Each winter, pogy boats harvested bony little menhaden fish off the mouth of the Mississippi River and brought them to the Quinn Menhaden Fisheries at Empire, Louisiana. The plant smelted the little critters into pet food, fish oil and other exotic products such as lipsticks. The process produced a stench no human can tolerate.
At least one crew member a year died in the hazardous fishing activity. My job in the Admiralty section of a large law firm required that I investigate these deaths. Experience had taught me that the best way to do this was to go fishing on the boat that had experienced a fatality. This enabled me to see the operation firsthand and enlist the captain’s help to insure that the crew would cooperate with me.
On one of my trips to investigate an accident, I invited Charles “Buddy” Bass, another law clerk, to assist me. He seemed eager to come along for a boat ride and to avoid the drudgery of legal research in the library. A classmate, good student and all around fine guy, Bobby was a trim, well-groomed fellow with wavy red hair and emerald green eyes. An urbane gentleman, Buddy was fastidious about his dress. From past lunches, I knew Buddy had selective, delicate eating habits. Buddy’s sheltered life would soon change on the pogy boat. The crew he would meet hadn’t pledged any fraternity, dated any debutantes or dined with the King of Rex at Antoine’s.
On the night before we boarded the boat, Buddy and I arrived at the little apartment provided by Quinn Menhaden Fisheries for guests. The breeze mercifully carried the overpowering smell of the fish smelting plant away from us that evening. The winds shifted during the night. When we left the apartment to board the boat at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, we received the full fury of the noxious fumes from the plant. Buddy gagged and turned green. I assured him all would be well as soon as we could board the boat and get away from the plant. When we’d boarded the boat, I took Buddy directly to the pilot house, where there was a bunk. By now his face had paled to a light shade of green, and I thought he would survive.
I started interviewing the crew and could have used Buddy’s help. By now, we had reached the Gulf and the boat rode on long swells causing it to roll, pitch and yaw in unison —not a violent motion, just sickening.
I checked on my cabbage-colored colleague. Still moaning he asserted, “I am going to die.” I assured him he wasn’t going to die and asked him to help me interview the crew. He just grunted and rolled over in the bunk.
By now, I had a mixture of pity and disdain for Buddy. I had been to the galley and saw what was going on there. “Food is what you need,” I instructed Buddy. The degree of authority in my voice caused him to ask, “Do you really think that will help?”
I truly thought and hoped food would help the poor fellow, but I also knew the conditions he would find in the galley would not be to his liking. When we entered the galley, a three-hundred-fifty-pound man in a sweat-drenched, sleeveless undershirt stood frying a gigantic slab of fat bacon on the griddle of the stove. Grease oozed out of the bacon and sweat poured down the man’s face, chest and arms. A giant cigar, with ash extending our about an inch, jutted from the cook’s clenched teeth. With a big grin, the cook turned to us and said, “Hi gents, just in time for breakfast. Have a seat over there.”
Buddy doubled over in pain and I had to assist him to the rail again. Unfortunately for my pal, the pogy boat would not return to the dock early to accommodate Buddy. Fish had to be caught and money had to be made for the company and crew.
Buddy fared somewhat better once we returned dockside, but it took the trip back to New Orleans to put him on an even keel. I thought it only right to take him to Pascal’s Manale for drinks and dinner. After his second martini, Buddy looked at me with the mournful continence of a betrayed friend and said, “I thought you said this was going to be a fun trip.”
Buddy and I remained good friends, but he didn’t volunteer for any more pogy boat trips.