Like many baby boomers, Sam Irwin’s career path has seen some zigs and zags over the years. History teacher, grocery store manager, tour guide, crawfish buyer … you get the picture. But, then, his computer opened up his true calling in life – fiction writer – and, as a lifelong resident of southern Louisiana, he’s full of stories. Here is his latest which originally appeared in Country Roads Magazine.
How to skin a catfish: And the other simple joys of my childhood
I grew up in the Poor Man’s Provence.
That is the appellation columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson used to describe Henderson, a fishing community in St. Martin Parish, in her book Poor Man’s Provence.
She got the poor man part right—most of Henderson’s families eked out a living determined by the rise and fall of the Atchafalaya River.
Her Provence concept was a state of mind and I understood what she meant, but I’ve traveled through France’s Provence and Henderson does not look anything like the south of France.
Henderson did sound like France, however.
French was routinely spoken at Amy’s Grocery, my grandfather’s grocery store. (Pronounce it Ah-me, Cajun-style). Poppa’s store was located at the end of Highway 352, the last stop before the Atchafalaya Basin levee. You could pick up the food basics (Evangeline Maid bread, lunch meat, Mello Joy coffee) the drink basics (Pearl and Jax beer, distilled water), hardware, socks, shoes, a fresh Hav-a-Hank handkerchief, some marshmallow peanuts, gasoline and coal oil.
The store was also fully stocked with fishing tackle for the commercial fishermen who lived in Henderson or the weekend sport fishermen who drove in from Lafayette and beyond.
If I could take a part of my life and wrap it up like a Christmas present it would be the time I spent in Poppa’s fish market, a place we called the fish dock. Located directly behind the grocery store, Poppa bought hundreds of pounds of catfish, buffalo carp and gaspergou on a daily basis. Most of the fish was sold wholesale to out of town interests, because you can’t sell fish to a town of fishermen. The French flowed freely around the big scale that could weigh up to three hundred pounds of fish at a time.
Still, I never, ever compared Henderson to Provence. With its numerous restaurants, honkytonks, boat landings, one stops, bars and camps lining the gravel road all the way to Butte La Rose, and the wilderness beyond the levee, I likened the area more to the Badlands I heard so much about in the Westerns I saw at the Jeff Theater.
Late at night, tucked deeply into my grandmother’s front room bed, I could hear the soft bass of Allons Danser, Colinda thumping from the jukebox at Robin’s Dance Hall across the street. No telling what kind of romantic liaisons and heartbreaks occurred on that corn-mealed dance floor. No telling how many ducks, deer and undersized bass were taken in the wilderness on the sly despite the best efforts of game wardens and parish deputies. No telling how many reckless boaters violating no-wake zones went unreported.
Henderson, my so-called Badlands, was left to police itself, and nothing too bad ever really happened except in the outlaw imagination of a kid who had watched too many episodes of Wagon Train. Henderson’s environment was wild, but its life was not necessarily woolly.
Before Henderson’s fish economy gave way to the crawfish business, my single most pleasurable experience was watching Lionel Hayes, Poppa’s right hand man, skin a catfish or gut a gou. Depending on how the customer wanted his fish dressed determined the level of seafood processing. Naturally, most wanted the catfish skinned, and often with the whiskered head still attached. A few skilled surgical incisions and Lionel denuded the cat of its skin and entrails in minutes—a thing of beauty to a ten-year-old boy. But the most exciting thing ever was to watch him wield the razor-sharp hatchet and guillotine the soon-to-be-cooked fish.
Before writer Sam Irwin discovered the backspace/delete key on his computer and began writing, Sam was a:
- history teacher
- used car salesman
- grocery store manager
- crawfish buyer
- honky tonk fiduciary (the notorious Corner Bar in Breaux Bridge)
- plantation home tour guide
- failed pawnbroker
- owner of the legendary Paradise Records at the north gates of LSU
His fiction has been published by Dead Mule, Tom’s Voice, Gulf Coast Writers Anthology, Spillway Review, Long Story Short, Gris Gris Rouge, Country Roads, Cape Fear Crime Festival Chapbook, Murder in the Wind Anthology, Love is in the Wind Anthology and the Nicholls State Jubilee Anthology.
Sam’s blog, LANote, may be found at LANote.org.