Down Life’s Highway…Mardi Gras of my youth
For the Record
Even before I knew what it meant, I can remember celebrating Mardi Gras. It was a special day for us South Louisiana Cajuns. Most communities had their own way of celebrate Fat Tuesday, the day before the start of the Lenten season. Large communities like New Orleans and Lafayette held a carnival with hundreds of costumed children, clowns, ballerinas, large parades and lots of fanfare. Few of us rural people ever attended those festivals. For the country folks, the day began in the early morning with masked horseback riders going through the countryside collecting chickens for gumbo to be enjoyed later in the day. At the gathering, the country gentlemen always came with their finest horses and often left with a horse’s tail cut off. These same boys were responsible for putting red pepper on the dance floor. This drove all the “partiers” noses crazy. The boys would hide and roll with laughter. As usual, the adults were well juiced in the spirits and having a great time. Many stories could be told about the pranks pulled by the older boys and young men.
The celebrating of this day is a Cajun tradition. Schools close and businesses come to a halt. Mardi Gras is instilled in the heart of anyone who ever took part in the celebration. Lent began the next day and for 40 days we Catholic kids took part in many religious ceremonies beginning with Ash Wednesday and continuing through Easter. Many of our days and nights were spent in worship at Mary Magdalene Church in Abbeville.
Cajuns, a fun loving people, were extremely serious about their religion – no dancing, drinking or partying in any form during Lent. Some days were also often meatless. We were let out of school to attend The Way of The Cross. Attending the old traditional Catholic services always spiritually moved this Cajun kid. So moved, in fact, that I almost dedicated my life to the priesthood. My life took a completely different turn however, but even today I carry with me a strong feeling for Christianity. It was strongly instilled in me as a lad. Even though my life has drifted in many directions, one thing I never lost is my belief in God. The Lenten season of many years ago is deeply embedded in me. Two things a Cajun kid was made to do were respect his elders and attend Christian services. The upbringing and guiding hand of tough discipline often surfaces to make me right my course. Righteousness so pounded into the offspring of a Cajun, that even today, time or even grandma’s lye soap couldn’t wash it away.
A Personal Note
On this day, February 19, 1959, 61 years ago, my father Clay Jackson Dunn died on the operating table. He had a gallstone lodged in an unusual duct and had turned jaundice. The doctors at the big Dallas hospital said surgery to remove the stone was the only option, even though his cardiologist advised against it. He had suffered a major heart attack earlier and his doctor said his heart would never stand major surgery.
The operation was set for 9:00 A.M. In order to get there in plenty of time to visit with him, I left the Brazos Valley around 3:00 A.M. for the three hour drive. Just a few miles out I started seeing snowflakes that kept falling harder and harder. By the time I got to Waco, visibility was almost impossible. I had never driven in snow before. It was a very strange feeling. I though I saw items that weren’t there, lines in the road were gone and it was impossible to see off ramps. In some areas my top speed was 10 miles an hour the closer I got to Dallas. I arrived at the hospital at 11:00 A.M., eight hours after I left home. Clay wouldn’t let them operate until I arrived. I extended his life by two hours. He had used up his nine lives. Today the procedure to remove the gallstone would be a simple laser operation.
Clay had beaten the odds time and again. His body bore the scars of World War I, where he was a foot soldier in hand to hand battle, marching plum through France. Later, as the owner of Port Arthur’s first taxi cab operation and a whiskey importer, he was tarred and feathered by the KKK and left to die at the foot of a burning cross. A young couple found him and saved his life. It took several months for him to recover. Till the day he died, he no longer could grow hair on his body. I find it strange today thinking of the colorful events he lived through in such a short life. He was only 65 years old. Today I have children who are within a year or two of that age. He would be proud to know that several of his offspring bare the name of Clay. He’s buried in the Dunn family plot at Sipe Springs cemetery, at Rising Star, with his parents and siblings.
Thank you for allowing me to recall a day a long time ago that is still as fresh in my memory as if it happened yesterday.