No Child Abuse in Russia

Last time we got to meet some Moscow residents and attempted to engage them in conversations with little success. Today, we will meet some Russian professionals engaged in the “judicial” system and visit a Russian court. We will also take a break to have fun Russian style with a group of young Russians at one of their disco haunts.

 Our first official meeting took place in the Kremlin with two attorneys, one an attractive woman lawyer and the other a man. They represented the branch of the communist government that provided some semblance of a legal system. They spoke excellent English and had received formal legal training in both France and England. This pair described their duties as ministerial in nature. Judging from the paltry compensation that they received, despite the fact they occupied high positions in the legal system, we concluded the judicial system sucked hind tit even worse in Russia than it does in America. This congenial, very open couple explained that most of the issues that we would resolve in our courts would be handled by the local Committee of the Communist Party. I have often wondered if these delightful, intelligent, highly-educated people ever got to a country where their talents could be better appreciated. 

Russian Attorneys – Our Guides

Sonia took us to visit a local Trial Court. The court, situated in a shabby part of town, occupied a portion of a run-down warehouse. No frills here. No wasted public money here. The physical structure clearly stated that the “Judicial System” stood somewhere near the bottom rung on the ladder of priorities in the USSR in 1982.  

Moscow Court Entrance

After about an hour with our pleasant “judge,” who was obviously well-connected with the “Party,” we concluded her main function was to present an appearance of representing a judicial system. After all, according to her, Russia had no crime or social ills for her to deal with anyway. The local Communist Party leaders could take care of any other needs the citizens had. Our study of the Soviet judicial system had been brief and unrevealing. We now had time to explore what we could of Moscow.

After my visit to Russia, occasionally I met with civic groups and individuals in our country who complained that our judicial system was inefficient, and slow at resolving issues. I agreed with them that our system of justice does not work like well-run factories, especially when dealing with criminal cases. I assured my American citizens that we could really speed up the process if we got rid of this troublesome, antiquated concept of individual liberties and due process as the Russians did. 

Moscow court door

Doorway – Russian Court

Despite their paranoia and sternness, our Russian hosts wanted us to see their better side so they treated us to a visit to the University, a folk ballet at the Kremlin, and a lavish dinner–complete with live entertainment–at one of the grand old hotels in downtown Moscow. They arranged a night at the famous Moscow Circus.

Moscow University

When we walked the street of Moscow late at night returning from these events I felt safe from crime. I knew that the person in a long leather coat and pulled down hat who followed us home each night meant only to insure that we didn’t stray into areas we were not supposed to see. Two weeks after being in Moscow, I had occasion to be in New York and decided to take in a play on Broadway. Afterwards, I decided to walk to my hotel on 44th Street. What a mistake. I had felt no fear walking the streets of Moscow at night two weeks earlier, but now I feared for my life and cursed myself for being so stupid.  

moscow university 1982

Downtown Moscow

Some of us went to the disco at our hotel on Saturday night to see young Russians in social action. In action they were. They arrived en masse when the doors opened at eight sharp, put their bottles of chilled vodka on the tables, downed four or five quick straight shots then vigorously danced to loud music that attempted to sound somewhat like our jazz. They frequently returned to the bottles on their tables and promptly got soused before the midnight curfew arrived. Precisely at twelve o’clock, uniformed police officers stood at the doors and ushered all patrons out. I am sure the crowd went elsewhere, but we were not invited to tag along. In those days in Moscow, you had to play hard and drink fast for enjoyment.

Young Women in Moscow, 1982

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We Arrived at the Hotel Russia

Last time, our group made its way to Moscow via England and Sweden and survived the bureaucratic indignities of the officials at the airport. We are now on our way to our hotel where the hotel personnel will act more like custodians rather than hospitality professionals. 

As we rode in on the bus, I mused that the vast Soviet Union extended from Eastern Europe to the orient spanning thirteen time zones, a distance of about half the circumference of the earth, but had only roughly the population of the United States. I further calculated that this resilient nation had about a third of its citizens either murdered by its own leaders or killed by Germans during the short period of twenty years. Until I met some of its smart, hearty, proud people, I wondered how a country could survive such devastation.

At about eleven in the night, we arrived at the Hotel Russia on the banks of the Moscow River. The massive six-story, dreary square structure occupied a space between the river and Saint Basil’s Cathedral, with its exquisite colorfully spired roof.

St. Basil’s Cathedral

From our hotel, we only had a short stroll across Red Square to reach the walls of the Kremlin and Lenin’s tomb.

Dispassionately, the officials at the hotel received us and curtly demanded that we surrender our passports, visas and airline tickets. They then ushered us to our rooms where “the floor lady,”  the woman in charge of our group of rooms, became our custodian. By then, I badly need a big drink of water, but our keeper told me that she only had beer and seltzer water available. I chose the seltzer water, which came in a pressurized pewter container.

When we finally got settled in our austere quarters, my roommate, Judge Gorman Taylor from Shreveport, Louisiana, started to complain about our shabby treatment. I put two fingers across my lips to indicate silence and pointed to the ceiling with my other hand–suggesting our conversations could be monitored. We agreed to walk out into Red Square and get some of the frosty late September air. Another surprise awaited us as we attempted to exit the hotel. The officials at the desk took our room keys and handed us a paper pass about the size of a business card to use each time we left and re-entered the hotel.

We walked into the brisk late fall night of Red Square. I looked past the lights of Saint Basil’s, Lenin’s tomb and the Kremlin, stared into deep space and beseeched our Maker, “Lord, it is just us, You and these heathens. Please take care of us and make sure we get back home unharmed.”

Kremlin at Night, Lenin’s Tomb

We assembled for breakfast the next morning in the massive dinning room of the hotel. With high ceilings and large, vaulted, ornate windows overlooking the one block square courtyard it resembled an army mess hall. No menu provided us with choices for our meal, because we had no choice. We received some thick, coarse substance that resembled oatmeal in appearance only. We concluded that some reindeer gave his life to supply the meat offering. The buxom server admonished us, as though we were small children, “You must not waste food. Eat all that has been served to you.”

Women in Russia presented with great authority and held powerful positions. I had read stories of Russian women snipers and tank commanders who acquitted themselves with valor in battle during World War II. These valiant women lived to become grandmothers and pass down their experiences to their children and grandchildren. This gave me the sense of why the Russians refereed to their vast federation as Mother Russia.

Statue of WWII Woman Sniper

Everywhere we saw World War II aged gentlemen dressed in civilian clothes proudly displaying their battle ribbons and medals. I soon came to realize that these were tough people, men and women alike. I wondered how the ice cream eating, TV watching, pampered American citizenry would stack up if we got into a real shooting war with them.

At subsequent meals, we made sport of betting on who would get the most of the rock hard green peas that appeared at each meal. “I got seven, one of us would exclaim.” The winner might enthusiastically relate, “Ah, but I got nine. I win.”

Daily life proved to be somber, serious business in 1982 Moscow. Matronly women, wearing old coats and scarfs on their heads, scurried from shop to shop, cloth tote bags in each hand, forging for their daily ration of meat, fish, cheese, bread and scarce amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Woman shopper in Moscow

Six days a week, neatly uniformed school children marched two by two to their classes.

School children in Moscow, 1982

Residents across the city groomed the ancient cobblestone streets daily with handmade round brooms constructed of uneven straw. Most everyone seemed reluctant to engage in conversation with strangers. This seemed like a reasonable attitude to me, considering that many of their relatives had been murdered by their leaders or slaughtered by Germans.

Moscow Woman Sweeper

Figuring that a man fishing from the Banks of the Moscow River knew some English, as many Russians did, I tried to talk to him. My hope was that all fishermen shared a universal interest in telling at least a fishing story. No such luck. The man acted as though he feared being seen talking to me. He kept looking around as though someone were watching us, which may have been the case.

Moscow fishermen

Fishermen in Moscow

Even the beautiful, young, blond saleswomen in the duty-free store at the hotel, who spoke impeccable English, refused to engage in long conversation with us Americans. I couldn’t figure out if this aloofness existed because of fear of reprisal from superiors or because of a personal disdain of Americans that had been drilled into them by their leaders due to the strained relations between our countries.

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No Mirth in Moscow

This essay was completed some time ago, about a visit to Russia even further in the past. But, with Russia in the news every day now, it seemed timely to revisit some memories of a long ago trip to what was still the Soviet Union in 1982. 

Reading TIME Magazine’s article naming Vladimir Putin the man of the year for 2007 reminded me of my visit to Russia long ago.

In 1982 the People to People organization–the brainchild of  President, Dwight D Eisenhower–invited me to join a group of judges and juvenile justice professionals to travel to England, Sweden, Russia and Germany to study juvenile court systems in these countries. I felt privileged to be among this respected group of dedicated juvenile justice experts.

I had a bit of trepidation about entering Russia at the height of the Cold War because part of my obligatory military career had been in Military Intelligence, which I found none too military and lacking in intelligence. Our unit did bring in a Russian woman to try to teach us the Russian language. However, she was hard put to get us past our New Orleans vernacular much less impart to us the secrets of us that complicated, unromantic language. Despite some concern that the paranoid Ruskies might somewhere have a dossier on Lt. McGee, former Military Intelligence Officer, I heartily embraced the trip.

Our trip commenced in Washington D.C. with briefing on our trip from State Department personnel about customs, and expected conduct. We left Dulles at night in a 747 configured like a cattle car. I felt like mooing all the way to London until, just after takeoff, the lady next to me spilled her entire Coke in my lap. My damp, sticky blue jeans dried somewhere over the Atlantic, but the body parts below, now encased in a molasses-like substance, yearned for a shower.

No matter. London and the whole of England were wonderful. I had two Minolta SLR cameras, one loaded with black and white film and the other with color film depending on the nature of the subject matter I was shooting. The beauty of the British country required that it be shot in color. The only exception was the northern city of Birmingham, which dictated black and white.

Stockholm called for much color film. We waited in Sweden for final approval to enter Russia. Yes, we did not get final permission to enter Russia until the day before we were permitted to enter. And then, for some inexplicable reason we could only enter from Helsinki.

Judge Tom in Sweden

We finally made it to Moscow about dark on Aeroflot Airlines which we affectionately dubbed “Aeroflop.”  The plane resembled our trusted 727s in design but in no other respect. The dirty, uncomfortable craft appeared to be in dire need of maintenance. I did not want to even think about what the pilots or air traffic controllers were up to.

When we arrived at the airport in Moscow, we saw no greeting saying “Welcome to Russia. Enjoy your stay.” The surly officials at the airport–Customs and who knows what other bureau personnel–acted as though they didn’t want us Americans on their soil and would use any excuse to either lock us up or return us to Helsinki. Anybody with a Jewish sounding name got strip-searched for no explainable reason. Someone had a TIME Magazine containing a story about Russia’s ongoing, draining conflict with Afghanistan. The magazine was quickly confiscated and its owner seriously questioned for an hour.

This encounter with morose Russian public officials reminded me of the somber pictures painted by Leo Tolstoy in “War and Peace,” and Dostoevsky in “Crime and Punishment,” where they explored in dreary detail the daily lives of Russian public servants.

Scene in Downtown Moscow, 1982

After four hours of interrogations, hunger and fatigue, our custodians allowed us to board our bus for the hotel. I mentally held my breath the whole time, but to my relief, no official mentioned former Lt. McGee.

On our bus ride to the hotel we first met Sonia, our guide, caretaker, and I assumed representative of the KGB. She would attempt to assure that we only saw what we were supposed to see. Sonia would also indoctrinate us on life in Russia—according to the script she had been given. She spoke excellent English. A lean, but sturdy redhead, in her forties, Sonia spoke with the authority and certitude of a former Russian Army officer.

Her first words to me were, “But you have many cameras.”

I answered, “I have only two. I need them both because one is loaded with black and white film and the other with color film.” These question and answer sessions occurred each time we met. Same question–same answer.

About twenty miles outside Moscow, we passed a huge, well-lighted monument made of steel “I” beams. Sonia explained that the structure represented a tank trap and sat on the spot where the Russian army stopped the Germans during World War II. This was within shelling distance of the city. She reminded us that twenty-five million Russians lost their lives in defense of Mother Russia. She did not remind us that two decades prior to that War Stalin murdered an equal number of his own people because they dissented from his practices.

Check back in a few days for more about our adventures in 1980s Russia. 

Judge Tom in Moscow

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Nanny

MARY HENRIETTA BETHARD MCGEE

Mary Henrietta Bethard McGee, just Nanny to all her kids, grandkids, other assorted relatives and close friends, was born on September 14, 1874 at the small community of Jena, set in the pine hills of North Louisiana.  Her parents ran a resort hotel about twelve miles West at a community known as White Sulphur Springs.

Legend has it that White Sulfur Springs came into existence about 1833 when a fellow named Joseph P. Ward came either from West Virginia or Georgia in his wagon and smelled the sulphur boiling out of the natural springs. He tasted the water and soon spread the word that drinking and bathing in the magic water would cure all ills that beset  mankind. He named the place White Sulphur Springs in honor of the White Sulphur Springs of either West Virginia or Georgia.

Anyway, White Sulphur Springs, located in the western edge of the Catahoula Prairie District which would soon become LaSalle Parish of Louisiana, became known far and wide as the place to wash and drink away your ills. Clever promoters convinced newsreporters to write that wagonloads of crutches had to be carried away from the resort hotels that now surrounded the magical springs. Nanny’s father built the Bethard Hotel and the whole family, including Nanny, hove-to to run the place.

At the Bethard Hotel

One can only imagine what effort that took on a young girl’s part in the late 1800s. It created that “can do attitude no matter what” that Nanny in later life attempted to install in her offspring or any other other relatives that came for refuge at her home.

After Nanny married J. D. McGee, they built a big house on the banks of the Ouachita River at West Monroe, Louisiana.  J.D. was a mean old cuss but a hard working business man, which left Nanny the responsibility of raising their eight children and a daughter of J.D.’s from a previous marriage.

Nanny, J. D. and children

But these nine children were not the only residents of the “Big House” that Nanny came to care for. Two recently divorced children each brought there two daughters with them. My mother and father brought us two boys with them. Another aunt and uncle lived with their two children upstairs. Yes, the “Big House” gave us shelter, although it had but one bathroom. Nanny worked out tight schedules for all of us, but when nature called outside your scheduled bathroom time, there was alway the outdoors.

We had only one telephone. The old kind that sat on a small table at the end of a hall near the kitchen. Its receiver hung in a cradle along side its black upright speaker apparatus. If I could rest the phone from cousins for a few precious minutes to call a friend, I knew that half of West Monroe would listening in on our party line.

The Big House

The old 1936 brown Chevrolet with smelly, dingy fabric seats that Aunt Katie owned was the sole source of transportation to deliver us the three miles to downtown Trenton Street in West Monroe where the Strand and Rialto movie theaters and Simmy’s Cafe were. Most of the time we just walked on the earthen levy and concrete seawall to enjoy the delights of downtown West Monroe.

The kitchen and dinning room has special status in the Big House. They had to because they had many hungry mouths to feed. An Ice Box, no not a refrigerator, sat in the dining room next to the door that went to the kitchen. Twenty-five pounds of ice, delivered every other day by Uncle Harry, kept food reasonably cool. The long mahogany dinning room table sat about twenty of us at meal time. Nanny sat at the head of the table next to the kitchen door so she could retrieve forgotten items.

The reciting of grace was a solemn activity. All were required to bow our heads and some adult would give thanks for the great providence with sincere words, not just the short version we heathen Catholics were taught. Much later in life, I had to part my way with the Catholic Church, because priests kept trying to tell me that only Catholics would go to heaven. They kept trying to exclude from heaven Nanny, a devout Presbyterian and the best woman I had ever known.

We children well knew the rule at dinner. We were to be seen but not heard, except to ask that some food to be passed. Even outside meal times, if we children got into a talking mood, Nanny would admonish, “Don’t be talking just to hear your head rattle.”

Just before World War II and as the Great Depression was still in full bloom, four families sought refuge and the wise counsel that Nanny provided in “The Big House.”   Nanny’s rule for getting room and board at “The Big House” was simple. “Those who don’t work, don’t eat.” This went for adults and younguns alike.

Birthday at The Big House with Nanny
Judge Tom on far left

Nanny and her King James Bible were never far apart. Although, not prone to preach to her brood, Nanny could quote scripture with the best Christians. She attended her Presbyterian church every Sunday, but she did not have time for frivolous social functions held at the church. Of course attending funerals was obligatory. The family of the deceased would be greatly offended, and it would be a serious violation of social protocol, if friends did not attend the rituals for the dead.

In the late evening, after all the daily chores were completed, Nanny would rock to and fro reading the blessed book in her ancient wicker bottomed rocking chair in the room that she and her spinster daughter Sadie shared. But, since Nanny had to always be accomplishing some task, she would darn socks or work on a patchwork quilt while she read the Good Book. She adhered  to the sage advice she regularly gave us children, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.”

During WWII all commodities were in short supply. Nanny carried the need to save everything she had to learn in childhood into her later years. The WWII mandate to save anything allowed Nanny to practice with passion the lessons of conservation she learned as a child growing up in the piney woods of North Louisiana.

“Waste not, want not,” Nanny would tell both adults and children under her roof as she rolled the tinfoil from chewing gum wrappers into a ball of metal that eventually become part of the war effort.

String was not to be wasted. No telling when you may need a piece of string long enough to tie around a package of food going to a needy friend. Wrapping paper from gifts at Christmas, birthdays, department stores and any other source, got stowed away to wrap some future present. No casually throwing these valuable assets in the trash. Since Uncle Big Buddy grew and bailed alfalfa hay on the seventy acres surrounding “The Big House” there was always a sufficient supply of bailing wire to fix most everything that needed fixing. If clothes became worn out, and they must truly be worn out, the usable parts of their cloth went into a large wicker basket to create colorful, comfortable quilts. All of the droppings of the horses, mules, chickens and goats became fertilizer for the victory garden in which every imaginable vegetable grew.

Nanny had to be resident doctor for her large clan. At any given time, one of us kids had some sot of kid ailment. Measles, scarlet fever, strep throat, ear infections, bee and wasp stings, bruises from falling out of trees, mumps, sunburns. Most of these maladies could be cured with Nanny’s home remedies. For example bee and even wasp stings could be treated with a poultice of chewing tobacco or baking soda and water. Calamine lotion that hardened like concrete would at least distract you from the pain of your sunburn. Horse and mule liniment took care of bruises.

Nanny’s clan

If my ears  became too infected, my Mother had to take me to old Doctor Joe Brown way over in Monroe, whose unusual bedside manner would compel him to tell mother, “Damn it Jinks, you let the little bastard go swimming in the mill pond again,” before treating my painful ailment.

If one of us under Nanny’s supervision sought to excuse ourselves for not doing something we were tasked to do by saying we really meant to get the job done, Nanny’s response was predicable. “You know the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” I believe this is the only time Nanny use a cuss word.

Nanny’s stepdaughter Mattie decided that it would increase the family’s social status if they became Daughters of the American Revolution. In order to join this august society, one had to document their heritage back to the Revolution. Nanny cautioned against this endeavor. “You better be careful examining this family tree. No telling who you might find hanging from it.”

No food that fell from trees or grew on the land at “The Big House” escaped Nanny’s pantry. We kids harvested and prepared for canning every pecan, fig, pear or peach that fell from our trees. We stripped the garden of its fresh vegetables and readied them for canning. Nanny traded some commodities with Mrs. Elliot next door for wild honey on the comb which Mrs. Elliott harvested from her bees.

Nanny

At canning time, Nanny pressed us kids into service shucking peas, picking pecans and washing greens, tomatoes and whatever else the garden produced. Nanny got some help from a neighbor lady and took charge of her kitchen, where they spent an entire day and well into the night filling hundreds of one quart Ball jars brim full of food that would be deposited in Nanny’s six by eight foot pantry to be consumed by our large family all winter. Fish from the Ouachita caught  by us kids on a simple cane pole would supply additional protein to our diet. I did not care much for the bonny little brim fish, but Nanny would cheerfully remind us, “Waste not. Want not.”

Nanny lived to be ninety-three and never ceased dispensing loving wisdom. Some people just have more influence on the rest of us than others.

 

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Judge John Boutall

I sat patiently in Chief Judge John Boutall’s courtroom waiting to try a small civil matter before him, but first, the easy going, learned jurist had to arraign some folks charged with crimes. The defendants had been brought to his courtroom from the jail next door on a long chain the bailiffs called their “Daisy Chain.”

As I sat studying my own case and paying little attention to the arraignment procedures, I suddenly heard Judge Boutall call my name. “Hey, T. McGee,” as this friendly Judge was wont to call me, “ I am appointing you to represent Henry Chauvin who is here today on arraignment–charged with burglary.”

I asked to approach the bench, which the Judge allowed. To my very mild protest of “But your honor, I do not handle criminal cases,” the good Judge smiled at me and drawled in his rich southern accent, “I am sure, T. McGee, that you will do a fine job for this young man.”

 

John and Margaret Boutall

In those days we did not have an Indigent Defender Board in our jurisdiction to represent poor defendants. Our judges in the 24th Judicial District of Louisiana wanting to see fairness done in their courts, and also wishing to avoid successful appeals if defendants pled or were found guilty, appointed whatever attorneys were available in their courtrooms at the time to represent indigent defendants.

So I came to represent the young black man, Henry Chauvin, and got to know the Honorable John Boutall better. I eventually worked out a plea for Henry with Nestor Currault, the Assistant District Attorney, and Judge Boutall then pled Henry to a misdemeanor possession of stolen goods with a value of less than one hundred dollars. Since Henry had no significant rap sheet, Judge Boutall gave Henry six months in jail with credit for time served, which meant Henry would be back on the bricks in about three months.

During this plea bargaining process, I came to know and admire Judge John Boutall. Judge Boutall was a prime example of The Greatest Generation that Tom Brokaw immortalized in his book. A young John Boutall served on a destroyer in the Pacific during WWII before returning home to Bucktown, a small fishing community on the banks of Lake Ponchartrain, just upriver from New Orleans. He graduated from Tulane Law School and started a law practice with his classmate Nestor Currault. It was not long before the elderly Judge Fluery had to retire and John Boutall was elected with virtually no opposition to the 24th Judicial District Bench, where he remained for the rest of his career. He had chances to “ascend” to the Court of Appeals bench, but declined the opportunity. He preferred to stay where the action was.

Long before I appeared before Judge Boutall in his court, I had the pleasure of hearing him telling humorous stories at our annual Jefferson Parish Bar Association meetings. Actually, since only one female was admitted to the bar in Jefferson Parish when I commenced practice, these meetings were all male dinners where we guys ate good food, smoked cigars and some of us drank too much. We took the opportunity to socialize with our judges and tell smutty jokes. Having grown up in a family of fishermen, Judge Boutall had some of the funniest stories to tell. He told them in his inimitable style with a slow baritone drawl.

Some years after my first judicial encounter with Judge Boutall, through the intercession of a friend, Ed Collier, who knew our District Attorney, Mr. Frank Langridge, I was assigned the position of fourth Assistant District Attorney. This gave me regular access to Judge Boutall’s court and his steady, easygoing judicial wisdom.

Frank H. Langridge, District Attorney

Frank H. Langridge,
District Attorney

Mr. Langridge preferred to have long lunches, smoke large black Cuban cigars and drink copious amounts of Rob Roys with his old cronies rather than supervise his assistants. This freedom to act and being naive prompted me to do something that did get the boss’s attention. I became weary of trying prostitution cases one by one. I had heard that Jim Garrison in Orleans Parish had used an old state statute to padlock places where prostitution prevailed by showing that at least one criminal offense had occurred on the premises. I gathered up all my prostitution cases and filed proceedings before The Honorable Boutall, requesting the good judge to issue orders to close down about half a dozen houses of ill repute.

When I appeared in Judge Boutall’s court, he called me up to the bench for a very private conference. Being a man familiar with all the intricacies of our local politics, and my boss’s connections, the good Judge who did not want to see me get in Dutch with my boss, so asked me, “T. McGee, does your boss know what you are doing? Have you talked this over with him?”

Naively, I told Judge Boutall, “I don’t see the need to do that.”

With a reluctant gaze at me, the good judge said “Okay,” and signed documents closing down several establishments doing questionable business.

A few days later after one of his three hour lunches, Mr. Langridge called me into his office. While chewing on his large cigar (he never really smoked them), he introduced me to a Mr. Landry, the owner of a motel on Jefferson Highway I had shut down. The boss explained to me that Mr. Landry was “One of our friends,” buzz words for being a staunch political supporter. The boss relieved me of my padlocking businesses and had another Assistant District Attorney obtain orders from another Judge rescinding Mr. Landry’s padlock order.

After several years of trials, I became the First Assistant District under my newly elected friend, John Mamoulides. One day while sitting in my office an angry B. H. Miller Jr., the police chief of Gretna, Louisiana, came to my office in an extremely agitated state of mind. In his usual manner, B.H. appeared impeccably dressed in an expensive dark blue tailor-made suit, silk white shirt and a discreet red tie. As usual, B.H.’s coal back hair slicked down with Pomade was combed straight back. His chalk white skin and ink black eyes made him appear like a well dressed ghost. As was his manner, B.H. hunched his shoulders, twisted his massive head, flayed his arms about, snorted and pranced around my office like a show pony. He told me how two young punks from New Orleans had crossed the Mississippi River bridge and burglarized his residence. The two burglars had departed just before B. H. arrived home, otherwise we would not be concerned about trying them.

The amateurish young burglars were apprehended on the New Orleans Connection bridge across the Mississippi as they fled the scene, after B.H. issued an APB from a description given him by a neighbor.

John Mamoulides, District Attorney

John Mamoulides,
District Attorney

These two young men did not know that their early departure saved their lives. B.H. had inherited the position of Police Chief from his father B.H. Miller, Sr. While serving under his father, the young B.H. had gained the reputation of being fearless. In addition to being the law in Gretna, the Miller family owned the New Garden Club, a gambling establishment that made the family wealthy until the good Senator Estes Kefauver came to town and shut down all gambling in the free state of Jefferson Parish. So, B.H., Jr.  knew how to deal with tough folks.

Once, the young B.H. went into a local raunchy bar room to break up a fight. A bad actor shot him twice in the stomach with a Saturday night special 32 revolver. B. H. pressed forward, wrenched the gun from the man’s hand and damn near beat him to death before the medics could calm down B. H. sufficiently to treat his wounds.

I tried to console B.H. that I would assign his case to one of my best prosecutors. That would not do. He demanded that I personally try the case. After all, these good for nothing punks had burglarized the Police Chief’s house. I tried to explain to the angry B. H. that the young defendants did not know whose house they had burglarized. That explanation went nowhere.  Severe justice must be done.

B.H’s case somehow miraculously was allotted to the Chief Judge John Boutall, a man who knew the Miller family’s reputation well.

bh-miller-josephine-millerjpg-55a203062b69dd20

Police Chief B. H. Miller, Jr.

In preparing for trial, I had B.H. come to my office  to discuss his  testimony. I also had Elmer Robicheaux, the evidence clerk, come to verify that he still had B. H.’s 38 caliber pistol and his Rolex watch taken from his house and found on the persons of the defendants. Elmer looked down sheepishly and murmured, “I don’t have the gun.”

“What the hell do you mean you don’t have the gun,” I demanded.

At that moment B. H. reared up out of his chair, flipped open his suit coat, and patted the pistol strapped to his right side, advising me. “I went and got my gun back. I need my gun, but I will give it back to Elmer if we need it for evidence.”

Of course, being the Police Chief of Gretna, B.H. should have known better. Nonetheless, I had, much to his irritation, to explain the concept of chain of evidence to him all over again and tell him he had broken the chain; therefore we could not use the gun as evidence. We could, however, use the engraved Rolex watch which bore B.H.‘s name.

The day of trial before a jury and The Honorable John Boutall finally came to pass. B.H. roamed up and down the crowded courtroom like a caged lion. The two young defendants each showed up with hot shot lawyers their middle class parents obviously had mortgaged their homes to retain. Each attorney asked to discuss a plea bargain with me and Judge Boutall. I had no objection to pleas, but I advised Judge Boutall that I was prepared for trial and had a jury on the ready. I also told the judge and the defendants‘ attorneys that B.H. wanted a life sentence for each boy and was as angry as a nest of hornets.

After mulling over the plea request and viewing the rap sheet of each of the defendants, Judge Boutall, in his Bucktown drawl, told one attorney, “I will give your boy five years,’ then immediately addressed the other attorney, “And I will give your boy seven and a half years.” The attorneys went back to their clients with the plea offers then returned with counter offers.

This dickering went on for half a hour. B.H. became more and more agitated. I informed the Judge that I did not know how much longer I could control B.H. and that I had a jury ready to hear the case. As the defendants‘ attorneys approached the judge in chambers one last time, the exasperated Judge Boutall finally looked the two attorneys straight in their respective faces and declared once and for all, “I will give your boy five years, and I will give your boy seven and a half years, or alternatively I will give each of your boys fifteen minutes alone in this room with B. H. Miller.” After speaking with their clients and their parents one last time, the attorneys returned to Judge Boutall’s  chambers and and told him they would take the pleas offered.

B.H. told me outside the courtroom after the deals were made that he thought the young defendants should get life sentences. Again, I had to explain to him that the maximum sentence each would have gotten was fifteen years in prison. I think both defendants were well-advised not to get in a room with B.H..

Relatives of  Martin Brown had a fish fry and hired Harold Molaison to represent the young man. Martin had been charged with armed robbery. Many years before, Harold had indeed passed the bar in Louisiana and was theoretically and legally entitled to represent Martin. However Harold had restricted his law practice to passing acts of sales of real estate and convincing the good folks of Jefferson Parish to elect him to be one of their council members. Harold only took Martin’s case to appease the  boy’s parents, who were reliable political supporters.

Harold, a jovial, Cajun, rotund man in his late fifties, with thick wavy hair and graying sideburns talked incessantly, mostly in English, but sometimes in French.  Harold had the good sense to know that because of his limited trial experience and his vague knowledge of the rules of evidence he needed help to properly defend his client, so he called upon his old friend and well known criminal defense attorney.

Sam “Monk” Zelden brawled in the courtroom just as he had done as a young man in the boxing rings about New Orleans. I don’t now where “Monk” got his nickname. He never treated me with any religious fervor the many times I met him in court. Maybe he got this nickname because of the bald crown of his head that stuck out above the fringes of gray hair around the edges of his head.

A bear of a man, “Monk” packed about two hundred twenty solid pounds of muscle into a six-foot frame. He always seemed to lean a bit forward with massive arms slightly bent at the elbows as though he was ready to throw a left jab followed by a right upper cut. His loud voice always boomed out loud and sounded like he had gravel in his bull-sized neck. No doubt, “Monk” came on board to help his friend Harold, for a handsome fee.

Since “Monk” did not believe in plea bargaining and Harold needed a good show for his client and the politically influential parents and relatives, the case was set for trial before the Honorable John Boutall. Judge Boutall well knew the reputations of my two opponents, so I imagine he braced himself for the show the two would put on before the jury.

Judge Boutall and I had much business  to dispose of on the morning of young Martin Brown’s trial. We finally got a jury empaneled about three o’clock that afternoon, I gave my opening statement and “Monk” ranted on for about an hour about how weak my case would be. As I presented each of my witnesses, “Monk” worked them over in his usual combative manner. The case droned on and on until dinner time. Judge Boutall recessed the trial so the jurors could be taken over to Whiteside’s Restaurant and be fed a proper dinner. Judge Boutall and all of us who tried criminal cases, except maybe “Monk,”  knew that a jury could not make good decisions while being tired and hungry.

When the jury returned from dinner, I called more witnesses and “Monk” continued his endless, pointless cross examinations. About 9:00 p.m., I became sleepy and began to doze off now and then. “Monk” continued to badger witnesses. I noticed that Judge Boutall’s head slumped down a bit.

T. McGee

T. McGee

At some point while “Monk” was asking a specific question of a witness, and for no earthly reason, Harold, came to life after sitting quiet for the whole trial, jumped to his feet and blurted out “I object, your Honor.” This unexpected, totally inappropriate maneuver on Harold’s part jolted me out of my stupor and surprised the Honorable John Boutall, who had been resting his eyes. Of course, the sudden utterances from his co-counsel surprised “Monk” as well.

Judge Boutall, sat up straight on his bench, leaned forward, looked Harold straight in the eye and in a Bucktown southern drawl, observed, “But Mr. Molaison, you can’t object to your co-counsel’s question.”

Looking like a fifth grader who had been admonished by a teacher for disrupting a class, Harold slunk back  down in his chair–not to be heard from for the rest of the trial. About midnight, the jury came back with a guilty verdict. I went to Whiteside’s to celebrate with some of the court staff, then got some rest so I could be back in Judge Boutall’s court the next day for some new adventures.

Over ten years as an Assistant District Attorney, I tried many cases before The Honorable John Boutall. I learned something of value each time I appeared before this humorous son of fisher folks who brought his ancestors’ wisdom with him to the bench.

 

 

 

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Buddy Bass

Each winter, pogy boats harvested bony little menhaden fish off the mouth of the Mississippi River and brought them to the Quinn Menhaden Fisheries at Empire, Louisiana. The plant smelted the little critters into pet food, fish oil and other exotic products such as lipsticks. The process produced a stench no human can tolerate.

At least one crew member a year died in the hazardous fishing activity. My job in the Admiralty section of a large law firm required that I investigate these deaths. Experience had taught me that the best way to do this was to go fishing on the boat that had experienced a fatality. This enabled me to see the operation firsthand and enlist the captain’s help to insure that the crew would cooperate with me.

Pogy Fish

Pogy Fish

http://www.louisianasportsman.com/details.php?id=5576

On one of my trips to investigate an accident, I invited Charles “Buddy” Bass, another law clerk, to assist me. He seemed eager to come along for a boat ride and to avoid the drudgery of legal research in the library. A classmate, good student and all around fine guy, Bobby was a trim, well-groomed fellow with wavy red hair and emerald green eyes. An urbane gentleman, Buddy was fastidious about his dress. From past lunches, I knew Buddy had selective, delicate eating habits. Buddy’s sheltered life would soon change on the pogy boat. The crew he would meet hadn’t pledged any fraternity, dated any debutantes or dined with the King of Rex at Antoine’s.

Rex Room at Antoine's

Rex Room at Antoine’s


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On the night before we boarded the boat, Buddy and I arrived at the little apartment provided by Quinn Menhaden Fisheries for guests. The breeze mercifully carried the overpowering smell of the fish smelting plant away from us that evening. The winds shifted during the night. When we left the apartment to board the boat at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, we received the full fury of the noxious fumes from the plant. Buddy gagged and turned green. I assured him all would be well as soon as we could board the boat and get away from the plant. When we’d boarded the boat, I took Buddy directly to the pilot house, where there was a bunk. By now his face had paled to a light shade of green, and I thought he would survive.

pony boat

pogy boat  

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I started interviewing the crew and could have used Buddy’s help. By now, we had reached the Gulf and the boat rode on long swells causing it to roll, pitch and yaw in unison —not a violent motion, just sickening.

I checked on my cabbage-colored colleague. Still moaning he asserted, “I am going to die.” I assured him he wasn’t going to die and asked him to help me interview the crew. He just grunted and rolled over in the bunk.

By now, I had a mixture of pity and disdain for Buddy. I had been to the galley and saw what was going on there. “Food is what you need,” I instructed Buddy. The degree of authority in my voice caused him to ask, “Do you really think that will help?”

I truly thought and hoped food would help the poor fellow, but I also knew the conditions he would find in the galley would not be to his liking. When we entered the galley, a three-hundred-fifty-pound man in a sweat-drenched, sleeveless undershirt stood frying a gigantic slab of fat bacon on the griddle of the stove. Grease oozed out of the bacon and sweat poured down the man’s face, chest and arms. A giant cigar, with ash extending our about an inch, jutted from the cook’s clenched teeth. With a big grin, the cook turned to us and said, “Hi gents, just in time for breakfast. Have a seat over there.”

Buddy doubled over in pain and I had to assist him to the rail again. Unfortunately for my pal, the pogy boat would not return to the dock early to accommodate Buddy.  Fish had to be caught and money had to be made for the company and crew.

Buddy fared somewhat better once we returned dockside, but it took the trip back to New Orleans to put him on an even keel. I thought it only right to take him to Pascal’s Manale for drinks and dinner. After his second martini, Buddy looked at me with the mournful continence of a betrayed friend and said, “I thought you said this was going to be a fun trip.”

Pascal's Manale Restaurant

Pascal’s Manale Restaurant


Buddy and I remained good friends, but he didn’t volunteer for any more pogy boat trips.

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HARRY LEE

Sheriff Harry Lee

Sheriff Harry Lee

My friend, Sheriff Harry Lee, died October 1, 2007, at the age of seventy-five. Harry and I didn’t always agree on professional issues. As an example, for years I begged him to not allow his bailiffs to wear guns in my courtroom because it created a potentially dangerous situation. Harry defended this practice, but attempted to allay my fears by telling me, “Our bailiffs have special holsters and only they can get the gun out of their holsters.”

The good sheriff may have been right because when the six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-thirty pound young man built like an oak tree decided to go for my bailiff’s gun, he didn’t get it out of the holster…he just tore the holster, gun and all, off Kevin Smith’s belt. Kevin, much a man himself, tussled with the young defendant until additional help arrived. Nobody got hurt, but, for awhile, the berserk kid with the gun was Boss in my courtroom. But, even after that incident, Harry still didn’t see it my way.

I became a bit vexed at Harry when he bragged to the local media that he had found an abused child in a local hospital. Those of us in Juvenile Court had seen abused and neglected children day in and day out for years. I became so incensed about Harry making this a media event that I told the press, that if Harry had just spent one day in my court he could have seen many abused and neglected children.

When the media, including the national media, accused Harry of being racist, I found that to be absurd. Harry may have been stubborn and less than articulate about some of his policies and police procedures. But, as I frequently reminded friends, how could a Chinese kid raised by non-English speaking parents, behind their laundry in New Orleans during the thirties and forties not understand the plight of minorities? Harry was re-elected for six straight terms of office by large majorities of not only the predominately white community but also the black community of Jefferson Parish as well.

I remember well when Harry decided to challenge the popular incumbent sheriff for his job. While I was having dinner at the House of Lee, the large Chinese Restaurant owned and run by Harry and his family, Harry approached my table and asked to talk to me. At this time, I had been on the bench about four years, but had known Harry for years when he was a Federal Magistrate and the Parish Attorney. When Harry sat down, he informed me, “I have decided to run for Sheriff.”

House of Lee

HOUSE OF LEE

http://websitesneworleans.com/metairie/id33.html

I responded’ “Fine, Harry. You will make a great Sheriff, but it will be a tough race against the popular incumbent sheriff.”

He said, “I know that and I have already come up with my campaign slogan– ‘I ain’t got a Chinaman’s chance.’”

This was typical of Harry’s good humored, unvarnished, direct approach to any situation. Harry loved people and they loved him back. Harry freely admitted publicly that he craved and needed the love of as many people as he could reach. I have always admired Harry’s honest acknowledgment of this basic human need we all share.

Stories abound about Harry’s skills as a hunter and fisherman. Trophies of his outdoor quests decorated his offices. When one exited the elevator on the second floor of his Gretna office, they came face to face with an eight-foot, snarling brown bear, six-inch claws slicing the air at the end of raised arms. The unexpected sight of an irate giant bear six-feet ahead–in attack stance–caused the unaware to gasp for breath. Harry’s private office contained a specimen of each animal that disembarked from Noah’s Ark. These trophies hung from walls and sat upon pedestals, creating the appearance of an animal mortuary.

When I hunted dove with Harry in Bridge City, I didn’t have the fear of getting shot by an inebriated hunter like I did when I hunted deer with my cousin in North Louisiana. A tee-totaller, Harry didn’t tolerate booze on a hunt, but did insist on having himself and his guest properly fed with the best food the community could provide. The meat from Harry’s many hunting escapades contributed to an annual event known as The Wild Game Dinner, which is still celebrated annually in Westwego, Louisiana. Politicians from all over the region attend this all-male event and a spirit of détente prevails. Most dinners end peacefully.

Although hefty and struggling with painful knees, Harry rarely missed a bird or anything else he took aim on. On the day at Bridge City, Harry’s game bag came home full—one shell for one bird. I on the other hand expended many shells for few birds.

The nutria Harry and his deputies shot in the canals of Jefferson Parish didn’t find their way to the table at The Wild Game Dinner. Nutria are the vegetarian rodents that were imported to Louisiana in the early part of the twentieth century to help rid the bayous of excess water lilies. Their pelts proved to be valuable as well. But, the little devils had prodigious appetites and ate not only the water lilies, but any other crop they could find. Also, they grew large and followed the biblical instruction to go forth and reproduce—and they did so with vigor.

The nutria came to inhabit the drainage canals of Jefferson Parish in large numbers, frightening Harry’s loyal supporters. Various efforts were tried to eradicate the pesky varmints-all to no avail. Harry had the solution. He and the other sharpshooters on his force would shine them with spot lights at night and shoot them—a procedure usually reserved for gators. This, of course, horrified the animal rights people, but Harry saw it as a dignified way to solve a very real health problem. And, besides, it gave his men some needed target practice.

Nutria

Nutria

http://i.livescience.com/images/i/000/027/603/i02/nutria-portrait-ed.jpg?1338390126

Harry’s annual Christmas Parties were legendary events in the New Orleans community, a place where partying is practiced with extravagance every day of the year except in Lent. And even then, exceptions are made for such occasions such as St. Patrick’s Day and St. Joseph’s Day.

Thousands of Harry’s loyal followers attended his Christmas Parties. The bands played loudly all night, and the endless booze and food came nonstop, compliments of Harry and his generous friends. All who arrived stopped by Harry’s table to pay homage. This satiated Harry’s need to be loved—at least for that day. Sometimes such notable friends as Willie Nelson and Steven Seagal would show up at Harry’s parties.

Harry also entertained his many admirers by leading the Sheriff’s Mounted Posse in Mardi Gras Parades. Every time I saw Harry astride his mount, I wondered how he got his considerable bulk in the saddle. Most of us who viewed the parades had sympathy for the poor over-burdened animal.

Harry Lee in Mardi Gras Parade

Harry Lee in Mardi Gras Parade

The lovable sheriff hired the best and most colorful political advisors and media consultants to conduct his campaigns for re-election. There was always some person that thought he could do a better job than Harry. Maybe they could have, but none of Harry’s opponents seemed to truly understand how beloved Harry was in the community. Therefore, challenger after challenger took him on to both their dismay and considerable reduction of their fortune.

I remember one ad in particular that ran incessantly during one of Harry’s campaigns for re-election. Harry’s media wizards dressed three of Harry’s ardent, elderly, female supporters in period clothes. Picture three blue-haired ladies clad in red sequined 1920’s flapper outfits, singing and dancing to the tune of “I’m Just Wild About Harry.” The production contributed to Harry’s re-election and remains a classic political ad.

Law Student Harry Lee

Law Student Harry Lee

Harry, we who shared time and responsibilities with you will miss you. Your detractors will even miss you. After all, your resolute, brave assertions about things you believed in strongly gave them targets to shoot at that they will have no longer. I don’t know who will succeed you, but they will not have more of a love of the job, or be more colorful and beloved than you.

http://media.nola.com/politics/photo/harry-bowlerjpg-d22f9e346089d311_small.jpg

 

Posted in To Speak the Truth | 2 Comments

DOPE FROM NEW JERSEY

Moisant Airport

The stunning mahogany-skinned twenty-three year old girl with flowing black hair and aqua green eyes flew into New Orleans Moisant Airport with her boyfriend Jake. At five six and one hundred thirty pounds of body parts all in the right places and proportions, this beautiful young woman was a head changer. She had been born and raised in the Gullah country of North Carolina until she came to New Jersey and became seduced by the charms of the slick talking, fast moving, dope dealing Jake.

She and Jake sat in seats many rows apart on the flight down from New Jersey. When they landed, she retrieved a plain black carryon suitcase from the overhead bin and proceeded into the terminal. The baggage she carried into the terminal contained fifty thousand dollars worth of neatly packaged cocaine for Jake to distribute to his customers in The City that Care Forgot.

Let’s just call this handsome young woman Althea. In those days we would have referred to Althea as a “mule,” someone employed by a known dope dealer to actually carry the goods. Each hit of cocaine which she carried for Jake had been cut with powdered milk and was wrapped in a single glassine envelope. Ten envelopes were bundled and bound with a rubber band, ready for sale on the streets.

Since Moisant Airport is actually in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, the Narcotics Squad of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office had received information, as they like to call it, “intelligence,” from their counterparts in New Jersey that Jake would be bringing a large amount of cocaine to New Orleans. They patiently waited at the terminal until Althea turned the suitcase full of valuable dope over to Jake. My friends on the Narco Squad loved chasing, and chasing bad guys, but most of all they relished recovering large amounts of high quality dope.

Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office

Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office

The Narc boys’ boss was the new Sheriff in town, Al Cronvich. Al had returned from WWII, graduated from Tulane Law School, and joined a small law firm with the avowed intent of making some money, but more importantly to clean up the corruption that existed in Jefferson Parish for many years.

For decades, Jefferson Parish had been run by the benevolent old Sheriff Frank Clancy. Sheriff Clancy had influence in every branch of the Parish government. He saw to it that his friends and political supporters, and their families, got jobs in his office, or other Parish jobs or jobs at the many local gambling establishments that populated Jefferson Parish. Gambling had been legal and thriving in Jefferson Parish under Sheriff Clancy’s rule to the extent that The Times Picayune newspaper referred to the Parish as “The Free State of Jefferson” or “Clancy’s Kingdom.”

Sheriff Frank Clancy

When Senator Estes Kefauver came to Jefferson Parish in the mid nineteen fifties to rid the Parish of corruption, Sheriff wisely saw that it was time to fade away into history. A young relative of Sheriff Clancy by the name of Jack Fitzgerald, with the good sheriff’s blessing, got himself elected sheriff. Jack, a likable, handsome young man, enjoyed all the respect and perks that being sheriff afforded him, but he did not have the ruthless temperament necessary for politicians to get re-elected. The word about the Parish was that all it took to make Jack a happy boy was a good bottle of whiskey and the company of a good looking, willing woman.

So, big Al Cronvich’s super ego compelled him to step up to the plate, run for and win the office of Sheriff.  A reformer by nature, Al vowed to reform the office which had suffered from corruption and indolence. By many accounts he did this. Straight-laced pretty much summed up Al’s character. A tall, well built fellow, Al looked very middle European. He kept in good shape by playing as much tennis as he could cram into his busy schedule. But Al, a serious person, fell short on a sense of humor and lacked empathy for those he saw as less holy than himself, which was about all the rest of humanity.

Sheriff Al Cronvich

When his Narcotics Squad confiscated the big cargo of cocaine, Big Al could not pass up the opportunity to pose for photographs with the dope. The Times Picayune photographer did a fine job of catching the moment. There sat big Al in a chair next to the forbidden goods, but in the bottom of his right shoe, the whole world could readily see the big hole in the leather.

It fell to me to prosecute this case. There had been much public laughter about the hole in Big Al’s shoe. When I met with the Sheriff to discuss the case, I thought I would lighten the conversation by reminding the Sheriff the world had seen a famous picture of Adlai Stevenson when he ran for President of the United States, on stage with a hole in his shoe. The always serious and defensive Sheriff abruptly reminded me, “Yeah, but he lost his election and I won mine.”

The relationship between Al and me was strained from the beginning because he thought I worked for an incompetent District Attorney. There may have been some merit in that feeling. But,the relationship became further strained when I convicted his top aide of stealing a car the Sheriff’s Office had confiscated in a drug raid to give to his daughter. This offended Big Al so badly that his office refused to issue me a permit to carry a firearm even after I received threats from some of the lowlife in the Parish. I carried anyway without official permit from Al’s office. I figured that getting caught without a permit was a far lighter sentence than a possible alternative.

Althea and Jake were brought to the Jefferson Parish jail and both booked with possession of fifty thousand dollars worth of cocaine. A bond hearing took place the next day and bail was set at fifty thousand dollars apiece.

Jefferson Parish Jail

Rock Hebert, the local bail bondsman got a call from someone in New Jersey, who put up the ten thousand dollars for the bond fee to have Hebert bailout the drug dealing Jake and return him to New Jersey. Since my boss, the old District Attorney, had never forfeited a bond in his whole career, Rock felt very secure about bonding Jake out of prison.

Initially, I met Rock at the first Christmas party I attended at our office. He seemed to have hosted the party and was willing to give presents to all who attended including the Assistant District Attorneys. I don’t consider myself to be a prude, but when the crafty bail bondsman offered me a one hundred dollar gift certificate to a local clothing store, I had the good sense to realize I did not want to be obligated to the fast talking, slick Rock Hebert, so I politely declined the gift.

Two days after Jake returned to New Jersey, Jimmy Miller, the head of our Narcotics Squad, came to my office and told me that Jake would not be returning to Jefferson Parish to be be prosecuted “Why?” I asked. “Because,” Jimmy explained, “the narcs up there found his body in a swamp with eight  nine millimeter bullets in it.” I concluded that in Jake’s world, if you failed in your job the consequences were death.

Now the question became, “What to do with Althea?” Ralph Barnett, a local criminal defense attorney who received many referrals from Rock Hebert, agreed to represent Althea. Ralph and I had tried many cases together and agreed on many plea bargains over the years.  Ralph came to my office to discuss Althea’s situation. We both agreed that to bond her out and send her back to New Jersey would constitute a death sentence for her. I had already run her rap sheet through the NCIC database and found out she had no previous criminal activity.

Thank goodness her case had not been assigned to Judge Wally LeBrun, who believed that all persons who were found guilty or pled guilty to criminal activity should receive the maximum sentence possible. Althea’s case fell to Chief Judge John Boutall, a reasonable man with many years experience on the criminal bench.

Born and raised in the small commercial fishing community known as Bucktown, Judge Boutall possessed the good common sense of his fisherman ancestors. Located on the 17th Street canal, the boundary between Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, Bucktown served as protected docking  for dozens of Lafitte skiffs that roared out into Lake Ponchatrain every morning to provide fresh shrimp, crabs and fish for the many seafood restaurants located in the area.

Commercial Fishing Fleet at Bucktown

I admire commercial fishermen and have shared many pleasant seafood meals and vast quantities of beer with them at a little restaurant and bar called “The Rest A While.” Johnny, the owner of the bar and restaurant, and his fishermen customers, required that their long neck bottled beer be ice cold. To that end, Johnny did not entrust his beer to some modern dry cooler. Johnny’s solution was to immerse the long necks in an insulated tub filled with crushed ice just like that the fishermen used to preserve their catches. The results was ice cold beer all day and night long. There is nothing like the first swallow of ice cold beer when you have been fishing in the hot sun all day long. I think The Good Lord must have also thought well of fishermen, because he hung out with them every chance he got.

We approached the Honorable Boutall to discuss a plea bargain. We filled him in on the entire circumstances, including my findings that Althea had no criminal record. We told Boutall of Jake’s murder when he returned to New Jersey and we all agreed that Althea did not deserve that fate. Prior to meeting with Judge Boutall, Ralph and I had agreed to suggest to the Judge a sentence of three years at the women’s prison in Saint Gabriel located on the Mississippi River just south of Baton Rouge. Conditioned upon her good behavior, Althea would be eligible for parole in one year. Ralph and I concluded this would at least give her time to make adjustments in her life if she cared to do so.

Judge Boutall agreed with our approach and sentenced Althea to three years at Saint Gabriel.

Over the years I have frequently wondered about how Althea has fared in this life.

Mississippi River at Baton Rouge

Posted in To Speak the Truth | 2 Comments

Case of the Great Red Neck Railroad

passenger trains at New Orleans

Trains in New Orleans
https://farm2.staticflickr.com/1074/565981727_7bb7de2ecd_z.jpg

The lady who came once a week to clean my law office and give me advice on health care and what to eat referred Winona Patterson to me. Mrs. Patterson was a frail, petite black lady with abundant wrinkles on her face and hands which made her look older than forty-two. She was dressed in a neat print dress and wore her Sunday-Go-To-Meeting little white hat that appeared to float above her beehive of graying hair. Winona also worked “day jobs” cleaning houses, which was now her sole source of income. She brought with her a family friend and neighbor, Elmer Ramsey.

Elmer was a tall, muscular black man with graying hair and mustache. His hands were the size of an outfielder’s glove and were attached to massive arms that looked like limbs of a live oak tree. He wore an open collared blue cotton work shirt and stiff starched faded levis. In the waiting room he wore an old New Orleans Pelicans baseball cap which he promptly removed upon entering my office. I hadn’t seen one of those caps in years. Elmer explained that, after serving three years in the army during World War II, he had been a trainer for the New Orleans minor league baseball team called the Pelicans. Unlike most black soldiers of that era, he had seen combat in North Africa, been decorated and had risen to the rank of sergeant. After the Pelicans he worked in the construction industry, rising to the position of supervisor at the Jefferson Concrete Company which was located near his house.

WWII Soldier

WWII Soldier

Winona told me her husband of eleven years, Fred, had been run over by a train and killed. She said his friend Elmer had witnessed the event and could fill in the details. I agreed to take the case and we entered the standard contingency fee agreement, but I took only 20% instead of the customary 33 1/3 because Winona had been left with three kids and only the house cleaning jobs to support the family. She seemed slightly worse off financially than I.
The Pattersons and Ramseys lived across the tracks in a depressed part of Jefferson Parish (County) called Shrewsberry, pronounced Shoozberry by the local black folk who stayed there. In those days in that neighborhood, folks “stayed” somewhere, they didn’t “live” there.  Their friend Elmer stayed near by. Elmer supervised Fred’s work at the cement plant. All the folks in Shoozberry were of humble means but shared their meager resources and looked out for one another. There were several barrooms in Shoozberry, some adjacent to the railroad tracks.

2178266871_de244bce95_oFred and Elmer were particularly fond of the Dew Drop Inn which lay between their work and home. It was friendly and dark and inhabited by their neighbors and fellow laborers. They could play dominoes, checkers or cards or just enjoy cheap booze in many forms. An old rusty tin roof covered the building. The unfinished lap strake side boards were protected from the elements by large signs advertising cigarettes, beer and wine of every variety.  The Dew Drop was located next to, if not actually on, a railroad company right of way. The tracks gave several companies access to New Orleans. The tracks also gave Fred and Elmer a reliable path home at night when they had consumed a bit too much Mad Dog wine, which happened fairly frequently. Mad Dog was the poor man’s balm from the daily drudgery of life and just went by the initials M.D. It was “fortified” with about 30% alcohol which got the desired effect cheaply.

According to Elmer, the tragedy occurred on a cold November night. He and Fred “had a few too many” at the Dew Drop. Fred left first. Elmer followed a few minutes later and walked behind a Great Red Neck train that came to a sudden stop about a quarter mile in front of him. This sudden stopping of the train became an important fact in the case. Why did the train suddenly stop?  As Elmer continued down the middle of the tracks toward the caboose of the train, he came upon a horrible scene that stunned him into immediate sobriety. There were bits and pieces of his friend, Fred, between and on both sides of the track. Latter evidence suggests that the Mad Dog had induced an irresistible urge to sleep which Fred accommodated by reposing on the tracks.

221166pvThe scene was gruesome. A sadistic young photographer employed by the Jefferson parish coroner’s office documented the horrible site in great detail with two dozen 8×10 glossy, black and white photos. They graphically depicted the violent nature of the death, and Fred’s dismembered body on the tracks.

My obligation as an attorney was to first prove that it was The Great Red Neck train that ran over and killed Fred. Next, I had to prove that despite the fact that Fred had contributed to his own death by falling asleep on the tracks, the train engineer had the “last clear chance” to avoid the accident. The “last clear chance “doctrine was well established law (though not well liked by many) in Louisiana at the time. The doctrine goes something like this. If I put myself in danger, i.e. by walking in front of a moving car, I am contributorly negligent and should be barred from recovering any damages. But “last clear chance “says that that even if I put myself in danger, the driver of the car has an obligation to avoid hitting me if he could see me and stop his car. I had to show the train engineer could have, should have, seen Fred and and stopped his train in time to avoid running over him.

Railroad companies were notorious about making plaintiffs go to trial in all cases and prove every element of the case, even the very obvious. They had lawyers advising their lawyers. There was always house counsel but they always had local counsel on retainer just to make sure they got a fair deal in any particular jurisdiction.

McFall, Pseudo, Sophisticate, Nasty and Grumpy were local counsel in New Orleans representing Great Red Neck Railroad. Their chief trial lawyer was a supremely self- assured well-bred uptown New Orleanian by the name of Larry McFall  IV. We just called ourselves trial lawyers in those days. Later we would become litigators. This was about the same time our LLB degree became a Juris Doctor degree–if you sent your $25 to the bar association for the upgrade you could hang on your wall. Since Larry was the IV it meant he had three other ancestors who were equally proud of this name. Larry was urbane and sophisticated in a New Orleans sort of way. He was in his mid forties and about five ten but trim and athletic. He was fastidious and an impeccable dresser.  He wore Oxford weave cotton buttondown shirts, Brooks Brothers suits, and only the best shoes, all from Perlis Clothing in uptown New Orleans. His family was properly clothed by the Perlis family for at least two generations.

Like his ancestors, Larry was educated at an Ivy League Law School in the Northeast where he acquired a pseudo Bostonian accent. This was essential for membership in the Boston Club in New Orleans. Once, Larry had even been crowned King of Rex. This honor meant that his family had lots and lots of money, could trace their heritage to before the “War Between The States” and had their own personal waiter at Antoine’s Restaurant.  To be King of Rex meant you and your family occupied the top of the social heap in The City That Care Forgot.

Rex, King of Carnival

Upon return from his proper education in the northeast, Larry continued his legal tutelage at his ancestor’s firm. Over the years he became the chief retained counsel for the Great Red Neck Railroad. His firm’s office was located in a large bank building in downtown New Orleans. It was grand and traditional with thick expensive carpets, dark oak paneling, portraits of deceased members of the firm and Audubon Prints. The décor aimed to impress or intimidate depending on if you were client or an opponent in litigation.

After I filed suit, Larry called for depositions of witnesses. The most important witnesses were the engineer and Fred’s friend Elmer. Their depositions were scheduled at Larry’s office. He wanted them in his office because it made his engineer feel comfortable and he thought it would make Elmer feel uneasy. I knew Elmer would not be intimidated, no matter what the setting. Elmer was as confident and self-assured, yet humble as any black man of that era in the Deep South. I guess this was because of his unique physical attributes and life experiences in the army and with the Pelicans.  But the real reason I readily agreed to Larry’s office centered on the fact  that my modest office lacked proper space to take a deposition.

Burell Claxton was the railroad engineer. He was a huge man going about six two and weighing in at about 350 pounds. He wore a blue denim work shirt tucked into bibbed coveralls. The gold chain of his Hamilton pocket watch (the prized possession of all railroad men) traversed his enormous chest from one pocket in the bib to another pocket. A pouch of Red Man chewing tobacco peeked out of the pocket securing the bitter end of the gold chain. At sixty two, Burel had performed every duty on Great Red Neck trains since he left the farm near Valdosta, Ga., at age fourteen. At heart an honest man, but like most railroad employees of that day he was fiercely loyal to his employer. This loyalty was born, not only out of job security, but out of identifying with a powerful company and performing an exciting job.

The depositions took place in Larry’s large downtown conference room which was encircled with ceiling to floor shelves of law books, some useful but most just decorative. Eighteen high back antique leather chairs surrounded a sixteen foot long antique oak table. Expensive oriental carpets further muted the sound of this already somber chamber. These surroundings were as foreign to Burell as they were to Elmer.

Canal Street 1963

Canal Street 1963

Burell’s deposition was first. I wanted to know why the train suddenly stopped. To win the case, I had to prove this train ran over Fred. I figured Burell stopped the train because he thought he had hit someone or something. But that was not the answer. When asked why the train abruptly stopped, the big engineer explained, “The train went into big hole application”. I had never heard that expression so I pressed on. Burell explained that when the air pressure in the braking system got below a certain pressure all brakes on the train would automatically come on before the pressure got too low to operate the system. That made sense but, then why did the air brake pressure drop? Burell explained that after the train stopped, he and his fireman, looked under the train and saw that a valve handle on the air reservoir tank had been somehow partially opened, causing the reduction in pressure. When asked if he had ever had this handle come ajar in the past, Burell lied and said, no. This falsehood would come to haunt him at time of trial. By now, I was sure that poor Fred’s body hit the valve handle and caused the train to go into big hole application. I planned to prove this to a jury using a mock valve, but old Burell was insistent that this had never happened to him before.

Elmer’s deposition took place next.  We spread the two dozen black and white 8×10 glossy photos of Fred’s parts on the table. After the preliminary questions of Elmer as to his age, place of residence and relationship to the deceased Larry asked Elmer what went on at the Dew Drop Inn just before the accident. Elmer talked about drinking with Fred after work. He also explained to Larry what Mad Dog was, as this libation was not on the wine list at Antoine’s. When Larry asked “what happened next”? Elmer replied “Fred left the Dew Drop. I stayed and finished my last glass of Mad Dog. I left and started walking down the tracks when I come up on the place where the train ran over and cut Fred to pieces.” Immediately, Larry sprang into legal motion and said to the court reporter recording the deposition, “I object to the conjecture on the part of the witness that the train ran over and killed the deceased. The cause of death has yet to be established.” Elmer was bewildered by Larry’s legal jargon. He looked mournfully at the many pictures of the dismembered body of his friend and co worker spread upon the big antique oak table.

Any ordinary black man in these times and under these circumstances would have been intimidated by the well-educated, powerful Larry in the citadel of his own law offices. But Elmer was no ordinary black man who just happened to live in the Deep South during the 1950s. He had been a leader of men in combat. He had worked with, and come to personally know, the Pelicans baseball players who were the celebrities of their day in New Orleans. Strong physically and mentally, Elmer had the stoic qualities and good sense of humor that enabled black men to survive the rigors of segregation of the Deep South in those days. In response to Larry’s ridiculous objection, Elmer, took a deep breath, gazed a long while at the mosaic of 8×10  pictures of his friend’s body parts on the railroad tracks and said.“Lawsy, lawsy, man, he sure didn’t die of pneumonia.”

Larry was furious and jumped to his feet registering another objection, to which I responded, “You got an answer to your question. It just wasn’t the one you wanted.”

Pelican Park, New Orleans

Pelican Park, New Orleans

Well as I said before, they always made you go to trial and this case was no exception. Railroad companies hated to pay because of their perceived status in the world, and just because they were cheap and reactionary. Their attorneys just liked to keep their meter running in order to keep churning out “billable hours”.

Trial commenced and a jury of six good Jefferson Parish residents were selected. The railroad company was still demanding that we prove it was their train that ran over Fred. I called Burell to the stand “under the act for cross examination,” which meant I could treat him as a hostile witness and cross examine him. The engineer explained to the jury about the train going into big hole application and that it was caused by the valve handle underneath the train coming partially open. A cardinal rule of trial lawyers is,when in trial, “don’t ask questions you don’t know the answer to”. Sometimes your gut tells you this rule should be violated. In his deposition, Burell had stated he had never had one of these valve handles come open in the past. This same answer wouldn’t help or hurt me or the defendant so I thought, “why not the question again”. I asked the question again, and low and behold, much to my surprise, Burell thought hard, wiggled in the witness chair and said the air valve handle had come open once before when he was operating a Great Red Neck train. “What caused the air valve to come open on the previous occasion” I asked, pressing my luck a bit. Burell lowered his head even further, wiggled his massive body further into the witness chair, turned red in the face and said in an almost inaudible voice, “I ran over a pig in Alabama.”

His response was so meek the court reporter had to ask him to repeat it and he said in a stronger more resolute voice” I ran over a pig in Alabama.”

There was a slight gasp from an elderly lady juror. Larry immediately asked the judge for a short recess, which was granted without any objection from me. After another more lengthy recess, Larry returned to the courtroom to tell me he had been in telephone conference with House Counsel of the railroad and they were willing to settle with us for the amount we had offered to settle for before trial. I told him the price of poker had just gone up a bit, but after consulting with Winona and some of her relatives and friends we came to a figure that seemed fair to her. The railroad company agreed to the sum and we dismissed the jury with our thanks.

Winona’s check came in a couple of weeks. She didn’t get rich. I didn’t get rich. The truth of the matter is that in those days, in death cases, the survivors were compensated for the pain and suffering of the deceased, loss of companionship of the deceased and loss of anticipated earnings of the deceased. It was pretty obvious Fred died quickly, probably while asleep and therefore had little or no pain or suffering. How do you put a price tag on companionship? Fred was an unskilled laborer and didn’t have prospects for making much money for the remainder of his life.

Winona was not frivolous with her settlement. She bought a little shotgun house in “Shoozberry” and the last I heard all her kids had graduated from high school. One went on to a junior college. Her friend who kept me healthy and my office clean would tell me, as the years went by, that Winona was still doing day work to keep body and soul together and was quite active in her church.

Larry has departed this mortal earth and gone on to wherever all good lawyers go. I guess Elmer continued to frequent The Dew Drop Inn and relate the story of Fred’s demise and his encounter with The Great Red Neck Railroad.

Counsel for WInona Patterson, Tom M.

Counsel for WInona Patterson, Tom M.

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Native American Judge

 Emerald Beach Motel, Biloxi

Emerald Beach Motel, Biloxi

Well, it was June again and the Jefferson Parish Bar Association had gathered at the Emerald Coast Motel in Biloxi, Ms. to hold its annual conference, while the rest of Louisiana attorneys and judges met at the more elegant Buena Vista Hotel down the road.

The Emerald Coast Motel had been the gathering place for our rowdy crew from the time my law partner Wally LeBrun persuaded our bar association to meet annually at this quaint little family-owned motel on the Gulf of Mexico. The Mancuiso family, who were Wally’s clients, built this family retirement business from profits of slot machines, that is until the righteous Senator Estes Kefauver investigated corruption in the gambling world of Jefferson Parish and in effect closed down their business.

The motel was a pleasant little affair with only two stories and no elevators. It had ample parking, a swimming pool, a small meeting room we used as a hospitality room, and a decent little restaurant. Members of our bar association with certain connections saw to it that our hospitality room was well stocked with booze and food. If we felt in need of local entertainment and beverage, there was a little lounge right next to the motel called Sharkey’s.

Emerald Beach Motel

Emerald Beach Motel

In my drinking days, some years prior to the tales I am about to tell, I was prone to consume great quantities of liquor at our bar conventions. One June after drinking three days straight, I woke up with the grandaddy of all hangovers. I desperately searched for booze to no avail. The morning was hot and mucky and I was in agony. I sought refuge in the ice making machine on the first floor. But when I stuck my head in the cool machine to relieve my misery, nature took over and the inevitable occurred. I up chucked all over the ice cubes in the bin. Later when some of my confreres lamented that some fool had violated the ice maker to the point that the owners of the motel had to replace it, I acted surprised and indignant.

By the time I now relate to you I had put a cork in the bottle and had been elected to the bench. At the time of this story, I could only look in amusement as booze deprived my fellow barristers and judges of their  good sense. Our hospitality room was the perfect venue for this enterprise.

Buena Vista Hotel and Motel

Buena Vista Hotel and Motel

Jimmy Wiedner had served as an Assistant District Attorney in my court. I had talked Sam Stevens into the low paying job of representing indigent kids brought before me. About ninety eight percent of the youngsters that came before me were poor. The other two percent went to private schools and had well-to-do parents that could afford expensive, private counsel. I had come to understand that these kids are the most disenfranchised people in our country. They had half-baked parents and no money to afford attorneys.  But that is the subject for a full length book.

Jimmy and Sam were good friends, but battled in court daily. On the occasion of this Bar meeting, the friendly adversaries decided to sail Jimmy’s newly acquired twenty-six foot Columbia sailboat from New Orleans to our conference on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. This would not have been a remarkable feat for experienced sailors, but this crew was far from accomplished. Jimmy had just purchased the second hand craft a few weeks earlier and I doubt that Sam had ever set foot on a sailboat.

Columbia Sailboat

Columbia Sailboat

When Sam and Jimmy were eight hours overdue, we became concerned for their well being.  When they were twelve hours late we called the Coast Guard. They were found aground in Lake Borgne, but the good hands from the Coast Guard freed them and delivered them safely to us so they could regale us with their harrowing adventure.

Sam and Judge Pat Carr were good fishing buddies. They shared a fishing camp at Dulac just South of Houma, Louisiana. The pair spent weekends at the camp catching fish, telling stories and sipping whiskey and beer. Well maybe they did more talking and sipping than catching.

One evening before dinner, Sam came to our hospitality room where Pat sat talking to folks and nursing a beer. Sam tended to get a tad belligerent when he drank–which was about every day. He was fairly sauced when he tried to talk Pat into going somewhere with him to see a girly show. Now this was about as close to a girl that Sam cared to get. He was a confirmed bachelor who lived at home with his mother.

Pat declined the invitation, which caused Sam to retort, “You are chicken shit.” Pat, being good-natured and knowing Sam’s propensity to insult people when he drank too much, just ignored Sam. Pat had lived through trying life experiences that enabled him to cope with horny folks. During a bombing mission over Germany in WWII, Pat’s plane was shot down and he had to bail out. He endured the insults of the Nazis for the two years he spent in their prison camp, so whatever his friend Sam had to say just bounced off him like rain on a bird’s wings.

Sam persisted. With a wide-brimmed straw hat atop his flame red hair, Sam stuck his left hand on his hip and leaned his pudgy body forward. He thrust his pale face flaked with red within a foot of Pat’s head. Sam’s crystal blue eyes dazzled with excitement when he reiterated, “You are chicken shit.”

Those of us in the room were astonished to see Sam treat a sitting judge with such disrespect even though he was his fishing buddy and friend. We held our breath to see what the easygoing Judge Carr would do. Judge Carr, a lean muscular man, was not one to back away from confrontation. He finally had enough of Sam’s verbal abuse and just calmly told Sam, “Sam you are drunk. Just go to your room and sleep it off. If you don’t, I just may have to knock your block off.”

Sam jerked up straight, looked up Judge Carr in the eye, gave a little snort, turned and silently walked out the door. Sam, even in an inebriated state, knew when his friend who had grown up on a dirt farm in Mississippi had had enough. Sam also knew that Pat did not issue idle threats.

Lionel Collins was the first black judge elected to the 24th District Court Bench of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. Well Lionel was not real black. He was more the shade of cafe au lait with a slight tinge of red. Lionel had I had duked it out in court on many an occasion when I was an Assistant District Attorney trying felony cases and he was defending his innocent clients. Lionel thought all his clients, who happened to all be from our black community, were innocent. He tried to convince me of their innocence every time we met in court, which rarely met with success.

Lionel was always well-prepared. He was a good attorney–well grounded in substantive criminal law and criminal procedure. Although passionate about his representations he was level headed for the most part and held no grudges when he lost a case. When trials concluded we always had frank discussions about what went right and what went wrong in the case. We respected one another and learned much from each other.

At some point in this convention, Jimmy, Lionel and I became bored and decided to go next door to Sharkey’s Lounge to see what the locals were up to. By this time I was comfortable hanging in places where booze was consumed. After all I sobered up in New Orleans, where the city was awash in booze. I learned I could listen to New Orleans Jazz at some of my favorite haunts in the French Quarter with no apprehension. All I had to do is to sit at the bar with a ginger ale and a twist of lemon and nobody cared about what I was drinking.

Jimmy, Lionel and I found a small, round, cocktail table at Sharkey’s and were soon greeted by a young cute, freckled faced, red headed, petite Mississippi girl who introduced herself as Bobby Sue. For those of you not from the South, you must understand that our parents insisted on giving us children two front names.

Greetings from Biloxi Mississippi

Greetings from Biloxi Mississippi

Now sitting with a black man, no matter how light-skinned a sitting judge he might be, in a lounge in southern Mississippi in those days could cause problems. But child-like Bobby Sue was a cheerful, chatty person who did not seem to be upset with our trio. We later learned she came from just below Laurel, Mississippi. After she dropped out of high school, she left her family’s dirt farm and her seven siblings and came to the Gulf Coast to make her way in the world.

Jimmy, always playful, decided to introduce Lionel to Bobby Sue and his father. Jimmy embellished the story by telling Bobby Sue that Lionel was full-blooded Cherokee Indian.

“Wow,” Bobby Sue exclaimed “I never met an real Ingine before. Do you live on a reservation somewhere? Will you be all right if you drink alcohol?”

Lionel, quick to go along with Jimmy’s little charade, told Bobby Sue, “I will be all right with just one drink and no I don’t live on the reservation anymore. My son Jimmy here, came and got me off the reservation and brought me to live with him in New Orleans. He got me a job making costumes for a group that call themselves Indians and march in Mardi Gras parades. I enjoy the work and it pays enough to keep me going with Jimmy’s help.”

“Wow” Bobby Sue exclaimed, “I never been to New Orleans before much less a Mardi Gras parade. Soon as I make enough money I am going to New Orleans and go to one of them parades. I hear it is a real hoot.”

“You must do that.” Lionel told Bobby Sue. “You will not want to leave The City That Care Forgot once you get there.”

“The City That Care Forgot, What does that mean?” Bobby Sue asked.

“You will know after you have gone to your first Mardi Parade?” Lionel told this curious little Mississippi girl.

Bobby Sue hustled off and brought the Cherokee Indian and his son their drinks and me my ginger ale with a twist.

At lunch at Whiteside’s Restaurant back home during breaks from court, Jimmy, Lionel and I regaled our fellow barristers and judges with the story of how the full-blooded Cherokee Indian and his son came to know the delightful Bobby Sue.

Judge Lionel Collins

Judge Lionel Collins

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