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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.

Friday, November 28, 2014

La Porte to Promised Land / December 2014

Yours Truly in a Swamp,
Monthly e-column by
Leonard Earl Johnson, 
of Lafayette and New Orleans

Through the hi-tech magic of incompatible Internet-ery you may have to copy and paste 
Subscribe@LEJ.org  into your e-mail form. 
(Perhaps utilizing the nearly lost art of pen and paper for this tricky transfer.)

by Leonard Earl Johnson

"Here We Ho Ho Ho Again,"
Papa Noel ~ L. E. J.    

Papa Noel ~ L. E. J.                                               Photo credit: Dave Therrien

Yours Truly in a Swamp
December 2014

 *  *

From La Porte, Texas to the Promised Land

by Leonard Earl Johnson

(Dedicated to the four DuPont employees killed in a November gas leak at La Porte)

Any port in a storm 
The year of the last Cuban Boat-lift1980I was sailing aboard the M. V. Sealand, a U. S. flagged container ship running transatlantic stops between Houston, Texas and Rotterdam. I served as the officer's Bedroom Steward (B. R.) -- a kind of seagoing maid. Not a glamorous rank but a joyful one owing to the large amount of shore leave it afforded.

A good B. R. arranges to be on such terms with his officers that all but the Captain will lock their doors in port to keep out thieves ostensibly, and effectively
 ending the good B. R.'s duties after breakfast. This is a kind of gratuity, a tip to the good B. R. I was a good B. R.

During that year, the Sealand quit the wharves along Houston's downtown Ship Channel and began calling at a newly constructed container terminal at Morgan's Point, near the little town of La Porte, Texas. This was a spot so far out-in-the-boonies it was barely in from the Gulf of Mexico.

The Port Authority of Houston's decision to move their container terminal to Morgan's Point was -- and is -- a great thorny urchin in the belly of thirsty sailors from every corner of the Earth. 

Now, mind you, near this new terminal existed a dirt-floored, tin-roofed watering hole known as The Little Goat Ranch. It sat promisingly in the turn at Barbours Cut, on a jutting beachhead walking distance from our new berth. Its services were mercifully available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. A hand-painted sign with white scrawling letters and random splats and dribbles proclaimed from the mirror behind the bar, "We No Closed Never." Nice, but hardly Houston.

The town of La Porte was a meager destination if ever there was one. It lay two-miles straight inland. I took a bicycle with me in those days and it was a pleasant two mile ride over new black asphalt roads separating cow pastures populated with  long-horned cattle and Spanish Moss laden live oaks.

The town itself offered the weary sailor little. There was the Space Shot Motel and Bar, for those who got lucky, a Spanish movie house, Rosetta's Fajita Cafe, and the Gulf Coast Railroad Emporium, with its back-lighted oval sign proclaiming, "Lionel Trains for All The Ages -- Toot! Toot!"

The sights of La Porte and The Little Goat Ranch were certainly appreciated, but they were dim lights next to our memories of Houston. 

Our savior was found 
In the Gulf Coast Railroad Emporium, one memorable Fall day when I made the acquaintance of Cowboy Castro, a fine looking blue-eyed, brown-skinned local, with a not-so-fine looking purple "pick'em up truck." Crowning the left fender, amid a lifetime's collection of dents and scratches stood a two foot tall plastic statue of Jesus holding a bleeding red heart in one hand and a chromium pigtail radio antenna in the other.

Cowboy Castro was in the Emporium purchasing tiny red lights for his rolling icon. "To light the world through the eyes of Jesus!" he said with a brilliant smile. I hired him on the spot to drive me and my bicycle back to the ship.

We followed the red-eyed beacon of Jesus down the new blacktop road. But we did not get all the way to the ship. We stopped for "refreshing beer beverages," on Cowboy's suggestion, at The Little Goat Ranch.

Later that evening (still at The Goat Ranch), the ship's Mate, Bos'n, Chief Cook and I secured Cowboy's commitment to meeting our returning ship each voyage, and driving one or all into Houston. 
la Ship, la Port

Cowboy was to wait as long as it took, then round us up gurgling in the morning light, and return us dockside and, need be, help us stumble up the accommodation ladder.

* * *

Shore leave and liberty for all!
In those days Houston was a shining alabaster city undulating on a succulent pool of booming oil prices. An anything-goes Babylon of the U. S. Gulf coast. Cowboy Castro's purple "pick'em up" was our winged angel carrying us Home.

Despite loudly professed religiosity, and being on "extended break" from Texas A. and M., Cowboy performed his duties well. Even, in time, joining our romps in port out of La Porte.

Our favorite Houston destination was a long gray building, along Westheimer Drive named The Green Door. Neon tubing atop its flat roof showed chicken heads kissing among flashing red hearts and green dollar bills.

Along a low-slung front porch a row of green doors awaited the wanting visitor. Beside each door hung a lantern similar to those used by old-time railroaders. If the lamp was lit green you could enter for a price and talk privately with a scantily clad man or woman behind a plate glass window. By the power vested in money pushed through a slot in the glass, you could persuade your selection to display their charms. 

Praise the Lord, it was living porn! Shocking, I guess, but with the possible exception of Cowboy, we were depraved salts and not missionaries.

Truthfully, Cowboy loved The Green Door as much as we did and always arrived screaming Biblical quotes like, "Better to spill your seed in the belly of the whore than upon barren rock!" He would then enter a door labeled "Girl" and, as he put it, "Wax philosophic with the Jezebel inside."

One sacrament too many

On a warm December night, back at the ship to meet an early sailing, Cowboy helped us up the ladder and joined me in my fo'c's'le for a parting drink.

la photo credit: T. P. el Greece
After several we passed out. As the sun rose over the fog bank we awakened on the deck rocking against the bulkhead beside my bunk. The Sealand was slipping out to Sea. 

"I've been shanghaied," Cowboy hollered. He cursed in Spanish and threw Lone Star Beer cans first at the Gulf of Mexico on the other side of the porthole, and then at me.

I yelled back, "You Bible thumping Aggie, you think I want a stowaway in my cabin, for Christ's sake!" 

The word "stowaway" brought us both up short and sober. He ceased his fretting and we made an agreement to make the best of our situation till reaching Miami, Florida in two days. Miami was our last stop before heading out across the North Atlantic for Rotterdam. 

Cowboy could walk off the ship in Miami, we figured, and catch a plane back to Houston with no one the wiser. We settled in and became comfortable traveling companions. He stayed calmly in my cabin drinking beer, watching television, and feasting on food I spirited from the galley.

At night we talked of how lonely Christmas was at Sea, and how Norwegian sailors lashed evergreen trees to their ship's foremast at Christmas time. He told of his family's immigration from Cuba, "Before Fidel," and wondered if he might see the "Crimson Devil's Isle."

"Perhaps when we sail through the Straits of Florida?" he asked. I reckoned not.

Passing south of New Orleans, which sits in a hole below Sea level, we picked up Baton Rouge television and saw news films of the huge Mariel Boat Lift washing onto the beaches of south Florida.

Cowboy laughed at how Florida's "gringo governor" greeted Cuban boat people, while literally mopping his brow. Then Cowboy's eyes lit up like the red-eyed Jesus on his purple truck. "Carumba!" he exclaimed. "If I can pass myself off as a boat-person, I could slap-slogan those stupid Florida gringos all the way to easy street.

I was shocked and said so, "How could you, after fleeing Castro?"

"Fleeing Castro?" He peered back at me with a prove-it expression that asked, "Are you crazy? That Castro was still in the hills when we left Cuba. This Castro," he said, pointing his thumbs at his chest, "was fleeing poverty, and still is!"

As Cowboy was saying this I felt the ship slow and go dead in the water. I left him plotting his economic salvation and went topside.

Le Barco, le Mar
(The Ship, the Sea)
The Mate and Bos'n were walking back from a Jacob's ladder slung over the starboard gunnel. Six sunburned Cubans walked behind them. Off our stern, an unpainted rowboat with an upended oar sluiced in our wake. From the oar flapped a white cloth painted with black letters spelling, "S O S."

I followed behind them and waited outside the Captain's door till they came back out. "Excuse me," I said to the Mate, "could one of you come with me?" Both declined.

"Not with the fight I'm fixing to have with that drunken Steward over six extra beds," said the Bos'n. He turned off towards the crew's quarters. The six Cubans trotted close on his heels.

The Mate shrugged, "Sorry, Leonard, I'm facing a long ton of Federal paper shuffling."

"You best come," I said, rubbing me beard and cherishing the powers of pirates and rogues. "We're in rough waters, Mate, rough enough to beach us."

My actual power was that any ship's irregularity meant Federal paper work for the Mate, and the Mate hated Federal paper work. He came along.

At my fo'c's'le I turned the latch, opened the door and stood back.

"Hi, Mate," Cowboy grinned, lifting his beer can.

"Jesus, Moses and Mohammad!" exclaimed the Mate, slamming the door tight. He looked at me and several words formed on his lips before, "Holy Mother of Lenin!" came out.

* * *

Cowboy's second coming

In Miami, officers of the United States Coastguard collected our Cubans. With the addition of our handsome, blue-eyed, un-sunburned Cowboy Castro they now numbered seven.

On our return voyage we lashed a Norwegian Christmas Tree to the foremast and strung it with yellow light bulbs furnished by the Bos'n. As we hove'round Barbours Cut and slipped up against the wharf all eyes searched the dock. But there was no Cowboy Castro waiting for us.

We found his beat up purple truck and used a key under the floor mat to drive ourselves into Houston for Christmas Day. Then, two days after Christmas, as we tumbled down the ladder headed for The Goat Ranch, Cowboy drove up in a brand new blue pick'em up truck.

Cowboy explained on the drive to Houston, "They couldn't find me a purple one." He laughed, slurped from his beer can, and handed a fresh one to the Mate. He told us he was going back to school, but not to Texas A. and M.

"You know why piss is yellow?" he asked. "And come is white? 

So Aggies will know if they are coming or going!" He slapped his leg and laughed again.

He told how the Miami V. F. W. had bought him the truck and the gringo governor of Florida had gotten him an appointment to the National Maritime Academy at Kings Point. He grinned and said, "I start next Fall. After that I'll be sailing with you legal like, Mate!"

The Mate popped open his beer, rolled down his window, and screamed a wild Texas "Wah-hoo!" at three steers nosing a discarded Christmas Tree. "God bless us all," he said, pulling his head back in the cab. "Welcome to The Promised Land!"

Copyright, 2014, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

New Yahoo's mail system is too cumbersome to continue using for our mailings, 
and we are not able to pay for the  paymail system. 

You may not receive a monthly notice for YOURS TRULY IN A SWAMP, 

until / unless I figure out how to set up a new freemail system. 
(Don't hold your breath.  I am a storyteller, not a computer-pinball gamer). Contact me if you want on the list.

If you wish to read each month's story please go any time to www.LEJ.org 

(They are posted newly on the first of each month) 
Hope you do, I love talking with you,
Leonard Earl Johnson,
Columnist to the elderly and early weary. 

* * *
© 2014, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.
Your comments are welcome, post them in the Blog.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

A Sense of Place / November 2014

Yours Truly in a Swamp,
Monthly e-column by
Leonard Earl Johnson, of Lafayette and New Orleans

November 2014

© 2014, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

A Sense of Place 
*  *
by  Leonard Earl Johnson

Further back down the road, in Illinois, my Grandmother spoke German and English. Her Mother spoke only German. Her Daughter ~ my Mother ~ spoke only English.

December 28, 1916 ~ October 12, 2012
Margaret "Mac" Echols-Staudacher Johnson,  in 1943

It was a time when German immigrants, like French immigrants to Louisiana, were bent towards assimilation by both their state and hearth.  After all, immigrants wanted their creole issue to succeed in this brave New World. A result of this thinking was that my Mother never talked at the knee of her Grandmother.

We all lived, in our turn, in a German-American village in Illinois. It was named Ullin, after some early settlers or, as my Father wrongly argued, the Daughter of the Polish Count 
Casimir Pulaskiwho perished at the Battle of Savanna, during the American Revolution. 

History shows Pulaski had no children at all, so none named Ullin ~ sometimes your own Father can lead you wrong.

My Father, Gordon Hale Johnson, was nicknamed Porky, and came from a nearby back hill railroad village named Alto Pass. It was a spur line town shipping Illinois' Ozark-foothill produce to a world largely unaware Illinois had hills, or a village named Alto Pass.  

Alto Pass got its name from railroad surveyors who measured it to be the highest point on the Illinois Central Railroad between Chicago and New Orleans. With this new spur line -- only truly busy when area orchards were in fruit -- Alto Pass joined the mainline commerce of America.

My Father's Father came there with the train, from "Up-East.  Before that 'Europa', Denmark, Norway. No where exactly," he said. He worked his way West with the railroads -- the high tech money-fount of the day -- and when the tracks reached Alto Pass he got off the train and stayed.

~*~   ~*~   ~*~

My Father claimed vestigial objection to Ullin being named after Germans, "Hardheaded as they are hardworking," he would say, "I know, I married one!"  

Thus was born the Count Pulaski's Daughter theory. Supporting evidence to his error was the fact that the county was named after Count Pulaski. 

In truth, it was a family he thought descendants of the original Ullins and still living in the village that bothered him. They were the local establishment, as he saw it, and their Ullin was on the mainline of the Illinois Central Railroad.  While he was an interloper from the spur-line burg of Alto Pass.

My Father and Mother owned a roadhouse called, Porky's, where the food was good and Porky was the floor-show sitting at the end of the bar expounding on the Ullin-naming issue, and F. D. R.'s New Deal (he disagreed with both).  

My Mother, who grew up in Ullin, liked "The 'Ulins' and the New Deal Just fine!" 

Porky evidently won the naming-argument because the resident family allegedly bearing that name dropped one 'l' from their spelling. 

"Out of  fear Porky was making people think them Polish!" my Grandmother laughed.

Illinois Central Station, late 19th ~ early 20th Century, Ullin, Illinois
There were, also, former slave families, alas, free from Southern slavery but decamped to the wrong side of Illinois' economic tracks. 

There were extended Irish families, and a merchant family we suspected of being Jews passing as Methodist.  

The Africans were Baptist, the Germans and Irish were Catholic and the rest a scattering of faith and suspicion. 

My Mother's antecedents 

were citizens of Germany's Bönnigheim, a village 14.9 kilometers from Stuttgart, in the colorful region of Swabia, adjacent to Bavaria. These are lands of mountains, Black Forests, German industry, and people who like to sing and yodel ~ an inclination I mostly control in myself, yet it breaks through now and then to a respondent clatter of feet fleeing the room. 

Alas, fellow Pilgrims, we can not deny from whence we came.

My people immigrated first as one. He was the Brother / Son / Uncle, who sailed to New York City, took a train to Saint Louis, Missouri and a raft / barge ~ in those days known as an "ark" ~ one-hundred miles down the Mississippi River, round the tip of Illinois at Cairo and up the Ohio River a short distance to the mouth of the Cache River, and the new German settlement of Ullin, twenty-one land miles north of Cairo ~ where Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was headed on his raft to set free "Nigger Jim," from the slave-state of Missouri.

My people arrived after the Civil War. After Mark Twain had captained river boats to New Orleans, and fled West to avoid that war -- after briefly joining the Confederate Militia in Missouri.  Later, when The War was over he removed to Hartford, Connecticut. 

Twain, aka, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, came from Hannibal, Missouri, two-hundred miles up the Mississippi River from Ullin. He was born in 1835 ~ following the appearance of Halley's Comet. He died in 1910, at 74, on the day after the Comet's return ~ something he had humorously predicted for himself all his Life. Growing up, my siblings and I read his books and thought ourselves better for it.

Postcard, on the back, 

The German Brother / Son / Uncle who first seeded our New World became my Great Great Uncle -- though he never knew it. I don't know if he ever read Mark Twain. His name was Wilhelm Staudacher and when he arrived on that first visit he secured land along the tributary Cache River, on the opposite bank from a sawmill. The next century that sawmill’s offices become the roadhouse nightclub named Porky's owned by my Father, Porky, and Mother, who was always called Mac.

 Mac and Porky, 1943, taking the baths at Hot Springs, 
Arkansas, celebrating my birth without me.

"The hard road," U. S. Highway-51, was laid down in front of Porky's.  As a young man my Father drove a truck carrying the bricks that first paved the roadway.  (Later, he employed his motoring skills hauling Prohibition whisky from Canada to Illinois.)  

The Cache River continued flowing in back, but with less significance. My Great Great German Uncle never knew any of this.

When Wilhelm returned to Germany, he gathered his extended family and led them back to The New Promised Land, "Ullin-America!" 

My Grandmother left a Life in Germany for which she pined, I always thought. She did not talk much about it. America's two World Wars with Germany further tarnished and quieted her reminiscence of  
"The Old Country." 

About all my Sister and Brothers and Cousins ever heard her say about Germany was that they had lived in a town, "Fourteen-point-nine kilometers from Stuttgart."  They lived in an apartment above the ground floor where a family of cows and two horses lived.

J. Staudacher Corner
19th Century,  Bönnigheim, Swabia
Her Father's name, "J. (Johannes) Staudacher" was painted on the outside wall in Gothic script. And a ghost walked atop the cemetery’s stone wall with a skull under its arm.

Swabia was a good land full of "Jovial people who liked clocks," she told us.

It sounded like Texas and Arkansas. With a dash of Detroit ~ in the days before Detroit became America's first fallen star. This, also, is the area of Germany where Hitler first arrived from Austria to save Das Vaterland from the "First War" and it's Versailles Treaty. But that is another story, and you already know how badly it turned out for the German folk.

* *

A Long Way Home
Two years ago my Mother died in Illinois. Thirty-three years after her Husband, who passed at 73, on a day I happened to be in Germany working aboard an American flagged container ship named Sea~Land.  I missed his funeral, but had a good conversation by phone the day we sailed from Miami.

My Mother was shy by two months of 96, when she died, and had taken to saying she was already 96. It was a shame she never talked with her Grandmother.

* * *

Her funeral was all you can ask of one. It was at the Crain Funeral Home, on Ullin Avenue, the street where I grew up. It was loving, tearful and supportive. And her Priest, Father Chris Mujulea, a slim black man from the Republic of Uganda, preached on how she asked him to pray for the Lord to take her Home. He told us, this day of her funeral was the Feast of Saint Mary Margaret. Margaret was my Mother's Christian name. 

Our Cousin, Lt. Paul Echolsa retired Carbondale police detective credited with solving a notorious cold case serial murder, and authoring, with Christine Byers, IN COLD PURSUIT, My Hunt for Timothy Krajcir, read a remembrance of my Mother, of family duties performed, and kindness that hung stars in her heavenly crown. 

Father Mujulea gave my Sister, Margaret Yvonne, permission to play the Ingrid Lucia, Irvin Mayfield, 2005 music video, "Do They Play Jazz in Heaven" (a New Orleans homage filmed just after Hurricane Katrina). She had loved this video, this song of faith and rebirth. We all did.

Afterwords I caught Amtrak's City of New Orleans back to Louisiana at 1:30 a.m., from Carbondale, Illinois -- home of Southern Illinois University and my distant school daze, in the Fabled Sixties. A barefooted student came in off the street and asked the ticket clerk about trains to Chicago. He was told there were three a day, "But you must wear shoes."

* * *

The south bound train pulled out of Carbondale and passed into the Shawnee National Forest and through nine little towns and villages important to me. It passed on to Kentucky by crossing the Ohio River at Cairo, Illinois.

Before Reaching The River
by Leonard Earl Johnson

In my cozy Pullman car, 
Amtrak's City of New Orleans passed through 
the Shawnee National Forest and nine towns and villages that nurtured me.

This night more stars pepper the forest canopy
than I recall from youthful Ullin Avenue days ~
where we all lived in our turn.

The train rocked and a meteorite burned across my bedroom window.
Sam Clemens return? Or a German folk legend of the newly dead nodding farewell?
"auf Wiedersehen, Mutter, Ich liebe dich"

* * *
The Video

L. E. J. and Mac, in 1944
Lagniappe: A similar version of this story appeared earlier containing the famed Beyond the grave rant on Social Security by the late George Carlin.

Copyright, 2014, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved

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If you wish to read each month's story please go any time to www.LEJ.world 

(They are posted on the first of each month) 
Hope you do, I love talking with you,
Leonard Earl Johnson,
Columnist to the elderly and early weary. 

* * *
© 2014, Leonard Earl Johnson, All Rights Reserved.
Your comments are welcome, post them in the Blog.