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Over Easy: Public Schools in New Orleans 1958-1959

3:25 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Old Kenner High School

Letty Owings, age 89 and the author of this post, recalls moving to New Orleans and teaching in a public elementary school in 1958.

New Orleans, 1958

Cultural experiences abound in this land of ours, but none can surpass living in New Orleans for just one year. The mockingbirds singing in the magnolias were left behind in Atlanta, along with red dirt and Stone Mountain. Ray went ahead of the six of us to begin his year of duty in the New Orleans Public Health Service Hospital. He got established and rented a house before the kids and I loaded the car and followed to what we found to be a strange locale.

As we drew up the drive to the hospital, moisture dripped from the huge vine-covered trees. A big crab inched his way across the street. Ray was sweating bullets because his “room” had no air conditioning to tame the heat and humidity. I remember his coming to the car and saying, “I don’t think you should have come here.”

Our rented house proved to be nicer than we expected. It did have its moments, however. An alligator came to the carport to lounge around, and the neighbors whose house practically touched ours fought half the night. That could be entertaining in the days before TV if they had only known when to shut it off. Our house, built on a concrete slab, sweated the floors sopping wet at night. Walking around could be precarious. Clothes that touched the floor or shoes left in the closet turned green with mold.

The quarreling neighbors told me to stay out of the yard during the day for fear of heat stroke. I blew off that advice since a veteran of the Midwest dust bowl could not possibly have a heat stroke. I did not have the stroke, but I did get mighty sick when I gardened in midday—only once. That once was all it took to pay attention to the natives. I never made my peace with the heat and humidity, but we did build immunity to mosquitoes.

School in Jefferson Parish where we lived came as an impressive challenge. One day right before enrollment time, the neighbor lady—not the battling one—asked me where the kids were going to school. Considering that a question with an obvious answer, I told her they would go wherever the local school was located. She was quick to inform me that nobody that was anybody sent kids to public school, and, in fact, it was unthinkable. Without either money for private school, which meant Catholic in New Orleans, or a desire to try to change plans in a strange location, we forged ahead with public education. Our oldest was ready for high school. When enrollment day came, we found the high school, if it could be dignified by that name.

The school building, completely buried in a summer’s growth of tall weeds, appeared as though it had been a long time condemned and given over to hopelessness and rot. The principal, a hefty Italian sweating profusely and flailing his arms around, trying to impose order on the chaos, hardly seemed to notice our inquiry about enrolling a student. In fact, students appeared to be the least of his worries. The attendees chiefly consisted of those who had been disciplinary cases thrown out of Catholic school or sons and daughters of the dock and levy crews. The kids that slept on the levy were called “levy kids.”
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Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

3:35 am in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

Letty and Ray Owings, ages 89 and 91, share their memories of freak shows, patent medicine salesmen, and minstrel shows, during the mid-1930s, in rural Missouri.

Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

“What would you like to have cured?”

Letty shares:

Imagine a world without newspapers, electricity or central heat. Imagine a world without television. If you can think of a world where all communication was by word of mouth, that was our world, during the Great Depression in the small farming community in Missouri.

In the mid-1930s, people with genetic deformities or other physical issues such as being morbidly obese were considered to be ‘freaks of nature.’ People without arms, or maybe with a leg off from the knee down would be featured at the State Fair in Sedalia, Missouri. Also, the shows would travel and come through a series of towns, to show the freaks, and sell patent medicines all in the same venue. These events would often take place in a town park.

Since no one had any money for real doctors to come and make house calls, nearly all doctoring was done with patent medicines. The salesmen would pose the question, “What would you like to have cured?” They had bottled cures for everything from bad sex to diarrhea. The McNess man, who was the same man for years, would come around in his horse-drawn buggy, and sell his medicines, but he also sold vanilla and red sugar for cookies. The medicines were always red-colored liquid in bottles, never pills.

We had two things in our closet from the patent medicine man. While many consider all things from that time to be snake oil, one of the things we had in our closet is still available today. At that time, we called it “horse salve.” Today we call it “Bag Balm.” We used the salve for everything, including its original intended use, which was to soften cow teats.

We also had “blackberry balsam” for diarrhea and stomach upset. The horse salve and the blackberry balsam were inside the house, in the closet.

If you were outside, and you were cutting the grass in the chicken yard, and you got cut, or in the alternative, if you cut your finger (nearly off) in the sawbuck, you headed to the tractor and unscrewed the cap on the carburetor, and allowed gasoline to flow over the cut. Gasoline was used to prevent infection, and it did prevent infection. These items, the two on the inside, and the gasoline on the outside, made up the whole of our medicine cabinet.

That wasn’t totally true, because my dad would also collect certain plants and weeds that he knew to have medicinal use. Certain plants, for example, would help with menstrual cramps. Also, lots of people ate dandelions, and they were not too bad if you threw in some lambs quarter, and maybe a few potatoes, to cut the strong taste of the dandelions.

As my dad would collect and point out medicinal and edible plants and weeds to me, we did come across what he named at that time, “wild hemp” and he told me, “It makes people kind of crazy.” We left the wild hemp alone but there was one woman in the small community who everyone knew was, in fact, kind of crazy, and she was a large woman, big-boned. She lived alone, and everyone called her “Big Annie.”

Like everyone else in the community, Big Annie had examined the plants and weeds in the fields and in the woods to determine what was fit to eat and what was fit for medicine, and when she came across the wild hemp, she made an agricultural decision to use it, to shade her chickens. She didn’t know what it was, and as far as she was concerned, it was simply an excellent plant for shade use, for her hens. So, the wild hemp plants grew tall and provided excellent shade, and the chickens were happy, and Big Annie was happy and everything was going reasonably well, until one day, when the sheriff drove by.

Upon noticing a very large and obvious outdoor marijuana grow operation in plain view of the road he was driving on, the sheriff reportedly stopped and chopped down the plants. Big Annie was furious. She ran up and down the road, hollering at the sheriff, yelling at the neighbors, “They’re cutting down my chicken shade!”

On rare occasion and only when someone was very sick, did we call for Doc Martin to come around and make a house call. He would always leave with his chicken, for payment.

Ray adds on blackface minstrel shows:

Patent medicines were often sold in the same venue as minstrel shows in our town. Sometimes, a minstrel show would come to town on its own, and set up a big tent on an empty lot. Using shoe polish, white people would pose theatrically as black people. Although these shows stopped sometime in the 1930s in our area, the idea was to make make jokes through a questioning character called “Mr. Interlocutor.” At that time, blackface minstrelsy was so accepted that the obvious bigotry we see today was completely missed then.

Author’s end note: If you have not seen The Butterfly Circus, which I have posted before, I recommend that you find 20 minutes to see this inspirational film.

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Where We Were When FDR Passed Away

3:48 pm in Uncategorized by Crane-Station

USS Lacerta (AKA-29). The Lacerta was an Artemis-class attack cargo ship. (photo: Wikipedia)

Ray Owings, age 91, and Letty Owings, age 89, recall their memories before and after April 12, 1945, when US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) passed away. FDR was elected for four consecutive terms, and remains the only president ever to serve more than eight years.

Letty shares:

When Roosevelt was elected in 1933, my mother didn’t have voting rights, or at least that was how the culture viewed things at the time. At that time and in that community, women did not vote, even though legally, they could. My dad and my grandfather rode together in the buggy, to vote. My dad voted for incumbent Herbert Hoover, because Hoover was the popular candidate in the small German farming community where we lived, in Missouri. But then, FDR got it.

In the coming years our lives became one leader, and one direction, and that direction was the war. When Ray got his orders in 1944, he brought me a dozen roses, to tell me. I ran out of the house to greet him. But, I was wearing slacks, and my mother followed me, irate, because she did not think that a man should see a woman wearing slacks. That is how our world has changed.

I was in front of the wind charger radio when I heard of FDR’s passing.

Ray was in the Pacific.

Ray shares:

In Fort Pierce, Florida in 1944 I was training a boat group of 160 men. They thought I was mean. I thought they were the dregs, but they turned out to be good. In December 1944, I got my orders, and we reported to the USS Lacerta. She was just being finished and they were loading stores in Norfolk, Virginia.

We cleared Norfolk on January 18, 1945 and sailed to Cuba and then the Panama Canal before heading to Pearl Harbor where we loaded hospital crew and cargo for Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. There is so much water in the world. On February 23, 1945 we crossed the equator and the international date line at the same time. On February 27, we arrived in Guadalcanal, unloaded cargo and picked up a group of Marines: a 155mm Howitzer artillery group, for the Okinawa invasion.

We departed Saipan on March 27 and began to prepare for invasion. On April 1, we unloaded Marines from Guadalcanal onto the west side of Okinawa, where they joined others. There were kamikaze and also, kamikaze boats around us.

The marine group on the beach needed ammunition desperately, and we lowered Lacerta’s boats to deliver the shells. A typhoon was close to us, the water was real rough, with 10-12 foot waves, and we were the only boat group at that time to be unloading. It was difficult in the rough seas, but we were able to do it.

We departed Okinawa on April 9, 1945 for Saipan, and on our way there, we heard on the ship’s radio that Roosevelt had died. When we arrived in Saipan on April 20, I learned by a signal sent to the ship, that my first daughter had been born, in March.

Letty adds:

There was a time when right and wrong all got changed, a time when the rules of war and the international laws all went up in the air and generals fought with one another about how to fight.

Prior to this and during the Great Depression, a man, a poor man, approached my grandfather, another poor man, at a farmers’ gathering. Radio was a recent invention. The man asked a question. It was not a question about finance. The man asked simply, “Can you help me understand the world?”