Summertime memories of Pine Island and how my mother – and a boat – saved our family when we needed it the most

By ROBERT ST. JOHN,

Memories come in all shapes, sizes, sounds, smells, and sights. Occasionally a song strikes a note that trips a memory, other times we’ll see something that reminds us of another thing, that reminds us of still another thing.

Sometimes all of those components come together at once to bring back a vivid recollection.

A few days ago, I was at my brother’s fish camp with my family, my brother, and his family on the Bay of St. Louis.

Our two families were riding in his boat along the Mississippi Sound shoreline on our way to lunch in the Pass Christian Harbor.

I looked over at my brother driving the boat and a memory struck me as hard and fast as any in recent recall.

Fifty years came back in one instant. It was of a different place and a different time, but it was also the same.

Our father died when we were very young. Our mother never remarried and raised my brother and me on an art teacher’s salary with the help of several family members.

She did a great job with very little with which to work, and I was no cakewalk.

We didn’t have a lot, but we had more than enough, and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything as a child.

Actually, I feel like I had the best childhood in the history of childhoods. A lot of the reason I feel that way is due to one notable decision our mother made.

After our father died, our mom was stuck with a ten-year old boy and his six-year old brother.

She didn’t know anything about baseball, she knew she couldn’t play football with us in the backyard, she wasn’t going to hunt, but she figured she could learn how to fish.

There was a small group of Hattiesburgers who owned fish camps in Vancleave, Mississippi on the Pascagoula River— the last unregulated river system in the lower 48 states.

Most of the fish camps were built in the 1930s and 1940s when my grandfather’s generation would go down to fish the Gulf and the rivers and lakes throughout the Pascagoula River System.

The next generation had taken over the camps, and a few people built new camps.

My mother purchased a small lot for $2,500, a mobile home for $6,000, and a small boat for $4,000.

It’s the best $12,500 anyone has ever spent. Anytime. Anywhere. For anything.

We spent most of our childhood summers on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

I was around nine years old when she bought the fish camp. My brother was 13.

We fished all day in the days before Prudhomme put such a hurt on the redfish population that they started regulating the catch.

We water skied all morning and afternoon and spent every minute that we weren’t on skis swinging off of the rope swing at Pine Island.

We baited our crab traps every morning and checked them all at sundown.

The Pascagoula River— and its tributaries— is gorgeous.

As a kid I used to think that we were on the low-rent end of the Coast and all of the upper-crust fish camps were on the other end. Some might still believe that. I don’t. It would be hard to find more beautiful bayous than those that flow into the Pascagoula.

Those meandering boat rides at dusk in those live oak and moss draped waterways are some of my best childhood memories.

My love of seafood was born in that part of the state. Every night we boiled crabs that we caught in our traps, and our mother would make West Indies Salad for supper.

We fried fish, we grilled fish, we baked fish, and we broiled fish.

It’s the reason that our restaurant, Crescent City Grill, purchases over eight tons of fresh filet’d sides of finfish every year.

Fresh fish is this area’s greatest culinary resource.

We had friends who had shrimp trawls they hooked behind their small boats, and we would also purchase fresh caught shrimp right off of the shrimp boats as they were coming into the mouth of the river near Tucei’s Fish Camp and Mary Walker Marina.

Crabmeat was the holy grail of fresh-caught seafood for us (still is), but we ate more shrimp than anything.

On special occasion nights we would drive into Gautier and eat at the Tiki Restaurant or into Biloxi and eat at Baricev’s where I ate my very first raw oyster.

We were all eating local way before eating local was cool.

I have eaten seafood all over this country and all across three continents and have yet to find any seafood that makes me as happy as the bounty we continue to harvest 69 miles south of my hometown.

My mother sold the fish camp a few years after I went to college. We had stopped going as often once she became an empty nester.

Schedules and obligations took over and she couldn’t justify the expense with such light use.

It had been a great 10-year run and made a difference in my childhood that still affects the decisions and beliefs I have in adulthood.

I can’t help but think that my brother is now creating those same memories for his children and grandchildren.

Twelve years ago— before my brother owned a camp on the Coast— I found a friend with a boat near the mouth of the Pascagoula, and my brother and I took our mother for one last ride up the river for her 75th birthday.

We visited all of the old haunts and fishing holes.

We docked at Pine Island and I made an attempt to swing off of the old rope swing. It was just the three of us, like it was before my brother went to college and girlfriends, wives, and children entered the picture.

It had been more than  40 years since it was just the original three in a boat together.

It was a very special day. It probably wasn’t until later that evening that I fully realized what that place— in that time— had meant to our family.

Her 86th birthday is coming up next month.

We don’t need a friend with a boat this time. I think I’ll ask my brother to meet us at the mouth of the Pascagoula, and the three of us can take another family ride to the place that probably saved our family in a time when we needed it most.

Onward.

Hattiesburg native Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef, columnist and author. And perhaps more importantly, he’s a husband, father, brother, and son. For more than 20 years he has written a weekly syndicated newspaper column, now appearing each week in The PineBelt NEWS.

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