Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Day 65: The Bonnie Blue Flag

Tickfaw to Lorraine. 20 miles/1149.6 total

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I'm just south of Tickfaw, heading down through Hammond, then east to near a place called Lorraine. I originally planned to go south on Highway 51 to the western suburbs and enter New Orleans heading east, then double back through the city and head west again. But I discovered that 51 merges with I-55 as it goes along the isthmus between Lake Ponchartrain and the smaller Lake Maurepas, and that walking there was out of the question. So the alternative is to go east around Lake Ponchartrain on the north side, through Covington and Slidell, and then down into the eastern end of New Orleans.

It's colder today than it was yesterday, maybe in the low 40s right now. The skies are blue with just a few high clouds. I doubt if it will get much over 50.

Shortly after starting out I enter the Tickfaw town limits. It appears that this town, like Independence, has a large Italian population. Indeed, the Italian flag flies just below the U.S. flag at the entrance to this narrow village that runs along the railroad tracks, now owned by the Canadian National Railway, or CN, as it styles itself, lest people think less of it for being foreign.

The official welcome sign to Tickfaw says the mayor is Anthony Lamonte and Jimmy Speracello is the chief of police. And right next to the town sign is a manger scene left over from the holidays, a plywood lean-to with figures inside of Mary, Joseph, the three wise guys, and of course the baby Jesus. Outside looking in are a few farm animals. But most prominent, and quite a bit out of proportion to the rest of the figures, are a couple of large white light-up reindeer, one of which has fallen over.

Of course I cringe at the very real possibility that the Town of Tickfaw itself sponsored this religious display here on the town green. But I can imagine what the response of the goombah city fathers would be if someone pointed out to them the unconstitutionality of their ways. Probably something like this: "Who the fuck are you? You got a fuckin' problem with the baby Jesus? What are you, some kind a communist? Goddamn lawyers, they don't respect nothin'."

For devotees of historical geography, I should mention that a flag other than those of France, Spain, Britain, and the U.S. (and here and there Italy) once flew over this region. It was called the Bonnie Blue Flag--blue with a white star in the middle--and it was the ensign of the Republic of West Florida, which lasted for 90 days in the year 1810. It seems that this portion of Louisiana, above Lake Ponchartrain, was not part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but was instead part of West Florida, an area that belonged at various times to the Spanish, the French, and even the British. (Picture the present-day Florida panhandle extending all the way to Baton Rouge, and you will get the idea.) At the time of the Louisiana Purchase the Louisiana Florida Parishes were under Spanish control, but the English-speaking citizens of the area actually staged a rebellion, culminating in the short-lived republic. And for you deep trivia buffs, the first (and only) Governor of the Republic was a man named Fulwar Skipwith. Following the Republic of West Florida's declaration of independence, the U.S. quickly moved to annex the area, and after a bit of comic-opera posturing, Skipwith acceded, and the territory became part of Louisiana.

The next place I come to is Natalbany, a community of about 1,700 people. I don't know what the name means, except that perhaps, since there's a city called Albany not far from here, people here wanted everyone to know that this town wasn't that one. We're Natalbany, they may have said. (That, I admit, was bad. Worthy of my brother.)

At the intersection of Louisiana 1064 and Highway 51, the center of Natalbany, there's a little store that advertises "HOT LUNCH / PROPANE / LIVE BAIT." I guess that about covers it. If you've got the live bait and the propane, you can make the hot lunch. As Johnny Keats would say, "that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

I pass a nursery school called the ABC Academy. The little ones are outside playing on the swingsets, and it makes me miss my grandchildren. But it wouldn't do for me to stop and look at them over the fence for too long, where they play under the watchful eyes of their schoolmarms. And rightly so. Would I want some drifter who looked like me to linger and stare at my own little ones? No, decidedly not. So the sound of their laughter will have to suffice as a tonic, as I move on. And that is the way of the world.

At 5.4 miles I enter Hammond, a city of just under 18,000, the largest in Tangipahoa Parish, but not the parish seat, which is Amite. Hammond was founded in 1818 by a guy named Peter Hammond, a Swede who had changed his name from Peter av Hammerdal. Hammond bought the land around here for practically nothing and made a fortune growing and selling timber for maritime purposes. In the 1850s the railroad came through. Now Hammond is at the intersection of I-55 and I-12, which makes it very commercially viable. Hammond also is the home of Southeastern Louisiana University.

There's money around here, and I don't think it's just from this second-tier university. I leave Highway 51, perhaps for the last time, and turn left into the city on U.S. 190. Shortly after making the turn, I see that 190 splits into eastbound and westbound one-way boulevards through the city. Approaching downtown from the west, the area is quiet and residential, with some mansions and large homes, well-manicured and landscaped. After a half dozen blocks the business district begins. There are a few bistros, boutiques, coffee shops, bookstores, and an organic food market, all of which I suppose are open due to the presence of the university. Thriving little downtown. Also, one of the things that I swear is common to every single university town I've ever been in--lots of one-way streets. Why is that, I wonder? Just to confuse people and make them feel uneducated?

Here in the middle of Hammond is the old train station, on W. Thomas Street, and a historical marker. Hammond was a shoe making center for the Confederacy during the Civil War. By the early 20th century Hammond was known as "Strawberry Capital of America." Who knew? Hammond, Louisiana--strawberry butcher for the world. City of big strawberry shoulders. Strawberryopolis.

Near the marker is another of those funky homemade wooden obelisks, relating the history of the Florida Parishes, just like the ones in Amite and Kentwood. Nearby is the Columbia Theater, an old brick beaux arts building that probably used to be an opera house. It's still a theater for the performing arts. The Louisiana Philharmonic is coming soon.

Out in the parking lot of the Hammond Police Department, prisoners in yellow jail garb are busy washing and polishing municipal vehicles. And on I go. I pass (without knowing it at the time) the graves of old Peter Hammond and his family, under several huge spreading southern oak trees, in a fenced-in yard behind an old partially-restored building.

The eastern outskirts of Hammond dribble away with considerably less fanfare, and the city is soon gone. Without a doubt the west side of Hammond is the money side. Over here we have the Higher Heights Fellowship Church, Pastor Jarvis Crockerham leading the flock onward and upward.

So the old man who goes west finds himself going east for a few days, in order to negotiate Lake Ponchartrain. It's a little odd not having the sun in front of me at this time of day.

The money keeps pouring in. I'm up over a dollar now, thanks to a couple of quarters. The road kill has been plentiful, too. I guess that's why they call Louisiana the Sportsman's Paradise. If your sport is nailing animals with a vehicle. Or in my case, cataloguing the dead beasts. And here's a first for road kill--an egret, or white heron. I see a lot of them, fishing in the ditches for god-knows what, then lazily climbing into the air. But for the most part they manage not to get killed.

At about 15 miles I enter the village of Robert. There's not much to say about it. A Church of God, a Baptist Church, a Catholic Church--Regina Coeli. A place called Seatrepid, specializing in applied underwater robotic solutions in connection with oil rigs (does that sound familiar, Greg?), a crawfish restaurant, a gas station. But the crown jewel of greater Robert, at least from the standpoint of its tax base, has to be the Walmart regional distribution warehouse, set far back from Highway 190 on an access road from which emanates a steady stream of those familiar white Walmart trucks.

An hour from the Walmart warehouse entrance I reach the motor home, and I'm off to the Hammond Walmart for the night.

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