I have been following the Mermentau Mardi Gras run for twelve years now, missing only the one year they ran a week early in order to avoid the Super Bowl, and, except for the first year when my colleague and Mardi Gras mentor Barry Jean Ancelet taught me how to follow runs, I have followed the Mermentau run without any other folklorists or filmmakers or photographers present. What cameras were present were either my own, those wielded by the Mardi Gras themselves, or by their audiences. I occasionally have wondered why this is, given how much attention other runs garner locally in the form of long queues of cars and trucks that follow them like a snake wandering through the Louisiana prairies or more globally in the form of folklorists, anthropologists, and journalists.
At one point in my writing about the Mermentau Mardi Gras for the [EVIA Digital Archive], I noted that, compared to the Tee Mamou Mardi Gras or the Grand Marais Mardi Gras, which are its two neighbors to the north, the Mermentau Mardi Gras often lacked dramatic shape. That is, there are plenty of years when the runners simply tumble out of the trailers, approach a house, and begin socializing right away. One of their few dramatic forms has been their performance of “Make Your Body Talk”, which is always a crowd pleaser.
But all that changed this year. I don’t know if they have added a few runners from Tee Mamou or if some folks who run in Anse Lejeune joined or what happened this year, but the approach to the house changed considerably. A brief description of what happened at the Thibodeaux’s captures things I think:
First, their captain had a much more distinct approach to the the house. He came alone and with an empty soup pot in his hand. He clearly conferred with them, and, being Brian Cormier, he immediately shares a laugh with them. He then turned to the Mardi Gras, who knew they had permission already to be there, and signaled them to approach the house, but he gestured them down onto the ground, making them crawl across the limestone gravel of the drive to get to the small crowd of onlookers, who, I don’t think, were quite prepared for this new, more ferocious Mardi Gras. The Mardi Gras crawled and, like the run in Elton, took advantage of its lowly status to focus on people’s shoes as a target for foolery. There were even a few whoops, which is not something I have heard before.
This lasted a short while before the Mardi Gras moved into its more sociable approach to things, but the playing among a few runners continued. One runner in particular was constantly at work, and a few others joined in using garbage cans to turn themselves into Jacks-in-the-Box, who would pop out and start to dance with a lot of hip action, like the gopher from “Caddy Shack.”
The Thibodeaux household is usually a place where some of the younger runners test themselves against the captains. There is plenty of room for running and playing. This was not as pronounced as it has been in the past, but there was some playing. Some of this quietness may have been anticipating what was to come at the Hargroves or it might have been that the audience never really shifted from the front of the house to the side yard to watch the chicken chases. Perhaps without that audience, there was less impetus to cut up.
What happened at the Hargroves was incredibly moving, despite the fact that I knew the complete plan ahead of time: it was still incredible to see the entire Mardi Gras with their hats and masks off, walking quietly down the lane. They approached while “Amazing Grace” sounded from a lone accordion. Cormier cried as he walked toward Lynn Hargrove, who lost her husband Burt this past year in a traffic accident, and folded her into a huge hug as he gave her a bouquet of flowers. Then Burly Deshotels approached with a memento from the Mardi Gras and also hugged Lynn. Finally, Dale Trahan came to give her a hug. There was a muted conversation among them. All the while the Mardi Gras continued to come forward and fill the space in front of them. Those in the front kneeled.
The somber moment lingered, and then Cormier whistled the Mardi Gras to begin, calling out “Come on, Mardi Gras.” Lynn herself said, “Yes, let’s remember Burt the way he would want to be remembered.”