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Not long after graduating from the Great Lakes Maritime Academy, Capt. JB Collings and I (neither of us were captains back then) wound up living in a frazzled old tent in a soggy campground on the outskirts of Morgan City, Louisiana, swatting mosquitoes during the long, sweltering nights and worrying about the water moccasins and alligators that frolicked on nearby Lake Palourde. During the day we beat the streets for deckhand jobs, since our newly minted pilot’s licenses were great for the Great Lakes (where the seafaring biz had just tanked) but useless on the Gulf Coast.
Meals, as you can imagine, were lackluster. Fruit Loops in the morning. Pancakes for lunch. Chef Boyardee for dinner. To synopsize our living conditions during this sad but instructive period, and paraphrase singer-songwriter Roger Miller, I gotta say that JB and I were, at the time, men of means by no means, kings of the road.
Of course, eventually, we got jobs. On the Creole Belle, a pushtug that shepherded barges loaded with propane and other explodables back and forth between ports well up the Mississippi River and ports on the Intracoastal Waterway well south of Corpus Christi, Texas. The pay was measly but hey, life on the Belle was considerably better than sleepin’ with snakes, alligators and mosquitoes. There was, however, one hang-up: the skipper, a fellow I’ll call Raymond Lafourche. He was a piece of work.
“Yankee deckhands,” he sneered when we first came aboard, adding some epithets I’ll omit for decency’s sake. Then he grimly detailed our deckhand duties which, in addition to hauling and manipulating a vast array of poly lines, wire ropes, 70-pound barge ratches, shackles, capstans and winches, entailed chipping rust off the Belle and slathering her with paint whenever the sun shone as well as serving as cooks on a rotating basis, JB one day, me the next. He concluded his remarks with an especially -disconcerting statement while his engineer and nephew, Fabien, looked on with a smirk—supper would soon occur, and I was the cook du jour, although JB could help just this once for expediency’s sake.
“Now git ta gittin’,” Raymond roared. “Hoo Lawd!”
The old boy’s favorite meal—and the one he envisioned for the evening—was a Cajun staple: red beans and rice, a potentially delectable concoction that features red kidney beans, white rice, a few veggies and spices and anything else kickin’ around, whether shrimp, Andouille sausage or whatever.
I’ve never been much of a cook, but Raymond’s directions were precise and schoolmasterly. The beans were delicate, he said. The rice had to be cooked just so. And he hauled out a cast-iron frying pan for “smothered meat,” which he declared was the ideal complement to RB&R. By the time everything was ready, it all smelled pretty good, and JB and I were feeling hungry. But I put a plate on the table in front of Raymond first, with the meal’s components arranged as specified. We stood back.
“Whaaaaa,” he caterwauled, almost as soon as his lips hit the spoon. “Not enough salt!”
Raymond then jumped up, grabbed the plate, pushed JB and I out of the way, strode across the galley to one of the screen doors, kicked it open with his foot and launched the whole thing—rice, beans, meat and plate—off into the Intracoastal Waterway like a frisbee. JB and I blinked in amazement—Whaaaaa indeed!
But here’s the thing. Over the upcoming months, Raymond proved to be as much of a stickler for seamanship as he was for cuisine. He subsequently taught both JB and I not only the rudiments, but the finer points of splicing lines, tying knots, throwing heaving lines—the list goes on. And I continue to use virtually all of this stuff—Raymond’s legacy, you might say—on the water today. Was Raymond Lafourche a cantankerous old geezer? Yeah, but he was a very helpful old geezer as well.