THE FENCE

Tom

Tom

It was a proper fence as farm fences go. Four strands of barbed wire stretched between wooden posts set ten feet apart, with a stretch post about every one hundred feet. Abe and I erected the fence to keep Bob Hollister’s brahman bull from roaming in and eating all the lush rye grass I had planted on the twenty acres north of Lake Ponchartrain I affectionately called my “Farmette”.

Building the fence went pretty much as Abe and I had planned, except for the time a strand of barbed wire popped while we stretched it. As soon as I heard the pop, I knew instinctively what had happened. I threw my arms around my head for protection. The sharp wire recoiled around my body but the thick jeans, heavy denim shirt under a rawhide jacket and leather gloves that covered my hands and wrists prevented injuries that required medical treatment.

Abe had been operating the stretching tool quickly ran back to where I lay on the ground ensconced in the vicious wire. “God damn cheap ass Jap wire”  Abe said to me as he retrieved a wire cutter from his rear pocket to cut his engulfed boss out of the maze of wire.

After Abe cut me free, I told my old friend, “Piss on this job for today. Let’s sit over yonder in the shade of that little oak by the lake and have a little snort.” I did not want to admit to Abe, who had been raised on hard, dangerous work, that the incident had scared the hell out of me. I could feel spots on my body where the sharp barbs had pricked my skin.

I limped over to the edge of the lake with my trusted friend. We sat on a hunk of porous, rusty material,an odd “rock” about the size of a camel back trunk,  which I had always fantasized was a meteor from outer space. It came to surface when the contractors building I-12 just south of the property purchased three acres of fill soil from me, creating a sixteen foot deep lake.

I loved the lake because the road contractors paid me enough money for the soil to pay for the farm itself and the Federal Department of Conservation stocked it with bream, bass and perch. Ain’t the Federal Government just grand. Providing the fish proved to be a most precise operation. The federal conservation officials required that I arrive at the Parish Courthouse in Covington three times exactly at 4:23 p.m., (not 4:22 or 4:24) to pick up my fish. I had to arrive with five gallons of water from my pond no colder than 72 degrees f and no hotter than 76 degrees. The feds first delivered the red-eared sunfish. Three weeks later the perch arrived. The final delivery of bass came after another month. During this process, I wondered, “Why can’t the federal government be this organized in all its affairs?”

As we sat on the rusty rock, I slid from my right rear pocket the half pint of Old Crow whiskey that pretty much had a permanent home there. I always thought that the clever folks that bottled the soothing elixir had the good sense to curve one  side of their bottles so they fit the ass cheeks of those in need of having a drink of whiskey close by.

In accordance with southern custom, I passed the bottle to Abe first. Abe took only a short swig then passed the bottle back to me. I took a long draw on the bottle, then screwed the cap back in place and returned the curved bottle back to its sanctuary.

“Tom, I thought you was really hurted when that wire popped back there. Lucky you had the presence of mind to throw up your arms in time. I have seen some barbed wire just eat up a fellow when it popped like that. You just can’t trust that foreign wire. It just too brittle,” Abe observed.

Out of character for him, Abe chatted as the two of us sat on my meteor. “Tom, this here is some mighty fine rye grass you planted in this here pasture. Look how thick and dark green it is. I knows that Mr. Hollister’s big black bull is gonna want to get to this fine grass. That is one mean critter. You know he roams all over these free range woods just doing whatever cows he comes up on. He must be daddy to a hundred calves in these woods. I don’t think he has ever been penned up.”

I just nodded an acknowledgement and Abe went on, “Why did you decide to plant rye grass on this twenty acres anyway? You ain’t even got any live stock to feed.”

“Well Abe”, I explained, “I just think rye grass is pretty stuff and it stays green all winter long. It smells good too and I think it keeps the place cooler in the summer. Anyway, I might bring in some animals next year”. I knew this was a lie because I did not like the responsibility for caring for animals on the “farmette”. The “farmette” was an escape from my job. It was a place where I could do what I deemed to be useful physical activities and drink as much as I wanted with nobody to judge me. But it was also a place where I almost killed myself twice while drinking Falstaff beer, driving a tractors towing a disk on one occasion and a old bed spring I used as a harrower on another. But that is another story.

“But Tom,” Abe advised, “You could have put in alfalfa or bahai and made hay to sell. Why rye grass?”

“Well Abe,” I explained, “Rye grass is the only kind I knew anything about. I learned about it when I was in the Army, stationed at Camp Gordon, Georgia. When they assigned me to the Receiving Company, I became the most junior officer. This meant I got the shit details– one of which was Area Beautification Officer. Since I was on active duty between the Korean War and Viet Nam we had nothing to do except to sit around and wait for the next conflict or war or whatever they wanted to call it. To break the monotony,  I decided to bring a little life to our area so I seeded it with rye grass. We soon had the greenest company on base which pleased Captain Maxaminie, my CO and made my life easier.”

Abe sat thinking about this a spell while he pulled a sack of Bull Durham smoking tobacco from the top pocket of his faded denim shirt. With a precision acquired over many years, he retrieved a cigarette paper from the side of the pack, cupped the paper just so with the fore and middle fingers of his left hand, pried open the draw string on the sack with the index finger of his calloused right hand just enough to pour an exact amount of tobacco into the paper. He put the draw string in his teeth and zipped the pouch shut. With the index and fore fingers of each hand, Abe rolled a thin cigarette that tapered at each end. He sealed the smoke with a lick across the edge of the paper. He took a long kitchen match from his left shirt pocket, scratched it across the right thigh portion of his coarse jeans and let the tip of the flame light he end of his home made cigarette. He took only one long draw to consume about half of the carefully constructed smoke.

I watched with envy as Abe rolled his perfect cigarette. I had never perfected this skill. I had perfected the skill of drinking. Once again, I pulled the curved bottle of Old Crow back out and offered Abe a first swig. Abe motioned “no” with his left hand and took another drag on his smoke. I took a long snort on the Old Crow.

Not that it was really any of my business, I always wondered about Abe’s heritage. Having worked with Abe on several projects at the “farmette”, I knew that he possessed great physical strength. But at five foot-eight and weighing in at one-hundred-sixty pounds, he didn’t look particularly strong. Abe’s gnarled hands displayed many years of farm labor without the protection of gloves. But his body seemed round and soft, not angular and chiseled as one would expect of a hard-working man.

Abe’s saddle leather colored skin suggested he had some African ancestors. His high cheekbones suggested some Native American genes. His blue-green eyes, however indicated maybe some French blood. For sure he was of “mixed blood,” as the early laws of Louisiana would describe him.

We sat silently watching the sun settle beneath tall pine trees to the west. I reached for the Old Crow once more and offered Abe a final snort which my friend again waived off.  I drained the remaining contents, stood up, stretched and announced “I have had enough of this shit for today. I am going down to Henry Keller’s for a few beers. Care to join me?” I invited Abe.

“I better be getting home. I told my mother I would cook a gumbo tonight for her church women’s meeting tomorrow,” Abe said, declining the invitation–knowing from past experience that having a few beers with me might last way into the night.

Abe ambled up the pasture to his shaggy old brown Ford pickup. I sat on the meteor and watched the sun vanish beneath the sea of pine trees to the west. I then drug himself erect and trudged toward my ancient three-quarter-ton chevy pickup I referred to as “The Green Monster”. The massive work of Detroit had eighteen-inch wheels, dual fuel tanks and batteries. After I bought the truck from Mack Oliveries, I soon learned the need for dual fuel tanks. The green Monster devoured fuel, obtaining only eight miles to a gallon.

I first met Mack and his son David when I prosecuted the two punks from Texas who held Mack and his son up at gun point at their service station on 4th Street in Harvey, Louisiana , just four blocks from the Courthouse. Luckily, neither Mack nor his son were hurt and the two dummies from Texas were caught just down 4th Street attempting to rob another station. When you went into Mack’s service station you got the full treatment, gas, tires checked, oil and water checked, windshield fluids checked and all windows fully cleaned. Mack, whose ancestors were Mexican, hailed from Beeville, Texas. He always had a cheery greeting and his uniform looked as though it had been just laundered and pressed. I eventually sold “The Green Monster” back to Mack so he could deliver loads of heavy truck tires to industrial customers.

Henry Keller was always happy to see me arrive at his Conoco Service Station, which also provided a small bar and food store. He knew “The Green Monster” required large amounts of gas and I consumed copious amounts of beer. Although he did not sell “hard liquor,” Henry Keller’s Conoco Station and Barroom was the gathering place for a select membership of Lacombe, Louisiana society.bayou lacombe

When Henry’s mother, Thelma, ushered Keller’s Conoco station, store and bar into existence just after WWII in the late forties, Lacombe was just a lazy village along the banks of the picturesque Bayou Lacombe. Folks there existed mostly by fishing crabs, shrimp and oysters out of Lake Ponchartrain. They lived like their parents and grandparents had for a hundred years. Since there was no Lake Pontchartrain Causeway and only an old rickety, two-lane bridge across the neck of the Lake at Slidell thirty miles to the east, a trip from New Orleans became an all day and into the night event. Lacombe was like an insect caught in amber and encased a long ago time.

But Thelma, a tough old gal who outlived two husbands, eked out a meager living pumping gas, selling groceries and dispensing very cold beer. When her only son Henry returned from duties in the big war, Thelma tutored him in frugality and gradually turned the business over to him. From then on, Henry operated the business by himself seven days a week from dawn until the last drunk left at night.

But Henry is a story unto himself. When I first met Henry, he was in his fifties but looked eighty. He ambled around his business unshaven in old wornout house slippers.. Because he did nothing except supervise his little business enterprise and engaged in no physical activity, Henry’s five-foot-eight inch frame carried mostly fat. Henry hired Matthew, a local mulatto gentleman in his fifties to do anything requiring physical skills. Matthew seldom talked and worked slowly but steady.

If one encountered Henry before noon, he was apt to find him still in his pajama  top. He did not rush into any activity. He talked even slower. If you asked him the price of an item in the store, none of which had any established prices written on them because Henry made it a game to negotiate prices as items were sold, he would mull things over for a while then  say, “Well I think that can of beans  is worth about eighty cents.”

Henry had gout in his right leg and confided in everyone that he was in fact was diabetic. If this was so, and I suspect it was, Henry obviously heeded no medical advice. He sipped Jax beer all day long and into the night.

Local lore suggested that the frugal Thelma had stuffed much cash in the walls of the small apartment that she and Henry occupied at the rear of the store. The locals assumed Henry had continued this practice until he died. Upon Henry’s demise, the community learned that these stories were not mere conjecture. The wall of the living quarters were filled with cash.

An only child who never married and had any children that he knew of, Henry did not amuse himself by chasing women. Women were expensive to live with. When he needed sexual release, he would drive the twenty miles to Slidell and find a professional to accommodate him.

We in the community did notice when a female attempt to take up with old ,cranky Henry. We all assumed that Mable had heard the stories of walls full of money and attempted to cash in on he deal. Mable came from Fabourge Marigny, just outside the French Quarter in New Orleans. We found it hard to establish her age through all the black hair dye, thick mascara, excessive rouge and bright red lipstick. My mother would have described her as “A Floozy,” a woman of loose morals. Not our kind of folks. We thought a cousin of hers who lived in Lacombe put her on to Henry. Mable muddled around Henry’s establishment doing odd but not taxing jobs for a couple of months. Henry did his best to ignore her and she gave up her quest after a few months.

After I left Abe at the “Farmette” I drove the Green Monster to Henry’s and ordered a Falstaff beer to continue soothing my frazzled nerves. I had few more beers while I told Henry of my travails with building the fence. As usual, Henry had advice on how to build a fence, although he had succeeded in escaping manual labor all his life. Henry reminded me of a man my Uncle Harry told me about. Uncle Harry’s friend told him, “I  avoid work, because a working man sweats. A sweating man stinks, and nobody likes a stinking man.” Henry seemed to have adopted this philosophy.

Green Chevy Truck

Being a bit more relaxed, I drove the Green Monster the three miles back to the farmette only to find Bob Hollister’s great, black Brahman bull breaking through my fence to again ravage my rye grass. In frustration, I returned to Henry’s for a few more beers. After a while, Hollister himself came into Henry’s for a beer. I seethed and drank more beer.

Bob Hollister was not a bad man. He was a quiet fellow about five-eight of trim, muscular  build. His work on offshore oil rigs, and his life on this farm kept him fit. Locals knew Bob to be a tough fellow about my age. He and his ancestors had lived on their farm about five miles north of me on St. Tammany Road since the late eighteen-hundreds. Their cattle had foraged the open range above Lacombe without restriction until I enclosed the Farmette.

In those days when I put whiskey or beer in my body, my mind convinced me that I was ten feet tall and bullet proof. On occasion this illusion did not serve me well. This became one of those occasions.

Once I had consumed enough liquid courage, I decided to confront Bob Hollister about his bull’s bad behavior. I quietly said to Bob across the l-shaped bar, “Bob, you know that big black bull of yours just tore my fence down again. This is getting old. The next time he does that I guess I am just going to have to shoot that critter.”

Bob turned his head to the left and looked me square in the eye without blinking for what seemed like a minute or two then drawled, “Well Tom, you know that is free range out there and if you shoot my bull you will have to deal with me.” Somehow Bob’s stony cold words penetrated my alcohol-soaked brain. Some power outside me ordered to me to remain silent and I obeyed.

There is an old saying that “God takes care of fools, babies and drunks.” This must be true because on that occasion He gave me the good sense to finish my beer, get in the Green Monster and drive back to the Farm without further discussion with Bob.

The next morning, I cleared my head with strong French Market Coffee and Chicory. I surveyed the damage to the fence and performed a few chores around the Farme then headed to Henry Keller’s for a cold Coca Cola and bag of potato chips. Bob was there filling up his Chevy truck and loading up some chicken feed. I had regained my good senses that booze had deprived me of the day before. I approached Bob with a friendly smile and apologized, “Bob, I was way out of line yesterday. I think Mr. Falstaff was talking out loud. Of course I do not intend to shoot your bull, but I have to figure out a way to keep him from tearing up my fence every time he feels a need to munch on my rye grass.”

“Have you ever thought about installing an electric fence around your place?” Bob asked. “They work pretty well. Once a animal touches it once, they don’t want to have any part of it any more. It is easy to install and does not cost much. Abe knows how to install one. He helped me put in one out at our place,” Bob advised.

“Are they dangerous to humans?” I queried. “I would hate for my kids or anyone else to get hurt.”

“No,” Bob replied. “They operate on high voltage, but very low amperage,” Bob explained. “Whatever touches the wire just gets a big thrill they won’t forget anytime soon, but they don’t get hurt,” Bob assured me.

I left Keller’s and drove up Fish Hatchery Road to Abe’s house. I found him working in the fenced-in vegetable garden that supplied fresh produce for his family, with some left over to sell for cash. “Abe,” I said, “Bob Hollister tells me you know how to install an electric fence.”

“Yes Tom, I can help you with that. If you get the material we need, we can start next Monday and do it in about two days,” Abe advised. He told me what we needed to do the job so I went off to the Slidell Feed and Seed Store to buy the necessary equipment. About four thousand feed of wire, several hundred ceramic insulators and a transformer to convert 120 volt current into low amperage electricity to feed into the wire.

Abe and I spent all day Monday and most of Tuesday stringing the wire on the ceramic insulators on each fence post and bringing it back to a small shed near the gate of the driveway entrance to the property, where we installed the transformer.

As daylight dwindled on that bleak November afternoon with buttermilk clouds hovering low above, Abe and I were about to hook up the final connection bringing the electric fence to life. Just then, I noticed Bob Hollister’s big, ugly bull come out of the piney woods north of Dixie Ranch Road and approach the fence. I shouted to Abe, “Here he comes. Hook the damn thing up. Hurry up. Get the damn thing hooked up before he tears the fence up again,” I implored. Abe frantically completed the connection.

The destructive sixteen-hundred pound critter cautiously approached the fence as though he sensed that something was new about the structure he had destroyed with ease in the past. He eased closer and pawed the earth in front of the fence. He sniffed the barbed wire, but did not touch the thin electrical wire. Emboldened, he stepped forward fully into the fence where the thin, but malleable electrical wire engulfed his huge chest without breaking. Every two seconds electrical current at high voltage surged through the massive bull. Stunned and disoriented, the massive animal leaped straight into the air, all four feet off the ground. Again and again the current surged through the bull’s huge body. The enormous black animal danced and pirouetted, pounding the ground into a mud puddle, but the elastic wire would not relinquish its tenacious hold on his body. Every two seconds, the current contracted the critter’s muscles into spasms, causing him to fly like a ballerina into the air.

Abe and I were beside ourselves with glee cheering the dancing bull on. The evil one finally extracted himself from the offending wire and clinked back across Dixie Ranch Road to the safety of the piney woods–never to be seen at the Farmette again.

Abe and I celebrated by driving to Henry Keller’s, having a few beers and telling everyone there, including Bob Hollister, of our defeat of the big bad bull.

Brahman Bull

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STREET CARS AND ELECTRIC VANS

What is the big to-do today about hybrids and plug-in vehicles? As early as the late thirties, the Chalmette Laundry in New Orleans employed battery powered vans to deliver clean, well-pressed clothes to its customers throughout the metropolitan area. The stubby little walk-in vans returned to their home each night to lap up generous infusions of electrons for the next day’s work. They hummed a melody as they hustled along and emitted no fumes.

At various times since the early 19th century, no less than twenty-two streetcar—not trolley—lines covered the Crescent City like a giant spider web. Riding a streetcar offered a relaxed pleasure we find ourselves too rushed to experience today. The more modern, homely, dark green cars were built by Perley A. Thomas Car Works of High Point, North Carolina. They seated fifty two passengers, but most of the time accommodated many more passengers who stood and hung on to leather straps securely attached to brass, overhead rails. The cars ran on tracks in the neutral grounds (medians for non-natives) of many major thoroughfares in the city. The venerable old cars sucked their power through a long pole the conductor released to connect with the overhead supply of electricity.

St. Charles Street Car

Most cars had names signifying where they were going to or coming from. In New Orleans, because most streets follow the crescent bend in the River, directions are not given as points on the compass. One goes uptown or downtown (upriver or downriver) or to the River (The Mississippi, of course) or to the Lake (Ponchartrain). To confuse things more, the streets Downtown from Canal Street are referred to as “North this-or-that” and the streets Uptown from Canal are called “South-so-and-so.”

When I arrived in “The City That Care Forgot,” for seven cents a passenger received a ticket that enabled him to transfer from line to line—which made it possible to tour most of the city via streetcar. One sat on the polished oak seats by the large windows, which remained open most of the year in the near tropical city. The old iron cars lumbered along the tracks under ancient live oak trees bearded with Spanish moss. The cars gently swayed from side to side. Steel wheels squeaked across steel tracks as the unique cars rambled along, creating a sweet jazz lullaby. The symphony of the wheels and bells, the chug, chug of the compressor pumping air to the braking system, the rhythmic swaying, and warm flower-scented breezes coming through the large windows caused most work-weary or study-weary travelers to doze off on balmy spring afternoons. “Clang, clang”, the conductor would tap the pedal at his foot at each intersection to warn, “Brakes on this cumbersome old iron machine are none too efficient—motorist and pedestrians alike be aware.”

Ancient live oak tree from the street car

In addition to taking us to school and work, these wonderful old, non-polluting contraptions slowly, but reliably, conveyed us to places and events of interest and fun. They brought us to the Audubon Zoo where as Louie Prima reminded us in song the monkeys All Aksed for You. On Saturday afternoons, they carried us to Tulane football games with friends. These trusty vehicles transported joyful folks to Mardi Gras parades, Jax Girls softball games, and to see the Pelicans play baseball. The West End car conveyed hungry diners to the Lake Front for the best seafood in the world.

Audubon

Streetcars had interesting names—the most famous of course being “The Streetcar Named Desire.” Who could argue with the elegance and charm of a streetcar named Saint Charles? Two streetcars, one called the Canal streetcar and the other called Cemetery, shared tracks that ran the length of Canal Street from the River to the end of the line at the Cemetery. Maybe a silly choice, but I preferred riding the Canal car.

Riding the Streetcar today

In 1946, at age thirteen, I stepped onto a street car on Canal Street thinking it was a Canal Street Car. Instead of going out Canal Street, the car turned right into the French Quarter. I was frightened, not knowing which car I had mistakenly taken or where I was going. By the time I got the conductor’s attention, we were well into the Quarter. He said “Son, you’ve taken the Desire streetcar, but it will eventually return to Canal Street. Here’s another transfer to get you home.”

Years later, I learned that at the time of my inadvertent ride on the Desire Streetcar, Tennessee Williams, just two blocks from my route, was writing Streetcar Named Desire. The famous play would immortalize the large, rambling, clumsy, gal on wheels that transported me through the narrow streets of the French Quarter.

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ZANY LAWYERS

Most people have an image of attorneys that is formed by news accounts, television stories and movies. Some of the time that image is of a stodgy, conservative person lacking mirth. Of course some TV shows portray my brethren and sisters at the bar as completely over-the-top. These are not the lawyers I have come to know professionally and personally. I appreciate and on occasion envy my friends and even foes at the bar for their wit, spontaneity and ability to be zany in serious situations.

Dean, a short fellow about as tall as he was around, comes to mind. After Japanese attacked the destroyer on which he served, Dean came back from WWII with a metal plate in his head. This may explain some of Dean’s crazy antics before the bench and bar.

Fresh from Law School  in the mid 50s and always the opportunist, Dean opened a practice in the Queen and Crescent Building on Camp Street in New Orleans. He specialized in “Immigration Law”. In order to obtain clients, the energetic, enterprising lawyer had large signs painted in various languages announcing the services he offered. Dean personally displayed these signs on the wharfs along the Mississippi River to the crews and passengers of incoming foreign ships.  He somehow made a meager living with his “Immigration Practice”.

It came to pass that in the mid 60s, some dubious characters persuaded my boss, the District Attorney of Jefferson Parish, the District Attorney of Jefferson Parish, to hire Dean on as an Assistant District Attorney. Our boss did this against the advice of his other assistants. We knew that Dean the Clown would provide us with plenty of laughter but do little to enhance the professional reputation of our office, which at that time badly needed enhancement.

In those days, all of us assistants managed dockets which included Felony, Misdemeanor and Traffic cases. Just before Christmas,  I arrived at Traffic Court to handle my docket–only to learn that the day before Dean had Nolle Prosequied (dismissed) all my Traffic cases. He told the numerous defendants, including many Driving-While-Intoxicated offenders, that this was Bon Marche day and a Christmas present. I doubt that Dean gained any material thing from this devious behavior except the satisfaction of ingratiating himself with the public. Dean had an insatiable need for publicity, good or bad. Needless to say Dean’s actions distressed me, so I reinstated the cases, because he had not sworn the first witness in any case and, therefore, Jeopardy had not attached.

On a less sinister note, Dean, who always conversed in the language of jive that often required translation, could be self-deprecating and conjure up funny pleas when arguing before a judge. Once in closing argument after a civil trial that was obviously going south for him, Dean implored the serious jurist and elderly judge presiding over the trial, “Your honor, I throw myself and my client on the mercy of this astute court and beg that you don’t punish my client for having incompetent counsel”.

In another jury trial where Dean had done bitter battle with a prominent criminal defense attorney, Dean, in his closing argument to the jury argued, “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury my worthy opponent, the famous criminal defense attorney, Mr. G. Wray Gill, has reached way down in his extensive legal arsenal and come up with a pop-gun.”

Dean let his mouth overload his butt when New Orleans District Attorney “Big” Jim Garrison initiated his own investigation into President Kennedy’s assassination. Dean pretended to know something about some characters in Garrison’s imaginary conspiracy. Dean is now gone to wherever zany attorneys go once they exit stage left, but before his departure Oliver Stone portrayed Dean as a fat, jive-talking attorney in the famous movie JFK. In my opinion, the buffoon Dean was lucky to escape the wrath of the erratic Garrison.

Jim Garrison

Dean is no longer with us to bring zany antics into the courtroom, but he provided entertainment when he did roam the halls of justice.

Over many years of practice, my friend Bobby Brousard proved himself to be one of the best criminal defense attorneys in Louisiana. Dapper, slight of build, sharp of mind and always prepared, Bobby had a quick pleasant wit. Bobby had dark eyes and black, straight hair always combed neatly back. He had virtually no accent to reveal his Cajun ancestry.

Bobby preferred to practice alone in a small office across the street from the Jefferson Parish Courthouse. By the time I came to know him, he had attained such a reputation as a defense attorney, he accepted only cases where the money was good and up front. He became one of the few financially successful criminal defense  attorneys in our area. When he took a few days off practicing law every year, he traveled to the Saint Johns River area of Florida to catch bass.

During the times Bobby and I engaged one another in court, the Louisiana Supreme Court had assigned the crusty old judge J. Bernard Cocke to sit on all criminal cases in our jurisdiction.

Judge Cocke had been the District Attorney for twenty years in Orleans Parish until the public elected him to the Criminal Courts bench, where he presided for another twenty-four years. By the time Cocke came to Jefferson Parish, the whole State Criminal Bar and the Louisiana Supreme Court itself considered Judge Cocke to be the supreme authority on Criminal Law in the state.  The rotund judge saw himself as a thespian and acted in Shakespearean plays about town. The role of Falstaff suited him well. Cocke had a bitter sense of sarcastic humor, which he bestowed on prosecutor and defense attorney in equal measure.

By the time Cocke sat on the bench in Jefferson Parish, age and the bad habit of sipping Old Commisky Whiskey from a fruit jar at lunch had caught up with him a bit. He had a tendency to doze off during afternoon sessions.

One sunny May afternoon, Bobby and I were trying a motion to suppress some evidence. The glass-walled courtroom allowed us to visually enjoy the languid spring weather outside. Cocke enjoyed it too much. Not long into Bobby’s presentation, the corpulent, rosy-faced jurist fell fast asleep. His head fell across his black robe. Even spectators in the back of the courtroom could hear the snoring emanating from the bench.

Bobby turned to me and observed, “The judge has fallen asleep.”

“I know that. What do you want me to do about it?” I replied.

“Wake him up.” Bobby implored.

“Hell no. Not me. It is your motion. You wake him up,” I retorted.

Finding it inadvisable to shout at the slumbering jurist, the clever Bobby came up with a solution. He picked up a pile of heavy law books he had brought to Court and dropped them on the table in front of us. Cocke awoke with a jerk and mumbled something to the effect, “And what is your response to that argument, Mr. DA”?

Bobby is no longer with us. The fish in the Saint Johns River are safe and criminals in Jefferson Parish have lost an effective advocate.

Fishing in Florida

Jack, the burly ex-marine who fought in the South Pacific during WWII, found pride in being an arch-segregationist. He counted among his friends Judge Leander Perez, who built special prisons and schools for Blacks in Plaquemines Parish. Judge Perez and his two sons virtually owned Plaquemines Parish. Jack also paid homage to and supported the efforts of Governor George Wallace to deny Blacks access to higher education in Alabama.

Judge Leander Perez

Not the sharpest fellow in a courtroom, Jack waddled his two-hundred-fifty pounds around in front of juries groping for words to defend the numerous poor clients, both black and white, he scrounged up in his one-man law practice. He would go to trial only when forced to do so or when he thought he had a “sure thing.” Most of the time he would arrange the best plea bargain he could obtain for his clients. He would hold off entering the plea until his clients’ and relatives and friends could arrange a “fish fry” to raise the money for Jack’s fee. Once Jack received his fee, the the plea of guilty would be entered and Jack’s client would be sent off to jail.

Jack had little empathy for his clients and probably a good bit of disdain for them. On many occasion I would hear him tell a hapless client, “We are going to take this plea because we cannot win this case. You are just to dumb to be a criminal. You should look for some other line of work.” Like his clients were capable of other work.

Jack has joined his segregationist heroes in wherever they go and the Civil Rights movement has at least made strides forward.

I could fill a book with stories of trials in which my friend Ralph Barnett and I did verbal battle. Stocky and still as athletic as when he played basketball for Loyola–despite smoking expensive oval shaped cigarettes–Ralph developed a relationship with the local bail bondsmen, which supplied his with a steady flow of paying clients.

Since Ralph limited himself to criminal defense practice only, he required little in logistical support. He shared office space near the courthouse with his friend Fred, who handled only civil cases. They shared a secretary and confined their library to the few law books absolutely necessary for their work. West Publishing Company made little money off them. In the rare event Ralph saw the necessity to file an appellate brief, he found refuge in the Louisiana Supreme Court library located just across the Mississippi River.

When we had to meet in court, Ralph would stroll in late as usual, except in Judge Cocke’s court where everybody appeared on time. Cocke, a stickler for punctuality, once put an attorney in jail for a few hours for being a few minutes late in his court. Ralph invariably showed up sans books, yellow pads or pens.

On an occasion when we had an important motion to be argued before Cocke, Ralph appeared on time but with nothing in hand. I came armed with law books, pads and pens. When Ralph realized the gravity of the situation and how naked he appeared, he turned to me and observed. “You appear to be well-prepared. I don’t even have any books in front of me. Lend me some of your books so I will not look so bad. I also need a pad and pen.” I discreetly slid some books and supplies over to my friend and long-time legal foe.

I understand Ralph, like most of us of our era, has withdrawn from the battles of the courtroom and now lives with his wife somewhere in Tennessee.

Sometime I see television shows portraying attorneys doing zany things. I think to myself, Even these guys are not having as much fun as I had.

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Bailiffs

BAILIFFS

Black’s Law Dictionary defines these loyal folks as follows, “a keeper, protector, or guardian”. This aptly describes the bailiffs that protected and guarded me and my staff for a quarter of a century.

Court bailiffs have an unwritten code that compels them to go far beyond the formal job they hired on for. This code is similar to that of the Secret Service that protects the President and his family. Bailiffs feel obligated to protect “Their Judge” from all harm, remain discrete about his personal habits, and to provide for his convenience whenever possible. Should something bad befall “Their Judge”, they could not forgive themselves and they would be ridiculed by their fellow bailiffs.

In my jurisdiction the local Sheriff employed the bailiffs assigned to our courts. I always found it made good sense to stay on the good side of the Sheriff so we could agree on who would be assigned to my court. Frequently, the bailiffs assigned to our courts would be older Deputy Sheriff’s who had served many years in the field. What they may have lacked in the way of physical agility in their later years, they made up for in experience. They could spot trouble coming before it happened. Sometime I would get a young guy who could be excitable and rambunctious.

Such was the case with Kevin. Young, tall, sinewy, blue eyed, blond-haired and self assured Kevin loved his job. He assured me that my concern about him wearing his weapon in court was unfounded, because he had a special holster that, according to him and his boss the Sheriff, prevented anyone but him from retrieving the 9 mm semi- automatic he carried in his secure, high tech holster.

Kevin told the truth. When the six-foot, two hundred pound eighteen-year-old African American kid built like an oak tree went berserk in my court room, he didn’t get Kevin’s weapon out of the holster. He just tore the whole damn holster, gun and all, off Kevin’s wide black belt. Kevin wrestled with the kid. I reached for the long “Billy Club” under my bench while I pressed the concealed distress button under my bench. More deputies arrived in seconds and the young man was finally subdued, but for a brief time the angry kid was “boss of the courtroom.”

Al, my first bailiff, on the other hand had attained the age to retire from the Sheriff’s Department. Although elder, Al remained alert and aware of things going on about him. I felt secure with Al.

Slight of build and short of stature, Al’s neatly combed dark black hair showed  streaks of gray. He spoke in the brogue of Westwego, the little fishing village from which he hailed. Al always wore immaculately pressed inexpensive dark blue suits, and neck ties off K-Mart racks. He kept his 38 snub nosed colt holstered and concealed on his left hip. Al, a man of very few words mostly gave directions to those entering the courtroom with hand gestures.

None of us knew that Mark. the sixteen-year-old before me would throw a woolly bugger tantrum when I sentenced him to serve time at the Louisiana Training Institute, ( the euphemism for juvenile prison ). He had been severely depressed during the hearing that led up to the sentencing. But, boom, Mark, a pale, skinny kid about Al’s height exploded when he heard the sentence. He knocked Al, to the floor, sprinted out the door and reached the stairwell where he commenced to descend from the fifth floor that housed my courtroom.

Sam Stevens, the red-headed court appointed attorney who represented Mark followed in close pursuit. I checked Al, who had a heart condition and appeared a bit ashen to see if he was in need of medical assistance and to ascertain if Mark had gotten his gun. Al said he was OK and still had his weapon. I followed behind Sam, black robes flapping in the breeze, as we all chased Mark around and around down the stairwell.

When Mark reached the landing on the second floor, he ran into Bailiff Jay Hecker coming up the stairs. Mark slid off Jay into the men’s room at that level, broke the mirror and slashed both his wrist before Jay could get to him. When Sam and I arrived seconds later, Mark was squirting blood all over the walls of the little bathroom.

Jay and the medics got things under control and bandaged Mark with compression bandages on both wrists. As they led him to a waiting ambulance through the public reception area of the Courthouse, Mark cussed us all with imaginative, explicit language. I could only cheer him on telling him, “That a boy Mark. Give us hell. At least you ain’t depressed any more.” I sometimes wonder if Mark is still with us and how he is getting along.

Jay Hecker acted as my bailiff on a few occasions when the Louisiana Supreme Court sent me to sit in another court, to replace judges who had become ill or been sent to prison. But, Jay served Judge Fred Bowes as bailiff on the occasion a prisoner grabbed Jay’s 38 caliber revolver from his holster. As the story goes, Judge Bowes looked like Zorro, black robes flowing, when he swiftly departed the bench for the safety of his chambers.

The prisoner, despite the fact that he remained shackled to the other prisoners on what we referred to as the “Daisy Chain”, cranked the hammer back on Jay’s ancient police special and assumed full control of the crowded courtroom.

Wiley Beavers, an ex-Green Beret,Viet Nam veteran and attorney happened to be in Bowe’s courtroom that day. Raised in Mississippi, Wiley had been been familiar with guns all his life. He had represented children in my court for years. Wiley, a charming fellow with wavy prematurely grey hair, cold blue eyes that never blinked, stood about five-foot-ten inches tall. His taut body resembled the lean rodeo riders of old. Wiley owned and knew how to expertly use any firearm manufactured in the United States and most of the weapons produced elsewhere in the world. An avid hunter, Wiley supplied much of the meat for the annual Wild Game Dinner held in Westwego each year where public officials of all parties and their friends gather to drink and eat in a spirit of detente.

Wiley acted decisively and saved the day. He slipped up behind the prisoner, then simultaneously grabbed the man’s throat with right hand while wedging the palm of his left hand between the cocked hammer and frame of the revolver thus rendering the weapon useless.

It was all Al, my young secretary, little Vickie, and I could do to restrain the twenty- something, strong woman who went bananas in my court. Among other mental conditions, this feisty woman had a history of epilepsy. When she heard a decision I made announced in court, she commenced to run full force into the plate glass windows that served as exterior walls on the fifth floor of our modern Courthouse. Thud, she threw her full body against the pale green glass, but she was unable to break through the strong material.

Al grabbed her and wrestled her to the floor. where she began banging her head against   the hard vinyl tiled surface. While Al got his cuffs on her, I yelled to Vicki to get a pillow to put under her head and call the Gretna Police for assistance. By now she flopped around on the floor like a fish just caught and dropped on the deck of a boat. All three of us worked at restraining the distraught woman to prevent her from causing herself further injury.

By the time the Gretna cop ran through the door to the courtroom, we had pretty good control of the upper portion of the woman’s body, but she proved agile enough to raise both of her legs from the hips up and catch the unsuspecting cop squarely in the groin with her feet. He doubled over in pain, but his partner successfully completed the arrest and took custody of the disturbed person.

For some time after, Al, Vickie and I told the story of how the woman tried to jump through the glass wall.

Kelly was my bailiff when Joe Greffer called to tell me “Tom there is a guy out on the streets who wants to kill you”, I took it seriously. Joe and I had served together as Assistant DAs for a number of years. Laid back  and easy going, Joe did not engage in exaggerations.

I responded to Joe, “If you felt the need to warn me, I know the threat is serious. But is he capable of carrying out the threat?”

Joe said, “We just took a loaded 38 away from him  today”. Joe filled me in about the young man who had a beef with me because I had to terminate his parental rights in an adoption hearing. Joe informed me that the young man had worked in the Clerk of Court’s Office before being sent to Viet Nam, where he experimented with too many dangerous drugs–causing serious brain damage. Upon returning home, he just wandered the streets as a derelict, unable to care for himself or his wife and child.

Kelly, a stout grey-haired man had retired as a deputy sheriff with many years of experience on the road. I brought Kelly, and my secretary Regina in my office and told them all of the details Joe had given me about this potential threat. We agreed that I should keep my Smith and Wesson 9 mm semi-automatic in my office desk.

Sure enough, one busy morning while I was on the bench hearing cases,  my secretary Regina, came in the back door to the courtroom and started tugging on my robe excitedly, saying, “Judge, McGee, Mr. Foushion, be here.”

“What are you talking about Regina? I am in the middle of a trial. Who is Mr. Foushion?” I inquired.

“You know, he the man who want to kill you. He be carrying a brown paper bag,” she responded with a look of dread in her wide brown eyes.

I motioned for Kelly and whispered to him the situation we had and instructed him to get all our staff in my chambers. When all were safe in my chambers, I instructed Regina to call for the local Gretna police as I retrieved the 9 mm and dropped a round in the chamber. Because I had not had the opportunity to explain the situation to all the staff, Brenda, my blond-haired, blue-eyed law clerk, who continued to fly for Delta Airlines as a flight attendant on weekends, looked startled to see her judge toting a gun.

I instructed Kelly to go one way in our halls and I went the other but, on this occasion, the young disturbed man left the premises without incident. Some months later, he returned and lefty a scribbled note with our receptionist asking “How would Judge McGee like having his daughter taken from him?”

I had enough of this behavior, so after court adjourned I had the Gretna police bring the disturbed fellow to my empty courtroom where I talked to him alone. I explained to him his behavior had to stop. I emphasized that he had been fully heard at trial, that his case was concluded and he must get on with his life. We spoke freely with one another. He became emotional and cried. I never heard from him again after that discussion.

I just saw Ronnie, my last bailiff, who protected me and my staff for twelve years, at the annual Wild Game Dinner, which I had not attended in many years. We had time to reminisce about old times. He continues to act as bailiff for my successor, Judge Jansen, but says he has had enough and will hang it up after she retires.

Quiet, efficient, dapper and devoted to his duties, nothing got by Ronnie. He handled the hoards that came to our court daily with firm authority, always remaining polite even to the most unruly persons. If he thought we were going to have a problem, he would discretely approach my bench and warn me, but them assure me, “But I have it under control, Judge.”

Ronnie’s appearance and assured, but polite, manners let the public and attorneys know there would be no horseplay in his courtroom. Compact of build, Ronnie moved swiftly and gracefully like a cat, bringing people in and out of court in and orderly manner. His ink black hair and mustache always remained perfectly coifed. He spoke softly but with conviction as his coal black eyes engaged you without straying.

Ronnie prevented many situations from becoming disasters during the dozen years he cared for me and my staff. Ronnie felt he should not only see to my physical safety, he felt obligated to protect me from rebuke.

When, Mr. Boudreaux, the young attorney from New Orleans became dismayed by a ruling I had made against his client and muttered the words “Kangaroo Court” as he exited the courtroom, Ronnie, ever alert to all about him, heard the disdainful phrase. Ronnie immediately reported the disrespectful remark to me.

I requested that Ronnie bring Mr. Boudreaux back into the courtroom and informed him that I had not personally heard the words “Kangaroo Court,” otherwise he would be on his way to jail for contempt. I went on to tell Mr. Boudreaux, “I know you are new to ‘Kangaroo Court’, but this is the way we do things in ‘Kangaroo Court.’”

The young attempted to protest, “But Your Honor, I was just upset. I did not mean anything about it.”

“Well I understand, Mr. Boudreaux, but you have another hearing here in ’Kangaroo Court’ in six weeks, at which time we will have another lesson on the rules of “Kangaroo Court”.

When the young attorney appeared before me in six weeks I greeted him. “Mr. Boudreaux welcome back to ‘Kangaroo Court.’”

“Your Honor, I apologize. I don’t know what else to say,” he offered.

“Well let’s just get along with your case here in ‘Kangaroo Court’ and the ‘Kangaroo Judge’ will decide your case”, I responded.

When one intrusts his well being to another, you get to know that person in a special way. I miss the relationships I have had with my bailiffs and in some way feel I have betrayed them by moving off to distant Paradise.

I have invited some of them to visit, but they are too busy protecting new judges.

Judge Tom in the courtroom

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Victoria

 

Irish Wolfhounds

“Five thousand bond, cash or commercial surety,” Judge Cohen pronounced while signing orders without looking down from his lofty perch at the seventy-two-year old man before him. The old gent would have to put up five thousand dollars cash or come up with at least five-hundred cash for a commercial surety bond, neither of which he had.

Judge Marvin Cohen so wanted to imitate his mentor and former law partner Judge Earl Lefebre. Lefebre had ascended to the bench two years before Cohen. Soon after his robing ceremony, Lefebre gained the reputation of being tough on crime and handing out maximum sentences whenever possible. Lefebre’s behavior embittered him with the criminal bar and caused his brother and sister judges consternation, since Lefebre’s docket would backlog to the point that other judges would have to take his cases to dispose of them. Lefebre could pull off such ridiculous behavior better than Marvin, because he was twenty years older than his former law partner–and smarter.

Once Lefebre threatened to dismantle the firm in which both were partners when Cohen had entered into a particularly stupid and disastrous business arrangement without consulting his mentor. Cohen panicked and with tears in his eyes beseeched his older partner to keep the firm together. The younger lawyer promised never to do such a ridiculous thing again. Lefebre’s fatherly instincts kicked in and he relented and kept the firm in business.

Neither of the two men had seen the inside of a courtroom much during their practice together. Both left the unpleasant duties of appearing in court to associates in their small firm.  Earl and Marvin were content to make a lot of money from other assorted businesses, such as fast food franchises, long-haul trucking, and building beachfront condos. Eventually they tired of playing at the law practice, and sought the prestige of becoming judges. Both used their considerable fortune to purchase political influence and the expensive campaign consultants necessary to win their elections to the bench.

“The silly bastard is at it again. He still thinks he is Judge Roy Bean sitting west of the Pecos,” Victoria McNeil muttered under her breath to Catherine, her young friend from the District Attorney’s office. Vicki’s criminal defense practice made her aware of old people’s propensity to engage in kleptomaniac behavior, but no one could ever explain to her why they did this. She had a soft spot in her heart for the old folks afflicted with this compulsion.

Vicki’s contemptuous protests were not audible enough for the judge to throw her in the slammer, which he would have done with relish. During her first five years of practice, Vicki had clashed often with judges. Only Cohen brought out her true ire.

Wolfhounds

Victoria came from a family of attorneys who handled mostly lucrative personal injury, workman’s compensation and Federal Employee Liability Act cases. Vicki didn’t fit into the mold of the family firm, or in any mold for that matter.  For sure, on occasion, she liked mixing it up in the courtroom with some of the good old boy trial lawyers, as they were known before they acquired the more refined title of litigators. Her salty language could make even these courtroom-hardened attorneys blush.  Some assessed her as lazy, but Vicki had a keen sense of justice and mercy. She pursued these ideals in the most direct manner, avoiding complicated, time and energy wasting trials when possible.

“I will represent Mr. Duferene pro bono,” Vicki announced as she sprang to her feet in from where she sat in the back benches of the courtroom, among attorneys awaiting their business before the court. Vicki tossed her curly blond hair, stared at the judge with her robin’s egg blue eyes, adjusted her perpetually rumpled polyester suit, and supplicated “May I have a few minutes to confer with my client?”

Cohen responded,”You may, but let’s move this docket along. You know it is Christmas Eve and the Sugar Bowl is just around the corner.” Since Cohen only worshipped when it didn’t interfere with golf or business, Christmas meant little to him except to provide him with more holidays.

On the LSU Campus

“Thank you your Honor.” Vicki forced the traditional title of “Your Honor” from her throat but couldn’t miss the opportunity for sarcasm by continuing, “I will not interfere with the Court getting to the Christmas party or the football game.” Cohen jerked his head up from his paper shuffling at the sarcasm. But, he knew from past experience not to engage in verbal battle with the sharp-tongued, fast-witted, feisty Vicki. Above all, he wished she would stray into the realm of contempt, but he also knew she would only go up to that fence and not cross it, so he just let the caustic remark pass.

After a three-minute conference with her bewildered client, Vicki again addressed His Honor. “I respectfully request a modification of bond to allow Mr. Duferene’s daughter, who is present in court, to sign his bond as a personal surety.”

The judge had returned to shuffling his papers and without lifting his head responded with two short words, “Motion denied.”

“But your Honor,” the complimentary title gagged Vicki again, “my client is indigent. Mr. Duferene is a seventy-two-year-old widower surviving only on Social Security and living with his daughter. He has lived in this community all his life, he has no previous convictions, or even arrests, he has a daughter who is willing to sign his bond and he is charged only with is a minor misdemeanor.”

“There is no such thing as a minor crime in this court, Ms McNeil. You know that,” the flustered Judge Cohen admonished Vicki.

Always one to have the last word, Vicki replied, “I know that only too well—Your Honor.”

“Be careful Ms. McNeil,” His Honor sternly advised, then re-asserted his ruling “Motion for bail modification denied.”

“Well, Your Honor, I guess you will miss that Christmas Party after all.” McNeil knew all too well he would be on the golf links with some of his rich friends and not at a Christmas Party, “Because I hereby give you notice of my intention to take a writ to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal on the issue of the excessive bond you have set in this case, and I am requesting that you provide reasons for your ruling.”

Cohen flung papers aside, again glared at Vicki, and announced loud enough for the people in the next courtroom to hear, “You are at it again Ms McNeil. You try the patience of this Court. Someday you are going to go too far.”

Vicki stood before the irate judge in mock contriteness, stared at her scuffed shoes, folded her arms across her waist, produced a slight smirk on her lips that the judge could not see and said with a smattering of sarcasm, “Well, Your Honor, today, on Christmas Eve, I am just trying to get a little justice, or maybe even mercy, for an old man.”

A collective murmur arose from the audience of attorneys and court watchers, as if their collective thinking suggested, “Ah, Vicki you have gone too far now, darling. He is going to put your pretty little butt in jail this time for sure.”

Cohen was weary of the battle with Vicki. He knew that if he found her in contempt this would only prolong his day, and endear her even more with the members of the local bar association observing this encounter. This would not bode well for him at next year’s election.

View from Gretna Courthouse

View from Gretna Courthouse

Judgeship elections were not the genteel affairs of the past. Contested judgeship elections had become bitter and expensive. Also, if she perfected her writ, which she might or might not expend the energy to do, it would play havoc with the rest of the holiday season. Odds were about even on bets being placed by local lawyers in the back of the courtroom as to whether or not Vicki would really go to the trouble to perfect the threatened writ. Most of Vicki’s colleagues knew she was not keen on doing the necessary research and work of preparing briefs arguing dry and uninteresting legal issues. She would much prefer to do verbal battle.

But, in order to avoid his own inconvenience, His Honor found a way to save face by announcing, “Many other busy attorneys have important matters to be heard before this court today. I am not going to let you waste their time any more, therefore I grant your motion to allow Mr. Duferene’s daughter to sign his bond.”

“I thank the Court for its indulgence and hope Your Honor enjoys the Christmas Party and the Sugar Bowl,” Vicki said, once again playing with fire.

Cohen’s only response was a grunt, “Good day,  Ms. McNeil.”

For today, Vicki had tired of the skirmish with the good judge. Besides, she needed to go home, have several strong drinks and tend to her nine dogs–five Irish Wolfhounds that weighed in the neighborhood of 180 pounds each, and four other assorted breeds. All of her children, as she called them, had documents proving their noble bloodlines. Vicki expended enormous effort and considerable money taking her charges to dogshows far and wide in her thirty-seven-foot Winnebago. They brought home many ribbons, a goodly amount of which were blue.

A few weeks after Vicki’s encounter with Judge Cohen, Catherine and her husband attended a dog show on the LSU campus in Baton Rouge. Much to their surprise, they saw Vicki there. Her five Irish Wolfhounds and other assorted dogs would compete for ribbons at the show. Surprised to see them there, Vicki greeted them with characteristic exuberance.

Grooming a wolfhound

Unlike her courtroom attire, rumpled polyester or cotton suits looking like she had slept in them, Vicki was impeccably dressed in a cream colored silk suit and white blouse. Her hair was coiffed to perfection. Catherine had never known Vicki to give this much attention to her appearance and almost didn’t recognize her when she approached the couple. Vicki insisted that the two join her for a behind the scenes tour of the regional AKC-sanctioned dog show. Catherine and her husband had already observed massive RVs from all over the country parked in the parking lot. “Expensive goings on here,” Catherine’s husband said to her.

A storm of human and dog activity raged backstage in the old LSU field house. Hundreds of dogs of every size, description and breed were being prepared by their masters to be examined in detail by officious judges. Sprawled across the floor like vines in a dense jungle, extension cords of every color connected blow dryers, curling irons, strong lights and fans to their power sources. Catherine’s husband wondered what kind of circuit breaker could stand such a load. Scores of cages from Chihuahua to Great Dane size housed dogs awaiting their turn for grooming. Big dogs, little dogs, ugly dogs, pretty dogs, happy dogs and disgruntled dogs, stood dutifully on tables as their fidgety masters and canine cosmetologists chatted excitedly with one another while they primped and groomed the precious animals for their big performance before the serious judges.

The sound of dogs communicating with other dogs by means of barks and snarls filled the vast arena. Nervous dogs constantly went to and from the building on leashes with their handlers to the grass outside to relieve themselves prior to their big introduction on the show floor.

As Vicki escorted the couple through the sea of dogs, owners and handlers, she received warm greetings. She was obviously well known in these circles and called each pet by name as she petted and complimented each contestant. Catherine thought, “This, not the courtroom, is really Vicki’s world.”

Vicki's World of dog shows

After listening to Vicki’s conversation throughout the day, Catherine’s husband observed, “It seems like Vicki’s law practice is just the means to provide resources for her expensive passion of breeding and showing her dogs.”

Just then, an urgent announcement came over the public address system, “Three Irish Wolfhounds are out of their cages and running free. Their master needs to retrieve them immediately.”

With a “Sorry folks,” Vicki quickly interrupted her guided tour and rushed off to corral her giant children.  Catherine and her husband observed the rest of the event on their own.

Vicki’s giant canines would go on to win a few ribbons that day, which would invigorate their mistress, allowing Vicki to return to the courtroom to battle with some beleaguered judge on behalf of some indigent soul being mauled by the Establishment.

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Truck Parades

Judge Tom on Fat Tuesday

Mardi Gras has come and gone again. Visitors to Mardi Gras think the local folks provided the greatest free party on earth, just for them. I guess in a way that is true, but the locals look forward to this time to have fun themselves. Each year New Orleans natives eagerly await Mardi Gras season so they can show off the costumes, and the decorated floats they have labored on all year long. On the big day itself, they will “pass a good time”–all for their own benefit. Visitors are welcome to watch and even participate in the fun once they loosen up enough.

The big carnival crews such as Rex, Bacchus, Endymion and Comus arrange for professional artist like Blaine Kern to produce for them–at great costs–spectacular floats. The locals and visitors alike, who line the streets yelling “Throw me something mister,” are thrilled as these works of art pass on the street in front of them.

 

Throw Me Something, Mister

Invariably, first time visitors to Mardi Gras insist they are not going to demean themselves by shouting and waving their hands seeking cheap favors made in China from people in costumes and masks pretending to be royalty, gods and goddess, story book characters or some mythical creature. This demure attitude lasts for about one parade. By the second parade, one will see their visiting friends flailing their arms franticly, screaming at the top of their voice “Throw me something mister,” and stepping on little kids’ hands to retrieve cheap trinkets that have fallen to the street.

But for me, the most fascinating events of Mardi Gras are the Truck Parades that roll only on the special day. They get larger every year. These parades are populated by hundreds of floats imaginatively created by ordinary folks in neighborhoods all over the city and its suburbs.

My family and I were once privileged to ride in a Truck Parade. This was only after we paid our dues and joined a neighborhood group. We had to agree to meet regularly to decide our theme, construct complicated costumes, and to decorate the flatbed truck the organization had purchased long ago–for this purpose only.

The logistics of being in a Truck Parade are mind boggling. The average number of people, adults and children, that will ride on a flat bed float on Mardi Gras is about forty. Each person is expected to provide the beads and trinkets they will throw during the parade. You order your “throws” by the gross, e.g. a hundred gross of this and two hundred gross of that, early in the year. Each rider also buys special, more costly throws that will be given to their friends, family and special persons on the parade route. Sometime well before Fat Tuesday cases of “throws” from China arrive at the group’s headquarters (one of the member’s homes).

The theme for each year’s parade and the division of labor is hammered out at early meetings. This can be a process requiring delicate political skills. No Robert’s Rules of Order here. Our organization had been in Truck Parades over many years; therefore, our meetings went smoothly.

After weeks of discussion, the group decided we would be leprechauns. The women went to sewing many green costumes with silver spangles. We men created large shamrocks from plywood and attached them to our float. During the process of decorating our float, we determined the flatbed truck was too short to accommodate all of us. At our local trade school I had just re-honed my welding skills, learned in the oil fields of Venezuela. Although we had electricians, carpenters, and plumbers in our group, I was elected to weld an extension on the end of our truck. By then we had attached much flimsy plywood and paper mache decorations to our float. I damn near burned up our laboriously created work of art when sparks from the arc welder ignited some paper mache. Fortunately, I extinguished the fire quickly and survived the wrath of the rest of the krewe.

Throw me something, Mister!

On a Mardi Gras Truck Float, every person is assigned a space on the rails of the truck that is about the width of a commuter airplane seat. Each rider is expected to prepare his space and arrange his throws in such a manner to allow him to throw his prizes with ease to the bellowing crowds as the float rumbles past the masses of people. Old timers willingly give advice on the most efficient mechanics of preparing throws for delivery to the excited revelers along the parade route.

At the break of day on Mardi Gras day, the four of us arrived looking like leprechauns and carrying hoards of throws to board our truck float. We also had to provision ourselves with food and drink for the day long sojourn through the streets of Jefferson Parish. We brought soft drinks and sandwiches. Most of our companion leprechauns fortified themselves with hard booze and cases and cases of beer. Riding in a truck parade is not for the claustrophobic, because there is no getting off the float once you board until you are returned home late in the day.

There is no getting off

Of course, potty facilities are of paramount importance on a float. Due to the amounts of beer consumed during the long day the Pot-Delight, which was well disguised with painted shamrocks, receives an unprecedented amount of use.

We chugged off, diesel fumes from the semi pulling our float engulfing us, to join the hundred-and-twenty-five other floats that form our parade. The captain of our organization assembled all of us in a large parking lot and assigned us a number. Our driver, well experienced in this procedure, deftly put us in our proper position.  Then, we waited and waited for the parade to begin. Hot coffee and cocoa for the kids and long underwear under our leprechaun costumes kept us warm on this chilly morning.

Horns blasted as the hundred-and-twenty-six trucks orderly moved, out towing their carnival revelers. We followed in the wake of the elaborate floats of the Mystic Krewe of Argus as we rolled onto Veterans Highway. Most of the members of Argus were local politicians. Needless to say, their organization did not lack funding.

Once on the major artery of Veterans Highway, we encountered a sea of humanity. Voices with a thousand different pitches implored us with the magic words, “Throw me something Mister.” Our truck horn blasted warnings to the anxious hoards to stay clear of the truck–all to no avail. Arms fully extended, young and older filled with Mardi Gras mania crushed near to the sides of the truck. I feared a child might get accidentally thrown under the wheels of the slow moving vehicle that had to “stop and go” the entire parade. By the grace of some providence, nothing bad happened, even though the process of stopping to throw beads to the crowd, then slowly lumbering on in line behind the other semi-pulled flatbed creations carrying their Disney Characters “Mickey or Minnie”, Pirates, Sailers, human-sized shrimp and crawfish, was a slow one.

Human Sized Crawfish

Strangely enough, I could recognize folks I knew as our Truck Float plowed through the sea of people. It also astounded me that I could differentiate between interesting and more ordinary faces. Of course, the more interesting and young deserved my special trinkets. I found it uncanny that I could be pick out special people in crowds of tens of thousands. Veterans of truck parades on our float confirmed my observation.

This Mardi Gras was cold for New Orleans–in the forties. Once, we had friends visit from North Dakota. Before they came, they asked about the clothing to bring. I told them the weather could call for anything from Bermuda shorts to foul weather gear. My Northern-winter-accustomed friends protested that forty degrees would not be cold for them. They soon thought otherwise when damp cold winds drifted across Lake Ponchartrain on to their ill-protected bodies.

While we kept warm with long underwear beneath out costumes, some of our Truck Krewe supplemented the long underwear with vast quantities of booze.

Our long cold, day ended when our driver returned us and our float to its vacant lot, where it would await redecorating next year. Our throws were completely depleted and so were we.

Riding in the truck parade proved to be a most interesting experience, but I have found that watching parades less taxing than riding in one.

Truck Parade

 

 

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SPARROW AND RONNIE

The French Quarter

“Ah, it ain’t so bad, Judge, ‘cept for the shriveled up old men”. Sparrow justified to me while she sat in my court for the third time. She had been adjudicated a Child in Need of Supervision for being a runaway and ungovernable kid. Over the last year, I had placed her in two group homes and a shelter facility near the French Quarter, one run by a man  whom I trusted with these damaged kids. She ran from all three placements.

What fifteen-year-old Sparrow explained to me was that turning tricks in the French Quarter “Ain’t so bad ‘cept for the shriveled up old men”. For this frail, pale, blond-haired, blue-eyed child, the “family” she found in the Quarter treated her better than the one from which she had fled. In Sparrow’s mind, her pimp treated her better than her stepfather. Her stepfather had sexually abused her from the time she was nine. To avoid offending her abusive spouse, Sparrow’s passive, dependent mother chose to ignore what was happening to her helpless daughter. I have known women who killed their spouses for less provocation, but Sparrow’s mother could only cringe as she continued a life under the influence of the subhuman who repeatedly raped her daughter.

I had seen Sparrow in the French Quarter two weeks earlier, when I tried to get her to return to the shelter on Rampart Street. She promised, “Yeah Judge, you know I will.” But years on the bench had finally allowed me to acknowledge the likelihood that this young girl would not leave the bricks until apprehended by the police again.

Bourbon Street

My fifteen-year-old daughter and I were returning from the Cafe Du Monde with a sixteen-year-old boy named Ronnie. This young man had fled his father’s home after having enough of his old man’s drunken beatings with the buckle end of a belt. “Well, what would you do if you were chained to the doghouse in the backyard, sir?”, Ronnie had described a level of abuse that was difficult for me to understand before I’d listened to other, similar stories.

His mother had long since abandoned Ronnie and the abusive father. He, like Sparrow and kids from all over this country who had been abused and thrown away, found refuge in the French Quarter. I had also found him to be a Child In Need of Supervision and confined him to a mental hospital in Uptown New Orleans run by the State of Louisiana, for evaluations so I could get a fuller understanding of his needs.

I had committed Ronnie to the hospital for evaluation after his social worker had testified in a review hearing that she  found Ronnie living in the French Quarter with an eighteen-year-old girl. At the time of the court proceeding, I joked with all  the hearing attendees, “Sounds like Ronnie has a good deal. Here we are all working late in a courtroom on a beautiful spring afternoon and Ronnie is being cared for by an eighteen-year-old girl. Who is in worse shape?”

French Market Entrance

On the Sunday I saw Sparrow in the Quarter, my daughter Paige and I picked Ronnie up at the hospital for an approved afternoon away from the mental health facility. We went to the Audubon Park Zoo, then down to the French Market for beignets. As part of my personal policy of sitting on the bench, I frequently made unannounced visits to institutions that housed kids who’d been committed to the State’s custody. I had learned early on in my career that an announced visit would only give me what the facility staff wanted me to see, without revealing the deficiencies of the operation. All too often, kids would jokingly say to me at their next court hearing, “Were you there on the day they gave us steak or the one where they served shrimp?”

No longer the naive jurist of my first year on the bench, I now wanted to see what was really going on with the kids I had committed to the care of the State of Louisiana.
While driving on Dauphine Street out of the Quarter, Ronnie shouted, “There is that little old Sparrow. Look, there she is out on the bricks turning tricks.”

Dauphine Street corner

Ronnie and Sparrow had met while attending their respective hearings in my court. I stopped the car and invited Sparrow to return to the shelter. After she refused my offer, Sparrow ended back up in my courtroom two weeks later. I recommitted her to State’s custody to be placed in a well-managed group home for girls. A couple of months later at a review hearing, State social workers advised me that Sparrow had run away from her last placement. We never saw her again. I’ve sometimes wondered what became of her, especially when I came upon kids who looked like her.

Some months after we saw Sparrow in the Quarter, the New Orleans policed returned Ronnie to my jurisdiction, where I conducted a trial to determine if he was a Juvenile Delinquent for having discharged a shotgun in a French Quarter barroom. The evidence clearly showed that  Ronnie somehow got hold of a Remington 12 gauge, pump action shotgun, walked into a gay bar on Decatur street and started shooting. He obviously didn’t intent to shoot anyone. He took his anger out on the liquor cabinet, the chandelier, the artwork on the wall and the stained glass windows. He created extensive physical damage to the premises before the police arrested him. Witnesses testified that patrons and employees fled the bar onto Decatur Street squealing in panic. Ronnie declined to give me any explanation for his violent actions.

When I looked down at him, and said, “Ronnie,  you’ve left me no options now,” the sullen youth just sat silently. I confined him to the Louisiana Juvenile Correctional facility with orders for further psychiatric evaluations. In subsequent reviews of Ronnie’s case, which I did every six months with all children I had committed to State custody, I found Ronnie had matured and seemed to be able to control his behavior. He eventually was released from State custody. Like all the kids I have seen, I wonder what has happened to Ronnie in his life.

French Quarter street band

A few weekends ago, my wife, Karen and I had occasion to visit the French Quarter again when I went to a training session at the beautifully restored Louisiana Supreme Court building on Royal Street. While wandering the Quarter photographing old buildings with lacy wrought iron balconies, local characters in costume, art hanging on the stately iron fences enclosing Jackson Square and street bands, we also saw young, grubby street waifs huddled in doorways cupping their hands around pungent smelling cigarettes. Seeing these young street urchins brought back memories of Sparrow and Ronnie and of all the abused, neglected and throwaway kids I have seen over the years and tried to help. Truth be told, some are so damaged they are beyond help.

Art Hanging on Jackson Square Fence

When I hear the allegations in the Penn State scandal, I know, that if true, we will learn of many more victims. Some may flee to the falsely perceived safety of the French Quarter. One would have thought that by now the administrators and staff at Penn State should have made themselves aware of the the nature of the pedophile and reported these atrocities to law enforcement authorities much, much sooner.

Regrettably, this looks like a colossal cover up that has cost unmeasurable damage to incalculable numbers of victims–all for the purpose of preserving the reputation of a money-generating football team.

One can only hope this travesty will help us get our priorities straight.

LA Supreme Court Bldg.

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Kangaroo Jumping Shoes

Surely the folks who published Superman Comic Books wouldn’t lie to us, would they? There they were, right next to Charles Atlas—the strongest man in the world who didn’t allow any big bully to kick sand in his face in front of pretty women on the beach. Kangaroo Jumping Shoes would give an eight-year old the power to outrun any kid in town and leap tall buildings if need be.

They cost seven dollars, plus COD. I had saved more than that working for Uncle Big Buddy in the alfalfa fields. I certainly deserved these remarkable shoes, but I had to convince Mother of their worth. “Well, it’s your money. You earned it, so I guess you can spend it foolishly if you want to” she finally relented. She helped me fill in the order form and send it in with a money order to the clever people who designed and engineered the marvelous shoes.

Kangaroo Jumping Shoes

Mom, Dad, Mike, (my Panda Bear-toting four-year-old brother) and I lived on Pine Street in West Monroe, Louisiana. The sisters Jane and Estelle lived across the street. Another family with two boys named Tommy and Bobby lived down the block from them. The Bullies, T.M. Hinton and Troy Counts, lived in the next block. The Bullies usually worked as a team when they came to beat us up. Either one of them could easily do the job by himself. One, or both of them, would wrestle me to the ground then demand, “Say calf rope”.

They would not free me until I uttered the magic passwords “calf rope”. What I remember most about T.M. was his bad breath. When he would get on top of me and pin me to the ground, he would breathe right into my face. His breath smelled of everything he had eaten in the last month. I don’t think this kid ever heard of a toothbrush.

The four kids in our block were fun playmates, especially Jane. She wanted to be a nurse when she grew up and practiced on me until mother caught us. Mother instructed me and Jane’s mother that I would to get no more physicals from Jane. That was too bad, because the physicals were just beginning to feel real good. And my turn to examine Jane was coming up soon.

When the magical shoes arrived, I invited the kids in our block to help me test them. T.M. and Troy were not included. Opening the box, I found the shoes to truly be a feat of modern engineering. Two strong springs about five inches long– kind of like bed springs– were sandwiched between two flat pieces of metal with thin rubber mats on the outside. The fantastic shoes strapped on the feet with strong leather straps at the ankle and toe. The whole assembly was painted bright red. The picture of a Kangaroo on the heel portion made them quite handsome–well worth the seven dollars plus COD.

The neighbor kids helped me attach the awkward contraptions to my feet. At first, I could not even walk with the wonder shoes. “Not to worry, I just have to get used to them”, I thought, then I would be running as fast as the wind and hopping like a Kangaroo. It took some time just to learn to walk in the clumsy things and I never did get to Kangaroo status. My faith remained intact though some of my playmates had their doubts. Attempts to run caused my ankles to twist resulting in skinned-up knees, but I kept saying to myself, “I’m getting better. It’‘ll just take a little time before the true power of the wonderful shoes will become apparent.”

Dad, Mother, Tom, Mike

After a couple of weeks, my playmates became even more doubtful of the value of my high tech shoes. They began to question my judgment for buying them. I concluded that, before they started to make fun of me and my ingenious shoes, I must do something to restore their confidence. Jumping off a tall–well not too tall–building would do the trick. Tommy and Bobby had a shed next to their garage that was about eight feet from the ground to its flat roof. It would be perfect for my demonstration.

I invited all the neighborhood kids, even T.M. and Troy, especially T.M. and Troy. I kept hoping to myself,  “If I convince them that my magical shoes had transform me into a superboy, maybe they will stop beating me up.”

Finally, a day and time was set. My uncle Warren, who was a  sergeant in the Army stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia had sent me some paratrooper boots. I put the boots on, laced them up tightly, and strapped the Kangaroo Jumping shoes to the shiny, supportive boots. It took a little doing to climb up the homemade ladder we constructed to get to the top of the shed. Once there, it looked awful high. I really just wanted to crawl back down. But, there they were, T.M. and Troy, staring and snickering at me. Nurse Jane expected me to do wonderful things. Honor, stupidity and the desire to impress a female demanded nothing less than a jump.

I jumped. Thank God for the paratrooper boots. If it were not for them, I would have broken both ankles and maybe more. When I hit, one ankle turned inward and the other outward and I sprawled out like a new born colt. Because I was a skinny kid, subsisting mostly on vanilla wafers and milk, the damage was not as severe as it could have been. The laughter of T.M. and Troy hurt the worst.

Paratrooper Boots

Nurse Jane quickly summoned my mother. Mother’s alarm quickly turned into a hissy-fit when she determined I had not actually broken a bone. My badly twisted ankles did require a visit to old Doctor Joe Brown. Both mother and I dreaded that prospect, because we knew both of us would get a good cussing from the crusty doctor. If Dr. Joe’s medical training had included bed-side manner, he had discarded it from his medical practice early on.

This visit to Doctor Brown was no different. The first words out of his mouth were “Damn Genevieve, (Dr. Joe used mother’s real name when he was really mad) what the hell did you let the little bastard do this time?” Mother explained what had happened. Dr. Joe bandaged me up and sent me home.

This would be my first experience with truth in advertising. You would have thought this lesson should have been good for a lifetime. It wasn’t.

Catalogues arrive daily at our house, advertising all manner of products. According to my wife, I get sold on far too much stuff. I have to admit she is right.

But, some of it actually works like it should…some of the time.

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THINGS GRANDKIDS NEED TO LEARN

Hanging out with grandkids this summer made me even more aware of things they need to learn to enhance their life experiences. They are ill-served if allowed to just come into the house, crack a fresh cold drink–the beverages my father called belly washes–pop open their Ipod 2s and have their thumbs fly through the zillion apps available to them. I do think the modern machines are marvelous and undoubtedly offer us more information–sometimes totally erroneous and useless–than our poor little brains can successfully process. But they cause grandkids to sit for hours in air conditioned spaces  eating junk food and sipping soft drinks. At least until the can gets warm, then they open a cold one.

When they get old enough, grandkids, just as our own kids were taught, need to be instructed on how to drive a car defensively and safely. In our society that has as many automobiles as people this essential skill has to be learned well and practiced often.

“Yes Pa Pa, I heard you say for the tenth time that I must assume all other drivers on the road are either crazy or drunk. I also heard you tell me that living In New Orleans, I will be about half right in that assumption,” Number One Grandson, Charles, confirmed to his grandfather.

“ I intended to stop at that intersection. I was not going to pull out in front of that car coming down the highway”. Number One Grandson asserted to all of us in the car. Before I shouted for him to stop, his mother, his brother Nathan–Number Two Grandson, and Karen gasped in unison. Nathan said under his breath, “I thought he was going to kill us all”.

But before learning the heavy responsibility of driving, modern kids just need to learn to have fun without the aid of some gadget that requires batteries. They need to learn to retrieve a “Pick-up Stick” without causing the other sticks in the unruly pile to move. This is therapy for the attention deficit-disordered and requires manual dexterity that may later be used to fly an airplane or spaceship.

Young Tom on the Levee

Lincoln logs, rough hewn pieces of brown wood with notches at each end, offered a valuable education on to how to build log cabins, but they were pretty much limited to just that. The more versatile Tinker Toy set,which contained round sticks that fit into round disks with holes through the center and all around the circumference enabled a kid to create many imaginative structures.

But for the more gifted, nerdy kid who aspires to become an engineer or astronaut, his parents would fail their responsibilities if they did not give him or her and Erector Set. Such was the case with my cousin Joe Allen who, after serving a stint as a naval aviator, became a test pilot for the Lear company and the FAA. I can remember Joe Allen sitting admits the gazillion metal parts of his Erector Set telling me what he planned to build next.

I see in the sporting good store one can buy a professional grade horse shoe set. These sets include perfectly balanced cast iron u-shaped objects that never saw the bottom of any horse’s foot, two beautifully powder-coated stakes that would never rust and a book of instructions and rules. In my day, we scrounged up old, rusty, mismatched horse shoes from the barn, a couple of pieces of lead water pipe, then stepped off a course under the shade of big pecan trees. We made up the rules as we went along and enjoyed ourselves for hours at a time.

We did not have to have parents or someone like an anonymous manual writer to instruct us on how to play any game or how to enforce rules we created. We children, peer-to-peer, made up our own rules. We disputed among ourselves perceived infractions of our rules. These peer-to-peer debates, discussions and sometimes confrontations steeled us for conflicts we would later face in life. We had to learn to settle things among ourselves as best we could or leave the game–or worse yet–find a new set of friends.

 

When children settled their own differences


We did not have the luxury of plastic toys made by slave labor in China, Taiwan, Indonesia, India or Bangladesh. The truth be known that during the Great Depression, very few of us kids had any store-bought toys. Of course some kids from the lucky sperm club–kids with rich daddies– had access to sophisticated toys like the fabulous Lionel Train sets. Those of us fortunate enough to know a kid in the lucky sperm club sought to befriend him so we could get a chance to run his marvelous train.

Most of us had to make do with toys that came in a Cracker Jack box or inexpensive toys form the five and dime store. But more often than not, we made our own toys using instructions passed down orally from generation to generation from whatever material was available. No paper pamphlet or instructions found on Google provided us with the information necessary to construct our make-shift toys. No kits provided the raw material to make the toys. We just made do with whatever was available.

For example, an old worn out pair of skates could be converted into a brand new skate board. One only had to remove the clamps from the two skates then screw them inline to the bottom of a piece of scrap two by four board about three feet long. The project became complete after you attached a T-shaped handle made of more scrap wood to the front of the two by four with the skates attached.

Another useful and entertaining item we boys, and some girls, made ourselves were slingshots.  Sling shots were useful for shooting at birds, lazy cats, offending dogs, and your playmates. Small, smooth pieces of gravel proved to be the most effective ammunition. They could travel a considerable distance and inflict serious damage to a bird if you were lucky enough to hit one. When shooting at your playmates, custom dictated that you use less damaging china-berries. But even the less potent china-berries could inflict a large red whelp on our foe.

Easy to construct, for a slingshot one only had to have access to a forked branch from a tree, some old car tires, a piece of leather cut from the tongue of an old shoe and a bit of strong twine. Branches from a willow tree worked best. With your trusty pocket knife, which should be with you at all times, you would cut the handle down to about six inches long and leave the forked branches that formed a Y about five inches long. You would then cut groves around the tips of the Y branches so a rubber band could be firmly attached. The process then required you to cut–from the best rubber you could find on old car tire–two strips about ten inches long. You would fold each of the strips of rubber over each of the two Y branches and bind them securely onto them with twine. You then made a slip knot in two pieces of twine and slipped them over the other ends of the rubber bands. After cutting a piece of shoe tongue leather into an oval shape about three inches long, you would punch a hole in each end of the leather with a nail and attach the twine.

As anyone can see, the making of a simple slingshot took some skill, thought and considerable time. I find this time better spent than staring at an IPad for hours at a time retrieving baseball, basketball and football scores, but maybe I could be wrong.

Pop guns found their place in our childhood arsenals. Mulberry trees provided us all the ammunition we needed. We found constructing a pop gun less complicated than a slingshot, but it proved just as effective. A piece of straight cane about a foot long and a straight stick the same diameter of the inside of the cane sufficed for construction of this weapon. We hollowed out the cane, attached a round component of a tinker toy set to the end of the stick to make a plunger, then inserted the plunger into the cane. When loaded with proper sized mulberries, one had a weapon that could produce a nasty whelp on an opponent at fifty feet.

Rubber guns could be found in any southern child’s arsenal. Construction only required a piece of scrap wood about a foot and half long and wide enough that it could be cut into the  shape of a pistol, a wooden clothes pen, and and old car tire. We shaped the weapon somewhat like a pistol then put a notch on the front of the barrel to hold the rubber band cut from the cross section of the car tire. We then attached a clothespin to the rear of the handle of the “gun” to hold the rubber band that had been stretched to that location. Firing the “gun” simply required depressing the clothespin. Some kids became quite innovative and built rifle-type rudder guns that could fire multiple rounds.

Cowpoke Tom, his brother and cousin

We kids of the Great Depression and the Second World War had our favorite cowboy heroes. Your cowboy hero could not be a sissy. In other words, he could not sing or court pretty girls. Heroes had to wear white hats and defeat villains–who wore black hats–in either a knockdown-and-drag-out fist fight fight in a bar room or a gun fight with six shooters on a dusty street. A cowboy could also gain hero status by jumping on a team of runaway horses about to pull a stage coach over a cliff.

As an older kid I tried to convince my younger cousin to “play like” he was the bad guy and I was the good guy. My cousin actually liked to “play like” he was the bad guy. Somehow he thought the men in the black hats were smarter and more resourceful than the good guys. He went on to play this role through out most of his life.

If we felt we had some musical talent, we could play the Juice Harps that the good Kellogg’s folks gave us when our parents bought a box of corn flakes. Some obnoxious kids could play these three note instruments for hours until someone rested it from him and bent it in half.

If we felt artistic, we could boil down hackberries in an old coffee can to produce a deep purple, permanent dye. This magic substance of regal color could be used to paint your tree house, the vehicle you had built for the soap box derby, your skate board or some unsightly fence. But if the unwashable substance stained your “Sunday-Go-To-Meeting” clothes your mother would make you select a little keen switch with which she would stripe your legs and behind. Not being brutal mothers, they would always require a “keen” switch as opposed to a thick limb, lest they cause permanent injury. I suppose nowadays even the “keen” switch treatment would be considered child abuse that should be reported to child protective services. Then some young social worker, who never had a child and probably never would, could come to instruct your mother on child rearing.

We had never heard of things like marijuana or crack cocaine, but we would sneak out behind the barn and smoke rabbit grass in our corncob pipes until we became sick as dogs, turned green and threw up. Simple to construct, corncob pipes suited our needs to test the rules. One simply took an old piece of corncob, broke off the fat end and hollowed it out with your trusty pocket knife. You then took a twenty penny nail and bored a hole near the bottom into the hollow inside. A thin piece of cane inserted into the hole provided a fine stem. One then only had to find some dead rabbit grass and light up.

Now, the grandkids who fish use expensive rods and reels acquired from Sports Authority, Bass Pro or Cabela’s. Only the best will do. The lures don’t come cheap either, and are lost frequently. A fishing trip with a professional guide breaks the grandparents’ bank, but does produce many fish.

Fishing with grandsons

Kids I grew up with had little expense in their fishing equipment, but were relegated to catching some scrawny brim or perch from the banks of a river or creek. Their fishing gear consisted of a cane pole that cost nothing, some twine, that cost almost nothing. You topped off your fishing equipment with a hook from a box of number 2 hooks that you bought for a nickel and a piece of rope on which you could string your fish to carry home for a dinner of bony fish.

Those of us outside the “Lucky Sperm Club” did not have the advantage of playing tennis or golf to keep in shape. Monroe, Louisiana did have a beautiful swimming pool built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) during the Depression. All of us kids in the vicinity learned to swim well at an early age.

To stay in shape on a regular basis, we engaged in contest like Hide-And-Go-Seek (Fate as we called it in New Orleans), Hop Scotch, Jacks, Marbles, Mumblety Peg, Cowboys and Indians,  and Jump Rope. Of course Jump Rope and Hop Scotch were mostly for girls. We boys engaged in these games only if challenged mercilessly by the girls.

During the summer we would play these games with our playmates from “can to can’t”, making up new rules as we went along. Our parents would shoo us out of our un-air-conditioned house just after breakfast and lock the screen door behind us so we could not come back inside and mess up the house our mother had just cleaned. When the day grew hot, we sought the shade of trees. When we got thirsty, we drank out of a garden hose. When lunchtime  came, our mothers would shove some sandwiches outside the screen door for us, then latch it again. We played well into the night by the light of fire flies until we could play no more. Obese playmates were rare.

As we get older, we become nostalgic about the “Good Old Days”. I am the first to admit that not all aspects of “The Good Old Days” were so good, but that is subject matter for another story. However being required to live with nature and with our peers, solving problems and making up rules to govern ourselves as we went along seemed to condition us physically and mentally for the inevitable conflicts and vicissitudes we would face in life.

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Tractors

Boys who grew up in the South love tractors about as much as they cherish pickup trucks, their first 22 rifle or 410 shotgun, and their favorite fishing poles. They start off with red, cast iron toy tractors some kind uncle gives them for Christmas. I must admit, I don’t own a tractor at the moment, but I wish I did. I do own a chain saw which gives me some sense of power, but it is not like having your very own tractor.

Tom and Brother Mike - Young boys in the South

In the late 60s, when land prices were reasonable, I acquired a twenty acre farmette on the Dixie Ranch Road just out of the quaint town of Lacombe, Louisiana. The rest of the world had progressed into the Twentieth Century, but Lacombe preferred to stay somewhere in the early Nineteenth Century.

Occasionally, a local fellow by the name of Abe helped me with chores around the place. With a  cafe au lait complexion, kinky red hair and hazel eyes,  Abe was a dependable worker who knew about the needs of animals, how to drill water wells, and how to mend broken fences.

Abe’s expertise in repairing fences came in handy after my neighbor’s Brahma bull wandered off the free range surrounding my twenty acres of lush, green rye grass and marched himself through my barbed wire fence. On this occasion, I had hired Abe to assist me in stringing a thin electric wire hooked to a transformer around the premises that would shock the offending bull should he attempt to enter the property again. Several events led me to resort to this drastic measure.

Before I arrived at the electric fence solution and armed with the courage of a few too many beers at Henry Keller’s Conoco filling station and bar room, I told Terrance Green, a tough fellow who worked on the oil rigs it the Gulf of Mexico, and the owner of the big black animal, “If your bull comes on my property again an tears up my fence, I am going to have to shoot him”. He didn’t take kindly to this threat and  told he told me what he would have to do if I shot his bull. After a couple days of sober reflection, I went to Henry Keller’s and apologized to Terrance and informed him of my plan to install an electric fence instead of shooting his bull.

Just as Abe and I were completing the hookup of the electric fence, the obsidian colored bull arrived, seeking entry into the field of inviting rye grass. “Hurry up Abe, connect it to the transformer. Here he comes”, I shouted to Abe.

The mean animal approached the fence cautiously. It seemed like he could sense something amiss, but he had to get to that delicious rye grass. He stuck his nose into the fence but missed the electric wire. He proceeded forward and his right leg touched the wire carrying high voltage, low amperage alternating current. The big critter went wild. With all four legs he jumped straight into the air and twirled like a graceful ballerina.

Down he came straight into four strands of barb wire. The electric wire did not break and continued to shock the senseless animal. He jumped, bucked and twisted, landing back first on the barbed wire and the offending electric wire then twirling in the air like an acrobat in a circus.

Abe and I shouted with glee as we watched the spectacle of the dancing bull. When the enormous animal finally freed himself and ran back to the security of his free range, Abe and I surveyed the damage he had done. His antics had mangled the fence and he had stomped a mud hole in the ground, but nothing we could not repair in about an hour. I never saw that bull again.

Abe was not with me when my little Ford 8N tractor reared up like Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger and damn near throwed me into the ground breaking disk I was towing. The small Ford–the first and only real tractor I have owned–had a grey body and fenders.  Its forty-five horse powered engine and wheels were painted bright red. Its fanny shaped metal seat sat on a piece of spring steel that bounced you like a mechanical horse on a merry-go-round as the tractor traversed rough ground. The slick seat offered no sides or back to prevent your from slipping off. I bought the dear machine from another attorney, Clarence McManus. Clarence and his father, a good old boy from Picayune Mississippi, realized a little extra cash from a used farm equipment business they ran out of their farm. I also acquired the ground breaking disk from my friends.

Ford 8N Tractor

One Saturday, after a rough week of prosecuting “Bad Guys”, I decided to prepare the fields of my farmette for planting some yet undecided crop. All alone in the country, I consumed a few beers then hopped on the Ford with the disk attached. The job went well until I attempted to drag the disk through a small bog. The disk grabbed a buried stump and immediately stopping all forward motion. But tractors are geared to keep going. The big wheels spun in the wet soil and the front of the tractor reached for the sky. My feet came off the clutch and brake, so I held onto the steering wheel literally for dear life lest I fall back into the sharp, heavy blades of the disk I was dragging behind me. The beer I held between my thighs spilled all over my jeans. After a few terrifying moments that seemed like hours, I freed my right hand enough to slam the throttle shut, and with the help of some providence I don’t understand survived disaster.

Abe did assist me in vaccinating one of two little mean Welch ponies my father-in-law gave me. Frankie and Johnny, two of the most onry critters that ever drew breath, were lousy for riding but they did eat a lot. Their little short legs made riding them more like sitting on a jack hammer operating at full blast, but the kids loved them. In order to avoid expensive vet bills, I employed Abe to help me administer the shots they required.

We got a halter on Frankie and hemmed her up in the fifty by eighty foot vegetable garden area. When Abe attempted to administer the shot, I Frankie bolted and jumped into the fence constructed with hog wire on the bottom and barb wire on the top. After we untangled Frankie from the fence she had torn up, we tried again. Abe instructed me, “Twist her ear then bite the tip of her ear hard”.

“Sure”, I thought, “this is the country fellow having some fun with the city slicker.” I had no desire to put that horse’s ear in my mouth.

But Abe became impatient and commanded again. “Do as I say, damn it. Twist that ear and bite down on it hard until I tell you to let go”.

“What the hell”, I thought. “I don’t think Abe is kidding. If biting this horse’s ear will get the job done I will do it.”

So I twisted Frankie’s ear as hard as I could and bit the tip of the hairy ear with all my might. Sure enough, Frankie stood as still as a stone statue while Abe popped her in her behind with the big needle.

But  Abe was not around to help extricate me when I lassoed myself to a John Deere tractor I’d borrowed from a friend. As I now look at my left calf, I still see the mark the half-inch nylon rope made when it dug into my leg.

It was late afternoon on a cool Saturday in early spring. My neighbor Harry, who lived just down Dixie Ranch Road, lent me his John Deere Tractor in hopes that I would buy it. After having lunch and a few beers at Henry Keller’s, I decided to harrow down the big chunks of sod which disking had created. My plan entailed tying a half-inch nylon rope to each end of an old bedsprings and towing it behind the tractor.

The bucket seat on Harry’s John Deere provided much more comfort and security than my old Ford. The seat had strong, deep vertical support for my back as well as both hips. I would later find that this comfort and support would cause me serious problems.

I cracked a cold Falstaff beer, hopped into the snug seat of the John Deere and stuck the beer between my legs. The first couple of passes down the twenty-acre field went well. I did notice a length of old steel cable on the ground in the south part of the field, but was careful to avoid it.

On about my tenth trip up and down the field, I made a sharp turn to the left. All of a sudden I felt something loop around my left leg and tighten up, binding me securely in the John Deere’s seat. The Falstaff fell to the ground. I immediately shut the engine off,  assuming I had run over the the old steel cable I had seen and it had somehow tied me to the tractor. On closer examination, I discovered that the half-inch nylon rope I towed the bedsprings with had bound me in the John Deere seat. It was stretched so tightly it felt like steel cable. I could neither move my left leg nor reach the clutch. I now realized the left tire of the tractor had grabbed the rope when I turned sharply and flung it over my left leg. The rope was still wrapped around the tractor wheel and my left leg was becoming numb.

John Deere Tractor

Although operating the  clutch was now impossible,  if I could loosen the rope I would slip the tractor in reverse and nudge the tractor backward with just the starter motor. Luckily, I was able to get the tractor in reverse, but when I engaged the starter motor the rope tightened up. The rope was wrapped around the wheel that acted like a windlass to tighten the rope with any motion. The pain became severe and I feared I would pass out and die on the John Deere before anyone found me.

I remembered that, just like all boys growing up in the South, I had my pocket knife with me. The bad news was that it was in the left pocket of my thick Levy’s, where the rope cut off access to my knife. I could not pull any slack in the rope and could not tear through the work-tough blue jeans. As I had done many times in the past, I started making deals with God. “God, If you you help me out of this, I will stop drinking.” At least for a while I mentally reserved.

As dusk approaches in the country, the world becomes quiet and still. Birds and other animals prepare for night. I could hear children playing at my neighbor’s about half a mile down Dixie Ranch Road. I called out over and over, hoping they could hear me. In the still of early evening sound travels well and I got lucky.

In about fifteen minutes, two boys about seven and nine years old came running across my field. “What is wrong mister”? the older boy asked.

I explained my predicament as simply an quickly as I could. The boys gazed up at me in wonder then the younger boy announced, “I’ll go run for help.”

“No” I implored, “I can get free if you guys can just help me get my pocket knife out of my jeans.”

The two boys scrambled up on the John Deere and tugged on the rope crushing my left leg. I felt like I might pass out any minute now. The boys strained with all their might and I was able to slip the pocket knife past the rope. It dropped on the ground, but the older boy quickly retrieved it and handed it to me. I opened the knife and sawed through the taught rope. It popped loose like an overstretched rubber band.

I thanked the boys and offered to give them money. Having been taught to never accept money from strangers, they refused my offer. I drove the tractor back to my pickup and hobbled over to the old Chevy. I treated my wound as best I could with bandages from the first aid kit in the truck then found my way back home.

It took some explaining to my wife and the doctor who eventually treated me as to exactly how I had inflicted this nasty wound upon myself. I never did tell them that Mr. Falstaff had been with me on this disastrous adventure.

My escape from this potential disaster proves to me again the old adage, “ God takes care of fools, babies and drunks”.

I still want another tractor, but since I put a cork in the bottle over thirty-seven years ago, I won’t be driving it under the influence.

Cast Iron Tractor Toy

 

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