Monday, April 28, 2008

The American Civil Rights Museum: A Lesson in the Struggle Against Adversity & Surmounting Obstacles

Rain soaked my feet as the water dripped from the hem of my purple plastic raincoat. Still I stood outside. The sky looked a gloomy gray and rain fell like tears from heaven. Before the afternoon would pass, I’d shed some tears to match the rainy day.

The first sad tear mixed with the rain hitting my face when I looked up at the white carnation wreath. It hung over the balcony of what was once room 306 of the Lorraine Hotel on Street in Memphis, Tennessee. An assassin’s bullet killed the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. as he stood on that hotel balcony on April 4, 1968. He was a great man but just how great I never really knew until I visited the Civil Rights Museum. The Museum occupies this former hotel and has exhibits in the boarding house across the street, the place from where James Earl Ray fired his fatal shot.

Bus loads of school children clustered by groups of matching red, purple, and green t-shirts and moved through the museum. We moved along with the kids for while, I did this longer than Ed because I wanted to see them react to the living history presented by a drama group special in the museum on this day. Harriet Tubman told of leading many to freedom through the underground railway. The students joined her in singing the woeful song “Swing Low Sweet Chariot”, a song that brings streams of tears to my eyes. Eleanor Roosevelt talked about the controversy she stirred in Washington by advocating for civil rights. The students walked single file through a bus where a figure of Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. An actor pretended to be on the street outside the Montgomery city bus. As he told the student of this historic event, he injected his hope that no one would hurt “Dear Ms. Parks, a nice old lady” for not taking a seat in the back of the bus.

How sad that this is a part of our country’s history. How sad that white people denied black people basic rights of freedom. “How sad,” I heard Ashley say when she looked into the replica of Dr. King’s room of the Lorraine Hotel. Then, she read aloud, in the halting way kids do, Dr. King’s words…”I have been to the mountain top.” “Yes, Ashley, how sad,” I thought as a tear slipped away from me again.

Raised in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and still a kid during much of the Civil Rights Movement, I didn’t experience the social unrest so prevalent in the South. I was isolated from discrimination or segregation in my private Catholic school. I finally I did learn about the struggle for civil rights many years later during my four-year consulting assignment at Prairie View A& M University. PVAMU is a HBCU –historically black college & university – a land grant school established by the State of Texas on what had been a Texas plantation. A historian once showed me the hanging tree used for disobedient salves. A former legislator once gave a lecture including her account of how a white shoe store owner forced her to leave his store when she had come to buy her children shoes. These experiences and now my visit to the Civil Rights Museum make it all so real.

In the Museum, I saw the sign from an old Rest Room with arrows pointing left for Whites and right for Colored. I saw a white sheet fashioned into a hooded robe worn by members of the Klu Klux Klan. I saw an ad for the Lorraine Hotel on page 86 of the 1952 Travel Guide book subtitled “Vacation and Recreation without Humiliation.” I watched a video of authorities in Birmingham, Alabama use ferocious dogs and fire hydrant forced water from hoses to halt a march. I saw an FBI map showing all the burned churches in Mississippi.

I felt elation over the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Topeka School Board. I felt angry that a restaurant owner in Huntington, West Virginia on August 3, 1963 burned a cake of sulfur and turned on the heat to remove demonstrators. I felt inspired by Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I felt satisfied that our country adopted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. And, I felt anger at the assassin when I peered out the window of his boarding house bathroom at the wreath hanging on the balcony where Dr. King took his last breath.

April 24, 2008

Getting Reacquainted With Elvis

Ed wanted me to visit Graceland. “You’ll like it,” he promised. Graceland is listed in my highly regarded travel reference book, 1,000 Places to Visit Before You Die: A Traveler’s Life List. And, this same travel book claims Graceland is the “most visited home in America after the White House (when the latter is open for tours).”With these strong endorsements, how could I pass on the opportunity to visit the revered home of Elvis Presley? I admit, the price of the Platinum Tour almost deterred me, but I let the lady behind the Plexiglas swipe my American Express card for $60.80, one adult and one senior.

I had never bought an Elvis record. My Aunt Gertie passed her collection of 45s on to me sometime around 1963 when she tossed out her record player. There were a few Elvis records in the mix. Back then, I was a fan of the Beatles and Tommy James & the Shondells. Elvis music was on the bottom of my top 30 list; still I played “Heartbreak Hotel” almost as often as I played my other favorites “She Loves You” and “I Think We’re Alone Now.” When we entered Graceland, the music playing softly in the background renewed my acquaintance with the many songs that made Elvis the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. I enjoyed hearing each one.

Just like his music, Elvis Presley’s Graceland Mansion is frozen in time with its shag carpets, peacock stained glass windows and box TVs. Some might even say the Mansion is “tacky”. If it went on the real estate market today, the realtor would surely recommend major changes. But, the place is as Elvis left it in 1977 - the year I graduated from PITT. I felt compelled to walk quietly through the house, respectful of this place Elvis loved as his home.

I appreciated the narration of the audio-guided tour through Graceland. With the headset, I didn’t have to strain to hear a tour guide or tolerate the annoying interruption of questions from people in the tour group. If I wanted to linger, I could. If I wanted more detail, I had the option to press some buttons for more information and I did.

I enjoyed listening to information about Elvis’ life and seeing clips of his old home movies. He seemed to take joy sharing his lifestyle with his family and friends. There were horses to ride, cars and motorcycles to enjoy, and so much more.

Gold and Platinum Records shimmered in the light reflecting off walls of the Hall of Gold. Costumes from Elvis’ movie days hung behind glass cases. Segments of his movies caught my attention as they played on new Sony’s overhead. I’d seen most of the Elvis movies play on television’s “Million Dollar Movie” years ago. Plaques on display gave recognition for his charitable giving. Videos played segments of his televised concerts. I had watched them all on TV a long time ago.

I marveled at the detailed beading of Elvis’ signature white jumpsuits. I imagined him swinging his hips and moving across the stage while wearing these costumes during his shows in Vegas and Hawaii. Now, they hung motionless on display in the Jumpsuits All Access area. They were works of art. Elvis was a marvelous performer.

We walked through his two custom private airplanes. And, we learned about his break from stardom while stationed in Germany serving in the U.S. Army.

I passed the gravesites of his mother Gladys, his father Vernon, twin brother Jessie, and grandmother. Then, I paused at the grave of the King. Flowers arrive daily sent by music fans that remember and loved Elvis. I wished that I had thought to bring some flowers to add to the grave. “What a remarkable life cut too short,” I thought and decided I was glad I had come to visit Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee.

April 23, 2008

How We Confused Our Navigation System on the Natchez Trace

The DeLorme Street Atlas USA 2007 GPS device showed us the turn by turn route from New Orleans. It directed us north on Interstate 55 on course to Memphis, Tennessee. For miles, the green arrow on the laptop snaked along past Jackson, Mississippi until Ed saw the brown sign Natchez Trace Parkway, exit right. He turned right.

“Off course. Proceed to Blagh…Blagh…Blagh. Turn West on Blagh…Blagh…Blagh. Off course,” repeated the female computer voice in an urgent, warning tone.

I muted the voice, but the directional arrows kept going. It actually looped in circles when Ed drove around a circular lot twice before deciding to park in front of the Natchez Trace sign. The spirals continued each time we pulled into a lot to read about the historic significance of the area. We just laughed. We’d really confused our navigation system. So what! I can still read a map. We rejoined Interstate 55 in Vaiden, Mississippi.

Sometimes you have to go “off course.” Our little route change took us on a scenic, relaxed drive. According to Road Trip USA, “The Natchez Trace appeared on maps as early as 1733, and from the 1780s to the 1820s, when steamboats made it obsolete, the Natchez Trace was one of the nation’s most traveled roads.”

I only waked a short segment of this preserved wilderness road. Some 200 years ago, it grew from an Indian Trail to the road that linked the Northeast and Old Southwest. I marveled at the bravery and stamina of those early travelers when I walked along a section of the Old Trace. They simply followed a trail, I road in a Prevost Coach with a GPS device leading the way, well most times showing me the course.

April 21, 2008

Finally...Val & I Meet in New Orleans

“We are here. When will you arrive?” I asked.

“Two more hours and we’ll be there!” Val responded.

Finally, we get to visit Bourbon Street together.

Thirty years ago, Val had returned from a trip to New Orleans with a souvenir. She hung the mock street sign above our Amberson Gardens Apartment bathroom door. “Bourbon Street” it read. Val had traveled to a Pitt bowl game in New Orleans, leaving me her roommate behind in Pittsburgh. I had to work and didn’t have the cash for the trip. Every time I passed under the threshold, I wondered about the mysterious Bourbon Street.

Ed and I traveled to New Orleans in 1998. I learned to make my first roux at The New Orleans School of Cooking, ate king cake at Mardi Gras World, toured the historic cemeteries, and experienced the French Quarter. The Holiday Inn French Quarter upgraded us to the Presidential Suite when the noise from the hotel swimming pool grew too loud for our tolerance. And, we toured the Superdome.

A planning study for the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities took me back to New Orleans in 2002. The Executive Director could not fill my appointment schedule with donor/prospect meetings. I used my free time to visit the D-day Museum and sample Hurricanes at Pat O’Brian’s. When I returned several weeks later to complete the study, my daughter Suzie came with me. She was 15 years old. She blurted aloud, “Momma, that woman’s a whore!” when she saw a stripper luring customers from Bourbon Street in a darkened entry to watch the dancers. Then, Suzie begged to have her belly-button pierced at the tattoo and piercing shop.

Val and I planned to celebrate the occasion of my 50th birthday in New Orleans. That would have been October 2005. Katrina hit in August. We met in Houston, Texas instead.

Then, it all came together. Val and her husband Ed would be delivering a family car to their son Greg, a Junior at Tulane University. My Ed and I would be passing through New Orleans that same weekend. I was no longer a financially strapped new writer, I was not on a work assignment, and the weather promised blue skies. We would meet in New Orleans Saturday, April 19, 2008!

My Ed, aka “Red Ed”, accused Val and I of acting like “school girls”. Val’s Ed, aka “Grey Ed”, rolled his eyes; he’d witness this in the past. Her son Greg just grinned as his Mom and I chattered and laughed making our way through the crowd of Bourbon Street trying to decide where we’d go for a Hurricane.

We wandered into The Original PIERRE MĀSPERO’s, Foods & Spirits, Est. 1788, 440 Chartres St. French Quarter where a table faced a window and the music allowed table conversation without shouting. We toasted our long wait – 30-years – for a visit to New Orleans with Hurricanes and icy cold beers. We enjoyed the casual dining atmosphere and dined on etouffe and po boys. Chef James Cameron joined us at our table, and then he treated us to two of his specialties. His new appetizer – an oyster dish sent Val into eye-closing ecstasy as she savored the taste. “Gray Ed” stole my last morsel of bread to soak up the tangy barbecue sauce covering the oysters. Everyone’s forks greedily dug into the bread pudding topped with a whipped cream mound and caramel drizzle.

“Red Ed” found The Cigar Factory on Decatur Street, the city’s oldest and only cigar factory. It became a hit with the guys as they watched men rolled fresh cigars and debated the merits of enjoying a smoke. Val and I headed for Lush, her favorite fragrance shop for soaps cut off the block and lotions. We didn’t get to enjoy the scent of honeysuckle or jasmine, Lush had closed moments before we tried the door. We retreated to the Cigar Factory where the heavy smoke of cigars hung in the air, not quite the scents we’d been hoping to inhale.

Entertainment in Jackson Square caught our attention. Acrobats flipped over five spectators down on all fours, clearing them all without mishap. And, a bereted gentleman played “Oh Canada” by rubbing his finger on the lip of goblets holding varied levels of liquid. A full moon hung over the Mississippi when we posed for a group photo to preserve this evening.

Not wanting this night to end, we let Val coax us to stop in Café Du Monde, the original French Market coffee stand. We sipped café au lait and gorged on plates of beignets covered in mounds of powdered sugar. We wore the evidence of this tasty Louisiana state donut. Powdered sugar speckled the guys’ dark trousers and clung to all of our lips. Greg dabbed some on his Mom’s nose. We also had souvenir Hurricane glasses and the satisfaction of finally having come to New Orleans – together!

April 19, 2007

The Ninth Ward: The Sobering Side of New Orleans

Only a foundation slab and three concrete steps remain of what was once somebody’s home. Ed and I sat there quietly on the corner of Tennessee and North Galvez Streets in the Lower Ninth Ward. The effects of Hurricane Katrina tragically hit this New Orleans neighborhood on August 23, 2005 after the storm moved inland. The levee system and floodwalls here catastrophically failed sending flood waters to the roof levels. Life there changed forever.

Traces of the emergency efforts can still be seen as painted graffiti on the fronts of houses and apartments. A poodle had been evacuated from the 2nd floor of one high rise. But mostly, we saw the ghostly remains of tree-lined streets with no houses on any of the city blocks in this distinctive region of New Orleans.

Now and then, noise interrupted the silence. We’d hear the sound of a hammer from a home being built or a lawnmower cutting the calf-high grass on a vacant lot. There was a little activity. A California film crew occupied a block for the staging of movie scene. We could see a boat glide along the water and under a drawbridge along the Industrial Canal.

We watched a woman carry boxes from her car into a second floor apartment. She told us that some families were beginning to return to the community. Her family was moving back because this neighborhood was where her husband grew up and her children grew up – this place was home.

Oh! Those Delicious Crabs!

“I swore I’d never shovel crabs in my life!” Dennis proclaimed as he shook his head in disbelief.

At the impressionable age of 13, Dennis went crabbing and didn’t like it one bit. That all changed when he fell in love with a blue-eyed blond. Sandra’s Daddy used the powerful leverage as a father to convince Dennis he needed greater aspirations and a higher income before he married Sandra. Over 25-years ago, Sandra’s Daddy taught Dennis how to crab. Now, Dennis and Sandra Landry operate Crabs, L.L.C., as a fresh crab meat wholesale dealer, and own a restaurant called The Crab Station.

Ed and I wandered into The Crab Station after our drive from New Orleans. Our coach sat boondocked across the street from the restaurant in a large truck lot on West Main Street in LaRose, Louisiana.

Dennis sat at the restaurant counter with a steaming platter of Special #8 – three-pounds of crawfish, two potatoes, one corn, one sausage, and a container of dip. When I read the menu, I wished for an appetite. Why had I eaten a bowl of chili in the coach only moments ago? I could have dined on boiled seafood: crabs, jumbo shrimp, lobster, king crab legs, oysters on the half shell or scallops. The back wall coolers offered a similar sampling of seafood for sale, frozen and packaged to cook at home. As I pondered about seafood recipes and what I might buy, Ed engaged Dennis in conversation. Ed roused me from my food fantasy to join the conversation. Dennis immediately had my attention as soon as he offered me a crawfish from his mound of food. “Thank you!”

As a teenager, Dennis could not have predicted how crabs would become such an important part of his life. Nowadays, he wears a gold charm shaped like a crab on a necklace around his neck. His livelihood depends on crabs. Because of our curiosity about the crab business, Dennis invited us to visit his plant in Lockport, Louisiana for a private tour the following day.

On a normal day, Dennis told us his plant process 8,000 pounds of crabs brought in by local crabbers. On a small day, workers process as much as 3,500 pounds. First, they separate the crabs – bright blue males from red colored females. A select group of large size male crabs will go out via air freight to crab buyers for restaurants in New Orleans and as far away as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Destin, Florida. With the current costs of fuel, Dennis admits his product costs more to ship than it’s worth. Still, people want crab on the menu of their favorite fine dining restaurants.

The smaller crabs earmarked for packing are washed in a machine that rotates and sprays them to remove sea grass and other debris. Once they are cooked and cleaned, pickers separate the meat from shells on sterile metal tables.

“There’s plenty of work here,” Dennis tells us. “The challenge is finding workers to pick the crabs.” Each year, Dennis goes to places like Tampico and San Fernando in Mexico to personally interview workers willing to perform this tedious task. “My foreign employees have work visas… and I give them a place to live on the plant property. I become their employer, their friend, even caregiver.” Dennis showed us the workers’ housing facility. It was not unlike college dormitories I’d seen when visiting my kids at Edinboro or William Woods Universities. They have a common kitchen and living room area, separate bedrooms, bathrooms and laundry facilities.

On the day we visited the plant, we met some of the workers. Six pickers showed us how they filled containers with bits of crab meat. Some designated containers held only the succulent, gourmet claws.

We watched packers fill containers labeled “Jumbo Lump Crab”. Dennis explained that “Jumbo Lump” comes from the back quarter of the crab and is “the best” eating. The sample he offered me confirmed his testament.

The processed crab containers eventually go into a cooler to preserve the freshness. At day’s end, the containers go out for delivery or shipment. Some of the product will stock the coolers at The Crab Station. Dennis says, “The plant supports the restaurant” and that is just where we ended our tour. We returned to the restaurant where Dennis treated Ed and I to Special #5 – select male crabs, jumbo shrimp, crawfish, king crab legs, potatoes, corn, sausage, and dip - a seafood feast!

April 15 & 16, 2007

When the Sun Comes Up Over Louisiana, It's Time to Check the Catfish Nets

Joe likes to go out alone to check his nets, a routine he performs every two to three days. “My son use to come out with me sometimes. He’s away at college now. I told him don’t be a fisherman. Find something else to do with your life.” This is the life Joe knows. At age 43, he sticks to commercial fishing. He is paying at least $4 a gallon to fuel his boat and facing the rising cost of bait. Ed and I would be Joe’s guests on the boat he says has no name when he pulls catfish from his nets set in Delta Farms Lake.

I can understand why Joe comes out alone. On this quiet Wednesday morning, other boats remained tied to the dock bobbing gently in the shallows. The sun lifted up over the new sprouts of the sugarcane field. Big and round on the horizon, the brightness hurt my eyes as the sun changed from red-orange like a fire’s glow to softer yellow sending white rays of light through breaks in the shadowed clouds.

Joe picked us up in his white Dodge Ram at 6:20 AM just as he promised when we were introduced to him the previous evening. Tuesday evening, we had wandered into Crab Junction in Larose, Louisiana after a long drive from Breaux Bridge. Folks at this restaurant counter sucked crawfish and dipped boiled red potatoes in a seasoned mayonnaise mix. Ed engaged Dennis, the restaurant owner, in a conversation about the seafood season and fishing in the bayou region. Dennis pointed a finger at Joe Autin seated at the end of the counter. Speaking to Ed he said, “That man over there is the best fisherman in the area. He can tell you all about fishing.” Then speaking to Joe, he suggested, “Joe, how about taking these people out with you next time you check your nets?” Joe asked, “Do you have rubber boots?” Both Ed and I have rubber boots.

Joe himself wore rubber boots and a full neck-to-ankle yellow rubber apron when we motored away from the dock in his 19-foot fiberglass skip. Joe said that he had about 20 hoop nets already set. He expressed concern that the recent cold spell might hurt his usual catch sometimes as much as 500 pounds of catfish. The cold morning temperature and the rush of air as the boat accelerated across the lake sent a chill through my thick yellow ski jacket. I reached into my jacket pockets for a pair of gloves. It was as Joe said…“cold.”

Ed and I sat in the boat – I at the stern and Ed at the bow. Joe stood confident at the wheel crowded by the blue and silver plastic bins empty and ready to hold the catch of catfish. Five cardboard boxes brimmed full of fresh bait to use in resetting the hoop nets. Joe educated us. The current market price for Pogies, a kind of baitfish catfish like to eat, sells at $16 for each 50-pound box. The boat carried two boxes of Pogies. The three boxes of cheese/soybean blocks, another odorous favorite catfish delicacy, run $23.50 a box. Joe would use all the bait before he finished his rounds this morning.

We couldn’t talk over the roar of the boat motor; but when Joe slowed down to an idle; he pointed out some of the remnants of the days when lake basin was actually farmland. As evidence, tips of wooden supports from an old barn protrude from surface of the water in a nearly rectangular shape. Power lines still span the lake and hang low across the water. An abandoned hunting camp sets on a high point of land. Joe estimates it was back around 1965 when the levy burst and the land sunk to create the lake that’s anywhere from six-feet to ten-feet deep today. An old wooded duck blind stands on solitary stilts. Some wooden bridges and cattle fences lay beneath the water. “You have to know where to go,” Joe commented in reference to the underwater debris. What’s below the water surface can damage a boat navigated by someone who doesn’t know the waters. Joe clearly knew the lake as he idled up to his floats and bamboo cane poles that mark the location of his nets in various places around the lake.

Joe didn’t ask for our help pulling the heavy, long nets out of the water and over the edge into the boat. He was use to doing this himself. First, he’d snag the net by dragging a weighted grappling hook on a rope through the water. With a bit of the hoop net hooked and breaking the surface, Joe took hold; then hand-over-hand he rolled the cylindrical net into the boat. Water splashed. Bits of wet lake grass and mud splattered. Joe gave me an apologetic look, “This is kind of a dirty job.” I assure him I wasn’t a prissy girl. I could take a little water and gunk. With that said Joe hoisted the net and shook the writhing catfish through an opening in the net.

The catfish fell flopping into the blue holding bin. Some seagulls hovered eyeing the catfish and frozen Pogies on board. These scavengers didn’t dare swoop for either fish. While the birds circled above, Joe measured some of the smaller catfish using a wooden device sized just right. The ones Joe rejected could be the seagull’s game once he tossed them back into the water. The birds would have to work for their breakfast.

Joe motored from spot to spot on the lake lugging three or four nets from each location. As he checked the nets, the bins were filling up, but Joe lamented, “The water is still a little cold. In the cold, catfish don’t eat or move. This is a bad time of year to fish.” He predicts that in two-to-three weeks, his total daily catch will be 300 – 500 pounds. He didn’t expect that size catch this morning.

Before rolling each net back into the water, Joe inspects it, cleans off the debris and adds bait. “Crabs will eat a hole in nets,” he explains. Joe built most of the nets himself with fiberglass rings and string. We watched him mend only one of the 20 or more nets he pulled out of the water. The rest were in good shape. Next, he’d shake the lake grass off the netting. Sometimes he’d dunk the nets in the water several times to loosen the mucky stuff. “If the net fills up with mud, the fish won’t go in,” Joe tells us. “Bait staying in the net makes a mess too,” he adds removing some mushy residue of the uneaten cheese/soybean block. “All you can do is clean it and bait it,” he adds. Finally, preparing to set the net, Joe would add the bait. Sometimes he would use the Pogies simply tossing the frozen bait fish inside a mesh like bait bag within the bigger net. Sometimes he’d break off a hunk of the pungent cheese/soybean block and tie it in the center of the bait bag. “The more the bait stinks, the better,” Joe smiled.

Joe has a lease from the land manager to commercially fish this lake. There’s no recreation boating or sport fishing allowed here. Occasionally, lake creatures other than catfish get trapped in the nets. Turtles, redfish, carp, stingrays and crabs can get in the mix. Joe’s cautious about only keeping the catfish because commercial fisherman can be fined for bringing in a sport fish. Joe calls this a “serious offence” carrying fines as high as $500 a fish. Anything but legal-size catfish go back into the lake.

“You can tell I work of the left side of my boat,” Joe comments as he hoists yet another of his nets over the side. This one is nearly empty as are several more in this part of the lake. He blames the cold front again, “Should be better than this.”

It did get better. In one of the last groupings of nets, Joe hoisted a net up then rocked back and forth. I thought he’d fall forward into the lake but he held his footing. Catfish of assorted sizes fell through the opening of the net into the silver bins. One stayed trapped inside.

“Wow!” I shouted. Joe dumped this one in a bin all its own. The catfish was huge compared to all the rest. “Oh my God!” I was excited. “We need a picture of this one! Can you hold it up?” Joe strained to hold this catfish for the photo. He guessed it weighed 40 pounds. Later, when Joe put the catfish on a scale, it registered a whopping 47.8 pounds! Big as it was, its size didn’t beat Joe’s record catch. He said the largest catfish he even netted weighed 63 pounds. This day’s “big one” may not have been the biggest but if sure dwarfed all the other ones hauled from the nets that day.

When Joe took us back to his house, it was still morning, around the time most people were heading to the office. We watched Joe and his Mom skin the all the catfish turning his catch, some 250 pounds of fish into 80-90 edible fillets. His wife Claudia vacuum packed the fish in five-pound packs. Each pack carried the label J&B Seafood, Joe’s retail business.

While it was still early in the day, Joe would clean-up, put the fillet packs on ice and deliver the fresh catfish to retailers around town all before heading to his day job. He’s a Louisiana bridge operator but one of “the best” fishermen in the area just like Dennis said!

April 16, 2008

You Can't Predict All That You'll See On a Cajun Swamp Tour

Ed and I arrived early for our scheduled Swamp Tour excited that we’d actually get out on the lake we had visited a day earlier. This morning we’d get more than a roadside view. Bryan Champagne’s boat would take us and seven other people beneath the canopy of trees, near a sanctuary for waterfowl, and into the shallow waters populated by alligators.

Bryan is intimate with the plant and animal life in Lake Martin Swamp. Though Bryan will tell you that you can never predict what you’ll see on a swamp tour, he clearly knew his way around the channels. He could spot wildlife that I would have easily missed had he not cut his engine and called attention to the creatures. Bryan runs several tours each day for folks visiting this part of Cajun Country in Louisiana. In many ways, he exceeded our expectations.

Bryan greeted us with a laugh on this crisp cool morning. He and I both were entertained by Ed who struggled to pull a green fleece jacket over his head while walking from the car to the boat. Ed seemed trapped by the tight fit and puzzled by the sleeves riding up midway to his elbows. He had grabbed my LL Bean fleece from the coach closet, not his own.

Gradually, others with reservations for the Monday 10 AM tour began to arrive. Ed and I shared tales of our road trip with a couple of admitted RV enthusiasts. Bryan gave a robust greeting to the husband and wife from Quebec, “Bonjour, comment c’est va?” Then, he turned his attention to the woman whose elderly Mom and Dad waited on the level gravel lot above the shoreline. Her Dad sat on a motorized cart. With confidence and strength, Bryan helped guide

the cart down the slope to the water’s edge. While Ed and another man steadied the boat and stabilized the chair, Bryan hoisted the man gently into a prime viewing seat aboard the boat. Now, the rest of us could board.

Unlike the others on the tour, Ed and I had previously met our guide. He had just finished his last Sunday afternoon tour when we came along. We were drawn to his pick-up truck parked in the lot of Lake Martin. An alligator was painted on the tailgate with the phone number of Champagne’s Authentic Cajun Swamp Tours. I had a pen and paper in hand ready to copy the number when Bryan offered a handshake.

Bryan runs his swamp tours as a full time job. He started over 10-years ago when the oil and gas business in Louisiana slumped and he was scratching for a living. He told us he was “born and raised on the water.” And, even if he hadn’t told us “I love the water”, we would have figured it out just by talking to Bryan and taking his tour.

He showed us his flat-bottom boat, a 24-foot aluminum Crawfish Skiff with 12 seats. It’s designed to run in the shallow swamp waters. It’s stable and safe. Bryan prefers this design over the popular air boats which he says are loud and scare the wildlife.

According to Bryan, there’s seven miles of water at Lake Martin, some 275 acres, stocked with largemouth bass. Perch and blue gill live in this rain-fed lake too. Bryan worries that because the lake is full of water all year long, no new trees can grow. He explained that for new growth to begin there needs to be dry spells. “One storm of hurricane force winds could wipe out all these huge cypress trees,” Bryan frets. “There are no new trees coming up to replace ones we see today.” Some of the towering trees he estimated could be a hundreds of years old. These tall trees create a perfect habitat for nesting birds high above the reach of natural predators and with easy access to the water. Bryan will skirt this Nature Conservancy when giving a tour of the swamp.

As Bryan maneuvered the boat onto the lake, he joined his passengers’ conversation about Cajun food. “Now, here’s how you make etouffe. Mix crawfish with a bell pepper, onion, oil and flour, then add a can of cream of mushroom soup,” Bryan encouraged us to forget the cookbook recipes and opt for his simple mixture with a Campbell’s favorite.

With that settled, Bryan eased into his true area of expertise – the swamp tour. He showed us a rectangular house perched on poles above the water. He referred to this unlikely house accessible only by boat as “the dog house” where a man can go when his wife gets angry or he simply want to be on the water fishing. Overhead, he pointed to the Spanish moss, an “air plant”, used today by florists to create interesting arrangements and once used for stuffing chairs. Bryan claims the latter use resulted in the “first recall”. Apparently, bugs at home in the moss were unwelcome in people’s homes. Eventually, horsehair replaced the moss. Before we entered the channels between the bald cypress trees and tupelo gum trees, Bryan pointed out a nearby boat. The sportsmen on board had no rods with bobbers; they relied on eyesight as they aimed a bow and arrow hunting for fish.

Dragon fly wings shimmered rainbow colors in the sunlight
breaking through the cypress trees. The boat gently bumped against a tree in the narrow passage of cypress growing out of the shallows where the water measured only two feet deep. Plants – duckweed and water hyacinths -covered the water surface and parted as the boat drifted slowly. Bryan warned us to keep our hands inside the boat so as not to get pinched between the boat and trees. He had us lean in when we passed the picky marsh grass.

Though we could see through the clear water during most of our tour, we passed through one area where charcoal black water churned thick like boiling pudding. Bryan navigated a 2 -3 inch deep ditch to take us to a place where the surface plants sheltered four little baby alligators. “They’re about two years old. They grow very slowly in length.” Bryan believes that temperature affects the gender of the alligators’ eggs. The hotter the weather, the more males; cooler weather produces more females. A six foot long female holding her snout above the water floated nearby. Bryan suggested that she might be 20 – 30 years old. She has many years to go. Some alligators will live to be 100 years old.

Folks in the bayou hunt alligator cutting some of them short of a long life span. According to Bryan, hunters are rationed to one alligator from a given 168 acres of property. The meat is eaten and the hide can bring a good price paid by the foot to be used for purses and other fashionable goods.

On our tour, we learned that alligators move slowly on land but can swim up to 35 mph in the water. They can be lured simply with a piece of chicken tied to a rope and dropped in the water over the side of a boat. Males are likely to eat the baby alligators so Bryan said “the females run the babies away.”

A bayou, Bryan explained, is a flooded forest with fresh water flowing through. Unlike a swamp, the bayou does not dry out. At Lake Martin, the Army Corp of Engineers manages the environment, water, and wildlife.

We saw plenty of wildlife flying or perched watchfully over nests: white egrets, great blue herons, and rosette spoonbills. We could hear the bellow of bullfrogs. Bryan bragged that one night he caught 76 bullfrogs, some he grabbed with his bare hands. We watched an otter sun himself on a log. And, in a grand finale, we followed the bubbles to see a giant alligator rise then shyly duck under the floating mat of vegetation. Bryan looked like a satisfied man as he captained his boat back to shore. In a two-hour tour, he had shown us what we’d come to see even though, you never know what you’ll see on a swamp tour.

April 13 & 14, 2008

Champagne’s Swamp Tours are available by reservation. Call: 337-230-4068.

Lake Martin is located south of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

Hey, Do You Want to See an Alligator?

I heard a sound like the jet of steam pushing through the holes of a hot steam iron forcing the wrinkles out of a linen dress. “Ed, what was that sound?” I asked in a hushed voice. I heard the sound again. “Do you think it’s an alligator?”

“Could be,” Ed casually replied as he continued to snack on his half of a shared Texas grapefruit.

I knew alligators move slowly on land, but I jumped to my feet anyway.

“Ready to go?” I asked checking for movement on the grassy levy of Lake Martin. Ed rolled the rind in a paper towel and stashed it on his bike. I did want to see more alligators, but not from my bike.

Earlier, as we explored Lake Martin in our car, we stopped to watch black shelled turtles sun themselves on a floating log. We saw blue herons fly low over the water. And, a cluster of snakes slithered in the grass around the supports of a short fishing pier.

We expected to see alligators because signs cautioned lake visitors that these dangerous reptiles inhabited the area. I hung my head out the open car window as Ed slowly drove the road around the lake perimeter.

“Stop! There’s one! Back up! Over there…Do you see it?” We saw our first ‘gator. Its long snout and eyes broke the surface of the water. We watched until it submerged under the floating carpet of vegetation.

Ahead, we could see a car stopped on the side of the road, a sure sign of an alligator sighting. This time I got out of the car.

“You want to see a ‘gator?” the young fellow asked me. “Just look over there. See him?” I did as Ed zoomed in with his camera for a shot. “There’s a bigger one down the road. You might still see him sunning himself.”

We did see him. This alligator looked to be 15 feet long. Now, it was my turn to say to the car moving slow with the windows down, “Hey, you want to see a ‘gator?”

April 13, 2008

St. Martinville, LA

We took a lazy stroll through St. Martinville, Louisiana on a Saturday afternoon. Whenever we had inquired about where we should go for the history of Cajun Country, this town was recommended every time. In just the few city blocks of St. Martinville’s Town Square, we found the sampling we been hoping to find.

Ed and I wandered into the park along the Bayou Teche where we paused under the Evangeline Oak. One travel brochure claims this to be “the most photographed tree in the world.” Legend suggests that the tree marked the meeting place of two the ill-fated lovers, Evangeline and Gabriel, separated when the British forced the Acadians from Nova Scotia. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1847 epic poem “Evangeline” portrays this love story. A truer story of the deportation of the Acadians to Louisiana is revealed in the Acadian Memorial where we spent most of our time.

There’s a commemorative marker in the park not far from the Oak. As a Canadian, Ed filled with pride. The Canadian government dedicated the site “to commemorate the 1996 twinning of East Oak Park and Grand-Pré National Historic Site of Canada.” The occasion marked the 250 year anniversary of the Diaspora of the Acadians from Canada – 1755 to 2005. The British have never given apology or offered a similar tribute to the refuges that came to Louisiana.

We found shimmering Mardi Gras costumes and paintings by regional artists in the Duchamp Opera House on Main Street. One of the local artists was manning the store. She showed us her painting of children walking into the local church – St. Martin De Tours Catholic Church – dressed for the celebration their First Holy Communion. She told us she priced the painting high because she really didn’t want to sell it.

We visited that church in the painting as parishioners began arriving for Saturday Mass. The church was established in 1765, building circa is 1844. Inside, pews have wooden gates with a spot for family names. Years ago parishioners could reserve the row exclusively for their family. We learned the tradition is ignored today. Outside the church is the Evangeline Monument, a statue of this Acadian heroine.

Our visit to Martinsville ended in Dana’s Bakery with a cup of fresh brewed coffee and an assortment of cookies – macaroons and peanut butter ones to be exact. While we recharged on caffeine and sugar, we talked with a man and his son who had come to help close up the bakery for the day. From this man, we learned about the economic struggles of the community – plant closures, cost of diesel for farmers, worries over the war, and concerns about the presidential
election. From the boy, we saw the hope for a good tomorrow. It was here that the Acadian
past, Louisiana present, and the future all came together.

April 12, 2008

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Here they found a new home, and left a legacy that lives on in thier descendants, the Cajuns." - Acadian Memorial

I could feel the tears welling in my eyes as I listened to the character narration of Acadian Elizabeth Thibodeau veuve Cosme Brasseur. This widow’s story tells how she lost her husband in the deportation from Canada, struggled to care for her children, and eventually begged for passage out of Maryland to Louisiana. With five daughters and two sons, she settled on Bayou Manchac in 1767. Hers is just one of the many the stories of the men, women, and children who began arriving in Louisiana in the mid-1760s after begin exiled from Nova Scotia by the British occupation.

The Acadian Memorial in St. Martinville, Louisiana pays tribute to these refugees. Of the more than 10,000 Acadians forced to leave Canada, some 3,000 settled in Louisiana. “The Queen of England apologized to the people of Canada, but she never offered an apology to the people of Louisiana for her country’s actions,” Memorial Hostess Betty Laviolette offered in a sad, low whisper.

The Memorial’s audio tour brought Brasseur and other Acadian refugees to life who were portrayed on “The Arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana” – the 12’ by 30’ wall mural by Robert Dafford. The Wall of Names lists 3,000 persons identified as Acadian refugees in Louisiana. The Coats-of-Arms for 31 families of Acadian descent lay in mosaic tile in the Memorial Garden under The Deportation Cross and around The Eternal Flame. The Cross is a replica of one that stands at Grand-Pré National Historic Site, Nova Scotia – a commemorative site from which Acadians embarked into exile. The Flame symbolizes the Acadians ability to rekindle their culture despite hardship. Their descendants are the Cajuns - new faces for a new day – “Joie de Vivre” joy of living - perhaps a new mural of the people we see in Louisiana’s Cajun Country.