by Alita DeBerry
Bayou la Batre, Alabama. Thirty miles down below Mobile is this unique, 'old-world' fishing village, named by the French years ago. Being two miles inland, or up the bayou from the Gulf, it's an ideal place for boats to put in during storms.
"This is one of the safest harbors in the area in time of storms," a local said.
You are deep into Spanish moss country down here on the bayou. See the moss swaying lazily from huge live oak limbs, larger than most tree trunks; limbs which overhang the road, making a tunnel; see how it's draped across every tree and powerline, reaching almost to the ground from age and weight and gravity.
Like the old frontier towns which gathered all sorts of folks searching for who-knows-what -- the migrant hopefuls, the misfits and the failures -- this place has drawn a variegated mixture of settlers: those who passed through; those who stayed.
Through these tangled portals of moss draped oaks towering over marsh and bayou came explorers from Spain, from France, of course, from Britain (who sent few settlers) from Norway and other places -- all came by this same water-road.
And among those who stayed are certain old-world names that go decades deep. Like Crum Shambeau. Like Yates Simonson, a teacher and local historian, who has written up the history of Bayou la Batre. And people are here by the name of Pirtle. There's a Pirtle Street and Pirtle listings in the phone book.
And Vincent Bosarge. His roots go 200 years deep. "This town centered around, and is dependant on the bayou," he says. "Canneries of seafood and vegatables, a fertilizer factory, stock food, two marine ways and ship-building plants, two marine machine-shops and an ice plant."
Thousands of tons of ice are used yearly by the boats for keeping the catch cold and fresh.
This is a village that has been ever so long wedded to the sea; that's why fishing boats lie thick as fleas at anchor in the harbor. You can see the tall riggings from blocks away. And visitors invariably make their way toward them.
And there the Lady Cathrine goes by, TV antena proclaiming the latest in modern technology.
The Miss Linda has certainly seen better days. She has many broken windows in the pilot's house and plywood seals off others. Just an old-timer that's been put out to pasture.
And gulls are flying overhead, wheeling and gossiping among themeselves like old rag-pickers.
Look! A great blue heron gracefully flies over. And there on top of the boat with the tallest rigging, sitting like an enthroned king, is a big brown pelican. See the pouch under his long bill. Why, he's so still you'd almost take him for a weathervane. His Majesty is lazily watching the waters below.
All along the sandy road you see old but neatly kept little homes and cottages. They take pride in this place, people do. Peoples' names give hints of foriegn heritages. Just ask around.
Talk to Dale Schjott (pronounced 'shot'), whose family owns a string of lots facing the bayou. "See that house?" he says to a visitor, pointing to a white wooden cottage on Shell Belt Road. "That house was built by Joe Cain -- if you don't know who Joe Cain was, he was the originator of Mobile's Mardi Gras.
"Joe Cain had dressed up like an Indian Chief and paraded down Government Street, and that's how the costumes came to be. But Mardi Gras was discontinued after the Civil War . . .
"My grandfather," Schjott says, "came here from Norway at age 16, and was later a captain on a British passenger ship. He wanted to be a pilot in Boston Harbor, but came to St. Augustine on a United Fruit ship, then to New Orleans, where he was hired by my mother's step-father, Ed May, filing saws in his saw mill. One of his sisters had a seafood canning plant."
And Schjott himself is retired from a 30-year career as a sea-capatin.
Or ask Timothy McGrath, who hails from California and is in his 'seeing-the world' phase right now. He'd stopped off here and now works on a freighter, out 30 days at a time, and has worked on an 'icer' for two weeks at a time.
He tells us that the old shells of boats, at rest and rusting in the harbor, are sold for a very little amount, and are used for forming fishing reefs. He thought that was what we were here for, to buy one.
"There's no way we could compete." He speaks of a businessman by the name of Ramos, "I think he was run out of business by Moon." He points to one of the boats in harbor, saying it's one of Moon's.
The history of this place has been written up long ago in a book called Whistling Woman and Crowing Hen, by Julian L. Rayford. And written about, I expect, by others, telling all about this interesting little village that changes little through the years.
The live oaks are still here, still evergreen, as when the locals' ancestors first came. Still wind-bent and wizened and time-twisted, their huge old limbs overhanging the streets; the Spanish moss still lazily swaying to and fro. Gulls keep wheeling overhead, and faithful old fishing boats with their tall rigging, still line the harbor like old ghosts of long ago.
And here's another: A funeral to remember: Getting there is half the fun!.
Alita has been married to Horace DeBerry (the same man) for almost a half century. She refers to him in her columns as "The Frenchman." They have two daughters--Lisa and Stephanie.
The Deberry family has lived in various states--Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida, Louisiana, Colorado, California--and then retired to the home place in Carroll County, Mississippi, where Alita grew up. They've now stayed put for two decades.
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