Johnson lives hard life on Old River

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 7, 1999

VIDALIA, La. – Down on the banks of the Old River, the scenery is beautiful, but the life is hard. Men with hopes of reeling in ice chests full of fish come and go at any hour of the day where Johnnie Johnson lives and works.

White cranes top old, worn river trees, and water laps gently on the banks as fishermen cruise in and out of sight, searching for the perfect place to drop a line.

Johnson sees the scene seven days a week, and seven days a week the beginning and end of each day is marked not by the rise and fall of the sun but by trucks pulling boats up and down the ramp.

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&uot;I don’t know what a five-day job means. I worked seven days all my life,&uot; said the 65-year-old ex-commercial fishermen, who now owns J.J.’s Boat Ramp in Vidalia.

&uot;I’ve had a rough life.&uot;

Johnson grew up on a houseboat, where he learned how to swim by falling overboard.

&uot;Every place I’ve lived I’ve been close to the river,&uot; he said.

His parents separated when he was young. &uot;Mother told us boys, ‘You have to get out on your own,’&uot; said Johnson, who was on his own at 15. &uot;Life is weird, it don’t always go like you want it.&uot;

At the landing, regulars come and go as if the whole process was a well choreographed event. And they praise the man who runs the show.

&uot;He’s the best boat landing man we ever had; he’ll accommodate you any way you want,&uot; said Jackie Smith, who has been using the boat ramp for 35 years.

&uot;This is the only place that helps people get in and out. I don’t charge extra for it, so that means a lot,&uot; Johnson said.

But money can’t buy Johnson’s dedication.

&uot;If they don’t come in, I go looking for them. I worry about them, and that means a lot,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;If you take care of yourself and fish right, that’s all you can do.&uot;

Photographer Laura Skelding can be reached at 446-5172 ext. 261 or by e-mail at