Boaty Campbell says he’s no good over the phone. Thirty years on a fire engine without a lick of hearing protection made sure of that. “When I take these hearing aids out,” he adds, “I can’t even hear it thunder.”
He says he’s gotten to where he can read his wife Jolee’s lips pretty well and figures he could read mine, too. He invites me over for a visit on his screened-in porch in Point Clear. “It’d be better if we could look at each other,” he concludes.
Or maybe he thinks it’d be better if I could look at him. Boaty’s a master storyteller, and he knows it. He knows that’s why I’m calling. And I know that interviewing Boaty over the phone is like asking a prize fighter to enter the ring with one arm tied behind his back. He’d still land some punches, but it’d be tough to score a knockout.
“Boaty’s a nickname,” he drawls over the phone, explaining his knack as a “little feller” for making a vessel out of anything that could float. It should come as no surprise then that that little feller grew up to pilot the Ramona Doyle, Mobile’s 65-foot fireboat. Stationed on the Mobile River, where the cruise terminal sits today, Boaty and his crew either flew to the boat or the fire engine, depending on the nature of the call that came in. He estimates the station was averaging 180 runs a month when he retired 18 years ago.
“Business was good. I don’t think I missed a disaster. It got so bad the last few years I was there, people would say, ‘Yeah, I’d love to go on that fireboat, but I don’t wanna go on Boaty Campbell’s ship.’” Jolee used to tell him that God needed somebody to straighten things out, so He sent him. “Damn,” Boaty would say. “I wish he didn’t have so much faith in me.”
I’ve been told that Boaty’s sick. Cancer. But before our phone call, I didn’t know much more than that. He tells me it was 11 years ago this month that he got his lung cancer diagnosis. Six years since the news about his liver — a cancer with no relation to the one in his lung. Two surgeries later, they’d removed a third of his liver. Or as Boaty puts it, “They cut me open like a catfish.” Six months later, the cancer was back.
“Jolee used to tell me that God needed somebody to straighten things out, so He sent me. ‘Damn,’ I would tell her, ‘I wish He didn’t have so much faith in me.’” – Boaty Campbell
“They got me on a new stem cell inhibitor now,” he says. “Hope and pray it works. They keep me pretty much quarantined. Won’t even let me go to the post office. Why don’t you come see me? I ain’t scared. We’ve got a big screened-in porch, and there’s always a breeze here.”
He promises to tell me about the best dog he’s ever had, the story of Bubba and the chicken trap, and all the doctors who have told him just to go home and die peacefully. Boaty won’t have any of that. “I ain’t scared to die,” he says. “But I kinda like living, too.”
Old Dog, New Tricks
I find a 68-year-old Boaty at the end of a gravel driveway in Point Clear that bears his great-grandmother’s name. He wears a white fishing shirt, a gray mustache and a knowing smile. “I’ll be Boaty,” he says.
He walks us around to the Bay-side of the house where three baby bluebirds, just this morning, have fallen from the birdhouse Boaty built for them. They stand awkwardly in the grass as Boaty explains that he built the human house, too — completed it in 59 days in 2004. Until that point, he had spent his entire life across Mobile Bay, on the western shore, but Mobile County needed to build a drainage pipe, and Boaty’s house was in the way. With no intention of leaving the Bay, he bought this property from his father’s second wife. His ancestors staked their claim to this spot in 1840, but a surveyor once estimated that the oak tree between the porch and the Bay probably had them beat by at least 50 years.
“So what are you looking for?” he asks, settling into his fire-engine-red rocking chair, worn at the arm rests. Stories, I tell him. “Well, I’ve got some of those.”
Boaty reckons it was the nuns at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School that’ve kept him out of prison all these years. “The only reason I didn’t break the law was because I was scared one of them might quit and become a prison warden,” he says.
He’s gone to church his whole life, but he has fun with religion. It comes up a lot in his stories. He remembers the “piece of junk” five horsepower outboard he tinkered with as a kid. Remembers how, after venturing too far in his 12-foot boat, his dad punished him by selling the outboard for 50 bucks. Remembers seeing that outboard two weeks later, with some poor old fella yanking on its rope.
“I hollered at him, ‘Hey, Mister!’ I said, ‘That motor ain’t gonna crank unless you cuss it.’
“He said, ‘What’s that?’
“‘I’m telling you, that motor ain’t gonna crank unless you cuss it. It used to belong to me, and my daddy sold it.’
“He got all indignant, poked his chest out. He said, ‘Son, I don’t curse. I’m a man of God. I’m a retired minister. I don’t even know any curse words, and if I ever knew any, I forgot them all a long time ago.’
“I said, ‘Well, you just keep pulling on that rope. They’ll all come back to you.’”
Jolee likes to say there’s “an element of truth” to every one of Boaty’s stories, and I start to see what she means. While reliving a scuffle in a DIP bowling alley, Boaty taps the middle of his forehead. “An 8-ball hit me right there,” he says. Granted, I’ve never taken a billiard ball to the forehead, but it’s hard to believe that someone would take the time to note exactly which ball it was that collided with their skull. But there’s no denying one thing — that detail, however slight, does make for a better story. And Boaty knows it.
He shifts in his chair. “They took three liters of fluid off of me this morning,” he says, a result of his liver not working properly. “Never had that before.”
One thing about all this cancer business, he says, is that it has a way of making your moods swing. “One day you’re thinking about living, the next day you’re thinking about dying.” But Boaty’s looked death in the face a few times, aside from the cancer. There was that white-knuckled night on the fireboat during Hurricane Frederic. There was the day in 1977 when his fire engine collided with a moving train, sending him soaring through the air (“I remember thinking, This must be what Superman felt like.”) He reckons he’s used up about eight of his nine lives. That thought brings him to cats.
“You like cats?” he asks. I shrug.
“I hate cats. Best dog I ever had was A-Bear. Named him that because he looked like a little bear. He was solid black. Just a little ball of fur. I mean, black mouth, black gums, black fur — shoe polish would’ve made a white mark on him. We had him for 18 years. I guess probably in a 4-year period, we had us a total feline cleansing on Hollinger’s Island. You know how a cat’ll bow up on a dog? You didn’t bow up on A-Bear. He’d just hit ya — just like a bowling ball.
“There was one cat left down there on that beach that I know of. Belonged to an old widow about three or four houses down. She had one of them big, white, fluffy Persian cats. That cat weighed 20 pounds. Anyway, I come home from the station one morning, about eight o’clock, and there on the porch was the dog. And there on that top step was that cat. He was clawhammer dead. Oh my God, I thought. She’s gonna put out a contract on my dog. I looked, and I seen her car was gone. She drove a little Plymouth Valiant. I said, well, it’s Thursday. The old bitty’s gone to the beauty parlor.
“So I come back up on the porch, and I looked at the cat. He wasn’t all mauled, he was just dirty, you know? I picked him up and took him inside. Laid my newspaper out on the bar, and I went to cleaning him up. I got all the dirt off of him. I even got Jolee’s hairdryer. I fluffed him all up. I had him looking fine. I broke run down the beach with him and put him back in that rocking chair and laid him down where I’d seen him a hundred times. And I went on back to the house. I guess it was two or three hours later, I was out on the wharf, fiddling with my soft crabs. And I heard the old woman screaming down there. I’m gonna be a good neighbor and go help her, you know.
“I came in off the wharf, and when I got to her, she’d backed off out in the yard. I run up behind her and she had her hair all piled up on her head in a bun. ‘Ms. Bertolina, what’s wrong?’
“‘My God, my cat.’ That’s all she could say. I walked behind that chair, and I shook that rocking chair, and of course that cat didn’t move. If he’d a moved, I woulda left that porch. Then I said, ‘Ms. Bertolina, I don’t know how to tell you this, but I think your cat’s dead.’
“She said, ‘My God, I know he’s dead. I buried him yesterday.’” Boaty sneaks a peek to gauge my reaction.
“Well now you go ahead and laugh some,” he tells me. “I couldn’t laugh. I just looked at her like she was crazy. If I had opened my mouth, I would have laughed, and it wasn’t no time to laugh. I just went off the end of the porch — I didn’t even come down the steps. I got over into the next yard, I fell down on the ground laughing. I think she thought I was having a seizure or something. I went and let the dog out, the dog was laughing, you know.
“Ms. Bertolina died about two or three years after that, and I went to the wake. They had her in that casket. I walked up and I told Jolee, ‘I should have told her how the cat got back in that chair.’ She said, ‘Well, she knows now.’”
I later ask Boaty how to spell “A-Bear,” for the article’s sake. He doesn’t miss a beat.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m not sure that I ever wrote him a letter.”
In the Alligator’s Mouth
Boaty knew he was in trouble the moment he laid eyes on Jolee. He was 20 — catching fish and killing time before heading to Auburn in the fall — when he backed his 1956 Chevrolet to the door of Hayes Seafood on the Mobile River.
“I got out barefoot, let that tailgate down and she come out to help me unload,” he remembers. Jolee was working that summer for her aunt. “If you don’t believe in love at first sight, you can’t come talk to me. I was smitten.”
Boaty got to looking at his two older brothers. Both were Mobile firemen, working 24 hours on, 48 hours off. Suddenly, their jobs didn’t look so bad. He decided to take the fire department entrance exam.
“The department offered me the job, and I didn’t want to leave her. And so on October 1, 1972, I become a firefighter.” For the first three years of their marriage, Boaty and Jolee called their 30-foot shrimp boat home. “They pay you enough at the fire station to exist. If you want a living, you got to get out and get it during those two days off.” The young couple began building their future on a foundation of shrimp dragged from the Mississippi Sound. “We’ve always helped each other,” he says.
Later, when Joanna was born and Jolee started teaching, Boaty would return the favor; it wasn’t unusual to see a group of firemen sitting around the station, grading a pile of fifth graders’ tests.
“Jolee once taught 18 4-year-olds,” he says. “I’d rather run into a burning building every day.”
But Boaty’s job was no less colorful. “For lots of days, I felt like Christopher Columbus going to work. It’s going to be a new world. Somebody was going to do something you’d never even dreamed of. Getting cats out of trees … they sent me one time to get a monkey out of a tree. We put the ladder up, and that monkey just jumped to the next tree.”
Boaty’s son, Alan, is on the fireboat now. “Little Boaty,” they call him, although he’s got about 50 pounds on his father. “He’s salty,” Boaty says. “They don’t leave the dock without him.”
I remind Boaty that he promised to tell me about Bubba and chicken trap, so he does. I pay close attention this time, listening as he lays the story’s groundwork, sets its trap and springs it shut. His tale-spinning prowess was made official, you know. His daughter Joanna signed him up, against his will, for the Liars Contest at the 2003 Alabama Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo. Boaty quickly flipped through his mental rolodex of stories and breezed his way to first place. His memory amazes me, and I tell him as much.
“The problem with remembering the good is you remember the bad also,” he says. “But the happy memories are what’s supposed to keep you here. That’s the way I am with Joanna. It’s almost four years since we lost her. I don’t think it’ll ever get any better, but the good memories come, you know, and make it tolerable. More tolerable.”
Joanna, known as Joanna Campbell Blake, was a Mobile sculptor making good in D.C. She had little bitty hands, Boaty says. A big mane of wavy brown hair. Couldn’t have weighed more than 115 pounds. People were always surprised that she knew how to weld, how to use all the tools she did. Most of that was Boaty’s fault. She’d talk to her daddy about once a week when she was working on the WWII Memorial on the National Mall. Sometimes she’d call with a construction problem, and he’d get out his drawing board, call her back with a suggestion.
“She was a mess,” he says, quietly. “My best friend and my daughter.” She was killed in a motor vehicle accident in Florence, Italy, on her 39th birthday. Joanna’s husband, Ike, and daughter Myra, now 9, visited not too long ago. “We had her on the beach for a month. She didn’t have on a pair of shoes the whole time she was here.”
My third visit with Boaty comes on the heels of some tough news. The tumor on his liver has grown aggressive, and it appears the stem cell inhibitor hasn’t made a difference. But Boaty’s always said it’s no use worrying about him. “If you see me in an alligator’s mouth, you help the alligator. I’m in there pulling teeth or something.”
As the afternoon darkens, Boaty turns to me. “So, you got enough stories?”
I assure him I do, more than I could ever fit into one article.
“Well, I know a lot of people who are going to live longer than me,” he says, “but I don’t know anybody who’s outlived me. Jolee said she’s going to put on my tombstone, ‘Sadly missed, but he missed nothing.’ And I didn’t. I was right in the middle of all of it, all the time. Always the first one down the fire pole, first one on the truck.” And after a long night on the fireboat during Hurricane Frederic, he was also among the first to step outside.
“Well, I know a lot of people who are going to live longer than me, but I don’t know anybody who’s outlived me.” – Boaty Campbell
“I never will forget. When it broke daylight, it was just as pretty a day as it is now. Wasn’t a cloud in the sky. That’s when I realized I was wet, soaking wet. Didn’t even realize it. Took that old life jacket off, and the biggest swallowtail butterfly I’ve ever seen in my life, I swear he was as big as my hand, just come fluttering by. ‘Where in the hell was you last night?’”
He laughs to himself and looks through the screen towards the Bay. “But I guess that was — maybe that was God’s way of letting me know that everything was all right.” He says he guesses, but Boaty knows it.