Blessing the Bayou

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By Mike Tidwell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 24, 2002

The three Cajun fishermen never had a chance. Three miles off the Louisiana coast, in the stormy Gulf of Mexico, a tornado dropped out of the sky right in front of them. It touched the ocean and turned instantly into a killer waterspout, literally tons of rotating water, slamming head-on into the 60-foot trawler.

The boat rose 15 feet into the air, then turned on its side and slammed back into the water, where it sank 14 feet to the bottom of the gulf, all hands on board. One shrimper reached the surface, only to perish from a massive heart attack in the lonely terror of crashing waves and pelting rain. Another pushed free from an underwater tangle of boat ropes, kicked to the surface and swam three miles to safety. The third man never came up; his battered body was found days later on a beach west of Oyster Bayou.

It's for these dead fishermen that I now find myself at the head of a parade of 30 brightly decorated fishing vessels along a winding bayou in Dulac, La., two hours southwest of New Orleans. It's late April, the time of year when Cajun fishermen all along the Louisiana coast gather for a day steeped in bayou traditions, when they ask God to bless the recently dead and protect the living during the upcoming shrimp season.

On this lead boat, the Rev. Joseph Pilola, parish priest in Dulac, stands in his billowing white robe with a wreath of flowers in his hands. He asks friends and relatives of the deceased to gather around the stern for a special ceremony, and suddenly the boat's rumbling engines go silent. Only the distant sound of sea gulls and softly blowing wind can be heard.

"Let us pray," says Pilola, offering a eulogy.

Yet this day is about much more than mourning the dead. It's a chance to celebrate life, too -- something the people of southern Louisiana long ago turned into a veritable art form of eating, drinking, dancing and decoration. On wooden tables all across the boat deck sit steaming trays of crawfish, crabs, shrimp, jambalaya and gumbo. Adorning the boat's hull, meanwhile, are giant cardboard-cutout shrimp and Christian crosses, dozens of them, all sprinkled with gold glitter. And behind this boat, in single file, float dozens of similarly decorated fishing vessels overstuffed with people and Cajun cuisine, one carrying a live band playing "swamp pop" songs and sad French ballads with electric guitars and a full set of drums.

Indeed, for many Cajuns, this annual Blessing of the Fleet ceremony -- a day-long affair held in numerous waterside bayou towns each spring -- is second only to Mardi Gras as a chance to throw a party, spend time with family and friends, and show off valued cultural traits. And like Mardi Gras, visitors are wholeheartedly welcomed, though few outsiders have ever even heard of this venerated custom.

For the past hour, the parade of boats has traveled 10 slow miles down the bayou from the traditional starting point of Holy Family Catholic Church in Dulac. Along the way, from the bow of the lead boat, Pilola has faithfully performed his annual duty, reaching into a ceremonial pail of holy water and sprinkling the liquid onto the hulls of moored oyster boats, crab boats and shrimp boats before crowds of people cheering along the banks, everyone making the sign of the cross.

But here, near the bayou's end, where it widens dramatically before flowing into the gulf, all the cheering and applause has stopped. The musicians have put down their instruments.

The Rev. Gerome Weber, a second priest on board, takes the memorial wreath, says another short prayer and then tosses the red-and-white circle of flowers over the stern, where a strong outgoing tide carries it straight out toward the gulf. No sooner have the onlookers said amen and crossed themselves than I hear coolers opening behind me and the sound of glass bottles emerging from crushed ice. I smell the spicy aroma of boiled and pan-fried seafood as lids are lifted from hot dishes. "Allons, mes amis," someone yells. "Let's go, my friends. Who needs a beer?"

The numbers, from coastal Louisiana, are staggering: This state, by itself, produces a third of America's domestic seafood outside of Alaska, and Cajuns produce most of that catch. But commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. The chances of being maimed or killed are greater than working as a coal miner or a cop or jumping from helicopters to fight forest fires. Yet these fiercely independent Cajuns, many of whom still speak French and love their jobs as few of us do, accept the risks without too much complaint, turning for strength and protection to the old traditions, such as today's parade.

And boy, can they eat. At the grub line, I notice that those large round serving trays stacked by the tables are not trays at all. They're plates! Someone hands me one -- it's nearly the size of a manhole cover -- and a half-dozen hands and serving spoons appear from all directions, until my "plate" is covered with crab claws and shrimp tails and fried oysters and myriad other delights. I crack open a beer, then find a seat along the starboard gunwale and dig in.

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© 2002 The Washington Post Company

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