Moscow in 1982 – Some Views

I don’t usually post just photos in this blog, but I mentioned earlier that we’d add some from Moscow for this one time.

Grand Kremlin Palace in the Kremlin

Grand Kremlin Palace in the Kremlin Complex

Assumption Cathedral of the Kremlin

Assumption Cathedral of the Kremlin, the oldest church in the Kremlin.

Industrial Worker, Moscow 1982

Industrial Worker

Downtown Scene in Moscow

Downtown Scene in Moscow, 1982

Moscow Apartment Buildings

Typical Apartment Buildings Across Moscow River

Moscow Apartment Buildings across Moscow River

Tsar Bell in Moscow

Tsar Bell

Tom in Moscow Night

Tom on Bridge at Night in Moscow

Freighter on Moscow River

Freighter on Moscow River in front of Kremlin

Near GUM Department Store

St. Basil’s and the Kremlin

St. Basil’s and the Kremlin


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I Would Like to Buy Your Blue Jeans


Moscow Near GUM’s Department Store

Last post, we saw some of the Russian “judicial” system. This time, as promised, we will go shopping and meet a young Moscow resident who wanted to buy my blue jeans. We will also get to stand in the cold for hours to visit Lenin’s tomb.

GUM’s is the westernized acronym for some Russian words I can’t pronounce, much less spell, despite my limited study of the language.** The only department store in downtown Moscow in 1982, GUM’s occupied four floors of an ornate building about a mile down a wide street from Red Square and the Kremlin. I decided to do a little shopping one day and took off, the cameras hanging from both shoulders. On my way to GUM’s, I encountered a young Russian man who could not speak a word of English, but had a very resourceful way of communicating. He had a small spiral note pad with sentences and phrases of English written on each page. He would flip through his pad then show you what he wanted to convey. After he stopped me on the busy street, he ran through his pad until he got to the page that said, “I would like to buy your blue jeans.”

 I chuckled at the enterprising fellow, but made him understand that I could not do that. Today, I imagine that savvy young man is a middle-aged capitalist entrepreneur sporting around Moscow in a red Ferrari with a gorgeous, young, blond Russian girl.

 In our briefings, we were told we might get such a request, but we were strongly admonished that to sell western goods, especially blue jeans to Russian citizens, would be considered to be a serious offense by Soviet officials. We had been told that some folks had been jailed for such offenses. Some enterprising westerners had even been incarcerated for only bringing in the labels of Levi Jeans that the Russians could sew on their inferior denim pants. 

GUM Department Store, 1982

Although I had planned to buy some gifts for friends at GUM’s, I became disappointed after touring the busy store. Because of safety concerns, much of the merchandise would not be allowed on American shelves. I could imagined that the night clothes constructed of flimsy, cheap, early version rayon would burst into flame if they came close to open fire. The pickings were indeed slim here. 

No soda fountains, restaurants or food courts provided sustenance at GUM’s. I became desperate for something to drink and eventually found the only water dispenser on the premises. A large ceramic, cylinder contained room temperature water, but a single plastic cup used by all the public provided the sole method of consumption. I decided to wait for my return to the hotel to slake my thirst. 

The pilgrimage to Lenin’s tomb was a solemn ritual. Our group received permission to visit the holy site along with about ten thousand Russian citizens. Fall cold shivered through our bodies as we stood in a line that encircled the Kremlin walls. Hours passed as we inched closer and closer to the subterranean vault located in the Kremlin wall, at the edge of Red Square. We joked with one another both to keep warm and to maintain our resolve to accomplish the feat of briefly viewing the body of the historic man. Some rumors suggested that a wax replica, not Lenin’s actual body, resided in the glass enclosed coffin, but we dare not jest about such a sacrilege. 

All mirth ceased as we got closer to the tomb because armed, stony-faced soldiers formed us into two lines and demanded silence. Hard-pressed to keep straight faces, we had to bite our lips and think scary thoughts to keep from snickering. The harder we tried, the worse we wanted to laugh. Eye contact with one another would have been a disaster, so we looked straight ahead as the stern soldiers shuffled us along. Any hint of disrespect near or in the tomb would certainly have resulted in our arrest or maybe even worse. The soldiers demonstrated serious intent and dedication to their duties by holding their AK 47s at the ready and issuing sharp, authoritative instructions. 

Russian Soldiers Near Our Hotel

Definitely no cameras allowed here. The guards whisked us past the body, or whatever was in the glass coffin, and then we exited the tomb into the crisp fall air of Red Square and breathed a deep sigh of relief. Whatever or whomever I saw in that glass case seemed remarkably preserved to me. To this day, I still wonder what I saw.

We visited the subways of Moscow which not only provided efficient transportation for millions, but also housed great works of art in the form of giant sculptures of historic Russian figures. No graffiti blemished the beautiful mosaic art that walled the substations. I imagine destroying this beautiful public property would have been a grave offense and dealt with in the harshest manner. 

Crowd at Moscow Subway Station

We thought leaving Moscow would be easier than getting in. Not so. Well, it was somewhat simpler, but still a hassle. We arrived at the airport about three hours before our flight to be inspected to insure we were not departing with such contraband as Russian currency. I looked forward to getting on the plane and letting out a great shout of joy to be free of such a restrictive society. But as I approached the plane door three people stood there scrutinizing each of us as we boarded the plane. A uniformed soldier, a stout man in a black leather coat (obviously KGB), and a woman police officer lined up at the door of the plane. Their message was not, “Hope you had a good stay in Russia. Return soon.”

We got on the plane like sheep and sat quietly in our seats for the three-hour ride to Frankfort, Germany. We all remained restrained while we occupied Soviet air space, but as soon as the wheels touched down on German soil our group shouted with glee and relief. 


When I review my photos of Moscow I see that they are all in black and white.

Downtown near GUM

No color photos like those taken in England, Sweden and Germany. In 1982, the Russian people had little reason for mirth. Nevertheless, I found them to be proud, resourceful, intelligent, industrious folks who seemed to yearn for better lives. 

Construction Workers

From what I can see on television and the internet, times are a changing in Russia now.  Yes, they have had tough times converting to a form of capitalism and such a transition certainly invites corruption. Putin certainly has his hands full, but I don’t count these people short. In a short time, they could become the most influential nation of the world, especially if they continue to create political and economic pacts with China and Middle Eastern nations. As we used to say not all that long ago, “The Russians are coming. The Russians are coming.”        

**The translated name of GUM was Gosudarstvennyi  Universáľnyj Magazín, literally, State Universal Store.             

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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. 

Judge Tom in Sweden

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.

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.

Arriving in Moscow

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.

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.

Scene in Downtown Moscow, 1982


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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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.


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.


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

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

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

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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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


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.

House of Lee

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.



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.


Posted in To Speak the Truth | 2 Comments


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

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