Saturday, February 16, 2013

A Meteor over Cajun Louisiana: Window on Atomic-Age Anxieties

The recent explosion of a meteor (or "bolide") near Chelyabinsk, Russia, reminded me of a similar incident that took place over south Louisiana in the late 1950s.

A meteor streaking through the atmosphere.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People I used this incident to illustrate how atomic-age anxieties had infiltrated Louisiana's traditionally French-speaking parishes — a region that at one time had been fairly isolated from the currents of mainstream American history. Some fellow historians bristle at the suggestion that south Louisiana was ever particularly isolated: but "isolated" is a relative term, and compared to, say, contemporary downtown Peoria, suburban Cincinnati, or midtown Manhattan, or any number of other mainstream American places, it was without doubt relatively isolated during the pre-World War II era.

This changed on a rapid, widespread basis with the coming of World War II, an event that finally immersed south Louisiana in mainstream American culture. As such, I demonstrated in The Cajuns that when a meteor lit up the region's night sky in the late 1950s, many Cajuns suspected they had just been attacked by the Soviet Union. As I concluded about their terrified response to the meteor, "Obviously, Cajuns were as susceptible to Cold War anxieties as other segments of American society."

Cover of my book
The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003)

Given the present interest in meteors, I excerpt here the section of my book dealing with that astronomical event over south Louisiana:
Around 10 p.m. on March 15, 1957, a fiery meteor emitting a shower of red sparks hurtled over south Louisiana, turning darkness to broad daylight before slamming into West Côte Blanche Bay. Windows rattled, some shattered, and police throughout central Acadiana [the Cajuns parishes of south-central Louisiana] fielded calls from hundreds of frantic citizens. No, they replied, it wasn't a mid-air collision, an oil-rig blowout, a "space ship from Mars," or "la fin du monde," the end of the world. It was only a chunk of rock from outer space. 
Significantly, some Acadiana residents assumed that what they had witnessed was an incoming missile and the flash of an atomic blast. They believed that the Soviets had launched a nuclear attack on Baton Rouge or New Orleans. According to the Abbeville Meridional, for example, a local resident "who prefers not being identified" said he thought the meteor was a guided missile . . . sent to this area by the Russians for some destructive purposes." The same article cited Vermilion Parish resident Preston Broussard as describing the meteor's impact as "like the explosion of weapons used in warfare." Lafayette's Daily Advertiser stated "Some thought it was . . . 'an atomic bomb dropped over New Orleans.'" In the rural community of Kaplan, school teacher Earl Comeaux was putting his daughter to sleep when he observed "the yard light up as in daytime." At first the event puzzled him, but as he recalled, "It dawned on me that that was the flash of an A-bomb exploding. Since it was in the east, I immediately thought of Baton Rouge, a prime target of the Russians. They would be after the petroleum plants there."
Newspaper article from March 1957
about the meteor.
(Source: Altus [Okla.] Times-Democrat/Google News)
Comeaux knew more than most locals about atomic warfare: a few years earlier he had served with Strategic Air Command, flying on B-50 bombers that carried nuclear warheads targeted for Moscow rail yards. Waking his wife anxiously, Comeaux told her about the mysterious flash, and explained that if the capital had indeed been bombed, the resulting shockwave ought to reach Kaplan at any moment. "Well, no sooner was that said than a great boom shook the house," he recalled. "I was convinced that we had been attacked by the Russians." Gathering their children, the Comeauxs huddled around their television, awaiting official word of doomsday. After a long night they learned about the meteor that had crashed nearby. "How terrified I had been for my family and myself!" he recalled. "How ridiculous my reaction to a natural occurrence." . . .
A follow-up note: I have tried unsuccessfully on occasion to coax both scientists and treasure hunters into searching for the meteorite in question. A large chunk of the object reportedly fell to Earth just off an easily identifiable spot on the Louisiana coast — the amusingly named Point No Point, which sits directly between East and West Côte Blanche bays. As I told a journalist in 2007:
I once spent a good deal of time researching this meteor, and three fishermen from Baldwin [in St. Mary Parish] reported that the meteor (or at least an automobile-sized part of it) crashed between their boat and the shoreline, which was located only a short distance away (a hundred yards or so, I recall). . . . They had been fishing near the division between East and West Côte Blanche Bay[s] at a place called Point No Point. The impact of the meteor hitting the water was so loud that their ears were still ringing days later, and they felt fortunate to be alive. Another, smaller chunk of the meteor landed on an inland oil rig near Houma, and the oil-field worker who saw it fall out of the sky and roll up against some equipment took the rock home as a keepsake. Who knows where it is now?

Approximate reported impact site
of meteor off Point No Point.
(Source: Google Maps)

The three fishermen in question drew a map showing precisely where this large chunk of space rock crashed into the water near Point No Point. This map still exists, and it seems to me that someone with an underwater magnetometer might use it to find the meteorite — assuming the meteorite is made of iron or some other easily detectable metal — and raise it to the surface.

Location of Point No Point (aka Marone Point).
(Source: Google Maps)

But what do I know about such things, really? I'm not a geophysicist, but a historian. And for all I know the rock, or what is left of it after possibly rusting beneath the waves for over a half-century, is buried under fifty feet of sludge.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

A Film Documents South Louisiana's Logging Industry, ca. 1925: Responsible Stewardship or Environmental Disaster?

Earlier today I learned of a two-part, roughly thirty-minute black-and-white silent film from circa 1925 documenting the daily operations of a south Louisiana cypress company. (I later realized that, purely by coincidence, an old high-school classmate of mine put the digitized film online.)

The movie shows lumberjacks in pirogues (small flat-bottomed boats) cutting down ancient cypress trees in or around the Atchafalaya Basin; a pull boat drawing the logs onto a canal using a chain and windlass; a dredge boat armed with a steam shovel extending the logging canals into a cypress swamp; a locomotive pulling flatcars of logs to the mill; a "towboat" (actually the full-fledged steamboat Sewanee) pulling a "boom" of logs to the mill; "overhead electric cars" — presumably state-of-the-art technology at the time — carrying logs around the lumberyard; "mechanical electric stackers" piling lumber; and early gas-powered trucks pulling wagons of lumber.

The film in question was shot by L. K. Williams, a member of the Williams family of Patterson who operated the massive F. B. Williams Cypress Company, located in that same town on or near the banks of Bayou Teche. The waterway from which L. K. Williams filmed the cypress mill (seen on reel two) is quite possibly the Teche itself, but it's difficult to say because there are many man-made canals around Patterson. The scene in question just as easily could have been shot from one of those canals.

Advertisement for F. B. Williams Cypress Company, Patterson, La.
(Source: The Lumber Trade Journal, 15 Sept 1914)

Note the industry-specific terms* that appear in the film’s captions:
Boom, n. Logs or timbers fastened together end to end and used to hold floating logs. The term sometimes includes the logs enclosed, as a boom of logs. 
Crib, n. Specifically, a raft of logs; loosely applied to a boom of logs. 
Float road[, n.]. A channel cleared in a swamp and used to float cypress logs from the woods to the boom at the river or mill.
F. B. Williams Cypress Company, Patterson, La.,
as shown in the ca. 1925 film.

I cannot find a definition for a run, another term used in the captions, but it is presumably the same as that for gutter road, which is "The path followed in skidding logs" — skid meaning "To draw logs from the stump to the skidway, landing, or mill." In turn, a skidway is "Two skids laid parallel at right angles to a road, usually raised above the ground at the end nearest the road.” The same source adds, "Logs are usually piled upon a skidway as they are brought from the stump for loading upon sleds, wagons, or cars."

This film provides a valuable insight into a now dormant Teche country industry: once lumber mills dotted the lower bayou, drawing on the nearby massive cypress swamp that is the Atchafalaya Basin, as well as on other, smaller cypress swamps in the region. Whether or not this turn-of-the-twentieth-century industry represented responsible stewardship of Louisiana’s natural resources or an environmental disaster (or something in between), I leave to viewers to decide. I myself do not weigh in on the issue because I have not researched the matter, and while it would be easy to deem it an "environmental disaster" I do not know this as a matter of fact.

The steamboat Sewanee, as shown in the ca. 1925 film.
It tows a "boom" of logs behind it.

*Definitions are quoted from: Bureau of Forestry, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Terms Used in Forestry and Logging (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1905).

Monday, February 4, 2013

A Glimpse from 1968: Historic Films Looked at Cajuns and Creoles in Epic Year

A couple months ago or so Cajun fiddler David Greely sent me a link to a 1968 film on YouTube. The film showed elderly Cajun couples dancing to late Cajun accordionist Aldus Roger (pronounced RO-ZHAY in the French manner).

Aldus Roger and his band perform for dancers.
Source: La Louisiane (1968)

The video captivated me because moving images of Cajun musicians from the late 1960s or earlier are rare. I was not alone in my interest — the video caused a momentary stir among others interested in Cajun culture.

I say "momentary" because almost as soon as David spread the word about this YouTube footage, the original poster suddenly yanked it from the Internet. This is quite possibly my fault, because when I saw the film I immediately e-mailed the original poster to ask, "Where did you get this? Do you know where I can get a copy? It is extremely important to those who study Cajun culture, and I would like to obtain dubs for preservation and research purposes." (I paraphrase.)

Within a few hours the YouTube video was gone and the poster never answered my query. Indeed, with the video removed I had no way to contact the poster, even to ask the name of the film.

Today I decided to see if I could track down the documentary in question. And, by Googling the words "cadien," "documentaire," "musique," and "1968," I was able to find the film.

Logo of the ORTF.
Source: Les archives de la télévision

Actually, I found three films (and there are perhaps more), all shot between 1968 and 1969 by the Office de radiodiffusion télévision française (ORTF), operated by the French government.

This was a vital time in Cajun and Creole history. As I note in my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People:
That year, 1968, was remarkable nationally and internationally. The Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the Vietnam War. LBJ announced he would not seek reelection to the presidency. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  Campus rallies erupted into violence amid cries of “Revolution!” Police bullied protestors and innocent bystanders at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. . . .
Acadiana [i.e., Cajun Louisiana] also witnessed incredible events of its own during 1968. Besides the creation of [French education group] CODOFIL, it saw the passage of several laws that bolstered the status of French in Louisiana. The state legislature mandated that public elementary schools offer at least five years of French instruction, and that public high schools offer the subject for at least three years, along with at least one course on the history and culture of French America. It required state colleges and universities to offer teacher certification in elementary school French, and it approved the publication of legal notices and other public documents in French. It also demanded that state-funded educational television be bilingual, showing French programming in equal proportion to its French-speaking viewers. Finally, the legislature authorized the establishment of a non-profit French-language television corporation in conjunction with [local university] USL, to be called Télévision-Louisiane.
Cover of my book
The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (2003)
Other events contributed to making 1968 an astounding year for the French preservation movement. USL committed itself to becoming “a world linguistic center” by establishing an Institute of French Studies and by expanding its role in training French educators. Civic leaders opened cultural exchanges with other French-speaking regions, symbolically pairing Lafayette with the city of Longueuil, Quebec, in what became known as a jumelage (twinning). Business leaders conducted a trade mission to Quebec in order to develop commercial ties. Educators started a summer student exchange program, sending Cajun children to Quebec, and hosting French Canadian children in south Louisiana. An International Acadian Festival took placed in Lafayette, attracting over one hundred governmental and media visitors from Canada and France for two days of receptions, lectures, exhibits, films, tours, and other events that highlighted the region’s French heritage.
Cajuns quickly grasped the significance of this amazing period. “Historians will circle calendar year 1968,” announced Acadiana Profile, a new bilingual magazine, “as the time when the . . . French Renaissance took form and shape and direction in Louisiana.” . . .
Shot in 1968, two of the films appeared in a French series called "En Couleur des U.S.A" ("In Color USA"). Both are available for viewing in their entirety per the website of the Institut national de l'audiovisuel (INA), or National Audiovisual Institute, of France.

La Louisiane : Fête de l'écrevisse, May 1968 (14 mins. 31 secs.)

One of the two films, titled "La Louisiane : Fête de l'écrevisse" ("Louisiana: Crawish Festival"), features the 1968 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. It originally aired in May that year and its summary reads: 
Reportage sur le festival de l'écrevisse à Breaux Bridge, en Louisiane, dans le pays cajun, avec de nombreuses festivités : course d'écrevisses, fanfares, danses, concours d'épluchage d'écrevisses et parades (une pour les blancs et une autre pour les noirs, alors qu'en théorie la ségrégation n'a plus cours).
Report on the Crawfish Festival of Breaux, Bridge, in Louisiana, in Cajun country, with many festivities: crawfish races, bands, dances, crawfish peeling contests, and parades (one for whites and another for blacks, even though segregation is no longer acceptable).
The absence of black people among the festival goers struck me as peculiar, even as the film itself depicts a black parade and a white parade. This was, of course, 1968, about a year before south Louisiana finally integrated its elementary and high schools (despite the fact that fifteen years earlier the Supreme Court, per the case Brown v. the Board of Education, had declared "separate-but-equal" education to be unconstitutional).

A crawfish float on Bayou Teche,
Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival.
Source: La Louisiane: Fête de l'écrevisse (1968)

On a less serious note, the film depicts a boat parade on Bayou Teche, a crawfish race, and, in one scene, a van decorated to promote Cajun musician Happy Fats LeBlanc's live Saturday TV program, Mariné, which aired on KLFY-TV 10.

The other film, titled "La Louisiane," was originally released in September 1968 and documents French culture in general in and around Lafayette, Louisiana. It begins with Cajun fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico and, later, includes that priceless footage of Cajun musician Aldus Roger playing for elderly Cajun dancers. It appears to me that the Roger footage was shot at KLFY's studio, originally located on Jefferson Street near its intersection with Pinhook Road. I assume the event is Roger's weekend live Cajun music TV program, which aired on KLFY from the mid-1950s through the 1960s. (I'm unsure when it fell from the station's lineup.) The only reason I doubt we are seeing Roger's weekend program, however, is the inclusion of news in French — unless that was actually part of Roger's program. (The show might be one of KLFY's other long-running local programs, Passe Partout or Meet Your Neighbor, but I've never heard of either having live studio dancers.)

La Louisiane, September 1968 (15 mins. 2 secs.)

Intriguingly, this second film includes an interview in French with future Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards and a rare interview with former U.S. congressman James "Jimmy" Domengeaux (pronounced in the French manner as DUH-MAZH-ZHEE-O, much like the surname of baseball great Joe DiMaggio). (I mention Domengeaux in previous articles here and here.) The same year this documentary appeared, Domengeaux became president of the newly created Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL) — a group that in coming decades would spearhead the teaching of French in Louisiana public schools. It was a revolutionary idea, for less than a decade earlier Louisiana children had been punished in schools for speaking French.

The summary of this film reads:
Ce reportage en Louisiane du sud part à la découverte des habitants francophones du pays acadien, dans la région de Lafayette : les trappeurs (piégeurs) des marécages du bayou Vermilion, les pêcheurs de crevettes (descendants de bretons ou normands installés d'abord au Canada) dans le port de Delcambre, les noirs descendants de créoles de Saint Domingue et Haiti. A Lafayette, une chaine de télévision et une station de radio émettent des programmes en français. James Domegeaux (un avocat de Lafayette), un représentant du Congrès et le gouverneur de Louisiane témoignent de leur volonté de sauvegarder le français en Louisiane.
This report on south Louisiana sets out to discover the French-speaking residents of Acadian country in the Lafayette area: trappers of the wetlands of Bayou Vermilion, shrimp fishermen (descendants of Bretons and Normans who first settled in Canada) at the port of Delcambre, black descendants of Creoles from Santo Domingo and Haiti. In Lafayette, a television station and a radio station broadcast programs in French. James Domegeaux (a lawyer from Lafayette), a congressman [Edwards, who was not yet governor], and a governor of Louisiana [John McKeithen], show their desire to preserve French in Louisiana. 
Jimmy Domengeaux interviewed.
Source: La Louisiane (1968)

A third film, shot the next year, is available per the INA website, but only as a short preview: it is titled, "Les Enfants de Francien : En Louisiane," which I suppose could be translated as "The Children of Old French: In Louisiana." It originally aired in June 1969 and according to the summary it asks: 
Comment peut-on être de culture française sans être français ? Ce reportage présente la communauté acadienne située dans les marais du delta du Mississippi.
Can French culture exist without being French? This report presents the Acadian community located in the marshes of the Mississippi delta. [I suspect the geography is off slightly.]
I re-post these videos because they afford a fascinating glimpse into the state of south Louisiana’s Cajun and Creole culture in the late 1960s, right at the birth of the French revival movement — as perceived at the time by the French media.

Addendum of 12 February 2013

A third south Louisiana-related film is available for viewing in its entirety through the INA website. Shot in 1976 — eight years after the above two La Louisiane films — it depicts, among other subjects, Louisiana schoolchildren singing "Frère Jacques"; Cajun radio-and-TV personality (and sometimes Cajun singer) Jim Olivier giving a weather forecast in French (another KLFY reference, possibly from the Passe Partout morning program); a second interview with Jimmy Domengeaux (whose group, CODOFIL, is mistakenly called the "Comité du defense du français" — unless a distinct group by this name existed, but I've never heard of it); and a glimpse of Michael Doucet and a few other Cajun musicians performing for the camera.  (The musicians may comprise an early version of the band BeauSoleil or perhaps another of Doucet's groups, Coteau.)