Memories of a Cajun friend

Alan was a Cajun, a whole different kind of human.

I was waiting outside the new animal science building at Kansas State University in the fall of 1964 for the freshman class, “Ag In Our Society,” taught by Duane Acker, who was later to be president of K-State, when this voice behind me asked “Are you ready for the quiz today?”

I turned around to see a black-haired, bright brown-eyed young man grinning at me.

He had very different light olive-brown skin.

“I didn’t know there was a test,” I replied.

“I know you didn’t know. It’s a pop quiz. I know because I am a new graduate student, and you are a freshman.”

From that moment Alan half adopted me although I never saw him again after that year. I was only 17. He was in his mid-20s.

He already had a bachelor degree from Louisiana State.

He was a Cajun who would launch into sort of an English patios when he talked to me about where he grew up.

“I grew up down in de bayos, de swamps, little land, mostly water, boyo. Nobody mess wif de Cajuns, boyo, nobody. We cut your heart out down in de bayo, and you just disappear.”

Then he would laugh at me like he’d just made a joke.

“We eat anything in de swamp, eat de fish, eat de gator, eat de coon, eat de opossum, anything we catch,” he said smiling broadly. “Now, tell me about what you like to eat. My wife and I will have you over soon to feed you Cajun food. You like fish?”

One day I was standing in a very long line to get into class, I don’t remember why, and Alan broke into line behind me. He carried something very long, and rolled up in a cloth and paper.

“Pickled,” he explained, slightly raising the wrapped object, and smiling. “But not for eating, for comparative anatomy.”

So there we stood, him with a rolled critter, and me with bundle of books, when I noticed he was looking far down the line, and grinning.

As I turned to look, too, Alan called out very loudly a sentence I couldn’t understand in his own French Cajun language.

From far ahead an attractive young woman with the same black hair and eyes he had suddenly turned her head toward us, and called back in the same musical French, smiling in pleasure.

“You know her?” I asked.

“No,” he replied, “I saw only that she was Cajun.”

“But how did you know?”

“I don’t know, I just knew.”

From that day on, he spent part of his time talking to her, and part of his time talking to me. Anna, I think her name was.

“You think she’s pretty, boyo?” he asked me. “Don’t you mess with her unless you wanta marry her. I’ll cut your heart out.” And then he laughed.

One day we noticed a group of young black students who had been visiting, and then began laughing.

“We have black people in the bayou,” Alan said. “They’re OK. Our families have known them going back to before the Civil War. We helped them when they ran away from being slaves, helped them learn how to live in the swamps, still help them when they need help.

“But we don’t mess with each other. They don’t bother us. They know better to or we’d kill them. Anybody down there, the English, too, knows better then to mess with the Cajuns in the bayou—cut you up and the gators eat you.”

I thought he would be smiling, but he was pensive.

I had a great time when I went to Alan’s house, ate spicy fish, rice and greens with sugared tea, and listened to Cajun music. There was just me. Alan decided not to invite the Cajun girl at the same time.

He and his wife were openly hospitable, courteous, and smiling at me the whole time, very likeable, almost loveable, but they seemed to find my youth amusing.

He knew his history, how the Cajuns were the Canadians from Acadia who were pressed by the British to run away to French territory in Louisiana in the 1700s. Alan was first a Cajun, and second an American.

One day he just didn’t turn up outside the animal science building. He and his wife weren’t at their home anymore either. I walked out there, just wanting to see him again.

At the beginning of the second semester, on my way to a new class, I met Anna walking the other way. She smiled in acknowledgement so I paused to ask her if she knew where Alan was.

“Oh, he went back home,” she said. “He finished his masters program, and they went to Louisiana.”

Sometimes at night I imagine Alan down in the swamp trapping a gator. I wonder if he went back there, or if he ended up at another university, perhaps on a faculty.

It was just like him to turn the other way, and simply walk away. I would like to see him.

But, they just left. I never saw him again.

Jerry Engler, who covers the county commission and writes agricultural stories for the Free Press, lives near the north end of Marion Reservoir.

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