Travel back with me to Mardi Gras many years ago. Mardi Gras has a variety of associations. For me as a child, it meant a trip to fantasy land.
There’s a red glow in the sky. The day has come at last — It’s Mardi Gras! Some people call it Carnival Day, and some call it Mardi Gras. “Mama, what does Mardi Gras mean?” “It means fat Tuesday,” she answers. “It’s the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent when Catholics fast. So the day before is a day to have a good time, to feast.”
“Hurry, hurry, get dressed; we’re going to the Adler’s to watch the parade.” I can hardly gobble down my breakfast. I jump up from the table to find my costume. First, I put on my silk knee socks and then my patent leather shoes. I slip my white blouse over my head and pull up my velvet Tyrolean skirt embroidered with flowers, then tie the apron in a bow. I look in the mirror to put on the matching head band. My aunt has brought the Tyrolean costume from Austria. “How do I look? How do I look?” “Carol, are you ready?” my father calls. My brother, already dressed in his Dutch boy outfit, is clopping down the hall in his wooden shoes. We pile into the car after my father shoves in the pole with a wooden chair on top. There my brother will sit to see the parade.
We gather on the Adler’s lawn. Here we meet our friends and relatives. The Adlers have a gray stone house like a fortress on the top of a low hill. Their front yard faces St. Charles Avenue, where the parade will pass. Even some of the grown-ups are in costume: clowns, sailors, a ballet dancer, and a gorilla. There’s a man with playing cards tacked all over his clothes. My mother wears a broad brimmed hat trimmed with a mass of garden flowers. My cousin Cecile, dressed as a gypsy, has a red scarf tied under her black hair. Other children, who are dashing about the yard, wear yellow and orange sateen costumes decorated with gold and silver braid. I look at their outfits — I wish only that I too could have an American factory-made costume like theirs.
Let’s go. Let’s go. We run out to the street. Vendors walk by with balloons, souvenir folders of the Mardi Gras, and badges with green, purple, and gold ribbons. “Peanuts, peanuts, hot roasted peanuts, two bags for five”, boys chant. I buy two, the bags warm in my hand. I savor the smell as I crack the soft shell– two peanuts inside and if I’m lucky I find three.
I walk out to the middle of the street and look down St. Charles Avenue. Anything coming? I see General Robert E. Lee’s statue on top of a tall column in the center of Lee Circle, but no sign of a parade yet. Soon, we hear a rumbling, a gentle thunder — booming sounds in the distance. My heart pounds with excitement. Here come the policemen mounted on prancing horses. As the horses approach on each side of the street , we are forced back to the curb. People shout as elbows poke and feet stomp toes. But as soon as the mounted police pass, the crowd surges out into the street again. Now comes a troop of police officers marching to a drum beat. Boom, boom, I feel the vibration inside my chest.
The drum beat grows fainter. Again we wait as our eyes strain to see what is coming. A high stepping horse approaches — astride the horse, a royal courtier dressed in a satin doublet. The collar of his cape stands high around his neck, and the folds of his shining cape flow over the flanks of his horse. Above a white smiling mask that covers the courtier’s face, he wears a hat adorned with feather plumes. He nods, salutes as he passes, and doffs his plumed hat.
Now a rumbling, a rat-a-tat-tat as the drum majorettes twirl their batons and step in rhythm to the music of the Redemptorist Band. My heart pounds with the beat. More marching bands pass down the street before the cheering crowds.
Following the marchers are two black men — white shifts, tied with rope belts cover their clothes. They each carry a pole that supports a sign announcing the parade.– Rex, spelled in glittering letters. After the sign, at last the first float of the parade. Pulled by eight horses, it is a towering mountain on wheels. Tinseled clouds tremble on each side as a rainbow arches across the top. Golden spangles sparkle in the sun. and spelled out on each side of the float, the theme of this Rex parade: Mother Goose Rhymes.
We stand in the street waiting for the next float. ..Here it comes! –the King of Carnival, Rex himself, high on his throne. His pale pink mask hides his face. Who is the king, I wonder. From under his jeweled crown, hangs long blond hair, and he has a curled yellow beard. High above the king’s head there is a huge purple, green, and gold crown, supported by columns. As the king bows graciously waving his scepter. Covering the back of the float, his purple velvet mantle, edged with ermine, trails from his shoulders.
When his float reaches the Boston Club, downtown, the king will toast his queen who will be waiting on the balcony of the club.
Now a black limousine drives down the avenue. Then more high school bands unfurl their banners: Sacred Heart, Rugby, Fortier, and Dominican. My father supports the chair on a pole where my brother, above the crowd, watches the parade. We soon see the floats swaying along as horses pull them. Each float transports us to a make believe world of a nursery rhyme. Here comes “Little Boy Blue.”Among the hay-stacks, the sheep and cows, are masked men in satin costumes, their eyes twinkling through openings in their masks. Each man holds onto a post on which hang strings of beads and a bag of Mardi Gras trinkets. I run up to the float. “Throw me something, mister”, I shout. “Little Boy Blue” himself, his eyes mysterious behind his smiling mask, leans over and points to me. Then he drops into my hands a string of beautiful lavender beads. As each float passes, the crowd cheers, yells, and swarms to catch beads or a doubloon, (pirate coins inscribed with a picture of Rex) tossed from the float.
Finally, after the last float, comes the “trouble wagon”, a caboose on wheels, and behind it, a police car, its siren blaring. The Rex parade is over, but later in the afternoon we will go down to Rampart Street to watch the Zulu parade. And tonight we’ll see Comus, the best parade of all, illuminated with torches called flambeaux. Then, Mardi Gras will be over for another year.