By Ray Knapp
Coming straight out of the Ozark Mountains, I hadn’t seen much of the world before enlisting in the navy. It was a real treat at 18 to be one of the thousands circling Times Square in New York City on New Year’s Eve of 1956. Seeing the Radio Station Rocketts doing their dance routine earlier that day was a sailor’s dream. By the spring of 1957 I was stationed well over a thousand miles from home in Corpus Christi, Texas, and was finding a big world out there.
I was assigned to the weather office. It was a small, tight knit group of about 20, divided into four sections: a forecaster who was generally a first class or chief petty officer, a section leader and his crew of three or four souls.
Each section pretty much stuck together when we went on Liberty – generally two to three days off. We normally went out to Padre Island, which was a deserted beach, not lined with hotels as it is today. On occasion we would get some of the Waves to go on a date, but most often we were too broke for that and stayed on the base where we would swim in the EM swimming pool, work out at the gym … seems there was always something to do, even if it meant going to the library.
At the library, I noticed a flyer advertising an upcoming Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I brought it with me to work, and our section leader, Frank, had been to it. At his urging, which didn’t take much we decided to go. After all, Frank had a car, his older sister lived in Houston where we could lay over for the night and maybe grab a free meal.
Except what I read in the flyer, I didn’t have a clue about Mardi Gras. Frank was Catholic, though not very well informed. He knew it had something to do with religion, but described it more as a series of parades nearly every weekend in February with people dressed in all types of costumes – the final parade culminated in numerous parties and lots of revelry. It sounded interesting.
Actually Mardi Gras has been around for centuries. The underlying reasoning was to have all the foolishness and indulgence be finished when it came time to start atoning and fasting on Ash Wednesday. As the climax of Carnival and a traditional day of partying and feasting — the celebration came to be known as Fat Tuesday, or as French say, Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras is always scheduled 47 days preceding Easter (the 40 days of Lent plus seven Sundays), and can fall anywhere between Feb. 3 and March 5. That has to do with the date of Easter. Easter is a movable date, as it is the first Sunday after the Paschal (spring equinox) full moon and can occur between March 22 and the 25th of April.
Although Church fathers established Easter as a movable holiday in 325, it wasn’t until 1582, under Pope Gregory XIII, that Mardi Gras became a holiday on the Christian calendar on the day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent. Although Mardi Gras is a Catholic tradition, many protestant churches observe Ash Wednesday as a response to temptation; a time of personal soul cleansing, and confronting our sins; a time to remind us we are children of God standing in the need of forgiveness. On Ash Wednesday you will probably see some people returning from a service with a cross of repentance ashes on their forehead – placed there by a preacher or priest, who while doing this, says: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel” or the dictum “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” or other appropriate words
What do I remember mostly about Mardi Gras? It was cold and wet, even the people in the parade were glad to see it end. Frank’s sister was at work on our way back, but Frank drove to her work where we borrowed $10 for gas money to get back to the base. We were thankful to be headed home that Ash Wednesday.