Dr. Ronald French, an ear-nose-and-throat physician, has been named “Rex, King of Carnival,” for today. Mardi Gras. Fat Tuesday, before Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent. His queen is Brooke Hastings Parker, a lovely young co-ed from the University of Georgia studying international business. She’s a local girl, of course, with a long tradition of participation in these events.
Don’t ask me why, other than maybe that men plan these things, Dr. French is 69 years old and Brooke is perhaps 21. And it’s always that way–old guy, sweet young thing.
Dr. French has a fascinating thing about books. A friend said French will be reading a book and start talking about it. “You ought to read this,” he’ll say. I’ll answer, “Well, I will, as soon as I get a copy.” At that point, the doctor will tear his book in half and say, “Get started on this.” The friend continued, “Many times I’ll see him walking around reading half a book, and I’ll know what happened.”
Parades are going down St. Charles Avenue and several other thoroughfares of metro New Orleans today. Having just driven in from Alabama Monday, my plans were to catch up on my rest Tuesday. I did, mostly. But I still caught some beads. The parade came to me.
Late Tuesday morning, our son Neil and his family decided to walk the 1.8 mile track around LaSalle Park, which lies alongside Airline Highway in Metairie and encases the Saints’ training camp and headquarters as well as the Zephyrs baseball field, and I was invited to join them. That’s how we got caught by the beginning of a parade.
The walking track crosses the exit from the Zephyrs parking lot where perhaps fifty floats of all descriptions had been parked. By the time we arrived, all the riders–hundreds of them–had loaded up and the trucks were pulling the floats onto Airline and heading toward town. Police motorcycles were everywhere. So, we stood and watched and waved at the riders.
The occasional rider, spotting my grandchildren waving, pitched a string of beads our way. These kids have been to several Mardi Gras parades and knew this was not a real one, so were not impressed sufficiently to even bend over and pick up the cheap beads. So I did. I joked that this is the first Mardi Gras parade I’ve attended since the 1965 version in the suburb of Arabi.
The floats seemed endless, slowly making their way from the parking lot to the highway. No traffic moved on Airline, doubtless making for a lot of frustrated motorists.
King Rex’s wife Flora, herself with a long history of involvement in these events, said, “It’s fun and festive. But my mother used to say, ‘In a way, it’s just a little bit of foolishness.'”
Good. Long as everyone knows that and keeps it in proper perspective. The people who study these things say 750,000 visitors come to our city for these parades and parties. To no one’s surprise, the local economy depends on these guests.
I’m all for a little bit of foolishness now and then. When granddaughter Abby asked during our walk why I liked to joke so much, I replied, “I caught it from my grandchildren.” She seemed satisfied with that.
The family is still laughing at a written exchange that took place Sunday night at church. Abby’s twin, Erin, had played the piano offertory just before the sermon. As she returned to her seat, Neil handed his 10-year-old a note: “Erin, you did a great job. Your posture was perfect. You hit each note strong. I am so proud of you.” She turned it over and scribbled, “I was so nervous I swallowed my gum.”
We all know the feeling.
The weekend in Alabama seems to have been about my roots. Consider this rundown, as brief as I can make it.
I left New Orleans Saturday at 5 am and met three of my siblings for a 11 a.m. lunch at Niki’s West restaurant near Finley Avenue in Birmingham. The Farmer’s Market lies just across the street, where I used to come with an aunt or uncle in the early 1950s to buy fruits and vegetables. One day in the mid-1950s, my high school agriculture class drove the 70 miles from Double Springs and toured the frozen lockers where trucks arriving from New Orleans’ docks unloaded stalks of bananas and stored them until other trucks hauled them to neighborhood stores.
Of course, an hour with two brothers and a sister is all about roots. You have known each other all the way back to the womb. There are no secrets.
We scattered after lunch–Glenn to his job as security at the Honda plant, Ronnie and Carolyn to their homes–and I headed downtown to Reed’s Used Bookstore, my favorite haunt in the Magic City. Do not tell Margaret–fortunately, she never reads this blog–but I ended up buying four 1940-ish magazines, two Colliers and two Lifes. Talk about roots.
The drive north to our little community of Poplar Springs leads through Dora, Alabama, where I taught high school in 1962 just after college. From Jasper on–some 13 miles–the thought occurred that I can now do what my Dad used to do when we would drive that stretch: I can tell anecdotes about things that happened at this spot, over at that school, down that road, for the entire distance. In the little community of Thach, I passed the old house where my parents roused the preacher from his bed late the evening of March 3, 1934, and asked him to perform their wedding. Anniversary number 73 coming up!
Sister Patricia had cooked a big meal at Mom’s and Dad’s, as she does almost every day of their lives. Various family members who live in the area frequently drop by to see the folks and partake of the feast. Mom and Dad, in their 90s, move slowly now, but the love they feel for their family gets stronger every year.
Mom showed the monthly publication of the Free Will Baptist denomination in Alabama, called “The Digest,” in which editor Rick Cash had done a feature about them and our family. Rick sent 50 copies, I think. We have lots of relatives.
Sunday morning, Mom and I drove to church, the only one she has ever belonged to: New Oak Grove Free Will Baptist Church, two miles out from the little community of Nauvoo. Mickey Crane has been its pastor for some 25 years and is as fine as they come. They’ve built all new buildings under his leadership, they owe no one anything but to love them, and they draw people in from many miles in every direction. Every Sunday, he preaches to a packed house of two or three hundred.
This is the little church where Mom and Dad met as teenagers in 1930. It’s where most of their kids were saved. 1951 for me. I can still recall where my maternal grandmother stood for the last time and asked the congregation to sing her favorite song, “O Come Angel Band.” Memories galore.
The Cagle family from Double Springs sang. Dad and Mom, their daughter about 18, and son, 11 they said, but he looks 15. Dad played the guitar and the son the mandolin. They were good, that’s the only thing you can say. Their singing was a blend of bluegrass and Southern Gospel. My sister Patricia, sitting in front of me, raised her hand when the father said they were just going to sing two numbers. She put in her request for two more, and they sang them all, as well as another for an encore.
The song that blew me away was entitled something like “He Ain’t Never Done Me Nothing But Good.” I sat there shaking my head at the fractured English–I mean, wouldn’t this have worked just as well if they sang, “He’s never done me anything but good?”–and was blown away by the third verse which spoke of Polycarp, a Christian martyr burned at the stake who gave a strong witness for Christ with his dying words. I mean, how many people in any church anywhere ever sing about Polycarp? (I was a church history major in seminary and knew about him, but was surprised these folks did! Turns out this is a Bill Gaither song, which sort of explains it. I suppose. Bill likes to push the envelope, to instruct people. Even if he does employ poor English to do it.)
Readers will be interested to know Polycarp was a disciple of the Apostle John. The encyclopedia has question marks by his dates: A.D. 69?-155? Meaning they don’t know for sure. When the governor asked him to renounce Christ or be burned alive, this bishop of Smyrna responded, “For 86 years I have been serving Him, and He has done no wrong to me. How then dare I blaspheme my King who has saved me?”
Good stuff. Expect to meet this brother when you arrive at Home.
During Pastor Crane’s sermon, I sat there thinking about how perfect is the match between this preacher and this congregation. They pick up on every little nuance in his message, and he knows everyone by their first names. He’s retired now from his “other” job and is the full-time pastor of this church.
Sunday evening, most of our family attended a singing at the First Baptist Church of Jasper, which lies just across the back parking lot from Carolyn’s home. The Friday “Daily Mountain Eagle” had given front page coverage to this innovative program: the choirs from First Baptist and from the Nazarene Church were combining for a 90 minute program of gospel songs and traditional favorites. I arrived 30 minutes early and the house was nearly full. Someone had a great idea.
Is there such a thing as “root music”? That’s what this was. A quartet stepped out of the choir and did a Southern Gospel song that many of us had cut our teeth on and could sing every word of. The entire evening was that way–the choir of maybe 80 voices, various ensembles and soloists, and the full congregation just singing their hearts out. When the evening ended two hours after it began, it was like no one wanted to leave.
Late that night after returning home, my Dad was up–at nearly 95, he sleeps until late afternoon–and seemingly feeling better than I’d seen him in a long time. He talked of family, of health, and of the future; he reminisced about working in the coal mines in Alabama and West Virgina; and he asked me to read an article on Texas coal discoveries and processing plants being built there. He’s always reading.
Monday morning, after breakfast with Mom, I left and took the long way back to New Orleans. In Columbus, Mississippi–where I pastored from 1974 to 1986 (more ‘roots’)–I ran by the Beans ‘n Cream coffee shop and saw longtime friends Larry and Mary Nell Smith. I’m marrying one of their nephews to one of “my chillun” from FBC Kenner this August. Then, I dropped by First Baptist Church and visited with two of my favorite ministers, Shawn Parker the pastor and John Jones the student minister. They were both New Orleans people during and after seminary and we will always claim them. Of course, my roots are all over this town. Drive down any street and I remember people and stories.
I whip myself about this sometimes and it may be a sign of advancing age. Someone just asks me something or brings up a subject and I can talk for hours. I know anecdotes on that subject and have made mistakes in that area and learned a couple of lessons along the way. What a bore I must be becoming, I think.
That’s the current focus of my prayers. That I will learn to listen more, to ask questions, and to talk less.
The one thing I can say in self-defense is something from Charles Haddon Spurgeon in the late 1800s. When a woman in his church rebuked him for too much humor from the pulpit, he said, “You would appreciate me more if you knew how much of it I squelched.”
Happy Fat Tuesday. Blessed Lent.