A tale of Cajuns up North
“There’s nothing left for me, of days that used to be, I live in memories among my souvenirs.” (Song lyrics from a 1927 track by Leslie & Wright)
“Memories? Yeah, we got dat! Souvenirs? Yeah, we got dat, too.”
I’m opening today by quoting my good friend, Spud “Kingfish” McConnell’s, Dorignac TV commercial.
Sorry Spud. Your sponsor has dat, dis and does, but memories?
My column’s got DAT!
This story is true and was a local legend about my Dad. The words are improvised from interviews with old timers because I wasn’t born yet. But as the saying goes, “When the legend becomes the facts,” Oh you know.
In the 1930s, my dad, Roosevelt Martin, took a job trucking iced crates of shrimp to Northern cities with Dad’s brother, Eugene, riding shotgun. Why a shotgun rider? Those were the days of Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd and many, many more.
Ice was added as needed. This cargo was headed to Cicero, Illinois. (Don’t get ahead of me, now. Keep following along).
The crates were 50 pounds each, hidden behind a wall of ice. In front, carefully stacked to appear to be the load were a dozen or so 10-pound crates.
Truckers were often stopped and written tickets for over loads or some fictitious license, but when offered a box of giant shrimp (before “jumbo” was used), the tickets were torn and the truckers were on their way. Dad said it always worked. It was part of the price of doing business in the era of prohibition.
Roosevelt had never heard of Cicero, Illinois, but he had maps and phone numbers. The last contact was a police station, who after checking their credentials, yelled “follow us”, giving the men a three motorcycle escort. There were no more problems.
They were brought to the back alley of a big restaurant named Klaus where a team of men unloaded the crates. Everything got quiet when about six men in suits and fedora hats walked in.
One had a white hat and ordered that a box be opened. “That’s good ‘shramps’, he told Dad and shook his hand. He then yelled out, “Get these men a bottle of our best wine and send two to my friend, Cheramie”.
He continued, “You Cajun boys, huh? Them Cajuns got the best and fastest boats and do the job every time.”
Dad and Eugene knew exactly what he was taking about, and when a man yelled, “All ready, Al,” they were sort of sure who this Al was, but Dad asked one of the workers just to make 100 percent sure.
“Was that…?” he asked.
The man held up his hand and said, “You just delivered a truck load of shrimp to Al Capone and you don’t even know the man? Boy you Cajuns are dumb.”
Dad quipped, “Maybe we’re dumb, but smart enough to ski-daddle out of here.”
It was clear sailing through Cicero with two more stops from the cops.
Dad showed him the papers and opened the back door and he waved us on. It cost their last two 10-pound crates of “shramps”
Please remember that nothing the shippers or truckers did was in any way illegal. I often heard, “Man your Dad shook the hand of Al Capone,” from friends or relatives. Roosevelt became a celebrity for a while and when Capone went to jail about a year later, the talk died out. This is probably the first mention of this in over 60 years.
Whenever a visitor to our house would say, “Rossey, tell us about shaking Capone’s hand,” the answer would always vary depending on the audience.
If Mom was listening he would always answer, “Maybe I did and maybe I didn’t but he never told me his name.”
When she turned, he winked and held up his right hand. From there, they went through the ritual of, “I shook the hand that shook the hand of …”
You know the rest.
As for the bottle of wine? It was opened upon the birth of my sister, Betty, but I was too young to drink any.
Any conversation about this matter always brought a glare to my Mother’s eye and a sign to “hush.”
After all, good Catholics should not discuss the exploits of perhaps the greatest and most famous gangster of all times close to where the pictures of Jesus Christ, Huey P. Long and Franklin D. Roosevelt sat!
Will be back next week for more fun!
BYE NOW. •