It's a genuine privilege to welcome Ronnie Salters, the youngest of my eight first cousins. After decades without much contact (because of geography), we've become reacquainted through Facebook. Imagine my surprise and delight to learn that Ronnie is also a writer! At my invitation to post one of his stories here, Ronnie produced a coming-of-age piece with humor and loads of local atmosphere.
Ronnie is married, with a son in college. He works at CSX Transportation; formerly employed by Singing River Industries and Ocean Springs Recreation Department. He studied Special Education at University of Southern Mississippi. Ronnie attended Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College — Jackson County Campus and graduated from Ocean Springs High School
With no further ado, here's my cousin:
For most of us high school boys, it was our first real job — a summer around 1971-1972… some two or three years after Hurricane Camille.
It was a hot, humid June morning that I stood with my neighbors and friends Tody Creel and Greg Lawrence under the twin live oak trees in the middle of the two lane boulevard in front of our small middle class neighborhood. Not used to getting up at 4:00 a.m., we stood silent, bleary eyed, and in a semi-conscious daze. Looking down the straight two lane boulevard, we could see the distant shimmering light of car headlights. As the light came closer we all took a collective step back from the roadway. The muffler’s loud roar suggested it was holding on by a mere thread and sparks sprayed beneath as it scraped the asphalt. It was Glenn LaGrange, with John Morano riding shotgun, in his ragged-out Oldsmobile. When we piled in, Glenn barreled down to the end of Bechtel and made a sharp right on Davidson Road while disregarding the stop sign and squealing wheels around the corner.
John passed us a box of warm and delightful donuts. We headed toward the Ocean Springs Harbor to pick up Greg Andrews, whose house overlooked the shrimp boats and pleasure boats in the bend area where the Harbor Masters Office is situated today. As we rounded the harbor bend, Greg clambered down his steps toward the car. I kicked open the door, which reverberated on its rusty old hinges, and we scooted over to make room. Greg barely got his head in the door when Glenn stomped on the gas and squealed his tires. Greg collapsed into the backseat knocking the box of donuts onto the floorboard. With frantic pushing and shoving, Greg straightened himself and finally slammed shut the rickety door with his fingers that still gripped the handle. Glenn cackled with delight as we threw choice expletives in his direction. Off we headed, zooming like bats out of hell, toward Biloxi Canning Company.
The Highway 90 bridge offered a chance for Glenn to put the pedal even farther to the metal as he topped out at 90 mph while the old heap shuddered, its valves clacked, and the smell of burning oil emanated from the floorboard. The factory was located along the Back Bay of Biloxi between what is now the Imperial Palace and Boomtown Casinos — a far cry from the day when processing plants dominated the waterways.
During that time the oysters harvested during winter months resulted in numerous huge piles of discarded shells in and around the processing plants. In those days oyster and clam shells were also used in road construction as fill… and, in some places, utilized instead of gravel to surface secondary roadbeds. Besides the pervasive odor of discarded oyster shells, there was a pungent odor of rotten shrimp as we drove down along the Point toward Biloxi Canning. Mixed with the heavy humid Gulf air and a tinge of salt marsh mud, the overwhelming result could be absolutely debilitating at close proximity… though we who’d been raised nearby had grown somewhat accustomed to it.
As we arrived at the plant, the sugary donuts finally began to bring our sluggish brains to some semblance of morning conscientiousness. When we arrived in the parking lot, the old Oldsmobile groaned with relief as our collective weight piled out. We were greeted by Gordon Venus, who (with his brother D.J.) ran the shrimp processing plant. He gave a quick run through, which amounted to what we would be doing, when we’d get paid, and the good advice to “do what you’re told and we’ll get along fine.” Then he added, “By the way, if you have any questions… ask for Mr. Gordon, but under no circumstances are you to go into the warehouse!” But that’s another story!
Tody and I started with one of the better jobs — shoveling shrimp from the large delivery trucks arriving from various locations. Using large snow shovels, we transferred the ice-packed shrimp to a conveyor belt that moved the catch into the picking room. Shoveling had the advantage that during breaks from the back-breaking labor, we could lay on top of the ice and cool off from the sweltering summer heat of South Mississippi.
Most of us rotated jobs until we found one that suited our limited skills. One of the least favorite duties was in the picking room. The shrimp we had shoveled from the trucks were conveyed along a second horizontal belt with an attached sprayer that washed down the catch and melted the ice. The pickers stood on a raised grating and picked out trash fish and crabs as the belt moved endlessly in front of them. Mindlessly boring, the conveyor left you in a hypnotic trance that only stopped when the shrimp progression bottlenecked due to an equipment malfunction or production snafu. When the conveyor stopped, you found yourself holding on to the railing as the floor spun dizzyingly below your feet. With a wave of nausea that slowly subsided, one could not wait to be transferred to another position.
Since we complained so vehemently about the picking line, after just 30 minutes they removed us so our discord didn’t add another level of annoyance to an already tortuous job. After the picking, the shrimp arrived at the foot of several amazing machines that miraculously peeled shrimp faster than the eye could see. Huge rubber rollers squeezed/pinched the shrimp right out of their shells. Despite our close scrutiny, the mechanics of the machine evaded us, as we watched the shrimp move up the conveyor; in a blink of an eye, the shrimp went one way and their shells went the other. Amazing to realize these miraculous machines that revolutionized the shrimp industry originated when its inventor, J.M. Lapeyre, stepped on a shrimp with his rubber boot and out popped the shrimp from its shell. Of course, stomping shrimp individually was impractical. But there was a eureka moment when Lapeyre made the connection between the rubber rollers on his mother’s old style ringer washer and realized that rubber rollers were the answer.
Standing nearby were two gentlemen in dark gray work uniforms with name tags on their chest — Laitram Machinery, the same name on a spotless green Ford truck that was frequently in the parking lot. Though their first names evade me now, we learned that these two were actually the well-known Gilbert brothers. One was the father of Buddy Gilbert, star quarterback at Ocean Springs (and one of our high school football heroes as we grew up). The Dynamic Duo of Buddy Gilbert and David Ward, under the leadership of the legendary Coach Hugh Pepper, set so many records during their undefeated season that some even remain today... at least I would like to think so.
Down the processing line, the shrimp were washed again as mangled pieces and the occasional hull (that somehow survived the machinery) were removed. They eventually made it past my station where they were blanched in a bath of hot salty water. There I poured 100-pound bags of salt intermittently into a water filled vat, as I monitored a temperamental pressure gauge for the blancher. The hardest part was trying to stay awake in the midst of the steam billowing from the blancher and the heat from the pressure cookers within a few feet of my station. If this were a winter operation it would have been wonderful, but in the midst of 95 degree heat and 90 percent humidity it was sheer torture.
The best of the jobs was the one that brought the product to the clean room where the shrimp were graded and placed into cans prior to being pressure cooked. This was the room where all the women worked! Though most were older, snaggle-toothed women with very little interest in hormone laden teenagers, it was rumored there was one attractive female in the bunch. The only air conditioned room in the building – with the only easy work – was also the site of that one pretty girl! Our lustful curiosity drew us to catch a glimpse of that which our imagination had driven to obsession. After finally making our uninvited entry into the surprisingly small room, we stood dumbfounded, trying to ascertain exactly which of these females was supposedly the object of our fascination. In the end, we realized none of them met up to our sophomoric standards.
Eventually the shrimp made it to the canning room where the veteran ladies graded and placed the blanched shrimp into small cans along with water and a moth ball sized salt pill. The cans were sealed and stacked before being hauled to the pressure cookers. Rosco operated the pressure cooker that cooked the shrimp in the can before they were cooled and taken to the warehouse for shipping. He lowered the round containers full of cans with a chain hoist into the pressure cookers mounted in the floor where they were cooked under extreme heat and pressure. I can still hear the clackety clack of the hoist as the cans were lifted out and set aside to cool before going to the warehouse.
The Warehouse — that enigmatic place we were never permitted to enter. That mysterious place with pallet after pallet loaded with boxes of canned shrimp to be shipped all over the country. Where the business and shipping office was. Nothing mysterious about shipping shrimp?
One day later that summer, we had planned a big weekend, which meant hanging out on the beach and maybe crashing some party that we were certain we’d been unintentionally omitted from the invite list. No matter, we knew any party was better with our charm and charisma.
Parties require cash, so we decided to ask Mr. Venus if we were going to get paid on time that Friday. What could it hurt? We just had a simple question that deserved a simple answer. To bolster our bravery, Tody and I headed together into the off-limits warehouse to locate Mr. Venus and have our lingering question answered. As we rounded the corner of the countless pallets of canned shrimp, we saw a group of men – including some we recognized – in intense conversation. Spotted, we were greeted with loud screaming and then hustled out of the warehouse by Mr. D.J. Venus, himself. We were put aback by what seemed like an over reaction to such a simple inquiry, in such an innocuous place as a warehouse.
We never thought much more about that incident — after all, we’d been warned never to enter the warehouse. It wasn’t until years later we would learn that Harrison County Sheriff Leroy Hobbs would be indicted for racketeering along with D.J. Venus and his sons, whom we had gone to school with. It seems the old sheriff had been providing protection for the Venus Family who were affiliated with the notorious Dixie Mafia — who had marijuana fields in the northern part of the county. But that’s another story. I learned a lot at my first real job that summer. And how those rollers squeezed those shrimp out of their shells was just one of them.