This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 5 No. 2, "Long Journey Home: Folklife in the South." Find more from that issue here.
The bait-camp owner had talked for several hours to customers surrounding the stove in his bait store at old Indianola on Matagorda Bay, when he remembered one particular fishing trip:
I was staying in Houston then, and a friend of mine wanted to go fishing, so I told him that I’d wake him up in the morning. I’d blow the horn when I come by ready to go — I had the old Model- T car. So I went by there at two o’clock in the morning, blowing my horn. And he finally stuck his head out the window, and he says, “What in the world’s all the racket about out there?”
“I told you I’d blow the horn. Let’s go. ”
Neighbors began to cut up about all that horn blowing. So he come out there with his rigging, got in there, and we took off. And he said he’s the one who knew exactly where to fish. Well, I didn’t; we’d been going on down towards Galveston somewhere and that’s all I knew of. And he says, “Hey, pull off right here. ” And I pulled off; there’s old salt bunch grass. We’s driving about five miles an hour; the fog was so heavy I couldn’t do no driving. Couldn’t nobody see anything; once in a while see the stripe on the pavement.
So I pulled off to the side of the road. He got out there, got his old dead shrimp bait out, and he placed one on his hook, and he says, “Ain’t you gonna fish?” I says, “Man, I ain’t never fished in a place like this, and I don ’t expect to start it now. ” So he just heaves his old heavy sinker off across the country. And I listened and listened. I never did hear any splash. So I thought, we’ll just wait and see what happens. About that time, why his old rod just folded up. 1 said, “Oh my goodness, he’s caught a Brahma bull just sure as the world. ”
He fought around there for a good bit, and brought it in, and it was an eight pound redfish. I couldn’t believe my eyes, and I started trying to rig up, and he’d done hooked another one by the time I got rigged up. I heaved her out there, and I hooked one too, and we was fighting those fish in just like nobody’s business. It got about eight or nine o’clock. We caught 15 or 20 big reds, and the fog lifted, and we was ten miles from the bay. We’d been fishing in a fog bank!
At this, the crowd laughed, shook their heads, and one man, hitching up his pants’ legs, walked out the door stiff-legged. The storyteller laughed along with the rest of them. Despite his reputation as “one of the biggest liars on the Texas coast,” Ed Bell can still hook eager listeners with his tall tales. One of the last of the old-time yarn spinners, he can talk for hours about local history and legend, eccentric characters and personal experiences, and spice it all with tall tales and jokes.
Ed’s stories are tied to the coastal region; they are about fishing in the bays and inlets, and hunting on the coastal plains. They come alive with local place names — Matagorda, Powderhorn Lake, Port Lavaca, Pass Cavallo, Indianola — and with local characters such as Tex Wilson, an ex-Texas Ranger and the biggest liar before Ed came along, and Mac and Harvey Taylor, eccentric brothers who lived off the land and the sea. The tall stories attribute a mythic quality to the Texas coast: fog so thick you can fish in it, flounder so big a boat runs aground on it, a Jewfish so big it pulled a boat full of men out into the Gulf of Mexico, and game so bountiful one shot kills a thousand ducks, a thousand geese, a rattlesnake, a bear, a deer and nine quail. It’s all part of the Texas tradition of bragging and tall tales, a tradition that provides a special means of expressing regional identity for Ed Bell and a few other coastal residents.
Not everyone on the Gulf coast has a regional identity, or is so closely tied to the region’s history and culture. The society is too complex, too varied, too urban, and too industrial for that. From the beach to 40 to 50 miles inland where the coastal plains end, the 365 miles of Texas coast is home for many different types of people. The majority of the population lives in the urban areas of Houston-Galveston, Beaumont-Port Arthur- Orange, Corpus Christi and Brownsville, and most have jobs related to the huge petrochemical industry or other modern businesses. These people have only a tenuous connection to the natural physical features which define the coastal area, the bays and estuaries, the beaches and the Gulf of Mexico itself. For the majority of the people on the coast, these features are associated with recreation, sport fishing, boating, swimming and sunning at the beach. But commercial fishermen look upon these bays and the Gulf as their workplace, their livelihood, the life-source of their culture and their lore.
Two types of commerical fishermen — sea fishermen and bay fishermen — stand out from the majority of people along the Texas Gulf coast. Each group has its distinctive tradition. Thus, sea fishermen who face physical dangers and economic uncertainties in their work have a strong tradition of superstitions, customs and legends related to their jobs. Bay fishermen encounter less physical and financial risks and consequently their folklore, like Ed Bell’s, is characterized by tall tales, local character stories, and buried treasure legends rather than by occupational lore.
I. Bay Fishermen
Bay fishermen go shrimping, oystering and floundering in small boats, and know the local bays, lakes and bayous as well as most people know their backyards.. They make up only a small percentage of the population of large cities, such as Galveston, Freeport, Corpus Christi and Port Isabel, but in the small towns of Sabine, Port Bolivar, Matagorda, Palacios, Indianola, Port O’Connor, Seadrift and Fulton, they are a prominent part of the local atmosphere. Some of the first permanent settlers on the Texas coast in the nineteenth century probably became bay fishermen. Their number kept growing, especially during the 1930s when the Depression caused people to lose inland jobs. They are mostly white Protestants, with a smaller number of Catholics; only a handful have European ethnic backgrounds.
Most bay fishermen are independent operators who own their boats. Their income is not large, but it is steady, and many own modest homes in working-class neighborhoods. They sell their catches to fish houses on the coast; a few own bait camps where they sell directly to sport fishermen. Ed Bell’s bait camp gives him a way to make a living — and, through his contact with sport fishermen, a way to tell his stories. If the tale is not about fishing, it’s likely to be about the old-time residents of the coast he calls “beach people.” Two old hermits, Mac and Harvey Taylor, who lived at Indianola during the Depression, typify the beach people in Ed’s stories:
One old guy come down there, and he saw them living back in that brush, back over there. Said, “How in the world do y’all stand living way back in there?'’ Well, old Mac, which was kinda the imbecile, he says, “.Feller, didn’t you say you was from Austin?”
He said, “Sure, I’m from Austin. What about it?”
Mac says, “You live a whole lot further back in there than we do. ”
Now that gives you, I believe, a pretty good idea of the difference of people living on the beach and people living inland.
Oldtimers up and down the coast knew Mac and Harvey, or the stories told about them. Like Ed, the bay fishermen and beach people are the bearers of a folklore that articulates their distinctive regional traditions and links them to historical events and people. The people who live in the cities and work in refineries or chemical plants may have heard of Jean Lafitte, the pirate who headquartered his ships and men on Galveston Island, but they probably have never heard stories about the treasure he supposedly left behind. The beach people know and talk about it though; they know about Spanish explorers, and cannons filled with gold, and buried treasures, and fortune hunters.
One of the best treasure storytellers is Max Edwards, a retired bay fisherman who now mends nets. He passes the time in his net shop in Palacios, talking about the old days on the Texas coast. While his grandchildren play nearby his visitors sit on piles of nets, enthralled by stories of pirates, treasure maps, divining rods and almost discovered gold. He tells one story in which his own family is involved in a treasure hunt.
Up here on the Tres Palacios River, there was an old trading post and they used to come by and trade with that old man, and of course they was prairie schooners, and the stagecoach used to go past there, and of course they stop once in a while. An old man, an old woman and his daughter would run the place. Well, the old man and the old woman died, and they buried the money. That’s when from there to Houston was a long ways, and they didn’t believe in banks in them days no ways, so of course they buried it, and anyhow we went up there with Tucker, and my brother-in-law and my wife, they went up there looking for it. And them rods drawed to that spot about either ten or twelve paces northwest of that fireplace, and of course they went looking for it and went down in the hole and throwed the bricks up, pretty deep, and then lightning struck and scared them away. First it struck on the west side, and they waited about fifteen minutes and said, “Well, maybe it won’t do it no more. ” Then it struck on the east side. Clear skies, said there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Scared them almost to death. Course, I don’t know, it might be true; there’s something to that that scares people away.
Edwards tells this story very seriously, grounding it in reality with names and historical detail. Then, like any good storyteller, he counterpoints his serious tale with a humorous yam:
An old sea captain, he was walking up and down the ship, the deck, becalmed, and he was looking. He wanted to get into port. So he reached in his pocket, and he pulled out a half-dollar, and he throwed it overboard, and he says, “Give me half a dollar’s worth of wind. ’’By the time he got into port, why, it blowed all his sails off with nothing left but the mast and the rigging left on it. And he says, “If you get that much wind for a half a dollar, fifteen cents worth would have been a plenty. ’’
The seaman who buys wind is a familiar traditional figure in American folklore. Richard Dorson collected stories about him among fishermen in Maine, and the story exists in different forms on the Texas coast. Generally, sea fishermen’s tales are not as lighthearted as the ones told by bay fishermen, and when they tell the “buying the wind” story, the tone is entirely different from the way Max Edwards tells it. A good example is this version told by Doc Moots, a Port Isabel retired sea shrimper.
This is a true story, and this was sailing boat days back there when that’s all there was. And this fella had his wife and two kids on the boat, the way it was told to me. Now that’s just a story that was handed down, but it’s supposed to be true. And we had a place that we called Hell’s Gate; I don’t know where it got its name, but that’s the name of that. It’s where the Big Ogeechee and the Little Ogeechee come down and went into the sound. It was a cut there, and they called it Hell’s Gate; it was just a cut you could go through. And this fella down in a sailboat, he throwed two bits overboard. He said, “Old man, give me a quarter’s worth of wind. ’’And it breezed up a little bit, and he said, “Aw, give me fifty cents’ worth. ’’ And he threw fifty cents overboard, and it breezed up a little more. And he said, “If we’re getting this much, give me a dollar’s worth. ’’And he threw a dollar overboard. And when he got to Hell’s Gate, and he made the turn, the boat capsized, and he was the only one saved out of the bunch. He lost his wife and kids. Now that is supposed to be a true saying. It happened at Hell’s Gate. But I mean that’s an old, old story.
Doc Moots does not tell this as a joke; he believes it as a true story. It reflects his awareness of the power of nature and the sea and his sense of a supernatural force which he cannot understand except to know that it affects the lives of humans. It’s an awareness which all sea fishermen seem to share from their experience of being in a boat surrounded by the vastness of the sea, at the mercy of violent winds and storms.
II. Sea Fishermen
Sea fishermen are shrimpers, snapper fishermen and pogie fishermen. Red snapper is one of the most popular eating fish on the coast, and pogies (menhaden fish) are processed into meal, fertilizer and fish oil for industry. But shrimping is by far the biggest and most lucrative fishing operation on the Texas coast. Some shrimping is done within sight of the beach, but many boats venture across the Gulf of Mexico to Campeche Bay on the Yucatan Peninsula. In general, shrimping trips last from a few days to several weeks, in marked contrast to the bay fishermen’s one-day trips within the confines of the coastal estuaries.
Sea fishermen often come from families that have fished for generations. Most migrated to Texas relatively recently as the shrimping business declined in the old fishing communities of Louisiana, Florida and Georgia. As a result, sea fishermen have a stronger occupational tradition than bay fishermen, and have fewer ties to the history and culture of coastal Texas. They live in the larger ports, and are more diverse in their religious and ethnic background: there are Cajuns in Port Arthur, Italians in Galveston, Yugoslavians in Freeport and Aransas Pass, and Mexican-Americans in Brownsville. Pogie boats are manned entirely by black fishermen who live in Port Arthur; the only plant in Texas for processing pogie is in nearby Sabine.
Despite the ethnic variations, the extreme physical hazards and economic uncertainties of the sea fishermen’s lives give them a strong occupational identity. They never know if a trip will bring a huge catch, an empty hatch, or a disaster on the open sea costing the boat owner thousands of dollars in repairs and lost time. It’s a “feast or famine” life which may yield $40,000 per boat one year and net loss the next. While shrimping corporations grow and prosper with fleets of boats that can withstand economic fluctuations, many independent operators who own and run their own boats have been forced out of the business. In order to survive, some of the smaller shrimpers have banded together to form cooperatives. A captain may be independent or he may work for a company, but he and his crew must face the same dangers at sea — mechanical breakdowns, accidents to men, sudden storms and hurricanes.
The personal experience stories fishermen tell reflect the dangers of their occupation. Captain Roche of Port Arthur says:
Anything can happen on board them boats while they ’re working; boom can break or they can sink and get drowned. That happens every once in awhile. They’ll lose a man overboard, and that’s it, he’s gone! I lost a man overboard off Port Isabel. We even had a line on him. In fact, he drowned right in my arms; it was so goddamn rough.
Captain Simmons of Aransas Pass recounts a similar experience. “I got in a blow in ’56 in Vera Cruz that took the starch out of me. And I’ve had respect for the weather since then.” The storm had 90-mile-an-hour winds and did $7,000 damage to his boat, but the most harrowing part of the experience for him was that one of his men cut the arteries of his arm during the storm and almost bled to death before they could get back to land. “I’m not too religious a man, but I prayed for that boy. And he stopped bleeding. You can take it for what it’s worth.”
Because of such economic and physical risks, sea fishermen see themselves as victims of chance. Some translate the uncertainty into religious terms and see God as the ultimate power they must deal with. Thus, their religion — whether Protestant or Catholic — is important to their work and is sometimes the focus of their legends. Doc Moots, for example, tells a story about a captain he knew who defied God and was consequently punished.
Old Man Swensen was a captain from Sweden. He come to this country when he was a young man. I first knew him over in Georgia and Florida when he was fishing over there. Then when we came to Louisiana he was over there. This fellow was on the boat with him, on a rigging on there, and they had some trouble — tore up a net, something or other happened, it went wrong. This Old Man Swensen, he grabbed a hatchet, climbed the mast, and says, “Come on down and meet me halfway, you old whiteheaded son of a bitch. ” Now, he done that, I didn’t see it, but I know that’s the truth.
Many fishermen tell this same story about different captains, and it may have happened more than once, but more likely it is a folk legend which projects a commonly held belief. Some fishermen condemn the captain: “He was a wicked man,” and “It was just sickening to hear a man like that.” They say that the captain was punished for his blasphemy:
He reached down and grabbed the hatchet and run up the mast. Said, “Alright, God,”said, “Meet me halfway. ” And when he got halfway up the mast post, lightning struck. Broke it down.
Others say the boat “went down and never came back up. The whole crew was drowned.” Whatever the ending, the fishermen seem to be warning themselves not to blaspheme God, not to question the supernatural which controls their lives.
Sea fishermen also have traditional customs which reflect their religious beliefs and their attempts to deal with the supernatural. They sometimes nail coins on the boat, put a coin under the mast when building a boat, or launch a boat with champagne to ensure good luck.
The most elaborate and pervasive custom is the blessing of the shrimp fleet performed once a year in several different ports including Galveston, Freeport and Palacios. Wives and families of the fishermen decorate the boats with colorful streamers, flags and even paper and cardboard figures. A priest in a motorboat blesses each shrimp boat. Often a parade of boats sails out of the harbor into the bay, and the best decorated boat receives an award. The day ends with a public shrimp dinner and a dance at a local church, where a queen of the shrimp fleet is crowned. In the growing resort port of Galveston, the blessing of the fleet has become a major tourist attraction; nevertheless, shrimpers here as elsewhere maintain the ceremony for their own purposes. “In the beginning we had no inkling of the tourists,” says Captain Erwin, who has shrimped out of Galveston all his life. “We just didn’t care about the tourists at all; it was for the boats.” Captain Roche agrees: “This is not for the tourists; this is for the fishermen.”
Captain Roche is Catholic and Captain Erwin is Protestant, but both observe the blessing as a religious ceremony which gives spiritual assurance that God is with them another year. Even Protestant fishermen who firmly believe Catholic rituals are pagan suppress their prejudice in order to share in the secure feeling the ceremony engenders. As with magic legends, the ritual incorporates the fishermen’s belief in the supernatural in an attempt to cope with the uncertainties of their daily work.
Sea fishermen also have a multitude of superstitious practices to accompany the religious customs and magical legends: “If a man was hired on a boat, and he came on board with a black suitcase, they would turn him loose right then, and would tell him to get off the boat. All the old fishermans said it was bad luck.”
“If you go on a boat and when you pick a hatch cover up and you turn it upside down, well that was hard luck.”
The fishermen who believe in these superstitions frequently cite experiences to back up their beliefs. “I have never made a successful trip on Friday, and that’s facts. . . . Last time I left the dock on Friday was about five years ago and didn’t make it no further than Sabine when the clutch fell out.” One traditional taboo word on boats is “alligator.”
I never did like nobody to say “alligator” on board. That’s something that you heard, and it seems like every time that I was ever on a boat and anybody said it on there, I’d go out and tear my net or just something or another would go wrong. And I just figured I’d just rather have that said somewhere else and not on the boat. It just stayed with me.
Not all fishermen are this superstitious; the spectrum of belief and practice stretches from total rejection to total acceptance, and is shared by whites and blacks, European ethnic groups and Anglo- Americans alike. Each racial and ethnic group also has a few beliefs and customs peculiar to its own tradition. For instance, the black pogie fishermen believe that killing a sea turtle is bad luck; only a few white fishermen know this superstition. It could be related to a West African belief that turtles are sacred animals. Yugoslavian fishermen know folk cures for a fish sting which they learned fishing in the Adriatic Sea.
Older Italian fishermen have a magic ritual which was brought from a Sicilian fishing village. Yet third-generation Italians are only vaguely aware of the ritual. Chris Damico, who is 18 and works on his father’s shrimp boat during the summer, describes it this way: “If you see a water spout and you make the sign of the cross with your hand, it will go away. I heard this from my mother who got it from her father in Italy.” A fisherman his father’s age knew more details of the ritual. “They used silver knives to get rid of, to cut the water spout. They make the sign of the cross with silver knives. Some kind of words were said with it.” A 75-year-old fisherman who was born and spent his childhood and young adulthood in Sicily knew even more details.
Old-timers used to do the thing with knives and water spout. There was a special day when they had to learn the words, some feast day. They had to use special knives. Christmas Eve was when you had to learn the words. Had to use a white-handled knife. It was supposed to cut the water spout. Use scripture and holy attitude and make the sign of the cross. They said “tail of the rat” so that you might not harm any human beings. It was a secret thing for seafaring men. It was an elderly lady who said she had cut the spout.
The different superstitions, rituals, customs and magic legends are all expressions of the sea Fishing community’s anxiety over occupational uncertainties. Products of science and technology such as two-way radios, depth-indicators, steel-hulled boats and weather reports are accepted and used, of course, but these tools cannot ensure safe returns or bountiful catches. To relieve the anxiety that arises from the uncertainty, fishermen avoid breaking taboos, practice rituals and tell legends which testify to the efficacy of their beliefs. Sea fishermen realize that society in general scorns superstitious behavior, but their need for such beliefs is strong, and parallels similar practices of other highrisk occupations like miners and high-rise construction workers. One fisherman from Freeport expresses the widely held attitude of caution and rationalization: “You have so much bad luck in this business, there’s no use tempting nothing.” Another says, “It pays to be cautious.”
Referring to the hatch cover taboo, a fisherman in Brownsville sums it up: “Let’s put it this way; that hatch cover was built a certain way, and I don’t turn it upside down. I don’t believe it, but I still won’t do it. There’s no use pressing your luck.”
Patrick Mullen teaches folklore at Ohio State University, where he is also the director of OSU’s Archives of Primitive, Ethnic and Folk Music. He is the author of several articles about the beliefs of Texas Gulf Coast people. (1977)