A Duck Tale

November 8, 2014

A Duck Tale

by Letty Owings*

A park with a few scrub trees and a trickling brook was located across the street from one of the clap-trap rentals we called home during our days in Atlanta. To call the area a park was a stretch. When builders rushed to put up tiny houses built from old army barracks, the small ravine was too costly to fill in, so what better name than a “park.”

One morning a few domestic ducks paddled around in the stream. How they arrived, nobody knew. Probably they were Easter ducklings who grew past their cute stage. We joined the neighbors in feeding them bread scraps and the like. They seemed totally content with their new living situation, until one morning folks in the neighborhood woke to a shocking sight. During the night something- probably dogs- ripped and tore all the ducks into a heap of dead ducks and bloody feathers. With a closer look, my husband Ray noticed one duck was still alive. That discovery opened the duck chapter in our lives.

Ray carried the bleeding duck to our kitchen. I fetched needle and thread. With the three kids and I as the observation team, he sewed up the duck. So far, so good, but a serious problem remained. The duck could not lift his head even a bit. That meant he had to be hand fed both day and night, since he was too weak to go long without nourishment. Getting up nights was not a strange routine for me. We never had a kid who slept through the night until they were school age or thereabouts. I used to listen to the bragging of young mothers who claimed their babies slept through the night as soon as they popped out. I never had such luck, so feeding pablum to a duck at all hours fit my schedule.

Since ducky-lucky was by then at home on rags spread on the kitchen floor, feeding consisted of raising his head and squirting baby cereal down his throat. He was always a cooperative patient. How long it was before he could raise his head and eat on his own and stand on his wobbly legs, I do not remember.

After he learned to eat and to walk, we let him explore the back step and then the back yard. As soon as he got to full duck strength, he designated the unfenced back yard as his territory. He chased off curious neighbor dogs. He found his voice and squawked loud and clear. Wing flapping and a show of force came with loud honking. When he expanded his territory to the neighbors, we knew it was time to let him be a duck again.

We dreaded what we assumed would be a sad and difficult parting. How wrong we were! We took him to a lovely state park where ducks swam in the lake. Our duck took a mighty leap down the bank, half running, half flying to join his kin. With a loud quacking welcome, he became part of the flock waiting for him. In moments, we could not distinguish him from the rest. This was the ideal way to end our duck story- to cherish our time with him and to know he got to be a duck again.

*Letty and Ray, ages 89 and 91, live in Seattle.

Restore your faith in humanity in four minutes (h/t sadlyyes):


Public Schools in New Orleans 1958-1959

August 25, 2014

Old Kenner High School via Wikimedia Commons

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 1958-1959

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.”

Two of our kids served their time at John Clancy elementary school. We never learned about the John Clancy behind the name. Perhaps he was a crooked politician. That would make sense in an area where the biggest bridges were named after Huey Long, the infamous former Governor who was shot dead on the capitol steps. His brother Earl Long served as Governor in 1958, although his mind had long since left him. Sanity was not a requirement to be Governor of Louisiana.

John Clancy, newer and even more crowded than Kenner High, had a principal who had not even the benefit of a secretary or a counselor. He was the staff. Always hurried, harried, nervous and angry, his was an impossible situation. In fact, all of education in the state of Louisiana was impossible. With one of the highest tax bases in the country paired with the lowest teachers’ salaries, the diversion of funds to pockets of politicians assured a hopeless public education system.

Cooks held the most important jobs in the school system as far as the students were concerned. Many of the kids depended on the free school lunches for their daily bread. The principal stood like a prison guard at the lunchroom door, right by the tray return. His rule of “you take it, you eat it” went unchallenged. The cooks put their pride and their energies into making great meals for the hungry hordes. Biscuits hot from the oven and plenty of red beans and rice made for hearty, nourishing meals. If they deviated from the menu, the kids looked askance at the food. School fare was the same as what the kids ate at home, if they came from a home stable enough to have meals. The lucky ones might add to their fare some crawdads caught in the ubiquitous drainage ditches.

Classes at Clancy averaged around 50 students of varying ages. Since social promotion as a concept had not yet caught hold in Louisiana, students could fail as often as teachers cared to fail them. Some big guys roared up to grade school on their motorcycles. Some others were rounded up and dragged in by the local cops since truancy was petty crime. “Special education” classes for those who could not or would not learn were not an option in schools where most students would have qualified for special education. Teachers tried to survive, one day at a time.

So desperate was the need for teachers that I finally agreed to take a sixth grade part of the year. We could use the money, meager as it was. The $278/month was an improvement due to the recent reorganization of teachers’ unions. A Catholic Brother from one of the orders taught a sixth grade with 55 students. Not all the chairs fit in the room. Teachers and a few students, in that room and a number of others, were relegated to filling the hall next to the room. One day the Brother decided he was out of there while he was still functional. As unstrung as he was, he probably went out and crawled in a hole. I took the class for a number of weeks that ran into months. It was rather horrible, although I found the “kids” of all ages responded to kindness and consideration—attributes they seldom encountered. I liked them and they cared for me. They would beg me to read to them since many of them had never had the privilege of owning a book of their own or actually learning to read. Books suffered the same shortage as all other supplies.

Ray’s work at the State Street Marine Hospital had him catching babies and treating families of the shrimp boat captains. Since their health care was free, they brought gifts to the doctors on occasion. And what would a shrimp boat captain bring but shrimp—huge shrimp, a generous and unusual gift. We never went down to see the fleet blessed when the boats set out, but I believe that continues to be a custom.

Then, the floods came.

…to be continued, with a recollection the flood, and of Mardi Gras…


Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

August 14, 2014

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.

Also, if you have not seen The Butterfly Circus, which I have posted before, I suggest you find 20 minutes to see this inspirational film.

Freak Shows and Patent Medicines During the Great Depression

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 very heavy, 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, 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.”

Big Annie, like everyone else in the community, had examined the plants and weeds in the fields 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.


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