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January 8, 2013

A Class-free Day

Roy Meachum

When I was growing up, at both McDonough and Holy Cross, there were no classes to celebrate an event that happened 198 years ago. The Battle of New Orleans was on January 8, 1814.


There was a legend on the streets: Gen. Andrew Jackson’s defenders were a ragtag motley crew, consisting of a few regulars mixed in with pirates, local people and blacks: both emancipated and slaves. Their incredible good fortune rested on British commander Maj. General Edward Pakenham’s decision to delay. The first redcoats invaded Louisiana around Christmas, won every engagement before January 8.


The set battle was waged two days after Epiphany when the season of Mardi Gras starts. His Majesty’s army violated Greek Christmas when they moved in line the last hours. In any event, the victory was considered “a miracle.” Although a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, Andy Jackson visited the Ursuline Convent in the shadow of the St. Louis Cathedral, to give thanks. That year the nuns started the tradition of a thanksgiving High Mass, which has been continued ever since.


The two nations fought each other again, the first time since America’s War of Independence; the conflict was called in Britain the War of Jenkins’s Ear; in this country, 1812, which extended through 1813 – notably known in Washington for burning the White House and other major government buildings. There’s a plaque about 40 miles distant from my yellow door that commemorates the flight of the president, his cabinet and families when the English seized the nation’s capital, only a few years after it was dedicated.


New Orleans was the last significant battle of the war; the Treaty of Ghent was accepted by the royal regent in London on December 30, 1814. My home city would not close schools if today’s rapid communication existed. The last I heard the tradition was honored.


Before Hurricane Katrina destroyed many of the newer (post-Civil War) parts of the city, the greatest scourge my home town survived were the epidemics – malaria and yellow fever. When I first started boarding the streetcars, which were divided racially by a sign stuck in backseats, Roman clergy rode free – in honor of their tending ailing patients in the 19th Century.


Of course, malaria knocked me off the feet at a birthday party when I was a first-grader in McDonough’s. Three days’ diet restricted to ice cream was hardly a chore for a 6-year-old. Before Katrina, I heard the men and women in black paid for public transportation; but then, the city had become less Catholic.


At least Mardi Gras goes on; my childhood’s flambeaux carriers are better paid. The average carrier can make $300 or $400, as opposed to $2 in the late 1940s. The flambeaux are torches fueled by kerosene that leads men and horses that pull the floats to cover up especially their hair.


When I was a skinny (all-knees and -elbows) kid called “whitey” because the sun burned my naturally blonde hair light sandy, there were many traditions and customs that I fear are no longer observed.


But my blonde hair has turned truly white and New York New York’s owner Mary does a splendid job of shaving it. Sic transit Gloria mundi – in the Latin I studied in Holy Cross.


“Thus passes the Glory of the world.”



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