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September 11, 2012

New Orleans Childhood

Roy Meachum

Southern Saturdays fell under a ritual; Friday night high school football was followed by afternoons in Tulane Stadium, and then a quick zip via Airline Highway to Louisiana State University stadium.


Emulating Adolph Hitler’s autobahns, Huey P. Long drew a straight line for a road between Baton Rouge and New Orleans; some said it was for the turnip greens always simmering at the Roosevelt Hotel, then owned by Seymour Weiss. The Northern Louisiana Winfield-born ‘Kingfish’ wanted to be closer to the French Market’s fleshpots. I understood the fascination with the Big Easy, which was not called by that nickname; it came later. At the entrance of the Missouri Pacific train station, burned into my brain, was a huge poster proclaiming “The City That Care Forgot.”


Eighteen-year-old Oralee hauled her child from Monroe, where she gave birth to me several Octobers before. In a trip punctuated by several ferries, she pulled up at Aunt Kate’s boarding house on Second Street, close by St. Charles Avenue. During the Great Depression, apartment buildings were not common. Spacious Victorian mansions offered homes from those fresh off the farms and towns; they were still common in the DuPont Circle in Washington where the Army landed me, in 1949.


In addition to the still-standing trolley tracks, St. Charles was a Mardi Gras parades’ route. Hanging from a convenient iron-railed fence, I watched mule-drawn floats from which costumed revelers pitched beads to all and sundry, several aiming for my child’s sun-bleached blond head. Holding sparklers that illuminated the spectacles, there were men on horses and marchers with the floats that wore strange clothing. Only later did I understood, flying sparks landed in both animals’ hair, making the garb obligatory. I think they’ve found other lighting means. The last time I was back in New Orleans, the only parades I watched was on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras) afternoon on the balcony right across the street from the venerable City Hall – now removed of course. No sparklers were needed.


On other days, I absorbed the ethnic flavors of Mid-City; down Jackson Avenue was the Irish Channel, which also contained many Germans. We wound up in a neighborhood that had three Jewish houses of worship within walking distance. The Eastern European congregations drew heavily from the families of merchants from nearby Dryades, renamed lately for civil rights activist Oretha Castle Haley. Dryades was the main shopping street for African Americans in those deeply segregated days.


When street cars passed the St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church, passengers – including most Protestants – made signs-of-the-cross. Until World War II, many children suffered from malaria; I had mine in the first grade at McDonogh 10, named for the Baltimore-born businessman who settled in New Orleans. In those days clergy rode free, in thanks for the fever epidemics that all but knocked out the city, the mid-1800’s equivalents of 21st century Hurricane Katrina. Buildings remained intact; mosquitoes didn’t attack them.


But men, women and children were dying in the marshes and wetlands, which Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville christened New Orleans, in 1718. The colony was founded at what is known now as the French Quarter, the highest point around for miles. The city where I grew up was largely Italian, thanks to the thousands of emigrants from Risorgimento, Cavour and Garibaldi’s revolution to unite all the boot-shaped country.


To end the column with a sport seems “fit and proper.” It was at Pelicans Stadium, home of the struggling minor league baseball team that I’ve written about before, that I first heard the idea for a boarding school.


Holy Cross College was the result and boyhood began.


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