Holding onto the rotting wooden rail, I stare out across the Houston Ship Channel and watch the puffy carbon-coughing black plume bellow from the single smoke stack of the dilapidated shrimp boat. To say I don’t have my sea legs would be a gross exaggeration. I figured after an hour on the small boat I would be okay, but now I'm not so sure.
“What is the oddest thing you’ve ever pulled up in your nets, Mr. Bouchet?” He throws his bald head back and laughs and his gray scraggly beard resembles a worn out frayed mop with mystery items and coated in tobacco juice.
“After Ike, I pulled in a double wide fridge and that danged thing was so well sealed, I have it in my camp house right now. It was a major haul because it was fully stocked with ice cold Pabst Blue Ribbon beers. Hey, you want one?”
I declined as I don’t usually drink adult beverages before 7am, but that didn’t stop the skipper, who popped the top on one and consumed it in one lip-smacking draw. Disembarking on the solid pier at Bayland Park is far more important than getting a morning beer buzz.
Cap’n Rusty, as he likes to be called, is a “road seller” of fine fish products and all evidence to the contrary, is a self-proclaimed "guzzillionaire". “I have more money than is rightly legal,” he states proudly and I look at his rusted out 1974 Chevy pick-up with curiosity. It is a mismatch of 14 colors with more dents than I thought were possible. About the only thing fully intact is the bed and it is loaded down with white coolers. I know it’s loaded because the bed of the truck is squatting and I step away from the rear bald tires figuring to avoid getting my legs blown off if they pop.
His white rubber boots really go well with his weathered green coveralls, which are baggy enough to accommodate a family of Canadian refugees. “My secret to success is my trawler is registered in Monrovia and I don’t pay taxes, nope none at all!” He appears to be very proud of himself too. “Just like those rich peoples what was running for office last year. Hey, who won anyway?”
Before I can answer, I watch him dump out a box of frozen shrimp, marked “Product of Vietnam” into a vat to thaw. “These are genuine caught in the Gulf of Mexico shrimps!” he explains and to my horror tosses the greasy oil-soaked box overboard. I grab a gaff and snag it back and this tickles him for some reason. "Biodegeneration will dissolve that sonny!" he says and spits a ungodly amount of tobacco juice into the bay and croaks, "Presto!"
“I don’t guess you’ve heard about water pollution?” I ask and again he cackles. Before I can utter another word, he dips a dirty glass into the ship channel and drinks the whole thing, burping loudly.
“It’s a myth, just like those lies about Bill Clinton preying on the women folk. Did I tell you him and me went to the same high school in Ar-kansas? Sure did and them girls were always pestering him, and he being a gentleman and all. He was the real victim. I swear to there and back he was. Clean as one of those Buck-Kees terlits!”
I watch as he lights up two hand-rolled cigarettes at once and puffs away, like a steam locomotive. Pulling in the huge net takes precedence over talking and he dumps the contents on the deck. It is an amazing haul of everything from oysters and shrimp to about twenty kinds of fish of every description. “I harvest everything and nothing gets throwed back!” he yells and I’m no expert on limits of size requirements, but I’m pretty sure a 10-inch redfish is a violation.
“You see, some of these laws just ain’t for the working man, fella. A man’s gotta make a living and all of this will either go to the buyers, or it will go to the other buyers!’ Again he laughs so hard, I have to slap his boney back to help him catch his wind. “Here, hold my beer while I drop the nets again.” I wasn't counting, but I think that is number 3. For a man in his obvious 80’s, Mr. Bouchet has energy to spare and for the life of me, I wonder how he can catch anything here at the docks and say so.
"You just watch and learn fella. Ol Cap’n Rusty will learn you." Sure enough, a wave comes rolling in as a huge ship passes by and the captain lets out a squeal that would scare a sow feral hog. "The nets are full agin!" he yells and hits the switch on his rickety winch. The whole dang boat rocks to one side as the heavy fish-laden net is lifted out of the water and Ol Rusty is going plumb crazy. "Everything sells!"
The near bursting net is hovering over the rotting deck of the boat when he releases it and it is almost full of loggerhead sea turtles of every size. They thunk and bang all over the place and the spry captain is dancing about throwing them into the ice-filled chests and lockers like Ken Caminiti firing off a throw to first. I'm pretty sure all of this is illegal and I look around knowing I will be incriminated as an accessory. When he sees that I am about to bolt, he cackles and tells me "all these will be in Anahuac before sundown, cause they's be turtle eatin' fools over there."
Well, I'd seen enough and I left the giggling old man and figured it was my civic duty to file a police report. For some reason it wasn't in the today's paper, but that was yesterday and it'll probably be in Sunday's paper. I sure hope he isn't water-boarded because they would be in for a surprise. Anyone who drink water out of Tabb's bay won't be easy to break.