Tom Lawson

Thomas Lawson passed away on April 2, 2017.

“I grew up a racist.  I grew up in racist culture.  [But] when I went to Vietnam, I got to see a different culture … how they lived and how little they had, and I was in the service with Black guys.  Some of them slept in a bunk right next to me, and that did not bother me.  I accepted them as my fellow service men … and friends… Slowly, over the years, I’ve lost my racism.”

Thomas Booker Lawson III was born in 1943 in Houma, LA.  Back then, Houma was a small town of the sleepy variety.  In the 1960’s, oil interests took hold in the town, and now Houma is well known around Louisiana as a bustling city.

As a baby, Tom had pneumonia and whooping cough.  These are health problems that were common at the time, and nearly killed Tom at that age.  Today, our medicine and vaccination capabilities have all but wiped out whooping cough, and turned pneumonia into an illness that is, for the most part, dangerous only to the very young or very old.

At age four, Tom’s parents separated, unusual for the time.  He lived for a time with his mother in Houma, and attended several schools as the area didn’t have enough children to support all the grades.  At age 15, his dad, who lived near New Orleans, persuaded Tom to move to a private military school in New Orleans.  Though it broke his mother’s heart for him to leave, Tom knew that if he stayed in Houma he knew he wouldn’t amount to much.  Having grown up during the Korean war, and helping to collect toiletries like soap and toothbrushes to send to the soldiers, it became his goal to attend this military school and enlist in the Air Force as a pilot.

He was in the Air Force ROTC at University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) for two years before choosing to transfer to Louisiana State University to be near a girl.  He continued in their ROTC program and graduated from LSU with a degree in agricultural and biological engineering in 1967.  It was then that fate took hold – Tom couldn’t receive a commission to be an Air Force pilot due to bad sinuses.  He says it ruined his life.

Near to graduation time, he discovered he was number one on the draft board for the Vietnam War.  Rather than be drafted, he enlisted in the Navy Reserves.  He served 18 months on active duty in Vietnam.  He married shortly after returning, and moved to the University of Maryland to attend a program in aquaculture engineering.  He returned to Louisiana after to take what had become his ‘dream job’ at LSU.  His first marriage was on the rocks by then, and they divorced.

Tom met Charlotte in the 1980’s.  They chose to move to Florida, right before Hurricane Ivan made history.  They built what was then their dream house, and lived in it 5 months before the hurricane.  20 feet of water inundated their new home, which ruined it for them, so they chose to move to Hammond, LA, after refurbishing.  Tom speaks with great love for Charlotte and her family, and the support they provide him.  He has Leukemia and Lymphoma, but is on a new trial drug that leaves him feeling next to normal.  He marvels at the technology medicine uses to develop new drugs, and how lucky he is to live in such a time.  But he’s also reserved with regards to personal computers.  In his words:

Dagmar Booth

“When Atari came out… we used to stay up, especially on a Friday night.  It got to the point where I had tupperware, and I’d put the cereal in the tupperware containers … so [the kids] could get up … and fix their own little breakfast, ’cause we were up playing Atari… We never grew up.”

Dagmar is the wife of John Booth, whose interview was posted a week ago.  If John has the gumption of a horse, Dagmar has the gumption to race him.  They were adorable to talk with together.  Dagmar is completely caring of her husband, while still getting his goat when she could.  I’m sure you can see it pictured in her eyes, though in person the twinkle is much brighter.

Dagmar Larieu Booth was born October 10, 1945 in New Orleans, LA and has lived in the area her entire life.  She recalls her childhood was great fun.  She grew up next door to her grandmother in a double shotgun house.  There were 10 children (cousins and siblings) in the family that would all congregate on Saturday evenings when the adults would gather to play cards.  The children would play up and down the street, getting reacquainted and inventing new games, eventually crashing on the floor around their parents in the evening.  She laughed remembering the lack of air conditioning, wondering how in the world they lived without it.  New Orleans is famous for its heat and humidity in the summers.

Dagmar loved to roller skate when she was younger.  She told me of the games that she and the kids would make up and play.  They weren’t allowed to be in the streets, but a broken section of sidewalk forced her and her friends to circumvent it into the street for a moment.  Dagmar describes how the neighbors would watch and care for the children, including calling a child’s parents when they saw wrongdoing.  In this clip, Dagmar concludes that our society is in need of the discipline that came so readily in those days.

A standard question I ask is what has changed since childhood, especially in relation to technology.  Dagmar took us in a wonderful direction.  She started to tell us about when the television came to her neighborhood, and what it was like to get one in her family.  She told of the chores that the kids were expected to care for in the morning, that they couldn’t just roll out of bed and watch their favorite shows.  From there she told us what she thinks about children’s use of technology and how it’s changing our social structure.  Finally, she speaks to the telephone.  She recalls what the Party Line was like, what it was like to get a private line, then how the cordless phone changed ones ability to do household chores.  This leads to household appliances and how they have changed and affected daily life.  (The audio cuts in a funny place as we boiled down into chit chat about lawn mowing for a moment.)

One of my favorite portions of this interview was talking about the advent of the microwave oven.  It’s something I’ve largely taken for granted, even though I don’t use one myself, anymore.  I don’t have a family of my own, so I’ve never considered the impact it can make on a group of people under one roof.  Dagmar describes how great it was to get that microwave so she didn’t have to make John’s meals when he would get home after second shift.

Dagmar also describes the changes she saw in baby care.  Her three girls were born during a major time of change in the field.  She talks about the impact of the dishwasher, as well as cloth versus paper diapers, and formula.  She is still in awe of the things that came about that made life easier.

Many of my interviewees discuss the loss of cursive writing.  There have been jokes about how one might sign their cheques or give an autograph.  But Dagmar really brings the impact on our history home by describing an experience she had with her teen grandson at a museum.

Dagmar speaks to the changes in our society.  She states that we don’t get together with each other anymore.  She then tells a story that really cements the notion that we should be gathering with our friends more often, because you never know what will happen.

Dagmar’s interview eventually boiled down into chatting about life and growing up.  To end the interview, she tells us about when video games entered hers and John’s lives.  Dagmar bought Atari for John when it came out, and they stayed up all night playing it.  John then gets a jibe in about how long they’ve been married, ending the interview in laughter.

Bones Rhodes & Family

I was referred to Bones because he has lived a lifestyle compared to his surroundings, and is very opinionated.  I didn’t expect, however, that I would end up meeting three generations of the family that night in Pass Christian, MS.  Though it’s not the intended format of the project, I decided to interview them all, in tandem.  With some special instructions to allow for full answers, we accomplished the goal over some iced tea (and I managed to be the one that walked away with several souvenir mosquito bites).

The participants are as follows:

  • Charles William “Bones” Rhodes – born July 30, 1947 in Hattiesburg, MS
  • Honey Rhodes LeBlanc (daughter) – April 25, 1972 in Hattiesburg, MS
  • Rodney LeBlanc (Honey’s husband) – born Sept. 2, 1975 in Houma, LA
  • Mark Rhodes (grandson) – born April 1, 1997 in Gulfport, MS

Bones grew up in a family that was considered ‘rich’ for the time period.  He stated, however, that his father didn’t tend to spend the money in a way that was extravagant.  They didn’t take vacations, wear fancy clothes, or live in a particularly large home.  Bones didn’t realize they were wealthy until he got his first job during high school at a local grocery store.  He then saw true diversity and began to understand that the things he had taken for granted, though not earmarked as particularly fortunate, were very different from the folks he served at the store.  It was this experience that drove him to live a liberal life rather unique to Mississippi.

Bones raised his own family on what they called “The Compound”, a series of homes on a single property that he received from his father.  Honey recalled growing up around many families, and riding motorcycles (which Bones loves) beginning at a very young age.  Bones was careful to make the distinction that these are not big hog motorcycles – that they’re not “1%-er motorcyclists”.

Alternatively, Rodney grew up a “coon-ass”, hunting, fishing, and playing sports with the other kids in his area.  Mark, Rodney and Honey’s son, recalls fighting with his siblings in his youth.  He laughed as he said it – “I’m just being honest.”

What really struck me during our conversation was in speaking about school.  Honey, a history and algebra teacher, is worried about our youth as they come up surrounded by all the tech.  Many of my interviewees have highlighted that young ones have their noses constantly down at a screen, but Honey provided insight to how it’s affecting their very ability to think.  The description of her student’s ability to process was haunting.

The family had a really interesting perspective of how technology is affecting us, and where it is coming from.  They discuss the laziness and apathy that technology is creating.  Bones wonders at who is inventing the tech, and who has access to it based on wealth.  Honey refers to the unlimited knowledge we have, but instead we sit and “crush candies”.  Rodney talks about watching the men he works with offshore, and how tech has affected their work and social lives.  Mark shares a perspective on apathy and global friendships.  I think this conversation is a good summary of their thoughts on the matter.

“They used to go ahead and put my lunch in that liquid nitrogen [at NASA] and freeze it.”

John is definitely one of the badasses in my life.  I met him five years ago during my second term in the National Civilian Community Corps, stationed in Chalmette, LA, for Katrina recovery support.  John is the self-appointed tour guide for all volunteers that set boots in St. Bernard Parish.  He came into Camp Hope (the volunteer camp) each week with a box of doughnuts or a bag of kumquats from his tree to give to the latest group, and invited them on a five hour tour of the area.  The first time I went on one of his tours, I apprehensively wondered how might we fill a full five hours.  Would we get bored?  But John has the gumption of a thousand men, and we soon found ourselves laughing and enthralled in his stories.

John Wilkes Booth, Jr., was born February 17, 1942 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  Upon giving birth, his mother developed a blood clot in her leg which made care taking difficult, so John was raised by his grandmother and aunt on an island in Chef Menteur Bayou.  She didn’t pass at that time, but later in life the clot came back in a sudden way.  In his words:

John was always a sort of prodigy to me.  It seemed like he’d done everything there was to experience in life.  He explained growing up with the land and sea as his teacher and friend outside from school.  He passed time fishing, crabbing, hunting, trapping, and anything else he could do.  In High School he worked for Beaux Brothers building roads in the Parish.

John was in the Air Force during the Vietnam War as a mechanic, which he excelled at.  He started with one plane in his care, and ended his career with two rows of 20.  That job gave him the experience he needed to work with Boeing after his discharge.  There he worked on the NASA Saturn V as the Pneumatic and Cryogenic Technician – that’s the rocket that took our men to the moon.

He finished his career as the Car Knocker at the railroad.  He coupled the cars when they came into the yard as well as had opportunities at other jobs there such as manning the crane.  Here, he tells all this in his own words.  He had me laughing when he talked about playing with liquid Nitrogen at NASA.

In all, John worries about technology and how it’s been affecting our culture.  One thing he highlighted is the things we’ve done with weapons – the plus side of splitting the atom with the power we’ve achieved, but the sheer danger of the weapons it enabled.  He believes that children are smarter today, based on the number of books he sees kids carrying to school.  But he sees them staring into their cell phones, even when spending time together, and feels the loss of the closeness people once had.  He admits, however, that science really has come far.  Here he explains both:


John is a card.  At the end of his interview, we started talking about colors.  I hope you enjoy listening to our wind down.

“My daddy was a racist of the worst kind…  I did not understand that kind of thinking.”

How can I convey what it was like to listen to a hundred years of family secrets?  Floored is the word, I believe.  When I was referred to Charlotte, I was told she grew up in the country of Louisiana.  To me, that means people who live with the land.  What I did not expect, was someone who had seen such an evolution, not just in society, but within her own family.

Charlotte Ann Robinson Lawson was born January 8, 1946 in Lizard Creek, Louisiana.  She was delivered by her uncle at home – “whoever happened to be home did the job”.  Lizard Creek wasn’t an incorporated town, but a community of farms and families that lived near and supported each other.

Charlotte spoke very candidly with me.  She said that when she heard I was coming, she began to consider the past and things that had been forgotten.

When she was a girl, people didn’t eat with “colored people”.  In fact, there was a moment of confusion when she tried to remember just how it was that the “colored people” sat in the balcony of the movie theater – she never saw them enter, nor saw a separate stair.  Segregation didn’t happen in her town until she was out of school.

Charlotte didn’t fully understand why the people were separated.  She admitted that her dad was positively racist, and mean about it.  In her own words:

It was custom in those days to witness things that one might have known were wrong.  They were brought up to not question things that they were told, and to never ask again once an explanation was given.  Charlotte learned the truth of things in their adult life – some I won’t disclose in keeping hers and her family’s confidence.

What she disclosed that I do feel can be mentioned was instances of adultery, rape, bribery, domestic abuse, and the family ‘black sheep’, Charlotte’s Aunt.  She was regularly in prison, to which point her sister illegally adopted her daughter, and kept her the next time she was out.  This Aunt once made herself a nurse, and waltzed right into the hospital to get information about their cousin when he was ill and information wouldn’t be released.  This Aunt also had two marriages, but they’re sure she had many more illicit relationships outside of those.

With respects to technology, Charlotte is rather pessimistic.  In spite of the advances in knowledge and personal reach, she truly feels today’s tech is separating families from the care they used to provide each other.  In her words:

Charlotte highlighted that their family was greatly intermarried with another family – to which point many cousins were two-time first cousins.  The family was enormous, and took care of each other.  They shared food, responsibility, and care-taking.  This became a recurring theme in the interview, as Charlotte had thought hard over the previous days about the way the family used to band together and support each other.  It was this topic that ended the interview in tears.