By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 8: Mardi Gras and Horses
While the area farmers had a cooperative to provide fresh meat, our family was not a member. So we bought our fresh meat on a daily basis from Gaston Richard's meat market on State Street, across from where the Gulf Coast Bank is located today. When school was in session, this posed no problem, as my father made the purchase on his way back home in the school bus after dropping the children off at school. But in the summer my father worked as a carpenter, so it was left up to me to walk to the market and back each day, a four mile round trip, to buy our meat, usually a fifteen cent round steak that provided enough meat and gravy for the noon meal for five people—my parents, my sister and I and my maternal grandmother, who had come to live with us.
And if anything else came up during the day, I had to do the leg work. The only mode of transportation we had was the school bus, and that, of course, was used by my father.
One day, when I was ten years old, my parents gave me a nice surprise. They bought me a young Creole horse for $10. A Creole was a breed of horses that was slightly smaller than a regular horse. I named him Pony. He was wild and had to be broken by an experienced rider, which cost $5. He was a stallion and tried to bite me or kick me every time I rode him, so he had to be castrated, which cost another $5.
Pop bought an army saddle from a neighbor for $7, but this was designed for adults and not very comfortable for me. But luck was with me. One of my uncles had a beautiful little saddle, just my size, languishing in his barn. He did not believe in giving, so he sold it to me for seventy five cents.
You would not believe how much that horse empowered me. Not only did I have transportation for chores and errands around the house, but it opened all kinds of doors for me socially. The boys and young men in the rural areas usually worked on the farm 6 days, but on Sunday afternoon, almost everyone who had a horse mounted up, grouped up (very much like we see the bikers do today) and just rode around or rode to my Uncle Wiley's farm, where there was a race track. Some times there were quarter horse races there, but usually it was just pick up races among the riders, trying to prove their horses were the best. Pony and I tried it a few times, but Pony was not built for speed nor did I have any talent as a jockey. Sometimes instead of horse races we had prize fights. This was usually a case of the older guys getting the younger kids to do the boxing. I remember getting involved in a match one time where I was seeing stars by the ton and kept saying to myself "I'll never do this again." But after the match my "handlers" kept saying what a good fighter I was, and before I knew it I was back in action with someone else, with equally disastrous results.
But having a horse opened the door for me to finally be able to "run Mardi Gras" with a group. That had always looked like so much fun when I saw others doing it. The year that I was ten years old, I was invited to join four other kids my age or a little older to do what we called "running Mardi Gras". And that was to wear a costume adorned with little brass bells that tinkled as you walked, wear a full face mask made of wire screen, disguise your voice and the way you walked, sang and danced and acted like a fool and hoped that you could impress someone enough to persuade them to give you a chicken or some eggs to get you to remove your mask and identify yourself.
When I joined my group that Mardi Gras day, I discovered that the others had decided to ride in a mule drawn cart, rather than ride their horses. So I left Pony in someone's stable and joined the others on the cart. It was slow but lots of fun. We went house to house along the west side of Coulee Kinney, all the way up to the Meaux School area and the Abshire Cemetery. We shut it down in the early afternoon, sold our chickens and eggs at a little country store, had enough money to buy lunch and had a few nickels left over, which we split among ourselves.
We agreed to meet at the Mardi Gras dance at Filbert's dance hall that night, which is what we did, as this is what just about all families did on Mardi Gras night. We joined the adult Mardi Gras on the dance floor and cut up for a couple of hours before the dance started. I was the smallest of all the Mardi Gras (maskers) and connected with two adults, one dressed as a woman and one dressed as a monster. So the monster would chase me and the woman would protect me and those simple folks thought it was very funny. So when the prize winners were announced, we three we among the winners. All the winners were given the same prize—a small package wrapped in brown paper. It turned to be a half pint of moon shine (bootleg whiskey). Of course, the MC took mine back and gave me a strawberry Pop Rouge instead, a soda made right there in Abbeville.
The next year, when I was eleven, the two adults I had teamed up with at the Mardi Gras dance, invited me to join their group on Mardi Gras day. They were two young men that I knew well. This day there were six or seven of us and we were all on horseback. But this time we headed straight to town. We started visiting houses south of the rice mill, working toward the east, then north. We were well received in most places. There was one little mishap. One of our guys got a little enthusiastic and grabbed a cake a lady was about to share with us, pretending to steal it, and he tripped and fell and squashed the cake. She was very gracious about it and actually brought out another cake that she had baked.
By the late morning we came to a house on North Bailey Street. There was music coming from the house and there were other Mardi Gras there. After we tied our horses to a hitching rack we walked into the house. As we crossed the porch I noticed that the residents had left their porch light on and it was red. Inside there were several very friendly girls who were all dressed up in pretty dresses and made up with powder, rouge and lipstick. Some of the girls were dancing with Mardi Gras who got there before us. One of the guys in our group started dancing with one of the girls and danced over towards me. When he got close, he said, "I want you to meet my friend." When I extended my hand to shake hands with the girl, the guy grabbed it and pressed it on an X-rated spot on her body. The instant he did that, it was like a flash bulb went off in my head and my brain began to connect the dots between the red light and the friendly girls and a pamphlet I had read, put out by the state board of health warning about venereal diseases and insect parasites.
I bolted out of that place like the lady vampire was after me, untied Pony, leaped aboard and took off toward Graceland Avenue. I noticed another house with a red light and held my breath as I rode past. We made a left turn onto Graceland at a full gallop and didn't slow down until we were in the middle of town., I rode to Frenzel Pere's filling station on the corner of Main and Port, just short of the bayou bridge. I tied Pony to a hitching post in front of the Corrodi photo studio next door to the station, and got permission to use the station restroom. I washed my hands and washed my hands and washed my hands. When I got back on Pony, I felt that I should start spitting as well and did so whenever I could accumulate enough saliva to do so.
When I got home and relieved Pony of the saddle and bridle, he rushed right to the water trough. I followed him and washed my hands one more time. My parents were a bit puzzled that I had come home so early. I just told them that I was tired, and I was. But the precautions I took after the fact worked. I did not develop any of the horrors the pamphlet had described.
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron