The Great Franco-American Naval Engagement of 1968
Copyright ©2018 Jim Gabour
La Casa de los Marinos, “The House of Sailors,” had three narrow and deep rooms, but most turistas never made it beyond the first. Each chamber was filled on its long side by a thin zinc-topped bar backed by a wall of mirrors. The reflective surfaces opened the rooms up a bit and made them seem less claustrophobic. Then there was the third and last room, the hide-out preferred by locals and Quarter rats.
The reasons were many. The back room was the literal “inner sanctum,” windowless and unreachable by the light of the first bar, a haven of the undisturbed 24-hour darkness preferred by New Orleans nightcrawlers, who often partied through the dawn and well toward the next sunset. But the real reason the back room was treasured was its service outlet, a completely hidden back alley. That passageway ran through the middle of the block, and out an unmarked gate onto the side street. Other than regulars and beverage vendors, very few people knew of its existence.
Like any neighborhood bar with proximity to the docks, La Casa was even more insane at Carnival. As a reward for a particularly long time at sea, or just for a job well done, dozens of vessels timed their operations to insure their crews had shore leave during the prelude to Fat Tuesday.
The Saturday before the Fat One has always been particularly wild. The parades have become non-stop at that point, massively colorful during the day and lit by flambeau torch-bearers at night. The arrival of tourists and collegians on multiple night hotel packages becomes so huge as to transform the traditional weekend date night into a wild, smiling, double-backed, beer swilling Beast who will lose his room keys by 10pm and do the technicolor yawn before midnight.
This Saturday of Mardi Gras 1968 was particularly special. The 2,000 crew members of the French helicopter cruiser R97, the Jean d’Arc had, for the first time in her history, docked the vessel in New Orleans. A primary training ship, she proudly carried two Aérospatiale Puma and two Aérospatiale Gazelle helicopters, as well as two of the Navy’s Alouette III choppers. Tours of the sophisticated weapons were allowed in daylight hours, while the city’s populace was vaguely sober.
Their main gangway dropped onto the foot of Iberville street, a scant five hundred feet from a bar that proclaimed itself to be the “House of Sailors.” It was only natural that by nightfall more than a few of those military gentlemen made their way to the bar’s double French doors. They were prepared for trouble, had been advised by their officers of neighborhoods and situations to avoid. To avoid confusion with merchant marines and members of other nations’ armed forces, and to help maintain their sense of decorum, the captain of the Jean d’Arc had required his crew, much of which was still in training, to wear their finest naval dress. His logic was that even common seamen looked and acted regal in starched uniforms.
Indeed it was the lowest ranks among the French sailors who had the most arresting and unique outfits, with colorful red and blue piping outlining the rectangular piece of cloth which covered the shoulders of the wide-sleeved blouse. Their matching bell-bottom pants were well in advance of the fashion. Making them even more evident in the crowds was their headgear. Surmounted with spotless white berets, banded with a gold cloth, black-lettered Jean-d’Arc ribbon, the chapeau were topped with a two-inch bright red pom-pom which stood out like a beacon.
In trying to insure the safety and well-being of his crew, the French captain had sealed their fate.
Besides the consumption of vast amounts of inebriants, Mardi Gras centers on costuming. Le Capitaine had costumed his men well, and in doing so, put them at the level of the crowd. They were doomed to be bait even before they left their ship.
La Casa housed a rough but young crowd, supplemented by many haphazard students who were to a great extent young men enduring higher education primarily as a means to avoid a more lethal schooling with the US military draft. My own motives were in line with this aesthetic.
I had already seen one of my roommates, a jockey by true profession, flunk out in his first semester and be taken within weeks by the US Marines. Six months later he was bemoaning the New-Orleans-like wet and muggy weather of Viet Nam, when a mortar round insured that weather would never again be a concern for him. After finding that my own initial efforts at university were judged borderline by my local draft board, I became a much more devoted student. So much so that the release of Carnival was a desperately needed diversion.
As I entered the back alley of La Casa that Saturday, I ran into two New Orleans natives, Vic Panaletti & Conrad Gutermann, already coming out. It was barely 9pm.
We had become friends quickly, Conrad and I bonded in our devotion to Mardi Gras. His parents were descendants of the Alsatians who settled just below the City in 1721. They still lived in the bayou- and lake-bounded area labeled Des Allemandes, designated “the Germans” for the original inhabitants.
Panaletti was Old World New Orleans Italian, tough as nails, and unfazable. I was shortly to find out just how unfazable.
“Where you guys going?” were the first words out of my mouth as we came face to face in the narrow alley. “I’m just getting here, and I was going to buy you bums a beer.”
“We’ll be right back,” said Vic. “Connie’s just takin’ me roun’ to the car for a second. Gotta clean up a little mess.” At this point Panale lifted his left hand, which I had not noticed was clamped to his side. There was a large and spreading red stain. Instantly I got woozy.
“Easy, man,” said Vic, supporting me with his right. “It’s nuttin. Guy thinks he got hisself a knife when it wudn’t nuttin a real gent would call a nail file. Won’t be pullin’ that again. I think I broke his arm. Maybe two places.”
Conrad guffawed. “Shouldn’t a wasted that last beer on that thick head, though,” he said.
“Dat wuz a philosophical error about which I find I now hold regrets,” said Panaletti wisely. “Nuttin compared to the loss of a full beer. Gimme a Jax, willya. I got me a first aid kit and a clean shirt in the car. We’ll be back before the beer gets warm.”
He laughed so loudly he gagged and had to cough. And with that Panaletti turned, and he and Gutermann marched arm and arm through the wet alley toward the street, laughing.
I worked my way through the crowd at the back room bar to the Decatur end of the room, first buying three beers then precariously climbing with two of them in my shirt pockets to sit atop a stack of cases of empties set in the front far corner. I figured from up there I could see all the action and still be spotted by my two friends when they returned.
I took my first deep draughts and sighed with the release of pressure. Nothing in the Real World was bad enough to actually spoil a Saturday’s cultural theatre at La Casa. Nothing.
It was then that I saw the first Jean d’ Arc sailors battling their way deep into the bar. Their determination to take on the worst the dive had to offer was undoubtedly bolstered by the ports they had already conquered. These were men who had trampled through the booze-laden minefields of Marseilles and Sydney and Singapore. They had shoved a Gallic pie in the none-too-delicate faces of Hong Kong and Bombay and Beirut.
They had not confronted a crowd of drunken New Orleans partiers on a Saturday night at Mardi Gras.
The sailors were being a little overly aggressive, especially considering they had no idea of the ground rules. One of which was to act with a modicum of courtesy. The French had decided that the sheer weight of their military training, and the fairly sizable numbers with which they had entered the bar, would hold them well in any stead. But La Casa was totally packed with people and, light-hearted as the evening was, no one was in the mood to be pushed around.
It started with the slightest of transgressions. A girl being shoved roughly from the rear, spilling her beer, only to turn and see a fellow wearing a red pom-pom beret with a gold band. The same woman decides that as recompense for his rudeness she should have this Carnivalgoer’s party hat. No one yet suspects that these are really sailors. Could be drag queens. At the moment they’re just a bunch of guys who went to the same army-navy store and dressed up all alike.
And those little hats are so cute.
The sailors are separated in the pressing crowd. They are being swept off their feet with the immense body surges toward and back from the bar. They are suddenly unsure of their footing. The first woman is carried away from the sailor whose hat she has taken before he can even lift an arm to try and grab it back. His arm, as a matter of fact, is stuck in the upright position. He cannot move it.
Another hat disappears. The jukebox and voices of the partiers are so loud that the shouts of the victims are totally inaudible. Then a shirt gets pulled out, and the process starts in earnest.
From my high perch the faces of the sailors are like those of swimmers held above the surface of a swirling coastal riptide. In this case as they exhibit desperate human faces as their bodies are attacked from below by costume sharks. There is surprise, then anger, then disbelief, and finally fear as their clothes are pulled, then torn from them. The sailors are pushed along, separated by the multi-bodied crowd, carried along by the human current toward the back alleyway door.
From which they are spit from the room as the seeds from a watermelon are discarded by a Louisiana farm boy, naked of all covering and protection.
A full half-dozen sailors have been ejected – now wearing only socks and shoes — into the alley, where they huddle shaking and babbling in their native tongue until a sympathetic bartender calls the US Navy’s Shore Patrol.
At just that moment my two friends Vic & Connie enter the alley to make their way into the rear room and claim their beers. I can see them for the last half of their walk. They don’t even stop talking, much less look to the left or right at six naked foreigners stamping their feet in the cold.
Vic looks dapper in his clean white shirt, showing no evidence at all that less than fifteen minutes before he’d had a nasty knife wound. He climbs up the beer cases to sit on one side of me, Connie on the other. I extract both their beers from my shirt pockets and we do a short toast to draft evasion.
The US Navy Shore Patrol finally arrives to transport their brothers-in-arms to the carrier’s gangway and release the seamen to walk aboard, sans uníformes.
La Casa de los Marinos was declared off-limits by the French navy from that day until almost two decades later when the rowdy bar was finally bought and transformed into a profitably tasteless burger and po-boy barn frequented by New Orleans on Ten Dollars a Day tourists.
That had not yet happened when Vic yelled into my ear over the rage of the La Casa crowd: “Anything happen while we were gone?”