Thursday, February 11, 2010

Who Dat General?

Choosing a Super Bowl favorite was a snap at our place. New Orleans for years has rated right up there with San Francisco among U.S. cities we believe are worth visiting many times.

In the early 1980s, New Orleans’ music was great, the perpetual party atmosphere in the French Quarter was a joy, and typical tourist activities were anything but dull. Like San Francisco, it was a good place to “take her along” on a business trip. We did that several times.

While business meetings occupied my time, Sandy spent enjoyable days scouting out the cities, often in a tour group. She was ready every evening with good ideas for an activity. We tacked a weekend day or two onto the trips at our personal expense to make time for at least one lengthy tour together.

In 1981, we flew to New Orleans the weekend before a national meeting for heads of U.S. Forest Service research information units. Among other things, we wanted to travel five miles south to the site of the most famous battle of the War of 1812. Gray Line had a tour going there by boat. It was a good one.

The National Park Service employee at the historic site did an excellent job describing the events of January 8, 1815. With his clever interpretations fueling our imaginations, we could visualize the redcoats coming out of the wooded area and marching into withering fire from a rag-tag American army led by General Andrew Jackson. I still recall one of the park ranger’s lines: “All of a sudden the fog lifted, and the Americans were looking straight down their gun barrels at the best-dressed army in Europe.”

We had special help with activity planning during our 1981 visit to New Orleans. My counterpart at the Southeastern Forest Experiment Station, Bob Biesterfeldt, was there as a source of sound advice. Biesterfeldt had worked for several years at Southern Forest Experiment Station headquarters in New Orleans. He owned some rental properties in the city. He provided several good tips on where to go (and, definitely, where not to go) in the Big Easy. He even took me to a seedy little restaurant to experience the joys of a Po’ Boy sandwich after I said I’d like to go where the “regular people” ate lunch.

Sandy and I joined Biesterfeldt for early coffee before the Monday business meeting started. He asked about our weekend adventures. We started to give a glowing account of our trip down the river to the historic battlefield.

With tongue firmly in cheek, Biesterfeldt said, “I suppose some Park Service guy fed you a bunch of nonsense about the battle. They never tell tourists the true story.”

“It sounded real to us,” I said.

“I suppose he told you how Andy Jackson rode his big white horse up and down the line, telling the troops how important it was to win the battle and save the nation.”

“Not exactly, but he said something about Jackson’s fears that a victory there was sorely needed to keep the British from marching into New Orleans and splitting the country in half.” No one on the scene, including Jackson, realized that the battle meant nothing. The War of 1812 had ended 12 days earlier with a treaty signed in Europe. News moved slowly in those days.

“Well, he did try to fire up the Americans, but not with a bunch of patriotic jabbering,” Beisterfeldt said. “Jackson’s words really were, ‘Boys, I know that British general. He’s a Methodist. If he gets past us, nothing will stop him from marching into New Orleans. The first thing he’ll do is shut down every tavern, whorehouse, and gambling den in the city.’ When the time came, the Americans rose up and shot hell out of those redcoats.”

The Park Service version seemed more plausible. Whatever the truth, the Americans defended their turf with enthusiasm. The final score was not nearly as close as Sunday’s Super Bowl tally: British casualties 2,042, American casualties 71. Fitting right in with Biesterfeldt’s bogus account, one of the British dead was their commander, Major-General Edward Pakenham.

The Park Service interpreter squelched one myth about the battle. Pirate Jean Lafitte not only did not fight valiantly in the American cause, he wasn’t even there. He was several miles away. One version of history says he was on a scouting mission. Another has him sneaking away before the fighting started to enjoy the pleasures in one of his favorite taverns. As with many things related to New Orleans, take your pick.

And be joyful that, come hurricanes or high water, those Saints keep right on marchin’ in. The Super Bowl win just revved up the Bourbon Street party that never really stops.

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