Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ending With Music

I’ve been very fortunate to visit the towns and communities in Vermilion Parish over the last few months. In my travels I met amazing people, tasted innovative cuisine and learned about my Cajun heritage. What I remember most though, are the stories of people who suffered loss from Hurricane Rita, but more importantly how they fought back and worked hard to rebuild their homes and lives.

I watched Hurricane Rita hit Vermilion Parish from a television in a New York City apartment. I was disturbed by the images of flooded homes and towns, but to tell the truth, I didn’t really recognize the destroyed areas. It had been almost twenty years since I’d lived in the parish, and I’d forgotten where I’d come from.

When Hurricane Ike hit us a week and a half ago, it was a different experience for me. I had to put sandbags against the back door of our house to keep the water out, and I watched my brother and neighbor board up our windows. I had to evacuate, which I’d never done before, and wait in front of a television set to see if our home was going to be flooded.

This time as I watched, I recognized the flooded towns, and people who had lost everything for a second time. I saw the mayor of Delcambre, who I’d met only a couple of months before. He had told me when I interviewed him that although it had been a rough three years since Rita hit, the town was coming back, and had plans for a new waterfront development.

My mother and I were very fortunate to have no damage to our home, and as she’s repeated to me often, at least we didn’t bury anyone. However, evidence of Hurricane Ike’s destruction surrounds us. It’s at the Esther cemetery, where parishioners had to wash out mud, and the National Guard had to replace tombstones. It’s up the road at the flooded home of my cousin, who had just finished rebuilding from Hurricane Rita at the end of this August. It’s on the faces of people when you run into them at the grocery store or gas station.

Last week I sat at my desk and wondered why this had happened again to good and honest people who were working and fighting to create the lives they’d imagined for themselves. I stared out of my window and realized that it was a clear and beautiful night with a nearly full moon, and I couldn’t help but feel the irony, considering there was so much destruction surrounding us. I wondered if it meant that something good was ahead, or if it was a pure coincidence. I wasn’t sure how to cope with all of it, but the next morning I received my answer.

I was sitting at my desk again, and listening to a rap C.D. that a friend of mine had given to me. My mother walked into my room and then threw a pile of clothes on my bed.

“You’re getting new underwear for Christmas,” she said. “All of these have holes in them. What if you fall dead one day, and people see you’re wearing torn underwear?”

“If I’m dead,” I said. “I think I’ll have bigger problems.”

Then my mother started moving her arms up and down like a baby shakes a rattle. She bent her knees a little and then hopped forwarded. I asked if she was okay, and if I should call 911.

“I’m dancing,” she said. “I used to love to listen to music and go dancing when I was young with your dad. Who is this singing this song now? Is he from around here?”

“The singer’s name is Snoop Doggy Dog,” I said. “I think he’s from another parish.”

When my mother left, I smiled and realized that I felt relaxed and at peace for the first time since Hurricane Ike had appeared in our lives. I hadn’t found a reason for the destruction, but I’d found a way to cope with it. Music.

That afternoon, I drove my mother to the New Harmonies exhibit at the former building of Bill’s Dollar store (311 N. Cushing) in Kaplan. One of my former school teachers, Mrs. Ann Langlinais was there to greet us and show us around the music exhibition sponsored by the Smithsonian.

“It’s a very interactive exhibit,” Mrs. Ann said. “You can listen to the different genres of music and see how some of the first instruments were made.”

Mrs. Ann also showed us music themed art-work from Kaplan students, and information about local musicians. She gave me a brochure that highlighted all of the different events occurring until October 12th. They ranged from an instrument-making workshop to a Jazz Brunch to a duck-calling contest.

It was nice to see Mrs. Ann and to learn a little about something that affects on a daily basis. My mother enjoyed it as well, and the next day suggested we attend another musical event.

“Get dressed and be in the car in twenty minutes,” she told me. “You’re taking me to see that play your nephew, Matthew choreographed. I think it’s about a store that sells scary stuff.”

The musical, “Little Shop of Horrors”, which is sponsored by The Vermilion Players, was held in the auditorium at Abbeville High. I was pleasantly surprised to see many people I recognized, including my cousin Wayne, and my former Catechism teacher, Joan Suire, who I see regularly on my weekly trip to Suire’s for shrimp fettuccini.

Although I had seen the musical before on Broadway, it was extremely enjoyable to see young people up on stage singing and dancing. Wayne’s daughter was one of the Fantasy Doo-Wop singers, and every time she walked on stage, Wayne would jump up and shout out words of encouragement the way I’d seen my father do at my brother’s basketball games.

I enjoyed myself so much at the play that the next evening I decided to take my mother on another music adventure. This program called, “Traditional Cajun Music Heritage Across Generations” was sponsored by New Harmonies and was held at The American Legion Hall in Kaplan.

When we walked in, we were greeted by the singer J.B. Pere. He hugged and kissed my mother, and told me that he’d known her for over fifty years.

“That’s impossible,” she said. “I’m only 39.”

Later that evening we sat and watched musicians of all ages perform and tell their stories of how they found happiest. There was J.B. Pere, who had been singing for over fifty years, followed by Bernie David who had at age sixty-one decided to pick up an accordion and start his dream of producing music. There was the veteran, Donny Broussard, who accompanied the new comers, Mitch Schexnaider (Age 19), and Gracie (Age 10) and Julie Babineaux (Age 8).

The images of these diverse musicians working together to create one of the world’s most powerful treasures, was amazing. It caused people of all ages to dance around the room, and I even saw my mother tap her foot and slap her knee to the beat of the music.

Unfortunately, because of the florescent lighting, my camera wasn’t able to pick up many of the shots. Then I remembered that I was in Vermilion Parish, and so I looked around the room for a friendly face with a nice camera. It wasn’t long before I found Brett Hebert, who snapped some wonderful images for me so that I can share the night with you.

Yes, I realize that last week started with the floodwaters of a hurricane. They destroyed people’s hard work and faith for a second time in three years. I can’t explain why it happened or pretend that it didn’t. However, if you look around past the watermarks on the homes, and the ruined furniture laying on the sides of the road waiting to be hauled away, you’ll see that there is hope.

I see good people who are willing to support and lend a hand to their neighbors, family and friends. I see a community with incredible strength that was founded on hard work, and has rebuilt before. I see Vermilion Parish, whose week started with a hurricane, but who has the power and hope of its citizens, so that its week will end with music.

Saving Our Earth

Last spring, I awoke to one of the most beautiful days I’d ever seen. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and the blackberries alongside the roads were beginning to ripen.

I had spent many of my childhood years picking berries for my grandmother, who baked them into pies and tarts. Those were some of my favorite memories and I wanted to experience them again.

I asked my mother if she would like to pick blackberries with me and she responded, “I would rather take a nap.”

“I want to be near nature,” I told her. “I want to reconnect with my childhood and I want you to help me.”

“Why don’t you just mow the yard?” she responded. “That’s nature and should help you connect with your childhood. Oh wait, you never mowed the yard during your childhood either.”

I took a deep breath and thought of another strategy to entice my mother. Then I remembered how much she enjoyed recycling aluminum cans and bragging about how much money she earned. So I told her that there would probably be tons of cans alongside the road.

“Let me grab a trash bag and I’ll be ready to go,” she answered.

We walked along the road and as I picked berries, my mother collected cans and told me how much money she’d made.

“This one is a twenty-four ounce,” she said. “I bet I can get at least ten cents for it.”

I laughed and felt happy that my mother was having a nice time. But then I noticed that in addition to the cans, she was picking up other things like plastic and glass bottles, paper cups and styrofoam plates. A few minutes later, a truck drove by us and a grocery bag filled with garbage flew from its bed and landed in the ditch about twenty feet from where we were standing.

I became furious because although we were on public property, I felt as if someone was destroying my own back yard. I realized shortly after that they were. But they weren’t only destroying my property, they were destroying the property of everyone who lives in Vermilion Parish; of everyone who lives in Louisiana; of everyone who lives on this earth.

Garbage alongside the road is not only unsightly, but puts our health in danger and destroys our environment. Chemicals from plastic bottles leak into the water we drink, and contaminate wildlife in our fields and canals. Aluminum and glass containers tossed on the ground puts our horses, livestock and us at risk of injury if stepped on.

I am asking you as someone who loves his community, to help me prevent littering. Please don’t throw garbage along our roads, and be careful when putting empty containers in the beds of trucks. When having a large function, consider setting up separate containers for plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Many local schools and churches recycle cans for money to pay for much needed programs.

Vermilion Parish is our community and part of our earth. I know that we can work together to maintain its natural beauty for us, and the many generations who follow.

Two recycling centers in Abbeville are RDS (Ph: 319-5875, Address: Located on Jacqulyn between South Hospital Drive and Airport Road), and Abbeville Scrap (Ph: 523-9322, Address: 723 AA Comeaux Memorial Drive). For more information on recycling, go to www.recycle.org or www.ourearth.org.

My Walk

When I lived in New York, one of my favorite things to do was leave my apartment early in the morning and walk around the city all day long. When I moved back to Vermilion Parish, I became a driver again and I rarely walked anywhere except to and from my truck. I missed my days of walking, and assumed that they were long gone. But then one morning, I figured out that they didn’t have to be.

I had just had breakfast at one of the restaurants on South State Street in downtown Abbeville and walked to my truck. I had planned on driving to the library, but as I was putting on my seat belt, I realized that the library was only about five minutes away by foot. I remembered a time when I had walked twice that distance just to get to the grocery store in New York. I began to feel guilty about my carbon footprint on the world, and so I got back out of my truck and let my feet hit the street.

It was a picture perfect day, and on my walk I was surprised by incredible homes and churches that I didn’t know existed. Within minutes, I found myself at the front doors of the library, but felt sad at the thought of being cooped up in a dark corner on a beautiful day. So I turned back around and walked.

I discovered historic architecture, cool little eateries and quaint gift shops. I visited the stain glass windows of St. Mary Magdalen and then sat in the square and listened to the sound of the water bubbling up from the fountain. As I stared at the view of the majestic church and the Port Street Bridge, I realized that it was moments like that one, I missed most about slowing down and walking.

Since that day, I often park my truck in downtown Kaplan and Abbeville and spend hours walking. People stare at me with confused faces and occasionally someone will stop alongside me in their car and ask if I need a ride. I smile and thank them and let them know that I’m fine.

I told my mom one day about my walking and she said, “You better stop all that or people are going to think you’re weird.”

“Why?” I asked her. “Because I live with you?”

She ignored my snide remark (as she often does) but no longer questions my walking. In fact, she now joins me on some of my excursions. She makes me pick up aluminum cans from the side of the road and talks nonstop about people I’ve never heard of in my life. But we’ve grown closer and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in the world.

I encourage all of you to find the time to walk through the towns of the area and down little country roads. Right now is the perfect time of year because the weather is beautiful, and Vermilion Parish is in full bloom with azaleas and roses and flowers of which I don’t know the names. Walking is not only great for the environment and your health, but can also help you grow closer with others, and with yourself.

The Wonderful Town of Erath

Before you begin reading, I should warn you that I wrote this article before July 4th. You may now read on.

Independence Day is right around the corner, so I thought it might be a nice time to visit Erath, which is famous for its 4th of July celebration.

I had arranged with Mr. Warrin Perrin to meet someone at the Acadian Museum for that afternoon, but drove into Erath early to have some lunch. I noticed a sign for a place called, “Museum Café,” and so I decided to check it out.

When I walked in, I saw about five or six people sitting on stools next to a long bar. They all turned and looked at me at the same exact time, and I froze and felt like a kid does when he thinks he’s just been caught doing something wrong.

“Can I help you?” a blonde woman standing behind the bar smiled and asked.

“I was looking for a place to eat,” I said.

“We don’t serve food anymore,” said a gentleman standing next to the woman. “But you can go over to Champagnes and get a plate lunch and come back here and eat it.”

The rest of the crowd encouraged me to do the same thing, and then started introducing themselves. It began to rain outside, and so I decided to take a seat along the bar. The gentleman who had told me I could go and get a plate lunch introduced himself as Sonny Moss.

“I’m Jacques Couvillon,” I said.

“Are you Mike’s brother?” another gentleman asked. “Tell him Cowboy said hello.”

Then he raised his hand to the blonde woman behind the bar and told her, “Cynthia. Get my boy here some orange juice.”

Although I like orange juice for breakfast, I wasn’t craving it just then. So I turned to ask if I could get a Coke. But before I could speak, Cynthia put a brown bottle down in front of me.

“That’s what we call orange juice around here,” Cowboy said.

Mr. Moss asked me what I was doing in town, and I said that I worked for the Abbeville Meridinal and was writing a story about Erath. He grabbed me by the arm and told me to follow him. We walked around the room while he pointed out antiques varying from musical instruments to wooden farm tools to an actual ice-box. Then he pointed out a large mural painted on the wall behind a stage.

“This is D.L. Menard,” said Mr. Moss. “He’s a great musician from Erath.”

It was getting time for me to head to the museum then, and so I thanked everyone for their friendliness and hospitality. They smiled and waved, and told me that I needed to stop by again soon.

When I stepped around the corner, a man standing on the other side of the street was staring at me. I didn’t recognize him, but he screamed my name out and walked towards me. He introduced himself as Carlin Trahan and told me that he’d be my guide in the museum.

He opened the door of the building and I followed him into a small room, which was filled with photographs and documents explaining the history of Erath. Within a few seconds, I heard a bell ringing in the same cadence as a telephone. My eyes found the source, which was an old wooden phone similar to the ones in television shows such as Andy Griffin and Petticoat Junction.

Mr. Trahan walked up to the antique phone and picked up the receiver and spoke into the mouthpiece coming out of the wooden box. At first I thought that he was playing a joke on me, because I couldn’t believe that the phone really worked. But I watched him have a conversation with someone, and that’s when I knew this man was serious about history and keeping things authentic, and that I had great admiration for him.

Mr. Trahan brought me into another room, which not only had a painting of the famous Beausoleil Broussard, but was filled with books, music and videotapes about Acadian Culture.

“There’s even a computer here so people can research their ancestry,” said Mr. Trahan. “Did you know that Couvillon isn’t of Acadian descent?”

I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me because of what he’d said. I had been identified as a Cajun by many of my friends in other states, and I wondered if Mr. Trahan would make me call them and announce that I had been living a lie. Then I remembered that my grandma was a Broussard, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

“My grandma was a descendant of Beausoleil,” I said. “So that still makes me a Cajun right?”

“I’ll let you slide,” Mr. Trahan laughed.

We discussed everything from the difference between a “Creole,” and a “Cajun,” to the origin of gumbo. I could have spent several hours in the museum talking to Mr. Trahan, but sadly had to leave to do some research on the 4th of July Celebration.
Mr. Trahan suggested that I call a man named Robert Vincent, who told me that although he knew the first festival was before World War II, he wasn’t sure of its exact date.

“There weren’t any festivals during the war,” he said. “But in 1946, the town started them up again and made them annual.”
Mr. Vincent told me that in addition to a week filled with live music and carnival rides, Erath would host a fireworks display and parade on the 4th.

“We’ll also have a water fight between local parish fire departments,” Mr. Vincent said. “It’s a lot of fun to watch grown men try to knock each other down with a hose.”

When I sat down to write this article, I wondered which aspects of my visit I should share with you. I didn’t know if I should focus on the culturally rich community, or the friendly people who enjoy life and take great pride in the place that they call home. When I looked at my notes and thought about my afternoon, I realized that the best way for me to really tell you the story of the wonderful town of Erath, is to suggest you visit this jewel yourself.

The Paradise Called Maurice

From the day I got my license to only a few hours ago, my mother told me not to speed when driving through Maurice. She said her sister had gotten a ticket there and she’d heard there had been others.

“It’s 40 miles per hour,” she said. “I like to set it on cruise at 37 just to make sure I don’t go over.”

I knew my mother was correct, because I’d often seen police cars patrolling the area when I drove through town. When I was a teenager, I used to dream about speeding through at 55 just to see if I would get caught. I would always chicken out about fifteen feet after I passed the 40 MPH sign, and was only able to reach a maximum speed of 43 and a half.
When I drove into Maurice this week, I saw a big flashing sign in front of G&H Tires that said, “Slow Down. 40 MPH.”

I immediately pressed on my brakes because I wasn’t feeling as rebellious as I did in my teen years, and I didn’t think the interview I’d hoped to have with Mayor Ferguson would go well if I got a speeding ticket. I wanted to speak to him because my editor told me that Maurice was doubling in size and was going to grow from a village to a town.

“According to a 2000 census, our population was 643 people,” said Mayor Ferguson. “It’s estimated that number will double by the 2010 census. Because of this growth, Senator Nick Gautreaux is helping us to find a way to build our own civic center.”

I asked Mayor Ferguson if he’d heard that Maurice was known for being tough on speeders. He said yes, and although he didn’t want the village to be known as a speed trap, the police would continue to enforce the law.

“Approximately forty thousand cars drive through Maurice each day,” said Mayor Ferguson. “We want to ensure they do it safely.”

It was getting near lunch, and so I thanked the Mayor for taking the time to speak with me and then I headed over to one of my favorite places to eat, Villager’s Café. I had my first experience with their fried shrimp po-boys about a year ago when I was driving through Maurice from Abbeville to Lafayette. I had planned on eating it at a later time, but it smelled so good that I had to take a bite. By the time I got to that traffic light where the McDonald’s is, I’d eaten the entire twelve inches. It was life changing because I realized that I could never eat a po-boy outside of Louisiana again.

The café was packed, but I managed to find a table. I’d eaten inside before, but on that day noticed for the first time that the tables were made from old wooden spools, which were once used to hold coils of steel wire. I looked around at the walls, which were decorated with items such as vintage hats, pictures of Lucille Ball and a sign that said, “Good Food, Good Friends, Good Times”. The room was filled with families, friends and a table of construction workers eating salad.

“Salad?” I thought. “I didn’t even know they had salad here.”

It looked really good, but I decided to stick with old faithful and ordered a fried shrimp po-boy, which I ate in about three minutes.

My next stop was the Maurice Flea Market. I was greeted by the owner, Cynthia Trahan, who told me that she represented thirteen different vendors who sold items such as Victorian furniture, depression glass and antique jewelry.

“Where are you from?” Ms. Trahan asked me.

I told her that I was from Cow Island and she asked me if I knew a couple named Rita and David Faulk. It was a strange coincidence because I had just seen them the night before. Ms. Trahan told me that the Faulks had a booth in the flea market, and showed me some of their original pieces, which they had designed and built together. My second favorite item was a hat rack made from recycled hammer heads. But my favorite was a magazine holder made from a wooden sawhorse, which I bought and plan to have Rita and David sign for me.

The last stop on my trip was the Vivian Alexander Gallery, which is a little outside the city limits in Milton. A gravel road led me up to an unpainted wooden building, which resembled some of the majestic old barns on the farms of Vermilion Parish. In front of, a green pasture surrounded a grand metal sculpture, which Alexander Caldwell (The Alexander in Vivian Alexander) had designed and built himself.

Vivian Alexander is the designer of objects such as time pieces, sculptures and purses, which are inspired by eggs, and are craved by art collectors around the world. Each piece is signed by the artist, and one of them was featured in the movie, Ocean’s 12.
I got a chance to sit down in the middle of the gallery and speak with Mr. Caldwell himself. He explained that his girlfriend was the Vivian in the gallery’s name, and then told me about when he’d first moved to Milton.

“I moved to Vermilion Parish from Baton Rouge because I was ready to live in paradise,” said Mr. Caldwell. “My girlfriend and I became farmers and we had geese and chickens and ducks. We had all these eggs and Vivian suggested that we decorate them. The rest is history.”

I imagined the two of them wearing aprons and dipping eggs into mugs filled with Easter Egg dye like my brothers and I did when we were children. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see a beautifully decorated goose sized egg, which was also a clock. It was so brilliant, I pretended in my mind that he gave it to me because I wanted to imagine what it would be like to be able to see it everyday.

“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” I said. “How did designing these pieces of art get rid of your eggs?”

Mr. Caldwell explained that the objects in his gallery weren’t only inspired by eggs, but many of them were actually eggs, which had been covered in a thick enamel. Some of his first pieces hadn’t been covered though, which was amazing because the shell had been intricately carved into designs similar to the patterns in lace.

“How did you do that?” I asked. “Are you a witch?”

It was one of those moments when I wished my mouth had a rewind button. I was so nervous about interviewing this incredible gentleman and artist, that I wasn’t using my brain filter before I spoke. I couldn’t understand how he’d created some of the patterns in the shell without breaking it, and was trying to show how impressed I was. But I began to feel embarrassed, and wondered if Mr. Caldwell would ask me to get off of his property.

Luckily, in addition to the gift of talent, he also has the gift of humor and laughed and said, “No. I was an engineer by trade. I always had a creative side and one day decided to turn to it.”

Mr. Caldwell told me that the gallery teaches classes to those interested in creating their own decorated eggs. I told him that I would probably take one this fall and asked if it would be okay if I brought a picnic and sat out in the pasture near the metal sculpture. He said that he’d welcome anyone who wanted to walk around and enjoy the property, but that he’d appreciate it if they called first so he could make sure the lawn was cut.

I wondered if I should ask Mr. Caldwell if he’d ever gotten a ticket in Maurice, but remembered something Mayor Ferguson had told me. He’d said that speeding laws needed to be enforced in order to keep citizens safe, which I agreed with completely. But I also realized that another reason to slow down when driving through this huge village, which will soon be a small town, is to experience innovative art, life changing cuisine and the friendliness of the people who were ready to live in paradise.

For information on the Vivian Alexander Gallery, check out their website at www.vivianalexander.com or call 898-0803. .

Cajuns, Coffee and Hidden Treasure in Gueydan

I recently wrote an article about travel writers who visited Vermilion Parish, and their impressions of the area. After reading quotes about their adventures, it occurred to me that I didn’t know as much as I thought I did about where I lived. So I called up Alison Miller at the Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission, who provided me with information about the diverse towns that surround us, and told me that according to a 2000 census, I lived in the most Cajun place on earth.

I decided that since I wanted to learn more about what made us so Cajun, I should explore the towns of our parish. I hope to visit one town per week, and share my experiences with all of you.

This week I selected Gueydan, and since I prefer co-pilots on road trips, I told my mother, “Get dressed and grab your purse. I’m taking you on a trip to the Duck Capital of the World.”

“You’re not going to charge me for that?” she asked.

“No,” I told her. “But put on some lipstick, because I might need you to flirt with some men so they can tell me what makes us so Cajun.”

Our first stop in Gueydan was Patti’s Book Nook (410 Second Street), where we were greeted by the Gayle family. Sean, the father, gave us each a cup of coffee (my mother loves FREE so she was very happy) and sat down and told us all about his shop.

“Patti’s Book Nook, which is named after my wife, is the only full service book store between Lafayette and Lake Charles,” said Sean. “We’re also an internet café, computer service and retail store, and outlet for the Rosary House in New Iberia.”

I learned from James Gayle (son) that there are three murals painted on buildings in Gueydan. Located all on Main Street, the first is on T’s Crawfish Trap (by Robert Baxter), the second is on The Gift Box (by Robert Dafford) and the third is on Thibodaux’s Pharmacy (by Theresa de Perrodil Trahan).

The next stop on our adventure was the Gueydan Museum (Main Street), where we were given big smiles and offered another cup of coffee, (my mother was elated). The curator, Jane Hair, showed us French antiques, art from local artists, a leather German officer uniform, paintings by a Polish prisoner held in a World War II POW camp located in Gueydan, and one of the only two albino nutrias in Louisiana.

“Right now we’re featuring art by local artist, Kathleen Simone Little,” said Ms. Hair. “But starting next month we’re going to have the Butterflies Galore exhibit, which will consists of paintings, glass sculptures and much more.”

My mother and I crossed the street to Cormier’s Creole Kitchen (current owner John Bertrand) where rumor has it, former owner Eugene Cormier serves up homemade biscuits for breakfast.

My mother and I were fortunate enough to visit while locals who call themselves the Knights of the Round Table were having their daily cup of coffee at a round shaped table.

“Some of us have been coming here for years since it was called The Pool Hall,” said one of its members. “We meet at 7 a.m. and 2 p.m. to discuss politics and solve the world’s problems.”

When I told them my name, one of them joked, “Couvillon. That sounds French. Mais, we don’t have any Cajuns here, us, no.”

Then they all laughed and started speaking French. I asked if I could take a picture and one of them said I would need to ask the leader of their group, King Arthritis, who smiled and nodded his head up and down.

I asked my mother if she wanted to sit on the king’s lap for the photo, but she shook her head and looked at the men and said, “I did the best I could.”

One of the knights laughed and replied, “C’est pas ta faute.” (It’s not your fault)

My mother and I took a detour on our way out of Gueydan to see the spectacular grounds of the Florence Club.

Although I’ve been surrounded by marsh and water for a good part of my life, I was still stunned by its beauty.

“It’s kind of weird,” I said to my mother. “I used to come to Gueydan for track meets when I was in high school. But I never realized that it was a such a wonderful treasure.”

“I know,” she said. “People are so friendly. And we got two free cups of coffee.”

The Parisian Side of Kaplan

A few years ago, I moved to Paris to study French. There was nothing I enjoyed more than sitting in cafés and listening to all of the stories being told around me. So when my brother, Joey, told me that he went to a café every morning, I thought I might be able to relive my time in France. But when he told me that I would have to meet him at 6:45 a.m. and that we’d be going to a feed store in Kaplan, I had the feeling that I was in for a whole other experience.

Joey led me passed sacks of bran and corn to a rectangular shaped table in the corner of Premier Farm and Ranch Supply. Surrounding it was a group of men who smiled and looked up when we walked in.

“Everybody,” Joey said. “I’d like to introduce you to my brother, Jacques.”

One of the gentlemen, Mr. Donald Greene, told me that he’d read an article I’d written about Gueydan, and wondered if I was going to write one about Kaplan.

“That’s why I’m here,” I said. “There’s a group of men over there that meets and drinks coffee and they call themselves the Knights of the Round Table. Do you guys have a name?”

“Yeah,” Owner, Scott Esthay said. “They’re the, “One Foot in the Grave,” club.”

I pulled a chair up to the table and drank coffee while the men spoke about everything from the price of bailing hay, to farm supplements, to the good old days when the train pulled into Kaplan and people gathered around to purchase and collect goods.

When I asked Mr. Esthay why he set up the coffee pot and table, he responded, “I just like having the company, and I learn a lot of things about the cattle and farming industry by listening to the people who have been around for years.”

Since I was wide-awake and began to feel hungry, I drove on over to the Donut Queen (Veterans Memorial Dr.) owned by the husband and wife team, Makay and Sophanna Akanhay. I tried the jalapeno kolache, which was delicious. Makay told me I should try their special boudin kolache, but I scrunched up my face and shook my head from side to side.

“A lot of people make that same face when I suggest it to them,” Mr. Akanhay said. “But once they have a bite, they order another one. Even the people who don’t like boudin.”

I told him I’d try one the next time (and I will be back) and then decided to head over to Comeaux’s French Market for some fresh fruits and vegetables. Decorated with hand painted signs, the little stand is reminiscent of ones I’ve seen along the French countryside. I was waited on by Ruby and Paula Hargrave, who have worked there for over thirty years.

“My husband and I opened the fruit stand in 1975,” said Mrs. Ruby Hargrave. “After he passed, I sold the business to Russell Comeaux and Joel Howard. I’m happy to still be able to work here.”

I wanted some fresh air, so I strolled through the rows of the market’s outdoor inventory of flowering plants and trees. I was enjoying my time outside, and so walked across the street to Backyard Pottery and Plants. Once Margaret Abbott’s private garden, it is now an opened aired space filled with fountains, outdoor art, and peach and pecan trees. I joked with Mrs. Abbott that I might come back with some lemonade and sit right in the middle of her store.

“Feel free,” she laughed. “I want people to enjoy their time here.”

I decided I wanted to see some great architecture, and so I headed to the home of Henri and Carol Ann Deshotels. The 4,000 square foot house is not only fascinating because of its grand porch and stairway, but because it was originally purchased out of a Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog back in 1909.

“Most of it is original,” said Mr. Deshotels. “I still have a catalog with pictures of the houses you could buy.”

I knew a trip to Kaplan wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Le Musee de la Ville on Cushing. I was very excited to learn that although the Louvre may have Mona Lisa, the Kaplan museum has Gladys, a mannequin who sits in front of an antique telephone switchboard.

“She just looks like a Gladys,” said museum representative, Velma Touchet. “She and a lot of the antiques were donated by the late Lytle Turnley. He’s also the one who donated the building.”

Ms. Touchet showed me displays of beautifully crafted Mardi Gras gowns, paintings by local artists Beth Mouton and Dustin Schexneider, and a display honoring musicians like Klaby Meaux, Sammy Kershaw, Cedric Benoit and Shel Reaux.

“Music is a big part of Kaplan,” said museum representative, Betty Girouard. “In fact, the Smithsonian is having an exhibit here this fall.”

The exhibit entitled, “New Harmonies,” examines the roots of music and its tremendous affect on society. Kaplan is one of six Louisiana towns, which will host the event.

As I drove out of town, I realized that although I hadn’t exactly relived my time in Paris, I had experienced something special. I’d discovered innovative cuisine, historic architecture, beautiful gardens and a plastic woman named Gladys. But more importantly, I met some of the warm and friendly people who give Kaplan that certain, “Je ne sais quoi.”

For more information on Kaplan, you may call the Chamber of Commerce at 643-2400, City Hall at 643-7118, or the Vermilion Parish Tourist Commission at 898-6600. If you have any old pictures of Kaplan and would like to share them, please call Mr. Deshotels at 643-7100.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Open Arms and Borders in Delcambre

Over the past couple of months, I’ve had the opportunity to visit many of the towns and communities of the area. I’ve learned that each posses an unusual quality which contributes to the wonderful and eclectic vibe of Vermilion Parish. This week, my mother and I headed to the community of Delcambre, whose friendliness and uniqueness overflows across its borders into another parish.

Although I knew I had to travel east on Highway 14 to get to the home of the Shrimp Festival, I wasn’t exactly sure of where the community started or ended. So I was thankful to see a sign welcoming me to Delcambre, but confused when a few minutes later, I saw a sign for Iberia Parish.

“I thought Iberia Parish started after Bayou Carlin,” I said to my mother. “The sign is on this side of the bridge.”

She didn’t have an explanation, but suggested that we find a place to grab a bite to eat, and ask a local. So I pulled into the parking lot of D & G Diner, and turned towards my mother to ask if it would be okay. She was looking at her compact mirror and putting on her lipstick.

“What are you doing?” I asked. “We’re just having lunch.”

“You never know whom you’re going to meet,” she said. “The pope could be in there.”

I turned and looked out of my windshield at the little red wooden framed building of the diner. Hanging above the front porch was a large sign with a painting of a hamburger. I told my mother that I doubted anyone from the Vatican was there, but that I was sure we could find a great meal and a local.

“We have people come from all over,” said owner Deanna Granger (The “G” in “D&G”). “Some are workers, and others are families from across the bridge.”

While my mother and I enjoyed our lunch, Mr. Carroll Dugas (Co-owner and the “D” in “D & G”) showed us pictures of the area and told us about his home, which he said was the oldest house and first schoolroom in Vermilion Parish.

“It’s a few miles away in Bayou Tigre,” said Mr. Dugas. “Just take 330 south and you’ll find it.”

The next stop on our journey was city hall to meet Mayor Carol Broussard. He told us about the challenges that Delcambre faced in recovering from Hurricane Rita.

“About five hundred people left after the storm,” said Mayor Broussard. “We’re rebuilding slowly, but a few businesses, such as our grocery store, are still closed.”

He said that Delcambre’s people have remained positive throughout the ordeal, and were constantly working to improve the community. He also showed us plans for waterfront development including boardwalks filled with commercial and residential buildings.

I asked Mayor Broussard about the sign welcoming me to Iberia Parish before the bridge crossing Bayou Carlin. He told me that was because Delcambre was located in Vermilion Parish (About 67%) and Iberia Parish (About 33%).

“Although there are a couple of maps out there identifying different borders,” said Mayor Broussard, “I consider Railroad Street the dividing line between the parishes.”

Mayor Broussard asked my mother her name again and she said Julia Couvillon. He asked if she was Mike’s mother, and she responded that no, he was HER son, and that she also had seven other children.

“I like you,” said Mayor Broussard. “Let’s go to Iberia Parish and get a snow cone.”

We walked across the street to the Lil Sandwich Shop, which was still in Delcambre, but in a different parish. After we got our snow cones, we thanked Mayor Broussard and then walked back across to Vermilion, and continued on our journey.

Our next stop was Our Lady of the Lake Church, which stands tall and proud and be can seen from Highway 14 regardless of the direction you’re coming from. I went inside the church to see its beautiful stain glass, historic ornamental alter, and the original Bancker Grotto statue.

It started to rain while I was inside, and so I got wet as I ran back to the car. My mother and I ate our snow cones as we stared out at the storm clouds and sun fighting for the air space, which surrounded the tower of the church. I told my mother that it was beautiful, and she told me to drive her to Bayou Tigre to see the oldest house and schoolroom in Vermilion Parish.

“But it’s not in Delcambre,” I said. “I can’t write about it for this article.”

“You can and you will,” my mother told me. “I get to decide because I nursed you and changed your filthy diapers, and believe me, neither was a pleasant experience.”

I couldn’t argue with her about that, so five minutes later we drove across a narrow iron covered bridge and were in the community of Bayou Tigre. Mr. Dugas’s grand white house stood about a quarter of a mile from the main road, and was framed by marsh, cattle and a body of water. As we drove down the long gravel driveway, I was reminded of the paintings depicting scenes of Acadian life, which hang in the Abbeville Court House.

Mr. Dugas was there with his great grandson Jody, and welcomed my mother and I to his home. He walked us through the house, and showed us the damage that Rita had done. He told me that an organization had offered to restore it, but wanted him to donate it to them.

“I want to pass this house on to someone in my family,” said Mr. Dugas. “Even if it takes twenty years for me to finish restoring it.”

I walked upstairs to where the schoolroom had once been, and found the highlight of my whole trip. It was an old black chalkboard, and I could make out words that had probably been written over a hundred years ago.

On my way out of Bayou Tigre, I realized that I had eaten lunch and had a snow cone at two businesses in Iberia Parish. So I decided to share the wealth, and headed to The Country Store, which is located about thirty feet from D & G Diner, but in Vermilion Parish.

People walked in and out of the store greeting each other like they were lifelong friends, and didn’t care that some of them were from different parishes or even different towns. When I got back in my car, I thanked my mother for using guilt to make me drive past the town line of Delcambre into Bayou Tigre. Otherwise I might not have realized and appreciated the value of a community with open arms and borders.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Lorraine and Harvey's Garden

Several years ago when it was time for me to head out into the world and find my place in life, one of the things I had trouble with was being true to myself. There were so many things I didn’t understand, and it terrified me and caused me to make major decisions without much thought. Over time, I suffered from the effects of sudden change, until I realized that I needed to set goals and not be afraid of hard work if it was something that I truly wanted. This week I visited Lorraine and Harvey Broussard of Forked Island, who have learned similar lessons, and taught me others by sharing their own version of a garden.

When I pulled into the driveway of the Broussard’s home, Mr. Harvey was mowing the yard and Ms. Lorraine was tidying up in the garage. She hugged me as soon as I got out of my car and told me it was good to see me again. I had spent many of my high school days at their home because of a great friendship I had with one of their daughters, Dana.

“Did you make Mr. Harvey mow the yard because you knew I was coming to interview you about your garden?” I asked.

“No,” she laughed. “You just happened to come on his mowing day.”

She invited me inside her home to sit down and then asked me why I wanted to interview her. I had gone to her house a few months before and noticed that in addition to several plants and flowers throughout the yard, she had a greenhouse. I had always loved walking through the structures because the plants seemed to be enjoying themselves like they were at a horticultural ho-down that was by invitation only.

“You have a greenhouse,” I told Ms. Lorraine. “That’s pretty unique and I’m trying to interview people with something a little special in their garden.”

Unfortunately Ms. Lorraine’s greenhouse was empty, because being that it’s summer, she moved everything out and planted it in the yard. However, she did show me some great pictures of flowers, plants and vegetables she had grown in the green house, which reminded me of another exclusive plant party which I hadn’t been invited to.

“About 95% of the plants in my vegetable garden and yard are from seeds and cuttings I grew this winter,” she said. “That’s what I enjoy most. Creating life.”

Mr. Harvey walked in and told me hello, and leaned against the back of a chair. I told him that I was there to interview Ms. Lorraine about her garden, and then wondered if I was mistaken about the true owner.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “Whose garden is it?”

“Well,” Ms. Lorraine said. “It’s his yard, my greenhouse and our garden.”

We walked around outside so I could take a few pictures, and I realized that the Broussard’s garden wasn’t limited to a small square patch of cucumbers, okra and bell peppers. It was their entire fenced in yard, which seemed to be around four acres in size. The property was landscaped with an assortment of trees consisting of Cypress, Magnolias, Pecan and Sycamores.

“Do you get a lot of birds?” I asked.

“Oh yes,” Ms. Lorraine said. “Look above the trees at what Harvey built.”

I looked around the skyline and noticed several anti-bellum style bird houses with scenic views of the surrounding landscape. Ms. Lorraine told me that hundreds of Purple Martins lived in them, and she enjoyed hearing them chirp and sing while she was working outside. But many of the birds seemed to prefer the lower lying amenities of the Broussard’s yard, which were flowers, fountains and statues spread throughout the property.

Ms. Lorraine said the greenhouse had just been built in Fall of 2007, and I asked her what she’d learned from the experience of working in one. She told me that people had warned her of how hard it would be to maintain, and that they were right.

“It’s important that you set goals and love what you’re doing if you want to succeed,” said Ms. Lorraine. “I told myself that I would donate the vegetables I grew to the church for its annual fete. Every time I felt tired or discouraged, I thought about my goal and continued to work.”

But Ms. Lorraine told me that she enjoyed every minute of being in her greenhouse. She liked to turn on her radio and travel to her own world, which in her opinion was the best medicine to cure a bad day and to lead a happy and healthy life. Ms. Lorraine said she’d learned from her mistakes like one she’d made with her Bleeding Heart, which she’d put inside the greenhouse during the winter.

“This Spring it didn’t bloom as full as it usually does,” she said. “I think it needed to grow dormant and rest before it could come back to its fullest potential. Not all plants are the same, and you can’t make them something that they’re not.”

I asked Ms. Lorraine if she had any technical advice for someone with a garden. She said that her Grandma Des had told her to throw soapy dishwater on roses to help get rid of insects and disease.

Although I had gone to the Broussard’s home to interview Ms. Lorraine about her greenhouse, I realized that I had stumbled up on something much more. I had found a place where a couple worked together to create their own version of garden, and used it as a guide to help them live the life they imagined.

Being on the Broussard’s property reiterated many of the tough lessons I’d learned out in the world, (Except for throwing soapy dishwater on roses) and taught me a few others. I learned the importance of being independent, but also of appreciating the value of help from those you trust and love in order to create something much larger than a four acre yard with vegetation and a greenhouse. Lorraine and Harvey had created a haven, which illustrated the beauty of learning from mistakes, having goals, and being true to one’s self when pursuing a life of happiness.