My mother's father once asked me if I would forgive him for not being able to climb the ramps at Tiger Stadium and watch me play football for Louisiana State University. He said he'd heard my name on the radio one Saturday night, driving home from a seafood place in Opelousas, La., my home town, and I'd made him proud. He said he sometimes prayed for me to win, on his knees at church and in bed at night. But I told him not to do that. When he asked why not, I told him that the guys on the other team had grandfathers, too, and they were all probably praying just as hard.
That was back in December 1977, a few months before he died of a bad heart and was buried in a memorial park on the edge of town, near a healthy run of redtop privet and one stone Jesus dangling from a redwood cross. Austin Fontenot was on the bright verge of another drunk that day and had come by our house to deliver five white envelopes -- each containing a brand new $5 bill and a small note saying, "Merry XMas, I love you . . . PoPo" -- to his oldest daughter's five children.
He had stumbled through the dining room and into the den, searching, as was his routine, for the liquor cabinet and the solitary bottle of bourbon that stood tall and gorgeous on the upper shelf. Memory tells me he smelled oddly of shoe polish and pork sausage, and his lips were lined with little blue bruises.
In the end, arthritis had twisted and disfigured his back and shoulders, leaving him with a posture so grotesque that some of the neighborhood kids had taken to calling him "The Old Hunchback," not "Senator Fontenot," as he preferred to be called. They created wildly imaginative stories about his origin, where he slept at night and why he chose to make periodic visits to the John Bradley home on Delmas Street.
Though proud of my French Canadian ancestry, I was embarrassed to admit that the old man and I shared a generous spit of the same blood. My brother Bobby, who is four years younger than I and knew "the Senator" only as the man whose reckless behavior had made my mother cry at night, oftentimes refused to go near him, fearing he might do something as ghastly as reach out and touch him.
"I never did like Austin messing with all that nasty business of politics," my maternal grandmother, Euna Fontenot, told me the other day over a plate of chicken jambalaya. We were sitting at the big oak table in her kitchen, in the sprawling country home he had built some 12 years before becoming a state senator in 1964.
"Your uncle Harold would tell me, 'Mama, you're the best politician in the state of Loosiana. You're better than Huey was and better than Uncle Earl . . .' And I'd tell him, I'd say, 'I know that as a fact, Harold. Yes, I do.' But I never liked all da ugly things they did and continue to do in this part of the country."
She was, of course, referring to the state's long and uncertain tration of politics, which, in her esti- mation, attracted players with little more dignity than that human element fond of chewing gum in church and throwing down crumpled money at barnyard dog fights.
In time, even the word "politics" came to mean something vile and ungodly. But "quick not to judge," as she understood the Bible's definition of tolerance, Euna Fontenot would deal with the latest uproar -- the one concerning the governor, Edwin W. Edwards, indicted in Febacy, racketeering, mail fraud and wire fraud -- by asking her maker for the strength of a reasonable perspective at mass come Sunday morning.
"Louisiana likes spectacular fellas," my old friend, G. Dupre Litton, a political commentator and former executive counsel to Gov. Earl Long, told me when I was home. "And that has a lot to do with why we've become the laughing stock of the country. This state has an extremely low political morality. The average person in Louisiana doesn't think it's wrong for a governor to steal, to be in some deals. They say, 'Ah, well, everybody's doin' it, what's wrong with that?'
"I believe it doesn't bother them because they've had all this funny dealings thrust at 'em for such a long time. Starting with Huey Long, too many of our big chiefs have dipped into the cookie jar to see what they could pull out."
YEARS BEFORE the indictment of Edwards -- on charges that he pocketed almost $2 million for himself and an additional $1 million from health-care facilities' certification from 1982 to 1984 -- some of the state's most powerful leaders seemed determined to make a mess of things at the statehouse, and a pretty penny for themselves, too. In the early 1930s, Huey Long's move to "share the wealth" split the state into two distinct factions -- pros and antis -- even while his "deduct system" tithed 10 percent of each state employe's salary and deposited it into the Long political machine.
The Kingfish's successor, Richard Leche, served a 21/2-year prison sentence for mail fraud. A federal investigation resulted in 250 indictments, and fines were levied against 51 people and 17 business firms. It was a miracle, one political observer remarked, that only six people committed suicide in the wake of the scandal.
Then there was Earl Long, Huey's brother. In 1959, Uncle Earl, then the governor, was involuntarily institutionalized in a Galveston, Tex., sanitarium after fulminating for hours on the floor of the senate. His wife and friends thought they could avoid adverse publicity by detaining him out of state. But public discussion was soon split on whether "the ailing governor" was crazy or not. After weasling his way back into Louisiana and the governor's mansion in Baton Rouge, Uncle Earl fired the state hospital commissioner in order to keep from being recommitted, and most everyone agreed he was more sane than not.
"I'm the last of the red-hot pop- pas in politics," he once declared, way off the mark. "When I'm gone, there won't be any more."
IN MY FAMILY, the subject of politics seldom came up after my grandfather died in 1978, mainly out of deference to Euna, who carried his memory like a basket of thin-shelled eggs. Unsettling periods of silence followed any attempt at inquiry. "Poor Daddy," somebody -- my mother or one of her sisters -- would say, and the subject would quickly turn to LSU football or little Leslie's most recent ballet repertoire. Only once do I recall any mention of his work as a "public servant" -- PoPo had fathered the constitutional amendment permitting the governor to succeed himself in office.
But on my spring visit, talking from the heart with my grandmother, who now is 71, I learned why it is sometimes best to let the past go. And I learned why there should be a limit to what one is expected to remember about the dead.
"I've seen cash stacked up so high right there on the kitchen cabinet," she said, pointing to the spot, "and all of it dirty money, taken from a club between LeBeau and Baton Rouge. It was prostitutes' money, and PoPo would stand there and smile down on it. And then he'd deliver it to the man in St. Landry Parish who ran things -- Cat Doucet, the political boss, the one responsible for Austin getting in the senate in the first place. This is your grandfather I'm talking about, John Ed."
She walked to the kitchen sink and turned on the hot water, letting the steam run and cloud the window that looked out on the back yard, all 50-some-odd acres of it.
"Those people took PoPo for a ride," she said. "PoPo could have been a better man had he learned how to say no to the people who helped him. He liked the power. He thought you needed the bad to balance the good. And even today, I still love him like I did when he was 18 years old and we first met and married. That's the way I'll always remember him -- thumbing a ride to town to sit on the courthouse steps and talk politics, or crying in the bedroom when he heard that Huey Long was dead."
IN THE EIGHTH GRADE, while studying Louisiana history at the junior high school in town, I learned that some men of power who wish only what is right sometimes perform evil acts in order to achieve their goals. This made little sense to me until it came up on a quiz of some kind and answering with a "T" meant making the grade and answering with an "F" meant missing it. But when I was older, I learned that some men perform evil acts so that they may attain power and achieve their goals, which are oftentimes selfish and not in the best interest of the people.
My history teacher, Miss Marie Pavy, had never once spoken a bad word against Huey Long, although it was news to no one that she was related to Carl A. Weiss, the young doctor from Baton Rouge who assassinated Huey Long on Sept. 10, 1935. Over a regular school period of nine months or so, the life and times of the Kingfish -- without doubt one of the most aggressive and controversial political leaders in the history of the nation -- was never discussed in class, and all we learned about his dictatorial reign was that he had given us, the lucky children of the state of Louisiana, free school books.
When I look back, I wonder how Miss Pavy managed to get by teaching year after year -- 42 in all -- without discussing her sister Yvonne's marriage to Weiss and the terrific flood of grief that must have overcome her family after the assassination. Her brother-in-law, countless biographers of Huey Long reveal, was a brilliant but idealistic man with a facility in painting, music, mathematics and mechanics. Of the two shots he fired that night from a small, 32-caliber automatic pistol, only the first struck Long, who was then a U.S. senator taking care of unfinished business with the state legislature. The second shot ripped the wristwatch off Long's bodyguard, Murphy Roden, who had interfered on the scene and wrestled the assailant to the ground.
As a praetorian cadre of policemen and armed guards deposited round after round into Weiss' body, putting 29 holes in his back and two in his head, Long hurried aim- lessly down the great marble corridor, descended a flight of stairs and disappeared into the basement.
Later, in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, Long mumbled more to himself than anyone else, "I wonder why he shot me."
Our textbook, The Story of Louisiana, concluded its report on Long this way: "He met his death from a pistol- shot, fired in the new state Capitol which he had recently built and which stands today as an imposing monument to its builder."
Miss Pavy did not take us on a field trip to visit the 34- story statehouse in Baton Rouge, though I seem to remember some of the other history teachers taking their classes. Before our recent reunion at the old Pavy homestead in Opelousas, I had intended to ask her whether she had ever stood in the corridor where Huey Long and Carl Weiss met their end, or touched the bullet holes that scar the walls. But seeing her again, I hadn't the courage.
Miss Pavy and I were sitting on the glassed-in sun porch on the back of the house, in white wicker furniture with bright green floral cushions. The touch of powder or perfume she wore smelled faintly of jasmine, just as it had 15 years ago. I half-expected her to rise with solemn purpose, rap her knuckles on some invisible chalkboard and say, "Mr. Bradley, would you please tell the class why the state of Louisiana was so poorly pro- tected from the invasion of Yankee armies?"
She said, "John Ed, did you come to talk about the tragedy in my family? You know I couldn't talk about it . . . not for a very long time . . . not without getting upset."
Before I could reply, Miss Pavy began what sounded like an extemporaneous treatment of the lecture she was never able to give our class. She explained how Long had once pushed forth a bill in the legislature designed to destroy the leadership of her father, Judge Benjamin Pavy, a very powerful political enemy of Long and the presiding judge of the 13th judicial district, which was composed of St. Landry and Evangeline parishes. The gerrymander Long sought would have placed St. Landry -- then the fourth most populous parish in the state -- in another district and left Evangeline as the only parish in the 13th judicial district.
Judge Pavy, who had been elected and re-elected to his office for 28 years, would have faced an unbeatable storm of opposition in the pro-Long 15th judicial district when he came up for re- election. Long, successful in destroying the career of one of his most bitter enemies, would have then concentrated his efforts on filling the vacant judicial offices in Evangeline with his own people.
"Maybe I didn't say much about Huey Long," Miss Pavy said. "But I did make sure that everyone in my classroom had committed to memory the meaning of the word gerrymander."
I had only one question written down in my notebook, Do you know why Dr. Weiss shot Huey?, but I knew I'd never ask it. Coming almost 50 years after the assassination, and directed at the very woman who had lectured both my father and me on Louisiana political history, it would have sounded mean and disrespectful. So many people in my home parish, those who knew and admired Judge Pavy and his family, chose to believe Weiss had not killed Long but had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time -- walking down the corridor, perhaps to meet with Long and discuss the gerrymander, when a hired gunman opened fire. The small handgun on Weiss' body had been planted by the real assailant, whom everyone seemed to know and consider heroic.
My grandmother said, "Miss Bertha said not to write that Dr. Weiss shot Huey. She said she knows the man who did it but won't say on account of it still being secret."
A United Press dispatch, dated Sept. 9, 1935, and later reprinted in T. Harry Williams' master work, Huey Long, quoted Dr. F.O. Pavy, the brother of the judge, as saying, "Carl was a deep student of political theory. I am convinced that this intensive study of the Louisiana political situation convinced him that the form of government in the state under Senator Long's dictatorship was so terrible and such a miscarriage of justice that his broodings finally unbalanced his mind. I believe that, thus mentally unbalanced on this subject, he saw as a martyr to liberty the man who would assassinate Senator Long."
WHY DID AUSTIN always need people to tell him he was good? My grandmother said she wonders all the time. And what did one little vote mean? Or one little election? Why wasn't her love enough?
Whenever someone asks Euna what her husband was like as a young man, she automatically says, "Come see," and leads her interrogator through the great house to the living room and a photo album set on the bottom shelf of a black wrought iron baker's rack crowded with Reader's Digests and gold- framed pictures of Jesus and her 14 grandchildren.
Centered on the very first page is an 8-by-10 photograph of the man she married when he first entered politics as a candidate for the parish school board. He was then running a little country store and slaughterhouse in Lewisburg, about 10 miles from Opelousas. "You see that tie he's wearing," she always says, running her fingers over the plastic cover that seals the page. "He's wearing an Hawaiian tie. He thought it made him look rich, like a big politician. But that's the closest he ever got to Hawaii."
THE DAY BEFORE I left home, I went to visit one of my grandfather's friends and found him sitting on a stone bench in his back yard, dressed in his favorite suit of khaki and a sweat-stained cowboy hat. All that time working in the "law enforcement bidness" with Cat Doucat, who had been sheriff for 20 years, the old man had shot only one man, and that was because he had to. He aimed low and put the bullet in the man's thigh.
"Clipped him runnin'," he said and snapped his fingers.
"You ever hear anything about my grandfather being a bag man?" I asked. "I heard he was working the whorehouse, out by LeBeau."
"Austin was a lot of things," he said, "but he wadn't no bagman, not to my knowledge. He was weak because of whiskey, and that made it easy for Cat to control him. But Austin, you take away dat weakness, he was a good man."
The old man then explained that every man has a weakness. Ninety percent, he said, had it for women. The other 10 percent, give or take a few, had it for whiskey. My grandfather belonged to the illustrious group that had it for both women and whiskey. That made him a prime choice for Doucet, who had endorsed a man named Frank Diesi until a few nights before the elecion.
In those days, a candidate for public office in St. Landry parish who found himself on Cat Doucet's ticket was a shoo-in to win the election. As a voter went to the polls, someone in the sheriff's well- organized machine handed him a small slip of paper with six or seven numbers aligned vertically. Although there were no names printed on it, the voter relied on this "ticket" to decipher the scrambled face of the voting machine and know Doucet's allies from his enemies.
"Your blacks made up 25 percent of the vote," the man said. "You had to buy them to win. What you'd do, you'd give 'em dis ticket and a couple or three dollars. Now they tell me inflation's put the price at $10."
Two days before the election in 1964, he said, Cat Doucet "got fed up" with Diesi, the incumbent state senator, "for some reason I can't remember," and decided to bump him in favor of my grandfather. Although the "ticket" was printed and ready for distribution, the old man said he and several other Doucet allies "pasted Austin's number over Frank's number. It was as simple as putting the number 102 over the number 100. The night before the election, there was a big gathering at the courthouse. People from all over the parish turned out, along with the politicians, and we handed out the tickets. None of us was surprised to learn later that night that Austin had won." IN 1968, Austin Fontenot ran for re-election and lost by a margin of votes my mother tells me "was not a landslide but was pretty, terribly convincing." She said he cried hearing the results on the radio, "as if he'd lost everything." Frank Diesi beat him.
My grandparents divorced in 1973, and Austin remarried not long after. I don't recall ever meeting the new Mrs. Fontenot, but I saw her picture once. This was about a year before Austin died, when he was serving as an appointee on the Louisiana State Parole Board, and I had driven him home one night and helped him into the house and put him to bed. He was drunk and babbling incoherently, using language my father would have called "foul," and punching me in the chest and belly as hard as he could. He kept calling me, "Mr. Big Man," and "Mr. Football Player."
"You don't know anything about any of me," he said. And I said in lame defense, "You don't know anything about any of me, either, PoPo," or something like that. What I meant to say was, "I don't give a damn whether I do know anything about you or not." Or better yet, "Who would want to know anything about you anyway, Mr. Former Senator From St. Landry Parish?" But those words had become garbled somewhere between the point of conception and the point of utterance.
There was a large black- and-white picture on the bookcase in the den, of the woman who must have been his wife. It was situated in the middle of about 10 or 12 smaller pictures, all thinly glazed with dust and pollen, and they were of people I'd never seen before. Who were these strangers standing next to shiny new cars and dressed in high school graduation gowns? Why were they on display in my grandfather's house?
I headed back to the bedroom to ask him where he'd put the pictures of his family, but got only as far as the dining room before changing my mind and turning for the front door. I resisted thinking that anything I could tell him would hurt him or make him feel guilty for what he'd made of himself. He was not famous or distinguished. And he had not become the man he had hoped to be.
In the morning, he would not even remember how he got home, much less who put him in bed. But the memory of my having done so would stay with me forever.