to New Orleans in advance of the storm. There was not then the kind of warning we get today with modern science. Surely, there were some cautions broadcast on radio, but Dad relied to some degree on the storm flags flown at St. Stanislaus. Also, we knew to watch the skies to see the high flying frigate birds, with their long, angular wings that never seemed to move. Dad said that they came from the islands offshore when they could sense the coming of rough weather.
Whatever information Dad had when we left either was not known or was ignored by some people we knew. One was John Furr, the father of a playmate of ours. His house was on the harbor, near the present Paw Paw’s Beach. He said that he was shaving, getting ready for work, when he could see from his bathroom window a swirling of fast incoming water along the periphery of the harbor. I can understand that, for even now I observe that an incoming tide seems to move counterclockwise along the shore by my pier. But what Furr saw was more than normal rising tide. He and his family survived, but their house disappeared a few hours later.
The Chalona mansion, mentioned earlier, was in 1947 owned by the Jules Harris family. I don’t think that the Harrises were at their home, but some relatives were. They thought that they would have no problem in that large, strong house. We were told later that they watched our house, across Forest Avenue, fly apart, board by board. When the storm’s intensity grew and the water started to inundate their house, they left, with intentions to get back to the railroad. I believe the whole family made it, but an elderly Negro maid and her grandson perished. The young mother of the family had to swim with her young baby, keeping its head above water by holding the baby’s ear in her teeth. Out of nowhere came a skiff and they were able to get in and made it back to the tracks. On the way, they saw many snakes, some attempting to get into the boat. The Chalona mansion ceased to exist.
Another family we knew were the Mogabgabs. One was Tudy, a few years older than Wilfred. (His older brother, a physician, died recently; he was internationally acclaimed as a research scientist.) Tudy’s grandparents, were from “the old country,” possibly Lebanon. What I remember is that they refused to leave their house, because their religion taught them not to abandon their home in time of peril. They both drowned.
There were at least a couple of other deaths in Clermont. One rumor held that the body of a young unidentified woman was found near our front yard.
Dead fish – large ones, like reds and drum – and animals were deposited on high ground. They had to be covered with lime in order to reduce the stench and the possibility of disease. Yards that normally had thick carpets of straw were now bare earth. They looked strange, being so clean. From the seawall outward for perhaps 50 yards was a tangle of seaweed and reeds so compacted that one could almost walk on it. It took a long time to eventually wash away. There were also balls – very spherical – of such fetid accumulation. They were of different sizes, some as large as a basketball. Almost with a sense of humor, neighbors placed such balls on top of fence posts, to rot away in time. (One such is in the Historical Society, from Hurricane Betsy in 1965; it is called a “Betsy ball.”)
An interesting story concerns Mr. Carr’s lighthouse. He was the local head of civil defense. He had built that structure during the war, as a good vantage point from which his “plane spotters” could watch for enemy planes. When the hurricane threatened his home, he and his family moved up to the top of the lighthouse, from there to watch their house go down. But he noticed that the water simply parted around the base of the round lighthouse, without the same force as against a flat wall. Subsequently, he rebuilt his home, which to this day is observed to be very round.
Clermont’s entire array of beachfront homes was wiped away, with the exception of a piece of the Prendergast home. The town has never regained its former attractiveness.
Meanwhile, we were safe in our Gallier Street house. We did experience substantial winds in the morning as the center of the storm passed right over New Orleans. We were listening to the radio when the eye passed over, and the advisory said that it would be safe to go outside for a while, but to go back inside when the winds reversed. We did go out, with Dad’s consent, and looking up could see bright sunshine and clear blue sky. It was spooky to know that we were in the very middle of a major hurricane.
It was some days before Gulf Coast property owners were allowed to go to inspect their damages. I’m sure that Dad went alone the first time, but I accompanied him soon on another trip. We had heard that National Guard troops were stationed around Clermont to prevent looting, but I never saw any.
Flood insurance was non-existent in those days, and the insurance companies excluded coverage of any damages from rising water. Initially, companies refused to pay claims, citing tidal waves as having caused the damages. Eventually, they began paying fractional amounts, at first at the rate of 40%. Dad held out, and finally settled for 90%.
He may have been helped by the fact that eye witnesses saw our house going down before the water rose.
The above described events changed Clermont Harbor, and experiences at the Mazant and Gallier Street houses have long since been supplanted by other happenings of more recent and mature awareness. My brothers and sister and I continued to develop, and I hope, to make our parents proud. We all did well in high school, with Wilfred leading his class all four years. Roland had the highest class average for three years, but I was able to edge him out one year. Gloria also received honors at Holy Angels. Wilfred and Roland received scholastic scholarships to Tulane, and I received one to Loyola. A newspaper article in 1950 reported that as a family, we had received 10 scholarships. Wilfred and Roland were voted into Phi Beta Kappa for their college accomplishments, and while Loyola was not a participant in Phi Beta Kappa, I did receive membership in three honorary societies and was voted into Who’s Who in American Universities and Colleges. Wilfred, in order to pursue graduate work, received grants or fellowships from the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.
All of which speaks to the credit of a high school dropout and a little-educated first-generation Sicilian lady.
There have been, over the years, many events that could be narrated, some glad, some sad. But it must be left to someone else or in another time to pick up where I leave off, for there is much that can be said. Is it not obvious that the depiction of the accomplishments of the next two generations, in all their radiant beauty, would command the talents of a writer far better than this one?
And with that conviction of personal frailty, I must end this, my attempt to go home again.