January 28, 2017: Anyone who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s in South Louisiana will remember the un-real culture of alcohol and bars that pervaded the area at the time. The previous generation had grown up knowing very hard times, and the new prosperity that came with being the only major participant in World War II that had not suffered significant damage to its infrastructure and manufacturing areas led to our being nearly the only source for many items of need or ease. Think: washers, TV’s, vehicles, steel, oil, et cetera. We were flush with money and good paying jobs.
In South Louisiana in particular, the oilfield boom provided many high paying jobs to people who had previously subsisted on farming, fishing, trapping… great jobs in some ways, but not nearly as lucrative as the oilfield jobs and the manufacturing jobs that were available due to oil exploration and production. Many people who had grown up having little or nothing were suddenly able to have a nice home with all the trappings that go with extra money.
One of the results of all this extra money was a plethora of bars, lounges, nightclubs, dance halls, and just like any gold rush area, there were many people mining the miners. The Cajun culture fit right in to this new Black Gold Rush; “work hard, play hard, die young and leave a good looking corpse…” I don’t remember where I first heard that, but I took it up as my mantra at a young age. I was definitely not alone. The dance halls on Saturday night would be packed, and cars would be lined up by the hundreds on the shoulder of the road in both directions… and there were NO closing laws, so they would be rocking till the sun came up, and sometimes beyond! Of course, there was a dark side to all this drinking. Many lost their lives in cars and boats, while swimming or hunting—or were innocent victims to others who had been drinking to excess. David Groves, Donna Melvin, David Felterman, Robby Sellars …one of the older Seniors drowned at the Shell Pile one night… and, Ronnie Wiltz.
They were all good people, in the wrong place at the wrong time perhaps; only God knows… I was nearly killed by a couple of drunks myself one night in 1982. But Ronnie Wiltz’s death hurt me the most. At some point in the early seventies, the Kool King put some foosball tables in the old meeting room on the opposite side of the dining area. This rapidly became a hot spot for many of us. I was not good at foosball in the beginning, and I would get a couple of dollars in quarters and try to get someone that was good to partner with me. Most of the good players did not want to partner with a beginner, but Ronnie was always ready to mentor me in the intricacies of the game, and he stoically endured my learning curve. Eventually, I became a decent player and we began to win more and more than not… He never had to pay for a game if I was around afterwards!
This brings me to the Swinging Doors; a small bar just outside the northern city limits of Patterson in a small brick building that had previously been Thibodeaux’s Grocery Store. It had opened up while I was in the Air Force, and I’m not clear on the exact time, but by the time I got back from overseas it had become a hot spot for the local crazies. I had heard about it, but hadn’t been there prior to coming home on leave in late 1976. It was right around Christmas, and my parents lived about a quarter mile away, so I walked there one Saturday evening. I was expecting a good time, and boy, I was not disappointed!
As soon as I closed the door at my parents’ house I could hear the music. As I got closer I could hear the loud hum of voices, and every now and then laughter rose above the hum. It was obvious there was a large crowd, many of them outside in small groups, smoking a doobie and telling stories, having large fun. As I got close enough to survey the bar I could see that it was packed; the lot next door that served as a parking lot was big enough for maybe ten or fifteen cars, but now held 20 or 25. And motorcycles and cars were jammed in all around the bar and down the road on the side opposite the lot! This building was maybe 40 feet wide and 75 feet deep; did I say it was packed?
There were several people in the groups outside that I hadn’t seen in months or years, so it took me a while to get inside; but I had to get myself a beer, and I knew they would be there later, so I finally made it inside to find a very loud, very lubricated, very smoky, very very packed bar.
If you didn’t know better, you would have thought the place was on fire, but nobody was running toward the door! Good thing, too; there was no way you could have run or even walked quickly anywhere in there. It probably took me 20 minutes to make my way to the bar that was only, maybe, 10 feet from the door. Once there, I was dismayed to find that there was no one behind the bar; perhaps they had to take a bathroom break?
So I yell out, loud as I can to maybe be heard above the din, “WHAT YA GOTTA DO TO GET A BEER AROUND HERE???” And to my great surprise, I hear a muffled voice reply from behind the bar, “WHAT YA DRINKIN???”. So I yell back, “BUD!”, and then lean over the bar to try and see where the voice is coming from. Just as I lean over, the beer cooler top slides open and a hand appears holding a Budweiser long-neck! As I grab it (first things first, eh?) and lean over further, I almost fall over the bar in surprise and laughter… Ronnie Wiltz was laying in the cooler on top the beer, with a shit-eatin’ grin on his face!!! Before I could recover, he flashes me a peace sign as he slams the top shut again… it took me a while to stop choking enough to start drinking my beer. That’s the last time I remember seeing Ronnie, and boy, do I cherish that memory.
To be continued; same life, different story…