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Location: New Orleans, Louisiana, United States

Leonard Earl Johnson (photo credit Frank Parsley) covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for ConsumerAffairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, Country Roads Magazine, Palm Springs Newswire and the anthologies: FRENCH QUARTER FICTION (Light of New Orleans Publishing), LOUISIANA IN WORDS (Pelican Publishing), LIFE IN THE WAKE (NOLAfuges.com), and more. Johnson is a former Merchant Seaman, and columnist at Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans; and African-American Village. Attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland. Winner of the Press Club of New Orleans Award for Excellence, 1991, and given the Key to The City and a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Orleans City Council for a Gambit Weekly story on murder in the French Quarter.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

February 2011 / Greetings from the Top of The Swamp

Yours Truly in a Swamp


Leonard Earl Johnson

Photo credit: Frank Parsley
February 2011
* * *
Greetings from the Top of The Swamp

- Dedicated to J. R. Hood -

"You want a big splash of memories all over those mashed potatoes, Son?" L. A. Norma said, mimicking my Mother. "Hell yes," she answered herself, "with a dollop of responsibility on top big as your love."

Recently we traveled to Chicago, Carbondale, Metropolis,
and Marion, Illinois. Then, on to Saint Louis, Missouri, Dallas, Texas, New Orleans and Lafayette, Louisiana. This is more traveling than since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew us to Paducah, Kentucky for Thanksgiving 2005, a somber Thanksgiving if ever there was one.

"Add a sprig of celery," I said, "and some green onions, too, for hope."

* * *

We flew from Marion, Illinois to Saint Louis, Missouri aboard Air Cape, on one of the smallest aircraft aloft. We flew very low over Southern Illinois -- one of those distinct regions within a political state. Southern Illinois is to the rest of Illinois what the South is to the rest of the United States. It is where I was born, grew up, went to school and finally grew big enough to fly away -- as this day I am again doing.

The little plane seated eight counting the pilot and co-pilot. We all chatted in Mid-westerly camaraderie, including the pilot and co-pilot.

Conversations went like this: "Air Cape? Cape Girardeau, Missouri?

"No, Cape Cod, Massachusetts."

"Cape Cod, Massachusetts," I thought, "I'm flying over my homeland on Kennedy-like wings?" Take that, tattered old memories served up with fresh roast turkey with all the guilt.

Cape Cod you likely know. It is home to the Kennedy family. Cape Girardeau you might not. It is on the Mississippi River, an early French settlement on the Missouri side of that iconic American waterway. It is home to Rush Limbaugh, and twelve miles east is the tiny German-American village of Ullin, Illinois, my home town. Cape Girardeau is also home to Southeast Missouri State University. Those Midwestern Germans below our feet believe in education.

"Lush Rumball," my Mother calls him, "is the shame of Cape Girardeau."

Limbaugh's Father, my Mother also says, dined regularly at our Father's Highway-51 supper club, Porky's. "Where your food is Individually Prepared a Little Longer, but a Lot Better," so saith the menu.

My Father wrote that stirring slogan. I wrote the longer menu blurb, a gripping explanation of where the Ohio River had once been. According to me it had once ran through Porky's dance floor. I don't remember why I thought that, other than my Father thought it.

"Rumball's Father was a gas-bag, too," my Mother says, "and so was Porky." She was Mrs. Porky.

* * *

"Here," Norma said, placing the in-flight magazine in my hands. It was open to Air Cape's route-maps showing routes in the Micronesian Islands, Pacific Ocean. "You worked there?"

"Indeed I did, on ships off Guam, Rota, Saipan, and Tinian -- from where the atomic bombs flew away to Japan, in 1945. I worked there four of my distant salad years."

Just then, the fuel intake flap on the left wing popped open.

We turned back, circled above Crab Orchard Lake, where first I lay atop houseboat roofs and marveled at Life's imagined coming-attractions. We landed at Marion. Workers -- a worker -- came out, fiddled with the flap and shot it with WD-40. The pilot left the plane to phone someone. Presumably someone in Cape Cod. Maybe a Kennedy.

I thought, "I am achieving some childhood dream here," albeit one of my vaguer ones. My bank account may send bankers into laughter but, hey, I have just flown to Chicago to meet my Nephew, Eric, who flew in just minutes before from the Republican Governors Convention in San Diego. (My Nephew is a lobbyist!) And I am now talking with kindred souls from the fabled Kennedy lands, about flying around Pacific Ocean islands. All this while flying Air Cape Cod over Crab Orchard Lake!

My Nephew drove us around Chicago visiting my past and his
future. He took us on the season's very last Chicago Architecture Foundation's Architecture River Cruise. Wow! "The tour greater than its name," he says.

"One of the greatest things I have ever done, anywhere in the
World!" I said to a man sitting approximately in my lap, in the seat in front of me. "And we ate dinner at Rick Bayless Frontera Grill." I toyed with bringing up eating more than once in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but thought better of it. The pilot returned. The single-man ground crew gave a final squirt of WD-40, and we took off again.

The harvest farm lands soon gave way to the silver glisten of the morning sun on the Mississippi River, and the Saint Louis' Gateway Arch welcoming us to the way West.

"When I was in school at Carbondale, a black kid from Chicago said: 'They are building that arch in Missouri so Illinois can build a giant statue of John Brown with a croquet mallet.' " I said this to a frazzled young woman with a baby strapped to her front. She was the only one patted down in Marion.

"John Brown was..." she started to say, but the plane landed so smoothly it changed the subject and all the passengers broke into applause. The pilots grinned. I drifted into remembering Frank Schmitz, the handsome gymnast from Shreveport, Louisiana, who attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and died one Summer crashing a crop-duster into his Father's cotton fields.

"We have so much to be thankful for," a Latino airport vendor said, as she took my dollar for a handsomely labeled bottle of purified Saint Louis Municipal Water. I took a seat in the gate area for Dallas-bound travelers. One of our pilots passed by.

"If we'd had duct tape we could have flown you all the way back to Guam," he said, with a wide grin.

Editor: Wed., Feb. 9, in New Orleans, L. E. J. will be reading at Margarita Bergen's Round Table lunch, Bienville Room, Hotel Royal Sonesta, in the traditionally drunken French Quarter. For reservations, contact Noel Scallan at 504-553-2220, nscallan@royalsonestano.com

Copyright, 2011, Leonard Earl Johnson

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