Robert Vail is a cut above
It was 1:30 in the morning when Robert and Betty Vail were awakened by the ringing of an unexpected phone call. “We really were asleep,” Robert said laughingly as he paused to sort through the life changing events that would follow that call. “We knew Ike was headed our way, but this house had survived not only Rita, but every other hurricane that had ever passed this way so we decided to ride it out.”
Their home, nestled under stately oaks at the end of Susan Street in Bridge City, was built in the shadows of the original Young family home place. The Youngs were among the very first to settle in the area and they had chosen this spot well. While the home site is separated by little more than marsh grass from Sabine Lake, it was built on an elevated knoll that had never flooded since the middle 1800’s.
That incredible run of good fortune would, however, be washed away before dawn. “The call was from a neighbor that was starting to panic when the water got a foot deep in his house and was still rising,” recalled Betty. “I told him to load his bunch up and get over to our house. I then called my brother who lives a short distance away and woke him up.”
When her brother, Stewart Duckworth, climbed out of bed he stepped off into two feet of water and called back. He realized how fast the water was rising and knew that his story home would afford them refuge. At that point, Robert and Betty had seven people in their house and conditions were deteriorating at warp speed.
“The Schuff family just down the road had also stayed and by that time their house was already under water,” said Robert. “They couldn’t get into their attic and headed our way at Betty’s invitation from the day before. I don’t know that they would have survived had they tried to escape in the other direction.”
The water was rising about a foot every thirty minutes and Vail knew that they had to get everyone to Duckworth’s house. “It was chaotic to say the least,” stated Robert. “We now had fifteen people in a house that was filling up with water, it was pitch dark, the wind was howling, and every animal in the area was hunting high ground. We only had two flashlights between us, but there wasn’t much to see.”
At first light with the water still rising, Robert loaded up half of his refugees in his 22-foot Pathfinder and headed for Duckworth’s.
While he ferried the first group to his brother-in-law’s, Betty swam next door to rescue a kenneled pet. “It was just unreal,” said Robert. Betty knows every inch of this area and she helped me navigate over and around the top of trucks, tractors, and even fences.”
“The water eventually dropped out even faster than it had risen and I barely got my boat back on my trailer,” said Vail. The worst flood in history had devastated every home in the area, but more importantly, lives had been saved.
When I stopped by to visit with the Vails Friday evening, Robert was putting the final touches on a gun cabinet that he had managed to salvage. “We didn’t save much,” he said, “but we are finally back in here after five months of hard work. We didn’t have insurance so it has been a struggle. I can no longer work like I used to, but we’ve had some wonderful friends pitch in.
The inability to now do anything strenuous was the result of a seemingly minor insect bite that nearly cost the affable 54 year old Vail his life. He was bitten while on a job by a brown recluse spider in 2003 on a Friday afternoon and thought nothing of it. By Monday morning, however, his arm was badly swollen and he was headed for emergency surgery.
The bite eventually led to flesh and nerve deterioration as well as two heart attacks. “That stroke of bad luck changed everything for me, but I do feel fortunate just to be alive,” said Vail. “Worst of all was that I was just starting to turn the corner career wise and doing what I enjoyed most…fishing!”
Vail commercial shrimped with his father from the time he was four years old until he got out of high school. He eventually took over the business and shrimped until 1987 when legislative changes made it too difficult to continue.
“I just loved being on the water and I knew that I wanted to do something that would keep me around fishing and the water. I was always helping Rob around the bait camp on the north end of Sabine with everything from sewing nets to catching bait and I was hooked for life.”
The “Rob” he referred to was the venerable Rob Bailey that owned and operated Bailey’s Fish Camp with his wife Susan. Even if you are not a fisherman you have probably already made the connection. Susan, better known to her many friends as, Sue, was Betty’s Aunt!
And the Young family that built on that coveted piece of property that had never flooded in recorded history……well two of the sisters that were raised there were Aunt Sue and Betty’s mother, Katherine.
Robert convinced Betty that he could make money fishing and bought an old walk through windshield boat with a 50 h.p. Johnson. He soon discovered that his knowledge of the water was more valuable than technique and even the most seasoned anglers recognized that quality as well.
Ed Holder, the first name in outdoor writing for years, soon became a friend. “Ed really taught me a lot about the sport of fishing,” said Vail. “My Dad took the time after work to get me interested, but I would say that Ed and Chris Bean have influenced my fishing more than anyone else.”
“I may well have been the only guide in history that guided by the hour,” Vail added with a knowing smile. I first met Robert when he was charging by the hour and I was astounded. When I suggested that he could do much better charging by the day he answered, “All I want to do is make enough money to stay on the water!”
He was doing far better than that just prior to the spider bite that short circuited his guiding career and would forever limit his time spent on the water.
“I have met some wonderful people that I would never have met had it not been for fishing,” says Vail. “You know I started going back to church after Ike and it has helped me realize that God has a plan for all of us. I can’t fish or work like I once could, but I know there’s a reason I didn’t die after either one of those heart attacks.”
You would have to look no further for a reason than the framed “thank you” card from Marissa Schuff, the 14-year old who survived the hurricane as a result of the Vails selfless acts. In short it reads, “Thank you Mr. Vail. You saved our lives and your boat really rocks.”
Robert Vail is indeed a cut above!