People sometimes ask me about my days as a small Cajun boy in South Louisiana. They seem to be under the impression that we rode alligators to school while wearing no shoes. That’s just about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. Of course we wore shoes. Alligators have pointy backs.
But seriously, we didn’t have alligators. We grew up in prairie country. We weren’t Swamp Cajuns, but rather Prairie Cajuns. True story: If I see my shadow in February, it’s six more weeks of winter.
I’m lying about that too. One thing you should know about Cajuns is they’re sort of like the Irish in that they like to lie to foreigners. Sure, the Irish call it the Gift of Gab but I prefer to call it lying to foreigners for sport. Either way it’s fun. I’ve known Louisiana priests to do this, going on and on about the Great Boudin Hunts of the Mid 50s or what have you. Well, it’s fun if you’re doing the lying. One of the reasons I get nervous around Irish. I just assume if the story’s remotely interesting, they’re just making it up. It doesn’t help that I’m relatively straight-faced, which is like a challenge. (Another reason I get nervous around the Irish: I can’t understand a fucking word they’re saying and they seriously need some hooked on phonics. Don’t yell at me if I call your kid Zoy-bang. If you wanted me to call her Shavan, you shoulda spelled it that way!)
You’d think the ultimate liar — or storyteller — would be an Irish Cajun. I’d think so too, but I’ve never seen one who can stay sober for long enough to get out more than a few sentences.
But where was I? Oh, yeah, growing up in South Louisiana. It wasn’t all that different. American had swept through in many places already and we all wanted more. We had paved roads and indoor plumbing and Burger King and Walmart and electricity and “the show” (the movies) as well as “the new show” (the movie theater that opened 10 years ago as opposed to the other one) and drive-thru daiquiri stands–all the things a great civilization needs.
There were some differences. I don’t know many other kids who were allowed to run barefooted in a yard full of cats and chickens, who ran around with the cousins throwing acorns, rotten tomatoes and the occasional ceramic egg at one another. Hell, one of our chores was to “burn the trash.” It’s exactly what it sounds like. Mawmaw gave us a bag of garbage and box of matches. “Yall go. And don’t burn yourselves.” She wouldn’t let us play with knives though.
Of course, we had different (better) food. We had weird accents, but few of us grew up speaking Cajun French. I know I didn’t. But one other different thing we had was a series of children’s books about Clovis Crawfish. With words by Mary Alice Fontenot, back when I was a kid, Clovis and his friends were black and white (or more likely charcoal and pencil) drawings by M.J. Richard. Now they’re all fancy and colorized, illustrated by Scott Blazek, Christine Kidder and some others. But I won’t hold that against him.
The two copies I have, Clovis Crawfish and His Friends and Clovis Crawfish and the Curious Crapaud, seem to be signed by Mary Alice Fontenot. Clovis Crawfish and the Curious Crapaud was my favorite. Why? The title mostly. As a little boy, I liked saying Crapaud for obvious reasons. But to be honest, the story isn’t that much in this one. Basically Clovis spends most of the book Corrine Crapaud to be his friend. But according to her cousin Ferdinand Frog, Corrine “can’t talk so good.” Indeed, she only speaks five question words, all of which happen to be in French. (They were trying to trick us into learning. It totally didn’t work on me.)
But Clovis Crawfish and His Friends was something else entirely. Action packed, in this book (SPOILER ALERT!) Clovis is attacked by Monsier Blue Jay and has one of his claws ripped off. I am not making this up.
Looking at the list, I really wish I’d had Clovis Crawfish and the Big Betail (you’re gonna pronounce that wrong, I guaran-goddamn-tee it). The Betail turns out to be Andrew Armadillo from Texas who apparently makes a heroic rescue, if I’m to believe the plot summary on Amazon.
But who knows, the person writing the plot summary might have been Cajun, Irish or both.