Pat & the Wildcatter

Pat and the Wildcatter

1986 was the only time I ever ate at Wendy’s fast food burgers. I was a young man in Houston working for a rich old oil woman divorcee – and she loved the stuff and so she’d send me to get lunch and it was always Wendy’s.

It came about because when I started to sort of live part time in Houston with Peter in that year I found a part time job at a place called Armstrong Office Supplies. It was on the Katy Freeway, or I-10 as it’s known formally. It was close enough to the house to walk to, well, at least until I bought the Pinto, then I drove what must have been barely a mile. For a brief while I was probably the only person in Houston who ‘commuted’ to work by walking. I bought the Pinto about a month into the job. I was the copy boy. I made copies for people on a Xerox 9500 machine. It was identical to the one at Esteban’s. People came in – and I made their copies and bound their books and cut their paper and did printing stuff as anyone needed. The place was owned by Margaret Armstrong – hence the name of the place. She was a frumpy lady of about 60 years of age and her husband was some rich oil industry attorney who bought the place so Margaret could have a hobby. She was forever surprised at how fast I worked, made her nervous almost. “Are you doing this right?” she’d wonder.

I’d reply “Aren’t all the customer’s happy?”

And they were happy, indeed, many told Margaret that I was simply a joy to work with. Quick, accurate and comedic – and the New York thing could not be avoided because I had this heavy NYC accent. Every customer had a New York story – which concerned Margaret, as if this interfered in the work. It didn’t affect a thing except make customers happy they could relive their NYC moments, whatever they were. Meanwhile, from time to time I would zoom back to Esteban’s to do some special project. So I had two printing jobs – one in Manhattan and one in Houston on a Freeway we could see out the front windows of the place. I lived at 724 International Boulevard – which was a 4 block long street through the apartment complex where Peter lived – and I was living at 69 First Avenue in Manhattan. The Houston complex was at the north end of what is called “The Memorial Neighborhood.” This area is rich! Memorial Drive is this winding road through million dollar homes on huge lots.

What people came to have printed was fascinating. A lot of it was oil industry related. People would come in with documents related to oil wells – the likes of which I had never seen. I had always been prone to read what I printed, and I read very fast. I would talk to people about what it was they were having copied. “Oh, it’s lease for an oil well in Louisiana,” they’d tell me.

And that’s when Pat Wales walked in one day frazzled beyond all belief. She was this 65 year old woman, about a foot shorter than me, and thin and red haired with that auburn color dye and always this puzzled look on her face.

Barry and Mary Williams also worked there and we became very good friends. He was tall and hippy looking, she was very short. I eventually wound up sort of living part time with them. I would stay at their house out at “Jersey and Farm Road 1960.” I didn’t quite understand the geography of Houston yet, but I could get to their house way out there somewhere. It took a half hour to get to their place. I also had met David Exline – who lived in “The Heights.” I met him at Dirty Sally’s a bar in the Montrose. He was from Crossville, Tennessee originally, and now worked as a garbage truck dispatcher. At the time the Heights was an iffy area that was being gentrified, now it’s tony beyond belief. But because Peter was ever closer to marriage and his girlfriend Wendy was more and more at the house it became awkward. They were glad to get their privacy when I flew back to NYC or went over to Louisiana. So to give them their total privacy I arranged to stay at David’s during the week, and out at Barry and Mary’s for the weekends. It was really Wendy who drove me and Peter apart – she did not like me. It was just best to get away from the tension.

So Pat walked in one day frazzled as usual and asked if I could come out to her car and help her carry in documents and I said ‘sure’ of course. She had about 2,000 pages that needed copying. It was simple enough – and yet – this poor woman was simply confused by it all. Her ex-husband was a wildcatter in Louisiana and struck the black goo and she owned a mere .09% of various wells which brought her some $45,000 a month in income. When I met her she was just another customer, and a difficult one at that. She was difficult for two reasons really. One was she could not grasp the printing needs she had – and difficult because she wanted to control what I was doing. I said “Lady, I know what to do, what do you need done?”

And that’s when she told me “I don’t understand any of this – it’s a mess – can you help?”

“Sure – what do you need?”

She asked me to come to her house and she would pay me the same hourly rate I got at Armstrong. She wanted help, she told me, in organizing this vast pile of information she had.

I agreed and went to her place. It was on East Friar Tuck Road right off Memorial Boulevard. (I did have to consult a map today to refresh my memory of where she lived. Found it immediately.) She gave me directions and I drove there and was stunned at how big it all seemed. So that first day she had stacks and stacks of papers on her kitchen table and started to explain it – but she really had no idea what it all was. Neither did I. But I started looking at it and figured out it was all paperwork relating to about 60 oil wells in Louisiana. But the ex-husband had jumbled it up purposefully to confuse the poor gal. They were only divorced about a year then. He was balking at doing his fair share of whatever divorce settlement he had with her. She was mad as hell, and called him every name in the book, and she was “Look at this mess he has given me!” and she was frazzled.

I said “Don’t worry, I’ll figure it out.”

I did. I went through the papers. I put Well One in one pile, Well Two in the next pile, Well Three in another and so on – and slowly – and it took about a week – I went through it all and put it into a coherent set of related documents. The wells actually had names like “Thibodaux 22R” Which is when I started to learn the oil industry and maps of Louisiana. This was all new to me. Range and Township numbers, platte maps, wards, leases to drill, easements and more all came clear to me. I had never encountered this and she taught me. She knew the industry. We’d go over maps and machinery lists and pipelines and all sorts of details that I never knew existed.

After I had sorted it all out she cursed him something fierce. Sure, he was cheating her out of money. So she asked me go to her ex-husband to serve him papers. I said “well, I guess I can.” She told me where his office was, which was near the Transco Tower off the 610 loop. Then she told me to say “I’m Pat’s house boy” to addle him and when I said “I can’t do that!”

She said: “I will pay you an extra $50 to do it.”

Well, for $50 – I was willing to be a boy toy! Yep – and it did rattle him. I got to his office and told him my purpose and he said “Who are you?”

“I’m Pat’s house boy,” with a ready smile and his eyes lit up in wonder. He was 65 too I guess – so I was half his age.

He said “house boy?” in a most amazing tone of surprise.

“Yeah, I take care of Pat – that’s my job.”

Oh I ladled it on thick. I left him every innuendo I could think of that I was her paramour. He was simply stunned – he sat back in his chair and looked at me with wild wide eyes. “House boy?”

“Yeah – I’m at Pat’s about every other day.”

“At her house?”

“Yeah – on Friar Tuck, yep.”

So he knew I knew where she lived.

But she’s important to this story because I learned more about the oil industry from her than I did from any other person in that region. I also learned about the Port of Houston and the ship channel there because her father had owned tugboats on it. This knowledge became useful in many ways over the next 25 years.

But, her house was so big! At first I was only in the kitchen. Over time she brought me here and there in the house and there were rooms – and more rooms – and more more more! Over the year I knew her – her house grew bigger and bigger – it was astonishing! She had a 30 room house! In the backyard was pool house with rooms!

Though, the funniest thing was she sort of asked me to hide my Little Red Pinto in the back when I came over – “the neighbors you know!” She preferred that I would drive her Mercedes to do errands. The Mercedes she flew to Stuttgart, Germany to buy direct from the manufacturer and then have it shipped to Houston. She had me go pick it up. I had to take 2 or 3 buses to get there and spent a half hour finding it. But there it was, all new and shiny at dockside. I zoomed back to her house. It was an amazing car. An 8 cylinder Mercedes has just a wee bit more power than a 4 cylinder Pinto, I assure you. She told me the reason she did it that way was because it was so much cheaper than to buy it at dealership in Houston. Stunning yes?

Anyway, the lady taught me so much it was like hanging out with a college professor, and over the years this information was very useful. I was ahead of the game.

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A Merry Ville of Beau Regard

A Merry Ville of Beau Regard

Beauregard Parish is immediately to the north of Calcasieu Parish. They share a border and an animosity. The rural north is not happy with the urban south. Beauregard is a dry parish. Not that dry, but you can only buy beer there. Wine and spirits were not to be found. I had never encountered a dry place. There’s plenty of them in Louisiana. Wards or parishes where only beer is available, and so oddly the Czech wards of Rapides Parish where not even beer can be bought. That a Czech community had no beer is simply one of the grand oddities of the world. Czechs invented the stuff! They are the world’s biggest per capita consumers of beer. Budweiser, the beer of choice in Louisiana, is from Ceske Budejovice – Budweis as the Germans butchered it and it became the known name worldwide for “beer.” Budweiser is the king of beers as they say, though the Czech version and the American one are very different. There’s a major international legal issue and settlement and tussle between the two. However dry these places pretended to be, they were plenty wet.

I went one day to Beauregard Parish just to see what was there. I wound up in Merryville. It’s a tiny town near the Sabine River at the far western edge of the Parish. It used to be a ferry crossing point, but the town was long mothballed. There was nothing there. Well, there was! There was a festival of some kind. I had no idea for what purpose. Perhaps it was just “Merryville Days” – who knew? I parked and waded into the throng. It was not big. If there were a 1,000 people there I would be surprised. Certainly less people than a New York block party. There were some food booths, and some games, and a carnival swirling ride – you know, the seat-buckets that swung out spinning in a spidery way? That. Only one ride. Maybe 20 booths. And all those local people who knew each other. I had no real intention of doing anything but explore the festival, have something to eat and enjoy myself. I was alone and I sort of had every intention of remaining so.

The locals had other ideas. I bought some boudin and hush puppies from a food booth. The man said “You are not from around here.”

I replied “No, I am from Lake Charles.”

He smiled ever so sweetly, and with no animosity but a curiosity, he stated: “No you’re not. Where are you really from?”

Well, so I was found out. I told the man “I am actually from New York City, but I maintain a home in Lake Charles.”

“New York?”
“Yeah, I live in Manhattan half the time and Lake Charles half the time. I go back and forth.”

He found this fascinating. He turned to the young girl – oh, 15, 16 or so, who was there helping him somehow, “Go get Mister Joe.” I don’t really remember the man’s name. But the guy interrogating me told the young lassie to go get some man. She went immediately without question.

The gal gone the man turned back to me. “You know, this town has been dying since the ferry shut down some 20 years ago, when the interstate was built. We got things to do here, but no one knows we are here. We’re also the only town in the U.S.A. (and he said You-Es-A) with the name Merryville. We’re a happy town, but we need business, we need tourists. We can’t even get people to come here from Lake Charles.”

This man was more or less telling me I was going to be promoting his town. He had introduced himself. Phil, Joe, Bob – I don’t remember. A nice fellow for sure, and earnest in his plea for help for his beloved town.

The young gal was back in 5 minutes with a man in tow.

The guy in the booth, with whom I had been chatting, said to the man “This guy is from New York, he can help us.”

“Really, New York? That’s great,” said this man.

I found out he was the mayor. The cook was his brother-in-law. The young gal was sent out to round up more people. “Go find so and so …” “and Mister Phil too!” And off she went and men came up to this confab and a conference was held.

“We need help in promoting Merryville as a sportsman’s paradise. Rich New Yorkers coming here will find a great place to have a good time.”

That’s not the exact quote of course, but that was the point of it. In this group of men, now half a dozen, they were all blunt in telling me I was the guy to go back to New York City and get folks there to visit Merryville.

They didn’t even have a hotel in town. These guys said we have “camps” and houses that they can use. “We’re ready for them, if they will come.”

“Camps”? What the hell were those? I had no idea. I found out it’s Louisiana-speak for “house in the woods.” They were not tents, they were houses, with bathrooms and kitchens and porches. It was something I came to learn about and go to many of. I’ve been to 100s of camps over the 25 years I was there. This was, though, the first time I encountered the word.

These folks were determined to be a destination spot, a tourist point in the USA. The gumption was astonishing. The lack of anything there, barely a restaurant, was amazing. I looked around and thought – what could be done with this? I didn’t know. I had never thought about such a thing.

They continued selling their town. “We got great food, and ladies to do the cleaning, and folks to dress the kills, and a taxidermist over in DeRidder …” and I was “taxidermist?”
“Yeah, you know, for the trophy plaque …”

“Huh?”

“The plaque on the wall with the buck’s head and antlers,” one said so helpfully.

“Oh – I – well, I don’t know – I never thought about it.”

One quipped, “You are from New York.”

I shot back, “We do not have hunting in Manhattan.”

Everyone laughed.

And so for an hour or so these half dozen men sold me the merits of their town and area and explained what was available. They were sure that they wanted high end hunters. “We’ll give them food, housing, care, the guns and guides and everything. It’s the best hunting and fishing around here.”

These men had no idea what I did – they just told me what they wanted me to do. In a way this was my first I inkling into the enormity of the venture. How does one promote a place like Merryville, Beauregard Parish, Louisiana – to rich New York City hunters? I had no idea. These men were imploring me to do something for them.

I went back to Lake Charles in a sort of daze. How could I possibly promote such a place in New York? That was not going to be easy. But this stumbling upon this place and these gentlemen put the seed of the idea in me.

The Grand Dichotomy

The Grand Dichotomy

So one day I was walking down 5th Avenue in New York City to go to the bank at 21st Street, and past the famed Flatiron Building where my friend Phil owned a store, or down 6th Avenue to go to the bar, and to “my” diner (I ate there so much I was on a first name basis with everyone there!) at the corner of 2nd Avenue and East 4th Street around the corner from my apartment and the next day I would be driving down Prien Lake Road in Lake Charles or up some highway through the rice fields. Well, within a few days because it’s a two day drive between New York and Louisiana. What was this like? I hope to capture this feeling here – this enormous difference – this Grand Dichotomy it might be called. From the Empire State Building and World Trade Centers nearly always visible during my days and nights in Manhattan to being out at the edge of crawfish ponds is simply a vast difference. You certainly learn a lot about mosquitoes at the edges of those vast acres of ponds, while subways are more prevalent in Manhattan.

After all, I grew up in the one of the greatest Conurbations on Earth. New York City is what it is and it doesn’t need to be explained – and I was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island. Now I was doing business in towns of 1,500 or 15,000 souls in Louisiana. I’d just walk into these businesses unannounced. I discovered nearly immediately that calling them to arrange a time and date was pointless. In New York you must make a call and set a meeting – in Louisiana you sort of just showed up whenever. So, I just drove up and introduced myself and my company and said “Hi, I’m Jim Hlavac from New York City and my company Cajun Commodities promotes Louisiana, – so, what do you do?” Both of us were shocked, I assure you. But – it had to be done.

Finding these places was a learning process. New York has a rational numbering system, even mathematical, in straight lines up and down major avenues, and the numbers don’t really go higher than 1000 Madison Avenue, or 2300 Broadway. Most were in the 1 to 600 range. Now I was trying to find something like “10,456 Theriot Landry Road” somewhere several miles outside of Kinder. My New York brain looked for a certain sort of building – and I found something so different to anything I had ever seen.

These people I met would give me a tour of their place and we would each explain what we were doing. I didn’t have a set fee for anything, nor did I go in with any sense of what they needed or wanted or what I would charge them. All I knew is that this was all at the beginning stages. Many of these companies were barely 4 or 5 years old. They were almost started as a hobby, but the collapse of the oil industry sort of put the impetus to finding new ventures. The food was something they knew.

This went on for five years. I was in one place than the other, back and forth 2 to 5 weeks in one – then 2 to 5 weeks in the other. I was driving back and forth and spreading the word about Cajun foods in cities and towns, chain restaurants and seafood bistros, diners and Denny’s. I must have stopped at 1,000 places in 5 years between NYC and Louisiana.

I was hanging out in NYC at a Greenwich Village gay bar in the AIDS Wars – and a Czech Family Guy too – all the while promoting Louisiana. The bar was the Ninth Circle – everyone knew my name. I had been going there since 1976. It was a famous gay bar on West 10th Street. I wrote a book about the “controversial” subject as it’s called – why it is a “controversy” is the point of that book. I knew famous people – Rock Hudson was a drinking buddy. I partied with the Village People. Mick Jagger once joined me for several hours of good conversation. I knew Deborah Harry – Blondie to most of you. I danced with John Travolta and smooched him on the cheek too! Several times. I had a fascinating conversation with the late great Robin Williams about the inanity of television – which I had stopped watching. I have watched TV in 45 years. Certainly I’ve never owned one or had one in my house – but – you really can’t avoid them. I’ve seen them on – look at them for a few minutes and conclude once again that it’s all just inane.

In the bar I would tell my friends what I was doing in Louisiana. I brought them all sorts of stuff to try. I would haul a cooler into the bar and hand out sausages and frozen crawfish etouffee as everyone marveled at the selections. I was peppered with questions about Louisiana and Cajun food. These men were gourmands, they wanted to learn about this. They brought it to their friends. More than a few said “Hey, I know a diner up on 43rd Street that would love this!” or “My buddy has a restaurant on East 86th Street, he needs to see this.” And I’d hand them another can of seasoning.

But what was also asked in the bar was “We thought you went home to die.” For these were the mordant years of Gay Life in Greenwich Village. Just blocks from the bar men lay dying in pain and agony from AIDS at St. Vincent’s Hospital’s 7th Floor Quarantine Rooms. All of us in that bar knew we might be struck down with it at anytime. If we got it we knew we would be dead. So in this frivolity was this mordant undertone, and overtone and inner tone and a tone of death, mayhem and destruction of young men that were our friends. And I was handing out Cajun Seasoning.

On July 4th 1986 I somehow helped organize a Gay Guys’ Protest March. It was started at Sheridan Square in the West Village – it could be referred to as “Homosexual Central” by most readers – and it got to Wall Street. I have written about it at my blog.

The next year, my first 4th of July I spent in Lake Charles, was 1987. I went to the lake front where I figured there would be fireworks. There were none. There were no people. I was kind of amazed, and rather miffed. Whoever heard of a 4th of July without fireworks? That was absurd. So, I wrote a letter to the editor of the Lake Charles American-Press. That’s the city’s newspaper. I wrote about no fireworks. I said something along the lines of “the big corporate citizens of this city can surely put up $10,000 or more to give a proper celebration of the nation’s birth.” They published it. They spelled my name: “Hlvac” – egad. It was just 3 short paragraphs, I have a copy of it I think.

Anyway, the next year, when I was not there for the 4th of July – Lake Charles had its largest firework display ever, to celebrate the nation’s birth. The plants must have seen it somehow and put up the money. I found out that the city never had fireworks on Independence Day, because they blew their budget for Contraband Days. Well, I solved that problem, and until this very day, the plants or whomever puts up the money for the annual fireworks for the nation’s birthday.

But when you think about it – how Fourth of July 1986 and Fourth of July 1987 could be so different – and the impact I had on both – is simply part of this amazing story.

Meanwhile, there was the Czech family thing – even cousins from Prague visiting us. I wrote in Czech to them about what I was doing in Louisiana. I was going to family gatherings like birthdays, Christmas, Thanksgiving, weddings, funerals too, the gamut of life of any family. Only mine is all pretty much Czech and the language was still being used. We had cousins over there – as much as New Yorkers would have cousins in California – or Louisiana even.

One day in the spring or summer of 1987 I think it was. It was whenever Charlie and Susan were getting married – that day, their anniversary. Charlie is my cousin, the grandson of my grandmother’s brother. He was marrying Susan at her ancestral “Dutch Reform” church in Albany, NY. It’s the state capital, I had been there only a few times in my life. I do not like the city. I had visited another cousin, Ginger, at Waterbury Vermont, where she was going to college. I was now driving between the two down Interstate 87 – the New York State Thruway really. I was in a rental car, cruising along on a very empty freeway. A cop zoomed up to me and pulled me over. I was in my suit pants, but had to get dressed for the wedding, which was in about 3 hours from then. I would be on time.

The cop tells me “you were going awfully fast there, sir.”

As I handed him my Lake Charles drivers license and the rental car paperwork I said in my best southern drawl “I didn’t realize cars speed up going down hills, I’m just getting used to this. I have never been here before and for some reason my cousin is marrying someone in Albany where I have to get to by 3 o’clock. In fact – how do I even get to this place?” And I handed him the invitation. I knew Louisiana better than I ever knew Upstate New York.

The man just studied that license like an ancient artifact. Flipped it over several times and examined it with a forensic eye. Most amazing how intent he was at it. “You’re from Louisiana?”

“Yes sir. And I’m on my way to my cousin’s wedding, and I’m going to start getting dressed here, because I am losing time.” So I took off my regular shirt, and put on my dress shirt and tie, and changed my socks and shoes – all while he was back at this cruiser checking it all out.

He came back with an “well, I’ll be …” look on his face.

“You’re from Lake Charles, Louisiana?”

“Yes sir, and it’s flat – we don’t have hills – and I am sorry – I am just not used to driving on them, in fact, it’s my first time.”

“No hills?”

“No sir, it’s very flat. And, how far from this wedding place am I? They’re expecting me.”

He told me how far, maybe 25, 30 miles, and he told me exactly how to get there – and he told me to go enjoy. He gave me what he called a “warning ticket” and said “be careful.” It was something like “if you’re pulled over within 30 days this ticket is activated. If you don’t get pulled over then in 30 days it disappears. Good enough, we bid farewell and I was on my way. The wedding was wonderful. I told the family all about the adventure, gave my greetings from Ginger, who was unable to attend, and had fun. A week later I was back in Lake Charles. Charlie and Susan, by the way, are still happily married with four grown children. They live in the Boston area, I have not seen them in a long while. When Charlie lived in Dallas in 1985 I had stayed with him for a few days there. We went to a Rangers game together. We were good friends, all our lives.

Driving south to Louisiana you have several alternatives. Since I was in Astoria the best way was the Triboro to the George Washington and out I-80 all the way to Scranton where you can pick up I-81 which goes to New Orleans. It changes numbers along the way. It becomes I-40 at Knoxville Tennessee and then you get onto I-59 at Chattanooga, which goes to New Orleans. It’s a straight shot really, and I did it in all sorts of weather. In like 1988 I raced a snow storm and won. The storm was well announced in the news, I said I have things to do there I am going now, I cannot get stuck in a blizzard in New York! Esteban’s and Larry were ready and I left. The flurries started. They got heavier and I got further south and west. The snow got heavier – but then lighter as I got more south. Then the flurries and squalls followed me. I would escape the snow for a bit, then it would catch up! We were racing! This storm and I were racing down Interstate 81 and I was determined to win. The road began to get coated with snow – so I sped up – and then back to dry pavement. Then the snow came on – and I kept going and thought ‘get out of my way!’ to anyone thinking they were going to block my progress. That race with the snow lasted until northern Alabama when finally I knew I had outran it.

In these early years, 1986 to 1988 my destination in New Orleans was Cadillac Street – that’s where John Wayne Pastor and Jerry Guidry and Kyle Meyers lived. It was a one story ranch house on a dead end. John Wayne – who always is called “John Wayne” – which is his real first and middle name, but is too something to avoid yes? – anyway, he was a cook at Tony Anderson’s Seafood House in the French Quarter. This guy was an ex-football player who started with one place and tried to expand it, and got to like 4 or 5 places before it fell apart. It last about 20 years, which is not a bad run for a restaurant, actually. I met all sorts of cooks, chefs, and restaurant owners in New Orleans through John Wayne. He’s from Crowley. I’ve been a part of the Pastor family ever since. I have stayed with his parents, his brothers, I know them all – there’s dozens! I’ve been to their family compound at the southern edge of Crowley, the great rice growing town in Acadiana.

Kyle was a cellist with the symphony. Through him I met a range of musicians and venues across the city. Once or twice a month I would be at some chamber concert in someone’s house with 20 to 40 people and excellent food and drink and listen to string quartets by Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and that kind of classical music I love so much, and Kyle would be the cellist.

Jerry, well, he’s another story. He never could pull it together. A fine fellow – a great friend – always there to help – this is a good man. But, he can’t pull his life together. Thankfully he has two sisters who take care of the details like a house and food. Jerry was once so desperate that he was trying to sell an old rattle couch for $10. It would be a great couch if it ever got the care it needed. It was antique, with wood carving at the edges, and these deep cushions that if only they were recovered in a fine fabric would make this a fine piece in any antique emporium. The guys were all joking about this situation and Jerry was trying to sell it and I finally said, “Jerry, here’s $20, I’ll buy the couch, I’ll pick it up eventually. But now it’s mine, so you can’t sit on it anymore.” Everyone laughed and kidded Jerry and well, I never got the couch, but helped out a friend. For all I know he sold it again a few other times.

But, after my two day drive, that’s where I went first. There was always someone up, or ready to get up. I had the key! They told me “when you get here, we’ll see you.” Once or twice they told me they would have dinner waiting at a certain hour and I said “I am driving across the continent! Do not expect me at any time!” There was always food in the fridge that I could eat when I got there.

In 1988 I think it was, I knew there was a big job waiting at Esteban’s. I got into the city at about 8 that evening. I thought why go out to Astoria when I could get to work on this job? I knew what it required and the process and the set up – so a few hours jump on it that night would be excellent. This job would consume my next 3 weeks at least. It was doing specifications for the “North River Sewer Control System” – some such title. The engineers were Hazen & Sawyer, a major firm that no one has heard of. They build sewerage treatment plants, there specialty was – well shit. The job was to print like 1,000 copies of 1,000 pages in multiple colors in multiple volumes that specified right down to the last bolt and nut how many of every thing they needed and where they went to build a sewerage treatment plant for Manhattan. This was not a high school project.

So there I was up on the 6th floor working and every few minutes taking a peek at my car downstairs in front of the building – and I saw two guys trying to jimmy into it! I was pissed! But on the 6th Floor – and one guy against two. Well, this was a problem. The car was loaded with my clothes, business papers, food stuffs – I wanted my stuff! So I had to chase someone away from tying to break in while I was not in a good position to do so. However, I knew something they did not. A ream of paper hurled at great speed to a hard surface will make the sound of a gun shooting. So, I threw open the sash, and in a flash, was hurling reams of paper onto West 19th Street right behind those two guys. I wasn’t going to hit my car! But those echoing reports of sharp snapping sounds as ream after ream slammed down addled the fellows who ran off going “aaah.” They had no idea what the hell was happening or where it came from! However, I was rattled, and I stopped the work of the night and drove to Astoria to empty the car.

One time in the summer of 1988 I guess it was, I was pulled over on I-80 in New Jersey about 25 miles short of the George Washington Bridge. It was about 2 AM. I was tired, yes, but I had to plug on, for I wasn’t going to rent a hotel room in New Jersey 35 miles from my house! I had coffee, I was good, I was puddling along at the speed limit in the right lane avoiding everyone passing me with ease. A little 4 cylinder Pinto just does not zoom, it piddles, puddles, plumps along like a fat puppy. There wasn’t a lot of traffic at that hour. It was a clear night, excellent visibility and I was on my way home from my other home in Louisiana. And a cop pulls me over.

“Yes officer?”

“You were weaving,” he says.

“I am a bit tried, I’m just going home to Astoria, Queens.”

His eyes were “wow” as he said “But you have a Louisiana license plate!” He said it with wonder. His voice was in a “what the hell?” tone.

“Yes I do sir, I am from Lake Charles, Louisiana,” I said as I handed him my driver’s license, “and I live in Astoria Queens – and …”

He just was gaped mouth as I explained the situation. He stopped me. “Do you have any guns in the car?”

“Guns?”

“Yes, do you have any rifles or pistols or ammunition in the car?”

He was quite serious.

“No, no guns at all.” Then I sort of laughed. “You think you got a gun totin’ redneck, don’t you? No, I’m a native New Yorker who owns a company promoting Louisiana in New York. Here, let me give you a business plan,” and I opened up my briefcase and gave him a copy of my finely printed business plan with a nice logo and color cover. “See, I’m just going home, and I’ve been driving since Johnson City, Tennessee where I had spent the night. It’s a two day drive from there to here. I have 35 miles to go, that’s it.” I smiled big! “You may search the car to see if I have any guns, if that would help.”

He looked at the business plan and flipped through it and wondered and said “Uh, no, I guess I don’t have to search the car.”

“Thanks, but, I have a can of Cajun seasoning if you want, it’s in the trunk.”

“Um, sure, I guess.”

So I got out of the car finally, walked to the truck, and took out a can of Louisiana Fish Fry Seasoning and gave it to the man. He looked at it and I told him how he should sprinkle it here and there on foods – but not too much. I told him “try just a little the first time, to see how hot you like it.”

He thanked me and then said “I want you to take a rest here, a nap even. Rest here for no less than one hour, two would be better. I know it’s late, but I want you to get home alive. I will radio the station to tell them not to bother you.”

“Um, sure, thanks, yeah, I will, that’s a good idea.”

He called into the station and told them the deal “Little Red Pinto from Louisiana, he’s taking a rest, I checked him out, he’s OK, leave him be, he’ll be there about 2 hours.”

It is not allowed to just park on I-80 in New Jersey for a nap, I assure you.

We parted pleasantly, he with the plan and can, and I took a nap. Two hours later much refreshed I continued homeward.

In 1988 a series of events that meshed together in fortuitous bounty for all involved came to be. First, my Pinto had died in New Haven, Connecticut. I was there pushing Cajun foods to the locals, and my friend Craig – so important to this story – was at Yale – and it was cold – and a cylinder just up and died that day. The car would not move. At a garage they said “It’s dead.” I said “Totally?” “Yes.” Dang, that meant I had no car! First I had to figure out a way to get back to NYC, but that was easy, the commuter rail was there. Then it was – what do I do with this car? The garage in which it sat up on the lift said “We’ll buy it from you, right now, $400, but you need to get us the legal title and …” and I cut them off. “Sold!” I smiled. “I have to go to Long Island to get the title.” “Good, let’s get this done.” So I left the car there and took the long series of trains back to my mom’s house in Baldwin where I was helping here move out of it so she could retire to Florida for she could no longer drive at all. She had this 1986 Oldsmobile Calais. She had bought it “new” (eh, 5 months old I think) and now she could not use it.

A few days later I was back in New Haven at the garage after a tortuous hours long journey on multiple rail systems and I handed over the paperwork on the Pinto and left it there and took my money and left. Then I finished moving my mother to Florida which process I need not go into here. Then my mom bought a brand new Oldsmobile for my sister and gave me the title to the Calais and my sister came and got here car and I got mine and we all were settled in this “we’ll be in Florida regularly to help mom and grandma” reality and got on with life. I drove that car with temporary Florida tags to Lake Charles, met all the guys who came out to admire the car and now I had a new fancy car to get around Louisiana in.

Then I was up in New Jersey – on the Garden State Turnpike – with my good friend Carl Bednarz long of Esteban’s – and we were going to his “camp” as I called it from Louisiana usage in Fort Republic – down near the Jersey Shore, or pine barrens – I don’t know. I knew Louisiana – not New Jersey. Carl was directing me, I was driving. The two lane highway was packed. It was high summer times of travel to resorts. The cop I saw coming at me from half a mile back. He had to weave in and out of traffic to catch me. I saw him in my rear view mirror. I said “Carl, that cop is going to pull us over.” Carl looked back and said “You think so?”

“Yes, he thinks he’s got some crazed Louisiana rednecks, and he aims to find out about us.”

Carl was incredulous.

“The car has Louisiana tags,” I said.

“Oh,” Carl said in understanding.

The cop finally caught up – it took him some doing. He risked lives, frankly, in zooming in and out of traffic to catch me. I watched him the whole way as he approached and then turned on his lights. I pulled over immediately of course. I had nothing to hide. He came up on the passengers side and said “Is this car legal?”

I told Carl “The papers are in the glove compartment, give them to the officer,” and I handed over my Lake Charles drivers license.

The officer took this all and with a smug smirk on this Sunday morning and said with condescension “If I call Louisiana all this will be in order and correct, you have insurance, registration .. blah blah” He was quite confrontational. Carl sat there wondering, for he could have no idea about any of it.

I looked that cop steely in the eye and said “You can’t call Louisiana now, it’s Sunday morning, the motor vehicle department is not open. They don’t give tickets on Sunday mornings – people are going to church. And I am heading to my friend’s summer home – and Carl here can explain that.”

Carl smiled weakly and said “I have a trailer in Fort Republic,” and the cop was “huh?”

Then the cop asked if we had any guns. I said “Officer you can search every inch of this vehicle and you will find no guns.”

“But if I call Louisiana they’ll tell me this car is legal?” he asked.

“No sir, you cannot call Louisiana now – they don’t work on Sunday mornings – we go to church.”

He was just dumb-fuddled. And gave up. And said “Have a nice day, be careful.”
Both Carl and I said “Thank you officer, you too.”

I got my paperwork and license back and we were on our way.
Carl asked me “Are like the cops really closed on Sundays?”

I shot him a look – “You bet – it’s church day – you can’t get a ticket going to or from church.”

We had a good laugh about this – and I spent two nights at this trailer in the woods of Fort Republic.

A week later I was going down some rural highway in Louisiana.

For five years – back and forth – every 2 to 5 weeks.

It was quite a life – I assure you

A letter to Lucinda Williams

Jim Hlavac

 

February 5th 2018

My Dear Ms. Williams,

Lucinda if I may …. ma’am – my dear lady – I have a reason to get back to Lake Charles – I talk about it all the time. I can go on and on.

I will be 60 years old on May 13th 2018. I shall hold a grand party in Manhattan New York City – because I am indeed from Long Island and New York. I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Most of my family and dearest friends live there to this day. I was a printer in Manhattan for many years.

You shall present a concert on March 15th 2018 at the Beacon Theater in New York. When I was 16 years old I heard Queen there at that theater – just as “Bohemian Rhapsody” came out.

I am of Bohemian and Moravian heritage – that is – all four of my grandparents are from the Czech lands – and arrived here between 1898 and 1921. Bohemia and Moravia are the two halves of the Czech lands, where I still have cousins to this day, to whom I speak to in Czech. They do not speak English.

You are from Lake Charles, Louisiana. This is a city so dear to my heart as I shall endeavor to explain. You wrote a song called “Lake Charles” – and friends in NYC told me about it – and they said “This song is about you!” Because it is: they knew it, I know it – you are now learning how. On Friday May 10th 1985 I first set foot in Lake Charles. Monday May 13th was my 27th birthday that year, I spent it in New Orleans. A few months later in July I got my first drivers license in Lake Charles at the age of 27 – on Clarence Street. For years I lived at 615 Kirkman Street – next to the Church of the Good Shepherd. For a long while I lived at 609 Alamo Street. For a decade I bought my boudin at Abe’s on Kirkman at 7th Street. Your song – my dear lady – is about me – but you didn’t know that when you wrote it.

However, you did write that song about me. Except – well, I am not from Nacogdoches, Texas – I am from Brooklyn and Long Island, New York. I did not drive a Yellow El Camino – but a Red Ford Pinto. I did not listen to Howlin’ Wolf – but anything KLSU played. And a lot of classical music.

But other than that – every word of your song “Lake Charles” is about me. I could ‘go on and on’ about it. An angel lifted me by the wings and brought me there.

I used to drive to Lafayette and Baton Rouge – and Shreveport and Bogalusa, Kaplan, Abbeville, Alexandria and Slidell. Everywhere. I drove everywhere. Through 60 parishes I went, business by business, important person by anyone I met. 10,000s of people.

But my soul is in Lake Charles – no matter what they say –

I have a reason to get back there – I always said Louisiana was where I felt at home.

I liked to tell everyone I was from Lake Charles.

You see, after a lifetime of New York a friend there who had moved to Lake Charles – a good friend of mine induced me to go to Lake Charles for a 5 day birthday trip. His name is Craig Campbell. You can reach him at …  and he will explain.
That first day there I met John Barbry – a native of the city as much as you – I am friends with him today – you can reach him at …..  Ask him about the conversation about “the Buck for a NYC subway ride.” But he can tell you about my time there.

I continued working at a printing company – A. Esteban, now at West 35th Street in Manhattan – but I used their offices as mine – for my company “Cajun Commodities Corporation” – you can ask Carl Bednarz at ….  – he will explain that part.

And I was roommates with Larry Newman – in Astoria Queens – as I went back and forth between there and Lake Charles – and you can speak to him at ….. – and he will tell you stories of me.

These four men will vouch for what I claim.

I also give you some photos – one an article about my plans for Southwest Louisiana published in Lagniappe in Lake Charles in 1987. Another in BIC magazine in 1993 about economic development in Imperial Calcasieu. Still another in the New Orleans Times-Picayune about Crawfish in 1997.

Also there’s a picture of my red Pinto with Texas plates – on my mom’s driveway in Baldwin Long Island – the next trip I got the plates changed to Louisiana. Also a picture of my Czech cousins in Prague – you will see the Texas plate over their shoulder on the wall.

I also included the text as written so far – not done by any means, and mistakes of memory too as I pull this all together – of what I did in Lake Charles and Louisiana – as well as the cover of my book about my “hlife” there. It is titled “Catalyst!” – for I was indeed the catalyst of the nationwide Cajun and Creole food industry – and for Louisiana itself.

There’s also pictures of me as the creator of the first statewide Louisiana music directory.

Finally there’s a picture of me as a young man with products I helped create.

For as odd as it sounds – and I know it sounds nuts – I was the catalyst for modern Louisiana. I still maintain the Tunica Biloxi nation’s Pow Wow website, www.tunicapowwow.org

– you can go to “contacts” and find my name. I went down all the Louisiana highways – and across Lake Pontchartrain. I know roads that natives like you say “Egad, does this go anywhere?” and I get them through it and they say “How do you know?” I answer – “I know every road.” I did.

Which is why your song “Lake Charles” is about me.

I have a rather – um – outrageous request! I would like you to – there in NYC at the Beacon theater – in honor of my 60th birthday – to recast your song “Lake Charles” to reflect me – to be truly about me – which requires only changing the birthplace of the fellow, the car he drove and the music he listened to – to me. The rest is already me.

To show you more of my contribution to Louisiana – I refer you to “A Hidden Impact: The Czechs Slovaks of Louisiana from the 1720s to today” and “C-Note, 8 months in a New Orleans Dive Bar.” Two books available on Amazon.

So – for my 60th birthday there in the city of my birth, at a theater of my teens – I would like you to recast and record your song “Lake Charles” to reflect me – be truly about me – as it almost is to 90%.

Call my friends I give numbers for – my number is …. Research me in Louisiana – who knows what one might find. The 100 pages or so of my story I send you now is just the outline of what I am writing about my 25 years in Louisiana.

But I ask you – please – recast that song – that wondrous song about me – “Lake Charles” – to be more accurate – there in March 2018 in New York City – the city of my birth – for my birthday.

In one of your videos you speak about some lady who can’t listen to some song – and you say “but that’s the point” – it’s “Ugly Proof” – well, I got Pretty Proof – about me and Lake Charles.

Well, my dear lady, no matter what – your song “Lake Charles” – is about me. Thanks. Indeed – when my book about my times there in Louisiana is ready – if you would write the foreword, I would love that, I really would. Your song is that special to me.

I would love you – on that day – March 15th 2018 – a few weeks from now – to make that song “Lake Charles” truly about me – and play it and record it there at the Beacon Theater – and make this circle complete.

Thank you very much.

Btw – my name is pronounced “Lah-vick” – the H is silent in English.

Well, I can only ask – let me know. Thanks – with a great admiration for that song … “Lake Charles” … which is about me – The Czech New York Printer – who was the catalyst for Louisiana – operating out of Lake Charles and New York City.

Cheers,

Jim Hlavac

The Department of Agriculture

In the Spring of 1988 I met Bob Odom. He was the Commissioner of Agriculture. He had been in the position for like 2 decades, maybe even reaching into three of them. He was a fixture in the firmament of government. I had heard of him, but had no dealings with him. I met him at a function at the Department of Agriculture’s headquarters on Florida Boulevard in Baton Rouge. Carl Turner with the Seafood Promotion and Marketing Board had induced me to go. There was a crowd of about 100 people in the lobby of the building. There was a buffet table laid out. There was an open bar. It was a feel good convention for political appointees. There were lots of Department of Agriculture employees and members of this and that commission. The Louisiana Logo Commission was there, those hapless people unable after years to come up with a statewide logo.

He mumbled some nonsense at the podium and nobody seemed to listen to him. I stood there wondering what was the point of this man. He spoke of corn yields, a pounds of cotton per acre, and a dash about pepper production. He was worthless. He got done speaking and the crowd had a collective quiet sigh and headed for the bar and the buffet.

Mr. Odom headed into the crowd.

I had stood next to Mr. Turner and he said to me, “You have to meet this fellow.”

Carl edged me closer to the star of the show and said “Mr. Odom, this is Mr. Hlavac, you two should talk.”

“What about?” Mr. Odom inquired.

“Cajun food,” Carl said.

Mr. Odom was haughty. “What do you know about Cajun food?” he asked with a slimy tone.

“I know there’s some 300 Cajun food companies, what do you do?” I was testy.

“My job is to promote Louisiana agricultural products,” he said in this tone of “who do you think I am?”

“I promote Cajun food,” I said, “with my company Cajun Commodities Corporation.”

“Where are you from?” he asked. My accent could not be hid. Nor did I hide it.

“New York City,” I replied. “And Lake Charles.”

“Lake Charles?”
“Yeah, I live in Lake Charles and New York City.”

Other people came to join our mild confrontation.

“Mr. Odom, Jim here is something else,” said someone with the rice farmers group.

He said “How so?”

“Listen to him about Cajun food,” said someone with the crawfisher men.

“Really?” The man was incredulous.

“Mr. Odom – you two need to talk,” said still a third fellow in the growing clutch.

Mr. Odom was used to being the center of attention. He was the Commissioner of Agriculture after all, lo those many years. He was used to being quoted and lauded. Now there were people telling him that I was someone to be reckoned with. He wasn’t buying it. There were maybe 6 or 8 of us in a group, a conversation, and they were all telling Mr. Odom “you have to have a meeting with this guy.”

Mr. Odom looked at me with disdain. “Well, who are you? What do you do?” He was not nice.

I said “Mr. Odom, my business is promoting Cajun food. I have gone to some 300 Cajun food companies to help them become professional and …”

He cut me short. “300 Cajun food producers?” He was shocked!
“Yeah, more or less, why?”

“Where did you find them?”

“I drove up and down highways in Acadiana, why?”

“You have a list?”

“Yeah, in detail.”

Carl Turner said “Mr. Odom – you have to meet with this guy and have a conversation.”

Every other person in that small clutch of 6 or 8 people said pretty much the same thing.

So he reluctantly agreed. He was a busy fellow, and he set the time and place. His office, a week from then. He had his henchman write it down. He was dismissive of everything the people said to him, and more dismissive of what I said.

A week later I was ushered into his office. It was big and fancy and dark wood with big windows. He sat imperially behind this huge desk and deigned to meet me. He was surely puzzled that he was told by so many to spend some moments with me. This man looked at me with squinting questioning eyes. “What can I help you with?” he said, lording his power over me.

Then I told him what I did. I had brought my book of contacts. I had a thick notebook with the business cards of 300 Cajun food companies. I let him look through it. “These are the people I spoke with,” I said.

He looked at it with stunned avarice. “Where do I get a copy of this?”

“You pay be $10,000,” I told him.

He asked me how I had gathered this information. I told him about my driving up and down every highway in Acadiana. He was amazed. Seems he had no idea this was going on. The poor fellow was pissed actually. He was not happy at all. He made it clear that somehow I was stepping on his bailiwick. I made it clear to him that I didn’t give a damn what he thought. I told him that he was a waste of time and effort. I told him “Sir, there is a Cajun market in this nation if it is done right.”

He told me he didn’t think any such thing was possible.

I was pissed. The man in charge of agricultural growth in the state – was clueless as to the potential of Cajun – and Creole – foods.

This man was clueless! And worse – jealous that I put together the list I showed him.

He badgered me again for the list. I told him again the price.

He all but told me I owed it to him. I made it clear it was my life’s work, my job, my joy, my existence.

Oh, it was tense. It did not end on a pleasant note. And I realized that a major player in the game was against me. I was miffed to say the least. For what I had done was far more than the Department of Agriculture had done – and it’s head was not for me.

I continued on my way. Mr. Odom and I had very few dealings after this, though I met him from time to time. I could not be avoided after all. I was shunted to some flunky in a cubicle. Still, my connection with the Department continued.

Highway 14

Highway 14

One day I chose to go down the length of Highway 14. It starts in Lake Charles and goes south and then east through the very southern reaches of the state all the way to New Iberia 75 miles away. It crosses Jefferson Davis Parish – before the most of it in Vermillion parish, spitting out at the other end in New Iberia. I got up in the morning, Danny and the guys went off to work, and I drove off. I had a list of around 10 companies with products on the shelves at Abe’s. I was going to visit them. None of them knew I was coming.

The first one was in Holmwood, more a settlement than a town, and maybe some 20 miles south of Lake Charles. Some guy was making a green hot sauce there. I found the place, which wasn’t easy, because it was a small shed behind the guy’s house. I expected a business, I found a hobby. He was – or had been – in the oil industry. He was unemployed now, hanging on, and trying something new. It was his mother’s recipe, or maybe several generations before her. I walked into the shed to find the man at work. I gave him my card and explained my purpose. His labels were typed, then copied, and taped on the bottles. The name, something like “Landry’s Green Picante Sauce”was in capital letters, the rest was lower case. There was an ink splotch of the silhouette of the state as his logo. He showed me his “plant” as he called it. It was barely 2,000 square feet, maybe. It was more shed than factory.

He had about 200 lbs of green peppers in a heap in the corner, and gallons of vinegar and bins and cans of various spices. He was smashing and mashing and adding and tasting when I walked in. He was a one man operation. “Sometimes the wife helps,” he said, “Mostly putting the labels on.” Only they weren’t ‘labels’ in any professional sense. I had my notebook with me, as I always did. I drew him up some logo ideas. Showed him how colors should be added. How he should get them printed professionally. I wrote up his ingredient list from most to least as they are done, which he didn’t seem to realize was normal. I wrote a blurb about the family recipe. We talked for a good 2 hours about his business, what he hoped to achieve and how that might happen. He didn’t want to go national. Regional was good enough for him. As I came to joke, many of these people wanted to earn just enough to buy a bass boat and a new pickup truck to pull it. Maybe two, three months later, my buddy at Abe’s showed me the guy’s new label. Oh, he followed my advice. He didn’t pay me cash, I didn’t ask. But I did walk away with a dozen bottles of the stuff. I met him once at a food show, 10 years later, in Lafayette – he had done well enough for himself.

Then I was off to Gueydan. Only, Hayes is in the way, and there’s a 90 degree dogleg in the highway, so you sort of have to stop there. I didn’t know about this place. I pulled into the town at this intersection and there straight in front of me I saw this huge 20 foot high crawfish statue on a poll on the front lawn of a business there. One of those combined businesses that are scattered across the state. It was a bar. It was a restaurant. It was a store! And it made its own sausages and boudin. I stopped there and went in. It was a very strange environment. In one big open space were all these purposes. The store part had shelves with products like any convenience store. Chips, snacks, soups, quick meals, cans of chili, and some of those hand labeled Cajun products. There was a cooler and meat case like at a deli for the perishables; they would make you a po’boy in a flash. You could take it to go or eat it right there, they had a few tables set up. There was a beer and soda cooler. Behind that, beyond a half wall, was a bar with liquor bottles and a mirror at the back and stools – a bar! There was a small stage too.

I spoke to the folks there for about one hour, they weren’t even the owners, not even a manager, but like, the guy in charge at the moment, and a few of the staff. I had a beer with them. They were happy just the way they were. They had no dreams, hopes or plans for expansion. They did, though, like my ideas for placing ads in Lagniappe in Lake Charles, and the Lafayette weeklies too. Bringing people to the bar and to the music interested them very much. Why they had never sought to advertise or get mentioned in the calendar lists in the two large cities east and west of them for upcoming events I do not know. But, they began to do so. They became this sort of ‘go to’ place for Zydeco and honky-tonk and clanky-clank Cajun music. It became artsy, in a way, though, not too much of course. They did not hang ferns, I assure you. I told Lagniappe to do an article on the place – and they did. Over the years I was probably there 15 times. Their grocery selections were bigger, and their Cajun products fancier, and their deli offerings more eclectic, but their music and bar stayed the same, but were filled now every night. They became this night club that was well known, and people were willing to drive the 45 minutes to get there. Tourists came by. It developed nicely, yet kept its character, which is what they wanted to do.

I got to Gueydan and met with some crawfish processors. They were selling sacks at Abe’s in Lake Charles – and they were selling peeled tails there too. You can buy crawfish in one of two ways. There’s live crawfish by the sack – and you boil them yourself. Or you can buy one or two pound packages of peeled crawfish. The sacks are easy. The sweet thing is if you chill the sacks of creepy crawling crawfish to about 50 degrees – they go to sleep. They squirm a bit, but, they’re asleep. So sacks of the things – each weighing 20 to 50 pounds – are kept in coolers. Easier to control them that way. They wake up as you take them home. These plants were at the edge of rice fields. Rice and crawfish grow together nicely. Only this was not really known until the late 1960s, early 1970s it took off. By the time I showed up nearly all rice fields were also given over to raising crawfish. For the previous oh, 250 years, it was wild crawfish that were caught and consumed. There was a season, and the mudbugs just were out there to be gathered. Someone figured out that if you pour a family or two of crawfish into a rice field – you will get a crawfish convention, and then you can harvest them.

There are thousands of acres of rice fields in Vermillion Parish – and the surrounding parishes. South Louisiana is prime rice growing land – or watery land. Lake Charles, in fact, is the nation’s largest rice exporting port. It’s a weed there. But it is intensive work, for each rice plug must be planted individually. It’s mechanized now of course, but it was done by hand, by slaves at first, and then after the fall of Saigon – by Vietnamese. South Louisiana resembles the Mekong River delta southeast of Saigon in Vietnam – that country of major contention in this world – it is flat, marshy, rice-driven, hot sticky humid and on and on. The deltas of the Mekong and Mississippi are amazingly alike. Those who got to escape settled in South Louisiana. The Catholic Church brought in the first, probably with no recognition of the similarities between the mouths of two great rivers – and the word spread, and there are now at least 200,000 people of Vietnamese heritage from Lake Charles to East New Orleans.

Vietnamese ladies moved into the crawfish peeling industry. Peeling crawfish is labor intensive. People for years tried to invent a machine to do it, but no one succeeded. The crawfish are boiled first – in huge vats. 1000 gallon vats! Then they are spilled out on to a yard wide stainless steel table, maybe 20, up to 50 feet long. Some plants that were bigger had 2 or 4 tables – 2 facing each other. There’s a trough at the back, with a drop to a garbage bin. There were bins behind them, ready to get the meat. The ladies stand there and start peeling. Crawfish are tiny lobsters – they are crustaceans. Though, while the meat of lobster claws is substantial, it is nothing from crawfish. It’s the tail meat that is the prize, and the head fat. You have to twist the body in half, then peel the tail shell off. It’s not easy at first, but quickly one becomes proficient. These ladies were speed demons. They all chatted amiably in Vietnamese as they worked, and the owners said “beats us, they do their jobs well.”

Several months later I was back there talking to a crawfish farmer. He had given up on rice, or really, made that his secondary crop. He was pumping out crawfish, for that’s where the money was. Rice is labor intensive, crawfish just wander around making babies. He had a 4 table peeling operation going on. He was experimenting with an etoufee recipe. I sent him to LSU and the agricultural extension service to work on his ideas. He took me out on a boat to collect the crawfish. It was a small Cajun skiff, a type of flat bottomed boat with a small motor that rode high in the water – for the water is not deep in a rice field. They set out traps, baited with chicken parts, that rot, and the crawfish love the detritus and crawl in, and can’t get out. You cruise through the ponds – acres of them – and pick up the traps and dump the crawfish into bins on the boat and go to the next trap. I spent maybe 2 hours out there. It’s backbreaking work. The traps are maybe 10 pounds of steel mesh, the crawfish another 20 or 30 pounds.

You still can’t buy frozen Crawfish Etoufee meals in a supermarket like you can almost any other cuisine. You can find Asian and Mexican and Italian and Polish and so on – but Cajun? Nope. There is something about crawfish that do not allow it. Sad to say.

To make etoufee you need peeled crawfish. The problem is peeling them – and then making the etoufee – and then! – making it a product that can be sold. There seems to be no way yet. Canning it was tried, and failed. Bottling it was tried, and failed. Freezing it in bags was tried, and failed. There is something about the roux and cream that breaks down in these processes. Plus, crawfish are delicate. They are not hardy like shrimp. Not at all. Shrimp you can freeze for months – and they are fine. Crawfish last about one month, then turn to mush. It is a fresh crop, and that’s the problem.

I got to Kaplan and met the mayor. It’s a “big” town for that area. Has a downtown even, even if just about 6 or 7 blocks long and a block wide. There’s maybe 30 businesses, 40 at tops. I parked and went for a stroll through it. I stopped in the office supply place – they always knew local businesses of course. Turned out to be the mayor. Didn’t know if he owned it or worked there – or was just there for something else. We all got to talking. There were several gentlemen there. They were as fascinated as I was about the fact that my grandmother Ludmila’s maiden name was Kaplan – and so was this town.

They didn’t have much going for them. But, they did have a few honky tonk saloons and quite a number of bands. They had rice and crawfish too. So I told them to get listed on the Lafayette music calendar listings and to work on the crawfish angle.

I went on to Abbeville where I met with more crawfish farmers, and a few sausage companies, and a hot sauce plant. This place was bustling. It was big compared to Kaplan, Gueydan and Hayes. Why, this was a city! I went to the chamber of commerce. They shared an office with the tourist commission. They had no idea what they were doing. They thought bringing people in from Kaplan and New Iberia, barely 20 miles away in each direction, was bringing people in. We had a meeting right then and there, about a dozen of us. I told them people from New York and Chicago and Atlanta would love to come here.

“Why?” they asked with amazement.

“Because it’s unique. You all need to band together and take out an ad in some fancy Atlanta travel journal. You have restaurants, historic homes, a historic district …”
“Historic district?” They were confused.

I said “The entire downtown core of this place is historic! Don’t you know that?”

They did not. To them it was home. It was the way things always were. But there, on street after street was this incredible architecture – sprinkled with restaurants, gardens, parks, boutiques, antique stores and more. It was this tourist midden. They had no idea. Within a year they had a thing going.

The day done, I got to New Iberia and had some dinner at some restaurant where I quickly gave them some suggestions for a better menu and then I headed up to Lafayette for the interstate and the drive home.

Natchitoches Meat Pies and I

Meat Pies!

Natchitoches meat pies were such a big thing that they have a festival for them! Only, they really weren’t that big yet. I had never heard of such a food. I found out that was because there was a very limited distribution of these wonders of gastronomy. It was all centered on this little city with the ridiculously absurd pronunciation from its spelling. “Nah-ka-desh” is how you say it. But that’s the way it’s spelled too – clearly no real relation, maybe a dash at most. The city is the “metropolis” of the parish of the same name, and the surrounding parishes of Winn, Grant, Sabine, Red River, DeSoto, Bienville – and that’s where you could find the pies. Any store in this region carried one brand or another. But that was the only area they were available in. People from across the state and east Texas, would go to the festival just to get the pies. In fact, right across the border, maybe oh, 60 miles to the west, is Nacagdoches, Texas. They are sister cities. But in Texas they pronounce it “Nah-ka-do-chase.” Anyway, in Texas, no pies, in Louisiana – these wondrous “pies.” They were not even available in Lake Charles, Lafayette or Baton Rouge. Somehow I heard of the festival and I went.

It’s not a pie at all. In a way it’s like an apple turnover, the crust flaky and fluffy – but with spiced meats and rice and whatever else they can shove in them. Crawfish, shrimp – some of the daring ones went for turtle and ostrich. I went to the festival. It had been going on for a decade or more. There must have been oh, 50 little mom & pop operations making the pies all over the parish and beyond. Some were obviously more commercial than others. Some really were just mom and dad making grandma’s recipe and perhaps just there to have fun. They didn’t want to start a business, they made them for friends, and this was a way to preserve their family’s heritage while having a party. Others clearly were in business. A few had food trucks that I found out would go to festivals across the state and perhaps Texas and Mississippi, and up to Arkansas.

I found at least 4 that had factories, plants, whatever you wish to call them. They had employees churning these pies out by the 1000s a day. They supplied local restaurants and grocery stores. They were though, limited to the closest few parishes.

I spoke to every single producer at the festival. They were charming people. I did not eat a meat pie from every station – no one can eat 50 meat pies, can they? But many had little sample bites on a plate – so I would try those. I introduced myself to everyone cooking or serving them. They were all surprised a New Yorker was right there talking to them about their business. I took every piece of literature they were handing out, not that it was much. I found out what they were doing and what their dreams and plans were. I gave my card to everyone. It’s a two day festival, so I had time enough. I discovered which were the people most serious about growing their business, and I made arrangements to visit them at their production facilities. One was in Sabine Parish, the others were in the Natchitoches city area.

Each of the four had very similar operations in about 10,000 square feet – the standard Louisiana steel frame and corrugated roof building. There are 1000s of them across the state. It was also stainless steel tables and equipment as was modern professional at the time. They were under state regulation for health and such, they were ready for some serious expansion. They had excess capacity, but no markets. There are, after all, only so many meat pies one can sell in a 100 mile radius to mostly empty piney woods. In a sense they were enormous kitchens. I was given tours of it all. I spent maybe 2 to 4 hours with the owners looking at every detail of production from raw ingredients to finished packaged product. I assure you, the aroma was so delectable. It was like walking into a meat pie and swimming through the foggy air. Wondrous.

The couple who owned the company in Sabine Parish were perhaps the most keen on expansion. It was actually her business. He had a real job, a banker or lawyer or something, which we never spoke about. In fact, I barely met him at all. Perhaps at most he had to approve my presence with his wife. He did tell me “You get a ticket in this parish, you come see me,” and I was “OK,” and that was not the first time that had been said to me. She was the guiding force of this venture. Sad to say – I simply do not remember her name or her company’s name. But I remember her. She was a very charmingly intense petite woman with a sandy blond bob hairdo and a willingness to explore new ideas. I only met with her about 4 or 5 times. Her place was about a half mile off of Highway 171. It wasn’t in any town. It was in the woods. Beautiful grounds actually. Azaleas abounded, they were in bloom at the time I visited her, so it must have been April.

We sat a good long while and went over expansion ideas. I explained to her that going to food industry trade shows in Houston and Dallas and Little Rock and New Orleans would be good. She had never heard of such things. Well, yeah, in Sabine Parish there are no such things. Her family had been there for a century or more. The idea of going to such cities actually alarmed her – but also jostled something in the brain. “I can do this,” I think she realized, however scary those big cities were. They were huge compared to where she spent her life. The parish only has 25,000 people.

I sent her to LSU to get the official imprimatur of ingredients and nutrition information. She was hesitant. I said “If you wish to sell beyond this region you must get this done. Yes, it will cost you a few hundred dollars, maybe a $1,000. Yes, there is work involved. You must write up a detailed recipe – per pie. They will tell you what to do. Only you can do this – this is your product.”

But she embraced it. The next time I went back, like 6 weeks later maybe, she had her information and I went over it with her. I had also come up with a business plan. The point of it was to expand the ring of sales territory in a slow, steady, deliberate way – to make sure sales did not exceed capacity – but produced a tension of more sales with more production in lockstep. I said head north to Shreveport first, for they knew what the product was mostly. Then go south to Acadiana. These regional meat pies are not Cajun at all, but everyone in Louisiana had heard of them. The knowledge was state wide, and even over into East Texas – it was the product that was not available.

I had also designed her new packaging, with more information, and including space for the ingredients and nutrition info, and a better logo, with more color contrast and flair, so that all of it was a coherent whole. She took it all in. She paid me $200 or so – I don’t even remember. I didn’t even set a price. I said “Pay me as you wish.” She also gave me 100s of pies, cases of them! I really loved those Crawfish Pies of hers. Oh my lordy! Delicious. I handed them out to many people in Lake Charles – what could I do with 100 meat pies!

The other three companies were in somewhat similar straits. I had less dealings with them. Still, I met with all of them and got the tour of their places, wallowing in that incredible aroma of meat pies in the making, and worked with them for a day or half a day about their strong and weak points. I don’t remember their names either.

I only dealt with this in this limited way – over maybe 6 months I met with them all – and many others too, for different reasons. And today, at least, you can get them on the internet. https://www.natchitochesmeatpies.com/

To what extent this is because of me – you can wonder.

My Hlife In New York

My Hlife in New York

On the day I was born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in May of 1958 the probability of me ever setting foot in Louisiana was nil – or infinity. Take your pick. My parents were born in Queens, and their parents, my four grandparents, were born in the Czech Republic. Well, my mom’s mom was born in the Czech neighborhood on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to my Great-grandparents, who were born in the Czech lands, but it was as if she was born over there. They are all from there and they all spoke the language. All their brothers and sisters and cousins and uncles and family friends, everyone, at summer camp, in Sokol, a Czech gymnastics association, at family barbecues – all the adults spoke Czech. I showed up into this Czech family as the second grandson to be born in America. My older brother was the first. I learned Czech at my grandma’s knee. Somewhat; it is abysmally difficult, but I can handle it. Our food and culture, our music and many political concerns were Czech. In 1968 during the “Prague Spring” the Czechoslovak Philharmonic Orchestra came to our house for a barbecue. Some 40 people showed up on a bus. The backyard was thronged with people speaking Czech and Slovak. I was 10 years old. That’s prime language learning years. I belonged to Czech sports and religious and community organizations. In fact, I have a book in mind called “Growing up Czech.” I even have cousins in the Czech Republic today that I know well and can speak to in Czech. Some are facebook friends. Which I must, because most of them don’t speak English! My youth, particularly the first 10 years, before the elders started passing on to their reward as Providence dictates will happen to all of us – my youth was very Czech.

I was American, of course. I mean, life was in American English for me, in East Northport, Long Island, New York. It’s on the north shore out in the western end of Suffolk County. My parents bought a brand new house there in 1958 – and that’s where I spent the first 10 years of my life. When I was 11, in 1969 we moved to Baldwin, in southern Nassau County. Barely 15 miles from Manhattan really. You could see the glow of the city at night from my 2nd floor bedroom window as a teenager. There was a citywide blackout in like 1976 or something, and the glow disappeared – we could see it missing. Manhattan was a half hour express train ride’s away. Easy to get to by the Long Island Railroad whose Baldwin station was one mile from our house. I can still rattle off the stops on the lines of the Long Island “Snailroad.” I have jokes and stories galore to tell about one of the world’s largest commuter train networks. Including taking Czech cousins visiting America on it to Manhattan to show them the sights.

I have two brothers and a sister – and a huge Czech family of cousins, aunts, uncles, and more – across the New York area, across America, and across the ocean to the Czech lands where we know the families of all four of my grandparents. And some cousins I discovered in 2013 living in Australia. One big family on three continents in two languages. It’s like living in New York and having cousins in California – but the other way in a different language. See? Hmm.

Anyway – that’s where and when I grew up. When I was 20 I headed out on my own. But first I worked in a supermarket exactly7/8th s of a mile from my house. King Kullen was the name, I was on the night crew, and I stocked the dog food, cat food, vegetable, rice and beans aisle. It was not a big place, and their slogan for a while was “Never open on Sundays!” as the Blue Laws discussion raged in New York in the 1970s. I have been urged to write a book about those incredible two years – and I have started on it. In 1978 I bought a one way ticket to San Francisco. I wrote a journal for the year I was gone and published it as “An Improbable Traveler: the journey of a 20 year old guy.” A year later when I got back to New York from Florida where I spent a wondrous month with my mom’s parents, Joe and Nettie – I moved to Brooklyn and got involved in printing in New York. Lower Manhattan actually. Across the street from City Hall really. A high school friend I met in my neighbor hood brought me to a company called Louis Frey, who asked me to stuff envelopes one day. They were at 9 Murray Street. City Hall is sort of “Number One Murray Street” in the way the British Prime Minister is at “Number 10 Downing Street.”

Louis Frey hired me that very day. Well, there was no such person. It was the last names of two gentlemen in the 1930s, maybe earlier even, or something, but two guys, Mr. Louis and Mr. Frey, who started it. Now Mark Weaver ran it. He hired me that very day. He was my mentor. I learned so much about life and reality from that man it is hard to recount. A book of philosophy might be written about the conversations we had. I was even a summer roommate with his daughter Sherry – my mission was to make sure she and her two kids were safe in Park Slope, Brooklyn, which was still a little sketchy. I took the kids to school. I went with them all to the grocery store. Sherry and Mark were happy. It was he who recommended me for countless jobs, it was she who had this in-plant company. Zoom into someplace and do some special project – and get out.

From Mark it was a springboard to specialty printing in lower Manhattan. Engineering firms, law firms, financial service firms, banks – and Ebasco – the “Electric Bond and Shareholders Company” – who built nuclear power plants, including a few in Louisiana – and a mile long cable stayed bridge at Lutcher, across the Mississippi river. To my knowledge it is the largest such bridge of its kind in the nation. Perhaps the newest bridge in the state, at St. Francisville, is bigger. I worked from the sub-basement of 55 Water Street – one of the largest office buildings in the world, with its own zip code – to the 105th floor of Tower Two of the World Trade Center. I worked for Printemps, Job Recovery, Ticor and more. For the Oliphant Press on Hudson Street I folded thousands of very fancy invitations printed on a hand turned press, embossed and sparkled and more – and the guy who ran the place, a very quiet man, would only hire me to fold these works of art – for places like the Frick Museum, and Edith Haupt Conservatory in the Bronx, and events at the Met and MoMA. I folded them by hand, using a whale bone as my crease-maker. As I sat quietly folding hour after hour he ran his press at the same pace. We rarely spoke, we listened to classical music over the radio, and he paid me in cash at the end of the day. Sweet.

Anyway – I was embedded in this printing industry in downtown Manhattan. The phone rang daily for me to come to some place and do some printing – the machines I ran, the processes I know, the printing trades – I know them intimately. Then Esteban’s called me up. Offered me a job at a good salary. I took it. It was on 23rd Street, at the foot of Madison Avenue. Our massive picture window in the loft like space – 20 or so feet wide by oh, 300 feet deep – faced straight up the fabled avenue, Madison Square Park just to the left of the view. The Flatiron building a block to the west. I worked there. That’s where I met the guys. I know them all today. I am a part of this Esteban family. In a way, even today, I have an office on West 35th Street, across from Macy’s of Thanksgiving Day Parade fame, and 3 blocks from the Empire State Building, which can be seen from the windows, at Esteban’s. The core employees have been there for decades – and I helped boost them up from messenger jobs. There’s a book in that too!

Anyway – Esteban’s let their printing office be my office for Cajun Commodities Corporation. Al Esteban, founder of the company – and one of the grandest, greatest men one could ever meet – a friend of mine in a very deep way – a man who stuck up for me in certain areas of life not germane to this book, but another – let me make any call I wanted to Louisiana on the company phone – without asking for a dime. He allowed me to print whatever I wanted to without charge. If I needed 500 brochures for some company in Louisiana I printed them without even having to give notice. He invested his space, his paper and machinery, the cost of printing and his money in my venture. More than any other person.

He also allowed me the most flexible schedule a printer – or any worker – could have. When I needed to or wanted to go to Louisiana – I could. When he needed me to come back, I did. When I wanted to come back, I could. I was in constant contact with Esteban’s about work. I was particularly engaged in New York City Housing Authority contracts, and New York City Sewer and Water Board’s North River Control Plant (aka the Hudson pooh pools,) where they were building some huge sewerage treatment plant. Hazen & Sawyer were the chief engineers. Eddy Christopher, shop foreman at the time, would call my New York City number, which was an answering service, and leave a message. I would get the message in a day or so as I checked the service frequently.

I had a live operator answer all calls. I paid good money for this service. They would answer “Cajun Commodities Corporation, may I help you?” and they would say “Mr Hlavac is not in at the moment, you can leave a message for him, and he will get back to you.” With my company number there was no way to actually reach me. When I needed to be reached, I gave Esteban’s number – 212-989-7000. I would be printing, I’d get a call – the guys at the front desk would say “Hey Hlavac, you got a call.” Then I’d take a call from Louisiana. The guys just listened with some sense of amazement, sort of chuckling at the weirdness of it all. When I checked my messages a live woman – they were always women – would read me my messages and go over any details. It was really a great service. I never spoke to a man at this service. I found them in an ad in the New York Times.

Like I said, Al Esteban allowed and enabled all this. He paid me when I asked. He overpaid me when I asked. He gave me money – hundreds, not thousands, but a few extra none the less – when I said “Hey, Al, this is what I need to do in Louisiana.” He would take out the company checkbook and write me one for a few hundred. He made it out to Cajun Commodities Corporation and I would deposit it in my corporate account. He and I would sit around in his office, or go for drinks or dinner and discuss what I was doing. He was a successful entrepreneur. He set up a printing company and now had 25 employees, me included. He gave me much good advice. He encouraged me in this weird adventure I was on. He laughed a lot and told me I was out of my mind. This was a man of Puerto Rican heritage raised in the West Side of Manhattan projects. He was able to start a “Minority Business Enterprise” and build it into a major company that it is today. When I go back everyone wonders why I alone get to walk into his son’s office, Chris Esteban, who runs the company today. I alone can just waltz in. Why? Eh, I used to babysit Chris as a 13 year old while working. I taught him the business.

Al, I think, more than anyone else, believed in what I was doing. He didn’t know exactly what I was doing. But he knew I was doing something. He allowed me to do it – and he provided means to do it. I cannot thank the man enough.

And then, in March 1990 I moved to Louisiana permanently, and never worked at Esteban’s again. However, like I say, I have an office there, and when I want something printed, or need to use the phone, or receive a package, or send one or two for that matter – Esteban’s gives me total liberty to do as I please to day in 2018 as they did in 1981 when I started there.

But for five years – 1985 to1990 – Esteban’s was the backbone of my life. It cannot be denied, however much I did in Louisiana, Esteban’s in New York City provide many of the means.

Thanks, Al, from my heart.

All this because of that fateful day in May of 1985 when I got to Lake Charles.

Czech, Slave, Women, Immigrant, War

Houma

Houma was a city of less than 1,500 people when our first Czech immigrants arrived in the city. Two of the families were to make a significant contribution in the history of the city, but two were to just surface briefly and disappear. In this section we will look at the trajectory of these families as they came and went through Houma. The city was on the verge of a boom brought about by the plantation economy that was spreading in the former wilderness surrounding the city in the 1850s when James Blahut first appeared. The city was prosperous and growing during the last decades of the 1800s when the Zelenka’s made their mark. The city was enjoying new found oil wealth when the last members of the Blahut and Zelenka families either died or moved away, but they did leave an indelible trace on the face of Houma.

Blahut Family

The story of the plantation owner James Blahut and his family’s 75 years in Houma begins with a record in the Terrebone Parish Court House: James Blahut, “native of the city of Prague in the Kingdom of Bohemia, age 31 years, and emigrated to the United States in the month of March 1851,” applied for naturalization April 21, 1853. James could not have been the name he was given at birth. Naming conventions of the time dictate that James was most often the translation for the Czech Vaclav. He quickly moved into the social scene in the area. James Blahut was a master mason at Houma Lodge No 139, F & AM. He was initiated in 1854, and became a full member in 1855. He was treasurer for the lodge in 1864, 1865, and 1866. Prague, where James Blahut was born in 1822 or 1823, was a major city of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and had several hundred thousand residents.

In the 1850s his residence was listed as Houma, a town of less than 2,000 people. His occupation was said to be merchant. And we have one odd transaction confirming his job, on the 23rd of October, 1855, “Blahut and Wright” sold a “mortgage recording book” for $15.50 to the Parish police jury. Blahut was in business with his brother-in-law, Abraham Wright. In 1854, the year before Holden Wright was to become his father-in-law, Wright produced 146 hogsheads of sugar. So James was making a good economic step when on July 25, 1855, he married Maria Elizabeth Wright, Holden’s daughter. She was born January 28, 1829. The nuptials took place at the Bayou Black residence of her father; a Reverend Wilson did the honors. The marriage record says he was “the son of Mathiew Blahut and Marguerite Fomayer.” The marriage was short lived, and Maria died 15 April, 1858. They had one son, William Holden Blahut.

Things could not have been good between the young couple for a petition for divorce was filed at Houma Civil Court, in an action titled “James Blahut vs. Maria Wright.” It was dated June 22, 1857. This was not the first litigation that James was involved in. The record is unclear as to whether the divorce was granted, though it did not matter for Marie had died. A year after Maria died, James Blahut married Madeline Zulinda Porche. His new father-in-law, Evariste Porche, was producing 225 hhs of sugar. While in 1859, when Holden Wright produced only 98 hhs of sugar, James Blahut is mentioned for the first time as a sugar producer, with a paltry 12 hhs. In the record his name is misspelled as “Blaut.” All three plantations were adjacent to each other. Could Blahut have been carrying on an affair with Madeline while he was still married to Marie? Is this the reason for the divorce?

In the 1860 Slave Schedule for Terrebonne Parish, James Blahut is listed as owning 3 slaves, in Precinct 11 of Houma’s 6th Ward. There is also a record seeming to indicate that Blahut rented out 6 slaves that he owned to a Mr. N. B. Neal. Some of the planters were listed as owning as many as 200. For the following year we find sugar records, this being 1861 to 1862. James Blahut, spelled Blaut again, produced just 12 hhs. Holden Wright produced 117 and Evariste Porche, 236 hhs of sugar.

The 1860 Terrebonne Census shows that James Blahut was now 36 years old and married to “Zulinda Porche.” They were married on April 27, 1859. She was born on November 27, 1833, and was 27 years old. His son, William, whose birthday was October 2, 1856, lived with them. He was eventually married to Josephine Theriot on 19 February, 1878; he was just 22 years old. He died March 1, 1926, in Hot Springs Arkansas. Also in 1859, the will of John Thuer, left “to his friends James Blahut and Valentin Berger” his property on Little Caillou Bayou, 22 miles below Houma.

Blahut entered the Civil War years owning at least two plantations, and a handful of slaves, as well as a merchant business in Houma. Things seemed to be going well for this Czech immigrant. He and Zulinda had added a daughter to the family. Marguerite was just one month old when the census was taken. According to the 1860 census he was worth $43,000 in real estate and $11,700 in personal property. This was a huge amount of money for the times, and shows a very successful business man. He traveled in the exclusive circles of people at the top of the social order. Terrebonne parish had 110 plantations with 80 sugar houses through the 1850s and into the 1860s. He clearly owned slaves.

But the ravages of the Civil War befell Houma. The slaves were freed, and the Yankee armies took what provisions and stock they needed from the plantations. There is an extant letter, from “W. J. Minor, et al. to Major Genl. Banks, 14 Jan. 1862” signed by 170 leading citizens of Houma, including presumably James Blahut and the surrounding plantations that asks the Union commander of the district to restore some of the property looted, and to get the freed African-Americans to get back to work, or the region would face “dire straits and even catastrophe.”

Blahut faced these trials and tribulations as best he could. But he did not fare well economically. In a suit titled “Oliva Theriot vs. James Blahut,” which was filed December 24, 1866, Theriot claims “he was employed as an overseer on James Blahut’s plantation on Bayou Dularge.” He was suing for $500.00 wages. He also claimed a share of the crop. But Peet, Simmes & Company had already seized the crop in their own suit against Blahut and Wright. We do not know the dates of that suit. But on January 12, 1869, judgment was made against Blahut for $500. Witnesses summoned to record the event were B. F. Bazet, who was a leading citizen of Houma and who was to become the father-in-law of another Czech in Houma, and Lucien Arcenaux.

A second suit recorded was “Gaune & Eichelberger vs. Blahut & Wright.” Filed in December, 1867, the suit says Guane & Eichelberger, a commercial firm in New Orleans composed of Peter Guane and Edwards Eichelberger, was suing Blahut & Wright, a firm in Terrebone Parish, composed of James Blahut and Abraham Wright. Wright was James’s ex-brother-in-law. The suit concerned an overdue account of $442.90 for goods delivered on credit. The account dated from September, 1861, at the beginning of the war.

The Terrebonne Parish Census for 1870 has James Blahut in Ward 14. His wife, whom he had married on April 14, 1859, was listed as “Maddlin.” She was now 36. Besides their son, William Holden there were joined by five daughters: “Elmise,” 10, really Elmire Marguerite, born June 14, 1860; “Mary,” 8, real name Marie Elfride Alida, born December 12, 1861; “Emily,” 5, who was born Emilie Barras on April 10, 1864; “Anna,” 3, born as Ann Georgina on November 15, 1867; and Alice Elizabeth, born on February 20, 1871. There was a sixth daughter, Franklina Wilhelmina, who was born November 22, 1865, and died on May 22, 1866, aged just 6 months. None of these daughters were to marry.

There are three “Emancipation from Parental Control” petitions listed in the 1870s and 1880s. From the petition of William Holden we learn that John P. Vigurie was appointed as a special tutor. The abstract states “William Wright, his maternal uncle testifies that he [William Holden] has been supporting himself for the past two years. James Blahut is now residing in Texas.” Mary Alfrida Blahut and her sister Emily Barras Blahut also filed for emancipation. These were done while the children were still considered minors, but they had to be at least 18 or 19 when they sought this. They were all filed before James Blahut died on the 18th of April, 1875. He was 53 years old.

We must move to Arkansas to follow the family of William Holden Blahut. He must have died before the 1910 census, because we find that Isaac W. Hill was married to Lettie C. Blahut. They had two children in the household. Isaac Wayne Blahut, age 7, and Frank Blahut, listed as grandsons. In the 1920 Arkansas Census we find Frank Blahut, age 22, born in Arkansas and Agnes, age 23, born Missouri. They had a son Francis, aged 2 months. Living with them was “Wayne Blahut, aged 17 and born also in Arkansas.” According to what was found in the census of Arkansas, William Holden Blahut was a farmer. Josephine Theriot was the first 1st wife of William Holden, (and she may have been the daughter of the overseer who sued James Blahut,) and Lettie C must have been his second wife. He died and was buried, possibly in Hotsprings, Arkansas. But it surely brings to an end the Blahut family name.

In the 1900 census we find the five Blahut sisters, all working as milliners with their own store in downtown Houma. This census erroneously lists Germany as the birthplace of James Blahut. The five woman were Alice, Emily, Mary, Elizabeth and Elmire. The 1910 Census lists only Mary and Alice. Also in the household was Alphonse, listed as an “adopted son” He was a 25 year old dentist. They also had a “helper” named Nara Parchic. As the years rolled by nothing much changed for the sisters and in 1920 Mary and Alice where still in the census. This time their father was listed as born in Prague, Austria. Also in the household were Alphonse Veret, listed as the now 34 year old cousin, and a dentist. He was married to the 25 year old Lillian, identified as “cousin-in-law.” She worked at a shoe store, which was probably the Blahut sister’s store. They had a daughter Marie who was 4 years and 5 months old. Also in the house was Lydia Wirth, a “friend,” a 59 year old widow.

There is still a two story, large brick building at the corner of Main and Roussell Streets in downtown Houma which housed the store of the Blahut sisters for more than 50 years. It was known as the Blahut Building for many decades because the sisters built it. That five spinster sisters built one of the biggest buildings in town was surely an eye-raising situation. Their store sold the usual items required by women of the era: bolts of cloth by the yard, feathers, hats, notions and other household wares. “They were the fashionable milliners of their day” according to our best source on the Blahut’s, Helen Emmeline Wurzlow. She wrote a series of newspaper articles, which were later joined into several volumes called “I Dug Up Houma.” The other Czech in town, Rudolph Zelenka built a building with the Blahut sisters, since torn down, shortly after a major fire in 1892 which destroyed several blocks.

This series is sprinkled with references to the Blahut sisters, mostly how this or that important and fashionable woman had their wedding dress, hats, and other clothing made or finished by the Blahut’s. There was also a Blahut shoe store. One clerk was Albert Chauvin. Several other businesses were at one time or another in the Blahut Building. One was the office of the well respected Dr. Collins. He was known for making people feel better “before they swallowed their pills.” Charles Daspit ran his drug store, called the Standard, out of one side of the lower floor. The Theriot drug store also apparently occupied this space for a short while. So the ladies owned the building, owned the store, and rented out the rest of the space, which was quite enterprising for women of the era.

Elmira Blahut died in a tragic accident when the horse pulling her buggy went wild and overturned it. This accident happened on School Street, not far from the sister’s home on Belanger Street.

Mary Blahut died at Hotel Dieu, on Monday September 7, 1936. She was survived by her two sisters and also “adopted brother, Dr. A A Verrat of Houma.” Religious service was held at St. Francis de Sales Church. On Friday, January 8, 1954, at the residence of Mrs.. Mamie Toups, 433 Columbus Street in Houma, Alice Elizabeth Blahut, died at the age of 83. After a funeral at St.. Francis De Sales Catholic she was buried in the church cemetery. The last Blahut sister to die was Sister Mary of St. Theodora MBC, “in the world, Annie Blahut.” She died at the Marianite Provincial House, 3523 North Rampart Street, in New Orleans, on Tuesday June 22, 1956. She had been a resident of New Orleans for 6 years, working at the Holy Angels Academy. Interment was in St. Vincent De Paul cemetery No. 2. None of the daughters had gotten married and this spelled the end of the promising start of James Blahut in the New World.

Cameron Parish Adventure

This is the first draft of my Cameron Parish Adventure:

It was during this trip that I had my first major trip outside of Lake Charles. I went exploring Cameron Parish. Prior to that I had stayed in the city. They were getting for work and I told them what I was going to do. Danny, Paul and Rob looked at me like I was insane. “There’s nothing there,” they told me. I replied “I have never seen nothing.” They were sorely perplexed. I was going to take the Highway 27 loop. It’s the “Creole Nature Trail” – what Creoles had to do with it I do not know, I think now that perhaps the “Cajun” trail would be better, but well, that is the name. So I went down the highway, and it got wetter and wetter. Not the road, but the surrounding land seemed to melt away into marshes. I could swear that at times surface tension alone kept the water off the highway.

To get to the Highway I had to go to Sulfur, which meant west on I-10 across the bridge and through these chemical plants the likes of which I had never seen. Massive conglomerations of steel and pipes and towers and flames shooting out of this at that orifice. It was Oz. There were many pipes that went up one side and over the interstate and down the other side in some strange sort of arch, but very squared. Huge pipes, small pipes, and what looked like valves. Every inch alongside both sides of the interstate was covered with tanks and canisters the size of houses.

As Craig had showed me once at night in the first trips – at night they really do look like the skylines of cities not to far away. During the day they were industrial. At the time I had no idea what they even made in these plants. They went on for miles! I was sort of in shock. This was scene from some sci-fy movie, or perhaps “Brazil.” There were tanker trains stretching for a 100 cars. It was stunning to me. I got to 27 and made the left and headed south. I had no idea what I would see, even though I was told it was nothing it had to be something. Not to far south of the city the houses gave way to trailers and farm like places, a few horses or cows scattered about. On and on and I went and then all signs of human inhabiting disappeared. There was me, the road, the endless marsh and birds. Hundreds of birds, maybe 1000s, slashing through the sky, lifting off from what plot they no longer liked, zooming and soaring. I was in this nature preserve of sorts. I recall wondering “who owns this all?”

From time to time there was some industrial looking splotch. Perhaps a trailer that seemed more an office, of the sort I was used to seeing at New York City construction sites. There might be some derrick reaching into the sky about 200 feet. Or there were pipes just coming out of the ground – going somewhere – and then right back into the ground. I sort of new they were oil, I guess. Though not so long after I found out why the town was named Sulfur. Then there would be another few miles of no sign of humanity. There were no cars, no buildings, no people, nothing. It was so eerie to me. A week earlier I was in Manhattan, now I was truly in the middle of nowhere. I had the tourist map, so I wasn’t worried, and since there seemed to be but one road I figured I could just turn around and go back the other way.

For the first time in my life really, there was more sky than land. The sky was a cerulean blue with puffy clouds by the 100s moving very fast. I had never seen clouds move that fast either. What birds I saw then I don’t know, but I came to know they were egrets and ducks mostly. Occasionally there would be some blue heron pecking in the ditch; a sort of bird I had never seen. I noticed every so often some obviously man made little pile of dirt maybe 2 feet wide and a foot or two wide stretching straight off into the distance. I had no clue what purpose they were. There were also small wooden watch towers, something. Kind of looking like lifeguard stands, but with an enclosed top. I had no idea what they were for. Found out later they were duck blinds. Then a house appeared, and then a few more. Then a slew more, before finally the sign “Hackberry Corporate Limits.”

I saw a store. I stopped. I bought something to drink and a snack. The town, if you could call it that, is just a few streets wide and maybe 5 blocks long. I walked around. I listened to the wind. I felt this crisp freshness to the air that I hadn’t really felt before. It was warm, it was humid, and there were little scruffy trees here and there, and a handful of grand live oaks. I didn’t know the name then, but I came to know them – they are scattered across Louisiana by the tens of thousands. Big dark brooding things, with dark forest green leaves and near black trunks.

I continued on my way and then I saw a road sign in French. I wasn’t sure what it said, but it sure surprised me. A little further along there was a sign that showed a picture of an alligator. Well, I didn’t quite expect that. Then there was a bigger sign “If you break down, wait, do not walk out.” Then I thought, yeah well, alligators come to eat you. It was sort of nerve wracking. Then there appeared houses on stilts. Not high, but clearly raised up 5, 6, 10 feet. It reminded me of a decade or more previously when I was in the Reynold’s Channel marshes between Long Island proper and the Atlantic beaches, but so much vaster. I had never seen such vast empty watery land. I recalled west Texas but that was dirt. This was not ‘land’ as we might think of it. It was water-land. I wasn’t sure one could even walk through it.

To my utter amazement from within the few cars heading north the driver would wave at me. The first time it happened I truly wondered if something wasn’t wrong with my car. Nothing was wrong. Then the next guy waved. So, I waved back. And that started my habit of waving at people in cars on rural roads as they waved at me. It really puzzled me. Eventually I came to grasp that well, we’re both out here, perhaps we know someone, we’re friends somehow, maybe if something went wrong they would help. For like that sign had said – don’t try to walk out of there, but stay in your car until help came.

About then, 10 miles or so south of Hackberry, I came upon one of the most stunning sights of my life. Looking in the distance was a tanker, a freighter, some huge ship, of a size I had never seen. As I got closer to it, as it headed north, I could see this was not some ‘boat’ – it was ship! It towered above the road, the landscape – it was a roving skyscraper, maybe 10, 15 stories tall. I don’t know, 500, 600, 800 feet long – I had no clue. But it was huge, so huge I couldn’t believe it. So out of place here I wondered how it could even get through. I didn’t really understand the Calcasieu River yet, nor the port, none of it. I was a novice, yet, I felt more than a tourist. I mean, I had a house to go back to and friends who would have dinner waiting. There though was that ship. Behind it, a mile further down, was another one heading north. Then another, and another, and just like that there was a parade of them. It was just out of this world. I marveled, indeed.

Then houses began to be sporadic. I noticed several were built on artificial hills. The hills were maybe 8 or 10 feet high. Plunked on top would be this incongruous suburban house with a pretty little front door and some flowers in the yard. Perhaps a vestige of a picket fence across the front, or a gazebo, a bench, some ornamental trees. The whole thing was fake and was clearly put there. To live out here one had to like solitude. Then more houses, a gas station, a video store or laundromat. I was in Cameron!

Palm trees dotted the land. I came to find out later they were called cabbage palms. There were trees and houses and streets and well, I was in the town of Cameron. The road came to a dead end of sorts. The Gulf of Mexico was straight ahead; I hadn’t seen it since Galveston during the birthday trip. It seemed different here, mostly because this was clearly not a tourist town. There were no restaurants that I could see, no people strolling. But there were more cars, well, mostly pickups. Still, signs of life. I took a right. In just a short way there to the left of the road was this huge industrial shed, and a reek I had never smelled in my life. What was this ungodly smell? There was a huge sign: “Cameron Menhaden.” I had no idea what this was, but I guessed it was fish. Indeed they are, some fish used for things like cat food and fish oil. Humans didn’t really eat the things.

I went to the western edge of town and it became a sort of beach resort. I found out later this was the famed “Cajun Riviera.” There were boats, and bars, and restaurants and houses on stilts and everything raised up fairly high off the ground. There were people walking around! First time in 50 miles I had really seen anyone walking anywhere. I was used to 10s of thousands of people walking on busy streets, now I was out there somewhere I didn’t quite know where. I parked, went to a store and bought a shrimp ‘po-boy’ – which is a sub, a hoagie, a hero – what do you call it where you live? In Louisiana it’s a ‘po-boy’ which is a clipped form of “poor boy.” Man, that was just so good, with this remoulade sauce (a name I didn’t know at the time, but learned later.) I sat a picnic table on the beach and ate it, watching the world go by. Then I headed east.

I got to a ferry! I didn’t expect that. So I took the ferry across the mouth of the Calcasieu River. It was my very first ferry ride in Louisiana. It was a little scary driving on to board and maybe I went a little too slow for others, but no one rushed me. I had Texas plates on the rent a car, they knew I wasn’t from there. I got to the other side and just as gingerly drove off with the ferry fellow waving goodbye like were buddies for years. I continued on through a residential area that only 2 decades later did I find out was pretty much mostly people of Slovak heritage. Drove right by them then without an inkling that they could be there. I got the intersection of 27 and 82. 82 went east into the distance, but I wanted to go back to Lake Charles and took the left and headed north.

I passed the same scenery pretty much, though, a few more trees, especially to the east. Here and there a house was plopped. But the duck blinds were there, so were the vast expanses of watery marsh and water-land as I came to call it. There were the same sorts of birds and ditches and berms, it was all the same, but going north instead of south. Then there were the sterns of these humongous ships with ports listed on the back of them: Karachi, Manila, Panama, Nigeria, Jakarta. I had no earthly clue, or should I say “watery clue,” why they were there or where they were going – they were heading to Lake Charles I guessed. Which I still did not quite realize was this major port. In fact, the nation’s largest rice port. Who knew? I was a newcomer, I did not know. Slowly but surely civilization returned. More and more houses, then a convenience store, then a gas station. Then, just like that, I was back in Lake Charles and headed back to the house.

I got home and they guys were there cooking dinner and they asked about my day and I was so excited and told them of this adventure and they just looked at me like I was out of my mind. I loved every minute of it. It was after all my first venture out into the wilds of Louisiana. I had never experienced anything like it. Over the next decade I was to go to Cameron often enough to really learn what was there. I also watched it get blown off the map 2 or 3 times as hurricanes came ripping through it. I’m sure the recent Hurricane Harvey did its damage.

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