Dan and I and the road we traveled
A personal hero that left his mark on a little boy, that followed him to old age.
Back in the 1930’s times were hard around the country but in the Cajun parishes of Louisiana they were really bad. My grandfather died when I was four years old, which left no man around. My uncle Meldon “Tee-Dan” Duplantis was still single but lived away from home. He worked at the Abbeville newspaper and came by to visit grandma Avalia almost every day. He always took a few moments to play with me. At that young age, he was the only male influence I had in my life. They told stories about some of Dan’s exploits around the community. He had once climbed to the top of the Vermillion River Bridge. When word reached grandma she talked him down and whipped him all the way home. He was also a good boxer. Once, when a boxing hustler came to town and offered 50 cents to anyone who could stay in the fight with his fighter, Dan gave it a try. He not only lasted the three rounds, he beat the guy, to the delight of the paying crowd. He also fought Chris Dundee, Angello Dundee’s brother, and Clay and Sugar Ray’s manager. Dan got me interested in boxing. Dan gave me my first baseball glove, taught me about baseball and how to throw a curve ball. He went on to manage a semi-pro baseball team in the Teche League. He got me a job announcing at baseball games in the Evangeline Pro League.
After he married, while I was still a little guy, I would spend a couple of weeks each summer in Lafayette where he worked for the Daily Advertiser newspaper. At the same time, he had formed a band that played professionally. He didn’t entertain, he just managed.
Uncle Tee-Dan and I had always been very close. In some ways I was his protégé but he had multiple talents that I didn’t possess. He was a very good artist. I’ve told the story before about how he had seen a picture of Oswalt in a New Orleans newspaper and had drawn a pen and ink portrait of him even before he killed President Kennedy. He showed the drawing in an art show in Beaumont two week before the assassination. Hanging on the wall of my office, before Ike, was a painting of Jack Ruby killing Oswalt. He painted it on a board using regular leftover house paints.
Dan never believed Oswalt acted alone. He spent over 30 years investigating it. He compiled about 3,000 pages on the subject, interviewed many people and had his own life threatened. He had evidence that a woman, who he had interviewed, was murdered, because she knew about the plot put together by Carlos Marcello, New Orleans Mafia boss. He attempted to get me interested in the project but I believed the Warren report got it right. That had been one of the few times we hadn’t seen eye to eye. When I wouldn’t show any interest, he gave his findings to a television newsman in Lafayette.
Dan could fix anything. He repaired radios and televisions for extra money. He got so good at it that for a short time he left the paper business and went to work for Montgomery Wards as a technician-supervisor. I have an old, stand up Philco radio that he found tubes for in a friend’s attic rewired it and made it play like new. He also repaired my wood and cast iron nickel slot machine that I had found over 30 years after my father had hidden it in a field during a gambling raid on his club in Abbeville.
Dan returned to the newspaper business, this time working for the Eunice News. When I decided to start a paper in Orange, he was the first I called. Back then you needed very little equipment, mostly something to type on, a headliner machine, a good pair of scissors and a few oil cans that were used for glue to paste down copy. Everything was in black and white.
During those times Dan came up with an invention that would change the industry. Since that was before color film, a camera saw only black and white. Red and other colors photographed black and the color blue would come out white. If you shot something that had red letters on a black back ground, it all came out black. Something with a blue background and white lettering came out white. Dan told me he had an idea of how to separate the colors. I told him I thought it was impossible to do with black and white film. Telling Uncle Tee Dan anything was impossible always spurred him on. One day, a few months later, he called and said he had done it. I didn’t believe it. He mailed me the copy of the original print and the one he had separated the colors on. He hadn’t told anyone else. He had come up with a method to use filters on a camera. The invention brought him worldwide attention in the industry. Kodak brought him to New York, gave him a special award and $5 thousand dollars. Within a year every paper in the country was separating color.
Dan took a keen interest in my newspaper. He visited as often as he could and we mailed him an Opportunity Valley News each week. He would give me pointers to improved what we were doing. When we sold the paper, Phyl wanted to have all the papers we had published leather bound as a gift to me. We hadn’t kept all the papers but Uncle Dan had. As I look through the books today, half of the newspapers have his name, address and a stamp on them. He had saved them all.
I was always his pride. He had molded me in many ways. He was always a hero to me. A few years ago, after this smart man retired, I stopped in Eunice to visit him. He showed me the art he had worked on, pen and inks of grandma and a drawing of the first mayor and county judge that he had drawn from print images. He asked if I wanted to see his garden. He had devised a way to fertilize the crop underground by filling buckets with tiny pinholes, with fertilizer. He could feed his crop anytime he wanted with water pressure. Tomato plants were eight feet high and loaded. I bragged about his fine garden. He beamed, then asked me,“What did you say your name was?” I was devastated. He had no idea who I was. I never went to see him again. His wife died and he was put in a nursing home. I drove by it several times but wouldn’t stop. I wanted to remember the man I had admired since a boy just the way I had known him. Two of his four boys passed away before his death but he didn’t remember them because of the dreadful Alzheimer’s disease.
During the deep silence, an hour before dawn, when the world still seemed to be dreaming, thoughts of Dan were running through my mind. He had known so many people and made so many friends but the funeral home in Lafayette was empty. I looked at the registration book. A dozen people had been by. My sister Fay had brought Mom to see her brother. I’m told that seeing him in his casket provoked a tear.
After the service, on the long drive home alone with my thoughts, I gave thanks that a young 21-year-old had taken an interest in me as a child and nourished that interest as long as he was capable. So much of what I had become was because of his caring. My uncles are all gone now. The last time they were all together was at my yearly birthday gathering. Dan was always the first to arrive, shortly after daylight.
This week, as I celebrate my birthday at our gathering at Dunn’s Bluff, my thoughts will turn to the memories that we made together. You live life, do your thing, whatever it is you are called to do, worry about small things and sometimes even laugh at yourself. You watch the ones behind you grow and hopefully leave behind some memories for them to carry down the line until one day you leave this Life’s Highway behind having served your time.