Category Archives: Kenner

Them’s some ugly women!

The Kenner, LA of the early post-war period was a wonderful place to grow up, but forms of entertainment in Kenner back then were somewhat limited and often locally-generated.

We had one local movie house on the corner of Minor and Fourth Streets. A second was built in the fifties. We had our parades; that would be St. Rosalee.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars cranked up after the war, and out of that came a carnival krewe called the Knights of Malta. They didn’t parade but they did do a nice Mardi Gras ball at a hall connected, if I am remembering right,  to the Raziano restaurant and bar on Airline.

About once a year a “circus” would come to town. It consisted of a few lame rides (by Pontchartrain Beach standards) and a bunch of game booths designed to take your money and give you a cheap stuffed toy if you actually won, which was rare. The circus set up in the (then) empty lot where the OLPH school is now. Back then it was a full vacant block where we played baseball and football as kids. The best part is it was only a block from my house. With a dollar in change in my pocket, I would have the time of my life at that traveling circus, seeing and doing things that I never got the chance to do without a trip to Pontchartrain Beach, which was very rare. That usually lasted for a few days before they packed up and moved on to another town.

Of course, Kenner High football and basketball games were big sports draws for the locals. No Saints back then, and LSU or Tulane sports required a road trip, especially LSU games, or a gathering around the warm glow of a radio. Live telecast? Didn’t happen.

There were various dance reviews, plays, very non-PC minstrel shows, and other entertainment gatherings usually held in the Kenner High School gym, and one such event is where this story is going.

Bet you didn’t know that Kenner had a bunch of men who liked to dress up as women? I’m not kidding! Transvestites, right here in River City—I mean Rivertown.

I don’t recall exactly when this happened, but I’m thinking it was around 1949, only a few years after World War II ended and Kenner’s veterans had racked their M-1s, docked their ships, and parked their P-51 fighters and C-47s for the last time and come home. This bunch of battle-hardened vets fresh from the killing fields of Europe and the Pacific decided they wanted to dress up as women. War does strange things to a man…

The event was a play called “A Womanless Wedding.” It was a so named because it was indeed a wedding without women presented by a bunch of men in drag. I dearly wish I could remember more details about it. All I have is this old photo I found in my Mother’s stuff. I do recall it was held in the then-new Kenner HS gym, and the men in drag dressed in the old gym, which became a cafeteria for the school.

Them’s some ugly women!

I recognize some in the photo. Dave Goldberg was the bride, who evidently was “pregnant” by the groom in the snazzy suit, who I think was Eddie DiGerolamo. Bobby Cristina (my FIL) is the bride’s father with the shotgun. (“Shotgun wedding.” Get it?) The three bridesmaids over on the left are Bob “Son” Manard (near) and Joe Fletcher (far), but I’m not sure who is between them. I originally thought it might be Bob Schyler. I have been unable to identify any of the others.

With this bunch, the “wedding” must have been a hoot!

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Ollie And The Rain Barrel

I’m not sure just when this next story took place as I had completely forgotten about it until Buck reminded me of it in a phone conversation a year or so before he died. When I asked when it happened, his words were, “We were old enough to get into trouble.” That wasn’t terribly helpful because that covered a lot of years! We finally isolated it down to when we were in our late teens.

Four people were involved: Mike “Buck” Roy, Alvin “Al” Bartlett, me, and Oliver Darrel “Dee” White. We were kind of a “rat pack” that ran together for decades. Buck and Dee are both deceased now.

Dee lived on Williams at 16th Street. Actually, he lived in a small garage apartment behind his parent’s house and had lived there for as long as I knew him. Dee was two years younger then I was, and I meet him when he joined our scout troop. His folks were not poor and the house was large enough for Dee to live inside, but he didn’t. They fixed up the garage, and Dee had this really cool garage apartment complete with a bathroom where we liked to hang out.

The conversation I am about to relate began by Dee expressing the desire to have a nickname, and he wanted a cool nickname. He was already called “Dee” shortened from Darrel, so the request seemed rather strange to the rest of us, but then Dee could sometimes be a bit strange.

Curious, we asked what name he would like to have, and his reply was “Ace”. And he said it with a straight face, but that didn’t stop the rest of us from laughing. “Lib” White, his mother, would not have tolerated “Ace” for even a second, but Dee, I mean Ace, persisted, and we resisted. “Ace?” Really?

At which point, we began calling him by a nickname we knew he absolutely hated. His first name was Oliver, and we sometimes called him “Ollie” when we wanted to irritate him—like at that moment. That was always guaranteed to send Dee into a dose of the vapors.

After we had our laugh, we finally agreed. I think Al started it, and Buck and I picked up on where he was going with it. “OK, we’ll call you Ace, Dee,” said Al.

That lit Dee up. “Not Dee! Just Ace,” he insisted.

“OK, Dee, I mean Ace,” Buck said. “We get it.”

“Dammit. ACE!” Dee insisted even more assertively.

“OK, OK, ACE it is, but, Dee, this is gonna take some getting used to,” I chimed in. Buck and Al nodded their heads in agreement.

Ace became exasperated then and even more vocal about his nickname. The rest of us were thinking he needed another trip to the rain barrel.

The Rain Barrel

Dee (or Ace if you prefer), an only child, was a bit spoiled and could get disrespectful sometimes. We mostly verbally slapped him down when he did that to us or simply ignored him. But there was one time he dissing someone, and we could not ignore it, and we all ganged up on him to administer some “brotherly love” discipline.

I don’t remember just what he said, but in front of us, he was very disrespectful to his mother. It was bad enough that those of us who witnessed it were offended, and not because we were all pillars of society always showing respect to our elders; it was just that bad.

The Whites had an old whiskey barrel in the backyard, and it was full of water. I don’t recall why they had this barrel of water. It was just sitting in the middle of the yard and doing nothing beyond that and collecting water.

Someone made the comment to Dee that his words to his mother were uncalled for, and Dee pushed back with something like, “What are you going to do about it?”

The gauntlet had been thrown down. The “double-dog-dare” had been figuratively tossed into the ring. Buck, Al, and I looked at each other knowingly. We all three looked at the barrel and then Dee. Lib White was watching all this and must have suspected something was about to happen.

In perfect unison as if rehearsed, Al, Buck, and I said, “The barrel!”

Dee looked at us with a confused expression on his face, then at the barrel, and back at us as we closed in on him. He laughed a mocking laugh! And that did it! The three of us were on him before he could take even one step. We had him off the ground and unable to do anything but squirm as we headed for the barrel.

About then Lib White figured out what we had in mind and called out from the back steps of their house, “Don’t drown him!”

Dee went into the barrel head-first and we held him down while he thrashed around throwing water over everyone. After an appropriate amount of time (short of drowning), we brought him up, and he was spitting out profanity between gasps for air.

“You going to apologize to your mother?”

The answer was a defiant “no” laced with profanity.

Back into the barrel he went, and this time he stayed down longer. We brought him up sputtering and cursing. “You win! You win! I’m sorry!”

We let him go, and Lib sighed with relief we had not drowned her only child.

I don’t remember how much longer the Whites kept that barrel around, a few years at least, and every time Dee got smart-assed, we would suggest it was time for another trip to the barrel. That usually calmed him down.

And we never did call him Ace.

 

The pic is of Dee and his wife, Patsey, in 2004.

 

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The Little Red Wagon – Part 2

Back here I posted about my father’s “Little Red Wagon.” Recently, I discovered more about this incident, which is what this all about. To save you the time of going to the link, here is the story.

It seems that MB, then serving with the 5th Army as a physician in North Africa during WWII (and later Sicily and Italy), asked his dad, Martial, back here in New Orleans to please go to Sears and purchase a sleeping bag and send it to him overseas. The U.S, as usual, was unprepared for the war or properly equip its army. It got cold at night in the North African desert, which is where this incident took place. Martial did as asked and dutifully ordered his son his requested sleeping bag. Well, Sears screwed up. I will let them explain what happened. Below are two scans from the New Orleans Sear’s Store Newsletter that has the details.

And here is a picture of the “Little Red Wagon” from a photo MB sent home to his dad and his comments on the back.


As I recall, MB said the Little Red Wagon did not go to waste. They actually used it to move stretchers. As the Sears New Orleans Store Newsletter indicates, they did send him a sleeping bag.

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Mr. Hubwumpus

My dad had a story he told to us kids, one which I will always remember and have tried to pass on to my own kids and grandkids. And that is the story of Mr. Hubwumpus. I don’t know where MB got it; perhaps from his own father or mother. He first told it to me when I was around five. I can distinctly remember the settings, which was at my grandmother’s house one evening not long after my mother married MB.

Mr. Hubwumpus was a strange animal indeed. He was a dragon of sorts. He was green and had scales for skin, and he breathed fire and smoke like a dragon. His most unusual feature was that he had a light on the end of his tail and eyes on the back of his head. In a weird kind of logic, the light on his tail and eyes on the back of his head were there because, as MB put it, “He needed to see where he has been.”

No, I can’t make any sense of it either, not now and not when I was five. Light on his tail? Eyes on the back of his head to see where he’s been…? It’ll give you a headache.

About the time I turned fourteen my mother decided she was going to turn the tale of Mr. Hubwumpus into a children’s book and get rich while confusing kids all over the world with the tail light/eyes on the back of his head to see where he’s been brain teaser of an animal. I had some artistic ability, which I eventually turned into a profession designing ads and packages for some large international brands. I got this talent from my mother. Interestingly, she studied art at Southwestern Louisiana Institute in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 1941, later dropping out of school when the war started. I studied advertising design there in 1964 when it was called the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette). The director of the art department was a Dr. Robertson. When I met him, I asked if he remembered my mother and he said he did.

Back to my story.

My mother decided I needed to illustrate the story, which she would write. Since the story of Mr. Hubwumpus had never gotten past a description of this creature in its early tellings, she had to invent a tale for the book, which ended up being along the lines of Mr. Hubwumpus had something of an identity crisis over his frightening appearance but wanted to make friends with a “people”, which turned out to be little Jimmy. But Jimmy’s mother saw them together told her son he must have nothing to do with that horrible looking monster. That was not good for Mr. Hubwumpus’ ego, and he retreated away from “people” back into the swamp. Jimmy ran away in search of his friend and fell into quicksand, and Mr. Hubwumpus came to save him. He huffed and puffed and breathed fire, which made his tail longer and its light brighter so Timmy could be pulled from the quicksand. All this was witnessed by the townspeople—you know the type: those holding the pitchforks and torches. And seeing the evil-looking Mr. Hubwumpus save Jimmy…well. (This is Copyrighted, BTW.) I just reread the manuscript, and the story is actually quite charming.

Meanwhile, my friends wanted to know what was taking up so much of my playtime. Being sworn to secrecy by my mother, I had to reply. “It’s Top Secret. I can’t tell you.”

Well, I ran into one of my old childhood buddies recently. That would be Lebo Centanni. Hadn’t seen him since we were kids in Kenner except very briefly in 1972 in Anchorage, Alaska when I was getting out of the Air Force, and Lee was flying C-130s out of Elmendorf AFB. Evidently, poor Lebo had been consumed by this top secret thing ever since we were kids and now some sixty years later he asks me, “Lane, I have to know. Back when we were kids you were working on this ‘Top Secret’ project with your mother. What in the hell was it?”

Wow! Sixty years and not knowing about Mr. Hubwumpus has been eating Lebo up all that time. For a brief moment, I considered stringing poor, eaten-up Lebo along and saying it was still “classified” but decided to finally spill the beans about Mr. Hubwumpus.

I think he was disappointed, but at least he can sleep at night now.

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Two-Bits

Two-Bits was my cat. I was about six when he came into my life. He was a pitiful black and white kitten roaming the street behind Kenner High School and in danger of being run over by a car. I wanted to bring him home, but my grandmother, who picked me up at school, would not allow it. I told my even more soft-hearted mother about the kitten, and she immediately went and retrieved him.

And much to my dad’s chagrin, we owned a cat, or more accurately a cat owned us. MB claimed he hated cats, but either he got over that or he was lying because he seemed to take to Two-Bits. In fact, he is the one who named him Two-Bits.

Two-Bits grew to be a big old, handsome, butt-kicking tomcat, and like most all tomcats, Two-Bits would go “tomcatting.” He would disappear for days at a time and come home somewhat lighter in weight and usually battle-scarred. He would stay home on R&R for a while to rebuild his vitality before he would go out tomcatting again. I imagine old Two-Bits had hundreds of progeny around Kenner.

Alas, my mother decided to end his tomcatting days, and Two-Bits made a short trip to the vet to returned minus two body parts. That was supposed to solve the tomcatting problem, but tomcatting was so ingrained in his psyche by then that the fact he no longer had the necessary “tomcatting equipment” didn’t even slow old Two-Bits down. He continued to tomcat the rest of his days and come home with just as many scars—albeit without leaving any more progeny around Kenner to carry on his heritage.

I don’t recall how long he lived or even when he died, but he was still around when I was a teenager and dating Janis. That would put him at ten years or better.

Two-Bits had the run of the house, and he exercised that privilege to its fullest. He went wherever he wanted and pretty much did whatever he wanted to do. That fact shocked Janis when we were eating a roast beef poboy at the kitchen table one night. She was not accustomed to having a cat in the house, so Two-Bits was a bit of a cultural shock for her. His actions were especially shocking that night when he jumped up on the kitchen table to investigate what we were eating. Janis freaked out and so did Two-Bits. They both decamped from the table. Janis and I had cats after we got married, but they were NEVER allowed on the kitchen table or countertops.

Two-Bits was an important part of my childhood, and I do miss him even after all these years.

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Boy Scouts in Kenner

boy-scoutMost of my friends were in the Boy Scouts when I was a kid. Henry Legasse was the Scout Master when I joined, and that position was later taken over by Mr. Hansen and Mr. Carter.

We joined when we turned 11 and some of us were even in the Cub Scouts prior to joining the Boy Scouts. I joined because I liked the outdoors, and the Boy Scouts were all about the outdoors, plus I was into uniforms then, especially if they looked military. (I played army a lot.)

Boys like to go camping, and the troop had a supply of WWII pup tents, also known as “shelter halves” because two halves were put together to make one tent. We used these tents only once as I recall. Our Scout leaders, most having recently served in WWII, had had their fill of camping and anything remotely related to the Army. And pup tents and sleeping on the cold ground certainly fit that bill.

Instead, they took us places where there were cabins and real (alleged) beds, like Camp Salmon and Fountainbleu State Park group camps. The latter was probably a bit emotionally triggering for them because the buildings we stayed in were surplus Army barracks. But they had a roof instead of pup tent canvass and real beds with alleged mattresses.

Manard Lagasse was not what I would call a “momma’s boy” but every “camping trip” we went on, he puked all the first night and had to be taken home the next day by his dad. Frankly, the rest of us were glad, because it was hard to sleep and listen to Manard’s “Oommmoooogggg!” followed by liquid hitting the floor.

We played games and worked on merit badges on these trips, and learned Army stuff, like: fall in, ah-tennn-HUT, count off, parade rest, and other nifty things that would come in handy less than ten years later when many of us went into the military.

On one trip to Fountainbleu, we begged our adult leaders to take us on a hike. They weren’t into hiking either, having recently hiked all over North Africa, Italy, and Europe. They decided to break us of that desire and took us on what more resembled some sort of death march rather than the leisurely stroll we had in mind. They took us into a swamp—into muck up to our knees—and we could barely move forward—and they urged us on deeper into the swamp, and some of us lost our shoes. When we came out, we were covered with stinking swamp mud, and we never asked for a hike again. And I don’t recall them ever offering to take us on one, either.

Once when we were on a winter campout at Camp Salmon in the little buildings with (alleged) real beds, we had a giant pillow fight, which, unfortunately, went badly. At least one of the pillows quite literally exploded, resulting in a blizzard of chicken feathers. That was a mess to clean up!

One of our favorite games was “infiltration” which we always played at summer camp at Camp Salmon. The objective was for all the scouts, under the cover of darkness, to sneak up on the campfire area along the bayou. Success was just about impossible without taking out a few of the camp counselors, but cutting throats was not then allowed. The scouts would blacken their faces with charcoal, dress in dark clothing, and crawl around in the woods infested with briars, snakes, spiders, ticks, and red bugs and attempt to sneak up on the campfire ring. We actually believed we had a chance of succeeding. I don’t recall anyone ever succeeding.

At summer camp, they were very strict about littering. They even had a rule about it. If you bought any candy at the little camp “trading post” and tossed the wrapper on the ground, whoever picked it up could charge you, and you had to buy them the same thing. It is amazing how many kids toss their candy wrappers on the ground. Some of us (punks) saw potential in this and formed a “vigilante” group. We hung around the “trading post,” and when we saw some kid eating candy, we followed him until he dropped the wrapper—and we pounced. I gained weight that year at camp. Yes, I know. I’m ashamed of myself. But hey, they needed to learn a life lesson about littering.

The last night of summer camp at Camp Salmon was the big campfire when we sang Kumbaya, did skits, and received awards. We would dress as Indians, and the costumes were pretty lame. We used towels as loincloths held on by our scout belts. Having that wad between your legs was pretty uncomfortable, and I don’t recall anyone taking a shower after that.

There was a priest there who somehow managed to attach himself to our troop. He was from some foreign country and spoke broken English. When he saw us dressed as Indians, he flipped out. I think the “skimpy” towel loincloths did it. We tried to reassure him we were pretending to be Indians just for the night. His reply was a pleading, “NO! Christians!” We went in our crotch-irritating loincloth towels anyway. He remained behind prayed for our lost souls.

And I must not forget the meals on these camping trips. Almost always we had access to a kitchen and lots of surplus Army aluminum pots, but every once in a while we got to actually cook our own meals over an open fire. That usually meant foil stew. Done right, foil stew can be very good. You simply make a pouch out of two layers of aluminum foil and place in it chopped potatoes, carrots, onions, bell pepper, and some kind of meat cubed up. Throw in a little seasoning and a dash of water, seal the open end well and toss that puppy onto a bed of hot coals and scrape a few on top. Cook it for about 20 minutes. Retrieve from the fire and split open the foil and enjoy. Later in life, we would make foil stew on hunting trip camp outs, only being older and wiser then, we used steak instead of the cheap of meat cut our parents gave us as kids and substituted beer for the water. Yuumm! And no pots to wash!

The weekly meetings at the Kenner VFW Hall were always the high point of my week. I really looked forward to them and getting together with kids I saw only then. We worked on merit badges and different scout projects. I never did learn Morris Code, however. The biggest event was the “Court of Honor” when we received our merit badges and promotions to the next level of scouting. It was all rather formal with everyone in uniform with candles glowing softly as the ceremonies played out. We scouts received our new uniform decoration and our proud parents stood by smiling and applauding.

Those were some good times.

I encourage readers, especially former members of Troop 176 in Kenner, to post their experiences in the comments section below.

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The BIG Bang

Two holidays (besides Christmas) hold great interest to us kids growing up. I am referring to July 4 and New Year. Bet ya can’t guess why?

“Fireworks,” you say?

Good guess. Explosive devices have magical charms for boys and probably a few girls, also. Nothing is more satisfying than a big bang and something being blown to smithereens. Yes, our parents allowed us to play with fireworks—unsupervised. Of course, prior to being released to go wreak havoc on the world, we got the usual lectures about the safe handling of fireworks followed by periodic reminders of their dangers via scare stories of some kid getting his fingers blown off. That barely slowed us down.

As kids we only had access to the usual over-the-counter verity of fireworks—oh but what fireworks they were. What you buy today pales in comparison to what we could get back in the fifties. I refer of course to the infamous, finger-removing M-80.

m-80

The M-80 was originally used by the military to simulate artillery fire (no. really its true), thus were way more potent than the run-of-the-mill Black Cat firecracker or even the more potent “Cherry bomb” or the similar in appearance “Silver King.” The only thing the Silver King and the M-80 shared was that both were small tubes of black powder about ¾” in diameter and 1.5’ long with the green fuse sticking out of the middle. The Silver King was silver, naturally, and the M-80 was colored a danger red. That’s because it contained more powder—and would take your finger off. The M-80 was said to contain 3 grams of black powder.

Today’s M-80 is a weak sister to its older brother thanks to government regulations and is not as potent as an old Silver King. That is because modern fireworks are limited to 50 milligrams of powder versus 200 mg or more before. Our M-80s more closely resembled a quarter stick of dynamite in explosive power—at least it seemed so to us—and evidently, also to the government.

We used the M-80’s potent explosive potential to blast all sorts of things into next week. Favorite targets were red ant hills, but you needed to get far away from the blast area or risk getting showered with a lot of only temporarily stunned red ants. When they recover from the blast, they are REALLY mad.

Once we built a mortar in the Lagasse’s key lot. The tube/barrel was some kind of pipe we found that empty beer cans fit in nicely. We stuck one end into the dirt and propped it up point skyward at about a 45 degree angle and dropped in a lit M-80 followed by a beer can—and BOOM—that can was sent to the other end of the key lot and almost to Williams Street. That lasted until our “mortar tube” succumbed to the potency of the M-80 and was blown apart. Fortunately, no one was hurt.

No problem. What can we blow up next?

Remember the old kitchen trash cans with the pop-open lid that opened by stepping on a little pedal on the base? Remember the removable can liners used in them? They were heavy gauge steel then—and great M-80 projectiles. Out on Sixth Street we lit an M-80 and dropped the can on top and hauled butt. BAM—that can was sent up above the tree tops, with kids scrambling in every direction to avoid the can’s re-entry into the atmosphere. A few more attempts at attaining orbit, and the can was a mangled mess that no longer fit in its outer shell. Re-entries were hard on the can—not to mention lift-off.

One of us got to go onto the ultimate explosive devices. Buck joined the Army, and they put him in combat engineers. He got to play with some really cool stuff like C-4 and det cord, which was a handy and quick way to cut down a tree. But Buck also got to play with the ultimate explosive device—nuclear weapons. No, I’m not kidding. He was in “atomic demolitions and munitions.” Only he never got to “light the fuse” on one, which is probably a good thing. He was stationed in Germany and when the “flag went up,” their job was to assemble some small nukes and blow bridges with them. They REALLY wanted those bridges to come down, didn’t they?

The rest of us were left to be content with ever more anemic government version M-80s and lecturing our kids on the safe handling of fireworks with periodic reminders of their dangers via scare stories of some kid getting his fingers blown off. As if…

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Christmas Trees

christmas-tree

What is Christmas without a tree? When I was young we had only live trees of the spruce verity with short needles about ½ to ¾ inches long. And they had a fantastic smell, but they shed, and I mean shed a lot! I suspect they were actually cut sometime the previous May, because by the time we got them up and decorated a mere soft breeze would defoliate a branch. We fed them water, and they drank it like a camel preparing to cross the Sahara, but it did no discernable good. Obviously, all that dryness meant they were a fire hazard, but amazingly, I don’t recall any tree fires, although I am sure we had a few around Kenner.

Some of my friends and relations were on a different schedule, but it was always two weeks before Christmas when we put up the tree at my house. In those days the lights were the large bulb verity. The bulb was about the size of a thumb. And naturally, they burned out. That meant we spent the first hour or so of decorating dedicated to finding burned out bulbs and replacing them. Some of those lights were bubble lights with the “candle-like” tube of colored water above the base in which bubbles rose when they were turned on. Bubble lights were, and remain, my favorites.

The lights went on first careful we did not knock off any of the needles on the nearing-ready-for-defoliation branches. That was followed by the decorations. In those days, the decorations were brightly colored globes of some design made out of glass thin enough to crumble at the slightest provocation. Don’t even think about one surviving a drop on the floor. We also had some made to resemble birds with long bristle-like tails. These we clipped to the top of the branch, unless we wanted the dead bird effect, in which we clipped them to the bottom.

That was followed by the ubiquitous “icicles,” thin strips of a foil we draped over the branches to resemble (if you had a really good imagination) icicles hanging from the tree. Later these were made from some metalized thin vinyl material, which didn’t tarnish like the earlier real metal ones. True patrons of the icicle art form added them to the ends of the branches only a strand or two at a time. For me, that lasted all of about two or three branches, and I would look at the gazillion branches eagerly awaiting their custom draped icicles and decide another method was called for. By then I was getting bored with the tree-decorating thing, anyway. That called for “rapid-deployment.” That meant standing back and throwing handfuls of icicles at the tree letting them land where they may. My mother didn’t much care for that method.

In the early post-war years we carefully removed the icicles after Christmas and stored them for use next year. As we prospered, the old icicles became expendable (and tarnished) to be replaced the following year. What? Maybe a buck and a half cost total?

The tree was topped, in those days, with a spire of sorts made of the same fragile glass as the aforementioned decorations. I don’t recall very many angels up there.

In the mid-late fifties, various simulations of “snow” began to appear for decoration. The most effective came in an aerosol can. It took a true snow artist to get this stuff to look real. Mostly, it looked like lots of bird droppings on the branches and over-sprayed walls around the tree. I never much cared for it, although applying it was fun.

Around the same time, they started selling painted trees. We went several years with silver trees. But the Lagasse family across the street remained “true” to the Christmas tree spirit and bought only green painted trees. The green was so dark it was almost black (Goth tree?) and only vaguely resembled real tree color, but they seemed to like it. In addition to silver and green, you could get white or even pink (a popular color in the fifties but a sacrilege for a Christmas tree). The paint increased the flammability of the tree but helped hold the dry needles on—oh, for perhaps an extra day or so.

Flocked trees came after that, but only “rich people” bought those. Flocked was not allowed in our house by my tight-fisted father. One of his few wins over my mother.

With fragile trees and families full of rough and tumble boys, naturally, there were accidents. My cousin Bobby got a trampoline for Christmas one year and somehow Boo, his dad (Santa), managed to fit that assembled trampoline in the house more-or-less “under” the tree. Of course, you had to crawl under the trampoline to get to any of the other presents. Not patient enough to wait for Boo to disassemble the trampoline, move it outside, and reassemble it, Bobby, of course true to his nature, tried it out in the house. After he hit his head on the ceiling a few times, he did an unanticipated “dismount” and landed in the Christmas tree for a combined judges score of -1.2.

And defoliated the tree!

One year the day before Christmas Eve, the tree at Manard and Elton Lagasse’s house decided to “faint.” Clutching its little tree heart, it fell over dead—well, maybe it just realized it had been dead for months?

Defoliated!

I have no idea what happened, and Manard and Elton weren’t talking. Not a needle was left on that tree. All that remained were bare sticks grotesquely reaching out for water, and the presents under it were just a lumpy pile of needles. Henry Lagasse had to scramble and buy a new tree on Christmas Eve.

After Christmas when the spell of the Christmas tree had worn off, I used to enjoy running the branches between my finger and thumb and listen to the patter of needles hitting the floor. By the time we took the fire hazard down after New Years, most of the needles were on the floor. When MB finally dragged the dead carcass out the door, it left a trail of its remaining needles as a reminder of its glorious past. And out came the Hoover.

Then along came the ultimate answer to the tree defoliation problem—aluminum Christmas trees! No lights on these “high-tech” trees. Underneath you had a disk of rotating red, green, and blue gels that a light projected through and colored the highly reflective aluminum tree “needles.” But it wasn’t real and smelled like metal instead of pine. And that rotating/projecting colored light thingie always made an annoying squeaking sound as it turned, industrializing the whole Christmas mood. Some considered the aluminum tree the height of tree sacrilege, but my parents were the neighborhood trendsetters (Snork!), and we got one. Eventually my grandmother gave in and bought one, but no one else did that I recall. I think the Manards and the Lagasses secretly looked down their collective noses at our “apostate” Christmas tree.

For all their problems, it wasn’t Christmas without a tree. I remember only one Christmas without one, and that one was in 1968 at Lackland AFB in Texas when I was going through Air Force Basic Training. And it didn’t feel like Christmas that year, at all. Otherwise, I spent many hours lying on the sofa in the living room just staring at that tree with all the other lights off except the tree lights (even the aluminum tree / squeaking light projector years) and dreaming of what it would look like Christmas morning. It was the most beautiful sight in the entire world for a boy growing up in Kenner.

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Christmas

Growing up in Kenner in the fifties, Christmas was always a special time of the year for us as it must have been for most others growing up elsewhere. There was a “ritual” of sorts associated with the Christmas season. Each family had its own traditions and some got passed down to the next generation, but usually each generation has to establish their own. Back then in my family, we could count on the same series of events occurring every year without fail, and I began looking forward to them as early as Halloween, which for us kids “officially” kicked off the “holiday seasons.”

We kids looked forward to Christmas with the usual expectation of new toys and time off from school. We wrote our Christmas lists and letters to Santa long after we discovered the truth. We wanted to perpetuate the “gift gravy train” as long as we could get away with it.

2017-sixth

Depending on what day Christmas landed on, school let out the day before Christmas Eve and resumed the day after New Years Day. Christmas Eve was for me even bigger that Christmas itself. Christmas Eve was a big extended family night when everyone was having a party and exchanging gifts all over the neighborhood, and most of my extended family lived within easy walking distance, even if inebriated. On Christmas Eve we went first to my grandparent’s house on the corner of Sixth and Minor to exchange gifts. This exchange was among my grandparents, aunts, and cousins on my mother’s side. They always exchanged gifts on Christmas Eve. As I recall, those festivities kicked off at 7pm precisely.

This was followed by a visit to MB’s side of the family for a party at Boo and Margie’s house at the other end of the block. Sometime during the evening we paid a visit to Mary’s house. Mary was the black lady who cleaned my dad’s office and did light housework for the Manard clan. We took her gifts like a turkey or ham and Christmas “bonus” cash, a bottle of Seven Crown whisky and stayed long enough to share some Christmas cheer with her and her family.

After returning home, we retired late, and the kids went to sleep (not really), while our parents put out the toys from Santa. There was no way I was going to wait until Christmas morning to play with my stuff that Santa left. For weeks prior, I practiced creeping down the long hallway between our kitchen and the living room where the tree was set up. I discovered that certain boards of the wood floor in the hall of our elevated house creaked loudly when stepped on. After some experimenting, I discovered that if I hugged the walls during my creep down the hall, I made less noise, thus I was not likely to awaken my parents. That was probably overkill, as my parents slept like rocks after all that work, play, and the adult beverages they had consumed at the parties. There was little chance of me waking them, but the stealth was part of the fun and created a genuine adrenalin rush.

About an hour after they went to bed, I would make my first foray to see the goodies under the tree. Ninja-like I would silently roll out of my bed, pausing to see if the rustling of my sheets had aroused my parents. Getting no response, I stood and moved to the doorway, avoiding the center of the room and any creaking floorboards. Again, I paused to see if they had heard me. And again no “Lane, what are you doing?” issued forth from my parents bedroom. I then carefully slipped through the kitchen and into that treacherous hallway and hugged the wall to avoid those tattletale boards and took one careful step at a time toward the living room and my Christmas goodies. Upon arrival, I turned on only the tree lights and beheld a display of toys and gifts so carefully laid out such that the display would shame the window dresser at the Maison Blanche department store downtown. I examined each object with barely restrained glee, lest I wake my snoring parents, and was very careful to put each item back exactly as “Santa” had displayed it. Temporarily satisfied, I then snuck back to bed and tried to sleep. That didn’t work.

Within the hour, I made another ninja-assault on the Christmas tree. This time I not only examined my toys but also those of my sisters. Then back to bed again. This was a case of “wash, rinse and repeat” all night long. Needless to say, on Christmas Day I was very sleepy and went to bed early that night.

Christmas morning was a time to open the gifts of our immediate family and play with the new toys, but before we could really enjoy everything, it was hurry up and get dressed to have Christmas dinner at my grandparent’s house at noon, and they ALWAYS ate at noon! Since they were from central Louisiana (Point Coupee and LaSalle Parish), the fare was different from what was usually found on Christmas tables in New Orleans. We had the usual obligatory turkey, but instead of brown gravy made from the drippings served over the oyster dressing or dirty rice, we had white giblet gravy over white rice. The stuffing was cornbread instead of oyster dressing my wife made as part of our later Christmas meal traditions. The cranberry sauce was always that can shaped gelatinous glob, but I loved it and still do. Janis refuses to let me eat it today and makes her own cranberry sauce from fresh cranberries, and I must admit, it is actually better than the gelatinous glob. The wine was usually Mogen David Concord Grape and sweet enough to almost qualify as grape juice and induce instant tooth decay. But we ate like we hadn’t eaten in days.

That was a long time ago, and we do things a bit differently today. Even our traditions established during our young married life are gone with deceased parents and family members grown, married with kids of their own, and some living in another state. I miss those Christmas Times of long ago, but there comes a time when you have to let go and let the kids establish their own traditions.

Another thing I really wish I could bring back and enjoy today is my Aunt Ethel’s fruitcake. Every fall she and my mother would make fruitcakes a few weeks before Christmas, and she had a great fruitcake recipe! After baking they were liberally dribbled with bourbon whiskey and allowed to soak in the bourbon for a couple of weeks before eating. Man, they were good. I need to find that recipe.

In closing: To all of you reading this, I hope you have some Christmas Traditions you cherish, and most of all, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and remember “He is the reason for the season.”

NOTE: The image is a screen grab from Google Street View of the house I grew up in as it looks today.

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Mr. Frank

One of the joys of growing up in Kenner was being a boy during the best time in history in what was possibly the best place in the world to grow up, Kenner. At least that’s what my cousin, Bobby, thinks. I tend to agree. In post war and prosperous America, we lived a carefree life that simply can’t be recreated today.

For us kids back then, summers were our favorite time of the year for obvious reasons, mainly because the dress code was so minimal, and we didn’t have to go to school. It was a time when we roamed the streets in our neighborhood with no fear, wearing only shorts, no shoes and no shirts—maybe sometimes a baseball cap. It was also the time Mr. Frank would pay us daily visits.

Mr. Frank was our local, roving, ice cream man. He was an over-weight, somewhat elderly man with a fatherly appearance, and wore a worn straw fedora to protect his balding head from the sun. Mr. Frank roamed the neighborhoods of Kenner on his little three-wheeled Cushman motor scooter ringing a hand bell and shouting out, “Ice cream! Get your ice cream!” (As if the bell hadn’t done the sales job already.) He sat in the back of his little scooter over the motor, and in front over the two front wheels was his dry ice cooled icebox filled with a veritable cornucopia of frozen delights for kids.

cushman

He sold the usual ice cream cups that came with a little wooden device for scooping the ice cream from the cup. That “scooping device” was a “spoon” in name only, being only a thin flat piece of wood cut in the shaped of a stubby spoon. Splinters in the lip were not unheard of.

His cooler also contained frozen bars of ice cream on a stick dipped in chocolate, ice cream sandwiches, which were two rectangular chocolate cookie slabs with a block of vanilla ice cream in between, and Dreamsicles—those bars of vanilla ice cream on a stick with a frozen orange sherbet coating, and ice cream cones with a chocolate topping and peanuts wrapped in paper you had to peel back. And, of course, he had the ubiquitous Popsicle in a variety of flavors to satisfy the tastes of any kid.

Mr. Frank rang his hand bell as he slowly motored through the neighborhoods of Kenner. Of course, with our super-tuned kid hearing, we heard that bell approaching when he was still five miles away. With a Pavlov’s dog-like response, we dropped everything we were doing and began an immediate and urgent assault on our parent’s pocket books.

“Can I have some money for ice cream, please, please?

Our parents were notorious foot-draggers when it came to such wild and extravagant expenditures of their hard-earned cash. (A Popsicle cost every bit of 5¢.) As Mr. Frank’s siren song and that clanging bell drew nearer, the pleading increased in tempo designed to break down even the most penny-pinching parent. “Please, hurry! I’m going to miss him!”

As Mr. Frank reached our street, our foot dragging parents finally gave in to our pleading and coughed up some cash. I’m convinced it was a conspiracy among them, because they all paid off at the same time. From every door on Sixth Street, frantic kids clutching nickels and dimes in their sweaty hands burst forth screaming “Mr. Frank! Mr. Frank, wait!

Not one to miss the big sales, Mr. Frank was, by then, exercising his favorite marketing ploy. He had slowed his scooter to a mere idling crawl, slow enough that it threatened to kill the sputtering motor on his scooter, and his bell ringing had gotten even more frantic.

And we assaulted him.

Then came decision time. “Do I want a popsicle or a Dreamsicle today? No. Um. Maybe an ice cream sandwich? I donno…?

And Mr. Frank smiled and waited patiently, knowing he was about to rake in the big bucks from all the kids gathered around his little scooter. When one of us finally made up our mind, Mr. Frank opened the hatch on the top of that cooler box. And the rest of us stared mystified at the dark yawning opening that was spilling out this mystical cloud of “smoke” from the dry ice. And it was just cloudy enough that we couldn’t see into that dark interior. But Mr. Frank could, either that or he had the location of the contents memorized, because he would reach in, his arm disappearing into that black, smoking hole, and always come up with the correct item. And BAM, with a puff of magic smoke, that door slammed shut again over that mysterious hole until someone else finally made up his mind.

The sales made, Mr. Frank pocketed his new-found wealth, mounted his Cushman, and motored down the street ringing his bell and shouting, “Ice cream! Ice cream! Get your ice cream!”

And we kids sought a place in the shade to enjoy our frozen treats and plan our next summer adventure.

 

Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

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Filed under Family History, Growing Up, Kenner