The high school I graduated from was an all female, Catholic school that organized two trips for students-one during our junior year, and one in our senior year. The trips were optional, but usually well attended. The junior trip was to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York, but the senior trip varied in location. In our senior year, we went to New Orleans. There were many factors that converged to make it one of the most fun, interesting and talked about trip of our lives. And we went about this time of year, so this seems like an appropriate week to share it. The details follow.
I will start with the east coast trip. For many of us, it was our first visit to those cities. We saw all of the famous sites, and it was fascinating to me since I loved American history. The day we visited Mount Vernon, we also took a boat down the Potomac back to Washington. I remember telling my parents I wanted to live there someday with a view of the water. Pretty funny since the only way to do that was to buy a multimillion dollar home. In New York, we ate at Mama Leone’s near the theatre district, and a small group of us went to a new Broadway show called Grease. This was before the movie, and I remember trying to explain to friends who didn’t see the show how good it was. Our chaperones were well organized, as was the entire week.
The New Orleans trip was quite different from the very tame journey the year before. One of the reasons was due to the difference in legal drinking age- New York had been 21, but Louisiana was 18. And in a bit of poor planning, no one thought to check our ages before we left. Many of us had already turned 18, so it was a very different dynamic. Add to that a memorable remark from one of our “chaperones” the day we checked into the hotel- as he went down the hall, he said ” Ok girls, beer and wine is 18, everything else is 21″. More about the “chaperones” in a minute. His announcement was the first clue we had that this was going to be a very memorable outing. In our home state of Nebraska, the drinking age was 19, but in our next door neighbor, Iowa, it was 18. So there had been some legal trips to Iowa, but New Orleans was in another realm in terms of bars and entertainment. Actually, more like another planet.
It didn’t take long for us to venture out on the town, and the French Quarter was very close to our hotel. I remember walking down Bourbon street, with its interesting architecture, and the doormen trying to get us into their establishments. The barely clad dancers on swings going in and out of second floor windows is a distinct memory. Musicians on every street corner, and the strains of jazz and zydeco coming from many of the clubs. We didn’t have enough sense to go to Preservation Hall and hear the best jazz in the world, but at least we heard some as we walked around.
A bit more about our “chaperones”. I use the term in quotes because they were pretty lax, to say the least. I thought that was spiffy at the time, but I look back on it now and know it wasn’t what any of our parents, or the school, had in mind. There were two “chaperones” that I remember, one a part time coach ( he of the beer and wine is 18 advice), and the other a full time teacher who had very recently gotten married. He may have been using the trip as his honeymoon, because I only remember seeing him on the first and last days of the trip.
So basically a bunch of 17 and 18 year old girls were turned loose in the French Quarter and any place else they could get to for an entire week. Kind of like Billy Joel’s classic song Only The Good Die Young. Most of us still had midnight curfews at home, so the ability to stay out as late as we wanted, and do whatever we wanted to do, was quite fun. There were a few daytime bus trips that were available to see the sites, but no one kept track of whether you went or not. So attendance was very affected by what had gone on the night before.
The things that happened the night before varied quite a bit. I shared a room with three of my closest friends, so we did everything together. One of the first places we discovered was Pat O’Briens, home of the famous hurricane drink, that came with a souvenir glass. What fun! They tasted just like fruit juice! And the “everything else is 21” advice didn’t exist. Nobody was being carded. If you could walk into the establishment and order a drink, it was yours. We went there more than once, and had so many souvenir glasses that I took the extras home in my suitcase. I remember my dad asking what was rattling around when he picked me up from the airport. Souvenirs, I replied. Lots and lots of souvenirs.
I remember sitting in the hotel lobby one night, and seeing several of my classmates get off the elevator in nice, formal dresses. They were soon met by a group of Navy members in uniform who were their dates to some type of military ball. Since New Orleans is a port, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, but it kind of was. I was amazed they had either packed or purchased dresses for the occasion. Anchors Aweigh! And it just so happened that we had a sailor theme for our school’s hotly contested annual Field Day that would be held when we got home. Of course our classmates had to attend that ball.
In addition to the entertaining evenings, we did make it to some of the famous restaurants. I remember Cafe Du Monde and Brennans, with the pastel exterior and bananas foster. And we found a relatively quiet bar right across the street from the hotel, where we met some locals who were our age. They were a lot of fun, and we were the first Midwesterners they had ever met. There was a jukebox, and the song we requested repeatedly was The Locomotion, by Grand Funk Railroad. Nobody knew how to actually do the dance, so we made up our own- kind of a conga line. It worked well, and when we’ve had class reunions with music it’s always requested.
The last full day we were in the city was a Sunday, and it may have been Easter- unlike Pat O’Brien’s, I don’t remember that part with any certainty! We were all expected to show up for mass at the St Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. That was the only time anyone took attendance, and apparently we all made it because no missing persons bulletins were issued. The church was fairly close to our hotel, and platform shoes were in style at the time, so it was an interesting walk on the old style streets to get there. I’m sure we looked like a group of devout, high school girls on vacation. And on that morning, I guess we were.
The trip home was uneventful, and shortly thereafter we won the Field Day competition, graduated, and went on with life. I am happy to say I am still friends with my roommates from the trip. Over the years, our class has had a lot of fun reunions, and invariably the senior trip is mentioned. In the days before Facebook and email, we used to ask classmates to send in their contact info and high school memories, and we put together a booklet. Lots of senior trip memories, but I think the one that summed it up best was the following: “New Orleans- some party!” And we all knew what exactly what she meant.