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Hard times, good times and the Blues

Hard times, good times and the Blues

In the last two years of the 1930’s, and the first two of the 1940’s, the quality of life in Cajun Louisiana remained stable; peace but no prosperity since the Depression still had the nation in its grip.

Bonds of friendship between neighbors and communities existed along with the fact that we were all in the same boat, so let’s sink or swim together.

Religious, hardworking and united with old traditions, the Cajuns fared better than others. To visualize the territory, take a Louisiana map and draw a line from Marksville in the north, to Lake Charles in the west, to Boothville in the east, and back to Marksville. Within the mostly rural areas of that triangle resided the Cajuns of Louisiana, ancestors of a people forcefully deported from their Acadian homeland generations ago. For this we are eternally grateful.

Although generally believed, President Roosevelt did not single handedly end the Great Depression. World War II did, and at a great cost to all.

F.D.R., however, was a great leader and just who we needed in those dark times. He united the country in a common cause as never before or since. He probably saved democracy as we know it, and should be fondly remembered for that. Remember the three pictures on the walls: Jesus, FDR and Huey.

As for the Cajuns, most every family had a cow, and sometimes a goat, for milk and ice cream, chickens for eggs and Sunday dinner, a garden patch for vegetables and pigs for boucheries.

To illustrate the era, I quote from an old Jimmie Rodgers’ blues song: “We got pigs at the trough, tators in the patch, and corn in the crib and hens about to hatch. A bull and a cow and a mule and a plow, and there ain’t no hard times here.”

Maybe we didn’t have all THAT, but his songs spoke for the masses. It was said that a typical store order at that time was “a sack of flour, a jug of wine and the latest Jimmie Rodgers record.”

I read that quote in over a dozen books, so there had to be some truth in it because he sure was popular, selling millions of records during hard times. As a singing star, he was then what Elvis later became. He died of tuberculosis in 1933 and I later became good friends with his widow … but that’s another story.

As for our quality of life, we had no electricity, phone, water, gas or auto repair bills because we read by kerosene lamps (we called it coal oil that sold for 15 cents a gallon), cooked on a wood stove, communicated by rural free delivery, had 3 cent stamps, used our roof to collect water in our cistern (the mosquito larval were lagniappe), and who had a car?

The doctor would make house calls at $3.00 a visit and accepted eggs for payment. We had a 5-cent block of ice delivered daily for the icebox. Seafood was plentiful because everyone had at least one fisherman in the family, and we shared, not facebook sharing either. Like the hit song of the times said, “who could ask for anything more?”

And the boucheries … Ah! The boucheries … crème de la crème! Next week I’ll describe this joyful event in graphic details with a warning, not for the squeamish!

Some years ago while attending an assessor forum in St. Louis, Missouri, an oil company representative asked me, not derogatively, but in casual conversation, “How did you Cajuns fare out during the Great Depression?”

“Not too good”, I answered. “Sometimes all we had to eat was fried and broiled jumbo shrimp, tenderloin trout, boiled crabs and crawfish, oysters on the half shell, jambalaya, gumbo, fried chicken, pork chops, boudin and ham steaks, all chased down with home brewed beer and wine, and …”

“Stop, enough!” he said. “I feel so sorry seeing how you all must have suffered.”
We had a good laugh and ordered another round. I don’t have any words of humor that would top that.

Bye now.

 

Depression-era photo of Martin’s grandparents, Irma and Paul Callais.