Sometime in May 2008, I was lying in bed at about 10:30 pm on a weeknight, just about to drift off to sleep when my land line rang. I looked over at my nightstand with a scowl, for the only times that phone rang it was either a telemarketer or someone at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility placing a collect call to someone with a colorful, unintelligible name who didn’t live with me. I ignored the nuisance ringing, but just as I was about to nod off again, the frazzling thing rang again! I begrudgingly reached over, picked up the receiver, and put it to my ear. “Hello,” I mumbled. On the other end, the unfamiliar voice of some guy who’d obviously enjoyed a few libations that evening said, “Hey, dude. Is this Robbie Vance?” I responded in the affirmative, and he then proceeded to explain to me that he was someone that I’d chatted and become friends with on an internet message board for graduates of my high school. He told me he was planning a fishing trip to the Louisiana marsh the weekend of Father’s Day and wanted me to go with him. I tried for several minutes to hem and haw my way out of it, coming up with lame excuses as to why I couldn’t go while trying to avoid having to reveal the secret of my disability and admit to the assistance I would require in order to undertake such an endeavor. He (Ken) was a persistent old fart and slapped back every one of my weak volleys like McEnroe at Wimbledon until I finally gave in and agreed to go with him.
On the Friday afternoon before Father’s day, about 3 hours later than our scheduled departure time, Ken, his brother Clay, and his son Collier parked in front of my house to pick me up for the outing. After some introductions and the selection of the choicest spinning reels in my collection, we headed south to the land where everybody loves LSU and the Saints, and Sunday dinner is more likely around a newspaper-covered table in the yard than Grandma’s dining room table. After several hours on the road, we passed through the dilapidated outskirts of New Orleans where the signs of Katrina were still horribly obvious, even on a moonless night, nearly 3 years after the storm laid waste to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and the land mass between New Orleans and Mobile. (Here’s looking at you, Weather Channel.) Around 10 pm, we pulled into a Winn Dixie grocery store in Chalmette to grab some drinks and snacks to take on the boat the next day. In hindsight, I wish that when Ken asked if there was anything in particular that I wanted, I’d requested some pop tarts, honey buns, or something tasty and easy to eat. (This decision will come back to haunt me later.) Collier and I stayed with the truck, officially to make sure everything in the bed of the truck stayed in the bed of the truck, but more than anything else, I was completely exhausted and couldn’t walk the aisles of the store.
We then drove for a little while further past the storage tanks of oil refineries with their pungent odor hanging thick in the night air, along the black water of narrow canals, past street lights illuminating dilapidated shacks wrecked by the waters of Katrina and the slow rot that followed, weaving through a maze of roads that led further into the unknown. Then, ahead were a string of street lights, boat houses, and fish camps. We pulled up to, or should I say under, a mobile home suspended on telephone poles 35 feet over the mosquito and greenhead fly infested marsh at Hopedale, LA. We all rolled out of the truck in varying degrees of stiff, grogginess surveying the landscape, or the part of it shown by the street lights anyway. As they were unloading the truck, I looked around for an elevator or hang glider to get me up to the deck surrounding the single-wide, but all I saw was a really steep, really long set of wooden stairs ascending all the way to the top with no landings on which to pause on one’s ascent. I had long since lost my ability to climb stairs, so after a few minutes of coin flips, scribbling some calculus equations on the back of a napkin from some place called Jiggly Juggs, and a spirited game of rock, paper, scissors, Clay was selected as my pack mule. I think it was mostly because he still looked like he could play linebacker for his dad at Millsaps. He put me on his back like a 230 lb. rucksack and, with the sure-footedness of a Tibetan yak, he packed me to the top. Once inside, Ken handed me a short glass containing some ice cubes and a tasty brown liquid which I savored before falling asleep and spending an uncomfortable 4 hours stuck to a leather couch.
Around 5 a.m., everyone began stirring about the joint, preparing for the day on the water. It was easy to remember that we were in a trailer palace suspended on light poles, because with every step anyone took, the entire place swayed a little. Someone got me up off the couch and I stumbled around, still exhausted, digging through my bag looking for the high-performance fishing garments I’d forgotten to pack. So, I elected to just go in the polo and cargo shorts that I had been wearing since the previous morning. As I emerged from the back of the trailer after having completed my morning constitutional, I ran into Ben, a little shaggy-haired Italian looking fella who turned out to be our captain and the owner of this skyline abode. He was diminutive in stature, with deeply tanned skin from years spent chasing fish around the marsh for a living, and had the most sincere, outgoing personality that made me feel instantly as if he was an old friend without the patronizing air that I was used to getting from strangers aware of my disability.
About 5:30 a.m. everybody started filtering out of the Boeing seven-forty-single-wide to Ben’s boat house across the street to get things loaded and squared away on our chariot for the day, a utilitarian but comfortable 25′ Privateer center console powered by a single 250 hp Yamaha outboard. Once everything was ready, it was time to figure out how to get me back down the stairs. After more surveying, some coffee, and a brief story about the last trip to Jiggly Juggs, I requested a pillow, and with some assistance, sat down on the top step. I then proceeded to bounce my butt down each step like a toddler until I was once again on terra firma.
It took a couple minutes for my knees to convert the Jell-O back into the ligaments and tendons that allowed me to somewhat effectively walk. With some steadying by holding onto Ken’s shoulder, I walked through the coarse slag driveway, across the street, and into the boathouse where the smooth wood floor let me regain some confidence in my legs’ ability to hold me up and move me. Based on my previous experience fishing in saltwater environs, I knew standing in the boat would not be an option as I hadn’t the ability to maintain my balance against the constant shifting of the floor by the waves. So, I requested a cooler be placed in front of the driver’s console as my perch for the trip. With the boat still supported in the wide straps of its lift, I turned and sat down on the gunwale. Then, Clay helped me turn around, dragging my legs into the boat before sliding over onto the empty cooler where I would spend the rest of my time on the water that day.
By 5:45 a.m. I was in the boat and we were backing out into the canal. Everyone was basting themselves with sunscreen and breakfast was being distributed while we crept along in the no wake zone. Once I had been slathered in cold, white cream, I was handed a man-sized wedge of muffuletta and an icy cold can of Miller Lite …at 5:45 a.m. …in the morning …on a boat …before spending the entire day on the water …in the sun …with no shade. I tried to take bites of the sandwich and hold on enough so as to not bounce off the cooler that my butt was trying to bite into as we skipped through the choppy waters of the marsh. Did I mention that I’m not a huge fan of olives or processed lunch meats? I also have to be in the right mood to really enjoy beer. As a rule, that mood doesn’t usually occur within 4 hours after I’ve been asleep for my usual nightly slumber or some representation thereof. Eventually, the bouncing of the boat against the waves caused me to squeeze all of the olives and most of the meat from between the slices of grocery store roll, and I ditched the remainder over the side when I thought nobody was looking. I fought against the motion of the boat, the waves, and my aversion to a sudsy breakfast to get the beer to my lips with limited success as we scooted past the marsh grass out toward the mostly uninhabited natural gas rigs in the open waters of Breton Sound. That was when I came to regret my decision to not speak up at the Winn Dixie. A Mountain Dew and a box of Little Debbie Zebra Cakes would have been manna from on high right at that moment.
We bounced around from rig to rig for a while that morning catching a few speckled trout here and there but nothing special. Then around 11 am, we pulled up to a rig somewhere among the seemingly countless nondescript pipe structures dotting the waterscape and tied off, because that’s what Ben said we should do. It looked like every other rig I could see and not unlike any of the others we had already tied off to that morning, but for some reason, this one was touched by the Spirit. I picked up my new Okuma spinning reel with its 11 ball bearings and ceramic drag that was affixed securely to a 7′ medium action rod with a stout backbone and a tip so sensitive that I could feel mosquitoes landing on it. Then, Ben rigged me up with a weight and hook for bottom fishing before popping the barbed tip of the hook through the shell of a blue crab that he’d just split in two. I chunked it over the side and started to reach for a water bottle when the rod nearly jumped from my grasp. Something down there wasn’t worried about my hydration, and I decided I’d try to bring the offender to the surface to have a talk with whatever it was about its manners. After a good 5 minutes of reeling, pulling, giving up line, and reeling some more, all of a sudden there was a huge flash of gold beneath the water beside the boat. It was something this guy from landlocked Rankin County, MS had never experienced before. This was, in my experience at least, a monster redfish. I wasn’t an amateur to saltwater fishing, not by any measure. My best friend Justin and I had spent many hours on the waters of the Mississippi Sound in his boat. We weren’t so great at catching fish, but we’d landed lots of trout, croakers, flounder, and some small redfish on our amateur adventures. None of that compared to the power of this beast. Not even the big bass from my grandparents’ pond that I had mounted fought with half the furious determination that this redfish did. As the fish started tiring out and circling just below the surface beside the boat, Ken reached over the side with a net to land the giant fish and promptly broke my line with the net. I was disappointed but more exhausted than anything. I took a minute to suck the bottom out of a couple bottles of water before getting rebaited and doing it again. Let me tell you… Ben was a master baiter! Over the next couple hours, we all hooked up with these huge redfish, landing some and losing some. Thankfully, I did manage to get one of the beautiful bull redfish in the boat out of the half dozen I fought with for a total of what felt like hours.
Once the sharks began to invade our honey hole, and I’d almost lost the toes on my left foot to one, we decided it was time to move. The sun had crossed over into the second half of the sky and I was miserably hot. My lack of food, an unusually high level of physical exertion, and the heat combined to kick me in the gut and abscond with any energy I might’ve had left. We untied from that bountiful rig and went to another rig a few refreshing nautical miles away with the sea breeze and salt spray of the journey cooling my core. The fishing was slow, so I retired my rod and reel for the day because there wasn’t anything left in me. As everyone was reciting the familiar “I’ll give it one more cast…” line, Collier hooked into something substantial. It was the biggest redfish most of us had probably ever seen in person or picture. That kid fought the fish like an old pro while everyone on the boat tossed advice at him. “Keep your tip up!” “Watch the anchor rope!” “Let him run!” “Don’t horse him!” He must’ve walked the gunwale of that boat from bow to stern and port to starboard 6 times before he was finally able to land the monster. That was the feather in the day’s cap, so we pulled the anchor and headed in, back through the marsh to the quiet calm of the canal lined with all manner of docks, most in some level of disrepair from past hurricanes.
Once we were safely back to Ben’s boathouse, with the boat in its hoist, the photography and stories commenced. We recounted the day’s events, already slathering on embellishments. The fish were slowly morphing from sleek, golden, red, white, black and silver creatures into a pile of delicate white fillets destined for the freezer, grill, or a bath in hot peanut oil. The jagged lifeless carcasses were soon to be tossed into crab traps to lure tomorrow’s bait or tomorrow evening’s supper. We all had our memories that we could take with us back to our everyday lives ashore that we could share with our friends, recounting the enjoyment we experienced with that group at that place and time. Most importantly, though, we formed bonds through that common experience.
After the last picture was taken and I regained enough of my balance to hobble back across the road to the trailer in the sky, I took a naked-in-view-of-the-highway, ice water from a garden hose “shower” to rinse the film created by layers of oily sunscreen and evaporated saltwater covering my body. I was finally able to strap on my spurs and gallop Clay back up the stairs to the comfort of air conditioning and a nice soft couch to melt into. Once I’d found the perfect spot to spend the rest of the waking hours of my day, I popped open a can of coke, and searched through the three fuzzy New Orleans TV stations I could find on the afterthought of a TV.
There was a little poboy stand just next door to our accommodations and across the street from where the oyster boats unloaded their catch into the refrigerated trailers of 18 wheelers. Ken said they were headed down to grab some supper. I was exhausted, and in no mood to expend the energy, or force Clay to expend the energy, to hassle me down and then back up the stairs again. So, I asked him to bring me my favorite of all sandwiches, an oyster poboy with mayo and cocktail sauce on that crusty French bread common in New Orleans. This shouldn’t be an unreasonable request due to our proximity to both oysters and poboys. Would you believe that in the deep, moldy heart of Coonassville, LA, they didn’t serve oyster poboys??? Anyway, I graciously and thankfully accepted the shrimp poboy that he returned with a few minutes later. I’m not sure if it was the best shrimp poboy I’d ever eaten, or if it was just that it was the first thing I’d eaten since lunch the day before, but I savored every bite of it as though it was a 7-course meal at my favorite 5-star restaurant.
After a comfortable night’s sleep in one of the bunk beds lining the walls of all the bedrooms until well past 10:00 the next morning, we sluggishly loaded everything into the truck and made the drive back north. The return trip seemed to take forever and everyone suffered from a sort of hangover. Most everyone except for my parents knows what I’m talking about. You’re not tired enough to really sleep, but you’re too tired to keep your eyes open. Your stomach teeters back and forth between “You may want to look for someplace with a not totally disgusting bathroom,” and “You can make it. Your comfy toilet is not that far away.” Your head hurts, but not enough to fool with finding an aspirin. It’s just a general physiological ick.
Once they dropped me off at my house, I fulfilled the second of the queasy stomach options with immediate haste before loading my physically spent carcass into my truck and going to stay with mom and dad for a couple days until I regained enough strength to function sufficiently and could rejoin my regularly scheduled life, already in progress.
I count Ken, Clay, and Collier as friends, no matter how infrequently we interact these years later. They are a bunch of salt-of-the-earth guys that will give you the shirts off their backs and their pants too if you needed them. That was the last time I’ve been in a boat on saltwater, and if it is the last time I ever am, I will remain satisfied that there could be no better day, with no better group of guys to bookend that chapter of my life. Here’s to you, fellas…