Small Man to Hero Man

Small Man to Hero Man

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Venice, Louisiana — The shrimp docks of Venice, Louisiana smelled fecund and faintly rancid. This was the tip of the Mississippi where all of America's blood runs together and is expectorated out into the sea. The expectoration (top soil, waste, run off) combine naturally in the bayous and wetlands of south Louisiana.

"It makes the best shrimp in the world," explained Fisherman Thuong Nguyen, 50. Better than Mr. Nguyen's native Vietnam? "Oh, much better. In Vietnam we shrimp a lot but the shrimp are grown on farms."

"Here they are wild and grow naturally," Nguyen leaned forward slightly, his arms resting on an unused shrimp cleaning conveyer belt. His eyes got a glint to them, like a man who had seen gold or a shrimper who had made as much as $183,000 a season. Nguyen continued, "The fresh water of the Mississippi washes in and the salt water of the Gulf washes out. It is perfect for shrimp."

South Louisiana is one of — if not the — richest estuaries in the world. Thousands of flora and fauna swim, fly and grow here. In this vibrant country wildlife and marsh mix as water spills out of bayous, ebbing up onto dirt roads and licking the bottom of cars. As a spreading tongue the water lifts and hangs almost like a saucer; ever so slightly above us all.

Complaints at the Dock

The dock parking lot was full of cars but the fishermen were inside their boats. And most of the boats were stationary; moored to the quay. Nguyen collected a group of his fellow Vietnamese Fishermen to talk.

To a man the fishermen were angry about the treatment they had received from BP. Some complained that the "Vessels of Opportunity" program was a farce, meant to lull working men and women on the Gulf Coast into taking a $5,000 check (or payoff) and waiting to be called by BP to make money cleaning the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The call, they stated, "Never came." For the past few weeks they had sat and waited.

A deckhand on his father's boat Lang Truong, 32, said sardonically, "$5,000 to a captain for one month is nothing. It costs a lot of money to keep a ship running, even one that is in port. Why aren't they (BP and the government) employing everyone?"

This was a good question. No one seemed to have an answer.

In the Ship's Berth: Bacon, Loss and Shrimp

Later, Thuong Nguyen, Lang Truong and I sat in Nguyen's boat and stared at the kitchen table. We said little to each other. It is hard to say much to men when they are loosing their way of life.

To lighten us up, Nguyen made a plate of newly caught shrimp (from unpolluted waters) wrapped in bacon. As the grease from the bacon cooked through both shrimp and bacon Nguyen tended the cooking skillet in the tiny kitchenette corner of his ship's berth.

At the table

Nguyen spoke about missing his wife and son who were presently living in Missouri. "I can't go see them," Nguyen explained, "because I'm on-stand-by and if I leave it will take too much time to drive to Missouri."

As the sole bread winner for his family Nguyen was concerned about how his family would live. He doubted anything more than 40% of the marshlands and fishing jobs would be coming back once the spill was cleaned. "I wanted always to come down here and shrimp... (Make myself from) a small man to a hero man... Now I don't know."

Lang Thoung worried about his younger brother and sister, both of whom pay for their university fees with money he and his father made. What would happen next to Thoung? Would he (as he had always imagined) be able to become the captain of his father's ship after his father retired?

"I don't know. Don't know," Thoung said, the breath gone from his chest, his face pale.

Last Meal, New Start, Lingering Questions

With clanking dishes Nguyen seved the food. We were ready. Freshly cooked shrimp and bacon popped and laid over our palates, something so rich we could only eat a few wraps and then sit for long minutes while our stomachs digested the treat.

I wondered and but did not dare say out load — would this meal be our last home cooked seafood from the Gulf? A lot of folks from Louisiana have been asking themselves the same question. The stain of contamination slicks ever forward from the bottom of the sea. None of us know when the sea and marshlands will again be open to fishing.

I began to get angry. I would sit with a few of Nguyen's wonderful shrimp/bacon wraps and sip red wine I had brought for our meal. Then I would slam the glass down, take out my cell and call BP's Media Representative line. The phone rang and rang and went to voice mail. Again. And again. I left four messages over our dinner.

Each message I left became more vitriolic. I stabbed out ominous and purposeful modals at the BP voice mail. I used blunt adjectives and intense verbs; laying on my scorn and sarcasm.

After my fourth call Nguyen leaned over and shook his hand at me, "Why are you calling. BP don't give a shit about me or you or any of us."

I acquiesced finally and turned off my phone. We drank toasts. We fucked BP with our toasts.

Later that evening, I drove home to New Orleans, out of the marshlands, the sun setting gray over the land. Halfway home I turned on my cell phone. I had a text message and a voicemail. It was the BP media representative, begging to speak with the Vietnamese Fishermen. Shocked I pulled off on the side of the road onto the gravel shoulder and called the representative.

The BP media rep answered my call on the first ring with a zoomy "Hello!" She apologized. Then she took my questions and apologized again. The BP media rep promised to make things right for Nguyen and Thoung. Trusting the BP media rep I gave her Nguyen's and Thoung's numbers.

The next morning, I was woken by my cell phone ringing.

Nguyen's excited voice was on the other end. "She (the BP Media Rep) called me and Lang. We start to work tomorrow in the Gulf cleaning the oil and they are paying us good wages per day. Also BP promises to pay our past claims for all of the month of May!"

I was happy for him and Lang Thoung yet I wondered about the other fishermen of the Gulf Coast. How were they doing? Were they and their families still suffering?

David Hobbs is the Editorial Coordinator of NOLA Beez.