We started our Sunday by sleeping in until almost noon and then breakfast at Daisy Duke’s. Jacob’s love of grits with cheese is boundless. Afterward, we took a taxi to the World War II museum, which was just too far away to walk to. I’d never been in a taxi before, and in a sense I still haven’t; most taxis here are just ordinary sedans and minivans with their company logo on the side. Ours was a minivan whose interior had seen better days, with a center bench seat that was not securely fastened to the floor. It was a very short drive, but we were glad not to be walking.
The driver deposited us at what turned out to be the museum gift shop, where we browsed a bit before crossing the street to the main museum. The National World War II Museum in New Orleans began life as the National D-Day Museum, founded in part by historian Stephen Ambrose. As awesomely broad as the current exhibit is, there is a diorama inside the front doors that shows their plans for expansion to a six-acre campus. Even now, the largest section of the exhibit is dedicated to the D-Day invasion, but the museum’s collection is so extensive that no part of the war is overlooked. Why build it in New Orleans? The man who developed the amphibious craft that made much of the Allied victory possible, Andy Higgins, was from New Orleans; Dwight Eisenhower once said that this man’s boats won the war. I had never heard of him before today.
The exhibit is laid out chronologically, with arrows showing where to go next, and you don’t realize how much of it there is until your legs and knees are aching and you notice it’s been two hours and you haven’t even reached V-E Day. This is a seriously intense experience. It begins in Asia, with the Japanese invasion and occupation of the mainland, and takes you all the way through to the atomic bomb and Japan’s surrender—ending where it began, as the final caption says. It took us three hours to see the whole thing, and I imagine four hours would not have been unreasonable. (We went back inside after leaving to ask them to call a cab for us, and one of the volunteers kindly informed us that there was no way we’d be able to see the whole exhibit in the 45 minutes left before it closed. If you go, go early.)
The overall mood is neither jingoistic nor anti-war; every word, every display celebrates the bravery of those who fought abroad and at home while unflinchingly portraying the terrible human cost of war. The Pacific war exhibit in particular makes this dichotomy entirely too real, with some very graphic photos of how vicious that campaign was on both sides. It’s clear the museum founders used John Dower’s book War Without Mercy as a resource, based on how they portrayed the differences between American attitudes toward their German and Italian enemies versus their Japanese ones. Both America and Japan engaged in denigrating one another to the point that both sides considered the other to be alien, inhuman, not worthy of decent treatment. The museum has a large display of propaganda posters produced by both America and Japan, many of which I have seen in books before, but somehow the life-size, full-color version are horrible in a way that is difficult to describe. (Even if I had taken pictures of them, I don’t think I could bring myself to post them here.)
But the real heart of the exhibit is the stories of the men and women who were involved, whether in Europe or the Pacific, abroad or at home, airmen, infantry, Marines, medics, engineers. Some of them are very familiar (in general, if not specific) and others were astonishing in their unfamiliarity—so striking that it was hard to imagine no one had heard them before. Sad, too, to see the continuing evidence of the racism that kept the troops segregated (even donated blood was separated by race, probably for fear that getting the wrong transfusion would give some Iowa farmboy good rhythm and a taste for fried chicken). You’d think that having a common enemy would have broken those old barriers, but no.
The whole thing was devastating, and overwhelming, and beautiful. It was worth the $18 per person admission price. I recommend strongly that anyone visiting New Orleans take the opportunity to go. Just go early, wear good shoes, and sit every chance you get.
We came back sobered and ready for a break, so we played computer games for a while and then went to dinner. Storyville Restaurant had been such a success that we headed back toward Bourbon Street. I insisted that we walk a ways down the street itself, so we could at least say we’d visited. It’s certainly the loudest and brightest street in the Vieux Carre, filled with many bars and
restaurants and strip clubs. We passed one with a bored-looking woman undulating in the window, so mechanical in her movements they might as well have put an animated mannequin there. We encountered a fellow shilling for some sort of Meals on Wheels program whose pitch was so good, Jacob gave him a donation and got a very fine hat in exchange.
We gave up on Bourbon Street and went back around the corner to Felix’s Sea Food. We’ve discovered that even the most hard-core fish places serve other meats as well. Jacob got beans and rice and I got a sampler plate so I could try etouffee, which I’d seen on many menus but never tasted. I actually didn’t know what it was, but I’m an adventurous eater. This was the point where I saw that they had alligator as an appetizer and insisted that we order it too. It was really good, blackened and spicy, but I always worry that heavy spices are covering up something else. So I’m not entirely sure what it tastes like, except that it’s closer in texture to shrimp than chicken. It was very yummy.
It seems etouffee is much like the other basic Creole dishes, except that the rice is cooked with the base so it is more of a paste, and it has shredded chicken along with the sausage. It is so delicious I think I could eat it at every meal for a week. I will definitely miss the food here.
I almost rolled home except that the gutter was still full of last night’s rainwater and the only cigarette butts I’ve seen en masse in the French Quarter. A lot of people smoke here, but they’re more considerate about it—they only smoke outside and they throw their butts away. I saw a woman grind out her cigarette under her sole and then carry it to a garbage can several feet away.
It’s our last day here. I’m eager to be home—eight days is a little too much for me—but I’m looking forward to coming back to New Orleans some day soon. How much different will it be in the spring, or fall, when the heat is less oppressive and moving around is easier? I have a list of things I never got around to: riding the St. Charles streetcar, taking a haunted tour, visiting the Voodoo Museum, going on a riverboat…at least this is a list where I can say “next time” and not “maybe someday.”