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May 10, 2013

Redneck's Progress Starts

Roy Meachum

My progress from Redneck child to the man sharing a White House window with the vice president’s lady began with a long drive down the length of Louisiana. In those days bayou ferries connected unpaved country roads. I was bravely four, but my mind’s eye rolls up "snapshots" from the ride that my mother never believed I could recall.


Nineteen-years-old and already divorced, Oralee Dorothea Dowdy Meachum was the mistress of the voyage that wended the bad highways, in a car made hotter by scratchy mohair seats. Open windows brought the drought dust rolling in. Air-conditioning was a far-off dream. For reasons never shared, she decided to move with her baby boy from Monroe to New Orleans. I never regretted the change, from the Bible Belt to Creole.


By the time I entered first grade, glittering concrete covered the country roads; most ferries replaced by bridges engraved with the names of politicians who begat them; chiefly Huey P. Long’s. Bouncing back from a shellacking four years before, the triumphantly installed governor kept campaign promises, including free textbooks, as teachers reminded each and every incoming class – even after the U.S. Senate became the playground for Mr. Long, who boasted the nickname: Kingfish.


The construction projects continued apace under Senator Long’s anointed successors, notably O. K. Allen from his hometown, Winnfield. Claiming only some 2,000 souls at that time, the small city in the middle of the state’s thriving forest industry notably produced three Louisiana chief executives, counting Huey’s younger brother. Earl K. Long later kept the nation’s rumor mills humming with his very public affair with stripper Blaze Starr; his exaggerated eccentricities were a separate legend.


As for the third member of the Winfield triumvirate: Go along the back roads today and you might discover occasional bridge-plaque reminders of a politician, otherwise known chiefly only to God. Gov. O. K. Allen died in office, which might not have been the tragedy for his family it seemed at the time. The voters’ next choice, Richard Leche, wound up in federal prison, in abundant company with other tappers of the public till. All those roads, bridges and new buildings had rained money in their pockets.


The feds missed The Man.


When Senator Huey Long was shot in Baton Rouge’s towering new state house – built chiefly to honor himself – more than one finger pointed at Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Every assassination invites conspiracy stories. Scarcely a month before, the wooly-hat Redneck senator had threatened to run the following year against the first-term president. He had substantial populist support.


The cornbread-and-turnip-greens-loving Kingfish rattled and thundered crudely against Mr. Roosevelt, the gentleman from Hyde Park. The New York patrician was too soft on the rich, not caring enough of the poor, Huey Long shouted. In the Great Depression’s empty belly, the Louisiana hayseed’s noises made a mighty rumble. He could’ve been a contender, as the movies’ Marlon Brando later put it. The senator might have grabbed the White House golden ring. His brand of socialism sparked Share Our Wealth clubs all over the country. His growing reputation on the political scene made some of his fellow Democrats more than nervous, chiefly on the national level.


While they may have saved the country from another revolution, in the long run the bullets that cut “ol’ Huey” down made “no never mind,” in the prevailing New Orleans street patois that owed much to veneration of French double negatives. After a public mourning phase, his underlings grabbed higher offices where they could pop buttons to their hearts’ delight. And help themselves at the taxpayers' trough.


The first day after the assassination grown men and women unabashedly cried in the streets. Teachers led classroom prayers; he had boosted their meager salaries, as promised in his losing and winning gubernatorial campaigns. Preachers’ sermons elevated the departed politician not only to Heaven’s green meadows but at the Lord’s very right hand. Printed by tens of thousands, memorial photographs were awarded honored places across the state. Some became shrines to the man’s memory and generally kept promises. My mother’s Huey P. Long picture came down only when she went off to St. Joseph’s Nursing Home and its Irish nuns, in 1998. In her case there was a special reason for regretting the assassination and its aftermath.


Politics figured in my growing-up, as naturally as Monday washdays' red beans and rice. Many cafes offered free crabs and shrimp spread out on The Times-Picayune to accompany dime Dixie brew and nickel long-neck Barq’s root beer, my usual drink. On occasion, however, there appeared crème de menthe. When adults were sipping their pre-dining cocktails at a French Quarter bar someone would say, “Get the kid a crème de menthe frappé.” It tasted like peppermint and the crushed ice melted fast. The cold green liquid felt good slithering over the tongue and left my whole mouth tingling.


“Welcome to the City that Care Forgot," as the old Missouri-Pacific Railroad station signs proclaimed.


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