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

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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

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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

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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

 

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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

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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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Bob Zibilich

G. Taylor

Gorman Taylor

“Where I come from we call that sort of fellow an O.B.K.” I must have looked perplexed, because my friend Gorman quietly continued. “Yeah, you know; O.B.K.—Oughta Been Killed,” my friend and former prosecutor Judge Gorman Taylor explained to me. We were sharing our experiences as young prosecutors, and I had just finished my tale of Mabel and Vick Bezou.

The story I related to Gorman described how Mabel stabbed Vick to death on Christmas Eve night at The Canal Bank Inn that served the workers of the industrial West Bank of Jefferson Parish, La, and the trial that resulted from the killing.  Many patrons saw Mabel dispatch Vick with her six inch butcher knife in the lively river front joint that smelled of marijuana and stale booze. Forensic evidence confirmed Mabel’s fingerprints on the knife and Vick’s blood type splattered on Mabel’s dress.

Vick and Mabel lived “common law” for many years and brought four youngin’s into the world. Vick had a history of being mean and abusive to Mabel and the kids. Mabel had no history of violence, but did carry a knife in her purse for protection since she couldn’t afford a Saturday Night Special.

The cogent legal question in this case was: On the night in question did Mabel have a sufficient, legal justification to use her knife in self defense?  A Grand Jury said she didn’t, so my boss assigned me the task of trying Mabel for murdering Vick.

Butcher Knife

Butcher Knife

Bob Zibilich was a friend of mine and one of the best, if not the best, trial lawyer I ever encountered. Every time I stepped into a courtroom with Bob, he taught me a lesson or two. His lean six-foot-four frame, long, wavy brown hair tinted with grey, a shaggy aristocratic mustache, and tweedy clothes made him an imposing figure. His deep, warm, resonate baritone voice reminded one of a grandfather reciting Aesop’s fables to his grandchildren.

The Jesuits formally educated Bob in Greek, Latin and the classics, and even persuaded him to try the seminary for a brief while. Despite his astute education, he communicated in any vernacular with ease and grace. Not pretentious nor condescending, Bob was always warm, sincere and truthful. People, especially juries, instinctively liked and trusted him.

As was the custom in Mabel’s neighborhood, her friends and relatives put on a community “fish-fry” to raise money for her defense. Bob’s defense was going to be simple–justifiable homicide in the exercise of the ancient right of self-defense. Put more crudely, Bob intended to convince the jury that Vick was an O.B.K.

The day before trial, after Judge Cocke ruled on all pretrial motions, Bob and I repaired to the local watering hole, Whitesides, to imbibe, listen to courthouse gossip, and tell tales. Young lawyers kept Bob’s glass full as long as he would tell courtroom stories, which could be all night. I gave up around midnight when Bob was just getting into high gear.

The next day we came to court before the appointed time. It wasn’t wise to show up in Cocke’s court even a minute late. I sat at the counsel table, nursing the mother of all hangovers and promising God I wouldn’t do that again if he would just relieve me of my misery. Bob came strolling in, chipper as usual, and looking as though he had just stepped out of a photo session for Esquire magazine. I knew he must have been hurting as much as me, but the rascal didn’t show it.

We went through the voir dire process with the jury venire (pool of prospective jurors) and selected twelve solid citizens to decide Mabel’s fate. I gave my opening statement and now it was Bob’s turn to explain his defense to these twelve fine people. Bob rose to his full six-foot-four, with nary a note in his hand, strolled behind me, patting me lightly on the shoulder as he went by, and stood directly in front of the jury.

“My name is Bob Zibilich, and I am here representing Mabel Bezou who is charged with murdering her common law husband Vick Bezou.”

He then turned in my direction and extended a hand toward me and said to the jury, “Tom, here is the Assistant District Attorney and he will bring many witnesses and much evidence to show you that Mabel did, in fact, kill Vick on Christmas Eve at the Canal Bank Inn  here in Jefferson Parish. That’s Tom’s job and he will do it well–as he always does.”

Bob went on, “After Tom does his usual good job and proves to you beyond any reasonable doubt that Mabel stabbed and killed Vick… the only thing I can do is show you WHY Mabel had to kill Vick.”

Bob went on to explain his theory of self-defense and why Vick needed a good killing because of his continual and recent battering of Mabel and her children. By the time Bob got through with his opening statement I even sat there thinking to myself, “That no-good S.O.B Vick needed a good killing.”

We tried the case for two days and concluded final arguments and instructions to the jury on Wednesday evening. The jury deliberated for four hours and concluded Mabel had acted in self-defense and rendered a verdict of Not Guilty and set her free. Bob had convinced them that Vick Bezou was indeed an O.B.K.

Mabel’s neighbors and friends had another fish-fry to raise money for her and her kids. I later learned that she eventually took up with a kind, hard-working man who was good to her kids and helped bring them up. As far as I know, she stopped carrying a butcher knife and never got in trouble with the law again.

The Case Fell to Me

As Far As I Know

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Dolphin Divers

In the Swamp

In the Swamp

“This here scar is where my sister jugged me and took my pack of cigarettes,” I told them.

“This’n here is where Auntie Bueler’s good-for-nothing jailbird boyfriend shot me with his little old 22 pistol,” I explained. Here we was at Thanksgiving, sitting in this cold swamp at Morrison Springs in Florida, and these crazy folks with me wanted to know all about how I got this scar and that scar. I got so many scars I can’t remember how I got them all.
Anyways, I went along telling them ‘bout my scars because the nutty old Judge who brung us to this scary place seemed to pay attention to my story, and I thought it was smart to please him. There we was, me, Gerard Haber, five other juvenile delinquents, the weird Judge, his assistant scuba instructor, Mr. Raymond Solaris, and one of the teachers from our special school, Mr. Morris. All of us freezing our asses off in this swamp. One of the other kids, a scrawny little old girl, kept complaining, “I’m cold, and I ain’t going in that cold water.” It was so cold we had to build a fire to warm up our wetsuits that had gotten stiff as a board.  I guess all of us kids was there for the same reason: to con the old Judge into not sending us to Juvie Jail.

The old Judge had this idea that he could keep us kids from stealing, beating up on people and smoking dope ifin he could just teach us to read better and show us how to get jobs. He built us two big old schools where they taught us all kind of stuff, like how to read better, cook, work on cars, take care of plants and yards, work with animals, and work on oil field crew boats and fishing boats. You see, down where we come from there was  lots work to do on boats. Anyways, the old Judge had’em build a big old deep swimming pool so’s he could teach those of us kids who stayed out of trouble how to SCUBA dive, and work on boats. Said he got the idea from some people he knew down in Florida.

Scuba Equipment is Cool

Scuba Equipment is Cool

Learning to use SCUBA equipment was real fun and kept most of us out of trouble for a while. Those who was just hell-bent on getting in trouble, got kicked out of our SCUBA club. We did have some badass kids in our club, but nothing we did seemed to surprise the Judge and Mr. Ray. I remember one day, after SCUBA class we were standing in the parking lot and the Judge said, “Ah, damn, I locked my keys and wallet in the pool locker room.” Now they had built this place with special locks and all because it was in the neighborhood where most of us kids stayed. I am here to tell you that place could get pretty rough. One of our class, a quiet kid by the name of Dave, who was on probation for burglary, said, “Don’t worry, Judge, I’ll get them for you.” In about three minutes, Dave came back with the Judge’s keys and wallet. The old Judge just said, “I don’t even want to know how you did it, Dave.”

After much talk, we agreed to call our club ‘The Dolphin Divers.’ I thought ‘Tiger Sharks’ was a good name. Others wanted to be called ‘Killer Whales’ and some said we should be ‘Barracudas,’ you know, real scary animals. The old Judge explained how intelligent, playful, and friendly to man the Dolphin was. He told us there were stories of how Dolphins had even helped rescue drowning seamen. I think, some of the time, the old Judge was just funning us, but he was partial to the name ‘Dolphin Divers,’ so we settled on that name to please him. It growed on us after a while. We even got jackets and hats with Dolphins on them. As I already said, pleasing the old Judge seemed the smart thing to do. It got us in a swimming pool and out of jail for a while.

But this SCUBA training was tough and some of the kids said “to hell with it” and dropped out of the club. This didn’t seem to bother Mr. Ray and the Judge, because they told us things was going to get even tougher and they wanted only the best of us to stay. Sure enough, it did get tougher. They made us swim with them mask, fins and snorkel and then swim some more. But, I’ll have to say, they swam every stroke with us just to show us it could be done. The mask always leaked water in our faces, but they taught us over and over how to clear the mask until it came natural to us.  We spent a lot of time in class reading manuals, but some of us couldn’t read so good-they say I have something called dyslexia-so we had video instructions, telling us all about pressure under the sea, breathing compressed air and what it could do to you ifin you didn’t breathe right and come up slow. They taught us about how to operate our equipment and take care of it. We even learned how to talk with our hands underwater.

We learned to share our air with one another. They called it buddy breathing. They would take us all six of us to the bottom of this deep pool with our scuba equipment. Then they would come down and turn the air off our tanks one at a time until all six of us was breathing off one regulator. This took some team work, talking with your hands, and staying cool.

Learning to Scuba Dive

Learning to Scuba Dive

They told us about the animals we would see in the sea, and which ones was no danger and which ones not to fool with. We kids talked a lot about sharks and barracudas, but the Judge and Mr. Ray said most of them wouldn’t hurt you ifin you left them alone. One kid asked, “What if we come up on a great white shark?” The Judge said, “We have a procedure for that…you stick your head between your legs.”.One of the kids asked, “Why would you do that?” The old Judge said “That’s so you can kiss your butt goodbye, cause if that great white wants to eat you, he is going to eat you.” He went on to tell us we would not be diving with any great whites. Then there was more swimming, until we were finally able to swim half a mile in under eighteen minutes. We swam so much every day our fingers looked like prunes when we got out of the pool.

After we got good enough with our equipment and swimming, the Judge took us on his sailboat to practice snorkeling in Lake Ponchartrain. All of us kids acted brave, and talked big talk when the Judge took the boat out to where we could hardly see land. Some of us had never been on a boat, much less a sailboat that far out. Everybody got pretty quiet when the Judge and Mr. Ray anchored the boat and said we was all going to get into the water and swim about a hundred yards up current. There was a little chop on the water. It definitely was not smooth like the pool, but things went OK going out and we all seemed pretty calm. Coming back was another deal. When we turned around to swim back, the boat looked like a toy boat miles away. Everybody started to breathe hard and we all sounded like one of them old steam locomotives I use to see in old picture shows. I could hear whistling sounds coming form our snorkels on our way back. We all got back fine. But, getting on a sailboat from the water, with your gear, even with a ladder, took a little doing and we had to help one another.

The Judge's Sailboat

The Judge’s Sailboat

The only time we could go on our check out dive was over the Thanksgiving holidays, so that’s how we ended up in this cold swamp, but what the hell, none of us had any turkey dinner to come home to anyway. Our Thanksgiving dinner would a come from the corner Pack-a- Sack ifin we was lucky.

We first dove in Morrison Springs, then went a few miles away and dove in Vortex Springs. The water was cold and our wetsuits never got dry before we had to put them on again. The water was so clear you could see the bottom thirty or forty feet down like you was looking through a window pane. At first, this kind of takes your breath away, because you feels like you are hanging in mid air. Mr. Morris tried to go diving with the old Judge in Vortex springs, but freaked out when he got over the deep part. The judge got him back to the shore, but Mr. Morris decided scuba diving was not for him.

Learning to Scuba Dive

Learning to Scuba Dive

We tried to get a boat trip in the Gulf of Mexico, but the weather was too bad, so we got in our bus and went to Gulf Shores, Alabama, and stayed the night in a motel hoping the weather would get better. The next morning, they took us to what they called a breakfast buffet, where we could eat all we wanted. That place surely lost money on us. One of the kids, Malcolm, was about six feet tall and about two hundred pounds of pure-dee muscle and bone. He could eat like a horse. I thought he was going to kill himself eating the sausage patties and scrambled eggs. Next he took in on the pancakes and syrup. We all did a good job on that buffet.

The weather was not good offshore, but the old Judge knew about an old boat wreck just off the beach in about eighteen feet of water. The surf was a little rough and the water was cloudy so Mr. Ray and the Judge decided they would take us to the wreck one by one and hold our hands at all times. I went with the Judge, and when we got down to the sunken boat, we could only see ‘bout four feet even with our strong lights. The old wreck had all kinds of holes in it but they had taught us not to stick our hands in places we couldn’t see. We all carried diving knives for safety and to use as tools, but were told if we ever took them out for any other reason, we were out of the club, period. I remember some of the people around the school, who didn’t approve of what the Judge was doing saying, “The Judge is teaching them what…and gave them knives too?”

I took my knife out of its scabbard on the calf of my leg and started to poke in some of the holes. The Judge was still holding on to my left hand when this big old fish jumped out right into my face. I wet my wet suit and started to shoot to the surface, but the Judge held on to me and started laughing so hard in his regulator I thought he was going to strangle and drown his fool self. When we got back to shore he told me my eyes had gotten as big as coffee cups. We had a good laugh about what had happened. We would talk about it when I came back to visit him after I got off probation and got a job on a riverboat as a deckhand.

I don’t know how the other kids got along in life, but I did pretty good after I got away from my crazy family and got on the river. I remember the old Judge telling me on that trip to Florida, there was no shame in having a crazy family. And, according to him, I had no obligation to love them or even put up with them. The only thing I should do was to take care of myself, get a job I liked, and do the best I could in life. Things haven’t been perfect in my life, or even very good some of the time, but I haven’t ended up a jailbird or dopehead like a lot of my family and friends.

I heared the old Judge turned Juvie Court over to some younger judge and moved to Florida with his wife near those cold sinkholes he took us to that Thanksgiving.

The Judge, Ray and Dolphin Divers

The Judge, Ray and Dolphin Divers

 

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Mike and Panda Bear

Brothers

Little brothers are always a problem. But precocious little brothers with vivid imaginations can be downright vexing and embarrassing, especially when you are seven and they are three. During our childhood spent at our grandparents’ house on the banks of the Ouachita River in West Monroe, Louisiana, my brother Mike developed a most useful strategy. He invented imaginary playmates. Mike and his new found “friends” would have long conversations in the shade of the huge pecan trees next to the house. They would converse in different dialects, most of which I didn’t understand. This didn’t bother me at the time. It didn’t even seem strange at the time, probably because there were no other kids around to observe Mike’s conversations. And didn’t all kids do this to some extent anyway?

Oh, occasionally I heard grownups make mention of what an imagination Mike had, but I thought they were complimenting him on being so smart.

Morgan Drew, a traveling salesman friend of the family came to visit and brought me a Charlie McCarthy mannequin and Mike a stuffed panda bear. Mike promptly named his bear Pandy.

Pandy stood about a foot-and-half tall with a white face and a soft brown and black body. Pandy had dark brown supplicating eyes and a smile with a slight hint of a smirk. As inscrutable as his master, Pandy was a sturdy little rascal, which he needed to be because he became Mike’s constant companion. To be sure, Mike had other playmates, like Stanley, the family German shepherd. And then there were the doodle bugs, the centipedes and the chameleons which, to my knowledge, didn’t have specific names. Other assorted toy soldiers rounded out the playgroup, but Pandy always presided over the gathering.

Mike cared for Pandy in the most loving ways. He saw to it that Pandy got plenty of imaginary food and that he had a blanket over him when he went to imaginary sleep. Mike and Pandy, and the other creatures, would have long sessions of activities and conversations in the shade of the old pecan trees. These talks were most animated and expressive. Mike would talk to Pandy in Mike’s natural voice, but Pandy would respond to Mike in an entirely different dialect and voice. I envied this ability. I couldn’t get Charlie McCarthy to talk to me this way, no matter how hard I tried.

Mike and Tom

Mike and Tom

Mike’s play time with Pandy and his other “friends” could go on for hours. Some of the other creatures had different tasks. For example, Mike would make carts out of small match boxes. He would then fashion a harness out of string and gently place it around the neck of one of his chameleons and encourage it to pull a cart loaded with marbles. Mike would gently move the doodle bugs around like bowling balls.

During the World War II era, every child had an extensive collection of toy soldiers, which could be mobilized into war games. Pandy would preside over the battles, supreme commander style, between the Allies, Germans and Japanese. General Pandy even had his own jeep fashioned from an old Coca Cola crate.

In 1943, Dad moved the family, including Pandy of course, to New Orleans so he could work at one of the good paying jobs in the shipyards.     Our family rented half a duplex next to the Latuso family. Their house sat on a double lot with lots of shade trees–which provided refuge from the brutal New Orleans sun. The shade also provided a venue to play marbles, mumbley peg, stickup, and other childhood games. These were the games most kids played, but this refuge also gave Mike and Pandy space to build new vehicles and invent their own unique games. They lived in their private fantasy world for hours on end, making plans for future adventures.

The Latusos were of Sicilian decent and had a boy and two girls. The youngest girl, Lana, was small with great dark brown eyes, light hair and olive skin. Lana was a beauty. She was smart and quiet and just a little younger than Mike. Lana, Mike and Pandy became great friends. They were inseparable the first summer we were in the City That Care Forgot. Unlike Mike’s older brother, Lana had no trouble whatsoever understanding and speaking panda language. Lana, Mike and Pandy would spend many hours in the shade of the trees having three-way conversations, seemingly in accord with one another. Their sessions rivaled in intensity the strategic planning of military leaders preparing for battle or corporate executives plotting a hostile takeover.

Brothers in Metairie

Brothers in Metairie

The sessions with Mike, Pandy and Lana went or through our first and second summer in our new home. Most of the playtime with Pandy occurred outside under the trees in the dirt, which, over time, made for a grungy Pandy. But baths were out of the question. Since Pandy had to get transported everywhere, and I do mean everywhere, he was getting pretty travel-worn, and pieces were coming off him. Mother had to sew on an ear, and do extensive surgery to his right arm. One of the button eyes went missing and the replacement eye was a bit off-color. Mike seemed to accept the off-colored eye, saying “I’ve seen dogs with different colored eyes.”

By the end of the second summer, raggedy, filthy Pandy became a topic of conversation with the older kids. Lana staunchly defended Mike and Pandy. And would fight with anyone who sought to ridicule either. Most of our older friends had come to accept Mike, Pandy and Lana’s unique relationship and behavior. However, as new kids joined our neighborhood “gang”, they would make mocking comments to me such as “Hey boy, your brother is weird. He talks to a stuffed bear.” If they introduced me to some of their friends, it would always be with the caveat, “his brother talks to a stuffed bear.” I had become known by all as the Brother-of-Boy–Who-Talks-to-Stuffed Bear, like a Native American in a Saturday movie matinee.

The Metairie Gang

The Metairie Gang

This situation became unbearable. I implored Mother to do something. Mother would speak to Mike, but Mike would still converse with Pandy. I told Mother that all the kids were talking about Mike and Pandy and suggesting, nay, saying that Mike was strange. I had used the word ‘strange’ thinking this would shock mother into action. But even so, Mike’s attachment to Pandy remained resolute. Attempts to part them only led to great consternation and crying.

I was in a quandary.  I didn’t know where to turn. I was a desperate boy and this situation required desperate measures. In the dead of night I went to Mike and Pandy’s bed and slipped Pandy from under Mike’s sleeping arm. I secreted raggedy, dirty old Pandy in the attic of an old storage shed in the back yard. How was I to know that the following month kids, playing with kitchen matches, would accidentally burn down the shed?

Of course, Mike was beside himself when he awoke and found Pandy missing. Mike cried a lot. I even feigned searching for Pandy with mother and Mike, but I knew Pandy had been accidentally cremated and was now in Panda Heaven.  Mother consoled a lot and promised to get Mike a new panda bear. This would not do. Panda himself was gone and couldn’t be replaced by some imposter.

I remained silent. I never confessed my hurtful deed. After seeing Mike’s pain, my shame eroded into guilt. I tried to use the bath of the confessional to wash away the guilt. That didn’t work. I often wondered who got hurt worst by my kidnapping Pandy, Mike or Me.

About forty years after I parted Mike from his faithful companion and confidante, I was having lunch at Tavern On The Green in New York City. While paying my bill upon exiting the restaurant, I noticed they had stuffed panda bears for sale. They looked exactly like Pandy. I got one for Mike. I gave it to him the following Christmas with a full confession and request for forgiveness.

Mike and Tom in Cozumel

Confession is indeed good for the soul.

My Brother Mike

My Brother Mike

My brother Mike is a genius.

His imaginative mind has helped this country send men and women into space and create a space station.

Mike has always been my hero.

I Love Him Like a Brother

Like a Brother

I love Him like a brother.

Posted in Paperboy to Prosecutor | 1 Comment

DAVE

I sat in the right seat calling out altitude and looking for runway lights. Tommy McKithen sat like a stone statute in the back seat. Dave calmly spoke to the tower and lined up the two needles on the ILS (instrument landing system). We were in a cocoon of pure white rain as thick as wet cotton.

“Seven-hundred-feet-no lights”, I informed Dave. “Five-hundred-feet-no lights”, I continued to advise. “Three-hundred-feet…runway lights dead ahead”, I announced happily. Dave greased his Stinson Voyager onto Runway 10 at Moisant airport in New Orleans in a blinding rainstorm. Dave needed to get home so he could fly right seat to Houston for Eastern Airlines the next day.

As a sixteen-year-old in the New Orleans squadron of the Civil Air Patrol, I had just soloed a J3 cub and been with Dave many times when he slid his little blue Voyager gracefully onto a runway while discussing the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas or some other philosopher. He was the best pilot I flew with in those days. Dave also instructed us kids in the CAP squadron in the basics of aerodynamics, navigation and meteorology, all the while throwing in information about current findings in the world of parapsychology or whatever other scientific discoveries had occurred recently.

Civil Air Patrol Drill Team

Civil Air Patrol Drill Team

Once, he took a couple of us with him to visit his friend at the Benedictine Abbey north of Covington, Louisiana.  Later in life, I learned Dave had studied for the priesthood near Cleveland, Ohio. While at the Abbey in Covington, Dave went into the chapel and, to my astonishment, began to play the great organ with passion and dexterity. One of Dave’s priest friends approached me and said, “Dave does justice to Bach, don’t you think?”

After entering college, I lost track of Dave for about four years until my former wife and I invited Dave to be a part of our wedding party in 1955. Neither of us had seen Dave during that time when he developed alopecia and lost all of his body hair. On the night of the wedding rehearsal at Holy Name of Jesus Church on the Loyola University campus, Dave’s late arrival was announced by the roar of his motorcycle. We all looked up in silent disbelief to see this ghostly figure wearing cowboy boots strolling down the aisle toward us.
Dave’s skin glowed chalk-white with not a bit of hair to give it texture. With no eyelashes or eyebrows, his face looked like the beginning of an artist’s portrait where only the deep, dark eyes had been painted in on stark white canvas. Dave had plopped an outlandish red toupee, which must have come from his back pocket, atop of his completely bald head. His appearance startled all of us.

“You know I would like to be in your wedding tomorrow, but I may have to take a flight to Houston. I wish you well,” Dave said. This was Dave’s way of telling us, “You really don’t want this freakish looking fellow standing in your wedding and I am letting you off the hook.”. We would have been happy to have him, but of course he didn’t show up.

Civil Air Patrol Drill Team in New York

Civil Air Patrol Drill Team in New York

Dave drifted back into my life in 1960 when he came to my law office with two members of the Cuban Revolutionary Forces and asked me to represent them in a suit in which their landlord sought to evict them from premises on Canal Boulevard in New Orleans. Dave explained, “I am helping to train these folks in military tactics at a site north of Lacombe, Louisiana. Come out and visit our training camp, Tom.” I declined that invitation, but did represent the two Cubans in their eviction case.

From time to time, Dave returned to my office seeking pro bono representation for someone. During these visits he talked vaguely about his current activities. On one occasion he asked, “Do you know ‘The Little Man’—Carlos Marcello?”

I replied, “I only know him by reputation, but have never met him.”

Dave asked, “Would you like to go to Churchill Farms (Marcello’s secluded camp in a swamp south of Westwego, Louisiana) and meet him?”  I declined that invitation also. These conversations with Dave about Marcello led me to believe, with a great degree of certitude, that he knew the Mafia boss well and that Dave was probably the man who flew Marcello back into the country after Bobby Kennedy “deported” him.

Dave Ferrie was a strange, enigmatic man. I know that Jim Garrison, Oliver Stone, and probably many others, thought he had something to do with President Kennedy’s assassination. I don’t know about that, but I do know Dave trained Cuban Revolutionary Forces and associated with Carlos Marcello. Beyond that, I know that Dave was curious about everything, and flew an airplane as smoothly as Lindberg and played an organ like an angel.

Civil Air Patrol in New Orleans

Civil Air Patrol in New Orleans

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THE HONORABLE HORACE T. WELLINGTON

A View of New Orleans from the Westbank in Gretna

The Honorable Horace T. Wellington fought with me from the get go in the homicide case I tried before him. I could not figure out why. Had we not been Assistant District Attorneys in the same office for three years before the Honorable Horace was elevated to the bench by the good citizens of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana? True, the Honorable Horace had tried just enough cases to preserve his credentials as an Assistant Prosecutor, but never ventured into the deep waters of serious, controversial cases. The Honorable Horace kept a low profile.

In close conversations with select friends at lunch at Whiteside’s Restaurant, across the street from the Courthouse, the Honorable Horace expressed his opinions freely on most any subject. He also, in subtle ways, reminded us at his table that he came from better stock than us. Was his father not a member of the prestigious New Orleans Cotton exchange?    Had the Honorable Haorace inherited the same position from his sire? Did he not attend Ivy league schools? Did the Honorable Horace not own race horses and go to the Kentucky Derby and hob nob with the elite of the King of Sports each spring? Had the Honorable Horace not acquired a home in the elite country club neighborhood of Jefferson Parish, Louisiana? In his own mind, all these attributes and many others set the Honorable Horace apart from the rest of us mere mortals.

But why was he fighting me on this particular case? I had tried cases before him on many other occasions and he spared me this kind of grief, despite the fact that I did have to spend time educating him on the law and criminal procedure. Why had he now decided to take me on in open court?

True, this was an unusual homicide case. The Honorable Hoarace had not tried many homicide cases either as an ADA or Judge. This case called for the death penalty should the defendant be found guilty. Through eyewitness testimony, physical evidence, scientific evidence and admissions made by the defendant Nunzio Occipinto, I intended to prove that Nunzio, who was eighteen years old, did administer to James Norton, who was sixteen, a class 1 narcotic drug of Methadone. James Norton died as a result of ingesting the Methadone given to him by Nunzio. At that time, the Louisiana Criminal Code mandated the death penalty for anyone over eighteen giving anyone under seventeen a class 1 narcotic.

The strange aspect of this case was that Nunzio traded some of his Methadone with James for some street drugs James was holding. During this period, our society was engaged in the Methadone maintenance cure experiment, whereby folks addicted to street drugs were provided methadone in hopes they could relieve their addiction to hardcore street drugs. It seemed that Nunzio preferred his more familiar street drugs to the puny methadone the state provided him. In any event, Nunzio negotiated the trade with James and James ended up dead.

As is normal, the first day of the trial was taken up with selecting a jury that could find for the death penalty if I proved the case beyond any reasonable doubt. The jury could come back with a guilty verdict but without capital punishment. Since most jurors in my jurisdiction were reluctant to impose the death penalty, no matter what they might say in the voir dire examination, I did not expect to get a capital punishment verdict. But, I also did not expect to have to fight with the trial judge to just get a verdict of guilty.

During the whole trial, the Honorable Horace would sustain the defense attorney’s ridiculous objections while sarcastically scolding me before the jury, insinuating that I was handling my prosecution unprofessionally.

At one point the Honorable Horace overruled one of my objections and announced in front of the jury that he had a good mind to dismiss the case. That was my breaking point. I was angry, but I dare not show the jury how infuriated I was with the judge. I had l had long sense learned that juries don’t like angry attorneys. So I smiled and politely asked for a side bar and requested that the jury be excused so defense counsel and I could discuss some procedural issues with the the Honorable Horace.

When I approached the bench, the Honorable Horace shuffled papers on his bench and avoided eye contact with me. This three day fight with the Honorable Horace continued to vex me. When I approached the bench with the defense counsel,  I reminded the Honorable Horace, “I know your Honor is aware that only the Assistant District Attorney can dismiss the case. You don’t have the authority to do this. Of course you can direct a verdict at the end of the trial, but you do this at your own peril.”  This infuriated the Honorable Horace. He shuffled papers more vigorously, and looked anywhere but in my eyes and then blurted out, “Alright, but let’s get along with this silly trial.”

After four days of trial, the jury found Nunzio Occipinto guilty of the charges, but found, as I expected, that the death penalty was too harsh. The Honorable Horace imposed a three year sentence, which meant that Nunzio would be back on the bricks in about one year.

The fight with me during the whole trial and light sentence mystified me until months later I learned that Nunzio’s father, a well known horse trainer, and the Honorable Horace were good friends. Nunzio’s father even trained one of the Honorable Horace’s horses.

Of course the Honorable Horace should have recused himself from this trial. But, alas, on rare occasions, even judges don’t do the right thing.

Old New Orleans Fairgrounds

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