Fish with the King

As Gulf fishermen are forced to work for the oil company that destroyed their livelihoods, who will train Louisiana’s next generation to fish?
by J. Malcolm Garcia, from Guernica
March-April 2011
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Deckhand David Merrick shows some of the catch after returning from a two-day shrimp haul at Joshua's Marina in Buras, Louisiana
REUTERS / Hans Deryk
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Fish With The King 
(a sign near the Campo marina)

Before 

FJ Campo sits at a table with receipt books on either side of him. He sells fuel and bait to fishermen from his Shell Beach, Louisiana, marina. A fan blows the odor of freshly cut plywood boards he used to expand his bait shop. He waves as a shrimp boat passes on the other side of the dock past tall marsh grasses. Bars of yellow light pour in a bright sheen across the water and heat shimmers the shoreline. The sky is blindingly blue.

FJ recalls trawling for shrimp when he was 12. In those days, everything was done by hand. No mechanical winches like now. He had always wanted to be on the water. Fresh air. No putting up with smart alecks. Have to be self-motivated, though. You got to drag your ass out of bed at 4 a.m. Some people can’t get up at 8 a.m., and if they do they need an alarm clock to do it.

Two quarts oil, FJ, a fisherman shouts.

After 

On the radio, FJ overhears about an oil rig that blew up. Deepwater something. Belongs to BP. Not the first spill. Won’t be the last. Hurricanes and spills. There’s always something.

His day ends at 6 p.m. FJ drives home on the twisting snake-strip of pavement that is the only road in Shell Beach. He smells the damp wood of docked oyster and shrimp boats. He smells the salt-wet air and the odor of fish and fuel. He sees sky-surfing seagulls, hears their calls, and never tires of any of it.

At home, he sinks into a chair and flips on the TV. See what the fuck happened today. Eleven people killed, burned up in that oil rig explosion. That bothers him. Their kids, wives, fathers, mothers will never see them again.

This can’t be good, FJ thinks.

On Tuesday, April 20, 2010, an offshore oil drilling platform, Deepwater Horizon, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico near Louisiana. Currently Deepwater Horizon is not discharging any oil into the Gulf of Mexico. 

        —Florida Department of Environmental Protection  

 

He was born in 1942 and named Frank Campo Jr., FJ for short. His father was nicknamed Blackie because of his dark Castilian skin color and volatile Latin temper. Both sides of the family moved from Barcelona to New Orleans and then Shell Beach.

Blackie took out fishing parties that included celebrities like trumpet player Al Hirt. When they weren’t fishing, Blackie would sometimes meet Hirt in Las Vegas to watch Muhammad Ali fight. He threw dice in the casinos to pay for his trip.

FJ’s godfather owned a boat with a flat-head motor. One day the motor wouldn’t start, and he got all pissed off. FJ, still a boy, watched him take a hatchet and break off the distributor. Swung again and took out the carburetor. Again. Took out the plugs. Walked to a hardware store and bought new plugs, distributor, and carburetor. FJ tagged along. Back on the boat, his godfather rebuilt the engine and got that bad boy going.

If I had an ax in here instead of a hatchet I’d have finished it in one swing, he told FJ.

That kind of shit made an impression, FJ says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a much wider area—from Louisiana to parts of the Florida Panhandle—would be closed to commercial and recreational fishing for at least 10 days. 

        —MSNBC.com, May 3, 2010

 

On July 5, 2010, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries shut down Lake Borgne, about seven, eight miles away from FJ’s marina and where most of the Shell Beach fishermen trawled for shrimp. FJ blames the weather. Storms the weekend before did them in. Winds blew for four days and rolled all that oil in. The feds told FJ to stop selling bait. He distributes only fuel now to fishermen hired by BP to lay boom and stop the oil from reaching the marshes.

The fishermen arrive at 5 a.m. every day for a briefing with BP contractors in a trailer across from FJ’s marina. Each fisher­man has an ID card with his photograph, his name, and a bar code.

After the briefing, a woman enters FJ’s marina and sits across from him with a palm-size scanner. When a fisherman docks his boat for gas, she scans his bar code and then types in the amount of fuel and oil he requested. She writes the same information down in a notebook. FJ jots it down as well in a receipt book.

He doesn’t know why she has to keep track of the same thing he keeps track of. Everything’s screwed up. Fishermen have told FJ that the dock in Hopedale only five minutes away sells gasoline mixed with water. Looks like Gatorade and tears up an engine. They refer to Hopedale as hell. Where you going today? I’m going to hell.

Guys who have fished for years can’t get their boats on the cleanup list. They could be paid nearly a thousand dollars a day or more depending on the size of their boat and whether it is used to distribute boom or skim oil. Other guys who have never fished in their life get their boats on the list like it was nothing. They have money, FJ figures. You got a crew boat? Yeah. Give me $50 a day and I’ll get you listed. It has always been that way in Louisiana.

The other day, FJ got so strung out he was liable to shoot someone. BP had him order all this gas and diesel, but no one gave him any money to pay for it. It was his name on the $29,000 tab. He went to the parish president. I’m buying a lock, he said. If I have no money tomorrow, I’m going to put a lock on my door and I’m not selling anybody any fuel.

You can’t do that.

Don’t tell me what I can’t do, FJ told him. I’m the king here. I set the rules.

This morning, a check was delivered. Damn, how about that? FJ said.

Rules for Shrimping: 
Stay out until you run out of ice.
Stay out until you run out of fuel.
Stay out until you catch a load of shrimp or you get so horny you got to come home.

But Know This: 
It pays well. Twelve-, thirteen-year-olds making $600 a week working with their daddies.
Put an old timey fisherman’s soul in a young man’s body and he’d be a fucking mule, yes sir.
 

Outside the front door, a .270-caliber bolt-action rifle. Above it a sign:

Asshole 
It’s not just a word 
But a way of life 

Inside Alton Blappert’s house, Spanish moss hangs from the wood-beamed ceiling.

Alton Blappert says: Everyone knew Blackie Campo. Mr. Blackie, we called him. I always bought my bait from him and then FJ until this happened. It’s over with. This is our breeding season. Oil’ll kill everything off. No doubt about it.

Alton sits on a broken-down couch. He is a lean man; leathered muscles stretched taut cause little ripples to spread beneath the skin when he moves, all knobby elbows and knees and whiskey breath and cigarettes. Beside him, a sleeping black cat torn up by a coyote the night before.

Alton says: My daddy started taking me fishing when I was 5 years old. Shrimp, crab, mollusks, red fish, trout. Fifty-five years later I fell through an attic down to the first floor. Broke bones in my neck. That did me. Just as well. If I was still fishing I would be done for.

 

On a Wednesday evening, fisherman George Barasich drives his pickup through the streets of Arabi, a New Orleans suburb about a 40-minute drive from Shell Beach. Green balled-up shrimp nets bounce in the back.

Sure, he knows FJ, knew his old man better, though. Mr. Blackie’d give you the shirt off his back. Literally. One time, maybe in January, a fisherman showed up for fuel in just a T-shirt. What was he thinking? Goose bumps the size of chicken eggs. Mr. Blackie didn’t say anything, just took off his wool shirt and gave it to him. Next morning he found it on his dock hanging from a hook with a note in the breast pocket. Thanks.

At an intersection, a homeless man holds a sign that reads Help a Vet. I’ll work for food. He notices the shrimp nets and asks George if he could spare a few shrimp for a meal.

They shut me down, George says.

That’s sad, the homeless man says. Where’re shrimp going to come from?

Texas.

George passes house after empty house still scarred from the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Spray-painted circles and slashes show that firefighters searched these houses for survivors. Faded numbers beside the slashes indicate the number
of bodies found.

You got shrimp? a man shouts from outside one of the Katrina-destroyed homes.

They shut me down, brother, George says.

Years ago, after the fishermen came in for the night, FJ and his father would stop by the house of Miss Jonsie. She made bread this big around, FJ says. She served coffee and the men gathered on her porch and shot the shit. If someone said he was building a boat, the next day everyone would show up at his house with hammers and saws. Other boys who interrupted the adults got whacked in the head by whoever was closest to them. FJ stayed quiet, listened to their stories, learned.

Lessons 

You see your daddy zigzag the boat in the water?

Yeah.

You ask, why’d you do that? He says, Bad stump, boy. Got to go around it. So when you run your own boat you know about that stump.

What else?

Trout follow shrimp.

What else?

You got your tides. The currents before a full moon always pick up. When the tide is running good, use wing nets. Trawling is better in a slack tide because shrimp settle on the bottom.

What else?

Some people think everything’s got a price, but you can’t buy this kind of knowledge. Maybe in the world they live in, but not here.

FJ’s first two shrimp boats were named Lacy Marie and Brandy Michelle by their previous owner. It was bad luck to change the names. It was considered bad luck to bring bananas on board, too. He named his third boat Lady Gloria after his wife. When they divorced, he renamed it Miss Cathy Ann for his daughter. A wife may not always be your wife, but a daughter will always be your daughter, he says.

 

FJ’s grandson Robert Campo hefts two bottles of oil from a box, tosses them to a fisherman. The gal sitting across from FJ scans the fisherman’s bar code.

Robert stands on the dock near two empty bait containers, the wind whipping his hair. The dock creaks beneath his feet and he watches shrimp boats loaded with soft white booms maneuvering. Robert was 4 when FJ first took him on a shrimp boat. He ran around the deck, played with a toy fishing pole. By the time he was 9, he was driving the boat, handing out life jackets to sports fishermen, filling the gas tank. When he wasn’t working and wasn’t in school, he fished. Red fish, trout, all varieties.

Robert knows what’s going on, FJ says. He’ll remember. 

It was fun just to get out on the water and have a talk with his pa-pa. They talked about anything, really. Fishing. Family. Think we’ll get any here, pa-pa? Yeah, FJ would say. His pa-pa thought like a fish.

I got some real small grandkids. They won’t remember like Robert. 

It was on a weekend, a Friday or a Saturday, when Robert’s father called him on his cell phone and told him about the oil spill. Robert had just come home from football practice. His father was almost crying. This ain’t good, he told Robert. Now his father works for BP.

Robert can’t fathom his family not selling bait and trawling for shrimp. No bait, people can’t fish. If people don’t fish, what else is there? At least his father can weld. He’s a good welder.

They’ll say, I was a little kid when the Deepwater well blew and I don’t remember when people fished, and Robert will have to explain it to them. 

Robert can still see himself with that little reedy toy fishing pole. Scampering around like the boat was one big tree fort. One of those very clear memories that feels beyond reach. When I grow up, I’m going to own my own boat and be like you, he told his father.

He doesn’t think so now, no sir. 

Frank Campo’s Marina 
Since 1945 
“The Place Where Memories Are Made” 
Shell Beach * Overnight Accommodations 
Gas & Diesel * Live Bait * Ice & Drinks 

 

Hard for FJ to believe his father has been dead two years. Ninety years old. Can’t live forever.

Two, three years ago, FJ started losing his voice. Then he lost his voice entirely. His doctor told him he had cancer of the vocal cords. Just like that? FJ asked. Just like that, his doctor said. A short time later he had an operation that has reduced his voice to a raspy whisper, but removed the cancer. Whispering is better than dying.

FJ looks like his father. The same wide chest, thick shoulders. The expressions on his face alternate between a scowl and a squint. Big as he is, though, FJ is not as big as his father, a man with hands so large he could hold a rack of 15 billiard balls in the open palm of either hand with the cue ball set on top for good measure. Blackie Campo placed bets with people who refused to believe he could do such a thing. He brought home more free groceries that way.

God help BP if he were alive now.

 

Faded advertisements promoting different types of hunting rifles decorate the walls around the refrigerator of Alton Blappert’s house. In one corner, framed black-and-white photographs show how Shell Beach once looked. Gravel streets. 1929 Ford cars. Creased faces barely revealed. People stand on the wood plank sidewalks caught in the viewfinder but too far away to be distinct. Ghostly blurs outside some now vanished store.

Federal officials announced last week that scientists have calculated flow rates ranging from 20,000 to 40,000 barrels a day for the period beginning April 22, the day the Deepwater Horizon oil rig sank, through June 3, when a containment dome was placed over the leak and began collecting some of the oil. The new estimates put the spill total between 840,000 and 1.6 million barrels. 

        —Los Angeles Times, June 12, 2010

 

Like her husband, Frank Campo Sr., Mabel Campo grew up in a family of fishermen on nearby Delacroix Island. Just about everybody was a fisherman and a trapper. There was always food on the table but not a lot of luxury. At that time neighbors were very close. If her mother had extra milk, she’d give it to a family that had none. Yards so nice. She could always walk the shore in grassy spots and scoop up soft-shell crabs. A wilderness now since Katrina.

Frank Campo played baseball with the Delacroix Island team. He shrimped after they married, and she ran a country store with one gas pump and sold kerosene. She woke up three, four in the morning and with her husband rented out boats to sports fishermen and sold bait.

Seems so far-fetched to think about now.

 

Dean Blanchard sits behind his desk, looks out the window at his silent dock on Grand Isle a good three-hour drive from Shell Beach. Sure, he knows FJ. He’s the one with the big marina, right? He knew Mr. Blackie better than FJ. Saw him on the TV. Any time some reporter had a question about fishing, they called on Mr. Blackie.

Before the spill, Dean ran a full-service dock and processed a million pounds of mostly shrimp a year. Ninety-two percent shrimp, seven-and-a-half percent fish, he estimates. Something like that.

Opened in 1972, surrounded by eight much larger competitors. He was the family-owned store next to a Walmart. He stood up to those Goliaths for 28 years and drove each one
out of business. At 51, he planned to reap the rewards for a life’s work.

Shit.

He shows a spreadsheet.

Last year, between July 1 and July 12, he sold $1.6 million dollars of shrimp. This year for the same period and after all the closures, he sold just $241,658.47.

That’s a difference, he says.

Look here. This ice machine. Cost half a million dollars. Last year for those same dates, he sold $15.2 million dollars of ice. This year just $231. The goddamn ice machine’s electric bill is $10,000 a day. You do the math.

He had ninety employees, but has laid off all but eight or nine. That number’s fixing to go down even more.

We’re fucked, he says.

His momma’s side of the family was in the oil business.
His daddy was in oil. He knows how these people operate. Jesus hung around with fishermen; he didn’t hang out with no oil men.

 

Alton Blappert wanders onto his porch and considers a dense row of trees behind his property. That’s where they come. Coyotes. He raises the .270-caliber, sites it at nothing, fires. Just to let them know he knows they are there.

Alton says:
It’s not a business. It’s a way of life out here.

 

My daddy boughtthe first automobile here. 1948. Took five hours to drive from here to Arabi. You had to stop and change tires. Five or six flats at least because of all the shells. 

What place had the ice cream?

Rexall. 

No, the Four Stop.

Who was that guy with the big suitcase and police dog? 

He bought muskrat furs. Six dollars apiece. My uncle Pasqual took all his money and bought a house.

In those days, you get 50, 60 baskets of crabs and you could be home by 10 o’clock in the morning. 

Different caliber of fishermen then.

You’ve lived too long. 

George Barasich sees the problem this way. The longer this oil lasts, the longer fishermen will work for BP. They might like it. They might not return to fishing even if they can. As the older guys leave, who trains the younger ones to fish?

He thinks of his father, how the old man watched him set nets, pick up the trawl, sort shrimp, and throw what wasn’t marketable overboard. You’re slowing down, boy, he’d say. Pick up those shrimp. The old man was born in Croatia and followed his father to Biloxi when he was 11. Then George’s grandfather decided to return to the old country. His father stayed. No such thing as foster care in those days. Fishermen raised him.

George made his kids work too. The oldest son is an electrical engineer. Another son is enrolled in Vanderbilt University. His 16-year-old daughter attends a private high school in Baton Rouge. Nine grand a year. Before the spill, all George did was work.

BP is becoming increasingly stringent with its demands for documentation from victims filing claims for lost wages and income. 

        —CNN, July 9, 2010

 

Folks here use hurricanes to measure time. Back in the day, they might say, was that before Hurricane Betsy or after? Then Hurricane Katrina struck and blew Betsy permanently into the past. Now it’s “before the spill” and “after the spill.” Who would have thought anything would be bigger than Katrina?

Katrina wiped out the Campo marina. The fuel tanks lay in the few woods left standing. FJ set them on blocks and washed them out. An Environmental Protection Agency guy all suited up asked him, what did he think he was doing? Don’t take a fucking genius, FJ told him. I’m washing my fuel tanks.

That’s not legal, the EPA guy said.

FJ was hot, tired, sweating, and cleaning a six-thousand-gallon fuel tank. The parish sheriff, district attorney, judges, and state senators bought their bait from the Campo marina. Who did this guy think he was?

Before you get too stupid, I’ll pull strings you’ve never seen, FJ said. Get your ass out. I’m the king here.

 

Dean Blanchard hears stories, conspiracy theories. People are saying things like the contractors BP has hired to do the cleanup are directing shrimp boats away from the oil so it comes in on the beaches and they make more money because it will take more time to clean.

Dean doesn’t know the truth from the lies.

At night he hears airplanes and helicopters fly overhead. Next day, oil in the water he saw with his own eyes is gone. Disbursements? What else? They can’t find oil for two weeks. Then it comes back. More billable hours.

He’s just saying.

BP hired him to haul oil barges. But then they asked some other group to do it. Dean raised hell about it this morning. Cursed out the mayor. He told him, I’ll bring you my last dog and my wife, how’s that? You’ve taken everything else from me.
 

As soon as she heard the news and saw oil gushing out of the Deepwater well on TV, Mabel Campo knew they were in trouble. Oh my God, she says, I’m almost happy Blackie’s not here. He would be out of his mind. Hurricanes are bad, but the Campos always survived them. Most of these old fishermen she knows can’t read or write. What other work can they do?

She won’t live anywhere else but Shell Beach. She stayed in Baton Rouge with nine cousins for a while during Katrina. She was so happy to return to Shell Beach.

She knows FJ finds it hard to be reimbursed by BP. The family can’t keep charging stuff. They have never owed so much. Not used to operating like this, no sir.

BP shares rallied on Monday as investors reacted to the oil group finally sealing the leaking Macondo well, five months after an explosion caused the worst-ever U.S. oil spill. 

        —Telegraph, September 21, 2010
 

FJ wakes up still thinking about the spill. Like his brain doesn’t go to sleep anymore. He used to figure out shit when he was asleep. Now he doesn’t. Just wakes up, listens.

No one sits around and bullshits anymore. No one gets together. This isn’t who they are but it is what they’ve become.

Before 

FJ sits in his boat in the middle of Lake Borgne. Seagulls soar above him, the sun barely up. The air still cool. He tastes salt. He and his grandson don’t talk. Only the breeze whispers in his ears, leaving his mind a peaceful blank, the water lifting his boat in gentle swells.

He is chasing something he can’t see beneath the dark waters, bonded with that something by generations of fishermen who did the same thing, and whose faces other than his daddy’s and granddaddy’s he knows only through pictures and stories. He assumes it will be this way tomorrow and the next day and the day after that until he, too, is a framed photograph in the hands of a great-great-grandchild who will know only his picture and the stories told about him when he was king.

After 

He cherishes those times.

 

J. Malcolm Garcia’s writing has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing and Best American Nonrequired Reading. A version of this article originally appeared in Guernica (Nov. 2010), an online magazine of art and politics.www.guernicamag.com           

Cover-MA11-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the March-April 2011 issue of Utne Reader.


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