Beaufort tales of living on the water and for the water

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comDecember 6, 2011 

  • H.H. "Bubba" Von Harten will speak and sign books at the Beaufort County Historical Society meeting at noon Thursday at the Beaufort Yacht & Sailing Club, 30 Yacht Club Drive, Lady's Island. The event is free and open to the public.

  • Read David Lauderdale's musings, see his morning photos and get alerts about his latest columns by following That's Lauderdale on Twitter.

"Little Geech: A Shrimper's Story" recounts a single lifetime in Beaufort, but it seems to cross the bar into a different era.

H.H. "Bubba" Von Harten Jr. was born 81 years ago on Lady's Island. His new book describes a day when people lived on what they could pull from the water, build, repair, recycle or barter. They had to have many skills, none dependent on electronics.

Von Harten went into commercial shrimping because that's what his father did.

"He lived on the water and for the water, I guess," Von Harten said of his old man, "Captain Geech."

The Von Hartens seemed to have saltwater in their veins since migrating to Beaufort generations ago, and everybody kept telling Bubba, also known as Little Geech, that he ought to write a book.

"So I did," he says in a deep drawl as straightforward as his new book.

He wanted to record the people and stories for this family. He and his wife's four college-educated children and their children need to know about a childhood when Von Harten was embarrassed to tell a storekeeper he'd pay him when his daddy caught some fish. They need to know that Captain Geech's first shrimp boat was run by an engine he pulled from a sunken boat with calloused hands. They need to know how they built up a large fleet that chased shrimp in Texas, South America and Key West, where they were so plentiful the sea looked like a lit city at night as winches pulled up nets full of "Pink Gold."

"We were like a bunch of tomato pickers," Bubba told me. "We had to move every few months to where the shrimp were to make boat payments."

They went in the Tidal Wave, a trawler named after the old Beaufort High School teams, or the Leonora, the Bertha V., the Vanguard and many more until he and his wife, Pat, anchored upstairs over a fish market he operated for almost 25 years on Lady's Island.

Von Harten's book does more than inform his family. It documents an era of Beaufort's recent history when the waterfront was a place to somehow scrape out a living, not sit in swings by manicured lawns.

Bubba told me he also wanted to show that "a shrimper could be a good all-around citizen, not just a bum, which is how a lot of people saw us." He tells about how he ran for public office, served on professional boards and helped form the Lady's Island Business and Professional Association and Lady's Island volunteer fire department. He's been active at Beaufort's First Presbyterian Church and a longtime board member of the Beaufort County Historical Society. His daughter, Laura, serves on Beaufort County Council.

But his life is marked by the blistering lessons of the sea.

"Anytime you throw that net over, you're subject to not get it back," he said. "You just got to make choices and do the best you can to keep going."

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