"Inasmuch as my duty compels me to defend this position, I respectfully decline to surrender." -- General Franklin Gardner, CSA; Commanding General, Port Hudson
Sunday, February 6, 2011
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?”
“That’s good. You here to see your PaPa?”
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?
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.
I shortly perceived a hay bale spinning around inside me.
I shut my briefcase and looked at William bemusedly.
“Julius Caesar, huh?” I asked.
“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?”
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.
I have been a trial lawyer for over 30 years. Representing clients in courtrooms all across the country may be the only thing I’ve ever learned to do with some degree of proficiency.
After securing both my B.A. in Journalism (1980) and my law degree (1983) from Louisiana State University, I was selected to attend and was graduated from the Trial Lawyers College (TLC) in Dubois, Wyoming; Class of 2002. I am honored to currently serve as a member of the Board of Directors, as well as part of the teaching Staff for the College, an institution wholly devoted to obtaining justice for the injured, the accused and the least powerful among us. Amid the worldly clamor of my life, nothing is more important to me than my affiliation with TLC.
From the TLC-people comprising that amazing place, I have absorbed life-lessons at Thunderhead Ranch which allowed me ---after over 30 years of practice--- to finally become a person.
Better late than never.