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Living Legend Stars in Bayou Cruise

October 07, 1990|SHARON H. SILVERMAN | Silverman is a free-lance writer living in West Chester, Pa .

HOUMA, La. — He was born in a cabin beneath bald cypress trees.

He once caught a 45-pound catfish.

He calls his dog "Gator Bait."

Meet Ronald (Black) Guidry, host of "A Cajun Man's Swamp Cruise" in Houma, La. The three-hour boat trip, billed as "The Authentic Cajun Musical Cruise," offers close-up views of alligators, insight into the swamp ecosystem and a look at life in the heart of Louisiana's Bayou country.

But the chief attraction is Guidry, a talented entertainer who delights tourists with his good nature, bad jokes and genuine Cajun music.

"I'm going to tell you everything I know about the swamp, which isn't a lot," says Guidry by way of introduction.

"If you have any questions, feel free to ask. If I don't know the answer, I'll lie and you won't know the difference and everybody will be happy."

Despite the disclaimer, this Cajun knows the swamp inside and out. He's happy to educate visitors about the area that's been his lifelong home.

Guidry's ancestors left St. Malo, France, in 1675 for Nova Scotia, then came to Louisiana in 1765. " Bayou is an Indian word meaning natural stream or waterway," Guidry explains.

"Canals are man-made. The swamp is covered with water, but has a solid bottom 14 to 16 feet below the water that supports trees."

Guidry points out that the graceful Spanish moss suspended from the trees is not a parasite but a bromeliad, used at one time for cushioning material.

"I slept on a mattress filled with Spanish moss when I was young," he says. "People used to collect it and sell it for a penny a pound."

Guidry is no relation to the former New York Yankee pitcher and 1978 Cy Young Award winner of the same name, who, oddly enough, is from Lafayette, La.

"I had the name first; he's younger than me," Guidry says.

As the 49-passenger canopied boat glides past water hyacinths and duckweed, visitors view abundant wildlife: turtles, snakes, rabbits, swallows, nutria and water rats with webbed feet.

Guidry directs visitors' attention to a great blue heron, one of the many magnificent birds that inhabit the swamp.

"You can make a good gumbo out of that if you smother it with onions," he deadpans. "The blue heron has a very distinct flavor. It's between the whooping crane and the bald eagle."

The real show begins when Guidry spots some alligators nearby. In his distinctive Cajun/Southern twang, he calls to them as if they're old buddies. "C'mon, Ginger! Mama Jane, you hungry?"

They react to the sound of his voice like children to an ice cream truck. Guidry feeds them raw chicken legs, which they seize in their powerful jaws as tour-takers crowd the side of the boat to get a closer look.

When one small alligator had frostbite last winter, Guidry "nursed him back to health like a little child."

Now the reptile "has come to be a good friend of mine." So good that on a recent trip, Guidry decided he would thrill the tourists by bringing his "friend" on board.

He grabbed the gator with a noose-like rope and pulled it onto the boat. Much to everyone's surprise, the animal promptly got loose. Gator Bait and the alligator "went round and round in the corner," Guidry remembers.

"Gator Bait didn't do much but bark at him, and the gator sat there with his mouth wide open. I got a big round of applause out of it. Finally I got the noose on and put him back in the water," he says, relieved that nothing disastrous occurred. "I ain't goin' to try that again!"

About two-thirds of the way through the tour, the boat arrives at a secluded spot for the day's highlight--the Cajun concert advertised in Guidry's colorful brochure.

First, he pulls out his homemade accordion, its parts more suited to a hardware store than a musical instrument: 44-caliber bullet caps, an aluminum welding rod, household molding, a bicycle spoke, cabinet knobs and chair gliders.

"This part acts as a microphone," says Guidry, holding up the mouthpiece from an older-style telephone. "If you go to use a pay phone and this is missing, somebody borrowed it to make an accordion." The only store-bought parts are the bellows and the reeds.

After a brief instrumental, Guidry doffs the accordion and switches to guitar for a rendition of "Jolie Blonde." He loosely translates the French lyrics as, "Pretty blonde, why did you run away and leave me for that guy from California, you rascal, you? Ain't you never comin' back again, or what?"

The lush, humid swamp provides the perfect backdrop for about a half-hour of entertainment, then the boat cruises back to the docks at the Bayou Black Marina. Tourists left wanting more can purchase one of the "few hundred thousand tapes" Guidry wryly says he has for sale.

A former Green Beret and Louisiana state trooper, Guidry got into the swamp tour business only a few years ago. His sideline of entertaining had made him a minor celebrity on local television, where he was noticed by some influential people.

"A bank president called me and said, 'You're a character. We'd like to put you in the swamp tour business,"' Guidry recalls.

He summarily dismissed the idea at first, then took his wife Sondra's advice and thought it over. When the investors agreed to his conditions--including that Guidry be the only one to give the tours, in order to provide visitors with an authentic Cajun experience--he decided the time was right to make entertaining his full-time profession.

And he has had no trouble fulfilling tourists' expectations. Guidry has a simple philosophy that is evidenced in the care he takes to make sure everyone on board has a good time. "I enjoy people," he says. "I really do."

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