I’m a southern boy. Not a southern stereotype like those idiots you see on the current TV trend. I grew up never knowing anyone who made duck calls or caught alligators for a living. That portrayal of the deep south as a swamp inhabited with nothing but gators, snakes and rednecks is but a small part of our rich and diverse culture. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m no city boy either. I’m reasonably educated, meaning I squeaked out of high school, joined the Navy during the Viet Nam era and went to college on the GI Bill for a few semesters. I read a lot. I love football, the outdoors and fishing. Mainly saltwater fishing along the gulf island beaches of south Louisiana. I caught my first speckled trout surf fishing on Grand Isle when I was about 10 years old. I would have landed one sooner but I wasn’t tall enough to get past the breakers. My family used to rent a cabin in the summer near the beach. Betraying it’s name, this isle wasn’t grand at all. It was, then, an eleven mile stretch of clap board fishing camps set off the ground on old creosote light poles, one crappy store, 2 bars, a marina/bait shop and the oil and seafood industry. I once saw a couple walking down the brown sand beach that was dotted with tar balls and dead catfish. They were holding a tourism brochure and shaking their heads. I was on my stomach plinking off sand crabs with my b-b gun. It was easy pickings because as soon as you shot one, others would come out of their sandy holes to eat him. It’s a crab eat crab world on the beach. The couple stopped next to me, looked at the idyllic pictures of sunsets and happy couples on the beach in the brochure and asked, “Son, is this Grand Isle?” “Yes sir.” I pointed at the brochure and said, “Where is that place in those pictures, mister?” He just muttered a curse word under his breath and moved on still shaking his head. It wasn’t until we vacationed in Destin, Florida that I knew what a real beach looked like. It didn’t matter to me though. When your ten it was a great adventure. You had to run at top speed from the cabin to the beach. Through the tall grass, fishing rod in one hand, other hand flapping and slapping the mosquitoes that would eat you alive till you reached the safety of the windblown beach. We fished and string-lined crabs in the surf, using chicken necks as bait and a hand net to scoop them up. We built sand castles out of the dingy sand that had been dumped there by the Mississippi river for millennia. By the end of the day, tucked under cool sheets, our tummies full of fried fish and boiled crabs or shrimp, we were one big sunburned, Noxzema smelling, mosquito bump. We didn’t care.
I’m giving you this background so you won’t think I’m some rookie in the ways of the Gulf. I’ve spent a lot of my sixty-five years boating and fishing here. I have experienced bad weather of all sorts. More than once I’ve run aground and had to push the boat by hand, my legs sinking to my knees in the soft mud and oil bottoms of Louisiana marshes, a fecund odor belching up with each torturous step. I love the coast and I love to fish and I’ve always come home relatively unscathed.
I almost never fish alone. In the past I had larger boats. My friends or my son or both would fish with me and help with the launch, anchor and such. I was younger then. I gave my last twenty footer to my grown son. He would take me fishing. That was fine. I am still vital and strong at sixty-five but gravity, Louisiana cuisine and achy joints have slowed me down and taken a toll. Betty Davis was right, getting old is not for sissies. I retired after forty years and I had time on my hands. I had no plans of owning another boat. Want to hear God laugh? Tell him your plans.
She beckoned to me, like a siren of myth, from the showroom of that outdoors box store. That’s the way it always happened. I’m impulsive that way. My late wife learned to live with it as I would pull another used boat into the driveway. She knew me well and would just smile and say, “Don’t stay out too late.” She knew I would be tinkering with it till midnight. I miss her. I never owned a new boat. This time was different. This boat was shiny new. This was a much smaller boat, easy for one man to handle alone. This was many day trips spent fishing skinny water. Safe water for one man in a small boat. The boat salesman was happy. I could see him smiling in the window when I pulled off with that boat behind my SUV. Probably the easiest sale he had ever made.
Dawn broke clear and calm that early July day. It wasn’t as hot or oppressive as it gets in August and the early morning air had been cool enough to roll the car windows down. I followed the road south. I have driven it a hundred times before. There was no need to look for signs or mileage markers, this road ended where Louisiana ended, at the salt. You would know if you had gone too far. Once you left the last tiny town there was nothing on the left side of the road but bayou and on the right, untold thousands of square miles of coastal marsh. You could smell the salt on the wind. Shrimp boats lined the bayou side of the road, nets stretched out to dry. There were primeval smells from the marsh tinting the air and the smell of decaying fish and shrimp mixed in. They weren’t bad odors, they were soothing and familiar. Smells that always triggered memories of fishing trips from my youth. Only smell missing was the smoke from the ever present Pall Mall that hung from my old man’s lips. To this day if I’m fishing in a boat with someone who smokes and they light up, I am immediately transported back in time. I expect to look back and see his six foot five frame crammed into the boat, the smoke curling around his head as he curses and fights with a tangle in his line.
Fishing camps begin to pop up on the right and I know I am close to the launch. The sky in the east was just beginning to lighten as the new day arrived. I’m excited as I was when I was twelve. If you fish, you never lose that.
I was at the mouth of a bayou that emptied into the bay. This was the end of the marsh. On the horizon I could just make out Isle Dernière, a barrier island that faced the gulf. The fishing had been slow and I knew the big specs were out in the surf in front of the island. This was spawning season and the sows had to deposit their eggs in the salt water so they would float to be fertilized by the males. There was seven miles of open water between me and the island and I longed to walk that beach and fish in the surf. I could pull up behind the island and walk across to the beach. I didn’t even have to venture out into the gulf, just get across the bay. “The weather is good.” I state out loud, as if to convince someone else. “Just the normal summer pattern.” There were cumulus clouds on the horizon but nothing threatening. I put on my life jacket, fired up the engine and headed out into open water.
I stood waist deep in the surf. The floating stringer attached to my belt loop held six big trout. Not trophy size but damn respectable. The gulf was calm, and seagulls worked up and down the beach, diving over and over again feeding on schools of shrimp. Dolphins prowled outside the breakers looking for a meal. I could hear the whoosh of expelled air as they surfaced. I tasted the salt on my lips and raised my face to the sun and smiled. I was as happy as I had been in a long time. I trudged up to the beach and dropped the fish into an ice chest I had dragged over from the bay side. I looked over that way to check on the boat and was happy to see her right where I had left her, nosed up on the shore. I took out a sandwich I had packed for lunch and sat down on the ice chest lid and looked around.
Isle Dernière or Last Island as the locals call it was nothing but a strip of sand and grass about a hundred yards across at the widest point. In the mid-1850s the island was 25 miles in length and sported a two story resort hotel, gambling halls and a village of a hundred beach houses on the west end. Prosperous folks from New Orleans would come here by steamer in the summer to escape the oppressive heat and foul smells of New Orleans. In August of 1856, while a grand ball was being held at the hotel, a huge hurricane came ashore with no warning. Hundreds of people died and the island was split in half and wiped clean of buildings and trees. A handful of people survived and one cow. No boats could navigate from the mainland to the island so within a couple of days the cow was gone as well. Stories tell of hundreds of bodies floating in the bay.
The sound of thunder startled me from my reverie. I looked to my right out at the gulf and saw nothing. Thunder again, from behind me. I turned around to the west and saw lightning. Time to go, and fast. I didn’t want to be the tallest thing on this island with no cover. I figured I could make the seven miles across the bay before the storm got here. I loaded my tackle and ice chest, donned my life jacket and headed out across the bay. Got the little boat up on a plane, turned on the bilge pump and put the hammer down.
The storm grew to my left. The cumulus clouds were a greenish-black. The color of an old bruise. Jagged lightning licked at the water. I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. The hair on my arms and neck started standing on end. The atmosphere was full of charged ions. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped instantly. Not good, I thought, not good. This sucker was coming too fast. It was pushing an impenetrable wall of rain across the water. It blocked out the sun. The seas got too rough and I had to slow down. The small boat was struggling through the white caps. I was half way there. I looked for some sort of refuge and saw a small abandoned oil platform ahead. Lots of metal pipes but a wooden deck for work boats to tie up to. Any port in a storm took on real meaning. I never saw the wave that knocked me out of the boat.
I bounced like a cork in my life jacket. I wiped salt water out of my eyes to see. The boat was running away. In my rush to leave I forgot to hook the safety kill switch lanyard to my life jacket. A deafening crack filled my head as a bolt of lightning hit the oil platform a quarter mile away. I tingled from the electricity in the water. I would have died had I been on that platform. I looked for the boat. The torque from the engine had put the boat in a wide right hand loop back toward me.
I started swimming to where I thought the boat would pass. I had one shot at this. If I missed grabbing the side of the boat I wouldn’t get another chance. Also, if I missed, I had a very good chance of getting chewed up by my shiny new prop. The white caps were pounding me and I was losing strength every minute. The wind, combined with rain and the salt water was blinding. The boat arched toward me, I paddled with all the reserve I had left to get into position on the driver’s side. I needed to pull that damn kill switch. I lunged as the boat came alongside. My hand found the lanyard and I fell back in the water, exhausted, as the engine died.
I hung on to the side of the boat, breathing heavily in the rough water. This would be a really bad time to have a heart attack, I thought. I was too heavy and exhausted to get over the side, so I started the engine and began to slowly move toward the platform, steering with one hand, my other arm draped over the gunwale. I thought of the old black and white western’s I’d seen. The horse bringing his wounded cowboy home. The storm was ebbing as it passed over. The lightning was off to the east now. I shut down the engine and tied the boat to the dock. I climbed the ladder and collapsed on the wooden deck.
They told me at the landing that the storm had formed right off of Last Island. On the radio on the way home, the weather service said it looked like a small hurricane on radar, with winds up to fifty miles per hour. A freak storm with no warning. I thought of the Isle Dernière hurricane of 1856 and the horror those people must have suffered. I was careless and extremely lucky to be alive. As I filled up the car at a service station I was thinking of my late wife. I got a whiff of cigarette smoke. Perhaps someone had been watching over me.