story by Nate Livesay
photos by Susan DeLoach
Let me tell you a story…
You’d expect a man who has served in the Army, run his own businesses, captained a shrimp boat for decades and spent more than his share of days in the hospital to have some interesting and entertaining stories. If you ever get the chance to sit down with Laten Reaves for a couple of hours, you might find out that you have underestimated how many jaw dropping stories he has.
Reaves grew up on Holden Beach in North Carolina and started shrimping as a summer job while still in middle school. It did not take long for the saltwater to get in his blood, and after three summers he bought his first boat and has been on the water ever since. After a stint in the United States Army, he married his wife Alice. They have been married for just under 49 years and have three children, Craig, Becky and Cameron. His sons followed him into the shrimping lifestyle and now the family business, Sea Eagle Market, is thriving with wholesale, retail, catering and restaurant operations. He has fished the coast of the Carolina’s, down to Key West and even had some adventures in Mexico before relocating to Beaufort in 1992.
In just over a half century of fishing, the shrimper has seen his share of ups and downs. Rising fuel prices and declining shrimp prices made business difficult to maintain at times, but he never quit. “Overall it has been hard. Back 20-25 years ago when the economy tanked and you couldn’t work because shrimp was cheaper than the fuel so you couldn’t even take the boat out. So we dug clams, oysters and everything else. We just kept on going. It was a living I wouldn’t want to do all my life, but when you are down and out, you got to pull yourself back up and that’s what we did.” Many other commercial fisherman let their boats go and gave up on the business during these hard times, but that is not the kind of man Reaves is. “It is in my blood, you just do not give up. I don’t give up on nothing, I might go to the bottom and stay for a while, but I’m coming back up because I’m going to keep on keeping on.”
He earned the nickname MacGuyver, as he was blessed with a mechanically inclined mind and the ability to improvise. Reaves earned legendary status among fishermen on the East Coast with his knack for diagnosing and fixing the problems that occur on shrimp boats and other machinery with the materials on hand. They would say he is like “Macguyver without Hollywood magic behind him.” After a while, some folks started to call him up and ask him to help diagnose their problems over the phone. He would listen to them, then listen to their boat and, more often than not, he was able to identify the problem and help them find the solution. His youngest son, Cameron, describes him this way “He’s tough… a one of a kind guy, he’s definitely a legend up and down this coast. It’s cool to follow in his footsteps.” He says when he fishes in North Carolina, when people hear his name and find out he’s the son of Laten Reaves, they always want to hear how he is doing and always have a story about his Dad to share.
If people aren’t calling him Macguyver, they call him “Pops,” a nickname earned over the years because of his generous and genuine nature. He loves people and they love him back, but Reaves is especially loving with his wife, his children and grandchildren. They end all their conversations by saying I love you – even over their boat radios when they are out at night. What you see is what you get with Reaves, and everyone rich or poor gets treated the same way. His children describe him as a generous man who was always sharing his knowledge and his home with others. His daughter, Becky, said some of her favorite childhood memories were of summers spent on the shrimp boat with her dad and brother. “If you were around Dad and listened, you were going to learn to do something,” she said. His oldest son, Craig, talked about how he helped people. “He’d stop working and go 12 hours to tow a boat that had broken down and he was always bringing in people down on their luck. I’d wake up and not know who was on the couch. He’d take them in sometimes for the night, sometimes for the summer, sometimes even longer.” His wife reiterated this idea with a twinkle and a laugh “He’d give you anything we had, regardless of whether or not we needed it.”
A trip to the hospital in October of 2016 for pneumonia turned out to be fortuitous for Reaves as it allowed his doctors to discover that he had inoperable stage 4 lung and liver cancer. Reaves recalled asking “what happened to 1,2, and 3?” His doctors reviewed his scans from six months earlier and confirmed that there had been nothing visible, this cancer was particularly aggressive and fast growing. They gave him a dire prognosis of less than a year to live. Reaves underwent chemotherapy and made visits to Cancer Treatment Center of America and two years later, Reaves is cancer free and very much alive. He, his family and his doctors call his recovery a miracle and cancer joins the long list of things that might have ended Laten Reaves story, but did not. He sat down for this interview just off the boat after an afternoon of fishing, Reaves is most certainly still alive and has a lifetime of stories he is willing to share with anyone who will listen. “I’m still here, doing good, doing things you just don’t do with stage 4 cancer, I’m a walking miracle right her in front of you,” he said.
Pneumonia and cancer weren’t the first of the physical ailments Reaves has had to overcome. He suffers from chronic Myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles, and he recounted a long list of other injuries and brushes with death and dismemberment. The highlights included a fractured arm in a car accident, a couple of accident involving saws, falling 20 feet after being electrocuted while working on a restaurant sign, and a shrimp boat accident that cost him a couple of toes. He recounts in vivid detail the time he had a head on collision, missed one day of work, checked himself out of the hospital and took his then four year old son Cameron shrimping because the crew wouldn’t go with him. “My crew wouldn’t go with me, but I said man, we gotta go!” The common theme around all these stories was that there was no time to complain. Each time he checked himself out of the hospital sooner than the doctors advised and was certainly back to work sooner than they would have approved.
When it comes to his wife, Reaves is obviously still very much in love. He affectionately refers to her as “momma” and told me that none of his injuries ever hurt him like it did when she had her own battles with cancer. Alice, who has worked at Shell Point Baptist Church for the last twenty years, is a three time cancer survivor and is doing well. Reaves said she did a great job taking care of him and their children and worked as hard as any crew member when he took her out shrimping with him. She said “I’ve been out there in 26 foot swells with him, but I didn’t like staying out there at night.”
When asked what he’s learned from a lifetime on the water, Reaves answered quickly. “Be thankful for what you have. Period. No matter if it’s a little bit or a lot. If you go out and have a super good trip, thank the Lord that you had a good trip. But if you don’t have a good trip, you work your way so that you can use that little you have.”