Yours Truly in a Swamp
Leonard Earl Johnson
Les Amis de Marigny / New Orleans in Exile
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"Ain't nothing in the world time and money won't cure." ~ The late Ernie K-Doe, former New Orleans musician & club owner, self-anointed Emperor of The World, and -- though deceased -- 2006 candidate for mayor
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Bridge to Big Swamp City
"The Huey," as old timers call it, spans the Mississippi River at New Orleans. It is an old bridge built with two narrow lanes of highway traffic on each side, and railroad tracks down the middle.
Before it was built, all trains crossing The River at New Orleans did so aboard ferry boats that landed on the Westbank at the town of Westwego, a descriptive name given the settlement, in 1870, by the Texas and Pacific Railroad.
The Huey opened in 1935, the year its namesake, Huey P. Long, was shot and killed in the lobby of the State Capitol in Baton Rouge.
Incidentally, a second bridge, built later, and bearing Long's name crosses the Mississippi at Baton Rouge. Both bridges have superstructures made of high-towered steel that looks, from a distance, like the skyline of a great modern city.
Huey, the man, was only made of flesh. But he was some powerful flesh. Nicknamed "The Kingfish," for being top-feeder in the Louisiana political pond, Huey Long first ran for governor in 1924, and lost.
Four years later, in 1928, he won, and grew in office to became the era's second-most colorful politician. The first was his younger brother, Earl.
Love thy brother
Brother Earl occupied the Governor's Mansion, fittingly, after big brother Huey had moved out. And while Huey may have been something of a rounder while living there, he was fabulously circumspect compared to Earl.
The married Governor Earl openly dated Blaze Starr, a popular Bourbon Street stripper, and he was widely regarded as fully in possession of a very loose screw.
He used to say of his trysts with Blaze at the Hotel Roosevelt (now the hurricane gutted Fairmont) that he wore cowboy boots in bed, "For better traction on them hotel sheets."
That hotel, something of a forerunner of today's resort hotels, was mighty popular with both Long brothers. Huey even said he built the Airline Highway from his office in Baton Rouge, "To have a straight hard shot at the Hotel Roosevelt, in downtown New Orleans."
Nice, but not as colorful as cowboy boots on hotel sheets.
The Longs built their political dynasty at a time when most Americans thought government should solve problems by direct action, not through secondary problem solvers. No trickle-downers, these two.
HMO medical care and private health insurance would have struck them as laughingly overpriced and inefficient for the ones receiving the care -- and casting votes.
When Huey took office the state of Louisiana was mostly illiterate, had few public schools, school books, hard roads, or hospitals. The Kingfish set out to remedy that.
He was an American seat-of-the-pants socialist who taxed business, including the sacrosanct oil industry, to pay for public schools, roads, hospitals, and more. In return, citizens voted for him in droves each election day.
When he left the Governor's Mansion, in 1932, before his term expired, it was to move up to the United States Senate.
In the Senate he launched his "Share-Our-Wealth Society," complete with its own theme song, "Every Man a King," while maintaining control of the Democratic party back home. (Still mad about the "Republican Civil War"* Louisiana had no Republican party in those days.)
Long had set his cap for the presidency occupied by another American seat-of-the-pants socialist, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, scion of the family from whom Huey's favorite hotel took its name.
Taxing oil and challenging an incumbent president can make one enamies. Huey had his, then and now. He ended up, after all, assassinated in the lobby of the new skyscraper State House his taxes had built.
Some crotchety opponents are said to have honored vows to never cross any bridge named Huey P. Long. (Such vows, though befitting their times, were more bombastic than practical, I expect. In any case, the bridge was so popular that every few years since it opened Louisiana has built another one.)
Thousands loved The Kingfish, and came -- even walked -- to Baton Rouge, from all over the state, to attend his funeral.
Today, his life-sized statue stands on the state grounds where he is buried, in front of the Capitol building he built. Another statue of him stands under the dome of the United States Capitol, in Washington, one of two sent by the people of Louisiana to represent the spirit of their state. (Edward Douglass White, Confederate veteran and, later, U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice, is the other.)
Brother Earl spent time in the state looney bin during his term in office. Being governor, he cured himself by firing the institution's director and hiring a new one who released him.
That tops anything Huey ever did. For color, anyway.
Earl once strapped a crate of Texas grapefruits to the grill of his car. He had purchased the fruit while at a looney bin in the Lone Star State. He was there at his wife's behest, and against his will.
Of this incarceration, Fort Worth columnist, Molly Ivins, last year, told an audience at Tulane University, "Texas authorities took one look at Earl and said, 'Looks like a fine and fit governor to us,' and released him."
With those Texas grapefruits strapped to the front grill of his black Cadillac he drove back to Louisiana stopping along the way to give sweet grapefruits to grateful voters. This parade included his aides, the press, police and his wife, who wanted to lock him up again. I have never learned where Blaze Starr was that day, but I like to think she was in the Cadillac with the governor and the grapefruit.
Back to the Kingfish
Huey's construction projects, like the afore-mentioned bridge and State House, still stand.
The oil taxes, however, from offshore drilling -- negligible in Long's day, but huge today -- now go to finance the good causes of the federal government in Washington.
In other states, offshore oil revenues are split with the state.
Charity Hospital in New Orleans was founded in 1736 by the Sisters of Charity, and derives its name from them, not the universal medical care initiated by Huey Long. It is - was - the second-oldest hospital in the United States.
Huey set out to build Charity into a skyscraper housing a model hospital, and making it the flagship of his statewide health system. The skyscraper opened four years after his death. And there is now a Charity Hospital in most every Louisiana city, but post-Katrina New Orleans.
Huey's twenty floor high-rise still stands, but as a dark hulking ghost towering over The Big Uneasy.
After two hundred and seventy years, and countless "conservative" plots to shut it down, Charity Hospital was felled by hurricane winds, faulty levees, and an unwillingness of the good people from Washington to spend Louisiana's offshore oil revenue to reopen it. But that is another story, maybe.
Arriving on the Sunset Limited
We are riding into New Orleans aboard Amtrak's Sunset Limited, crossing over on the Huey P. Long Bridge to attend the twentieth annual Tennessee Williams Festival.
The Huey, like much else in The City, is dark. It was never festooned with lights, like the pair of newer matching bridges down river. We can see this pair strung with electric lights burning brightly, as we chug through darkness into Town.
The first of these new bridges opened in 1954, as the Greater New Orleans Bridge. Construction on its mate began around the time of the 1984 World's Fair. The two were then christened with the modern day drug-deal sounding name, Crescent City Connection.
As we come down off The Huey, passengers on the train close their laptops and turn off their cell phones. They reach overhead and extinguish the reading lights above their seats. They stare out their windows. No one speaks.
We pull away from The River and roll into neighborhoods of massive destruction. We see street lights, but only a few lights are seen in the windows of some houses. We seldom see two lighted homes in a row. This is because the houses are still empty, eight months after the storm.
"I like the old bridge," L. A. Norma says, breaking the silence. We are backing up, passing the dimly lighted Louisiana Superdome, its famous tragedy ignited in memories by the huge scar on its roof.
"How'd you like to be the corporate sponsor of that," Norma asks, "your name painted on the dome and splashed around the world during the flood?"
"Be OK if your name was Drano," a man behind us says. The man wears a beard and tells us he has been on the train since Los Angeles. We are pulling into New Orleans more than five hours late.
"Bush bumblers can't even run the trains on time," he growls, gathering his bags. "Even fascism has gone to the dogs under these dangerous fools."
In front of the station, Norma lights up a Camel. We wait for a taxi to Squalor Heights and count the plywood covered windows in the tall buildings downtown. We are home.
*In the South, the Civil War was considered a Republican driven "War of Northern Agresson."
© 2006 Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.
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