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Entries in William Least-Heat Moon (63)


Blue Highways: Opelousas, Louisiana

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe sidle up to stool in a bar in Opelousas with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) and watch as he becomes the uncomfortable butt of a joke.  What he really wants to find is a place with Cajun music.  That's our next stop.  To see Opelousas on the map, click the thumbnail at right.

Book Quote

"'By the way, junior,' he asked casually, 'ever had yourself a Cajun woman?'

"His question silenced the bar. 'Don't think I have.'

"'Got some advice for you then - if you find you ever need it.'

"It was the quietest bar I'd ever been in. I answered so softly no sound came out, and I had to repeat. 'What advice?'

"'Take off your belt before you climb on so you can strap your Yankee ass down because you'llget taken for a ride. Up the walls and around.'

"Now the whole bar was staring. I guess to surmise whether my Yankee ass was worth strapping down. One rusty geezer said, 'Junior ain't got no belt.'

"Walt looked at my suspenders and pulled one, letting it snap back. 'My man,' he said, 'tie on with these and you'll get zanged out the window like in a slingshot.'"

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 9

A place in Opelousas, Louisiana where LHM could have stopped today to get crawfish. From the Rebouche blog. Click on photo to go to host site.Opelousas, Louisiana

I'm not sure what to say about this one, since I've never been to Opelousas, nor a bar in the environs, nor have I ever been in any kind or relationship with a Cajun woman.  It's really the only thing that happens to LHM in Opelousas - except that the guy, Walt, who asks him whether he's ever had a Cajun woman, tells him a paragraph later that he should never take offense at what a "Coonass" says.  Coonass, of course, is a nickname and sometimes pejorative for a Cajun.

The etymology for the word "Coonass" appears to show that there are disputed origins, and its acceptance among Cajuns often depends on how high on the socio-economic ladder a Cajun stands, with people at the bottom of that ladder wearing it as a badge of pride and people toward the top viewing it as an ethnic slur.  It is like the infamous "N" word among African-Americans: a case where it started out as a pejorative term, but then the affected culture appropriated the word.  Just as younger blacks, especially among the hip-hop crowd, refer to themselves and each other with a variant of the "N" word but often take offense if an outsider uses the term, so might Cajuns refer to themselves as Coonasses but view it as a terrible slight should a non-Cajun call them by that term.  Given the word's unclear beginnings, I'm not sure that I'd want to use it anyway since I don't know exactly what it means - one can often infer meanings of things from inside a particular culture that are invisible or not understandable from the outside.

As for LHM's experience in the bar, I'm inclined toward the "boys will be boys" school.  The fact is that when you get a bunch of men together there will be questionable humor.  I learned this working in a lumber mill.  Humor that was sexual and scatological was rampant throughout the mostly male workforce in the mill, as were actual sexual paraphernalia such as magazines.  I remember walking into a "tally shack" where the tallymen added up their figures after a truck was loaded or when they were getting an order ready, and the walls were covered with so many Playboy, Penthouse, Hustler and other magazine centerfolds that there was no sign of the wood underneath.  Of course, being a high school boy at the time, I was thrilled at seeing naked women in various erotic poses.  I think it provided an outlet for those guys that they didn't get at home because they had to temper these activities and proclivities in the presence of wives and family.  It's often made me wonder whether men are just hard-wired for visual sexual imagery in a way that women are not.

Perhaps men are also hard-wired for explicit and frank talk, since I am stepping into the quicksand of generalities.  Sexual and scatological jokes among groups of men seem to be de rigeur.  In the lumber mill where I worked, if you related a good joke that people liked and felt it worth repeating, you gained a little bit of respect.  Being in high school, I didn't have that many good jokes, but I learned a few.  Too bad that, now that I'm in my late 40s, I've forgotten a lot of them.  Those that I do remember turn out to have been not that funny anyway, and some were downright disgusting, but perhaps I've just gained a more sophisticated sense of humor.  Somehow, I doubt it - give me a good fart joke and I'm laughing like a fiend.  If I've shocked some of you, I'm sorry.

In that context, LHM's experience of getting ribbed in a bar in Opelousas with reference to a sexual situation is not abnormal, but there are always those people who take it too far, who seem to believe the myths that are propagated by such humor and talk, and of whom such behavior reveals a real fear and/or hatred of the opposite gender.  So in that regard, boys may be boys, but there can be a fine line between boys being boys and boys being beasts.

If you want to know more about Opelousas

I had hoped that I could find that the Plantation Lounge, where LHM said he stopped, was still operating, but alas, I couldn't.  Here's some other information about Opelousas, though:

City of Opelousas
Daily World (newspaper)
Opelousas and St. Landry Parish
Wikipedia: Opelousas

Next up: Lafayette, Louisiana


Blue Highways: Ville Platte, Louisiana

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWe cross into Louisiana with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) on his journey across the U.S. almost 30 years ago.  I'm sure that the rural communities of the area have changed since then.  For the better? You decide as we explore disappearing cultures.  To see where Ville Platte is located, click on the map thumbnail at right.  And go out and get some Cajun food to excite your humors!

Book Quote

"I switched on the radio and turned the dial.  Somewhere between a shill for a drive-up savings and loan and one for salvation, I found a raucous music, part bluegrass fiddle, part Texas guitar, part Highland concertina.  Cajun voices sang an old, flattened French, part English, part undecipherable."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 9

Building in Ville Platte, Louisiana. Click on the photo to go to host site.

Ville Platte, Louisiana

I remember the second time my wife and I drove into Louisiana.  The first time we drove into Louisiana was to make a trip to New Orleans from San Antonio, where we were living at the time.  We had three friends with us and conversation with them took up the leisure time in the car.  But the second time, it was just me and her.  We were heading to Breaux Bridge (which was visited by LHM and will be covered in a future post).  Near Breaux Bridge, we were meeting some friends who were living in in the Midwest and we were going camping out in the swamp along a bayou.

So, with just us in the car on a six-seven hour trip, we had time to listen to the radio.  And it was there, in the middle of Cajun country, that we heard a DJ speaking in that patois known as Cajun French.  My wife, who had French lessons in high school and could recognize a lot of words, listened for a moment and then said "That is unlike any French that I've ever heard - I can hardly recognize a word."  To me, it sounded like French as if spoken by a person out of the American South or perhaps Texas - with a kind of twang.

We had heard Cajun music before.  I was introduced to the high energy accordion, fiddle, bass and drums with the distinctive rhythm when I lived in Milwaukee, but it wasn't until driving through Louisiana on the interstate and truly listening to the radio did I hear the dialect in its full glory.

Later, when I lived in New Orleans, Cajun was still a novelty.  New Orleans is not really a Cajun town, even though you might think it is.  Rather, New Orleans is a Creole and immigrant town and the food and music reflect this.  Jazz, blues and creole cuisine were the norm, not Cajun music, though you could find Cajun music around town.  Tipitina's on Napoleon Avenue had Fais Do Do's on Saturday, I think, where you could go dance to Cajun music.  The patois you were most likely to hear was something called "Yat," which when I first heard it sounded almost like a New York, Brooklyn accent.  But it wasn't.  In fact, I grew to love the Yat way of speaking.  So I didn't hear Cajun spoken often, except on Sunday afternoons.  The independent local radio station, the wonderful WWOZ, had a DJ on Sunday afternoons named Johnny.  Johnny was a Cajun and played Cajun music, and he had a great Cajun tone.  Lot's of "Oooooooh - weeeee's."  He'd play something he liked, and he would belt out "Johnny like dat!"  I understood that Johnny lived across Lake Pontchartrain and would commute in to the station, but I wasn't really sure if that was a rumor or not.

However, Cajun did permeate my life.  We have good friends with whom we still stay in New Orleans, and Brenda is from a small town down in Cajun country - St. Rose.  You could hear her accent in her speech, and when I met her father who was a tried and true unwatered-down Cajun, you had to strain to hear him because he talked softly but it was a sweet and melodic Cajun lilt.  In New Orleans, Cajun cooking could be found in the backyards where occasionally, you could participate in a crawfish boil, where a picnic table is covered with butcher paper and then a steaming pile of crawfish, seasoned in crawfish or crab boil, with corn and potatoes mixed in, is dumped on the butcher paper.  Everyone gathers around with their Abita Ambers and dig in, mouth burning from the seasoning as we "pinched dem tails and sucked dem heads."  There has never been anything in my experience quite like it.

As LHM alludes to later in this chapter, Cajun culture is coming under assault on all sides.  The bayous and wetlands that provided them with a way of life are disappearing, first human activities like dredging and building shipping channels for extracting oil out of the area.  Extraction activities led to the massive BP oil spill, which damaged wetlands, killed the animals living there, and hurt shrimp and oyster industries that provide many Cajuns with a livelihood.  Such activities also weaken the natural defenses against natural disasters, as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita showed.  I once heard a statistic that a football field of wetland disappears from Louisiana's coastline each hour.  The one time I went on an airboat ride, the person who took us on the tour said that areas where he used to hunt and fish have vanished so that he does not recognize them any more.

Numerous analyses post-Katrina and the oil spill have talked about fragility of Louisiana wetlands.  Less focus has been given to the potential loss of a unique culture that depends upon those wetlands.  The Cajun culture and way of life should be treasured and protected, not left to die in the name of progress and energy efficiency.  As for me, I look forward to going back to Louisiana in March where I hope to make myself fat on one treasure they have given us - their cuisine.

If you want to know more about Ville Platte

City of Ville Platte
Evangeline Parish Tourism
Evangeline Today (newspaper)
Wikipedia: Evangeline Parish
Wikipedia: Ville Platte

Next up: Opelousas, Louisiana


Blue Highways: Vicksburg, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWith William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) we visit the "Key to the South," Vicksburg.  Why is it the key, you may ask?  Read on, fellow traveler and Littourati, and it will be made clear.  If you want to see where the key was turned so many years ago, click on the thumbnail of the map to the right side of the page, and feel free to comment on anything you want!

Book Quote

"...and drove northwest to cross the Mississippi at Vicksburg. South of town, I ate a sandwich where Civil War earthworks stuck out on a bluff high above the river. From these aeries, cannoneers had lobbed shells onto Union gunboats running the river. Anything - a rock, a stick - falling from that height must have hit with a terrible impact."

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 8

Confederate cannon in downtown Vicksburg. Click on photo to go to host site.

Vicksburg, Mississippi

Vicksburg sits at a strategic point on the Mississippi River.  From on high it overlooks the river where it bends around a peninsula.  This high point made the city a terrible gauntlet that Union boats had to run under withering cannon fire from the city.  By holding this area, the Confederates maintained a unified country stretching from the Georgia and Florida coast to Texas and beyond, and also kept the Union from being able to run supplies up the Mississippi.

Not only that, but the city was fortified from the land side by earthworks and defenses that made it a formidable place to try to take.  But in 1863, Ulysses S. Grant and his sub-generals, including William T. Sherman, decided to try to take the city.  The Confederate forces, depleted by battles, retreated into the city, and after several unsuccessful attacks, Grant settled down for a siege.  The Confederates hoped for help from another Confederate army to the east, but that help never came.  Eventually, tired and starving after a siege of just over a month, the Confederate army surrendered on July 4th, just one day after Robert E. Lee was defeated by Union forces at Gettysburg.  Grant allowed parole to all prisoners, who he expected never to fight again after the horrors of the battles and the siege.  As a result of the battle, the Confederacy was cut in two, never to be reunified.  It marked the turning point in the American Civil War, and truly shaped the character of the South and helped define the nation's path forward through history.  The surrender was so emotionally and politically charged that the city of Vicksburg refused to celebrate the U.S. July 4th Independence Day for eighty years.

The Civil War interests me because it was probably the first modern war.  While previous wars had been fought according to specific guidelines - armies lined up in ranks shooting at each other until one or the other broke - the Civil War was an all out contest where the rules of war were redefined.  In a sense, the United States had gained experience in fighting such a war in the Revolutionary War, where the Colonial Army sometimes fought according to the established rules, but sometimes used guerrilla tactics to fight as well.  The Civil War was much more of an all-out fight, from what I've read, with the true horrors of war made possible by advances in engineering and explosives.  In the siege of Vicksburg, for example, the Union soldiers tunneled under Confederate defenses and packed over a ton of gunpowder into the shaft, exploding it and breaking through the lines.  The resulting crater was 40 feet wide and 12 feet deep. All in all in the siege, casualties were numerous.  The Union casualties were close to 5,000 men, and the Confederate casualties numbered some 3,500 men with 29,000 surrendering.  Deaths over the entire campaign for Vicksburg numbered about 10,000 Union killed and wounded, and just over 9,000 for the Confederates. 

Many times it was better to die on the battlefield than have to face infection, gangrene, the loss of a limb, and perhaps even addiction to painkillers.  The lyrical excerpt below is from a Michelle Shocked song called Soldier's Joy, which recounted the horrors of the battle aftermath:

I took a rifle ball in my shoulder
But my entire body filled with pain
I pleaded with them all at the field hospital
Oh god, another shot of morphine.

Soldier's joy, oh what's the point in pleasure
When it's only meant to kill the pain
Lay down my arms and take the coffin's measure
Or take up arms and send me out to fight again.

Shaking hands, was I a coward, was I brave?
Shaking hands, I took the bitter pill
Tell the story on my grave, my soul they could not save
What the bullet couldn't kill, the needle will.

Michelle Shocked
Shaking Hands (Soldier's Joy)
from Arkansas Traveler

While the Civil War was a defining event in American history, it also cost more American lives than any war before or after. In 1865, those deaths accounted for almost two percent of the U.S. population, and these are just estimated deaths as record keeping wasn't very precise back then.  If you add in the wounded, the number of Americans and American families affected by the Civil War is even greater.  To compare, World War II deaths only accounted for three-tenths of the population of the United States.

Vicksburg is thus an important place in our American history.  As LHM sat on the bluffs over the river, imagining the cannon shot raining down on Union gunboats, I'm pretty sure that he was aware of the importance of the city.  As for me - well, it took me blogging this book to realize just how important Vicksburg is.  It's pretty lame of me - but when I make that trip into Mississippi I promise I won't pass up a chance to visit. 

If you want to know more about Vicksburg

Destination 360: Vicksburg
Vicksburg city website
Vicksburg National Military Park
Vicksburg Post (newspaper)
Vicksburg Tourism
Wikipedia: Vicksburg

Next up: Ville Platte, Louisiana


Blue Highways: Learned, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapWandering along the Trace, still, past Learned and on our way to the Mississippi River.  Check out the map by clicking the thumbnail at right, and leave a comment with your comments on racism or whatever else you think important.

Book Quote

"I went to the Trace again, following it through pastures and pecan groves and tilled fields; wildflowers and clover pressed in close, and from trees, long purple drupes of wisteria hung like grape clusters; in one pond a colony of muskrats.  I turned off near Learned... "

Blue Highways: Part 3, Chapter 8

Old country store in Learned, Mississippi. Click on image to go to host site.

Learned, Mississippi

Learned, Mississippi is a place where I'd like to think about the nature that LHM describes.  But unfortunately, it is also a place which houses a relic of Mississippi's racist past.  The Nationalist Movement (note: by linking to the Nationalism Movement website, I am not indicating any sympathy or agreement with their position), is located there.  The Movement was until recently run by an attorney named named Richard Barrett, who was stabbed to death in April 2010 by a black man who accused him of making sexual advances and who now faces the death penalty.  This makes the juxtaposition of the beauty of the Natchez Trace described by LHM, and the ugliness of Mississippi's violent racist history, a bit uncomfortable.

I suppose I could have grown up a racist, because I lived in a town that was once a bit more intolerant than it is now, like a lot of places.  My town had various cultural groups, including Italians, Portuguese, Finns, Irish and some Mexicans when I was growing up.  These were not the usual groups you associate with racism, but the feelings expressed were often that way.  Portuguese families were called "Portagees."  Italians were often made fun of - I have an Italian uncle who even made fun of his own ethnic heritage.  There were sections of town where you could find a predominance of one culture over another.

I didn't see black people regularly until we got cable TV and started getting the Bay Area television stations.  I think that was when I was eight or nine.  We only had one black person that I knew of in town when I was growing up, a young girl who would come stay with her white grandparents down the lane and across the road from where I lived.  Later, when I was in high school, a young black woman moved into town, and I watched as all my white male high school classmates fell all over themselves to impress her because she was, I guess, exotic and interesting.

I must say that I feel my town is more tolerant and accepting now, but even today, as more Mexicans move up through California, some illegal working and then going back home, others legal and making their lives in my town, I still hear some racist sentiments.  I cringe when I hear my mom say some less-than-flattering things about Mexicans, and gently scold her (she's 79 and probably won't change too much).  Give us your food; your salsas, tacos and enchiladas.  But don't be too visible, because we'll fear and hate you.

But I always had liberal tendencies and thought that people were people, regardless of their skin color.  When I was in college, I had a friend who was very definitely racist, and I put up with him and even enabled him sometimes rather than fight him until after college I went to volunteer in the inner city.  He called me one night, very intoxicated, and began spouting racist remarks to get a rise out of me.  After working with economically disadvantaged black children in an inner-city Catholic school and having my heart wrung out every day with their stories, I wasn't so forgiving of his views and we didn't talk again for many, many years.

I have recently been rewarded by knowing that I have some African-American blood running through me.  Two years ago I learned about my biological mother and her family, which was from West Virginia, and the fact that this family most likely has some mixed blood.  The last name of my biological mother was enough to mean that her family was one of a half dozen or so that were victims of prejudice for being less than white.  While many members of my biological mother's family want to downplay or deny this connection, others, especially younger ones like myself, are okay.  When I found out that I might be of mixed race, I was happy.  I felt like I suddenly went from being boring to interesting, ethnicity-wise!

So, I take a dim view of people like Richard Barrett and movements like the Nationalist Movement.  I respect people's right to free speech, but their speech calls for an America that is long past.  It calls for an America divided on ethnic lines, where groups of people through no fault other than the color of their skin or their ethnic heritage sit in either a privileged or marginalized place.  It denies certain ethnicities the opportunity or the possibility to participate in the building of America.  It is wrong, and it is fast becoming irrelevant as America becomes more diverse, and whites become a majority minority, outnumbered by blacks, Hispanics and Asians in combination.  This speech is the speech of fear, and rather than fearing my fellow Americans, I choose to embrace them, call them brother and sister, and work with them to keep America a vital and free country.

If you want to know more about Learned

There's not much on Learned, and there's a lot on Richard Barrett since he was murdered.  Here's what little information I could get about Learned and a couple of things about the murder.  At least Learned sits along the Natchez Trace, which looks beautiful!

Murder of Richard Barrett
Wikipedia: Richard Barrett
Wikipedia: Learned

Next up: Vicksburg, Mississippi


Blue Highways: Clinton, Mississippi

Unfolding the Map

Click on Thumbnail for MapContinuing through Mississippi, we stop at Clinton for the night.  William Least Heat-Moon camps out in his van on the campus of Mississippi College.  We'll hang out with him, and think about astrology and other tools we can use for guidance.  If you want to know where Clinton sits on our journey, click on the map thumbnail at right.  Leave a comment if you have any thoughts one way or another on astrology, and thanks for reading.

Book Quote

"'You're a Pisces?'

'Would a Sagittarius wear a Pisces necklace?'

'How can you believe in astrology and wear a cross?'

'What a fuddydud!  Who made the stars?  Astrology's just another modality too.'  She took a computer card from her notebook. 'I've got to get to class, but here's one more modality.  In India, people pray when they eat - like each chew is a prayer.  Try it sometime.  Even grumpy fuddyduds like it.'"

Blue Highways: Chapter 3, Part 7

A shop in Clinton, Mississippi. Click on picture to go to host site.

Clinton, Mississippi

Just today, I read my horoscope in the local paper.  I'm a Capricorn.  It said I'd enjoy discussing religious and philosophical matters with my best friend or partner, and that I should understand the steps involved if I'm working out educational or legal pursuits.  This was simply the small horoscope in my local paper.  And it is true in a general way.  I do enjoy discussions with my wife and friends, and though I'm now past educational pursuits, my wife and I are discussing whether we will at least try to adopt a child before we get too old.  So, I guess I can apply this astrological guidance in a very general way to my life - but it isn't very helpful, really.

Another horoscope I like to read appears in our alternative weekly paper.  It's called Free Will Astrology by Rob Brezny, and while i find it to often be general, sometimes it does seem to speak directly to me.  Here's my horoscope for this week:

"It's not that some people have willpower and some don't," said physician James Gordon. "It's that some people are ready to change and others are not." That's why you may soon appear to the casual observer, Capricorn, as someone who's able to call on enormous reserves of willpower. According to my reading of the astrological omens, you are now more amenable to change than you've been in a long time. In fact, I suspect that in the coming weeks you'll be willing and even eager to initiate transformations that seem heroic to people who are addicted to the status quo.

"Take inventory of the extent that "No" dominates your life. Notice how often you say or think: 1. "That's not right." 2. "I don't like that." 3. "I don't agree with that." 4. "They don't like me." 5. "I'm not very good." 6. "That should be different from what it is."

From Free Will Astrology by Rob Brezny
Week of November 25, 2010

This speaks to me because for the past year, or actually two, I had been in a rut.  I got bogged down in regrets over ways my life had turned out, I had gotten myself involved in what I hoped would become a friendship but became very complicated and ultimately hurtful to me, and there were unanswered questions that I had been struggling with about which way to turn in my future.  So, is this horoscope correct?  In a way, it is.  I am trying to transform myself for the next stage of my life, and I am trying in many ways to overcome those demons that whisper such things to me as "They don't like me" and "I'm not very good," and that hold me back from happiness and satisfaction.

But this begs the question.  Do I believe in astrology?  I don't, really.  Like anything else, I can use it as a general guide sometimes to remind me of paths I have chosen or not chosen, but I think it is a mistake to use it as a daily mentor.  It is another tool in my shed.

I have lots of tools.  I have a therapist who has helped me through this rough patch and who has given me more tools to fight the demons of my past.  I have friends who have stuck with me even though I've made mistakes in my life and with them.  I have a spouse who has supported me throughout our marriage.

One of my most ardent supporters has been my sister, who lately has shown a great talent for offering spiritual advice.  She seems to have developed a clairvoyance, where she can look into one's past and future and give advice.  She has astounded people by telling them things out of their past that she cannot have known.  She discovered this talent while learning to read tarot cards, and she still uses that medium to access her knowledge, though she also tells me of spirit guides who aid her.  She's read me both with tarot cards and by intuiting the state of my chakras, and her advice always seems to cut through the clutter of my self-destructive thoughts.

I'm a scientist, trained to be skeptical, so I shouldn't be very accepting of this type of thing.  In addition, I'm a Catholic, and officially, Catholicism looks down on this sort of thing.  But she's my sister and she feels that this power is her gift and calling, and I want to be supportive of her because of all the support she's given me through good times and bad.  So, my sister constitutes another tool that I can draw upon when I need her particular type of advice and spiritual nourishment...and she's always there for me.  And, frankly, her advice has always helped me in one way or another.

When LHM meets the Christian woman in Clinton that he is speaking to in the quote above, she tells him of computerized prayer.  People can have computers pray for them, she says, and the computers can send up thousands more prayers than we humans can in less time.  When he questions the authenticity of such prayer, she tells him that it's just like the rosary or prayer wheels - they are all artificial devices, like machines, that can aid us in praying.  She points out that there are all kinds of ways to pray.

We all seek answers and help, especially when we're faced with times of trouble and our minds are at unease.  Prayer, astrology, tarot, numerology, and any of the new age methods can be found now all over the internet and as accepted parts of our daily lives.  I think all these manifestations of guidance are tools we can use.  Such tools are only as powerful as their appropriateness for the job and the belief that they will work.  I can be a skeptic, but is it hypocritical if I sometimes put aside my skepticism, relax my religious beliefs and open my mind to what my horoscope says to me?

If you want to know more about Clinton

Camp Clinton WWII POW Camp
Clinton city website
The Clinton News (newspaper)
Mississippi College
Wikipedia: Clinton

Next up:  Learned, Mississippi