“Never date a colored girl. They’s all got the clap. They get it from they mamas.” My grandmother’s sage advice to me at five years old.
In spite of all the glamour shots of Spanish moss, and cypress trees, Louisiana is about as out of luck as one can get when it comes to being from somewhere. It’s hot, muggy, racist, and nobody’s family tree has a fork in it. Mine was no exception. My grandparents were first cousins, and I guess that’s why we all look alike, have every health condition known to America and some third world countries, Louisiana being among that group in spite of it being positioned at the tail end of the Mississippi River.
Long about the time I was three years old God decided it was time to kill me so I contradicted polio and something called the “sleeping sickness.” I lived, no thanks to the medical care of the day, and the following year they gave me a polio vaccination. You can’t make this stuff up folks. So at five I was deaf in one ear, which still rings till this day, blind in one eye and walking like a duck, but by golly I was white and that counted for something I guess.
Being white in a Klan based state had its perks, the main one being there was a whole race somewhere just a below white trash, which is what I was. What that amounted to was we could vote without getting lynched. Now we couldn’t marry a girl with all her teeth because that meant she’d been to a dentist and obviously was a blue blood, not capable of finding love unless black folk raped her. Then, of course then there’s the hanging, and Scarlet grows a new hymen just perfect for her fiancé Buddha Montgomery, heir to the gas station and thirty second degree Mason to boot.
All of this meant nothing to a kid growing up in a shotgun shack, living on liver gravy and bread with a flea bitten dog and a yard full of chickens, even in town. The difference between our “neighborhood” and “Nigger town” was the distance between the shacks. Theirs were closer. My most vivid memory was my uncle and dad “gigging” frogs and butchering them in the kitchen sink. All they’d eat were the legs, but they had to cut their heads off anyway, I suppose for the entertainment factor, and I’d watch them eat the frog legs while the heads blinked at them from the counter. They’d actually position the heads so they could see that. And poor old Martin Luther King tried singling “We Shall Overcome” to these guys. He’s lucky he wasn’t blinking from a sink.
I really did end up in a hospital when I had polio, but for minor ailments like nails in the foot, cut throats or pneumonia, you’d get taken to some camp in the swamp where a voodoo woman would blow smoke up your butt (literally) or put a penny on the wound so the spirit of Mr. Lincoln could draw out the poison, I crappith thee not!
I went to an all white school, but let me clarify. There’s white, then there’s white. The whitest kids had clean clothes and smelled good. I had neither. I usually wore a flannel shirt, and blue jeans with iron on patches. Iron on patches were the rage of the age. We was proud of iron on patches. I’d sit by the ironing board and watch in snake amazement as the patch cleaved to the fabric as if by magic. I really didn’t understand the social structure in school, only the fact that certain kids could hit me anytime they wanted to. There was this spoiled brat, Vance, I still remember him, who’d seek me out and beat me up during every recess. One day, in a moment of clarity, I hit him back and he fell, crying, so I hit him again. The teachers had to pull me off, but I think that was possibly the most memorable day of my life, that is until Velma Prigmore took off her blouse under the football stand years later, but I’ll save that for another chapter.
I was surrounded by family but none of us liked each other. I remember that every time there was a get together it ended up in a drunken fight with the kids all screaming, followed by that wild ride back to Shreveport across the Red River bridge with the car bouncing off the rails. The only good thing was at that age when you life flashes before your eyes it doesn’t take long. I know because every time I got my butt beat my life flashed before my eyes. Usually involving blinking frog’s heads.
My life flashed before my eyes when my grandmother got a hold of me once. I think I was five. We had this fat little dog named Maybelline. One day I had to pee, and couldn’t make it so I peed on the wall in the hall. My grandmother came along, saw the pee, then me, then the dog, picked up a stick and beat puppy crap out of Maybelleline. Wow! Remember, this was the days before internet. Next day, pee a little higher, bigger thrashing for Maybelline. Finally, I decided to kill the dog. I peed about two feet ABOVE my head. Now Maybelline was about the size of a fat possum. I have to give my grandmother credit. She did everything she could to match that dog’s butt with that pee before my life flashed before MY eyes!
Louisiana people will eat just about anything, steak, road kill, all manner of guts, small negroes, you name it. After the frogs I realized my dad was crazy and I generally stuck to liver gravy at home. Wonder Bread was safe. Rice. Beyond that was pot luck. Crawfish. Oh my LIVING God! Etched into my still developing mind was the image of huddles of inbreds sucking crawfish butts. Now, I’m not saying that’s wrong, some of you might suck crawfish butts, just not me. And Boudin sausage. I think there might be an FDA warning on that now. For those of you who do t know what that tastes like, take a dirty sock, pee on it, wring it out and stuff it in your mouth. There you go. Don’t forget to wash it down with some of dat good ol’ Jax beer.
And Jesus? God, did they have Jesus. My grandmother on my mother’s side, you know, the one who married her cousin, well, when we was living on Laurel Street, she would drag me down the the Baptist church and sit me right up there in the amen pew while this crazy old man screamed that me, and practically everyone else there was going to “hayell” and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it except put money in that little plate he had passed around. Jesus scared me to death until I was twenty-eight years old! I was just glad I wasn’t Catholic, and double glad I wasn’t black, or God forbid a black Catholic. Hell, if I turned out to be one of those I’d have just jumped into the Red River and been done with it.
I was told, when we lived Kaywood Apartments in Bossier City, to never go near the river. Now this is how much common sense we had at that age, and survival skills. With God, mosquitoes, teachers, the Klan and your parents all trying to kill you, you knew damn well not to go surfing on the Red River. This factor wore off by the time you got to high school because they were forever fishing teens out from under logs where the gators had stuffed them for seasoning. Oh yeah, we had those too. See the contrast; kids these days don’t know any better than to eat a dishwasher tablet and we used to play among the gators. We knew better than to eat a dishwasher tablet, one, because there weren’t any, and two, if there had been we’d have ended up down on the bayou with some old black lady blowing smoke up our butt. That’s called preventive medicine.
Not all things were bad. School lunches were a bitch. Till this day I have a prejudice. You see, all the school cooks were big, fat black women, and the result was whatever they come up with. Liver and onions, fried chicken, chicken and rice and courtesy of Huey Long you could eat all you wanted. They all had them Aunt Jemima wraps on their heads, a big smile, and even bigger spoons. They would throw mashed potatoes on the plate and it would drip over the side. Even today I have a hard time eating white woman cooking to the point of giving it to the dog when she looks away. Then you’d come home on the Good Ship Reality and find your uncle and dad in the kitchen with a case of Jax beer and a croak sack full of unfortunate frogs.
Louisiana weather sucks like a French lady of the night, and I know something about Them because Louisiana is full of them. You can’t see the tornadoes for the trees. I still remember the alert coming on the TV, the one you had to slap on the top to get reception from the station five miles away, and a very serious voice saying, “This is a severe tornado alert!” As opposed to the more mundane kind I suppose. Now, you didn’t know where it was, couldn’t see it, I’m told you could hear it, but that’s hard from under the bed. If you lived you’d stay up all night anyway just in case it had babies on the way through. Then the next day, in school, you have a bomb drill because everyone just knew the Russians were gonna bomb Barksdale Air Force Base at any given moment. All of this and the grown ups were worried about the blacks drinking out of the wrong water fountain. But . . . they all had Jesus!
By the time we moved to Texas I was ten years old, and pretty much bat-crap crazy. Had a permanent ringing in my ears, constantly looking over my shoulder for bombs, blacks, and bloody crosses, and the scary part is I left an entire state behind that thought just like me, and they’re still THERE! Well, the ones the gators didn’t get. Texas was a whole new deal, and I had to work it, which has only taken me fifty-five years, six wives, ten houses and three fortunes. This book is my story and thousands of baby boomers just like me!
Bill the Butcher