Looking for a “Third-Float Girl”

Alabama Living Magazine
Illustration by Dennis Auth

Fat Tuesday is March 1, with Ash Wednesday right behind on March 2, ushering in the Lenten season. It’s not too early to start thinking about what you might be giving up.

Me? I’m giving up Mardi Gras.

Which is pretty easy to do. 

I don’t plan to attend. Check that one off my list.

Truth is, I have been giving up Mardi Gras every year since back in the ’60s, which was the last time I was there. 

I grew up on the edge of Mardi Gras, in a South Alabama county too far north from Mobile for our schools to be closed like they did down on the coast. 

So carnival had to wait until I was in college and had a roommate from Mobile who invited me down with the promise of parades, parties and girls – lots of girls.

He knew where to find them, so he said.

So he took me to some parties – not the upscale, exclusive balls put on by the upscale, exclusive mystic societies. He was not that well connected. He could get me into second-level social gatherings, but even there my country credentials were not enough to get more than a nod from girls who went to high schools named after saints.

After watching me socially flounder, my host announced that it was time for a trip to the Cawthon Hotel.

The Cawthon was an ancient hostelry overlooking Bienville Square, which housed most of the high school bands that were there to march in the parades. And with the bands came the majorettes, flag corps, and cheerleaders. It was like a candy store for the testosterone afflicted.

Or so my host led me to believe.

Now the girls were there – down from the hinterlands, from towns like Monroeville, Greenville, Butler and Thomasville. Though back home they were good girls – Baptist, Methodists, Holiness, Assembly of this and Church of that – they left their Sunday learning behind them and arrived ready to party.

Or so my host led me to believe.

But my host was wrong.

Most of the girls packed parental warnings with their uniforms and got off the bus determined not to succumb to the temptations of the city. As for the others, the ones who came set for succumbing, there were savvy chaperones who knew which of their girls needed watching and watched them.

Nevertheless, I had a good time doing what most folks do at Mardi Gras. I watched parades, caught throws, mixed and mingled – the stuff I could actually tell my Mama about.

But that was long ago.

Today the Cawthon Hotel is long gone, victim of the wrecking ball that has gotten so many of our landmarks. 

With it has gone that tower of temptation that lured small-town boys like me to the big city looking for decadence and finding disappointment.

And in its place there is the third float.

You see, a few years ago one of the women’s mystic societies had a problem. Some of its younger members were displaying a tendency to get rowdy as the society’s parade wound its way through the town. 

Some of the society’s more decorous, respectable members were not pleased.

So rather than create a scandal by banning the free spirits from parade and society, it was decided to put the whole lot of them on the third float – where they could be watched and, if necessary, restrained. 

I can see a trend here.

I can see the practice becoming widespread among the mystics.

And when it does, boys like I once was will descend on Mobile looking for a “Third-Float Girl.”

Only to stand on the sidelines as the parade passes them by.

Harvey H. (Hardy) Jackson is Professor Emeritus at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at hhjackson43@gmail.com

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