Political dirt

June 1, 2020

Chalmette, as I was told as a kid, was built on reclaimed swampland. It was said, when you dug in your backyard, you might unearth an old refrigerator or a window air conditioner. I never believed it until I saw my father dig up an old a/c and tried to get it to work.

In Chalmette as well as St. Bernard Parish, politics was synonymous with corruption. Ask a local politician why he whistled past graveyards, and he’d (they were all he’s as well as white) respond: “Because that’s where the votes are,” The state of Louisiana was(is) no better. One illustrious governor, who was put into an insane asylum by his political enemies, had once stated, “One day the people of this state are going to get good government, and they ain’t gonna like it.”

Anyway, back to the landfill that was Chalmette. As a result of its swamp roots, Chalmatians were always in need of fill dirt. While neighborhoods in other parts of the country were enhanced by floral landscapes, tree plantings and concrete or brick entries, ours was upgraded whenever a neighbor had a dump truck of mud piled up in his and her front yard. It was then declared that yard to be “high ground.”

“Ask a local politician why he whistled past graveyards, and he’d (they were all he’s as well as white) respond: “Because that’s where the votes are,”

A load of dirt also became the coin of the realm during election time. Office seekers would canvass a neighborhood, delivering truckloads of dirt in exchange for votes. This was generally done by the incumbents, as challengers lacked access to the public vehicles necessary for the deliveries. My father was a vocal opponent – and I mean vocal in the sense of verbally abusive – of any incumbent, once redecorating the family car and outfitting it with a loudspeaker to campaign for a challenger to the entrenched political machine. In return for his anticipated opposition, each election would find two loads of dirt in our front yard. (These two piles made perfect emplacements for spirited games of War fought with mud clods by the kids on my block. Which my team always won.)

Eventually, the reformer my father supported did succeed in overthrowing the machine and winning the election. This immediately put him at odds with my father, who now saw the reformer as part of the entrenched machine. For years when they’d meet at random in a grocery store or other public place, my father could be heard railing against the reformer to anyone who would listen. (Being a reformer, he didn’t respond with a load of dirt at election time, bringing an end to our kids’s war games.)

In an interesting footnote, when my father passed years later, the reformer actually showed up at our house to pay his respects. My feeling was he was just making sure my father was indeed dead.

None of those piles of dirt helped, of course, when Katrina blew into town in 2005. Decades of corrupt politics favoring the extractive industry’s need for channels and canals had carved up the parish and surrounding protective marshland into little more than a superhighway for storm surge.

It just shows what slinging political dirt actually gets you.

I may be making this part up.

Gov. Earl K. Long (1956-1960)

Definitely made this up.

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