Saturday, March 12, 2011

Charley and Steward














At the recommendation of a pal, I watched an HBO Documentary “The Battle for Marjha,” last evening, the compelling story of a U.S. Marine company’s assault upon a Taliban stronghold village in Afghanistan. Despite the bravery and resilience of our Marines, the inability to win Afghan “hearts and minds” was depressing and it got me to ruminating upon the sacrifices of American fighting men through the years...


Much is known about Viet Nam, Iraq (I and II) and the Afghanistan campaigns because of the extensive coverage devoted to those battles, coupled with interviews, embedded reporting and reams of documentaries and such. As a boy, however, I grew up among humble heroes from another war. I never understood I was so surrounded until much later because the men who would come to tower within my heart as heroes never talked about their sacrifice. There were no documentaries about their campaigns. They were just men I knew through my father, men as ordinary as an unpainted board fence.

Except they weren’t ordinary at all.

To me, Mr. Charley was simply one of Dad’s pals who accompanied us on the innumerable camping trips, fishing adventures and hunting expeditions that meandered through a kid’s coming of age in the South. Steward, by contrast, was the ever-present African-American gentlemen who took care of our yard and cleaned Pop’s engineering offices. It would be many years before my interest in history would prompt me to question them about their service to the country during The Second World War. In so doing, I encountered what I would later learn was a standard sort of reticence reposing within the hearts of almost all WW II veterans.

“Ohhh, J.R.,” Mr. Charley and Steward would tell me many times over many years, “You don’t want to hear about all that.”

I did want to hear about it, of course. So, over the years I persisted, never understanding that the true translation of those reserved comments, repeated to me often, was: “J.R., I really do not care to remember all that.”

Around evening campfires and piles of raked, crisp autumn leaves, I would question Mr. Charlie and Steward as the seasons passed. I was relentless: “Tell me about the War,” I would ask these grown men over and over, who—upon hearing the question—would transform their composure and suddenly appear different. They would grow quieter…distant.

Intensely self-involved, as young men usually are, I never accepted their body language as a shift in human stance and mood designed to halt such inquiries. Given this ignorance, I selfishly persisted with my boyish interrogatories, an annoying habit foreshadowing the trial lawyer I would one day become, I imagine.

By all outward appearances, Mr. Charley had gone to Europe, performed his wartime service for his country and returned to meld back into the citizenry. Charley even looked at it that way himself and often said so, if asked.

I later learned he was the last man in the world to suspect that the memories of Europe would never depart. For a long time he invested prayer into the hope that they would fade, but they did not. This truth evolved for him, became a part of him, so much so that Charley never knew what might brush him back in time. Sometimes something as simple as the sound of running water could do it.

Once he told me that a lawn sprinkler had been set so that it would catch the rear yard off the patio, where the hydrangeas throbbed with velvet turquoise. The rhythmic pattering of water passing through the vegetation and caressing the French windows in the den sounded almost exactly like the Channel sliding against the hull of a LCVP. He had been in his chair, watching another interminable Saints game in those hard years before they won the Super Bowl, cocked back and close to dozing when he’d heard it. And, just that quickly, he was back.

“Charley,” a platoon sergeant scarcely older than Charley’s 19-years whispered so that no one would hear, slipping a pack of Chesterfields into his tunic. In the crew compartment of the hot, cramped transport steaming toward Normandy, the sergeant smelled of canvas and leather and gun oil and sweat. ” When we call for you…it’ll be because we need you. Please come. Always come when we call, Charley.”

“I will.” He whispered back, wondering what he was ever going to do with all the Luckies and Raleighs and Chesterfields that had been slipped into his pockets and pack. The sergeant was not the first to whisper such a commitment out of Charley, who served as the platoon medic. He’d promised them all he would come if they called. And, he always had, including the day when—losing his footing—this very same sergeant would slip down a stark roadside embankment near Chambois, rolling over several uncleared German Schu mines, their wooden components containing a quarter pound of TNT each making it hard –almost impossible, really-- for the engineers to detect. In the sudden and surreal series of explosions marking the sergeant’s hillside roll, a spattering of gore replaced what had once been a 20 year old from Cincinnati. In the immense quiet after the explosions, no one had to scream for the Medic because Charley had been right there. After a brief search, he secured one tag and thereafter supervised the gathering of the man which, given the circumstances, took awhile. In a shallow depression scraped deeper by trenching tools, the quivering segments were wrapped in a poncho, buried and marked with the sergeant’s IBM M-1 carbine, inverted and stabbed into the French dirt upon its incongruous bayonet, the second dog tag tinkling against its chain and the steel of the weapon’s receiver. All during that desultory process, Charley remembered the awful stillness. Where were the birds? he wondered then and many times thereafter. There’s never the sound of a single birdsong, he would often repeat to himself in his mind.

Then, Charley would return to where a sprinkler was just a sprinkler. He would shake it off, resolving by rote to stay put. He never wanted to go back. Promised each time was the last time. Always went anyway, dragged back in time before he knew he’d left. You’d think, he’d say to himself, that I could leave Europe behind me after over 60 years. And then, right after that, he’d find himself trying to remember that sergeant’s name. Was it Rawlings? Rawlings from Cincinnati?

Charley would wake each morning from a comfortable bed in a master bedroom of a stately 2 story house with columns and old brick and manicured gardens and a trimmed lawn and tended live oaks, all picturesquely deposited on a half acre in Bocage, where the money lived. Forty very successful years with the New York Life Insurance Company bought nice digs. He lives there today.

“I live on a fixed income,” Mr. Charley said to me many times as a boy. He would tell me how he had started with the Company right after the war, alongside many other World War II veterans, and retired while still healthy and vigorous. He would often joke that he was just another retiree living on a fixed income.

“The secret of living on a fixed income, J.R., is to fix the income high enough,” Mr. Charley would tell me many times, chuckling.

As I grew up, I knew Mr. Charley as 6’ 2” handsome giant of a man who carried his 220 pounds well. It was a far cry from the 135 pound bean-pole corporal he’d been during that last freezing winter of the war.

He’d sometimes ruminate, once I had pestered him enough to elicit some conversation about the War, that he had lost so much weight during and right after The Bulge that his Shady Grove High School ring had slipped off his finger as he hopped onto an accelerating Jeep in Frankfurt. He had seen the golden ring bounce, skitter and roll behind the Jeep for a few seconds before it disappeared into the streetside rubble delivered throughout the city courtesy of the 8th Army Air Force. Their company had been moving out quickly and the driver of the Jeep, hearing Charley curse and cry that he’d lost his ring, said “Sorry, Charley. We can’t stop.”

He never saw his ring again. He thought about it from time to time, though, and knew he could have retrieved it if only they could have halted a moment because—even now—he could picture the precise pile of debris into which it had rolled, captured forever in his mind’s eye when he’d seen it from the back of the Jeep, speeding hell for leather east, further into Germany.

Years later, when he visited Frankfurt as a tourist, he found himself searching the sidewalks and gutters for that ring.

It was funny that he lived now in Bocage Subdivision. Some developer must’ve thought it made the ritzy development sound more appropriate for the spacious and expensive French farmhouse-looking homes that sat upon the wide, curbed, sidewalked, patrolled boulevards, where the streetlights sat atop elegant, octagonal marble obelisks. Charley hadn’t made the connection, oddly enough, when he’d bought the house for his family. But, in subsequent years he would find himself remembering when “The Bocage” meant something very different to him. “This goddam country,” they had called it then.

There, in that “goddam country,” French farmhouses inland from the Normandy beachheads within the French Bocage area were leapfrog targets to be rushed quickly, if possible. However, the innumerable hedgerows in the Bocage made any sort of precipitous rush a murderous gamble. Each farmhouse had a series of small fields adjacent to it and you could search in vain for a lifetime to discern any pattern to them or to the sunken lanes meandering among them. The hedgerows –centuries old—grew tall and thick and tangled over earthen berms, the snarled vegetation like a backlash on an Ambassador fishing reel, arching up and over the sunken lanes rendering the labyrinth almost cavelike.

The haphazard fields each had an opening in their hedgerow for cattle and human beings and wagons. There was no other way through the hedgerows so you had to use those openings. And the Krauts knew exactly where each and every opening was located.

Knew exactly.

So, as the platoons would approach and then move through those openings, the rest of them would wait their turn. When the Jerry zippers opened up, it was Charley, tensed like a compressed spring, who waited along with them, listening to the merciless, chattering pops, his lips intermittently tasting the dirt of that goddam country and then spitting it as he crawled always forward. If they called for a Medic, he had promised he would go to them.

And he always did.

Charley could pretty well count on the start of a hard south Louisiana rain calling him back to the hedgerows, the heavy slapping drops melding in his ears into the rips of German machine gun fire dancing along the hedgerow openings. He would hold his breath many times when the rain started, waiting. The sound of the rain drew him back to the hedgerows and, as he counted the MG42 bursts, he would wait for the shrill and hurting call…”Medic!”…until someone from the present tapped him on the shoulder, bringing him back to now.

They would not notice Charley’s tiny startle reflex as they pointed toward the impending, approaching sheets of rain.

“We’re in for it, huh?” they might say.

“Yeah,” he might reply, hissing his breath quietly through his clenched teeth “We damn sure are.”

People wouldn’t really understand these inexorable tugs into sudden fits of memory, especially after so much time had passed. So he never talked about it.

In truth, though, Charley knew he was not the only one being so tugged. Years later, for example, he would tell me he heard President Bush (The First one…..not that other boy.) say to some reporter that he often thought of the crew he lost when his Avenger was shot down during a bombing run over Chi Chi Jima before the invasion of its sister island, Iwo Jima. He’d gotten out but his gunner and his navigator hadn’t.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of those guys.” The President had said quietly. Charley saw the look on Bush’s face and knew exactly what he meant and how he felt.

But whether other folks would or wouldn’t understand, Charley knew what all the guys who had been in Europe knew: You did not talk about it.

They all felt as though an irreplaceable chunk of their life had been removed and discarded. How do you talk about that without sounding…well…ungrateful?

Their country had called and they had gone and they had “done their duty.” But, that didn’t change some things that entered their mind more often than one might imagine. When they should have been in college or on the football field or raising hell at the local hangouts or getting married and starting a family, they had instead been on their faces on beaches or in the Bocage or in the Ardennes. Darting from one hedgerow opening to the next or hunkering down in the snowy Ardennes under incessant 88 fire or swimming rivers with wounded men, Charley came to understand what each of the young men understood.

They knew that they would probably die.

Most of the guys came to accept that, quietly. Those that did not come to that place of acceptance went buggy, shitting their pants every time a fired round signaled renewed contact with the enemy.

Then they died anyway.

So, even though you were only 19 and even though you had been taught to look forward to all the world had to offer, you knew you were to shortly join the dead and it was only a question of when or how. Some hand from somewhere reached into your chest and removed whatever feeling of hope and optimism had once flickered there. It wasn’t that it was simply snuffed out, which it surely was. It was more that “hope” had been so purely removed that one had no remaining acquaintance with the emotion.

There was nothing you could do to change or avoid the fact that you were dead. You did not look forward. You did not look back. You remained present in the parade of each surreal moment so that time became oddly meaningless and, after awhile, a fella couldn’t tell Thursday from January even if he wanted to, which he didn’t.

There was a sort of crushing cruelty to hope, as they all dimly recalled, in the way you can vaguely recall something you may have read in a book years before. After the Cobra breakout, the guys in Charley’s company remembered hearing that the War would be over by Christmas and so there was this period where hope was shared openly among them. Then came that hard, brutal winter with no proper winter uniforms and The Bulge and the bitter retreat and the frightening counterattacks and the incessant German artillery barrages which bred such unexpected terror. Hope thereafter died easy, really, hitting the field like a deep fly ball you know you’ve misjudged. No matter how hard you sprint for the fence, that ball is going to hit the field and roll away from you. You can chase it, but you never get to it, all while the runners circle the bases behind you.

So, after The Bulge no one talked about the end of the war anymore.

Present in those moments, Charley would remember from time to time the words of the King of England, who addressed his subjects during his Christmas Message of 1939, a message he repeated to me many times and the subject of the recent Oscar-winning movie, “The King’s Speech.” It was a message of faith crackling over the radio at Sunnyside Plantation, his home in Maringouin, imprinting on his mind with such clarity that he could recite the words verbatim over 50 years later:

“…I asked the keeper of the gate of the years to show me the light so I could tread safely along the known way. And, the gatekeeper told me to put my hand into the hand of God and to step out bravely into the darkness. That for me was better than the light and better than the known way…”

It’s a hard thing to abandon, hope is. It’s shaming in a way, especially when you’re young in a nation of promises where you were expected to take your place within one of those glimmering promises. As a matter of fact, you were sort of owed that, really. But, for a good long time all of that was taken away. Once that happens and once you have actually survived to return home to the nation of promises, it’s hard to explain to anyone that there was once a time when you were young but dead and, having come to that realization, you had thereafter accepted your death and soldiered on.

Being dead –and accepting that-- was really the only explanation for some of the things Charley could recount from his inventory of ETO memories, an inventory dimly stored but never erased. It was nothing to have one of them pop into his mind at the oddest times and with such recurrent clarity as to make him tremble.

Like swimming. Swimming would do it.

Whenever he got into the water anywhere, and even though he made sure no one noticed, his inventory surfaced and he returned to that desperate attack across the Seig River, when his company was under-supported and pinned down on a flimsy toehold on the east bank.

The river reminded him of the Amite back home, although that would only occur to him years later.

He had pulled 3 men under cover and was tending their wounds after they’d been cut down by shrapnel from mortars – all 3 twisting grotesquely to the ground during the 5 seconds it took for a grouped triangle to rattle in on their position. The crossing of the river was part of what was coded somewhere as Operation Lumberjack and was supposed to pulverize with finality the disintegrating German infantry. Someone had forgotten to tell the Krauts, Charley figured. As he worked on the men -–not sure at that point they would all make it-- the platoon’s sergeant crawled up on his belly in the gathering twilight.

“Charley, we got orders to get back to the west bank,” he’d said, pausing between the pops of small arms fire. “We’re gonna cross back just at dark. Get ready.”

Charley never even looked at him and honestly felt no rancor, even though he knew he would not be able to leave.

“I got these guys here,” he replied, working. “I can’t leave ‘em.”

“Look,” the sergeant responded, offering his opinion as if the wounded men –his comrades—could not hear, which is what you do sometimes when you are already dead, “The Germans will take care of ‘em. Hell, they may not even find ‘em. We’ll get supported and be back across here tomorrow. For now, we gotta go, Charley. 10 minutes.”

“Can’t go now, Sarge,” Charley replied, without any real thought about anything other than dressing wounds and applying either Sulfa or morphine. “But, I’ll cross tonight with the fellas. Look for me downstream from our crossin’ point after midnight. Don’t shoot us.”

The sergeant said nothing further. After a few moments, he tapped Charley on the shoulder gently –maybe it was a caress-- and crawled away. Just like that, they were alone.

The darkness was fully upon them within half an hour and it seems darker somehow when you’re isolated and cut off. For hours, he kept the wounded men quiet and as comfortable as he could – hours which crept by, causing him to raise his Bulova to his ear a few dozen times to see if it was still ticking. He passed the moments creeping along by smearing mud on his helmet to obliterate fully the red crosses emblazoned upon the white circles, which started to resemble targets in his thoughts. Then he put it on his face. Then, his neck and hands. He made sure to touch the troopers occasionally –checking a dressing, maybe or just a quiet pat-- so they would know he was still there in the dark.

After midnight, he took them slowly to the riverbank. One of the guys could walk with support. The other 2 Charley carried, whispering to them the whole time: “We’re gonna cross this river and get back to our own lines. It’s gonna be OK. It’s dark as the inside of a cow out here. I’ll swim you across one-at-a-time. The fellas know we’re comin’. No one will be able see us. Just hang on to me. I will come back for you. I will not leave you.”

Over and over like that.

And then he swam them across the river, one by one, to forward elements of his platoon, who waited right where they had said they would be.

“We gotcha, Charley.” He heard them whisper as he got close to the west bank on his first freezing crossing. They took the guy from him tenderly and carried him back away from the bank and Charley immediately went back across to get the second man.

Although the winter had been brutal and there were still patches of snow on the ground, the remaining crossings were not so bone-chilling as the first because—after awhile—Charley felt completely numb. He kept moving, however, always whispering quietly to the man he was ferrying through the water: “It’s a short crossing. No sweat. I can see the other bank. We’re almost there. 10 more feet. The fellas are right there. 6…3…and, we’re there.”

On this evening he made 5 such crossings before he finally emerged on the opposite bank, shivering and unable to catch his breath for nearly an hour as other members of the platoon massaged the heat back into him. A fire was simply out of the question. It was this memory which crowded into his mind whenever he would swim in the years afterward, that recollection always coupled with a irritating inability to remember any of the names of the men he had swum with that night. He could remember nobody died, though, because he personally accompanied those 3 guys to a forward aid station, where he handed them off to the real docs.

He would never forget that. He would also never forget the regimental surgeon, a major, who tended to the men Charley delivered.

“Where are the wound tags?” The major asked, referring to the regulation requiring each wounded man to have a tag affixed which would detail the time, place and nature of the wound and the medical attention given to them in the field.

Bristling at the inquiry about this niggling detail and still chilled from his multiple swims across The Seig, Charley abandoned military formality: “Well, Major…I was a little BUSY for wound tags.”

The Major had turned only briefly from his ministrations to make eye contact with Charley. That contact was long enough for him to say: “Corporal, I was in the first wave at Omaha. I had time to affix wound tags. YOU have time to secure wound tags. Understood?”

“Yessir,” was all Charley could say as he thereafter turned to retrace his steps back to his unit poised at a now forgotten salient at the front.

The things a soldier will matter-of-factly do when he thinks he is already dead, was the other thought he would always have. There was a Bronze Star in his papers somewhere, with the Combat “V”, and an accompanying citation for the events of that night, but that fact would never be widely known.

It would never be a topic Charley discussed because the men who had been there just did not talk about that time when all they had known to do was step out bravely into the darkness, like The King said.

Instead, they came home and made up for lost time, chewing up the education offered by the nation and settling down to start a family. Maybe, if you were a returning white guy, you walked into a job with the New York Life Insurance Company with other veterans, transforming that staid entity into an operation run with the same intensity that the guys had once reserved for the hedgerows.

They prospered, most of them.

But, whatever, you didn’t talk about Europe.

Sometimes, long after he had been delivered back into the world, the kids of his friends would circle around the campfire with his own son when they were all hunting or camping and, as it got late, one of the kids –always me, actually-- might inevitably ask him to tell them all about The War. Wars were fought at that time in places Charley could hardly pronounce, like the Ia Drang or Hue or Khe-San with “rules of engagement” and such nonsense as that. But, those kids around the evening campfire would want to know about his war.

“What was it like in the war, Mr. Charley? We saw The Longest Day at the Paramount and those guys were dodging machine gun bullets all the time and there were explosions everywhere. It wasn’t really like THAT, was it?”

Charley would rattle the ice in his Tom Moore and take a long pull.

“Yes,” he would say at last. “It was pretty much exactly like that.”

“Really? Tell us about it!”

“I’ll tell you this….” He would intone gravely, pausing for effect “I froze my ass off in the Ardennes to keep you pissy little kids free.”

And everyone would laugh and he’d wangle a change in the subject. “Talk about cold…..Jimmy, remember that duck hunting trip we took down to Passe a Loutre when the wake from that crew boat swamped our tents? Jesus……THAT was cold.”

That would generally do it and, as the conversation unspooled down that safe rabbit trail, Charley would think to himself: Yes, his pals and these kids could think they’d been cold, but none of them could ever imagine what true bone chilling, freeze-solid-while-you’re-standing-up cold was. Jesus God, he could.

Outside our home, usually just as it was getting light, Steward White regularly parked a carefully maintained 10 year old blue and white Silverado that he had bought new from McInnis-Peterson Chevrolet. The original General Motors colors on the truck still looked vibrant as Steward kept it immaculate, the exterior waxed and the engine steam cleaned. He was a Chevrolet truck man and proud of his Silverado, although he never learned to pronounce its name correctly. The closest he could come was “Silverdoo.” This was not a matter of importance to him, though. He knew what he meant.

He had always owned Chevrolets. Of course, he knew that General Motors also made GMC trucks, which looked almost like the Chevrolet models, but not quite. He had given some considerable thought to which of the 2 he should own over the years and finally decided it probably didn’t matter.

“You take out yo’ biscuit dough and roll it out flat. Cut you out some biscuits,” Steward would say, explaining in his way the difference between Chevrolet and GMC trucks. “Those biscuits are Chevys. Then, ball up the dough you got left and roll it out again. Cut out some more biscuits. Those are GMC.”

Nonetheless, he stuck with Chevrolets.

Still physically nimble at near 80 and in vigorous health, Steward performed every act deliberately. He parked slowly, placing his passenger side tires on the curb of the wide street in front of our home, but not on the grass. He exited slowly, unwinding his 6 foot frame from the cab of his pickup, adjusting his jumpsuit and feeling for his cigars. In my memory, the jumpsuit was a light blue, with the built-in belt that buckled in the front and some curious, colorful emblem on the left breast pocket. He had several jumpsuit colors. Light green. Light blue. Light brown or tan and dark blue. The British-looking emblem on the pocket was as incongruous as it could be for a black man from the deep south who, after the war, had made his living in Baton Rouge as an Operator in the Maintenance Division at the Esso Refinery, or—as Steward called it—“The Standard Oil.” His wide face ever harbored the slightest trace of a smile and his skin was a princely smooth, dark brown, with features hinting at a distant heritage that was as much Cherokee as it was African. The white hair overtaking his thinning, close-cropped bristle matched the white hair in his tailored moustache but—in any case—it was shortly covered by a wide brimmed straw hat.

Surveying the yard before he closed his truck door, he thought about the method he would employ with the old Yazoo so that, when he was done, the manicure would look the most pleasing to the eye. You couldn’t just fall out and start mowing in some type of random circle. A man had to plan. Today, it looked to him that he should start on a diagonal in the corner of the front yard and stripe the cuts ever longer as he advanced across the St. Augustine so that—when he was done—the yard would show neat, orderly diagonal mowing lines. That would look sharp. As he studied the job he had addressed hundreds of times before, he idly removed the cellophane from a cigar, moved it to his mouth and then lit the first White Owl of the day, angling the lit tip up toward the brim of his hat like FDR.

He walked slowly across the yard to the driveway, past Momma’s white Caprice Station Wagon and around Dad’s new hunter green LeSabre, running his finger along the passenger doors, musing that the cars would need another Turtle Wax soon.

“Mr. Jimmy,” he was fond of saying to Daddy, a man with whom he was very close, “I mean like, in other words, tell you what you do. You put that new green car in the shade and let it cool down and I’ll come by later and put some wax on it proper. Make it slick as a rathole.”

Daddy would laugh, as much at Steward’s habit of starting almost every sentence with the phrase “I mean like in other words…” as at anything he said. You could ask Steward the time of day and his response would be preceded by this modifier, sometime contracted to “Other words…it’s gettin’ on to 9.”

Once under the carport, he aimed for the storage locker where the mower was kept. He would spend the next hour or so checking the oil, cleaning the filters, topping off the tank, lubricating the cables, hitting the grease fittings and confirming the proper air pressure in the tires. Only after that ritual was completed could the mower be started –and that, as he well knew, would take one pull with the choke on; choke off; and a 2nd pull. However, by the time he’d performed his usual, regular maintenance, the hour would be such that the noise of the large rear-wheeled Yazoo mower wouldn’t disturb our family.

To have that type of concern for our family came to Steward as a second nature. He would not have explained it as being deferential to the rich white folks living in the fine house set upon the grounds he loyally tended. He did not relate to the situation in that way, like a guy does not necessarily “relate” to being left-handed or right-handed or having freckles on his shoulders.

It was just the way things were and Steward was well acquainted with that intricate southern dance. He knew that, since The War, it had been said that “things were changing” and he was fine with the changes he later heard espoused in the churches and among the youngsters and in the speeches of Dr. King. All of that had certainly occurred, Steward sensed, although it was a sense he did not trust entirely, remembering—as he always would—the way things had been.

Thus, he had rolled along with the changes, never actually pushing them.

He had always gone along and gotten along with white folks, so much so that he was always befriended and protected by white patrons, who called the black man “White,” which was his last name. To my knowledge, Steward never felt the incongruity of the appellation. There was no such incongruity in his first name, however. I have never known a man more aptly named.

Leaving his White Owl secured within a tight oak branch fork inside the fenced back yard, Steward opened the carport storage locker quietly. The smell of gasoline and Quaker State and rubber tires wafted over him. And, just that quickly and as he stared at the venerable Yazoo amid those familiar vapors, fingering the Zippo in his jumpsuit pocket, I would learn later that he too would drift back in time. The smell of that old Yazoo would propel him back before Colle Salvetti south of the Arno Valley, on the way to Leghorn, where —in another life-- he had been in charge of a U.S. Army motor pool, a post in which he wished he would have been allowed to stay.

In truth, after Anzio, being in charge of the company motor pool during the Army’s dogged and costly Italian campaign was a complete misnomer, as no stationary entity of that type existed. Instead, he and the other segregated black troops were assigned to the company’s vehicles with instructions to keep them in running condition and fit to move ever forward from one mountainous Italian line to the next as they chased the slowly retreating but absolutely deadly German I Parachute Corps. Steward, showing both mechanical aptitude and earnest effort for his assignment, advanced quickly to the rank of corporal – advancement honoring his devotion to duty but meaningless in the Regular Army because of his race.

He was a big man of handsome bearing and his gentle disposition lent him an aura that could be legitimately termed regal. Or, as regal as a colored man might be allowed in the U.S. Army anyway. His every feature, therefore, suggested a young, large, powerful but subservient black man.

That being so, Steward was the first man in the motor pool crowd upon whom your eyes would rest if you were, say, the white Captain in the Company and, let us say further, you were originally from Gulfport and needed the appropriate Jeep driver to zip you around pronto to the hot points in the line.

“White,” was what Captain Hershel had said to him one day as he pointed toward his Jeep, in the motor pool briefly to have a flat fixed. “After you get my horse shoed, you come with me.”

And, with that peremptory command, Steward thereafter split his duties between the motor pool and the beat up left seat of Captain Hershel’s Jeep.

A full head shorter than Steward, trim and always squared away in his dress and deportment, Captain Hershel was a man of few words. He was a southerner. He was educated. He was comfortable with command. He wore a wedding ring. He smoked Camels, allowing the ashes to fall off of them of their own accord. His younger brother had died just short of the seawall on Omaha Beach, shot through the neck, the news reaching the captain about a week before they approached the Arno Valley and before they would start their assault upon Leghorn. And, that was about all Steward knew of Captain Hershel, although he would spend hours with him for many months.

As far as Steward could see, Captain Hershel was not a man to pore over maps. He listened for the sound of the guns and pointed the correct direction for Steward to steer the Jeep, saying simply: “That way, White. Floor it.”

Steward came to understand Hershel must have studied his Italian maps carefully at other times, however, because they never got lost although getting lost often seemed preferable to traveling where the captain directed him. Hershel had an almost savage need to head directly to those points where contact with the enemy was hotly joined. He wanted to be there and he wanted to direct the fire and he wanted German soldiers to die. It became a regular occurrence, therefore, for Steward to zigzag through dusty, choking mortar explosions and amidst the crack-whine of machine gun rounds spattering off of stone fences. Occasionally he heard shrapnel striking the Jeep and he hunkered down behind the wheel and the limited dash, never overheating the brakes because they were rarely used.

“I mean like in other words,” he would say years later, “That’s as close to hell as I ever again hope to be.”

They never spoke about it, but Hershel’s desire to head toward the sound of the guns was directly related to his kid brother’s death at Normandy. Steward knew that innately and had it confirmed for him in July when, just outside of Torretta, a platoon’s advance was staggered and stopped after their lead element tripped Bouncing Betties, diabolical anti-personnel mines planted by the retreating Germans. Once triggered, the Betties would spring the canister-like device into the air before exploding, sending deadly shrapnel in a 360 degree perimeter. In quick succession, Betties had killed the platoon sergeant, the lieutenant and his signalman. The sergeant had just breathed his last red, foamy breath when Steward brought Hershel’s Jeep to a halt short of the line. The men were laid out side by side in the little field adjacent to the road and it was so strangely quiet while the dog tags were removed by the medic.

There was no sound of bird-song, Steward remembered and could never forget.

Nearby, hands crossed atop their kepi-covered heads, were nearly 20 German prisoners, none of whom were officers. Several were shirtless in the summer heat and one was lightly wounded as the stained bandage around his right shoulder signaled. There remained over 500 yards of dusty roadway to traverse before the outskirts of the Italian village, 500 yards of roadway which hard, bloody experience now showed was surely mined.

Steward backed into the wood line and removed the jerry-can from the tiny tailgate of the Jeep in order to add some gas to their tank. To most eyes this looked as though the Captain’s driver was the model of preparation and efficiency. To Steward, though, it was about getting back to the safety of the motor pool without having to touch the brakes or sputtering to a stop because they were out of fuel. He moved quickly, wondering two things at the same time as he watched the other men: Had this outfit taken any fire from the village down the lane and why were all those white folks just standing in the road? Lawd, God….didn’t anyone know how to duck?

As he worked, he watched his Captain survey the scene and receive a report from a young corporal, now in command of the platoon. The corporal pointed toward the village with one hand as he gave his report and kept the other on the dead lieutenant’s gun belt swung across his left shoulder, the dark .45 caliber automatic still holstered and dangling against his chest. Hands on his hips and nodding, clouded in a swirl of cigarette smoke, Hershel listened. Then, he removed the Camel from the corner of his mouth and pointed it toward Torretta, scattering ashes, as he simultaneously jerked a thumb over his shoulder and pointed at the prisoners.

“Corporal, we’re going to occupy that village. Send those sunsabitches in first. Line ‘em up.”

There was not the slightest hesitation in the response of the corporal or in the other men who heard Hershel’s command. The German prisoners were lined up across the road, just beyond the bodies of the 3 American dead. Some understood English apparently and walked obediently to their position. The others were directed there with gun barrels in the smalls of their backs, including the wounded man, who was manhandled to his feet.

“March!” the corporal barked once they had formed a rough line, pointing down the road leading to the gates of the little city. Here hesitation was seen for the first time as the German prisoners looked at each other and at the Americans.

“Raus!” the corporal said. Behind him, one member of the platoon racked the big BAR. Hershel unholstered his 1911 Colt and racked it too. The clatter of the other weapons being prepared, racked and leveled spoke a language understood by all, regardless of the army to which you were assigned. And so the Wermacht line straggled down the road and toward the town in fits and starts, the prisoners keeping their hands atop their heads for a few moments and then bringing them down and out for balance as they crouched and slid forward, like men on a frozen lake carefully inching forward to find where the ice was thinnest.

They found some thin ice, too.

By the time they made it to the outskirts of the village and froze under the weapons of the platoon, there were only 10 prisoners left. There were no German wounded left to tend, which was all Steward would ever tell me of that sickening experience. What is more, it was not the first nor was it the last time Steward saw Hershel use German prisoners in that fashion as they moved into and through the Arno Valley. When the prisoners fell under his gaze, Hershel used them.

Ultimately, the surviving prisoners were sent to the rear after a time where, in one of those curious turns often seen in war, they came into Steward’s presence once again. He brought them into the motor pool, where the black soldiers found that enough of them spoke English so that they could be directed as mechanics or helpers. Those who could speak and understand English relayed Steward’s instructions to the others, who picked up the language rudiments and the attendant duties in no time.

Many of them had mechanical aptitudes and were easily trained to assist in the engine maintenance and repair efforts which were part of the motor pool’s daily routine. The rest seemed eager to learn. Steward, amazed at their rapidly attained prowess, was similarly eager to teach them and, after a time, came to appreciate them.

What no one ever spoke about was the fact that Steward knew the motor pool was located away from the Captain’s observation. As far as Hershel knew, the prisoners had disappeared. He did not ask about them. He did not see them. Thus, there was no opportunity or inclination to “use” them. The prisoners sensed it too. They came to understand on some level that the big black man –now a sergeant, who they all called “Sergeant White”-- was their protector.

And so this peculiar dynamic developed between Steward and the Nazis. Here, Steward was a single black man in a segregated United States Army. He was an object of Jim Crow legislation in his home state. He was routinely called “boy” by other American soldiers, including the officers. Back home, he was referred to as a “nigger” by other white folks despite his size and age and service to his country. As a matter of fact, being called a “good nigger” back home was deemed a compliment, actually. Steward was called a good nigger. Even so, he was lawfully relegated to specific “separate but equal” colored sections of schools and theatres and hotels and restaurants.

Although Steward never really thought of it this way, it turned out that the white folks were at least partly right. He was a good man. There was untrammeled, underlying decency within him that the racial situation back home could never wrest from his heart. And so, Steward undertook of his own volition to protect these white, enemy soldiers who, until their recent capture, had been fighting to promote a regime embracing the most fanatical racism yet known to men on Earth.

This is what Steward did as naturally as you bless another after a sneeze and with about as much thought.

“Other words, the Master says we should treat others like we would want to be treated,” Steward would later quietly report matter-of-factly to me about the situation when I prodded him about it years later and before he passed away about 10 years ago. “Those mens had surrendered. They weren’t fightin’ anybody anymo’. If I had surrendered, I would want to be treated like a prisoner should be treated.

“Captain Hershel, he was mean to ‘em ‘cause those Germans had killed his little brother, you see, over in France when they got on those beaches. Lawd, he hated those Germans. Even so, that ain’t right, J.R. But, I found I could hide those mens in the motor pool and the captain wouldn’t see ‘em. If he didn’t see ‘em, he wasn’t mean to ‘em. I knew that was what The Master would have wanted me to do and, other words, you never know when The Master is gonna call you Home. When The Master calls, you better be ready. I wanted to be ready.”

Gradually, the Italian countryside receded from his mind and Steward allowed himself to return to the storage room, his eye falling upon the Yazoo. He removed the weathered Van Camp Pork and Bean can covering the upright exhaust, set it on the sill of the small single window through which Steward could see it getting brighter outside. He maneuvered the mower carefully into the open carport, his White Owl smoldering sweetly where he had placed it away from the vapors and memory-inducing fumes. Before getting the familiar gasoline jerry-can from the storage locker to top off the Yazoo’s tank, he returned to the growing oak, retrieved the cigar and massaged it between his lips until it was comfortable in his mouth. He puffed it back alive. From the other live oaks in the back yard he heard mockingbirds singing the morning into light and I often saw him standing quietly, staring into the trees listening to them sing.

Inside his Bocage kitchen waiting for his coffee to brew, Charley likely also heard the faint mockingbird melodies. As he would relate to me many times, it was the smell of that brewing coffee that crowded out these other thoughts and sensory inputs. It was the coffee that took him back again. And, it took him before he even knew he was gone. It would take him to the memory that he would tell me many years later was his most powerful experience during the War.

The snow was layered on the Ardennes spruces just like a Christmas card. Above, the sky was as blue as a beach umbrella and it was into that clear sky that they most often stared as they walked through the crunching, snowy cold. During what would later come to be called The Battle of the Bulge, they had not seen a blue sky for 33 days. They had not shaved or bathed or eaten anything but cold K-rations or slept in anything but a hole for 33 days. They were walking east, though. East again at last, toward Germany. Every so often, the thundering P-47s would roar over the treetops, sending snow sifting down from the evergreens, along with the smell of their engine exhaust. They had not seen air cover for 33 days, over a month when the skies were thick and threatening and sending unending drifts of snow from the heavens. For almost every one of those days they had been under constant German shelling.

They could smell coffee as they wandered into the clearing, where they were met by the astonishing sight of a field kitchen in vibrant action. Kettles boiled. Steam rose. Ovens and stovetops were operating at full capacity. Was that Spam frying? Smoke rose into the clear sky, above the treetops, all in violation of every well known prohibition. Smoke was a stark signal. German 88’s could zero in on the source of a smoke finger within 15 seconds and it might take 3 rounds. One round might be long, one just a tiny bit short and the 3rd shell would be dead on the source of the smoke. Charley had seen the 88’s blast a man to pieces on a dead run through a large meadow with 3 such grouped shots, so a stationary smoke tendril would be like jabbing a thumb in Jerry’s eye. It would be child’s play for them.

But, today, the Thunderbolts were everywhere, screaming low with bristling attitude, and any German 88 that dared show itself would be spotted, rocketed, bombed and strafed within seconds. As a result, smoke could be hazarded. The enemy artillery was forced into quiescence. Only the vibration of the thundering Jugs regularly registered.

“Hungry, fellas?” the clean, winter uniformed lieutenant asked as he walked among their line, now straggling into the clearing. His crisp, neatness contrasted so starkly against the winter backdrop and Charley’s sorry group that it was hard to take the well-shaved officer as anything but an apparition out of the movies they had seen so long ago somewhere, sometime.

Staring alternately at the kitchen, the smoke, the sky, the planes and the lieutenant, no one could answer promptly as the scenario was so beyond imagining. However, when the officer directed them to form a line for hot coffee and hot chow, the guys trotted into place within seconds, shouldering weapons and rummaging for mess kits.

Charley squared away his medical gear and, by the time he moved into line, he was the last man.

Looking at the guys in line ahead of him, he could scarcely recognize them. They were a scruffy, dirty, smeared assembly. And, they were all thin. He tried to remember what they had looked like before the beachhead landings, before the breakout and before the German army had blitzed them through the peaceful Christmas forest. However, he wrestled with effort, like he wrestled to secure the details of a dream upon awakening only to have it pour through your fingers like fine sand leaving just the barest outline of memory.

The entire scene was so out of place that Charley had no idea it was to be this moment which would –as the years rolled by-- reduce him to tears whenever it came to him and stand as his most enduring memory of Europe. While in this reverie and as another pair of silver P-47s resonated overhead, Charley looked ahead of him to see that the man in front of him had turned around to make eye contact. Charley stared back.

“You’re Charley, the medic.” The man said.

“Right.”

“Step in front o’ me, Doc.” The man said quietly, moving aside and brushing Charley into his spot with his hand gently cupping Charley’s back. Charley allowed himself to take the place forward. Although this exchange had taken place very quietly the next man in the line heard and turned.

“Yeah, Charley, move in front of me too.”

Again, Charley was ushered forward to the next place up in line.

And that started the near silent reaction from the remaining long line of men waiting for their first coffee and hot food in 33 days. Although the words had been almost whispered, Charley would ever after remember them verbatim.

“Hey, fellas…..Charley’s in line. Slide him up, OK?”

“The medic’s in line, guys. Let the medic up.”

“Make a place for medic, wouldja?”

Hands touched his shoulders softly or gently brushed his back, propelling him forward. He had started out at the end of the line. But, within less than a minute and before anyone else had taken the first cup or plate, he was suddenly at the front of the line. After 33 days, the men wanted him to eat first…to have the first of the hot coffee because, when they had called for him, he had never failed to be there.

The Mr. Coffee gurgled its last percolating breath and Charley was back in his kitchen.

“Jesus…” he whispered, reaching for the pot, rubbing away the glisten in his eyes with his trembling fingertips as the vivid Ardennes retreated to that portion of his mind where he always let it stay. “Jesus.”

He tightened his bathrobe, poured a cup and padded out of the kitchen, his Jiffies sliding over the dark green Mexican slate tile floor.

As I grew into adulthood, I would come to know that Steward’s arrival at our home was so dependable that –since the day he had started working for Dad over 20 years ago—he and the friendly black man had never had a discussion about either schedules or salary. I cannot now recall if I ever knew if Steward had a phone and—if so—I surely did not have the number. Steward always came, driving over from his house on Yazoo Street. He bought 2 lots in 1948 for $800 and later built his house on one of them. The other was lost to Interstate 10 when it came through. All of this was located in a section of town once known as The Quarters, but now called The Valley after the name given to it in the 1960’s, Valley Park. While it sounded idyllic, the name actually described the fact that the area was low and swampy and on the outskirts of the then city limits, astride the Illinois Central railroad line which ran through Baton Rouge and on to Hammond and points east. Anyway, Steward always came like clockwork and did the work he thought necessary. The grounds always looked exemplary.

Daddy paid him fairly, but never directly. In the storage locker an orange Ouachita Fertilizer hat with God knows how many miles on it hung on a nail. Dad left money in the hat and Steward would snag it every now and then, when he deemed it appropriate. Dad could not tell you now exactly how that remuneration arrangement had been effected, but that was that and always had been.

On many mornings I can recollect, and as soon as I opened the door to the carport, I could smell Steward’s White Owl. Even before I saw his truck parked along the front of our home, I knew he was there. Often I would find him, leaning against a rake, uplifted cigar in place, and staring at the backyard live oaks shading the hurricane fence delineating the rear perimeter of our yard. Distantly, one could hear the chicka-chicka-chicka of the sprinklers watering the suburban yards surrounding our home.

I can remember seeing Mr. Charley and Steward together only once and it was in our backyard on a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon during football season. Folks were arriving at our home for a pregame party before heading out to Tiger Stadium to watch the LSU game. Steward was working in the yard and Mr. Charley was dressed for the game in a sport coat, tie and nice slacks, which is the way one dressed for a game back then. Steward was in his jumpsuit. At a certain moment, as the exchange of pleasantries among all the guests wound down, I saw Mr. Charley walk outside and I followed him, like kids do.

Sidling up alongside Steward, a man with whom he had nothing in common really, but with whom he always felt completely comfortable for some reason, he directed his gaze to the live oaks with Steward, listening to the intricate birdsong melodies – hidden background life-songs emanating from within the sweeping branches. He settled in right next to Steward, their shoulders touching. For awhile no one said anything amid the fragrantly sweet White Owl smoke swirling about them and that was fine.

Neither of the men had ever spoken to the other about Europe.

After they had been young, one had been a life insurance salesman, advancing into senior management. The other had been an operator at “The Standard Oil.” One was a friend of the man who now employed the other and, had you looked at them, you would’ve known which was which. You would have also known that neither of them cared about that distinction. Both were very different in every way you might measure a man if you checked boxes about lineage and heritage and education and so forth.

However, although neither knew the heart of the other, both could remember when the worlds in which they lived went deathly quiet and –-for many hours at a time-- you never heard a bird sing.
And so they stood quietly alongside each other and listened to the animated autumnal twittering.

“Ol’ Mockin’ birds.” I heard Steward say after a few moments through lips gripping his cigar, his mind surely reflecting upon a dusty, painfully quiet Italian road in the Arno Valley about which he rarely spoke.

“Yes, Steward.” Mr. Charley softly answered after a bit, his mind relentlessly harkening back to the tomblike quiet surrounding a gentle depression in a sloping French roadside outside Chambois where he’d buried Sergeant Rawlings. “Lovely thing to hear, isn’t it?”

And so they stood there awhile. Just listening.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Opelousas








At one time, Opelousas, Louisiana in St. Landry Parish was the largest producer of sweet potatoes in the country. Maybe the whole world.

You would be wise not to question me on this important farming fact for I was born in that town, smack-dab in the middle of The Yambilee Festival during Ike’s first term. Folks in Opelousas wore this “top producer” label like a mantle of honor and repeated it as a simple reality that any fool could plainly see. The celebration of the lowly yam had evolved over time into an annual festival around which the society of the town revolved.

Momma used to tell me how she attended the Yambilee Parade the October afternoon before she went into labor with me, stepping carefully off of curbs and supporting my weight with her hands as my 9-month hitch “in country” ran its course. I often imagine I can see her standing in the crowd on the courthouse square, accompanied by my grandmother and her younger sister, my beautiful Aunt Lizzy; nestled along the parade route, waving at a crowned Yambilee Queen splayed across the back of a teal and white ‘55 Impala convertible.

She looks happy when I see her. The world was all ahead of her then.

The courthouse dominates the center of town, a squat, smooth concrete structure built in 1939 to replace the original 1802 facility. That courthouse forms the backdrop to so many of my childhood memories. Folks were executed there, I remember hearing the grown-ups tell me. Several were hung in what was casually referred to as “The Hanging Room,” where a sturdy hook and trap door remain to this day. There are 13 steps up to The Hanging Room and the last one is painted black. It was said that, once you crossed that 13th step, there was no going back. One condemned guy was electrocuted in that room, with the powerful generators humming on the courthouse lawn and the cables run into The Hanging Room through open windows to power the portable electric chair brought to the place so as to administer extreme justice.

I don’t know why they never changed the name after that. It’s still called The Hanging Room even now, although the Clerk has stored the marriage and probate records in there since the first Nixon Administration.

The courthouse exudes mystery and paranormal activities are said to prevail in the old structure at night. Ladies working late for the Clerk of Court have said that footsteps are heard in the area of the 13 steps to The Hanging Room and the long defunct back elevator will grind into life even though all of the motors are useless, burned beyond repair and without electric power. So, there ain’t much night work done there, I’m told.

That old courthouse was posed regally in the center of town in those halcyon Yambilee days, just east across from the Delta Theater where---years later---my brother and I would hump our Schwinns from my grandparents’ house on Dunbar Avenue, shell out the princely sum of 35 cents to get a movie ticket, part with another quarter for a coke and some popcorn and settle in with all the other white kids for a Saturday Double Feature. The black kids went in through a rear entrance down an alley alongside the theater and trudged up the wooden back stairs to sit in the balcony. I never knew if they got popcorn and cokes.

South of the courthouse square on Landry Street sat The Jim Bowie Museum, which harbored sacred relics and other information on The Hero of the Alamo. Opelousas billed itself as the original home of Jim Bowie and the signs leading into town wouldn’t let you forget it either, just in case you were deranged enough to think Bowie was a Texan. He wasn’t. He was a St. Landry Parish man. If you timed it right, you could zip downtown on your bike, make a practiced swing through the Jim Bowie Museum to gawk at the many huge knives and old pistols and buckskin outfits and still sprint to The Delta for show-time. An elderly lady would follow you around as you pored through the glass cases and her voice would provide commentary: “Mr. Bowie lived on property out on Union Street, where the Planter’s Bank branch office is now. They claim he made those knives by hand out there before he went off to Texas….”

Bellevue Street ran along the north side of the courthouse square and housed what was known as Lawyers Row. A Vanderbilt man (by way of the University of Virginia and Tulane), my grandfather shared his law office there with Momma’s brother, my Uncle Boody. “C. F. Boagni, Jr. Attorney at Law – Notary In Office” his weathered black sign with gold letters announced.

Much like the Yambilee memory of Momma, that sign serves as one of the tangible connections between the man and I am today and the boy who, as the years slide by, becomes harder to recollect. I see those gold letters every day in my own law office as the sign was left to me after PaPa died in 1983, the year I started practice. He lived to see me graduate from LSU Law School, but I lost him a few months after that. I carefully cleaned that old sign, which predates Pearl Harbor, and hung it.

A few months after I was born, Daddy took us to Baton Rouge so he could finish his engineering studies at LSU. For me, therefore, Baton Rouge has been home ever since. But, as regular as clockwork when we were young, Momma wanted to go back home to see her family. That was an immutable given in our house. Such pilgrimages were fine with my brother and me, because we had 2 sets of grandparents in Opelousas and were thus treated to the unending, abiding, understanding love that only grandparents can give. Consequently, almost every month and certainly every holiday, we would load up in the family wheels and head west on U.S. 190 to Opelousas, where –in due course-- Daddy and PaPa teamed up to impart the mysteries of bicycle operation to me. My Dad could sit on the handlebars, facing backwards, and pedal himself up and down the long driveway, calling out: “See, J.R.? There’s nothin’ to it!”

I considered this advice, weighed my options, and decided to ride in the regular old way, facing forward. After I had soldiered through a couple of spectacular wipe-outs, one involving a stone garden gnome, I finally got the hang of it.

Thus, new worlds opened.

As a boy, you could get wherever you needed to be in Opelousas on a bike. You could leave Dunbar Street, head through City Park, and be downtown in 10 minutes, tops. Pedaling through the Park, I would scoot by the roller skating area, where I would hear echoing in my mind the words my mother would tell me every time we passed that concrete expanse:

“And, James Ronald,” She would tell me, pointing and smiling. “That’s where I met your Daddy. He came to my 12th birthday roller skating party right there.”

Apparently, among my old man’s many talents, he was also a boffo roller skater as a young chap. I’ll have to ask him if he ever rode a bicycle backwards for Momma. If you were searching for a skill set that would capture the heart of 12-year-old Sally, I would think the one-two punch of daredevil roller skating and backwards bike-riding would do the trick. I have a picture in my bedroom of my Pop when he was about 12 or 13, taken in front of the old Opelousas High School, clowning for the camera with a chum. Anyone can take one look at that picture and see that he was bad news from the wrong side of the tracks. Nonetheless, from that 12th birthday party on, Sally loved Jimmy until the Yambilee October day she died 50 years later.

Of course, there was some parental resistance to this match between the first daughter of a prominent family and Jimmy Clary, who was…well…Jimmy Clary. My grandparents even sent Momma off to Vanderbilt just to see if geography could cool the longstanding romance, but it was no dice. After a single semester--before finals even-- Momma called long distance, said she missed Jimmy and wanted to come back to Opelousas. There were tears and no amount of cajoling could keep her in Nashville. So, Babee and PaPa resignedly struck out in the Buick and fetched their oldest child home.

Shortly thereafter, they set about planning a wedding.

When we would arrive in Opelousas on these family visits, and after a perfunctory raid on the outside icebox for a small bottle of coke and an ice cream sandwich, I would hop on a blue Schwinn and head downtown. Zipping through the Park and past the roller skating circle, I would shortly come into the orbit of the courthouse, the Jim Bowie Museum, the Delta Theater and Lawyers Row. You had to get up some speed to hop the Lawyers Row curb but—once you had swung that—you could accelerate down the raised sidewalk paralleling the front of the law offices and really make some time. Of course, if someone had walked out of one of those law offices at this moment (perhaps after they had just executed their Will), there would have been a colossal “incident” necessitating either battlefield first aid or the opening of a succession. Timing is everything in life, as we all know, and I marvel that no such infamy ever occurred. Whenever I get on a bike now and feel the wind in my face, I think about those days and the miracle of timing.

About halfway down the Row, I would see the sign: “C. F. Boagni, Jr. Attorney at Law – Notary In Office.” Braking to a stop, I would casually dismount, run a hand over my crew-cut and flip down the kickstand with my Chuck Taylors. There were no bicycle locks to contend with. To my knowledge, they had not even been invented. They were certainly not needed.

I would pull open the big chrome door with reflective glass to PaPa’s office and saunter in. As the door slowly shut behind me, I would perceive Miss Velma hammering away on an Olivetti, the keys striking the paper at what seemed an impossible pace.

Years later, I would read the diary of a Confederate soldier serving in Company H of a regiment assigned to Pickett’s Division, who wrote of the long slogging trot from Seminary Ridge toward Cemetery Hill on the third day at Gettysburg. He was one of the few who survived unscathed. As the company crossed the Emmitsburg Road, they had to then traverse a wooden slat-board fence to continue the charge toward the entrenched Federals. Union rounds hit the boards of the fence with such regularity that—to this soldier—it sounded like “somebody pourin’ peas on a rawhide.” I thought to myself, as I read the entry: “I bet it sounded like Miss Velma’s Olivetti.”

Finishing her typist’s thought, Velma, my grandfather’s secretary, would stop and then turn to see who had come in the office door. Seeing me, she would smile beautifully and just glow.

“Well, Mr. James Ronald!” She would exclaim, always the same.

“Hello Miss Velma.”

“Your Momma and Daddy come for a visit?”

“Yes, ma’am.” I would reply, jamming my hands into my jeans pockets.

“And how is everybody?”

“Fine.”

“That’s good. You here to see your PaPa?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Inclining her head toward the rear of the long, narrow office, Velma’s eyes would twinkle and she would say: “He’s back there, honey. He’ll be glad to see you.”

“Thank you, Miss Velma.”

And with that, I would begin the long walk through the front office and into the corridor that connected the rear. A few steps in I would hear the Olivetti crank up again, the sound ever fading as I moved down the hall.

There was deep red carpeting on the corridor floor, atop a thick pad that seemed to deaden all sound and envelop my tennis shoes. Important certificates, photographs and mineral production maps lined the walls. Dark brown ceiling fans moved slowly above me, stirring the cool air-conditioned interior. The smell of important books was heavy in the circulating air. On every trip down that hall, I was struck by the feeling that business of majestic gravity was occurring in this place.

Halfway down, I passed Uncle Boody’s office on the left and we would exchange waves while he continued his conversation on the phone. He would point down the hall, knowing I was there to see PaPa. Then, passing my grandfather’s empty office, I would head to the end of the hall, where a dark wooden door with a fogged glass panel was situated. On the fogged glass it said in an ornate script: Library. And, that is where I knew I would find PaPa, as he always practiced out of that large room. In all the years I visited, I never saw him in his office. Always the Library.

Born in 1903 to one of the wealthy families of Opelousas, Charles F. Boagni, Jr. was a handsome and imposing 6-footer, whose thick white hair had been with him since his 50’s. In his salad days, he was an athlete and a ladies man. My maternal grandmother, who we called Babee, told me the girls all called him “Cameo,” because his profile resembled the classic ivory silhouettes seen on the stylish women’s broaches of the time. She would tell me that, on the day after an Opelousas dance, the girls would gather and talk about who had had the opportunity to dance with Cameo.

To everyone in Opelousas even a few years younger than himself, he was known as “Mister Charlie,” not to be confused with Dr. Boagni, his physician father and namesake. I remembered my great-grandfather well, who – according to the family lore – had performed the first caesarian section in Louisiana before the dawn of the 20th Century. (I have noticed that our 21st Century internet seems oblivious to that milestone.)

PaPa visited on a regular basis until his father died in 1962 at 92.

When in Opelousas, Dad and I would often accompany my grandfather on those visits to the large home he had known as a boy. PaPa would take a chair next to his declining father and they would talk. At a certain frightening moment, I would be trotted out and presented to “Poppa,” who was invalided by age and ensconced in a recliner. After being loudly identified as “Sally’s oldest boy, James Ronald,” Poppa would ask me questions from his recumbent position in a weak and indistinct voice, his chin quivering, questions repetitive of information fed to him. As I could not understand anything Poppa said, I would look to my grandfather helplessly. PaPa would translate and I would respond as completely as a scared 5-year-old could, which means with quiet “Yes sirs” and “No sirs.”

It would go like this:

PaPa: Poppa, this is Sally’s oldest boy, James Ronald.

Poppa: (A mumbled interrogatory.)

PaPa: (To me) Poppa wants to know if you’re Sally’s oldest boy.

J.R.: (A little confused as to how this signal bit of information had not yet been cleared up) Yes, sir.

And we would go on in this vein until I was allowed to escape. In many ways it was much like visiting The Pope, I imagine.

After Poppa passed away, the home was moved and the property sold to the first Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise to open shop in Opelousas, a blue-ribbon distinction oft repeated as if it added to the family pedigree.

PaPa’s mane of white set off the black horn-rimmed glasses he wore while reading and made him look senatorial. In truth, though, he had constant mischief and percolating devilment in him. Always in a suit while in the office –coat on-- he was invariably seated at the huge Library table. Books were shelved from floor to ceiling on almost every wall and the chairs were of dark maroon leather which squeaked and groaned when you sidled into them.

I stepped into the Library without knocking and PaPa would look up from what he was reading, smile and—without missing a beat—begin a conversation based upon whatever topic occupied him at that moment. Although I was only 9 or so, his deep voice would roll across the room and he would commence what struck me as a serious and fascinating legal discussion.

“J.R.,” he might say, taking off his glasses and tapping them against the file in his lap, “I’m glad you’re here. You can help me with this case. I call it The Tricky Wife Case. Come over here and sit with me.”

There was no hugging or banal pleasantry. It was right to work. He would lean into me with a bemused smile and make serious eye contact as I took my seat at his side. The table running almost the full length of the room was covered with documents. The horned-rims would slap against his labeled manila folder.

“Mr. Phelan Dubisson had a 1/6th working interest on the oil and gas production coming from acreage he owned outright in Evangeline Parish, which he got from his Daddy, Maurice.” PaPa would begin in his stentorian voice. “Now he received that payment from the Sun Oil Company for years. Not royalty payments, mind you, but a working interest. And then, J.R., he met a lady and got married. But Mr. Dubisson, he didn’t know he had married a tricky woman. She sent a paper to Sun Oil and told them to start sending those payments to her sister, who lived outside of Port Barre almost to Krotz Springs. And, do you know what Sun Oil did? They just started sending those monthly interest checks to Port Barre without so much as a how do you do to Phelan. And now, we have us a lawsuit here (glasses tapping the file) because I don’t think the Sun Oil Company should send Mr. Dubisson’s separate property to some lady in Port Barre just because The Tricky Wife says it’s OK. Do you?”

Well, my eyes were as big as pie plates. I couldn’t quite get the technicalities absorbed, but I knew enough to know that someone was in big trouble alright.

“No, PaPa.” was about the best I could muster under the circumstances. “Is the tricky wife gonna go to jail?”

Hmmm….now, she’s tricky remember -- maybe even too tricky for jail. But, J.R., what about the Sun Oil Company? Shouldn’t they talk to Mr. Dubisson before they just redirect his working interest to some lady Mr. Dubisson hardly knows all the way out past Port Barre?”

That sounded like a reasonable question to me and suddenly my perception of the Sun Oil Company would darken as the tale expanded with mendacity. And, off we would go, discussing the concept of separate property, the need for written contracts and God knows what all. I knew the difference between a royalty interest, a lease payment and a working interest before I was 10. I also knew the value of accepting legal fees paid by royalty interests on undeveloped mineral fields. PaPa would unfurl topographic maps on the gigantic library table and trace with his finger the interests he had accepted in payment for his professional services. Tapping the map with a pencil, he would spin suspenseful tales of oil wells yet to be drilled, laying out the proposition as if I was a business partner instead of a 9-year-old kid on a Schwinn. Snuggling close to him, poring over the maps, I could smell his British Sterling cologne tinged with the earthy aroma of Keep Moving cigars.

I knew that whatever answer I provided to my grandfather during these conversations would never be rejected. I knew whatever pithy comment I might offer would result in PaPa’s chuckle, only to be followed by another probing inquiry or another comment offered up for my penetrating evaluation.

And another thing I knew was this: I was not 100% sure what exactly my grandfather did to make a living, but—whatever it was—I wanted to do that too. He was a champion who helped repair grave injustices, whether caused by the callous Sun Oil Company or some tricky wife and her sister who lived out past Port Barre almost to Krotz Springs.

We would continue our adventurous discussions, as if he had no time for anything in the world except me, until the afternoon had disappeared. Then, bidding Velma adieu, he would pile my Schwinn into the trunk of his Electra 225 and we’d drive back to Dunbar Avenue together, concluding our ruminations on the vast legal challenges which absorbed us as we pulled into the driveway.

As I grew older, I would continue to travel to Opelousas over the years, often with a pal from high school or college. We would always stop by PaPa’s office, check in with Miss Velma and make the trek down the hall to the Library, where we would simply enter without any notice whatsoever. PaPa would look up and you had no idea what he might say before we got down to discussing cases. My friend, Darrell Talley, remembers to this day the first time he met Mister Charlie. We walked in to see him after driving over from Baton Rouge in Darrell’s ‘66 Ford Falcon and PaPa, looking up to see us entering the Library, said –apropos of nothing:

“Well, well…who do we have here? Is it Thomas Edison?”

There was a quiet pause as Darrell and I looked around to see if The Wizard of Menlo Park had somehow followed us into the office. But, no – it was just us.

“Uhhh, no PaPa. This is Darrell Talley, a friend of mine.”

“Oh,” Papa said, with no trace of irony “I assumed it was Thomas Edison.”

As there was really no cogent response one could make to that observation, and as poor Darrell stood there wondering if this white-haired country lawyer out of Hollywood Central Casting had gone ‘round the bend, PaPa would appear bemused and allow the pause to linger. Then, before the moment could evolve further, the glasses would come off to tap the documentary material in his lap and off he would go: “Now, here’s a case you might be able to help me with. Alcide Fontenot was trying to have a peaceful dinner at Toby’s Little Lodge out on the Arnaudville Highway when he got into a scuffle with a fella named Plaisance from Sunset over who shot Huey. Alcide ended up with a black eye but the district attorney is saying that Alcide is the one who got a little salt in his battery, not Plaisance. What do you think about that?”

First of all, I regard it as amazing in hindsight that neither Darrell nor I had to ask who Huey was. Even though it was 1972, we both knew that fistfights could still erupt over whether Dr. Carl A. Weiss shot and killed The Kingfish back in 1935 or whether that charge was a frame-up, with Senator Huey Long actually being killed by his own over-reacting bodyguards, who opened up on Weiss with Thompsons. St. Landry Parish had been a bastion of Anti-Longism back in the day and thus any conversation remotely supportive of Huey in that venue could turn ugly at the drop of a hat. Moreover, an accusation that Dr. Weiss, who had married an Opelousas girl, might be an assassin could earn someone a quick poke in the eye, if not worse. It had all festered throughout the years, stoked by Louisiana hardball politics. Long had coveted the District Court seat in Opelousas, which was held by Judge Pavy, an Anti-Long man. In order to sway the St. Landry Parish electorate toward the Long ticket, The Kingfish authorized the dissemination of information intimating that Judge Pavy had Negro blood ancestry.

This is the way things were done in the Louisiana politics of the day.

Dr. Weiss had married Judge Pavy’s daughter. Thus, Opelousas folks were willing to concede that Dr. Weiss, as a matter of honor, confronted Huey on the day the senator took a round in the gut in the Baton Rouge State Capitol. Opelousas folks could even concede that Dr. Weiss may have even slapped the lying bastard for his perfidy.

There was no problem admitting that Huey deserved killing. But, conceding that mild-mannered Carl Weiss, an ophthalmologist, slipped a Fabrique Nationale Browning .32 pistol into the waistband of his suit and drove over from his Baton Rouge home to slink into the Capitol building and lie in wait for Huey so he could step out from behind a corridor column and shoot the low-down sonofabitch?

NEVER.

You took the opposing view at your peril in St. Landry Parish. The history written in the rest of the world has long branded Carl Weiss as Huey’s killer. The senator’s bodyguards, trailing slightly behind the fast moving Kingfish, had to play catch-up after the Long-Weiss confrontation. What is known is that they turned their tommy-guns on Dr. Weiss. Bullets flew and ricocheted throughout the marble corridor of the State Capitol. Senator Long was promptly taken to the Our Lady of the Lake Hospital in Baton Rouge to die some days later. Dr. Weiss, though, was ---as they say--- DRT: Dead Right There.

As a public service, however, I will supply this warning: Even today in St. Landry Parish, if you start publicly declaiming some defense of Huey or painting Dr. Weiss as an assassin, some 108 year old guy will clatter over on his walker and punch you in the nose.

Secondly, I remember well how, squeaking into our leather seats, we would began to venture opinions on the facts of the Alcide Fontenot case with no further information than is related here. Our observations would be met with a quiet chuckle from PaPa and more questions and more answers and soon –before you knew it, really—2 or 3 hours would evaporate into the mists of time. During these visits, PaPa never saw a client or took a call or proofed anything Miss Velma typed. Instead, all of his attention was devoted singularly to his unscheduled visitors.

As I grow older, the memories of those old Opelousas days frequently come in stacked bunches, like hay bales. Once you start to unstack those bales, it’s hard to stop.

Last week, frigid weather in Baton Rouge had closed the schools, so William and Steven Sherman, my sister’s boys, came to work with her. I had an appearance in New Orleans scheduled for late that morning. As I trundled downstairs and made ready to head south, William and Steven were gathered around my sister’s desk. Although always glad to see the lads, I greeted them perfunctorily and then checked in with sister Liz to make sure the day’s tasks would be addressed in my absence. William, now almost 12, asked me whether or not Rome commenced its presence on the ancient global stage as an empire or a republic. Although I guessed quickly and wrong, I saw that my young nephew was interested in the subject.

Riffling through my briefcase to make sure I had everything I needed for the appearance, I listened distractedly as he ventured observations about Julius Caesar’s ascendancy to status and the price he paid for it.

Assassinated.

Like Huey.

I shortly perceived a hay bale spinning around inside me.

I shut my briefcase and looked at William bemusedly.

“Julius Caesar, huh?” I asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.” I started loudly—as if from a stage, doing my best from memory.

“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interréd with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest—
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men—…”


I sort of petered out at that point, unable to remember the rest, but I held the boy’s gaze.

His eyes were as big as pie plates. His soon to be 10-year-old brother, Steven, stared at me too.

It was quiet in the office. No Olivettis. No smell of important books. The internet has no odor. I let the silence linger.

“William Shakespeare.” I said finally, snapping my briefcase shut. “From Marc Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar. Have you read it, pal?”

“No, sir.”

And, here was my chance. Here, I had the opportunity to explore a subject in which the boy was interested through the prism of a magnificent work of literature. Here, I had the chance to explore the concept of rhetorical irony with young William in the context of perhaps the most striking employment of the device ever written. Here, I had a chance to explain how such rhetorical irony can be used in the art of persuasion – both in life and in the law. Here, I had the opportunity to allow time to melt away as I watched a young mind wrestle with concepts experienced from a world that was new.Here, I had a chance to share some of that Opelousas magic.

Instead, I looked at my watch.

Reaching out, I tousled his blonde hair and bundled my topcoat.

“Well, look it up.” I said. “We’ll talk about it later.”

Driving to New Orleans, I had to fight a surging need to cry.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Magnolia and Josephine



I’m reading The Help by Katherine Stockett, A New York Times best-seller which depicts white society in early 1960’s Jackson, Mississippi from the perspective of the African-American women who worked in those white homes. Those black women helped raise white children and manage white households; all while being treated as if they were an inferior but required appendage to the effort.

If you have not yet read the book, capturing southern life at the dawn of the civil rights era, you should. Ms. Stockett tells a moving story which awakens within me echoes of my own past. My boyhood spanned the late 1950’s and 1960’s and I well remember “The Help” we had in our own home during those years. There were a steady progression of quiet, stalwart African American women ever-present within my own family of origin and, as I close my eyes, I can remember them all: Lena…Lucille…Marjorie…Leatrice…Marva…and then, ultimately, Magnolia.

Redoubtable, tough-as-nails, Magnolia.

She was “tough,” sure --- but Mag could also loose the most infectious laugh when something tickled her. Quiet in a dignified way, Magnolia would seamlessly engage you in conversation at any time. But, you had to start it. Once you did, you would invariably find her insightful and supportive. Even now, she is that way as she still works for my Dad.

I see her differently now, of course. “Sweet Magnolia,” I call her.

Back in the day, however, she would come and go on a schedule dependent on “her ride,” as ---to my knowledge--- Mag never got behind the wheel of any vehicle to drive. She had people who handled that part of her life. Arriving at our home with a handbag about the size of a respectable fireplace, she would enter with no notice or fanfare, hang up her bag and coat and go to work addressing whatever evolving calamity was underway. In a home where we raised 3 boys and a little sister, SOMETHING was always afoot. Whatever it was, she would step into it with poise, like a fearless shortstop.

Dark as a briquette, Mag’s eyes were bright and brown. Never a tall lady, she carried her weight in a stolid but graceful way – like Gleason. And pal, when she locked those brown eyes on you and moved her hands slowly to her hips, whatever situation had advanced to a point where ---in Mag’s silent opinion--- a halt was warranted, you halted.

She and Momma saw eye-to-eye on everything. They seemed in symbiotic partnership on issues big and small. I cannot count the times Momma would ruminate on some change she was contemplating within our home. She would say: “Magnolia comes on Tuesday. She and I will see about it.”

Mag was the same way about Momma. When the kids would float an idea in Mag’s presence about anything, she would counter: “Now, what Miss Sally gone think about that?” We would allow as how we didn’t know what Momma might think…..which was why we were sorta tryin’ to sneak one over the plate on Mag. We knew if we could get Magnolia to approve of the course being pitched, then we were in like Flynn with Mom. “Ummm-hmmmm,” Mag would say, slow and drawn out. “I’ll see what Miss Sally say.”

And that would end that.

We knew then that a summit meeting above our pay grade would be convened outside of our presence. There, Momma and Mag would decide on policy.

The policy would be revealed in due course.

And, ever true to my mother, Mag was The Enforcer of Policy. The thing about Magnolia’s “enforcing” style was interesting, though. I have never figured out how she engendered it, but I do know this: You wanted Magnolia to be pleased with you. Thus, if Mag indicated that a certain course of conduct was unacceptable, you did not do it. With a few regrettable exceptions to be expected in a tumultuous house, this understanding was not violated. It still is not violated. If you asked my brothers or my kid sister, they would tell you the same thing.

All of this happened as a routine matter in our home, day in and day out.

I knew my mother had her own deep bonding experience when she was a child in Opelousas, Louisiana. The “help” they had in their home back in the 1930’s and ‘40’s was a lady named Josephine Davis. Momma called her “Jo.” As a small boy, I was taught to call her “Aunt Jo,” which I did. This was important because, on every visit we would make from Baton Rouge to Opelousas to see our grandparents, who still lived there---and I mean EVERY SINGLE visit---a certain moment would come when my mother would say: “I want to go see Jo. Come on, James Ronald, we’re gonna go see Aunt Jo.”

Momma would scoop me up and we’d pile into our car, drive north on Union Street past the train tracks and into a section of town that looked different to me, although I could not then put my finger on exactly why. On the way, Momma would stop and buy some groceries and a few packs of Camels. Then, we’d turn east along the train tracks, where a certain weathered, wooden house was located alongside others which looked similar.

Unloading the car, we weren’t 3 steps toward Jo’s house when an old voice would come through the screen door on the front of the porch: “Lawd God, is that Sally? Come in here child and see Old Jo.”

Momma would fairly trot up those concrete steps into Josephine Davis’ home, with me in tow, and she would embrace Jo as she sat. Apparently age had made it difficult for Josephine to rise. What I remember about those meetings was that, once to her side, Momma and Jo’s hands never came apart. Holding and patting each other’s hand, they would fall to chatting immediately and effortlessly, as I stood and watched. Shortly sensing I was somehow “out-of-the-loop,” Josephine would say to me: “James Ronald, come here, honey. Come give Aunt Jo a hug.”

I would dutifully advance and she would envelope me in those big arms. I never recall wondering how she knew me. I just recall that she did.

I also recall that, as she and Momma talked and laughed, black kids my own age would congregate near Josephine’s screen porch door. Soon, Jo would yell through the door: “Y’all take James Ronald outside and play now.” And, the door would creak open as screen doors do and I would zip outside to tag along with the troops, the door banging shut behind us. I’ve forgotten the names of my periodic friends after all these years, but I remember where I learned how to put a penny on a track and get it mashed just so by the passing trains. I remember where I learned that you can’t walk comfortably on the crossties of a train track – they aren’t spaced for that. I remember where I learned that if people treat other folks like people, color or race never really comes up. I learned that with those kids at Aunt Jo’s house.

After an hour or so, Momma would come out and we would head to the car, all while she and Aunt Jo held an ongoing, extended conversation through the screen door – as if neither wanted to shut it down. With a final good-bye, Momma would make sure I was standing properly on the front seat (that’s the way we did things back then), close the car door and we would head back south on Union Street. Maybe it’s just my memory after all these years, but I recollect Momma as being quiet and reflective during that drive home, a drive that took us back toward the gentrified suburbs.

Until the day my mother died, there was a picture of Josephine Davis on her dresser.

Which brings me back to Sweet Magnolia.

Momma died of lymphoma on October 9, 1996. She had wanted to stay at home, but a scary inability to catch her breath impelled us to the hospital, where IV morphine could be given to make her comfortable and to aid her breathing. We celebrated my birthday at home on the 6th and Magnolia was there, of course. That was the day my mother asked to see me at her bedside and, after a lifetime of making ever sure in 100 different ways that I knew she loved me, Sally Clary told me the last thing she wanted me to know before she left this world. Holding my hands in hers she smiled and said to me: “James Ronald, I just want you to know...you were never any trouble to me as a baby.”

The day after, we went to the hospital and shortly thereafter Momma became harder and harder to rouse. Within a day or so, she was basically comatose. Although Dad and I would try and talk with her, by the late morning of the 9th, she was unresponsive. Soon, the only sound in the room was the pings, shushes and beeps of the medical machinery. Amid those sounds, the immediate family waited in the room, not knowing what to do – each of us facing the prospect of Momma’s death and hoping that some miracle might yet intervene.

When we spoke at all, we communicated in hushed tones.

It was at that moment we saw Magnolia standing at the hospital room door, quietly waiting, her handbag before her like a centurion’s shield. Daddy immediately went to her and hugged her into the room, where she asked: “How Miss Sally doin’?”

Dad and I explained in very quiet voices that she was not doing well. We whispered to Mag that the die seemed to be cast and that we expected the worst at any moment. We further related quietly that she had been unconscious since early morning and, although we had tried, we could no longer get her to speak with us.

“Ummm-hmmmm,” Mag said, slow and drawn out. And, with that, she walked past Dad and me to the foot of Momma’s hospital bed, put her handbag down and said in a voice that was her normal tone – a tone that could carry across seven subdivision yards on a windy day with no trouble whatsoever: “Miss Sally, how you doin’?”

Before we could even react to the question or its jarring presence in the room, we heard my mother reply from the depths of her coma the last words I would ever hear her say:

“I’m fine.”

Magnolia nodded, backed away a step and looked at Dad and me with those bright brown eyes welling with tears.

“She fine,” Mag told us.

After a pause, the room quiet again, Mag repeated, softer now…“She fine.”


----J.R.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Bengal Group


I gathered again with my Bengal Group buddies last night.

The Bengal Group was formed in 1986 and consists of me and many of my old high school pals, along with other friends we’ve met along the way. As we emerged from college years ago and began concentrating on our families and professional careers, we noticed that we were seeing each other less frequently. An inexorable drift had commenced, distancing us from the close bonds of friendship which had sustained us throughout early formative adulthood. We shared what seemed at the time to be monumental trial and tribulations throughout high school and college, weathering those waters together – always having each others’ backs. By Reagan’s 2nd term, those ties were oddly strained by life and, without noticing how or why, we found ourselves seeing each other less and less frequently.

What could we do that would halt that drift, we found ourselves wondering?

We all remembered what it was like to be in college and broke – sometimes unsure of how we could see our education through to the end. Flitting around that memory, we decided that we would form a scholarship group that would fund annual cash grants to students at Louisiana State University. We would gather once per month, kick some dough into a collective “kitty” and then solicit applications from LSU students who could demonstrate financial need. Thereafter, we would select students from that application pool and award them the money we’d saved or raised over the previous year, gathering at a dinner banquet with the students and their families to confer the grants.

Maybe a common effort would halt or reverse the peculiar drift pulling us away from each other.

At first, the end-goal of our noble effort was eclipsed by the knowledge that---come what may---we would see always each other on the 3rd Friday of every month, as we met to guide The Bengal Group’s mission. We looked forward to the gathering each month, where old tales would be burnished, new stories fashioned and bonds of abiding friendship strengthened. As years went by, though, our Group coalesced into a more focused concentration upon our actual mission --- helping LSU students financially.

In the beginning, our meetings were about escaping from our homes for a “Guys’ Night Out.” Poker and beer and BBQ formed the lion’s share of the agenda. After the “business portion” of those early meetings was concluded, we would often wander from our meeting venue and patronize old college haunts and juke joints.

Over the years, though, we bought less beer and more ice cream.

We also gradually increased our contributions over those early years. We initiated and now maintain an annual golf tournament to raise additional funds. Last night, as I again gathered yet again with my old friends, I marveled at how, after almost 25 years, our focus was now comfortably resting upon both goals.

I’ve lost count over the years of the dough we have given away, but it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars now – far beyond what we ever thought we might accomplish when we sat down that fall evening so many years ago and hatched this plan over beer and memories.

Our regiment is “one short” this year, having lost Paul Jennings to cancer last July. Pursuant to Paul’s request, his obituary asked those attending his funeral to forego flowers and direct donations to The Bengal Group. At the service, there was not enough room in the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Baton Rouge to house the friends Paul had touched over the years, so many of whom responded with testimonial contributions in “P.J.’s” name. As the years will come and go, we are left as loving shepherds of Paul’s memory and the monetary gifts made to The Bengal Group, as “P.J.” had asked. It is an assignment all of us hold so close to our hearts that we cannot speak of it without emotion. Thus, we do not speak of it much.

And so anyway, there we all were last night – guys I’ve known since junior high school and some even before that---sitting together in the LSU condo one of the sons of our members, who is now himself a student at LSU and doing well. The drive to last evening’s university-area meeting venue took each of us by the dorms and apartments in which we used to live when we were students at LSU so many years ago. I drove past the old Morris Apartments on Janet Street, where Mitch Wall and I shared a one-bedroom apartment. Mitch had a steady girlfriend (Sweet Eileen, to whom he has been happily married now for a little over 100 years, it seems), so he got the bedroom. I lived on the fold-out sofa in the living room.

Motoring across Nicholson Drive and over the parallel train tracks forming the entrance to Tigerland, there was Tiger Plaza apartments, still standing after 36 years. Dr. Bill Lovell and Ken Howard and I shared a two bedroom apartment in that large development for $375 per month, utilities paid. Billy had a steady girlfriend, so he got a bedroom alone, although I seem to recall we may have played a hand of poker for the privilege. I mean, of course, the privilege of the bedroom alone, not Billy’s girlfriend. In any event, I bunked with Howard in the other bedroom. (Does anyone else see a depressing continuity here?) As I motored by that large conglomeration of buildings, I wondered if they ever got all the sheetrock holes patched in Apartment # 222.

You know what’s cool? As President Joe Copus attempted to call our meeting to order last evening, after he’d fed us boiled shrimp, smoked sausage and exquisite baked tenderloin, I noticed that all of us old line Bengal Groupers were in the living room of his son’s condo, while Kevin Copus and his LSU pals and girlfriends migrated to another room…where they watched us conduct our formal business…interrupted by the sort of monkey business which erupts regularly among old friends about whom all is known. The circuity of that type of gathering is cool, although I wonder what the younger folks made of us and all our old, oft-told tales.

Here is one of the tales:

Allen Darden, now a brilliant partner at a respected law firm in Baton Rouge, used his voice to trump the ambient tumult. Apropos of nothing, really, he says to me, but addresses the Group:
“Hey, Clary……remember the time we went relic hunting? Guys, Clary calls me for lunch. (NOTE FROM MANAGEMENT: This happened almost 20 years ago, but Allen tells it as if it was yesterday.) We’re eating lunch and Clary asks me to identify something I’ve always wanted to do, but haven’t yet attempted. After a few false starts, I say to Jim that I’d always wanted to use a metal detector to find some Civil War bullets. Jim says to me: ‘OK, Allen. Then, a year from this lunch, you will be able to say you’ve done that because we’re gonna do it together.’ I agree and—within days—Jim calls me and says we’re the proud owners of 2 metal detectors and we’re gonna strike out and find Civil War relics. Man, I get books and maps about our area and where the troops had traveled and fought. Clary comes and gets me in his truck. We have an ice chest loaded with beer, right? We each pop us a brew and we have those between our legs as we head north from Baton Rouge, up towards the battlefields around Port Hudson. He’s got his .357 magnum pistol under the seat. We have 2 metal detectors slung in the truck bed. We’re drinkin’ beer and all fired up. So, we pass the Port Hudson Battlefield State Park and Clary says: “Hey, let’s go look in here, Allen.” I say OK and we swerve off of U.S. 61 and into the State Park. The FIRST thing we see is a HUGE sign that says: NO ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES --- NO FIREARMS --- NO METAL DETECTORS --- NO PETS. We cruise past that red-lettered sign in silence as we take in the words. Then, Jim takes a pull of his beer and looks at me and says: ‘Dude, we need us a DOG.’”

The lads cackle and hoot, although the story’s been told umpteen times over the years. The laughter serves as a catalyst for another story and then another and I begin to note that I figure prominently as dumbass-in-chief in most of these tales. No matter, I laugh with my old pals.

Copus gavels for order, but the tide is hard to stem.

Kevin and his young friends watch us from other rooms.

Gradually, we come back to order and tend to our business. We have almost $35,000 in our treasury and we must be solemn guardians of how we give it all away. But, soon we start to chuckle and meander away from the mission yet again. Story after old story effervesces throughout the meeting. Thus, it is only by the hardest that we are able to muscle through our agenda. But, we finally do.

This morning I feel happy.

------J.R.