By C. Paul Bergeron
Part 4: Elementary School
On September 17, 1928, the day after my 6th birthday, I started
school at the Abbeville Elementary school on Jefferson Street. This was
known as the Old School and the building is now occupied by the offices
of the Vermilion Parish school system.
I was excited, but I approached the event with some trepidation, as I did not speak English. My father and my four sisters spoke English, but in deference to my mother, who spoke only French, our family language was French. My mother had been placed in a private school as a child, but her mother had opted for instruction in French instead of English, which was also available. The school master was also her godfather, a Mr. Schlessinger whose two sons became well known in Abbeville—Fred as the mayor and George as a long term executive at the Louisiana State Rice Mill. She could read and write French, but because her brothers made fun of her early efforts to speak English, she abandoned English and stuck to French.
My sister Maggie was in the 7th grade, and she was assigned the task by our parents of conveying me to the first grade classroom. I remember walking through the door holding one of Maggie's hands with one of my hands and clutching my lunch with the other hand—a fried egg between two slices of home made bread, wrapped in a piece of newspaper and held together with some grocery store string, tied with a neat bow so that it could be easily loosened and used again. Unknown to me I was about to undergo an experience that no other little kid ever experienced anywhere in the United States, maybe even the world. I experienced a name change that had life long implications. Here's how it happened:
I was named after my maternal grandfather, who was born in 1848. His father was an Englishman who had drifted to Abbeville from parts unknown and had decided to stay a while. He spoke only English. He met and married a young Cajun widow who spoke only French. When my grandfather was born, his father named him after one of his brothers, probably Cedric, a typical English name. However, his Cajun relatives, as usually happened, corrupted the pronunciation of the name to something that sounded like Cell-rrriv'. So up to this point I answered to that name. So as Maggie explained it, when she gave Ms. Bessie Knox, the teacher, my name as Cell-rriv' Paul, Ms. Bessie immediately asked her how to spell Cell-rriv'. Maggie said something like "I don't know", and Ms. Bessie said "I don't know either, so why don't we just call him Paul" and Maggie said something like "Fine" and it was a done deal. My mother was puzzled when I got home with my book and other items all marked "Paul", but she didn't make a big deal out of it, probably thinking it was only temporary. But here I am, 79 years later, C. Paul instead of Cell-rriv'.
Actually, I was very happy about the change. Already some of my playmates were needling me with the name "Celery", and it was going to get worse.
The Old School was an interesting place. It was located next to the railroad track and across the tracks from the Louisiana State Rice Mill. It seemed like a huge steam locomotive was constantly going up and down the track, moving some boxcars one way and other boxcars another way, puffing, blowing its whistle and every now and then letting out huge clouds of water vapor that we called "steam". The kids loved the action.
The schools did not furnish lunches in those days. Most students brought something from home. Maggie prepared lunches for herself, our sister Namez, who was younger than Maggie by three years and for me. One day it would be fried egg sandwiches, the next day it would be fried potato sandwiches. The bread was always homemade.
I didn't find cold fried potatoes to be very tasty, and when I found out that some of the other kids were bored with their lunches and were willing to trade sandwiches, I took advantage of that and got a greater variety of lunches—things like chow chow sandwiches, sweet porridge sandwiches, goose egg sandwiches, fig sandwiches, black berry sandwiches, melon rind sandwiches and occasionally oil sausage sandwiches.
A year or two after Maggie had finished the 7th grade and moved on, Namez and I persuaded our parents to give us each a nickel each school day instead of packing a lunch from home. There were two bakeries near the school where we could get enough cinnamon rolls for a nickel to fill us up. One was the DeMary Bakery on South State Street in the same building that housed Claude Ledet's Food Store for many years and now houses Sue Fontenot's law office. The other was the Villemez Bakery, also on South State, just a few doors south of what is now the Abbey Players' building. And between these two bakeries was a wonderful Pop and Mom grocery store we called LaJoe's. The store was owned by Mr. and Mrs. Joe Russo (not the Joe Russo who made the Pop Rouge). They had immigrated from Italy and spoke broken English, they were extraordinarily kind and the store smelled so good, of celery and apples and oranges and home made candy. Their children Albert, Francis, Adelaide and Helen had either attended the Old School or were attending at the same time we were. Mz Russo made bologna sandwiches which she sold for a nickel—two slices of bread, one slice of bologna with mustard. Namez and I really loved these sandwiches, but they didn't really fill us up. One day she told me, "Give me your nickel. I want to try something." She bought a loaf of French bread for a nickel. Then she bought a nickel's worth of bologna and got four slices. Then she borrowed a knife from Mrs. Russo, cut the loaf of bread in half, put two slices of bologna in each and "borrowed" a little mustard from the kind Mrs. Russo.
The next day when we went to the Russo store to do the same thing, we found that Mrs. Russo was ahead of us. She was now making her sandwiches a la Namez—a half loaf of bread and two slices of bologna with mustard—still a nickel. Voila! Namez had invented the bologna po-boy in Abbeville!
Next: Part 5: Sleepovers
A Cajun Boyhood, by
C. Paul Bergeron
© 2007 by C. Paul Bergeron