Backman’s Seafood enters First shrimp season without it’s Skipper at the helm

By Bill Davis | Staff Writer

There will be something missing from Battery Island during shrimp season, and it won’t be the shrimp.

According to state Department of Natural Resources spokesperson Erin Weeks, this will be a big season for shrimp.

Weeks, who works out of the Fort Johnson Road DNR facility at the tip of James Island, said that scientists are reporting a variety of international factors that point toward a bumper crop.

And that could mean big sales as the economy continues to recover, boats come back laden with shrimps, and SUVs arrive at Lowcountry restaurants full of tourists. The current season, the second of the year, will end later this fall.

What will be missing is Thomas “Junior” Backman, who died  late last year at the age  of 76.

As the namesake of a company that ran as many as six shrimp boats from Backman’s Seafood Company on Sol Legare Road, Junior was an integral part of the local fishing and shrimping industry.

Sitting inside the company’s street-front retail building, dock manager Billy Goss laments the loss.

“What’s it like without him? It’s like you’ve lost everything, just lost,” says Goss.

“If Junior were still around, normally that boat would be to go fishing,” says Goss, pointing at the company’s lone remaining boat, moored to a pier. “That boat gave me some hell, though.”

But with a hull covered with barnacles and other crusty critters, it needs to be dry-docked and scrapped, so the boat’s big diesel engine won’t over-eat or overheat from the drag.

These days, Backman’s buys shrimp and crab and fish from other boats and purveyors, becoming more of a distributor.

Goss has worked for the Backmans going back 44 years. “When I started here, diesel was .13 cents a gallon. Oysters were $2.73 a bushel. Shrimp was $1.79 a pound. Flounder, .65 cents. Whiting was .10 cents a pound. And a can of soda was .12 cents.”

Goss brightens when he talks about how he and Junior tackled every task with a DIY approach born of survival. “If we hadn’t learned to do everything ourselves, this place wouldn’t be here,” he says.

Once, they had to hire a mechanic to rebuild one of the boat’s engines when they were fishing near St. Augustine, Fla. When the bill came back for $14,000, they got serious about learning.

Every time he or Junior hired someone to do work for them from that day on, Goss said they’d “help,” studying whatever craft was before them.

But when it came to welding, instead of taking a class at the local community college or enrolling in a maritime engineering class — both of which takes major bucks — Goss and Junior took a decidedly old school path.

“We went out and bought a steel bath tub and some goggles, and learned how to weld in a day,” laughs Goss, whose hands look like they carry enough strength to crack a walnut, if not the whole tree.

Along the way, fishing and Junior taught Goss a lifetime of lessons, as well as having taken him to some hellish spots. One time, off the coast of Florida, the “doors” on one boat’s outriggers wouldn’t open.

That meant no shrimp could get caught, and no money would be coming in. So a younger Goss walked out to the end of the outrigger, in open seas, to get everything working.

Once, he and Junior responded to one of their boats dead in the water in rising seas. Junior threw out a rope with a life preserver attached to it, floated it to the other boat, whose workers grabbed it and pulled the vessels closer.

But, because of the roiling water, they couldn’t get but so close; so Goss had to jump from one deck to the other, waiting for shifting seas to bring the boats’ decks in alignment so he wouldn’t get hurt. From there it was  relatively simple fuel-line fix and the boat was quickly underway.

These days, the only “Junior” hanging around Backman’s is the pelican that zooms up daily and waits for Goss to throw him a small fish in the store’s gravel parking lot.

There’s no way a visitor from Ohio or Canada or Charlotte chowing down on a fried shrimp platter could ever have a full appreciation for what went into that meal, and the decades of hard, dangerous work that preceded it.

But we will. Thanks to men like Junior Backman and Billy Goss.

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