There's an old saying among fishermen that God gives each of us a certain amount of time on earth, but the time we spend fishing doesn't count against that total. The long, well-lived life of Blackie Campo, patriarch of Shell Beach and a friend to every fisherman in southeast Louisiana, is proof that there's something to that old wisdom.
Blackie was a beautiful man and a great touchstone for generations of fishermen. He died last week.
To me, Blackie was also a link to my Isleño roots in St. Bernard Parish. My maternal grandfather, José Nunez, died at the age of 77 the year I was born. I knew Grandpa Joe only through the stories my mother and uncles told me, but through Blackie I felt as though I had encountered him in the flesh.
My grandfather, like Blackie, lived off the land and water in eastern St. Bernard Parish. He fed a wife and 11 children by trapping muskrat and mink, hunting ducks and fishing. Mostly, he trapped. I find it somehow telling that he died in 1954, two years before Congress authorized the MR-GO. The MR-GO cut the town of Shell Beach in two. It would have broken my grandfather's heart had he lived to see it built, I'm sure. I believe Grandpa Joe knew when to go. Blackie turned 36 that year. He had a more difficult calling: He had to watch the MR-GO destroy the land and waters he loved. I think he's resting easier knowing that the federal government's biggest environmental mistake ever is about to be closed and, hopefully, filled back in and returned to its former state.
Blackie was a classic Isleño " tall and handsome, with a warm smile, a big heart and a deep and abiding love of the outdoors. He forgot more about fishing than most of us will ever learn in a lifetime.
The first time I launched a boat at Shell Beach, he greeted me like a son. I mentioned my grandfather to him and he beamed: 'Of course I knew "Uncle Joe!'" He refused to let me pay for the launch, and he directed me straight away to where the fish were biting.
One time, when my son and I returned with no fish, he quietly called me over and said, 'Go get some redfish out of that cooler over there. I got plenty enough for myself. I don't want you going home without supper."
Blackie kept abreast of issues that affected the fishing community. I once saw him in the state Capitol with a delegation of fishermen lobbying a fisheries bill. He came across the room to greet me " he had a way of making everybody feel like his best friend. He was the real friend, though. He was the real deal.
I'm convinced that my love of fishing and hunting is hard-wired into my DNA from Grandpa Joe. But it took guys like Blackie Campo and my dad, who first took me fishing when I was 4, to bring that love to the fore and nurture it. My proudest moments as a father include the times I have spent with my own sons on the water or in the marsh. Fishing is one of the best ways for fathers and sons to get through a son's difficult teenage years. It not only doesn't count against the time God allots us on earth, but it also takes us to a safe place, a sacred place, a place where everything makes sense, when nothing else in life seems to make sense. Fathers and sons can always argue about things that don't matter. Fishing forges bonds that never break. Yeah, it's spiritual.
Blackie understood that notion intuitively. He lived it.
We who love the marsh have lost a great friend and mentor. The best way we can honor him is to keep his love of the places where land meets water alive in ourselves and in our children.
So long, Blackie. Hope you and Grandpa Joe are limiting out.
- Rusty tardo