PART ONE: Gulf shrimpers recall a dying way of life

From the COWBOYS OF THE SEA series
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PORT LAVACA — Every morning, Farris Williams' electric wheelchair whirs through the halls of the Port Lavaca Nursing Home.

He's a long, lanky man, even with his limbs folded into the chair. His face is still strong-boned, though the worn skin stretched over it is fine-wrinkled, paper thin. When he moves his chair into the sun, eyes closed, his brown skin glows, almost translucent in the light.

Seagulls from the nearby coast swoop and call overhead, and the sun beats down steadily.

Head tipped back like a turtle on a log, Williams opens a smile on his face. He has spent most of his life listening to these sounds working on the water in the warmth of the sun. Now at 90 years old, he can get warm only this way.

Retired shrimpers move through the doors of the home as steadily as the tide. Once working out on the ocean, they all knew each other. Now some nod solemnly as they pass by, and some men gather together to chew the fat. If the conversation turns to shrimping, eyes sparkle, faces grin, and the tales start coming out.

Remember when we brought in that big catch after Hurricane Carla moved through? Remember that?

Remember when we used to come in after a good day and cook shrimp and drink beer and dance on the docks? Remember that?

Remember how it used to be, out there on the water with nothing but your own skill between you and a good catch? Remember that?

In this home for people balanced on the edge of death, something else is stepping closer to an end every day.

Once, the Texas coast was one of the best places in the world to shrimp. In Port Lavaca, it all started in the early 1920s.

In the beginning

The story changes depending on who is telling it, but when the first shrimping nets came to the Port Lavaca coast, the small town became a hub for the industry.

Today's Main Street, with its faded buildings and worn-out signs, gives little evidence this was ever a thriving community that looked to the sea for its sustenance.

In the days before chemical plants began mushrooming on the shoreline, the odds were good that if a man didn't make his living farming or running cattle, he made it on the sea.

People have oystered and fished since even before Calhoun County was founded in 1846. In the 1920s, men began dropping nets attached to heavy wooden doors, dragging the bays and Gulf for white shrimp. The boats left out of Port O'Connor, Seadrift and Port Lavaca, all along the Texas coast. They boarded with their supplies, filled up their gas tanks and went looking for shrimp.

You slept on the deck, ate with dirty hands, and the work was backbreaking. It was always a gamble, there was always risk, but, the thing is, you don't do this job unless you're a person willing to roll the dice and try your luck. For a real shrimper, that is as natural as breathing.

Shrimpers used to haul thousands of pounds into the Texas docks from the bays, from long hauls out into the Gulf of Mexico. That way of life is changing. It may be coming to an end.

Some shrimpers are still out there, but the docks in Port Lavaca don't buzz with activity the way they used to. The opening day of Gulf shrimp season was almost declared a school holiday back in the 1950s and 1960s, but this year the docks at Port Lavaca and Seadrift were quiet.

Most of the fish houses are gone, and it's hard to make a living shrimping in the bay when gas prices have jumped but the shrimp prices have stayed the same.

Better than farming

Williams started shrimping in the 1960s. Born on a farm in Cuero in 1924, Williams chopped and picked cotton and baled hay. He didn't mind hard work, but he didn't like farming. When he got the chance to shrimp, he dove in.

"It was a good life. You could go out any time back then. You could catch as much as you wanted to catch. ... I don't think it'll be that way anymore," Williams said, shaking his head.

Back at the retirement home, the men, old and worn, gather. Some are missing teeth, some are missing limbs. They've lost brothers to this life they lived, they've lost family and friends, and now they're losing a way of life.

Lee Hamilton moved with a quick step up the walk, stopping to lean over and take Williams' hand, light as driftwood, and tell him hello.

He is a sharp-eyed man and even at 72, his body, dark skin worn by sun and sea salt, still has the spring of a younger man, of latent strength in his sure-fingered hands. His voice, a determined no-nonsense tone, softens as he looks down at Williams.

Hamilton grew up on the water and started working as a deckhand for his eldest brother after his harum-scarum ways got him expelled from school at age 15. That was where he and Williams met. The grown man and the teenager forged a bond as they worked on the boat learning the trade.

"My mother told me if I wasn't going to go to school then I'd better start working," Hamilton said, grinning.

If she thought the work would get him back in the classroom, she thought wrong. Hamilton loved working on a boat, being paid to be out on the water and in the sun all day.

The memories linger: standing on the deck as the boat made slow, stately circles, the nets dragging along the bottom. After hours of this, the nets were slowly lifted from the water, bulging with the weight of wriggling shrimp and anything else caught during the drag. Then, as the nets hovered, dripping, a tug of a rope loosened the knot and pink and white shrimp exploded across the wooden deck.

His eldest brother, Elmer Lee Hamilton, captained a boat for R.E. Clegg's shrimp house, and eventually owned two boats of his own, the younger Hamilton said.

The Hamilton brothers became the stuff of legends after Hurricane Carla roared through in 1961.

The infamous storm wrecked most of the shrimp boats in the Clegg fleet, but two steel vessels survived. Shrimping is notoriously good in the days after any big storm has stirred up the water's depths, and it was too good a chance to miss. Hamilton and his brother took one of the boats out and worked for five days and nights.

The pair dropped nets and headed shrimp until their hands were rubbed raw and slick with blood. The brothers wrapped their fingers in bits of cloth to close the wounds and kept on shrimping. They came in with more than 9,000 pounds of shrimp, and only quit because every single finger was broken open and bleeding.

The shrimp they hauled in helped save Clegg from disaster, he said, because most of his business wasn't insured.

"Elmer, he was the best shrimp boat captain in the Gulf," Clegg said, smiling at the memory.

Swapping stories

They're all gathered in the retirement home cafeteria. Hamilton stops talking to tuck a napkin over his wife's lap. He comes to see her three times a day since her stroke at the beginning of the year.

Joe Garza, sun-bronzed with a friendly grin and black hair scattered with gray, strides up and stands next to the table.

Garza worked as a deckhand for years, and he and Hamilton have known each other since they were kids. The men nod at each other. He tugs a necklace from beneath his shirt, a cross with an anchor.

Garza started in Port Lavaca's fish houses, working alongside his parents and brothers and sisters. The family came up from the Valley in the 1950s, looking to make a better living for themselves.

When he was 12, Garza started working as a deckhand. In the 1970s, fuel prices skyrocketed, and it was suddenly harder to make a living. The government was beginning to place rules on people who never had much regard for the rules.

Still a deckhand, Garza needed a reliable job, something steady, and when South Texas Nuclear plant opened, he got a job there and quit shrimping altogether.

"You see this? This is a seaman's cross. There are gold ones too, pure gold, but only the captains had gold ones," he said, glancing down at his own cross of tarnished brass.

"That's not true! It isn't only captains that had gold," Hamilton said, looking over at Garza with a jerk of his head.

They got the crosses in Mexico, he explained. When ships came into harbor, women came out in boats to greet them, selling anything and everything a man might need, including seaman's crosses. The crosses are supposed to guard against drowning.

Many of the men plunked down their money then and there for such protection. For all the time they spent on the water, a lot of the shrimpers couldn't swim a stroke. Water is dangerous.

"Don't you know water is the most powerful thing on earth?" Hamilton said.

Leaving shrimping

Hamilton's brother, Elmer, drowned one night. He couldn't swim and no one realized he had fallen overboard into the black water until it was too late. Hamilton quit the business after that - just didn't have the heart for it anymore.

They were wild men - cowboys - people who were willing to gamble their luck, to bend the rules and take all kinds of risks to live life on their terms out in the open with the sky above and the blue water fading to black beneath.

"After you get past 100 miles, there's no law out there," Garza said.

That independent streak may have worked against them as regulations began to come in.

Williams worked hard and became a captain of his own boat. He saved his money in between supporting his family and bought two of them, trim white vessels that he took out into the bays.

"It was a better life. I worked hard, and all of my kids finished school," he said, lifting his head.

Williams loved his life on the water, but when his wife took sick in the 1990's he decided it was time to quit. He sold his boats and let his shrimping license expire.

Now, there's not even a photograph left of his former life. It comes alive again only when he and his old shrimping buddies gather on the porch of the retirement home to laugh and talk about how it used to be.

Hamilton and Garza paused alongside him, on their way out, talking about what it takes to be a good shrimper.

"Like anything else, time has changed things," Garza said, sighing.

Hamilton nodded his head.

"It ain't like it used to be. All of these new laws and regulations. Some of the old guys are out there battling it, but still, a lot's changed," he said. "The good shrimpers are dying."

In his chair, Williams smiled and looked down at his hands, knotted together, and studied his long fingers, worn and mangled, seared and spotted by the sun.

"There aren't that many shrimpers in the bays. I hope shrimping will be good. I'd like for people to make a good living at it, but ..." he stopped, fumbling for the words.

"Those were the days," Hamilton said.

"Yes, they were," Williams said. "Those were some good days."

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