Gonzales woman remembers a time gone by
Just before we met, Marietta Estopinal was listening to old school New Orleans music to keep her spirits up. During our interview, she was buried in bundles of spiral notebooks, newspaper clippings and various colored papers containing thoughts, dates and names. She had painstakingly chronicled experiences from the most cherished time period in her life - the forties.
As she shuffled through her personal filing system, a memo or photo would strike a chord and she would be transported to another time. Her stories were exciting but markedly sad as she longed for the friends and heroes of her distant past. “When I look at those pictures, I backtrack and remember all those years,” she said.
Around Jackson Barracks, a military base located in the Lower 9th Ward, was where Estopinal spent time as a young girl. “I lived a stone's throw away from the levee. I would go sit on the levee and read all day. That's where I met Colonel White.” The avid reader comments, “History was my cup of tea.” And now, Estopinal is a wealth of information, a living product of that time, whose stories benefit historians and curious minds.
When she was 18, she and a friend of hers were coming from New Orleans, where they were visiting a friend, making their way home to Arabi. They normally took the short way home, passing through the gates which led to St. Bernard Parish. On this day, they noticed something new - armed guards at the gate. She had to prove she was indeed from Arabi to pass through as Pearl Harbor had just been bombed. Marietta and her pal became a part of history and were the last civilians to pass through the Barracks, without identification, until the war ended.
Estopinal is from Arabi, she lived on Mehle Street and, like her parents, was born and raised in St. Bernard Parish. She tried life in other parts of the country but eventually returned to her home. After her time on the base, Estopinal married a merchant seaman, Henry Baham, when she was 26. They had two children and a happy, long marriage until his recent death.
During the time of WWII, she worked for the Selected Service under General Raymond H. Fleming in the Fleming Building at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans. During this time, prisoners of war were housed there. She opened and sorted mail, made deliveries to various officers and civilians and would occasionally help decode encrypted telegrams. Obviously, considering the passage of time, she remains the only one who lives to tell those tales.
She tells of her days dancing the jitterbug, activities with the USO, and gawking at the hunky Italians (who made the best bread, according to Marietta) and Germans who regularly made their way through the base. She loved the dances and the excitement leading up to them. Before a dance, she would teach a few officers dance lessons before getting decked out, sometimes in her “favorite red slinky dress.”
She's rubbed elbows with notorious military leaders such as General Omar Bradley and General Claire L. Chennault, along with his Flying Tigers. Her path has crossed with Academy Award winner Van Heflin, comedian Joe E. Brown, singer Martha Ray and boxer Joe Lewis. “Those were the days. Telling about it keeps me young. The only way my mind's going to die is when I die,” said Estopinal.
She was a popular lady who fondly remembers taking breaks under the trees with guards. She wrote letters to men serving in the war to boost morale. She had her share of secret admirers, “I got a black orchid every Saturday,” recounts Estopinal. In the mess hall, by the time she got through the lunch line, she would have 6 or 7 letters on her tray, “red hot letters,” she said playfully. “I lived every day of it and I loved every minute of it. It was part of my youth.”
She remembers sitting on a streetcar laughing and joking with some GI's, some who were leaving the following day. “We did not know whether they were coming back or not.”
Estopinal has witnessed the pain from the days of war. “I firmly believe that telling everyone who would listen about my days working at Jackson Barracks and the beautiful days during that time period, helped me survive some very sad moments,” she admits.
She has not seen Jackson Barracks since the disastrous Hurricane Katrina. Estopinal said, “I do want to go to Jackson Barracks again before I kick the bucket.”
Her passionate and sincere storytelling made me wish I had a time machine. Rest assured, if Marietta Estopinal had one, she would travel back to the forties and return to Jackson Barracks-outfitted in her favorite red slinky dress, of course. She explained, “You had to be there to really know. Words don't tell the tale of those years.”