One of Pop’s favorite stories concerning his two years of training at the world-famous Charity Hospital in New Orleans in the mid 1930’s concerned a bar in the French Quarters called The Fireman’s Band. This favorite hang-out for many of the doctors and nurses at “The Charity” was partially owned by one of Pop’s friends who was also an intern at the hospital.
At the time Pop and our mother, Mimi had only one child, Berry Lee who was five years old. They lived in a small apartment a few blocks off St. Charles Avenue near the downtown. Pop said the two years of their life in New Orleans were very happy years, because he had finally settled into his career path in medicine. He had spent eight years in failing business ventures prior to deciding to follow in his father’s footsteps into medicine. It wasn’t easy to go back to finish college and then medical school at a later age and stage in life, but he had finally made it this far.
There wasn’t much time for recreation, but occasionally they would join several of their married friends for an evening of relaxation at The Fireman’s Band. This was not a typical boisterous and bawdy type of establishment often found in the French Quarters. Alcoholic beverages were served, and there was always a Dixieland band playing. The atmosphere was light, the customers were mostly married couples, and there was even a back room for their children to play with their toys. Pop said Berry Lee was always excited to go with them to The Fireman’s Band.
Shortly after moving to New Orleans they began attending St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church and found a perfect church home for them to attend. Mimi had never been baptized by immersion, and it was decided she should be properly baptized as part of their membership. It was scheduled following an evening worship service. After the baptism at the conclusion of the service the pastor had Mimi, Pop and Berry Lee standing at the front of the church, so the members could come by and congratulate her and welcome them into their fellowship. One particular lady in the long line of members leaned over to shake Berry Lee’s hand, and she asked him, “Young man, how are you going to celebrate your mother’s baptism tonight?” He stood up straight and proudly said, “We’re going to go to The Fireman’s Band.” Pop was speechless at Berry Lee’s answer, because there were no such plans for the evening. Pop said if he could have gotten under a pew, or hidden from the view of those around he would have done so. To make things even worse the lady asked Berry Lee, “Well, young man, just what do you plan to do at The Fireman’s Band?” Thinking perhaps he might entice her to join them he proudly said, “We sing songs, we tell jokes and we drink Coke and Clear!” Pop said he doubted the lady knew “Clear” was a slang term used during Prohibition for a type of gin. He was absolutely certain Berry Lee had no idea what he had just said. He probably had heard someone at The Fireman’s Band use the word, and he added it to the Coke which he loved drinking with the other kids in the back room.
This story has been retold many times in our family whenever Berry Lee was present, and he would always smile and sometimes chuckle. He had no recollection of the conversation. The rest of the story is what everyone in the family knew about Berry Lee. Not once in his lifetime did he ever taste “Clear” or any beverage alcohol. The only time he visited Cathy and me when we lived in New Orleans, he didn’t request we go to the Fireman’s Band, or any other night spot in the French Quarters. Perhaps he was afraid someone might ask him about it.
Dear John, I have loved reading the “Dr. John Remembers”, but especially today! I really had a laugh. I had never heard “the rest of the story” about “The Fireman’s Band”. I didn’t know about the church, the baptism of Mimi, or the lady’s question to Berry Lee. Of course, I knew the song and had heard Daddy sing it many times. Keep up the good work! I’m loving it! I’m forwarding this to all of our sons. Tell Cathy and all of your family hello for us. Love to all, Marilyn
Marilyn: It’s amazing that this story has slipped by without your hearing it. Bubba never acknowledged saying this, but he did say he “couldn’t remember the event, he was so young.” Pop said he wanted to get “under the pew, or even the carpet.” I’m sure Mimi was mortified. Thanks for reading all these accounts and for sending them to your sons. I’ve got lots more to write as the Lord brings them to mind. You are a big part of all of them.
Much love to you and George: