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Smoke on the Water

It is pretty well known, at least on our little island, that Galveston began celebrating Mardi Gras before New Orleans. Granted, we’ve had our fits and starts, such as the 1900 Storm and that little dust up with the Germans and Japanese in the 40s, but 1985 was the beginning of a new era.

The opening of the Tremont, along with other properties, would up the ante on Galveston tourism and forever alter our ideas of municipal revenue. There was a lot of hype for Mardi Gras 1985. It wasn’t the party we know today - it was better! The two weeks before Ash Wednesday were marked on the calendar, parade routes designated, and sections of downtown cordoned off from traffic. No one really knew what to expect, but that never stopped us before.

When the first big weekend rolled around, the freaks really came out of the woodwork. The streets surged with jugglers, musicians, artists, craftsmen, and myriad costumes (or lack thereof, if you know what I mean). A carnival-like atmosphere filled the air. Booths held various amusements and games of chance. Wide varieties of food and drink were available. And law enforcement was scarce. We were transported to life in a medieval village. It was a beautiful anarchy.

Exactly when did all that change? I don’t remember. It crept in little by little. Booth prices went up, forcing out the merely entertaining in favor of the profitable. Food choices narrowed to turkey legs, funnel cakes, and beer. And police vans were strategically stationed along the dark corners of Harborside Drive.

1992 brought pick pockets and thieves, a bounty of Krewes of questionable character, admission fees, and my first Mardi Gras related shooting. It also brought a change in the parade route. For whatever reason, it was decided that the route down 25th Street would take a jog east on Mechanic before proceeding to Strand. Metal bleachers had been set up on this dark narrow block to accommodate revelers.

I should point out that it had become common practice to jump in with the parade as it was passing and follow the party. I was lucky enough to have found a spot high up for a better view. Before the arrival of the main column, the crowd mulled about. In the vanguard came mounted officers, pushing everyone off the street. There were many different uniforms on site for this event, rented out from neighboring towns and counties.

Despite the change of mood from just seven years prior, the parade went smoothly. But as the tail of the parade turned onto Mechanic, chain-link fences were put up, blocking the exit to the west. What else was there to do now but follow the parade, like we usually did.

Unfortunately, waiting at the east end of the block were out-of-town deputies, both on horse and on foot. They not only kept us from following the parade, but started pushing us back onto Mechanic. They became loud and forceful, pulling out their nightstick.

Most people at ground level, even the deputies, couldn’t tell that the other end of the block was closed by the chain-link fence, now being scaled as a means of escape. I hung a hard left for the top of the bleachers, figuring the horses wouldn’t be directed up there except as a last resort.

I watched as the crowd was pressed against the fence to my left while the deputies came in from my right. Just before the scene transformed into an English soccer match, some of the mounted deputies, looking over the top of the crowd in the gloom, took in the reality of the situation and called off their over-enthusiastic cohorts. Law enforcement caught up with the parade and the crowd dispersed. The chain-link fence came down. And all memory of averted tragedy was forgotten. I vowed never again to spend Mardi Gras downtown.

Years later, lulled into a sense of complacency, we crashed the Children’s Parade with our kids. We had started this tradition as a practical matter, to avoid squirreling away beads for the next year. This was the first year floats in the Children’s Parade had to be registered. We snuck in anyway.

Pulling my 4-year-old in a wagon stuffed to the gills, we jumped in at the end just before the turn onto Seawall. As we made the turn she dropped some of the presorted beads. What happened next raises my blood pressure to this day.

A group of about half a dozen kids ran straight at us to grab the dropped beads. In the process the wagon was knocked over, spilling more beads, and drawing in more kids. They grabbed EVERYTHING they could get their hands on, including the beads around my daughter’s neck. I channeled the wrath of Satan sufficiently to clear the street. Otherwise, I’d be on death row.

The first time I saw Tilman Fertitta walking behind the Rainforest Café float, I wasn’t too impressed. He didn’t look happy. He was stingy with the beads. And, it looked like he was throwing them AT people, not TO people.

But, I get it.


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