Saturday, October 11, 2008

Two Cajuns and a Turtle

When I first started flying out of my employer's Louisiana bases in 1979, the Cajun culture enchanted me. As a southern California boy, it was a little like going to a different country. I attended a Cajun Music Festival at Girard Park, and had a great time. I dated a local schoolteacher, and was fascinated to learn that her grandmother did not speak English, only the Cajun dialect of French.

But the oil industry was booming in 1979, and that made for a bursting-at-the-seams atmosphere, and in some quarters--mainly bars and taverns, it seemed--outsiders experienced resentment from the natives.

In Morgan City, where I began my civilian flying career, it seemed that trash was everywhere. It was probably unfair of me to blame that on the locals, since so many outsiders were living and working in Morgan City, but I blamed the locals anyway.

I hung out in bars a lot during my time off, and it seemed that Cajun guys my age were awfully provincial in their outlook on life. They were suspicious of new ideas, judgmental of anyone deemed "different," and apparently interested in little besides hunting, fishing, drinking, and fighting. I suppose sex must have fit in there somewhere, but it seemed that most young Cajun guys were more interested in kicking another guy in the nuts out in the parking lot than making love with a woman.

My initial enchantment with Cajun folks became, well, tarnished.

I was driving to work at our Intracoastal City base one day when I came upon a pickup with two young Cajun guys in the cab. They were drinking beer--Louisiana had no open container law at that time--and throwing the empties back to the pickup bed. A couple of times, they missed. They were speeding up and slowing down, and had no stretch of road on which to pass. I was in a bad mood already, since a woman I'd been dating had broken off with me due to my "fear of commitment." (Smart girl, she.) The Cajun guys were pissing me off.

Then they came to a stop ahead of me. "Great," I thought, "they've seen my California plate in the front, and now they want to screw with me." The driver started to get out of the cab. The passenger didn't move. I got out and began walking toward the driver. If he felt determined to provoke a fight, I wanted to be standing.

Only the driver wasn't walking toward me. He was walking away, beyond the front of the pickup. Curious, I walked out into the other lane to see what was going on.

There was a turtle on the road, lying on his back, helpless. The guy picked him up.

One of the first things I heard from older pilots when I started working in the Gulf of Mexico was that Cajun folks didn't have much respect for Fish and Game regulations. They cited a statistic: a game warden in Louisiana had six times greater chance of being killed on duty than an FBI field agent.

"Great," I thought, "Mr. Cajun Stud's gonna eat the turtle."

But he didn't. Instead, he walked with the turtle to the bayou a few yards from the edge of the road. He was holding the turtle's face toward his, and speaking Cajun French to it. I had no idea what he was saying, but his tone made me think it was a gentle admonishment. He bent down at the bayou's edge, and set the turtle free.

I walked back to my car, then turned back toward the pickup as I reached the door. The driver said something to his passenger in French, and they both laughed. He reached into the cab to retrieve his beer, then looked at me.

"Hey Mr. California, ya wanna beer?" I chuckled. "I'd love one, but I gotta go talk to my boss in a few minutes." "That's a damn tragedy," he replied. "That silly turtle will live to see another day, huh?" "Yep," I replied, "maybe his family will have a dinner in your honor." We all laughed.

I drove the remaining fifteen minutes to Intracoastal City, laughing with a lump in my throat.

Sadly, evidence of the Cajun culture seems to have faded over the decades. Few kids grow up bilingual anymore, and seldom do I hear middle-aged folks speaking French in public.

In any case, I'm thankful that those two Cajuns and the turtle prompted me to abandon my budding cultural prejudice. I'm sorry I didn't have the chance to have a beer with the three of 'em.


Debby said...

Nice story, Hal. I do love it when humanity surprises you. After your bleak mood yesterday, this is a sign (to me, anyways) that you are seeing the blessings. I'm glad. These are the stories that you need to tell Dylan!

Debby said...

Day before yesterday...sorry.

Hal Johnson said...

It's a funny thing, Debby. I really am the sort of person who gives the blessings more weight than the sad stuff, 95 percent of the time. Yet, there are days when I need to focus on sad. Also, sadness seems to be more creatively stirring than happy. I'm not alone there, I guess: whatcha think the ratio of sad songs to happy songs might be?

Debby said...

Okay, then, I will allow you off the hook. I am glad you're back to your goodnatured self! By the by, you made our local paper today. I used your blog/quote as the preface to let my readers know. This is a very small newspaper, mind, but I did preempt Dave Barry. Which made me sad, actually.

Uncle E said...

Ton recit et tres ravissante, monsieur Hal.
Ce tortue et tres chanceux, non?

*(It's been a while...)

Kelly said...

Great story!

Before transferring to the University of Tennessee to complete my education, I spent a couple of years at a small liberal arts school in Louisiana. I met more than my fair share of "coon-asses" there, the majority of them wonderful folks (who were never offended by the name used above).

When I went to the LA BOW weekend last spring I got to see quite a few cajuns in action. Man, those gals could party!! (those days are long past for me)

Pam said...

In my nearly two decades living in Louisiana I ran across my fair share of Cajuns. Love the lilting language, the Cajun French.

In many ways the culture was pretty insular in South Louisiana. Those who I encounted in other parts of Lousiana seemed less so.

Great language, great music!

quid said...

Great story...agree with Debby, better than bleak.