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Victor Lang Remembers 

A Memory of New Orleans
September 16, 2005

Many times have I been in that incredible city on the delta, New Orleans. 
My sorrow at what her people and that city have just gone through is deep and sincere.  My memory went back sixty years ago last month when many would say the Crescent City had one of her happiest days.

On 15 August 1945 Japan surrendered unconditionally to the United States and World War II came to an end. 

"All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated...As therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come: so this bell calls us all: but how much more me, who am brought so near the door by this sickness....No man is an island, entire of itself...any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." - John Donne
I think anyone old enough to remember that day will be able to tell you precisely where he or she was and what happened on that incredible day.   

I know I will never forget where I was. At nine years of age, I was standing with my Grandparents and a great Aunt on Canal Street in New Orleans. We were in the middle of a solid mass of people and all eyes were riveted on a “rolling” news report that ran around the front of a building on Canal. Word had been spreading in the city throughout the day that surrender would come in the afternoon. I can vividly yet see the black letters on white background coming around on the reel “Japan has su….” The crowd on Canal did not wait for the final part of the flash to go by them before erupting into noise that would have made Mardi Gras sound like Sunday School. I was tall for my age but still swamped by the bodies wedged around me. There was singing, dancing and there had already been plenty of drinking going on that day.

New Orleans was not called the “Big Easy” for nothing. Suddenly, we saw a sailor driving a jeep right through the window of a department store. The sailor got out of the jeep inside the show window and started stepping outside the store. Police simply took him by the arm and helped him back onto the street. The fellow was visibly what my Grandmother referred to as “four sheets to the wind.” But the New Orleans police were not about to arrest a member of our armed forces just because he drove what turned out to be a stolen Army vehicle through a department store window! Not on that day in 1945.

There was only one unpleasant aspect to this entire adventure and it was my fault but I meant no harm when I caused the problem. My great Aunt Emma had a son named Bill who was overseas serving in the U. S. Army. I don’t know if he was in combat or not or even in the Pacific Theater but he was “over there” and his Mother was sick with worry about him. When the news flashed round as I described above, Emma said “Thank God, thank God, Billy will be coming home.” Big Mouth Lang just had to say “Yes, he will if he’s still alive.” Out of the mouths of children, indeed. Emma clapped her hand over my mouth, not slapping me but trying to push my thoughtless words back into me. I apologized and was forgiven but I feel badly about making the comment to this day.

We were staying at a very old hotel now long gone from New Orleans. It was called the St. James and I don’t know for sure on what street it was located. I can be sure it was not the Roosevelt Hotel with its famous Sazerac Bar for we could not have afforded such chic quarters on this trip.

When word began to circulate that Japan would surrender within hours, suddenly all the metal Mardi Gras noisemakers that had been put away by stores at the start of WWII reappeared for sale. I remember being fascinated with the metal of the one I bought because everything had started turning into plastic during the war. I sat in the lobby of the St. James watching the action out on the street and whirling my noisemaker around in my hand. It sounded something like a gear stripping in an automobile. I was delighted but the woman behind the front desk of the hotel was not delighted for the same length of time and finally screamed at me to stop. I can’t blame the old dear now but I did then. I had a mouth on me even at nine years of age and told her she “should be more patriotic about the end of the war.” If there was a reply to my smart remark, I don’t recall it.

I wish I had been older as I would have liked very much to have gone bar hopping in the French Quarter that night. I would hazard a guess it was quite an evening to be “on the town.”

My memory also includes how and why we were in New Orleans for that momentous moment on Canal.

My Grandparents, of whom I have written before, were true characters. He was not really my Grandfather, being the third husband of my maternal Grandmother but he was delightful and the only Grandfather I knew.

Now, gasoline was rationed when we left Galveston. We left on a Sunday for a “Sunday drive” using my parents’ automobile. It was a 1940 Oldsmobile Club Sedan, lime green, with wide white sidewall tires. The shift was standard, of course, but was mounted on the steering wheel rather than being on the floor and that was considered somewhat “jazzy” at that time.

We were only going to drive over the big bridge in Orange, Texas and then come back to Galveston. I would have thought my parents would have wised up to my Grandparents by this time and never permitted them to exchange their older De Soto sedan for the outing.

We drove by for my great Aunt Emma, one of my Grandmother’s sisters and away we went. We did get to Orange and we did drive over the bridge but we kept right on driving further into Louisiana. My opinion is that my Grandmother intended all along that we would go to New Orleans, precisely because the war was ending and she liked to be “where the action was.” It certainly wasn’t going to be on any exciting scale in Galveston.

We had no change of clothes, no toilet articles and in all likelihood, very little cash. My Grandfather would have had his gasoline ration coupons and that would have been about it. There were no credit cards in 1945 and frequently out of town checks would not be cashed by local merchants. So, I don’t know how we actually made this trip but I am thrilled to this day that we did. I do remember that when we got to New Orleans and checked into the St. James, my Grandparents called my Mother and Father who were worried sick about us by that time. I am sure the call was “collect.” My Father was very practical and immediately explained to my Grandfather that the war had better end fast as we would not have enough gas coupons to return to Galveston until rationing ended. I think gasoline rationing was “first in line” to be lifted after the surrender. My guess is that my Mother and Father ended up wiring money to my Grandparents.

I can remember other wonderful things about being in New Orleans at that incredible time. We rode the street car along St. Charles to Audobon Park and went to Mass at St. Louis Cathedral in thanks for the end of the war. We also took the ferry ride over to Algiers and I think I’ve mentioned doing this once before. At nine years of age, I thought we were off to Africa when I heard Algiers. Still, it was plenty exciting to take that ride.

It’s not possible for me to say just how long were in that grand city for everyone in my family who would know is dead and that puts a sad tinge to the memories. But only a tinge for the memories are happy ones. Where and what we ate is a mystery to me but I know we did not go hungry. I can remember my Grandmother washing my underwear and socks in the basin of the bathroom and hanging them up to dry overnight. God alone knows how the adults kept clean but I’m sure they did as my Grandparents were immaculate and well groomed at all times. What a wonderful thing to have been a child with such bohemian Grandparents who would set off on such a lark and pull it off.

What a wonderful thing for there to have been a city such as New Orleans to go to for the end of World War II. I argued with someone yesterday who said there would be no Mardi Gras in New Orleans next year. I contended there surely would be if there was only one float with one marching band and everyone in the city trailing along behind on foot. I know in my gut I’m right. The Gulf of Mexico can be vicious as well as beautiful and she dealt New Orleans a terrible time. But a lethal blow? I do not believe it to be so.

I have cousins in New Orleans. They very wisely fled from Katrina and are safe and sound elsewhere in Louisiana with their children. Their house is on Amelia Street, just off St. Charles. My cousin, Carla, told me that they knew from family members who did not leave that their house came through the hurricane safely. The levee break may have wrecked the house, however. And, said Carla “If the water didn’t get our house the looters might have but things will be what they will be.” My cousins will be returning to New Orleans when they can and, hopefully, their house will be there, high and dry.

At Texas A & M on Pelican Island here in Galveston I have one student so far who has been taken in from New Orleans. She told me that her family are all safe and they think their house may be there since it is in the French Quarter on high ground. I will do everything I can for her to be sure she is at ease in the class and perhaps can even enjoy herself.

Last Thursday I went to Moody Methodist Church on 53rd Street here in Galveston to deliver a modest check for the relief effort. I knew the church and its ancillary buildings was functioning as a shelter for evacuees from New Orleans. The place was full when I arrived and the Red Cross was handling things very efficiently. I did overhear one very sad remark. A very pleasant looking older man was registering himself and his family with the front desk. I heard the Red Cross lady say, very politely, “You do know you can’t sleep here---we are out of beds already---but we can feed you.” The man said “I know and we are grateful to be here at all.” There, but for the grace of God, go all of us in Galveston. I hope that family was taken to another place where there were beds available.

I think we all bow our heads in awe of the horror nature can wreak upon us. Equally, I think we raise our heads in anticipation that a marvelous city in this country will come back to her rightful place among us, her people having returned to accomplish this sad and difficult task. I believe it will happen.

No reader needs me to give orders but I will hope everyone’s generosity will continue as needed. Every dollar each one of us can spare will be gratefully received and used.

I doubt there will be many photographs accompanying this piece but perhaps we have seen enough devastation for now. I, for one, will remember a favorite city sixty years ago when a terrible war ended and I stood on Canal Street with my Grandparents.

Until next time, “Bon Chance,” as we would expect to hear at the Café du Monde in the French Quarter.


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