Tag Archives: New Orleans

Cherry Bounce

My dad, Dr. MB Casteix, used to make cherry bounce. His foray into creating adult beverages began when he was quite young. Since he started college two years earlier than most, having skipped two grades, he must have been younger than 16 on his first attempt because he was still living at home with his parents. At that time they were living on Bourbon Street in the building that is now the Famous Door Bar. It was a pharmacy at then, and the family lived above it. I wrote about his cherry bounce escapades here.

I decided I would like to attempt to recreate MB’s cherry bounce, but I don’t have his recipe and have no idea how he made it. I did a search online and found a few recipes, including one that is attributed to Martha Washington.

I did know one thing about MB’s recipe, and that was that it evidently continued to ferment in the bottle. In that linked post above, there was a recalled incident of the top blowing off the bottle and scaring the hell out of our maid. The recipes I found called for adding bourbon, rye, or brandy to the cooked cherry mash then storing that for three months. The alcohol should prevent any further fermenting, I would think. But I have to go with what I have.

So…I created a modified version of Martha’s recipe in smaller test proportions and cooked up a batch. The attached pic is the cherry mash before adding the rye whiskey. Unfortunately, we will have to wait three months to see if it is any good.

So, stand by…

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Going Downtown

For us living in Kenner, even though “downtown” New Orleans was less than ten miles away, going “downtown” was somewhat akin to a trip to Jerusalem and held near religious significance. We made these trips maybe once a quarter.

We didn’t just hop in the car and head for Canal Street like we do today. This was more like an expedition, requiring careful preparation with a ritual-like execution.

First, it was expected to be an all day affair, leaving early in the morning and return about sundown.

And you dressed for the occasion.

That means the women wore nice dresses and fashionable shoes, usually heels. I was forced to forgo my shorts for nice trousers, a pressed shirt, and shoes and socks. And my hair was greased and combed.

My grandmother drove her Ford downtown. She ALWAYS had Fords; never knew her to own anything but Fords, and in the nearly thirty years of our shared time on earth, I can recall only three, and the first two had standard transmissions. We piled into her Ford and made the trip down Airline Highway to “downtown.”

She always parked in the same parking lot on the corner of Iberville and Burgundy. We then made a circuit of the stores on Canal Street, first the upriver side and then the downriver side. My favorite was Kress’ Five and Dime Department Store, which had a great toy selection. We usually ate lunch in the D.H. Holmes cafeteria and ended up back at the parking lot in the late afternoon loaded down with packages.

Many years later, when I started dating, one of our frequent destinations was downtown to one of the movie houses on Canal Street like the Joy, or the Saenger, or the Lowes, or the Orpheum on University Place, because they got the first run movies. In those days (late 1950s-early 60s), these dates required coats and ties for the men and nice dresses and heels for the ladies.

The Joy had a curving staircase to the balcony level (which was perfect for necking, BTW). One night, after the movie, when Janis and I were descending the stairs, I was not paying attention to my date as I should have been. As I made my way down the stairs, Janis, who was one step behind me, suddenly passed me on the way down. Trouble is she was bouncing down the stairs on her butt, skirt all in her face and high heels in the air. She reached the bottom before I could catch up to her.

That date did not end well.

But most other dates downtown did end well, usually for pizza at Gibby’s on North Rampart, but that’s another story.

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The Brains of the Confederacy

Judah_BenjaminIn both of my books, The Last Day of Forever and, especially, An Eternity of Four Years, a gentleman by the name of Judah P. Benjamin plays a part. Judah P. Benjamin remains something of an enigma because he destroyed his private papers at the end of the Civil War, and in spite of leading a very public life as a successful attorney, planter, politician, and statesman, some aspects of his personal history remain cloaked in a mystery and speculation.

He was a most unusual man for his times and by all accounts very intelligent, a skilled debater with a gift for oratory and a ready smile.

It is said the ladies of Richmond adored him, but he had his detractors as well as those who admired him for his considerable intellect and outgoing personality. Jefferson Davis considered him one of his closest confidants with the writings of Davis’s wife, Varina, offering a small peek into his personal life.

Judah Phillip Benjamin was variously know as “the Jew,” “the Hebrew,” or “Davis’ pet Jew,” referring to his small stature (barely over five feet tall). Later historians sometimes refer to him as the “brains of the Confederacy.” During the war, the North derisively called him “the South’s evil genius.”

He was born to a family of Sephardic Jews in St Croix in 1811. When he was still a child, his family eventually settled in Charleston, SC, a southern city known for its religious tolerance. He attended Yale at the tender age of 14 but was expelled because of unspecified “ungentlemanly conduct.”

Benjamin then headed for New Orleans, where according to Bernard W. Korn in his volume on that city’s Jews, he arrived “with no visible assets other than the wit, charm, omnivorous mind and boundless energy with which he would find his place in the sun.” He remained a bachelor for several years, and at least one historian suggests he was a homosexual, but there exists no evidence beyond speculation to support this.

He clerked in a law firm and studied the law. Since fluent French was required to practice law in Louisiana, he needed to learn that language. To earn money, he tutored French Creoles in English and taught Natalie Bauché de St. Martin in exchange for her teaching him French.

In 1832 at the age of 21, he was admitted to the bar, and a year later, he married Natalie with the wedding in St Louis Cathedral. The couple moved into a four-story townhouse on Bourbon Street that is today a strip joint called “Temptations.” It seems the marriage did not work out for reasons unknown. Historians suggest Natalie was such a problem child her family was glad to be shed of her, and later, rumors of infidelity were associated with her. They had one child, a daughter, Ninette.

Benjamin became a successful lawyer in New Orleans and bought a plantation downriver from the city, Belle Chasse*, and built a fine home for his wife and daughter. Natalie, evidently, was unimpressed and decamped with her daughter for Paris where they remained for the rest of her life. Meanwhile, Benjamin experimented with different strains of sugar cane and became something of an expert on that crop.

The Louisiana Legislature elected Benjamin to the U.S. Senate where he became famous for his eloquent and fiery oratory. (Senators were appointed by the Legislature then.) Benjamin was the first Jew to serve as a U. S. Senator. He was twice offered to be nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court and declined both times. He would likely have been approved and would have been the first Jew on the U.S. Supreme Court.

With Louisiana’s secession in 1861, Benjamin became one of Jeff Davis’ closest advisors even though Benjamin had once challenged him to a duel. Davis first appointed him as Attorney General and then Secretary of War, but the Confederate Army existed mainly as untrained volunteers with supplies for waging war very scarce. With the Confederate retreat from Cape Hatteras, Benjamin was accused of failing to reinforce the garrison. He took the blame and resigned, but he did so to hide the fact that the Confederacy simply did not have the forces to send, and that weakness needed to be hidden from the enemy.

Davis then appointed Benjamin to Secretary of State where he was also in charge of the Confederate Secret Service and Confederate spies up north. It was in that capacity that my character, Ethan, has dealings with him in An Eternity of Four Years.

Very early in the war, he was one of the first to argue for recruiting the slaves into the Confederate Army, offering them freedom if they served. Near the end, when the situation was desperate for the South, he brought it up again in a speech and was renounced for it. He also suggested freeing the slaves to get France and/or England to enter the conflict on the side of the South, or at least recognize the South as a sovereign nation, opening the door to much needed war material from Europe. Again his ideas were rejected.

The war ended with the Confederate government on the run. Davis was captured, but Benjamin was not, only because he separated from the group the day before and made his way to England. There he became a successful barrister and was created a “Palatine silk” as the Queen’s Council.

With his health deteriorating and suffering from diabetes, he was injured in a fall in 1880. Judah P. Benjamin died of a heart attack in Paris in 1882 and was buried there in Père Lachaise Cemetery under the name of “Philippe Benjamin.”

In 1938 the Paris chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy erected a plaque over his grave.

JUDAH PHILIP BENJAMIN
BORN ST. THOMAS WEST INDIES AUGUST 6,1811
DIED IN PARIS MAY 6,1884
UNITED STATES SENATOR FROM LOUISIANA
ATTORNEY GENERAL, SECRETARY OF WAR AND
SECRETARY OF STATE OF THE CONFEDERATE STATES
OF AMERICA, QUEENS COUNSEL, LONDON

Whatever your opinion of Judah P. Benjamin might be, one must agree he was a most amazing person and largely an unknown but significant figure in American history.

*Note: This link will take you to an image of Belle Chasse Plantation. It has long since been torn down. You can adjust the size of the image with the sliding bar at the top.

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Let’s Rename New Orleans!

I have been thinking of doing another post on the slippery-slope we are on as a result of the actions of that demented kid in South Carolina, but now I don’t have to. Someone else did it for me.

So, I give you a post on Sally Asher’s Blog titled Let’s Rename New Orleans. She has done a marvelous job of showing how utterly insane some of us have become and where that insanity will ultimately lead to, because once you start down this road, it has no end!

I have a suggestion for you, Mitch: Instead of focusing on symbols, how about focusing on the real problems in New Orleans. Resigning would be a good first step.

God help us!

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The Paperback Version of An Eternity of Four Years is now available!

Book 2 1Finally! It is done! I have been teasing you long enough.

The exciting conclusion to the two-part epic of the Legend of Rachel and Ethan, An Eternity of Four Years, is finally finished and published. Both the Kindle digital version and the paperback version are available at Amazon.

An Eternity of Four Years picks up the story four days after The Last Day of Forever ends and carries the reader through the turbulent years of the Civil War with Ethan searching for Rachel to mend what was broken between them.

If you haven’t read part 1 yet, The Last Day of Forever, you need to read it first. Either book can stand alone, but reading both in order fills in a lot of back story and detail you will find both interesting and helpful to your reading experience.

Get ’em while they are hot! And don’t forget to go back and post a review. It will help the books get visibility and credibility.

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A Short History of the Sazerac Cocktail

Both The Last Day of Forever and An Eternity of Four Years mention a drink called the “Sazerac” but give only minimal information about how it is made. I am going to boast that I make the finest Sazerac in the world, maybe even the Universe.

But first, in the interest of full disclosure: The Sazerac Company of New Orleans is one of my clients at Spar, Inc. In fact, the man who owns the Sazerac Company and the five distilleries that Sazerac owns, starting with the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, KY, plus two others in Kentucky, another in Virginia, and one in Canada, also owns SPAR, Inc. I have worked for SPAR since I got out of the Air Force in 1973. Started as a graphic designer, and now I am the general manager and creative director. SPAR designed most of the packages for the Sazerac Company, such as Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Sazerac Rye Whisky, Herbsaint, W.L. Weller, Old Charter, Elmer T. Lee, Nikolai Vodka, and a ton more. You get the picture?

So, I have a financial interest in the Sazerac Company, so to speak. They generate my paycheck. But that isn’t why I mentioned the drink in my story. I mention it because the Sazerac Cocktail is such an integral and beautiful part of New Orleans history. It was created here, and its ancestry goes all the way back to the eighteenth century when Antoine Amedee Peychaud, a refugee from the slave uprising in Haiti, landed in New Orleans in about 1795 with his family recipe for bitters and eventually set up shop as an apothecary.

CoquetierAs the story goes, Peychaud served shots of brandy laced with his bitters in a little double-ended eggcup called in the French a cocquetier. Legend has it the term “cocktail” comes from the Americans arriving in New Orleans after the Louisiana Purchase, tripping over the unfamiliar French word, and anglicizing it. To be fair, that is under dispute. Some claim the term “cocktail,” describing a mixture of whiskey, bitters, and sugar, came into usage around 1800 before Peychaud started serving his coquetiers, but I am sticking to the New Orleans version.

The Sazerac name came from the brandy that was originally used to make the drink. That would be Sazerac Cognac Brandy imported from Sazerac des Forges et Fils in France. That Sazerac Company did exist until fairly recently. Evidently, they have folded, because I cannot find them on the internet anymore.

People in New Orleans always seem to do things just a little differently. For example, we had lots of coffee houses back in the nineteenth century, only they weren’t really coffee houses. Oh, they served some coffee, usually laced with brandy or rum and later American bourbon, but they were, in reality, saloons. By 1859 there were 204 saloons coffee houses in New Orleans. In the early nineteenth century, New Orleans entered its coffee house gem period, with owners naming their saloons coffee houses after various precious stones. Each new saloon coffee house tried to top the other by selecting a more valuable gemstone for its name. One named the “Gem” opened in 1851. The Gem featured the Sazerac, as did most other saloons coffee houses in New Orleans, but this one became famous. It was located in the first block of Royal Street with another entrance on Exchange Alley. Its name was eventually changed to the Sazerac Coffee House. This is where Ethan with Morgan and later his friends, when he enlisted in Wheat’s Battalion, shared many Sazeracs. Don’t bother to look for it, because it isn’t there anymore. The Sazerac Bar eventually moved into the Roosevelt Hotel and remains there to this day. The Sazerac Bar is not owned by the Sazerac Company.

Originally, the Sazerac was made with Sazerac brandy and Peychaud’s Bitters, but American rye whiskey began replacing the brandy around 1870 because of the phylloxera epidemic in Europe that devastated the vineyards of France, making brandy scarce (brandy is made from grapes). Kentucky had been settled by many of Scottish origin and they were converting their corn crops into whiskey, because it was easier to move whiskey to market than corn. Packed in barrels, Kentucky whiskey made its long trip in flatboats down the Mississippi to New Orleans. Storing the whiskey in barrels and the long trip actually aided its flavor, and the product that arrived in New Orleans was less like the raw fiery spirit that left Kentucky. About the same time, a bit of absinthe was added to the recipe of the Sazerac, and the recipe was sealed until the 1930s when Herbsaint, a New Orleans product, came into common usage in the Sazerac.

Herbsaint Absinthe was produced using a recipe ­­­­New Orleans native Marion Legendre brought back from his service in France during World War I. Legendre began producing his Herbsaint during the mid-thirties and ran afoul of government regs that had banned absinthe back in 1912. He was forced to change his recipe to suit the government bureaucrats. Only recently has absinthe reappeared in America again, and that is only because it was discovered the law banning absinthe was written in a way that actually allowed its production as long as the amount of wormwood, a botanical, was below a specified amount, and absinthe’s wormwood content is well below that point. With that, the Sazerac Company, owners of the Herbsaint brand, dug into their archives and came up with Legendre’s original formula. The Original Herbsaint is back (and SPAR did the retro package).

The Sazerac Cocktail, now enjoying something of a revival, is served in bars and restaurants all over New Orleans and many other cites, as well. But I must warn you. Not everyone makes a good Sazerac, and a poorly made Sazerac is truly awful, usually because they put in too much absinthe. But I am going to tell you how to make a good one, in fact, a perfect Sazerac Cocktail. You will have to wait for the next post to get my “secret” recipe.

Wikipedia absinthe page.

Absinthe deserves its own post. It is featured in the opening chapter of An Eternity of Four Years, and will get that post eventually.

Coquetier photo credit: Coyau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

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Casteix Pharmacy

Casteix Pharm CroppedMy grandfather, Martial Casteix, owned eight drug stores in New Orleans. He was in competition with a pair of gents by the name of Katz and Bestoff, although they were friends. Martial got a bit over extended and lost most of his stores during the Great Depression. K&B managed to hang on for another fifty years before Rite Aid bought them out.

I know the locations of several of the Casteix stores and have pictures of some of the interiors I made from originals my cousin, Melanie, has. At least two of the stores were in the Vieux Carré. One was on Bourbon Street and the other on Dauphine. Years ago I found a picture of the Dauphine Street store online and played with it in Photoshop to give the low-resolution image an old and distressed look, which is what you see here. I visited the location recently and shot a Casteix Pharm Todayphoto of how it looks today. Not surprisingly, it is the French Quarter, after all, the building hasn’t changed much. It appears to be a residence today. Someday, I will go knock and on the door to see what happens.

The Bourbon Street store is a bit more famous in more ways than one. Today it is the home of the Famous Door Bar. Ninety years ago, it was a pharmacy and my grandparents lived there above the store.

They moved out rather suddenly in the twenties after Martial decided the French Quarter might not be a good place to raise a family. He came to this conclusion after my aunt, Margie, came home from school one day with a tale about how a “nice lady with lots of red lipstick” suggested a career in prostitution might be a consideration for someone as pretty as she was. Martial promptly moved the family to Orleans Avenue near City Park.

MB loved to tell the story of how he made cherry bounce in the attic of the Bourbon Street location. Since he started college when he was sixteen, he must have been quite young when he was making cherry bounce. That, and his expressed concern for disposing of the strained pits and pulp in a way his father would not discover what he was doing in the attic also suggested he was well under drinking age, even for New Orleans.

What to do with the pits and pulp? He was stuck with this cheesecloth pouch full of mush after he separated the solids from the drinkable liquid. MB was very smart, so was his sister, but his solution for getting the unwanted pits and pulp past his dad in the drug store downstairs was, shall we say, less than brilliant. But like most less than brilliant notions, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

He decided he would simply heave it from the attic window onto the roof of the building across Bourbon Street. The building there now must not have been there then, because there is no way he could have made that shot.

No matter, he forgot to tie the sack of cherry bounce leavings closed, anyway. And guess what happened in its trip across Bourbon Street? It came open, of course, and spread that pulpy red slush all over the people below!

Martial immediately became aware his son was up to no good in the attic, when irate people covered with cherry bounce remains came into the store demanding 341 Bourbon Famous DoorRedan explanation—and to have their clothing cleaned. MB said it cost his dad a small fortune in cleaning bills.

That’s Martial behind the counter of the Bourbon Street location before it became a bar.

You would think MB would have learned his lesson? He continued to experiment with his cherry bounce recipe for decades after. When I was a kid, there was usually a bottle of cherry bounce fermenting in a recycled whiskey bottle somewhere in the kitchen. He must have consumed it all himself, because I never even got a taste.

He corked one a bit too tight once. (I don’t think you are supposed to cork something fermenting?) It was sitting on the kitchen counter right next to the sink. It eventually built up enough pressure it blew the cork out, rather violently, I might add. Our maid, Adel, was washing dishes when it “went off.” The cork missile zoomed past her nose and ricocheted off the cabinet, went up to the ceiling, and bounced back down into the dishwater, splashing poor Adel.

In the bedroom, my mother said she heard a loud pop from the kitchen, followed by Adel exclaiming, “Oh Lordy, I’ve been shot!”

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The Last Day of Forever – Excerpt 4

Here is another short excerpt from The Last Day of Forever. Enjoy.

My mother is a woman of quick and decisive action. She inquired at the desk and was told there was a very nice haberdashery just a few blocks away on Royal Street. Upon entering the store, she approached the clerk. “Sir, my son is in need of some suits.”

For a moment the clerk, a well-dressed, smallish man with a thick moustache and pomaded hair, looked at me in a curious manner. I assumed he found my appearance in a poorly fitting and out of style suit distasteful in some way. In heavy, French-accented English, he replied, “Of course, Madame. I am sure we can have him fitted with a custom tailored suit in two or three days. Would you come with me, and I will show you some cloth to choose from. We have the finest selection of French broadcloth in New Orleans.”

“Two or three days? That won’t do. I must have something this very afternoon,” replied Analee assertively.

The tailor looked surprised. “But, Madame…”

She cut him off. “But, Monsieur, I must have at least one suit today.”

The tailor’s nose went up, and he looked down it at my mother. She parried with her left eyebrow. For a long moment they stared at each other in this New Orleans duel of wits. My mother obviously won the fight, as he turned to me and, with a discerning eye, looked me up and down and quickly took my measure.

He turned back to my mother, her eyebrow still raised lest he forget his place. “Madame, may I suggest a solution? I have two suits in the back. They were a special order by a young gentleman here in New Orleans, but before he could take possession he was killed in a duel. The late gentleman was about your son’s size. I am sure I could fit those suits to him this very afternoon.”

I looked at my mother thinking a dead man’s suit?

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The Last Day of Forever – Excerpt 3

Here is another brief excerpt from The Last Day of Forever, where Ethan is describing some of his family history.

My mother was the daughter of a Creole planter from New Orleans. My grandfather was a widower, having lost his two older children and later his wife to yellow fever. He took to strong drink and soon fell upon hard times. As a result of flooding two years in a row, he suffered disastrous crop failures and tried gambling to make up the losses. He proved to be as poor a gambler as he was a planter and quickly got so deep in debt he lost his land.

My mother was well educated, having been left in the care of the Ursuline nuns for her education. Not only was she intelligent, but she was also one of the most beautiful young ladies in New Orleans. She had long black hair and dark eyes to melt the heart of the hardest man. However, beauty and intelligence counted for little among the pseudo-aristocracy of New Orleans if you were without property, deep in debt, and your honor despoiled. In spite of this, she was in love with the son of a wealthy planter. The two young lovers spoke secretly of marriage, though she was barely sixteen, and he was seventeen at the time. The boy’s father would not have entertained for even a moment the suggestion that his son was contemplating marriage to the daughter of a pauper.

When Morgan Davis arrived in New Orleans, my grandfather and his daughter danced one step ahead of his creditors. Within hours of stepping off the boat, Morgan met my grandfather, who in spite of his poverty still dressed as if he were a man of means. The two struck up a casual conversation in one of the local coffee houses, and over brandy laced with bitters served in what the Creoles called a coquetier, Morgan spoke frankly of his plight. In about as much time as it takes to tell it, my mother was quite literally sold to Morgan like one of the Negroes. My grandfather’s debts were settled, and he was left with a small sum of money to start over. In exchange, my sixteen-year-old mother, sight unseen, was to become Morgan’s new bride.

It will surprise the reader to discover that Analee went along with this arrangement with only a brief protest. Now, you might ask yourself why my mother would consent to such if she were in love with another man? The answer is really quite simple: she had no other choice. She loved her father, and she knew the marriage to her young beau was impossible under the circumstances. Morgan offered financial relief for her father and a restoration of his honor only she could deliver by agreeing to the arrangement. Though older, Morgan was a handsome and wealthy gentleman, and could be quite charming when it suited him, and it suited him at this time. Thus, Analee did not find him totally unattractive.

“Honor” is a word you will see used often in this story. It is variously described as an unsullied reputation free from even the suggestion of impropriety, with perseverance in the face of adversity, unbowed by suffering, and a high disdain for those who hold to a lower standard. Honor is not viewed lightly in the Creole culture of Louisiana. It is like a magic badge bestowed by the gods. Its mere possession endows its holder with special powers and prestige, and with this often comes the right connections and at least the appearance of wealth. Personal and business relationships hinge on honor. With it you are someone; without it you are no one. Thus, the possession of honor is valuable currency. However, hypocrisy is often its stable mate, and honor can become the handmaiden of many less than honorable deeds.

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The Last Day of Forever – Excerpt 1

What follows is a brief excerpt from chapter 1 of The Last Day of Forever, which I hope to have published in early February. Enjoy.

*****

Cover B1CRed BlogI awoke with a start, drenched with sweat, and breathing hard as I tried to orient myself. The room was in semidarkness with only a weak light coming through the small round window above my head. All was quiet except for the throbbing, mechanical sounds of a steam engine. A riverboat? “I’m on a riverboat,” I said softly to myself with a sense of relief. “I’m on a riverboat on my way to New Orleans.”

My breathing slowed as I swung my feet out of my bunk and onto the floor. That dream, I had not had it since I was a young boy. Why now? I thought. Why now?

I dressed myself and joined my mother, Analee, for a breakfast of eggs, bacon, grits and biscuits prepared by Mabel Honeycutt, the captain’s wife.

“You sleep well?” my mother asked as I took my seat at the table.

“Tolerable,” was my noncommittal reply. I did not bother to tell her about the nightmare, as she would only have reminded me it was just a dream like she did when I was a child. “Sarah up yet?”

She smiled. “You didn’t expect her to be, did you?”

I shrugged. “Brandy and Zeke get fed?”

“A little while ago,” she replied before taking a sip of her café au lait.

I pushed my plate aside, its contents half eaten.

“Something wrong, Ethan?”

“Nothing. I’m fine. I’m going topside,” I announced before pouring a tin cup of black coffee and heading up to the hurricane deck, my refuge on these trips on the Shreveport Belle.

“Morning, Ethan,” said Captain Honeycutt when I entered the wheelhouse.

“Morning, sir. When do you think we’ll reach New Orleans?”

“Early afternoon.” He gestured at the river with his ever-present corncob pipe. “The Grand Ole Lady is high and fast with a strong spring runoff. We’re moving right along.”

Captain Jonathan Honeycutt knew the river as well as any man alive, both the Red and the Mississippi. He was mostly soft spoken with a quiet manner about him, but perfectly capable of making a deckhand think the wrath of the Lord was upon him if he did wrong. He was also a student of the Bible and frequently quoted verses from memory. Being something of a student of the Scriptures myself, we often discussed the Bible when I had occasion to travel on the Shreveport Belle. But not this morning as I wanted to be alone to clear my head. I excused myself and took my cup of coffee and found my usual seat on the bench directly in front of the wheelhouse.

On my little bench high above the activities on the decks below, I had a commanding view of the Mississippi as we churned south to New Orleans. And it was peaceful there, with only the reassuring throb of the steam engines and an occasional whistle greeting between passing riverboats. I stretched out, crossed my legs and leaned against the back of the bench while I sipped my coffee and slipped into my thoughts.

That dream was still troubling me. Even though it had been a many years since I last experienced it, I knew in my heart it meant something. If nothing else, it had influenced how I felt about the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

There were other troubling “peculiarities,” so to speak, such as Brandy, my mother’s personal servant. Her mother was Martha, our mammy back at Catahoula Plantation. Mammy was very light skinned, some said at least a mulatto and maybe even a quadroon, having the white blood of some previous owner flowing through her veins. Brandy was as white as I was, even lighter, considering I was usually sun burnt from the performance of my chores caring for the animals at Catahoula and providing fresh game and fish to add variety to our meals. She was not only fair, but also very comely with dark hair and hazel eyes, and the smoothest skin I have seen on any woman. We were like brother and sister, as she was born the same day I was.

She more lived the life of the pampered daughter of the plantation owner, and it was whispered among the slaves that Brandy’s father was Morgan Davis, my mother’s husband. That would indeed make her my half-sister. When I asked my older half-brother, Peyton, about that, he only warned me not to listen to the tales the darkies tell. But I could not escape the feeling that Brandy was a slave trapped in a white woman’s skin, a foot in each world and a member of neither.

I shook my head as if to rid it of those thoughts­­—and that dream. But I could not shake the feeling that my life was about to change, and I admit I was a bit anxious about that. Some of that change was expected, as I would soon turn eighteen and be off to school at the Virginia Military Institute. This would be my last summer of adolescence. But another change loomed, one I was unsure of, because Morgan expected me to play an important role in it, one I was not all together comfortable with.

It began almost two months before when Morgan received a letter from someone he had not seen in over 14 years. As I entered his office that day, I noticed the concerned expression on his face as he read his mail at his desk. “Something wrong?”

He leaned forward in his chair and continued reading as if he had not heard me. His expression grew ever more grave.

“Father, is something wrong?”

He put the letter down on his desk and looked up but said nothing. Instead, he stared blankly and unfocused as if bewildered and struggling to comprehend what was troubling him. He shook his head as if to relieve his confusion then looked at me. “I just received some bad news.”

“What happened?”

He paused as he continued to struggle with his thoughts. “Do you remember me speaking of my friend from Virginia, John Whitcomb?”

“He died a long time ago as I recall.”

“Indeed, fourteen years ago. He left a widow and an infant daughter by the name of Rachel. Right after it happened, Jenny, his widow, wrote and told me about his death and the child. This was after I lost my bid for re-election to the House.” He paused and took a deep breath. “Well, I just got this letter from Jenny—and she’s dying.”

I knew there had to be more to it than that, and there was.

“She wants me to come to Virginia right away, before she passes, and take her daughter as my ward to raise as my own.”

*****

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