During a visit to Louisiana back in the 90’s I heard about a great place to photograph wildlife. A pristine, privately-owned sanctuary called Pine island. I heard that there was an amazing egret rookery and tons of other critters in a spectacular wetland environment, with some pines growing on the higher patches of ground. I decided that I had to get in there to see this place and do what a wildlife photographer does. There was one problem: the caretaker. He was reputedly a trigger-happy, mafia-connected, curmudgeon who let no one in. That “problem” was Vincent Licata.
As luck would have it, I met one of his friends, Arthur, who said that he needed to make a visit to Pine Island and agreed to take me along. My luck continued when we arrived and Vincent honed right in on my Italian surname, Cancalosi, and decided to give me a chance. Given Vincent’s Italian background, it was strange that he always butchered my name, introducing me to his friends as John “Casiopi”. I would have understood if he called me “Canneloni” since he ran an Italian restaurant for years before retiring to the swamp at the invitation of the former owners. However, “Casiopi” it was and I never bothered to correct him.
Thus began my photography on the refuge. I started by taking a canoe out to a platform that Vincent had built near some of the egret nests. To get to this platform I had to spend hours clearing out the water hyacinths, which Vincent called “lilies”, that clogged the way. Since then I spent untold days over nearly two decades, photographing the birds and other wildlife at Pine Island. It became a refuge, not just for wildlife, but for me and later my son. After a while, my visits became less about photography and more about my friendship with this “swampman”, unlike anyone that I’ve met before or since. Apparently, the Discovery channel had asked Vincent to be part of their “Swamp people” series, but he declined. In any case, it soon became apparent that beneath his gruff exterior, Vincent Licata had a heart of gold.
Vincent’s constant companion was an overweight Chihuahua called “Big Mama”. One of his friends, who owned a used car dealership, babysat “Big Mama” for a week or two. One day, a black couple, the female half of which was shall we say “large” arrived to look at cars. The dog ran off and Vincent’s friend yelled out something like “get over here Big Mama.” When the man heard this he assumed that “Big Mama” referred to his wife and he became irate to the point of physical violence! Fortunately, he realized who Big Mama was before things got ugly!
Vincent had a very exciting and checkered employment history. He was a professional diver on oil rigs in the Gulf and was part of a professional salvage operation in the Caribbean. He ran a large and successful Italian restaurant, “Licatas”. He hunted alligators professionally, having helped the Louisiana Fish and Game successfully bring back the once endangered gators in the State. The most “colorful” of his careers was that of a bookie in New Orleans. I’ll never forget the time when he told me about how he collected his debts. He had a rather large associate named Ernest Thibodeaux. I surmise that Mr.Thibodeaux might have been a failed professional baseball player in his early career and later turned to using the bat on uncooperative debtor’s knees, a skill at which he was apparently quite proficient.
Vincent had many friends which ranged from “redneck good old boys” to dentists, television sports personalities, game wardens and police chiefs to name a few. I suppose you could say the the dentists , sports personalities, game wardens and police chiefs were god old boys as well. Let’s just say that they were not the kind of people that you would expect to see in a trendy coffeeshop in New York City ordering a double laté and a scone… and that is a good thing, if you know what I mean. Vincent was married twice, but he never talked much about that, although he did mention the sadness that he felt when his second wife died. When I recently asked him what he did for female companionship he said that he knew some local “oldies but goodies”. In his trailer-house, he proudly displayed a photo of himself posing with a bevy of scantily clad young women that made a beer commercial some years ago at Pine Island.
Vincent often patrolled the property and helped game wardens nab more than a few poachers. He had a couple of boats befitting a swamp man of his caliber: an airboat and a “mud boat”, both of which somehow ended up on the bottom of the lake. He did a lot of hunting and fishing. The giant, walk-in freezer at his house was always filled with the harvest of the swamp: buckets of crawfish, sac-a-lait, and huge alligator gar, alligator snapping turtles and alligators. As his obituary read, “The alligators of Louisiana are now breathing a collective sigh of relief.”
Vincent was from the old South. He would refer to blacks in a way that “refined” white folks simply don’t do these days in more northerly latitudes. From this I concluded that Vincent was a racist. Then we went to eat at a local restaurant where the cook, Ronnie, was black. When we arrived Ronnie came out and showered Vincent with free food as if they were brothers. Apparently Vincent bailed Ronnie out of jail on many occasions and it was extremely appreciated. Every time we went back to that restaurant the fraternal scene was repeated. So much for racist Vincent.
For a couple of years Vincent took in a troubled, homeless housemate named Mike. He was the kind of person whose problems had problems, not someone that I would want as a housemate, yet Vincent took him in. He also played host to one of his best friends, Ronnie Walker, while he was ill with cancer. He eventually died and Vincent constructed a cross to mark his final resting place. I assume that he buried him where the cross is tacked to a cypress tree. However, upon reflection, I wonder if the alligators were well fed the day Ronnie died.
One family member that he often spoke of was his son, Nick. He was immensely proud of his university soccer career , his education and his family, complete with Vincent’s grand children. He was also fond of my own son Nick. One of the more memorable times that the three of us shared was when we went into the cypress trees in the middle of the lake and bedecked 10 year old Nick with Spanish moss, had him pose in a tree, and photographed the “swamp monster”. My Nick learned to drive, starting at the ripe old age of 7 on the dirt road that circled the lake. When my son became a teenager Vincent counseled him. He let him know that teenage years are for eating, sleeping and what I shall politely translate as “pleasuring oneself”.
Vincent was very fond of his brother and sister and was deeply saddened by their recent passing. He helped his brother through a long bout with cancer and it took a lot out of him. Very unlike him, he recently described himself as “depressed” by these events. He hung a picture of the three of them taken many years ago. It struck me how handsome Vincent was as a young man. I kind of had a feeling when we talked about his brother and sister that he thought that he might join them soon. I think that he said as much. His health had been giving out for years; diabetes, car accident, broken foot… I tried to get him to quit smoking but it was a lost cause. I gave him a bike to ride around the lake for exercise but it was stolen.
The last time I saw him was the summer of 2014. I was having some problems of my own at the time and Vincent knew it. He also knew the healing effect that the refuge had on me so we spent around a week together and braved the deer flies and mosquitos in the swamp. My son also joined us for part of the time. I paddled Vincent’s hydro bike though the cypress trees while he patiently waited on the shore. When I last left Louisiana he called to check up on me and spoke with my African fiancé in the most tender tone possible and invited her to visit when we came down next.
Then he had major heart surgery and stayed in the ICU for over four months. There were medical explanations for his passing but I think that it was more about the passing of his brother and sister, plus being cut off from his beloved outdoors and stuck in a hospital room for months. He passed away peacefully the other day in the arms of his beloved son Nick.
I don’t think that the loss will fully hit me until I return to Pine Island. There simply aren’t many people like Vincent Licata and he will be sorely missed. Louisiana won’t be the same without him. If there are alligators in heaven, they better watch out!