Tandem, An American Love Story
Chapter 8, Louisiana
Laissez le bon temps roulez, Coon Ass
The first day of November, we left Natchez, Mississippi, and rode over the wide Mississippi to Concordia Parish, Louisiana and turned south along the river. Within a few miles a line of thunder-heads made clear to us that we were going to get wet. Sooner than we’d hoped, we were huddled under the arms of a large oak at the gate to a plantation.
Change in the New South
Leaves and the huge limbs of the spreading oak gave brief protection from the pounding Louisiana rain. Just about the time it started to soak us, I noticed a severe burning sensation on my ankles and legs. Fire ants. I was standing on a fire ant mound next to the oak. I jumped around and swatted ants. I was about to beg Claire (who was not being bitten at all) to get on our bike and ride through the rain, when lightning struck close. Knowing how Claire feels about lightning, I gave up on the idea.
We were standing dripping in the rain, me dancing the fire ant dance, when Tam Winston drove into his drive and found us under his oak tree. He invited us to his porch until the rain let up. “Big white house on the left,” he said.
Big was right. The 1880’s plantation house had a porch big enough for a fair sized scout-troop to tent on. It is a very large house, but I notice that it is a little ragged around the edges. There is dry-rot and peeling paint. There is not great wealth here now, not like it must have been in earlier times.
We talked for awhile and he invited us in for coffee and a look at the Weather Channel.
Immediately inside was a huge entry. There were sitting rooms to the right and a piano parlor the left; a wide and long hallway led straight ahead through an obviously huge house. Tam took time to throw out the dog who had followed us to get away from the thunder.
A small boy came from the living room and looked up at us with big eyes. A large Black woman watched him from the room. She was quiet and would not make eye-contact.
Tam picked up his son Jake, and took us to the kitchen and family room in the back of the house. He made the coffee and asked us about our trip. He told us about visiting Washington state to buy breeding stock for his operation, and we discovered that he and his wife and three sons had been in Yellowstone National Park about the same time we were there in the summer.
The large Black woman moved like a shadow and did not speak. Tam did not introduce her, but when she received a telephone call, he called her Shirley and teased her good-naturedly.
Tam is in his early forties, good looking and well educated. He is Tam III and his first son is Tam IV. There is a smaller plantation house across the lane that houses his 86 year old mother. “She’s the matriarch of the family,” he said, “and what she says goes.”
The family has lived in Concordia Parish Louisiana for as long as anyone in the family knows. He told us that in ante-bellum days three related families lived in the house. In the heat of summer, they slept on the huge porch with cotton screens between the beds. In recent years, the house has been modernized. The kitchen and family room are an addition and where the family spends most of their time. Only his family of five lives here now.
Tam’s wife teaches and the two older boys go to school. The large Black woman takes care of son Jake while his mother is at school.
We talk about farming and raising cattle in the south and the west. He tells me about the difficulty in getting people to work here. He said he once employed 18 Black families and now Shirley is the only Black person employed by them. He blames the welfare system for this. He says that a 30 year old man can claim to be disabled by alcoholism and receive enough money each month so that Tam can’t pay him enough to get him to work. It is ruining all the young men he says.
He’s not sure why the White men will work for low wages, and the Black men will not work. He is discouraged by it. So discouraged, that he is considering re-locating to Montana; a very serious proposition for a man with family roots so deep in Mississippi river mud. He is uncomfortable raising his sons here now, something no other Winston generation has felt.
Perhaps it is crime. White people here seem overly concerned with our safety as we travel here. They ask often what kind of protection we carry, what weapon.
There is no overt racial character to Tam’s feelings; he seems to genuinely feel sorry for those he thinks have been dragged down by the welfare system. But, there is an unmistakable paternal attitude toward Black people that could no doubt be traced to slave times. He cares, but he assumes that White people are the natural leaders, and that Black people need his guidance. I suspect that doesn’t make him popular with the young Black men he might employ.
Times change, and Tam is having difficulty adjusting to some of the changes. He doesn’t want his sons to have to face the uncertainty he feels about plantation life in the future. But, then there is the matriarch across the road, and all the other ancestors buried here. Roots. Roots and hope. He still hopes some things will change and he can stay here.
The rain stopped and we stood on the porch again, saying good-bye, hearing his heartfelt, “Good luck.”
But, I can’t help but notice again the dry-rot around the pillars holding up the porch.