The lad walked
into the office of the marine towing outfit dressed in the cleanest
jeans he could find, a button down shirt and some worn, but
presentable deck shoes. His hair was pulled back into a neat pony
tail and he had put on his best confident face. Sitting in the
office were an old man and a young woman. The old man was in a soft
parlor chair facing the door as he walked in so the lad gave him a
nod for a greeting and turned his attention to the young lady at the
"I spoke to you
on the phone yesterday?" he asked.
"That's me. What
have you got there?", she responded.
"It's a resume'
I've put together". When she heard this she laughed. He looked a
little confused and didn't know what to say so he just queried, "You
don't get many of these here, do you?"
"Hell. We don't
get any. It's nice though. It should answer most of my questions."
She read it for a minute. While she was reading, the lad was aware
now that the old man had been looking him over. He didn't look over
but could see the old man's head moving about as he scrutinized the
potential employee. The lad wondered what the old man did around
here and wondered why he didn't have anything better to do than just
sit around sizing up the visitors. Then he realized that she hadn't
asked him anything for a while. She was still reading and flipping
the three pages as if looking for something.
answered, "but there's a lot of time on the water in there. Ships
and fishing boats. You saw those, right?"
"Oh yeah, I saw.
Tell you what. I'll keep you in mind for a call if I can't find our
regular hands. You're working now so just sit tight and be ready to
come in if you take the call. Thanks for coming in."
"Sure." He tried
to think of more to say to get her to talk to him more. He froze.
"No problem. Appreciate your seeing me." He turned and nodded to the
old man again. This time he got a nod back. He made for the door and
gave one last look at the young lady. She gave a closed smile and
sat there still until he closed the door behind him.
She turned and
looked at the old man until she had his attention. "Well? What did
you think? He seemed like a pretty good guy."
"He did. Good
looking boy, but green. Pretty green. Maybe he should cut his teeth
with some other outfit and then we'll give him a call."
"Maybe you should
train him and keep him for yourself. How hard is it to keep a good
"I know. As long
as I've been in the business I haven't seen it like this. Days
before I owned tugs, they was lining up to get aboard one. Now I buy
a boat or two and I can't keep 'em long enough or sober enough to
work every day."
"That's the point
I was going to make. Maybe you should let this one try a day with
the little tug and see how he does." The old man let out a quick
sigh. "He could be a keeper." The old man looked at the young lady
with no expression. After a few long seconds, she knew what to do.
"I'll see what the jobs look like tomorrow and call him in." She
smiled at him to try and get him to smile back. Nothing. "Don't
worry. I have a good feeling about this one."
While the two had
been discussing the lad's future, he was on his drive home. He was
worried that the interview hadn't gone too well. He smoked a few
cigarettes and worried that he looked like a college boy in his
clothes, that the resume' was a stupid idea. He worried that he
hadn't been assertive enough; maybe they thought he was weak. He
thought that maybe this tugboat idea wasn't such a good idea after
all. Maybe he could find a ship. Maybe his new wife wouldn't mind
the months away from home, but it would have been nice to work a
schedule that was easier on their home life. Maybe he could get used
to a day job if he really tried.
Once at the house
he told his wife that all had gone pretty well and he would check
out some other outfits in the area soon. They had some dinner and
watched a little TV. He would have to call his temporary agency and
let them know he would be available in the morning. He reached for
the phone. His hand was an inch away from it when it rang.
"Hello?"......."Oh. Yeah. I could be there."......."Captain's name
again?" He scribbled on an old newspaper with a broken pencil.
"Little tug at the main dock. Got it.........No. Thank you........I
will. Thanks again. Bye."
He turned and
looked at his wife, smiling broadly. She could tell by the look on
his face that the outfit had called. She knew that they would call
him. He was good at finding work. She knew this before he left the
house that day. She knew that when he drove away, he was driving off
to his first tugboat outfit.
was to board between 0600 and 0630 so the boat would be
ready to shove off at 0700. He woke early without the alarm
clock and drank coffee with a cigarette on his porch until
it was time to drive down the yard. His drive took him
through neighborhoods he didn’t pay any mind to on his drive
down to the interview. Then it had been light and while the
surroundings were far less than inviting during the day,
they were absolutely hostile after dark. He would never be
down here in previous days. This was surely no place for the
car to break down.
up to the gate and, just as the young lady had promised, it
was dummy locked- only appearing to be locked. He opened the
gate and after he had driven through, he stopped to return
it to its former state, supposedly sealing the yard from the
hostiles outside the tall chain link fence. He drove past
the familiar trailer that served as the outfit’s office. A
rutted gravel drive took him around a short bend to the
dock. He found a parking place, turned off his engine and
sat for a minute to have another cigarette and look at the
place looked not much more pleasant than the neighborhood
outside. The grass was grown up all around the fence line
and there were occasional scrubby bushes growing in the
debris of old iron parts that probably came from large
machines from past days. There were a couple of shipping
containers and large tanks. The boom of a barge crane stuck
up from the dock. He could see a barrel with the remnants
of a fire in it, evident by the dull glow from the top.
Beside the fire was a figure, a little disheveled man
smoking a cigarette, staring into the barrel. The lad would
have to pass him as he walked down to find the boat. Might
as well do it now.
climbed out of the car and gathered his cigarettes and a
lighter. He made sure to get his keys and check the door
locks. He looked for one more task to perform before he left
his car to look for the boat. There was none. It was time to
shut the door and walk on down to the dock. As he made his
walk into the earliest of dawn he could now see the dock
better. The wheelhouse of a tugboat was peering over the top
of the barge that served as a floating dock. That would be
his. He was amazed and walked toward it easily as if he were
drawn toward it. Then he was aware of the creepy man by the
fire barrel staring at him. He nodded uneasily to the
glaring figure and then continued his walk to the gangplank
that led to the dock barge. He kept walking toward the tug.
got to the edge of the dock, he could see that he would have
to step down to the bow and then jump a little down to the
pile of line on deck and then step to the deck itself. This
needed to go smoothly. There was no need for any excitement
on his first boarding. He stepped, balanced, hopped,
gathered his footing in the line, and then walked easily
down the deck. He was aboard his first tug. She was only
sixty two feet long but it looked every bit of a hundred
from the way he saw it. What a mess she was. It was
beautiful to the green eye.
thing he noticed was the rough texture of the hull and the
houses. She had been painted a lot over the years but it
wouldn’t be long before the rust would win its race to the
surface. Lines were piled everywhere in heaps. There were
cables running along the waist that looked out of place but
had a purpose somewhere as there was a matched set- one on
each side. He climbed up to the boat deck to get a look
around up there and to inspect the wheel house. After he had
reached the top of the ladder and stood up on the deck a
door opened on the main deck. He looked down in time to see
a man climb out of the galley.
"Jeez-iss", he whispered to himself. He was looking down at
the skinniest man he had met in years. There wasn’t a bit
of the man to be missed for he was standing in his jockey
shorts, the sun reflecting brightly from the underwear, and
his skin which was the same color as the underpants all
over. A thick mane of shaggy hair topped off the figure and
gave him the look of a cartoon lion.
coming down or what?" the skinny man cried out in a high
pitched sing-song kind of voice. "There’s no coffee up
there." He had obviously entertained the daylights out of
himself for he started laughing and never stopped even after
he ducked back into the galley.
hell is he supposed to be around here?" the lad asked
himself as he climbed back down the ladder. He climbed into
the galley door to find the skinny man pouring a cup of
coffee from a Mr. Coffee machine. In the small galley, he
was face to face with the man. What a friendly face it was
too. What a relief. He had met his first boatman.
skinny man stood at the coffee maker, trying to sip coffee
that was too hot to drink. He winced every time he put the
mug to his lips but he was persistent. Try after try he gave
it and continued burning his mouth until he finally got a
big sip of coffee to go down. He smiled with satisfaction
and offered the lad some coffee, pointing to the mugs
hanging on hooks over the sink. Then he exited through a
door leading forward. The lad sipped the hot coffee more
carefully than his new crewmate and looked around the
The room was no more than ten feet or so wide and maybe that
long. Another watertight door was opposite the one he had
entered with. In the center of the room, mounted on the
forward bulkhead was the galley table. It had bench seats
along each side and a television set was mounted above the
table as high as the low overhead would allow. Against the
after bulkhead was a kitchen stove with only three burners,
a sink with a few cups and some plates in it, and a
refrigerator. He carefully opened the door of it and peeked
in. There were a variety of condiments in bottles and jars,
a Tupperware pitcher, and some lunchmeats packaged in
plastic wrap. The freezer held a few packages of meat and a
large plastic tub of ice cubes. There were about ten ice
cube trays stacked to one side. In a wooden cabinet on the
port side, there were many canned goods and a couple of
loaves of bread. While he was looking in this cabinet he
noticed a narrow wooden door in the corner. He didn’t bother
to open it but he did wonder where it led.
The forward door opened and the lad turned to see the skinny
come back into the galley. Now he was wearing work clothes-
jeans, a holed t-shirt and high top basketball sneakers. He
retrieved his now cool cup of coffee and sat down to the
galley table where he reached for an ashtray and his
cigarettes. The lad was relieved to see this so now he could
sit and have a smoke himself. The skinny man lit a Marlboro
and the lad could see that the fingers on his right hand
were disfigured. They were all there, but the tips of the
index and middle finger were deformed and bulbous. They
looked like the fingers of the alien movie character E.T. He
noticed that the skinny man could use them well enough but
when it came to delicate work like holding his cigarette, he
had to move it back to the second knuckle to get a secure
grip. When he took a drag, it looked like he was covering
his mouth up to cough. There was now telling what had
happened there but the lad made a mental note to make sure
he avoided an injury like that.
They talked for a few minutes. It turns out that the skinny
man was living aboard the little tug. He was down on his
luck and the old man was charging him far less than he would
pay for even a local dive to stay there. It was starting to
sound like the skinny man did a lot of drinking and the lad
figured this didn’t help his current shortage of luck. They
traded stories and the lad learned that the skinny man had
been in the Iceland Coast Guard. Interesting work and good
service for men who liked to drink much. Drinking was a
theme with the skinny man.
"Well? I better get her started up before the skipper gets
here. He hates to wait," the skinny man said as he was
putting his cigarette out. He got up from the table and
disappeared through the door in the corner before the lad
had a chance to try and follow him. He listened to the
clanking a banging sounds coming up through the deck. Soon
an engine turned over and started. It was a bit loud and he
could tell it was a medium sized diesel engine. Then the
lights went out. In only a second or two, they came back on.
The boat was now on generator power. After a minute, the lad
was brought to his feet, startled by a loud noise that
sounded to him like an elephant trumpeting a warning inside
the boat. The lad had no idea what it was, just that it had
made engine work. The sound happened one more time and
although he jumped a bit, he wasn’t as shocked as the first
time. The skinny man reappeared and waved him to follow.
They went back outside and the skinny man clambered up to
the dock, disappeared for a minute and returned with a shore
power cable coiled up on arm. As they stowed in the forepeak
companionway door, the lad asked him, "What the fuck was
"It’s the cable that gives us power at the dock," the skinny
"No. I mean the loud-ass noise from the engine room when you
started those engines."
"Oohhh!" laughed the skinny man. "You never heard air
"You better get used to them. There’s a lot more noises than
that around here." Then he talked to himself a bit. "The old
man can find ‘em green, he can."
They continued coiling up the cable, the skinny man
chuckling the whole time about the air starters. The lad
didn’t want to be called green out loud, and he certainly
didn’t want to be laughed at, but he could see there would
be more questions as the day went on.
After the power
cable was wound up and stowed, the two lit another cigarette
and stood around waiting for the skipper to show up. The lad
looked around some more and peered into he companionway to
get a look at the space below. It was a little dark, with
only the glow of incandescent bulbs to light it but he made
out piles of line and boxes of parts. There was a small
chest freezer on one side and he could see the end of a
“Is that the forepeak?” he asked.
“That’s what that is. We keep just about everything in
there. I’ll show you later.”
The lad nodded and continued inspecting the small tug. As he
was looking up at the pilothouse he could see the reflection
of a Ford truck pulling up to the edge of the dock. He
turned and joined the skinny man in watching the edge of the
dock. Soon a man appeared. He looked young, maybe in his
thirties. He was well dressed compared to the two aboard,
wearing khaki pants, a colorful polo shirt, and clean deck
“Good morin’, jemma-nems,” he called out in his best local
accent. He was smiling and made the hops easily down to the
deck carrying a duffle bag over his shoulder. He went
straight to the lad and extended his hand. “You’re our new
hand. Follow the skinny guy’s lead and you’ll do all right.
Then to the skinny man, “OK. Let’s get goin’.”
The skinny man started walking down the deck. The skipper
started climbing the forward ladder to get to the
pilothouse. The lad suddenly realized he needed to follow
the skinny man. When the skinny man saw him he made a motion
that indicated that he was going up to the dock. “Take off
that stern line, I’ll toss it in.” He climbed up and was
quickly at the cleat holding the eye of the stern line. The
lad took the turns from the bitts and the skinny man lifted
the eyes off. “Just give it a good sharp tug when I toss
it.” The lad did just that and the line flew into the boats
and landed in a heap in front of him. A neat trick he
thought of it. “Get the head line next,” he called down to
the lad. Figuring that a head line must be the same as a bow
line he headed forward. The same technique was used to
remove it and then the spring line was taken in.
The skipper held the bow of the tug against the dock for a
second or two longer to allow the skinny to board again.
They backed out of the berth, turned slowly, and when the
bow was pointed across the river, the engines eased up to
speed and they were underway. The tug pushed its way to the
middle of the river and took a left to head under the big
bridge. The city was getting closer now. He had been on the
water long enough to have sailed this harbor but he had
never been this far up the river. Now he could see the other
side of the city. He remembered viewing the tugs from the
concrete shoreline and now he knew what he had looked like
to the crew of those boats. The tug stopped and the engines
were idling. They were sitting still in the water so he
could continue looking at the city scene.
He realized he was alone and looked around a bit till he saw
the skinny man and the skipper talking in the pilothouse.
There wasn’t much animation. The two would occasionally
motion toward a nearby shipyard so it became obvious that
the job was going to be over there. The shipyard sat across
from the city and was full of people moving about on the
ships and docks. There were countless barges with such a
wide variety of equipment and ship part on them; he couldn’t
imagine how anyone kept track of it all.
The skinny man tapping him on the shoulder and waving him in
to follow as he hurried to the stern interrupted the lad’s
“We have to get the pushing gear ready. It’s going to be a
bunch of barge shifting for these guys”, he said jerking his
thumb toward the shipyard.
Without a clue as to what was to be done, the lad followed.
The skinny man
took the lad to the stern where there was a small towing
winch only about two feet tall wound with cable only about
three quarters of an inch in diameter. It really was a small
power winch by standards. The end of the cable was attached
to one of the cables running down the length of the tug that
the lad had noticed on his way aboard. It was now that he
noticed the other side had the same cable but this one was
shackled to a length of rope. The skinny man went to the
engine room and started another generator. When he came back
up, he used one of the levers on the winch to pay out cable
and directed the lad to pull the new slack forward toward
“Don’t drop it over the side!” he cautioned loudly. “It’ll
get caught in the wheels!”
The lad heard and nodded and then began pulling the cable up
the deck. When it came tight he set it down and made his way
back to the stern where the skinny man was arranging the
soft line end of the other cable onto the stern bitts at the
rail. When he was satisfied with his preparations, he took
the lad up to the bow. Now he could see that they were
approaching a barge at the shipyard. Two men in coveralls
were standing still on its stern waiting for them.
While the skinny man was busy setting a line on the bow
rail, the tug eased up to the barge and there was a loud and
deep squeaking noise as the thick rubber fenders rubbed
against the painted steel of the barge. The deck stopped
under the lad's feet and he swayed for a second to hold his
balance. Without speaking to each other, the skinny man and
the bargemen set to work. The skinny man passed the line he
had been preparing through the large chock ring on the bow
and the bargemen placed it on the cleat in the center of the
barge’s stern. When the line was up, the skipper eased off
of the barge and in a few little bounces on and off the
barge, he had the bow centered on the width of the barge.
The skinny man made the line off in quick and sturdy figure
eights on the H-bitt in the bow of the tug. When he was
finished he turned to the lad.
“Stay here. When the skipper turns the tug toward these
guys, pass them up the cables.”
The lad nodded and the skinny man disappeared to the stern.
He looked down to the eyes of the cables and saw that each
one had a short piece of line spliced to it. He was prepared
to do this job. The tug started drifting to the port side so
he grabbed the line on the port side cable eye. The man on
the barge clapped his hands and extended them as if to
receive something. The lad coiled up the line a bit and
tossed it up to him. The man pulled the eye up and over the
side of the tug and began to pull it toward him hand over
hand. The lad knew that he should guide the cable over the
side so it would fall suddenly and jerk the man over the
side. The skinny man had earlier secured the cable to the
stern bit so he motioned for there to just let the cable go
all the way over the side; it wouldn’t get away. The man on
the barge finally reached the cable eye and laid it over the
bit on the corner of the barge. Now the skinny man put more
turns on the bitts and the skipper stepped out the side door
of the pilothouse to watch him as the stern of the tug now
swung slowly to starboard. As the cable came tight, the
skinny man eased out some of the line to allow the boat to
keep swinging. The lad saw what was happening. They were
trying to get the tug in a straight line with the barge.
When this was accomplished, the skipper waved and the skinny
man made the line fast. Now he took a position on the other
side of the stern where he could see the lad on the bow.
The men on the barge asked the lad for the other cable eye.
He obliged and then heard the skinny man yelling again. He
saw him waving at him to step inside cable and realized that
he might have been trapped between the bulwarks and the
cable as it paid over the side. Once the barge men saw that
he was out of harm’s way, they began pulling the cable. This
pull would be further than the last so it took both of them.
As they pulled, the skinny man paid slack with the little
winch. As before the cable eye was laid on a bitt at the
corner of the barge and the cable was tightened with the
winch bringing the cables on both sides to a point known as
“fiddle string tight”.
The bargemen disappeared up to the head of the barge and
there seemed to be a lull in the action.
“What now?” he asked the skinny man.
“Not much for a few minutes,” he replied. “Those guys will
handle the lines on the barge. They don’t like us up on
their barges much. They say that things come up missing when
we’ve been up there. Not to mention all the lawsuits that
usually happen if the tug guys get hurt. No hair off my ass.
We can wait here till the cables come back in.”
The two sat where the skipper could see them if he needed
them and they smoked cigarettes and drank some more coffee.
Then the cables came in. Then the cables went back out.
After more cigarettes, the cables would come back in. And
then? The cable would go back out. This continued until the
lad lost track of the time and the number of barges he had
made up to. He felt very comfortable with this procedure now
and didn’t have to be reminded of anything.
“You’re doing pretty good,” the skinny man told him during
one of their breaks. Most guys don’t pick this up on the
The lad thought about that for a second, wondering how
anyone could have difficulty with a few simple tasks.
“Thanks. I don’t look like a goof then?”
“Oh, no!” cried the skinny man in his singsong voice. You’re
probably going to work on tugs for a while.
The lad smiled. That’s all he wanted was to work on tugs.
For a while? That was a bonus. It looked like he had just
received some sort of seal of approval. Pretty good for one
morning but there would be many other mornings to test his
He smoked his cigarettes, slung his cables, and watched the
ballet of barges in front of them.
After a morning
of moving barges around the lad was a little tired, not so
much from physical labor, but all of the general activity
and excitement had worn on him a little. He sat in the
galley smoking and having a cold, incredibly sweet iced tea.
The side doors were open and it was bright in there with a
cool breeze blowing across the room. The skinny man came in
and hopped down onto the settee across from him. He had a
big smile on his face and he lit a cigarette, smoking it
with his funny fingers as if he was having genuine fun.
“Headed to the bay,” he said. The bigger tug lost an engine
and she’s limping in with her tow.”
“What do we have to do?” asked the lad.
“We’ll prob’ly just put up a line or two and help her in.
It’ll take the strain off of her one engine. The most help
we can give is when gets to the dock. Then we’ll need to do
the docking since she can’t move around so easy.”
“Should we get ready?”
“You bet. We should get ready for lunch.” He found this,
too, to be funny as it could be. He was laughing his cartoon
character laugh the whole time he was rooting in cabinets
and assembling a set of pans and a cutting board on the
“What’s for lunch?”
“Hot dogs. Can you cut up some onions?”
“Sure. Point the way.”
The skinny man showed the lad where the onions were stowed.
They were actually beginning to grow. He moved the cutting
board to the table and got a dull knife from the dish rack.
They didn’t talk while the meal was prepared. The lad was
concentrating on mincing the onions as fine as the dull
knife would allow, and the skinny man was trying to get a
malfunctioning can opener to open a can of chili he had
pulled from the cabinet. He succeeded in opening the can and
dumped the messy contents into a small pan. Then he went to
work on the can of pork and beans. Before long, the stove
was alive with simmering pans of hot dogs, beans, and chili.
The galley smelled like a home now.
“Why don’t-cha run up and ask the skipper what he wants on
his,” the skinny man suggested.
The lad hopped right up and headed for the door. He took the
few steps outside to the side ladder and scurried up it like
he’s been in that boat for years. He moved forward on the
boat deck and toward the pilothouse door. As he entered, he
lost his train of thought for he was distracted by the array
of equipment crammed into the little space.
“Hey! How’s it going?” cried the skipper, glad to see him.
“What do you think so far?”
The lad was still scanning the new surroundings and barely
realized that the skipper had spoken to him. He snapped out
of it in a second or two. “It’s going pretty good so far. I
“You and the skinny man getting on alright?”
“Oh, sure. He’s been a lot of help. We’re doing fine.”
“He’s an alright fellow. Just don’t develop any of his
habits for complaining and laying around on the job. Just
between you and me, that one.”
“Ok. I gotcha.” He had already seen that the skinny man
could try to hate his job if you let him talk long enough
about it. “What do you want on your hot dogs?”
“Mmmm. Hot dogs. Again.. Well? I guess some onion and
mustard and just a touch of relish. Bring me three? If
“Plenty. I’ll be right back.”
“And a soda if there are any,” the skipper yelled from the
door as the lad ran back to the galley.
“OK!” He yelled back over his shoulder.
When he got to the galley there was a paper plate on the
table with three hot dogs on it. All three had mustard,
onion, and a little relish on them. He looked at the skinny
man with a puzzled face. “Why bother running me around if he
already knew?” he thought. Just then a hatch in the overhead
opened with the sound of scraping plywood. The skipper could
see down and skinny man handed him up his lunch. There was a
brief discussion about the iced tea instead of sodas. The
hatch closed and the skinny did a little eye rolling before
he sat down to the table. With his ring finger and pinky, he
handled the spoons to slather his hot dogs with chili and
serve himself some beans. He began to eat with great energy.
When he noticed the lad wasn’t sitting yet, he turned and
looked at him. Barely able to talk with his mouth crammed
full of food, he pointed to the opposite settee and spat
out, “Wit. Wet num.”
The lad had to smile. He got over to his side of the galley
and got a plate ready with some hot dogs and beans. He ate
greedily when he realized that he had only been having
coffee and cigarettes all day. Sailing down the river toward
the bay on a nice summer day with a good lunch, at a good
job, was making him glad he had taken this chance. He was glad to
be here. There would be some down time until they got to the
bigger boat. Maybe he could find out about his new
As the little tug
steamed down the bay, the routine came to a relaxing, slow pace. The
two deck hands smoked and rested a little, occasionally checking on
the captain to see if he needed a drink or a snack, or even a break
from the wheel. They pointed out boats they liked and buildings they
recognized. The conversations were fairly idle until the lad finally
asked the skinny man about his fingers.
“Well?” he started, “You know those cranes in the yard? That’s what
done this to me. I was helping the old man do some pick-ups around
the deck barges and things was going pretty well. The brakes don’t
work so good on the hook cable’s brake and I had my hand on top of a
post to keep my balance while I bent down to pick up a strap. The
old man saw that I had the strap in hand and let the hook fall to
bring it down to me so I could hook that strap up. The hook fell and
hit the post that my hand was resting on. When I stood up, I saw
that my finger tips were trapped under the pile of big chain links
that weight the hook on the end of the cable. Lucky they didn’t pile
on my whole hand.”
“Wow. You’re lucky you didn’t lose the fingers. Couldn’t the doctor
do anything more for them?” asked the lad.
“Ahh!” The skinny man waved the question off. “The old man’s doctors
are quacks. He didn’t do a thing for it but clean it up and give me
some bandages and ointment. They said I waited too long to come down
there and the healing had already started this way. I was only a
week late. They could have tried something else. They’re supposed to
be doctors, ain’t they?”
The lad had been listening but was thinking about his own matters at
the same time. He began to wonder if he were going to be safe here.
He knew that a small company might not have the some kind of
benefits and services, but he expected to be taken care of if he
were hurt. What he really pondered was the character of the
characters he would be sailing with. Again, he had some doubts about
his career selection.
“I gotta know,” said the lad finally. “Why didn’t you pull your hand
out when the chain started piling up on your hand?” He half expected
the skinny man to come back sharply in defense of his seeming lack
of common sense.
“I would have, but I can’t feel ‘em no more.” The skinny man wiggled
his deformed fingers in the air while he said this. It was like he
could show the lad how very little feeling he had in them by waving
them around in front of his face.
“Ya see?” he continued, “I was out late one night and the bars
closed but before they threw me out the bar maid sold me a bottle of
vodka and I didn’t want anyone to see me with booze in the yard so I
slid it down into the sleeve of my coat and off I went.”
He breathed, finally. Then he continued.
“I didn’t have no trouble with the locals, you know, because they
couldn’t see the bottle. They’d have rolled me again if they knew I
had that on me. They know I ain’t got much money that time of the
week. Anyway, I got to the fence and it was no problem getting’ over
it but when I jumped down, I hit the ground funny and I had to run
for a bit to try and keep my balance. Well. That’s when the night
went to shit. I fell down and the bottle of booze broke in my
sleeve. If that weren’t bad enough, some of the glass went into my
arm and I think it cut some nerves or somethin’, because I couldn’t
feel my finger tips after that.”
He finished the account in a very ‘matter of factly’ way and then
turned to the task of lighting another cigarette with his fingers.
His hexed and jinxed fingers.
The lad was amazed. How could a guy let so much happen to him with
the apathy he appeared to have for the situation. He injured himself
twice. Gravely. Yet he treated it like just another bad day. Get
help. Why didn’t he get some help?
Later, he went up to see the skipper. They talked for a few minutes
about idle subjects and then the lad was able to bring up the
subject of the skinny man.
“I don’t understand why people would let that happen to them. I
guess the most disturbing part is how others can stand by while it
happens around them.”
The skipper looked at him and could tell that he should say
something important. All he could think of was, “Look. I know it
seems rough to let these guys tear themselves up like that but it
doesn’t do any good to help them out too much when they won’t take
the help and try to improve their situations.”
The lad stared back at him for a few seconds saying nothing. The
skipper knew he had to elaborate. “The skinny man is a nice guy.
He’s a good hand and the old man needs good hands. That old man lets
him live on the tugs for next to nothing. He practically feeds him
and does what he can to keep an eye on the guy. But all the skinny
man does is drink, smoke that damn crack, and mess with those ol’
black whores from outside the gate. He brings them back to the boats
too. We probably lose more food to them than to the skinny man.”
He concluded, “The skinny man is another of the long line of hands
that you’re going to see around these little outfits. They come,
they work some, and then they go off to the next place to scrape out
a living. You seem pretty straight up and I know you care about the
guy, but you may want to keep a little room in your channel around
him. Ya know? Help him the best you can, but I think it will be
easier if you just keep your own job on course. That’s been my
The lad looked back at the skipper and he could see that he was
probably a pretty responsible guy. He was clean and neat in
appearance. He had on good clothes for the job he was doing and for
the most part he was very articulate even when speaking with his
thick historic accent of the state, his home.
The skipper broke his concentration. “There’s the bigger boat. Go
get the skinny man and tell him to come up. We have to make a plan
for this make-up.” The lad nodded quickly many times and headed down
to gather the skinny man. It was time for more work in his little
The lad found the skinny man in the galley, reading an old magazine
while having a cigarette. He told him the captain needed to see him.
The skinny man kept reading. He made sure to tell him that the
bigger boat was in sight. The reason for the summons didn’t change
the skinny man’s indifference but at least it got him to move a
little. When the lad was sure that the skinny man was going to get
up, he left the galley to get another look at the bigger boat from
the bow. He sat on the H-bitt with his feet up on the cap rail of
the bulwarks. The little tug was small enough that he was very
comfortable in this position, with his elbows resting on his knees.
He lit a cigarette and looked out down the bay.
He could see the bigger boat clearly. It was coming into view more
and more each minute and soon he could see a group of figures on the
bow of her, grouped around a set of steps that led to the pilot
house. He soon realized that the tug was being followed by a large
object. It was their tow, a barge stacked with shipping containers
but from that distance it looked like a big box made out of
multi-colored children’s blocks. He was amazed at the size of the
tow compared to the dwarfed tug. The skinny man walked up behind
him, breaking his concentration.
“Vacation’s over. Eh?” he said. “The skipper wants to try to tow her
in. I told him it won’t work but he isn’t listening. He thinks he’s
on a big ocean rig. That little tow winch doesn’t do this kind of
work. Does he think I’ve never done this kind of work before? I
think I have. He’ll see.”
The skinny man was rambling. The lad didn’t care how they helped the
tug and tow in; he wasn’t that experienced yet. But he didn’t care
to hear the skinny man complaining about the upcoming work. He was
ready for anything at this point and didn’t need to hear anything
that would reduce his excitement. He changed the subject.
“What should I be doing now?” he asked the skinny man.
“Come on back to the winch. We’ll have to take in the pushing gear
and shorten the tow cable,” replied the skinny man, waving his hand
towards him as he walked aft along the waist.
They got to the winch and the lad watched as the skinny man moved
levers and rods to set the little winch up for retrieval. It wasn’t
really a towing winch. It was more like the deck winches that the
lad had used during his stick shipping days when he operated yard
and stay rigs. The little winch only stood about three feet tall and
had a simple braking lever with pins to dog the drum in place when
securing it. The buttons to operate it were simple too- two
directions and a stop button. The skinny man pointed to the buttons
and the lad mashed the one to bring the cable in. The drum turned
slowly while the skinny man guided the little tug’s thin cable onto
the drum as evenly as he felt like. In just a minute or so, the eye
was on deck.
The lad stopped the drum and the two of them turned to see the
bigger tug almost next to them running at the same speed. As the
skipper eased the little tug closer, the figures on the bow became
clearer. There were three of them. One was a young man with a map of
curly blonde hair blowing around in the bay breeze. He waved a quick
wave to the skinny man who threw his head back in response. The
other was a thin man with long graying hair, a gray beard, and
little sunglasses. He was dressed a bit shabbily and stooped when he
stood up. The lad thought of a marooned character from a pirate
novel when he saw him. The third man couldn’t be missed. He looked
angrily at the skinny man. He looked so angry that the lad could see
the creases in his forehead as he scowled at his crew mate. He was a
fat man. His round torso supported by skinny legs, he was bobbing
slightly and holding on to the railing of the ladder, as if he would
jump to the deck of the little tug. Why was he so angry at the
skinny man? Even his free hand was balled up into a fist.
“Look at those clowns,” the skinny man huffed. “It’s a wonder they
could make a trip that far away and come back in one piece. Who
knows what ‘Mr. Mechanic’ did to the engine.” He was on another
rant. He went on for another minute or so about each of the
characters on the bow, giving the lad a quick run-down of their
individual traits and faults. It was clear to the lad that if he
listened to anything the skinny man said that these men were
approximately worthless as boatmen. He certainly wouldn’t judge. At
this point in his career, he knew less than anyone on the scene and
his main concern was to try and look competent in front of even this
Now they were close enough to the bigger boat that the skipper was
hanging out the pilot house window talking loudly to the captain of
the bigger boat. When the brief conversation was over, he nodded to
the skinny man who turned toward the group on the bigger boat and
waved his hand inward, signaling them to throw a line over.
“No!” shouted the fat engineer. “You send your line over.”
“Fuck that!” shouted the skinny man. “We’re here to help you. Not do
all the work!”
“Just throw a line over you lazy little bastard!”
“No! I’m not pulling your heavy-ass line over. This cable is smaller
than your deck lines,” he loudly explained. “You can’t pull on a
“Hey!” shouted the skipper. “Just send the line over. We don’t have
all morning to listen to you guys fight this out.” All eyes were on
him and he didn’t move a muscle. It was clear that he was serious.
The skinny man looked at the skipper for a moment and then bent to
pick up his messenger line. The lad could see he wasn’t happy but it
was hard to tell if the skinny man was acting out of obedience or
resignation. The messenger line was thrown across the choppy void
and the fat engineer directed the blond deck hand to make it fast to
the deck line. The big Dacron line was hauled across by the lad and
a grumbling skinny man and laid on the stern deck of the little tug
where the tow cable was made to the line with a shackle that the lad
would have considered large. With no concern for anyone around him,
the skinny man picked up the shackled assembly and threw it roughly
over the side. The short end of cable came tight with a loud noise.
The skinny man looked up to the pilot house and waved to the skipper
who had been up on the boat deck at the stern controls watching the
work. He nodded back and the skinny man went to the control buttons.
He let out just a bit of cable. The skipper eased the boat over to
get in front of the bigger boat. When the little tug was in
position, the skinny man let more cable out. The skipper widened the
distance between him and the bigger tug and the skinny man filled
the gap with cable. They worked together with no need to speak, each
man reacting to the situation at hand as he needed. This job had
been done many times before.
After the bigger tug was far enough away, the skipper shouted down
to the skinny man, “Dog her down. That’ll do it.” The skinny man
turned the little brake wheel down and then set the pin that secured
the winch’s drum into its matching holes. Everyone went to their
places again, the skipper to the pilot house and the two deck hands
to the galley.
The skinny man was telling the lad how many ways this tow could turn
bad; how “he would have done it.”: The speed of the tugs could be
different. The weather could set waves on them and stress the cable.
The bigger tug should turn off his engine and let the little tug
tow. There should be a weight in the belly of the small line. The
little tug’s skipper should…….
BOOM! A terrific noise was heard from the stern. Both men looked at
each other, wide eyed for just a second. Then the skinny man smiled
from ear to ear.
The noise they had just heard was the sound of the little cable
coming apart. When wire rope parts, it can make a sound like that of
a shot gun firing. This was the case here. After the skinny man’s
initial entertainment was over, he motioned the lad to follow him
out the stern. As he expected, the cable was hanging over the stern,
limp, slightly swaying as the tug’s quick water passed over it. He
went to the controls, set up and began to pull the cable in with the
winch. It wasn’t long before the frayed and broken end of the cable
was on deck.
The lad was studying the cable end when the skipper shouted and
waved the skinny man up the wheel house. The lad was left alone with
the cable for a few minutes. Soon the skinny man returned and began
to speak. The lad didn’t hear him though for as he began to speak,
the little tug’s engines raised their pitch and the tug started into
a hard turn. As it heeled over to meet the turn, water was forced
across the stern and wet the boots of the two hands. They retreated
to the next deck up where it was dry.
“We’re gonna make up,” said the skinny man. He saw that this meant
nothing to the lad so he explained further, “We’re going to put
three lines up and then push the barge along to help the bigger tug
along.” He added, “That’s what we should have done in the first
place,” with a confident tone, self-confirming his expertise in tugs
and towing. He went on to point to the places where the lines would
be placed to make up to the container barge. The lad listened and
although he didn’t fully understand the jargon of the skinny man, he
had an idea that he’d be able to keep up when the task started.
The little tug had come about full circle and was running with the
barge, maintaining a wide gap between the two. The skipper was
staring a point on the barge as he used throttles handles and the
wheel to guide the little tug in. Slowly it drifted in towards the
barge. The closer it got, the louder the sound of the water between
them was, rushing through the gap the two vessels like a raging
mountain river. Before too long the suction created by the rush of
water caught the little tug and it moved, with some force, the last
foot it needed to touch the barge. With the sounds of thick, wet,
rubber squeaking and grinding against the flat steel hull, the tires
and fenders of the little tug hit and it came to a sudden lurching
stop. The lad felt the deck shifting under his feet.
The skinny man was on the bow with a wooden ladder. The lad went to
him to help position it from the tug’s deck to the edge of the
barge’s deck. When it was firmly in place, the skinny man held onto
it with both hands and stared at the lad. The lad wasn’t sure what
to do now and looked quizzically into the eyes of the skinny man,
only inches from his own. He suddenly realized what was supposed to
happen. As he made his realization, the skinny man confirmed it by
pointing up the ladder with one hand and talking loudly, but
unintelligibly. The lad could barely hear him over the din of the
rushing water and the in-close cacophony of the tug’s fenders, but
it was obvious that he was to climb up the ladder, across the
whitewater void, and onto the barge.
The skinny man leaned in and yelled into his ear, “I need to make
the lines up. You just put them on the cleats where I show you.” The
lad was now shocked. He shook his head. The skinny man looked at him
sternly. Then he looked up to the wheelhouse. He could see that the
skipper was being patient now but that patience would wear thin
quickly. He looked back at the lad and the face he was told him that
he couldn’t push a green hand so hard. He made his decision and
started up the ladder.
The skinny man was on the barge in no time and yelled down pointing
to a line on deck. Waving his hand upward, he told the lad to send
up the first line. The lad quickly made a messenger to the large eye
and tossed up to the skinny man who dropped it easily onto a large
cleat some feet back. Then he pointed to the quarter bitt and
twirled his finger so that the lad could see where to make off. He
did this easily enough and then the skinny man walked up to the bow
of the tug and pointed down to the line on deck, again waving up.
The lad passed this line and the skinny man walked forward a few
feet and dropped that eye onto another cleat. He walked back to the
lad and yelled out through cupped hands, “Dip it!”
The lad looked puzzled.
“DIP! IT!” the skinny man yelled again.
The lad knew nothing about dipping a line and the skinny man was
obviously getting angry for this is why he wanted to stay on deck.
“Drop the line,” he heard a loud voice from say from behind him,
turning to see the skipper standing above him in front of the wheel
house. “Just drop it. In front of the bitt,” he yelled again. The
lad did that.
“Now. Reach under and pull it under, back to you.” The lad did this.
Now he was holding
“Good. Take that bight and push it over the top of the bitt there,”
he said pointing to the left upright.” The lad saw what he was after
and dropped the line over the bitt.
The skipper smiled and gave the lad a thumb up signal. “Now make it
off on the other end,” he yelled and then retreated back to his
controls in the wheelhouse.
The lad looked up to the skinny man who pointed toward the stern in
exaggerated motions. He made his way back there quickly. He
automatically reached for the line on deck when he got there. He had
already figured out how the make up was supposed to work. After he
passed the line up to the skinny man, he waited to hear where to
make it off. The skinny man pointed to the capstan and made circles
in the air with his finger. For a second the lad hesitated but then
he jumped into action. He was going to figure how to run it right
there, right then.
It looked easy enough. Pull this thing out to make sure the drum
didn’t turn. There’s the button. Was the power on? He tested it.
Yes. The skinny man had left the right generator running. It turned.
He went for his line and started to run it around the little capstan
on the towing winch. The skinny man was yelling. He turned around
and saw him pointing to a spot on the stern. He had forgotten to
lead the line to a cleat on the deck for a better pulling point.
This wasn’t a big deal and he corrected it quickly. Then he put
another turn on the capstan and turned it on. The line was pulled in
and was coming tight. He controlled the amount of pull and turned to
the skinny man who held up a fist when the line was good and tight.
Reaching for the stop button, he quit his heaving and then made the
line off to the bitt behind him.
He looked up and the skinny man was calmly walking away. Figuring
the job must be finished now, he walked his way to the galley door,
stopping before he went inside to see the skinny man climbing down.
They met in the galley and the skinny man suggested that they go up
to the barge and look around. The lad felt like making the climb now
that the tug was secured to the barge.
He climbed up and walked around the containers carefully. He went
forward to see the bigger tug at the far end of her towing cable. He
looked at the containers piled four high and lashed down with heavy
rods. When he got to the stern, he sat down on the deck and lit a
cigarette. The skinny man emerged from around the corner of the
containers and sat down beside the lad, lighting a cigarette.
It was quiet back here and they smoked in silence watching the wake
of the barge. The lad smiled to himself. He knew how to make up. For
now, he was a little more equal to the man beside him. He knew there
was more to learn, but this was still a satisfying moment. The bay
water hissed by the moving barge for a while as he enjoyed the
After a morning
of shifting little deck barges, and spending most of his afternoon
in a noisy little tug, the lad needed to have a seat in the quiet
and relax. His recent experience making up to the barge he was now
riding had shown him that he could gain the skills of the tugboat
craft and his confidence was seen in the relaxed posture he held as
he leaned back against a container, smoking his cigarette. Bobby was
sitting nearby smoking, as well, manipulating the cigarette with his
damaged fingers, blowing smoke out forcefully as he too relaxed.
By now the sun was ahead of the tow. The seat they had chosen was
shady and the cool breeze from the water was giving the lad chills
as it blew across his sweaty t-shirt. He was sweating too. He looked
down and realized that, with the exception of his shoulders, the
entire shirt was soaked. There was a coating of rust on the wet
material. His pants were soaked on the thighs where the wet lines
had been leaning on him and they too had a large rust stain on each
leg. He would love to be headed
towards a shower now but the barge still had to be delivered to its
berth. His buddy wasn’t saying much, so he thought he’d kill some
time on his own. Slowly and with a bit of effort, he stiffly stood
up and stretched. He wanted to explore the barge.
He walked a few steps to the starboard side. There was his tug,
still made up and motoring along at a slow speed. The engines
weren’t too loud now. He could see James’s feet sticking out from
the pilot house window. Obviously James was relaxing a little too.
As he looked down the barge, he observed that it was about 150 feet
long so he took a quick glance to compare the breadth, about 50 feet
as far as he could guess. The containers were stacked five long by
four wide, and piled up four containers high. There was just enough
room for a man to walk along the edge with one hand on the
containers to steady himself, so the lad started walking toward the
bow. On his way by the little tug, he nodded to James who was
relaxing in the wheelhouse. James touched two fingers to his brow
and swung them out as if to salute to the lad. The lad continued his
way up to the bow of the barge where he found a large wall of metal
about five feet high. It was angled forward and reinforced from
behind with heavy angle iron. Here is where the navigation lights
were mounted, their heavy batteries and boxes chained to the rear of
the big sea-break, as this was called. Behind the sea-break was also
a wide variety of scrap iron, old shackles, and pieces of odd rope
and cable that had survived the transit across hundreds of miles of
He walked around to the forward side of the sea-break. It was here
that he was able to see the big towing gear that connected the barge
to the tug. At each forward corner of the barge was attached a large
chain with links as big as his flattened hand. These two chains were
many feet long and met at a point well ahead of the barge, joined at
its center line by a large shackle. These were the bridles. From the
point where the two chains met, the shackle connected them to a bit
of the same chain, but shorter in length than the bridles. That was
the pendant. Ahead of the pendant was a large piece of white
synthetic rope, with heavy metal thimbles spliced into each end. One
end was shackled to the barge’s chain arrangement and the other end
was shackled to the towing cable of the bigger tug. It was the
thickest line he had ever seen, every bit as big around as his
thigh. This was the line that was designed to absorb the shock
caused by a tow straining against its cable in a high sea. It was
good that he came up here. He now had a good idea of what a towing
gear looked like when it was set up and he committed the picture to
As he crossed the bow, he stepped carefully around the sea-break. It
wasn’t too difficult to imagine your own body swept under the bow
wave of the barge in the event of a misstep. He was watching his
path carefully and was surprised when he looked up to see the
beaches and houses of his own neighborhood. This excited him.
Wouldn’t it be great if his wife could see him as she walked their
dogs along the beach? He would love for her to see him walking along
the moving barge as if he’d been towing all his life. She had
supported him in this career choice so far and he wanted her to feel
like the time and investment was worth it. He searched the beach
line as if he could actually see her at that distance. Of course
there was no chance of that, but he felt good for looking.
A hand gripped the top of his shoulder and he turned with a start to
see Bobby. “If you aren’t too busy site seeing, we have to get ready
to put this thing to the dock. We’re not far now.”
The lad frowned at the sarcastic remark but nodded and began to make
his way to the tug without waiting for Bobby. What a fuckin’ smart
ass. It’s not like anything else was going on. He was thinking he
would say something but decided to leave it alone. He made his way
to the edge of the barge where he was standing next the wheel house.
James was standing up waiting for them. Bobby walked up beside him
and James began to outline how they would be helping the little tug.
He had been on the radio with the other tug’s captain and they came
up with a plan to get the heavily loaded barge to the dock as easily
as possible. When he explained it, the lad actually understood what
was going to happen and kept up with the conversation.
They approached a very busy area around the military docks. The
bigger tug had shortened her cable and the lad was impressed when
her crew slipped the towing shackle and the towing arrangement flew
over the bulwarks and into the harbor with a great splash. The
bigger tug then began to maneuver around the bow of the barge. James
got the attention of his crew and the two began to take in the
lines, one at a time, in the opposite order that they went out. This
time the lad went up to the barge. He boarded the little tug again
when James nosed the high bow up to the stern of the barge. Bobby
stepped up on the bow fender with an eye of the head line coiled on
his arm. With one heavy throw, he lassoed the nearest cleat and
hopped down from the bow backwards, making the line off to the H-bitt
as soon as his feet hit the deck. The lad was impressed with this
bit of tugboat seamanship.
Bobby told the lad that he should get off of the bow since the tug
would be maneuvering on a head line. They went up one deck and sat
with their backs against the pilot house, smoking. Bobby was fairly
disinterested in the action but the lad was watching and listening
to every move. He looked to the bow and saw a man climb from the bow
of the bigger tug and disappear through the containers. He heard a
lot of chatter on the radio and then a single blast from the tug’s
whistle. The engines changed speed and the little tug eased toward
the barge, bumping lightly but enough to make the deck shift under
him. Another blast of the whistle and the engines increased their
pitch, working harder into the barge.
Toot! The engines slowed slightly. TOOOT! The engines came to idle
and the lad could feel that the propellers had stopped. Toot! Toot!
The engines came to life and the little backed slowly against its
head line, the line squeaking and popping under the strain.
The whole scene created an orchestra of whistles, engines, the sound
of rubber grinding and squealing against heavy steel, and the
occasional sounds from the head line as it protested against the
work asked of it. Both tugs were hard at work moving their own end
of the barge according to the directions of the man from the bigger
tug. The air was thick with the acrid smell of oily diesel smoke.
The water was churning and swirling around the entire side of the
barge, trapping flotsam and thick foam in its many whirlpools and
slip streams as tons of water were shoved about by the powerful
propellers. It was hard to believe that this much work could be
completed with the very little activity of the crews from the tugs.
That would change shortly. A barge can’t tie itself up.
Bobby flicked his cigarette butt into the moving water and started
to stand. “Time to get over there. We’ve got to be close to
the dock by now.”
The lad stood up and followed Bobby. He hoped his day was soon over.
He was beginning to feel the time with every heavy step but he would
continue to work his first barge. That, he would do with purpose.
The two climbed
down from the boat deck and up the side of the barge once more, the
lad following Bobby. Once on the barge, the lad did just as Bobby
was doing looking under the containers for deck lines. The
containers were secured atop large beams that held them a couple of
feet off of the deck and the lines had been thrown under them for
safe keeping. They were thrown very far under them and made off
using a variety of techniques so that freeing each line became an
exercise in belly crawling and puzzle solving. By the time they had
six lines pulled out and ready for the dock, they were both brown on
their bellies, chests, and thighs. The lad started to sneeze from
all the dust and his nose was running profusely. Bobby walked up to
him and he could see a trail of snot and dust running down his upper
lip, like that of a school boy at play.
They had a few
minutes to before they touched and the lad was able to observe the
dock. It was a typical pier on the naval base like he had been on
years ago. There were many people moving around and watching with
great interest as they closed the gap between the barge and its
berth. There were men in uniform and some in nice civilian clothes
conversing. There were men in hard hats and work boots, obviously
preparing to take the lines. There were also navy sailors in there
uniforms and blue hard hats standing by with heavy equipment to
handle the containers. The lad made eye contact with one of the
well dressed civilians who nodded to him. The lad nodded back and
looked away. “I wonder if he knows that I’m not part of the
regular crew around here?” he thought. Never mind that. He
looked over just in time to see Bobby working the first line.
Bobby had been
holding a line at his shoulder for a minute or two and after a quick
shout from one of the hard hats on the pier, he threw it with the
power of a shot-putter and the eye fell cleanly around the bollard
where the dock man was pointing. The lad was impressed. That line
had flown for about 15 feet and hit its mark. If he was expected to
do this, there would be some great entertainment. He saw Bobby make
the line off to a cleat near his feet and then look up. Bobby
pointed to somewhere behind the lad so he turned and saw one of the
hard hated dock men standing next to a bollard nearby.
immediately understood that he was to catch a line on that bollard
but was he to do it like Bobby had? His stomach knotted up and his
heart was beating a little faster. He collected up the eye and an
arm load of the line in an attempt to look like he might know what
he was doing. In the time he took to stall, the barge had already
bumped into the heavy timbers of the pier. He swayed a bit and
looked up to see the dock man reaching over to him. “Save your
arm,” he shouted, “I’ll take that for you.” Now all the lad had to
do was swing the eye over the man. What a relief.
The man on the
dock laid the eye over the bollard and the lad made off to the
nearest cleat, taking in as much slack as he could. There were four
more lines to be put out and he followed the directions and pointing
of Bobby and the dock men to get them all leading in the proper
direction. They were so close to the dock that the lad was able to
hand the eyes over as he had his first line, but he didn’t feel so
bad about it watching Bobby doing the same. It wasn’t long before
the barge was secure to the pier and the men on the dock started
climbing over to the barge, looking at container markings and
consulting clip boards. Some were customs officials and some were
naval officers. All had an interest in the new arrival.
Bobby waved to
the lad and motioned toward the boat. It was time to go. As the
lad was making his way to the end of the containers, one of the dock
workers called over, “Thanks for the help. You guys do some good
work.” The lad didn’t really know what to say back so he just
smiled and gave a thumb up to the fellow. Could it be that this guy
thought he was a full time boatman? The lad shrugged and continued
his way to the boat. When he got to the other side of the barge,
Bobby was already aboard and motioned him to start taking line off.
They started at the stern, then took in the bow line, and held the
first line up, the spring line, for last. Then James eased the
stern around so that the highest part of the bow was against the
barge; the lad stepped easily over to the boat. The tug backed away
and spun about to head home.
The tug’s engine
grew gradually louder as it came up to speed. The two slouched in
the galley settees and smoked, taking a break from the activity.
After their cigarettes were smoked and some iced tea was downed,
Bobby informed the lad that the skipper was funny about keeping the
boat clean. Before they got back to the dock, the trash should be
emptied and the wheelhouse needed to be cleaned. Booby took the
wheelhouse and the lad gathered all the trash. While he was at it,
he gave the galley a good wipe down and a sweeping. Before long,
the engines came down and the little tug began to turn into the
short channel that lead to the yard.
When they got to
the dock, the lad knew which line to stand by. Bobby hopped up to
the dock barge and caught the first line for the lad. With his new
knowledge, the lad went straight to the bow next. After the head
line was secure, he move to the stern and threw the last line up to
Bobby who dropped it onto a cleat and then motioned the lad not to
make it off yet. The engines came to life and wheel wash surged off
to the starboard side of the tug. The stern slowly moved toward the
dock, the head line creaking and groaning in protest. When the
motion stopped, Bobby swirled a finger to let the lad know he could
make off the line now. As soon as this was done, the engines
relaxed and the stern eased out a little into the line. The boat
was well fast to the dock barge.
Bobby came back to
the boat and headed for the engine room. The main engines stopped
one after the other. Then the generator stopped. The boat was dead
quiet except for the sound of James gathering his gear from the
wheelhouse. Then came the sound of Bobby opening the forward door
to the forepeak and throwing the end of the shore power cable out
onto the deck. The lad walked up and grabbed the end of the cable,
continuing his walk up the bow and onto the dock. The cable got
heavier as more was pulled to the dock and soon he found the big
receptacle where he plugged it in. The tug’s lights came on and she
was ready for the night.
straight up to the lad extending his hand. “Thanks for you help
today. We’ll be seeing you around.”
“You think so?”
asked the lad.
“Oh, sure. You’ll
be a boatman. Take care, now.” He walked off to his truck leaving
the lad to stand there and think for a second or two.
“He thinks I’ll
be a boatman.”
The lad walked up
to the office and stuck his head in. Sharon, the young lady at the
desk was there now. She saw him a smiled broadly. “Well, hey
there. Heard you had a good day. Can you come in tomorrow? We’re
going to need another hand.”
“Sure.” The lad
added, “I can come in any day you need. If you’ll have me.”
“We can always use
a good boatman around here,” she said.
He smiled back and
said, “Tomorrow then. Thanks. See ya.” She lifted a hand to wave
and he headed to his car with a snap in his step.
news for two days in a row. They think he’s going to be a boatman.
The next morning, the lad
returned to the yard in daylight during what could be known as
regular working hours. This time, the gate was open and there were
more cars parked down the dirt driveway. He knew where he was going
today, getting straight out of his car and heading toward the dock.
He walked down the plank to the dock barge and saw the little boat
he had worked on and the bigger tug tied up to a berth on the end of
the barge. There was a group of men, four of them, standing by the
bigger tug, talking. He stopped to see what was happening. He
recognized the old man from yesterday but the other three men were
strangers to him.
“Real sharp crew there,” came a voice from behind him. He turned
around. It was Bobby who had climbed up to the dock from the little
tug. He had the same disheveled look as he did yesterday and it
appeared that he still had on the same clothes too.
“Yeah,” answered the lad. “What’s going on?”
“They’re talking about fixing that junk pile. C’mon. Let’s go
check it out.”
Bobby headed for the end of the dock and the lad followed. They got
to the end of the dock where the group of men was and they stopped,
lit cigarettes, and watched from a few feet away. The old man was
talking to a heavier middle aged man that the lad now recognized as
the engineer, “Mr. Mechanic” as Bobby had called him, from the
bigger boat. The other two he was certain he didn’t know. One was
another middle aged man, skinny as a rail, his face rugged from
years in the sun. The other was a man in uniform looking work
clothes, complete with a name tag over his pocket but the lad
couldn’t make out the embroidered script. He wore glasses and was
looking directly at the engineer, watching him as he talked to the
old man. It was obvious that the conversation was between those
The engine was in bad shape. The work needed to be done in a
hurry. There was a big trip coming up. The job couldn’t be done
half-assed unless the old man wanted to have to do the job again
soon. Of course they all knew how important this was. The engineer
was hired to perform just such an important job. The old man
realized this and was only trying to look out for the company.
Nothing was implied by his concerns. The mechanic agreed with
everyone. The craggy faced man was silent during the whole
conversation. It sounded like a plan of action had been formed.
Then the engineer said, “If we’re gonna finish on time, I’ll need
The old man looked around at all of the men on the dock, Bobby and
the lad included. “Here,” he said. “Take this young man,” pointing
at the lad. “Get that engine fixed.” With that he hobbled away,
back to the office. The lad watched him as he made his way up the
stout boards that formed a gangway from the dock barge to the land.
He forgot about the other men as he wondered what could have
happened to the old man that gave him such a bad limp. When the old
man reached his truck, the lad turned back to the two men near him.
The engineer had his arms folded across his chest, his forearms
resting on the ample belly that stretched the fabric of his t-shirt.
He was speaking to the mechanic in hushed tones and nodding his head
when the mechanic spoke back to him. Every now and then he shifted
his eyes to glance over at the lad. This made him a little nervous
but he continued to wait for an indication that they were going to
move. After a minute or two more, the men turned and walked toward
the boat. He wasn’t sure what to do now and as he was about to move
toward them, the engineer turned and with a bit of irritation in his
tone asked, “Comin’?” The lad was now certain he was needed and
quickened his pace.
They all went to the edge of the dock barge and one by one step down
to the cap rail of the tug’s waist and then made a second step to
the main deck. Each step down was at least two feet and the lad was
thinking how badly it could hurt if one misjudged the distance and
took a fall. They all walked single file toward the stern and turned
at the end of the deck house. The lad stopped for after he turned to
look at the large winch that was now visible. It was considerably
larger then the one on the small boat- as tall as he was with a
diesel engine mounted ahead of it to drive the big drum of wire. He
was impressed but soon realized that the other two men had
disappeared into a watertight door. He quickly followed.
Inside the door, he found himself walking on the grating of the
fidley through which he could see a large yellow engine, and with a
glance to his right he could look through the open space to the
other. Ahead was another door but the group turned right, continuing
on the grating walkway to a short flight of stairs leading down to
the lower engine room. The engine room was larger than the one on
the little tug. There was about 5 feet between the two engines and
plenty of room to walk around the generator engines. The whole room
was no bigger than a large living room. It was dimly lit as the only
lights were ancient incandescent fixtures that cast a yellowed tint
on everything. The maze of pipes and wires clinging to the bulkheads
cast eerie shadows and it didn’t help that the lower half of the
bulkheads were painted the same dark red as the peeling paint on the
diamond plate decks. The upper half was so dingy with oily soot
residues that it barely resembled the white paint that was put there
originally. On the forward bulkhead was another watertight door with
a step up to it. He wanted to see this.
The mechanic and the engineer weren’t even paying attention to him
so he put his hands on the combing of the door and eased his head
into the room. TO his right were two big air compressors and on his
left was a large tank to receive the pressurized air these produced.
The room had a set of deep shelves dividing it into another section
where a workbench was mounted. All over the bulkheads were gaskets
and belts hanging from random pieces of metal, bolts, and makeshift
hooks put in place to serve this function. The shelves were piled
with boxes and bags and loose parts. Every square inch of space was
occupied by a tool, or a part, or a piece of scrap rope. Even the
angle iron in the overheads had long pieces of stock lashed in them.
On the forward bulkhead of this room, he saw a door similar to the
one he was peering through but it was closed. Next to it was a small
chest freezer. He would have liked to walk in and peek inside but
this looked like a personal item. It had more to do with the life of
the tug than its work. He let it go and turned toward the two men,
still talking about the engine.
The starboard engine was obviously the one that was ailing. Both men
were looking at it, the mechanic rubbing the sides of his chin with
a thumb and forefinger, the engineer resting his crossed arms on the
shelf of his belly. How long can they talk about this thing? The lad
was asking this as he examined the engine on his own. He had never
paid much attention to the diesel engines he had previously run
across but he could from this one that the basic parts were not much
different from the gas engines of the beat up cars he had nursed
along over the years. Even for this engine’s considerably larger
size it wasn’t difficult to recognize the parts that resembled those
of a car.
“You know what you’re looking at?” The engineer was talking to the
lad now. The lad looked over and saw that the engineer was waiting
for an answer.
“I have an idea. I won’t say I know much about it yet until I know
what I’m supposed to do for you.”
“You’re supposed to do what I say, when I say to do it. You don’t
need to know anything except that. If the old man thinks you’ll be
of some help to us, fine. He might know about deck hands but I know
about engines and I don’t know any deck hands that will do the bull
work around them.” His tone wasn’t friendly at all and the lad knew
he was up against a challenging individual here. He wanted so much
to fire back a smart response to the fat man’s remarks but he curbed
“Well?” he started, “We’re not gonna know standing around here. What
do you need first?”
The engineer snorted. “Hmph. Follow this man here and hump his
tools down from the truck.”
The lad looked at the mechanic who gave a slight smile and started
toward the stairs up to the main deck. The lad followed. They made
their way to an old white pickup with work boxes on the back and the
mechanic turned to the lad. “Sorry about Bobby. He doesn’t get much
help around here. I’m Roy. I have a business up in town- come down
to help the old man every now and then.”
The lad shook Roy’s hand. “Bobby might get more help if he weren’t
such a hard ass.”
“Yeah. I know,” said Roy who was pulled tool boxes and work bags off
of the truck. “He’s not too bad a guy once you get to know him some.
Give him a chance.”
“He’s not the one who needs the chance around here, though.” The lad
was grinning when he said that. Roy grinned back.
“If you can just try to keep up, you’ll do better than the last
ones. Let’s get these down there and give you that chance.”
The lad swung a heavy metal tool box up onto his shoulder and picked
up a canvas work bag with his other hand. “I’ll take any he gives
Away to the engine room they trudged under their burdens. The lad
was getting another start.
The two men made it back to the engine to
find that Bobby was gone. They started getting tools out, Roy
working like a surgeon arranging them just right in the order he
knew they would be using them and the lad just following along and
moving things out of Roy’s way. When they were finished, they sat on
the tool boxes and lit cigarettes. They smoked in silence, Roy
wiping sweat from his face with a bandana. From above, sounds were
heard coming from the galley. “Sounds like Bobby has a batch of iced
tea going,” Roy observed. The lad nodded and continued smoking,
casually observing more of the engine room.
The relative quiet of the engine room was shattered by the sound of
a dog from the galley’s watertight door being slammed open, the
weight of Bobby stepping onto the fidley, and the door being slammed
shut again. The entire disturbance was finished with a single bang
of the dog being roughly slammed into place. Bobby came down the
stairs at a good pace, his feet turning the metal steps into gongs
as they struck. He hit the engine room’s deck plates with a bang and
turned immediately to the lad.
“Go find Tommy,” he commanded, “and tell him we need ten gallons of
that VARSOL he has stashed. And no bullshit. I know he has some and
I’ll come up and get it myself if he doesn’t give it to you. Tell
“Ok,” the lad responded. “Where do I find Tommy?”
“I said ‘Go. Find. Him’, “Bobby growled. “If I knew where the fuck
he was, I’d a told you where to go, wouldn’t I?”
The lad looked at him for only a second and then started up the
stairs to the dock. What an asshole. This guy is going to need to
calm down if we’re to get along. He considered, too, that Bobby was
going to have to see that he was no idiot. To be fair, if engineer
Bobby thought he was at all like deckhand Bobby, then maybe he was
being tough to make sure he was understood. The lad relaxed and set
out to do his first task.
He went back to the forward bitt where they had boarded earlier and
made the high step up the cap rail of the bulwarks. One more step
and he was on the dock barge. He stopped to look around. The place
looked deserted. He walked toward the gang plank leading to the
driveway, picking his way around the many pieces of scrap metal, and
fittings that littered the dock. He went up the gang plank with long
deliberate steps. When he got to the top, he stopped once more to
look for his next waypoint. Movement caught his eye. It wasn’t
really anything but smoke coming from the open doors of an old
shipping container. He carefully stepped up until he could see that
two men were sitting inside of it, one on an old metal bucket and
the other on an empty line spool. Both were smoking cigarettes,
He stepped into their view and they both looked up at the same time.
One of them, the one on the metal bucket he recognized as the
shadowy man that hung around the fire the first day he came to the
tugs. He was staring at the lad with narrowed eyes and it gave the
lad the same uncomfortable feeling he had that day. The other man
sat on the rope spool and smiled at the lad with a broad,
gap-toothed smile, almost hidden by the bushy mustache that was as
gray as the hair that hung long from under his ball cap. His face
was youthful though. The lad was surprised to see the gray hair on
such a young looking face.
“What can we do for you, young man?” the friendly man asked.
“Well. Bobby sent me up to get a couple of cans of VARSOL from you.”
“He did?” Tommy teased, almost singing the question. “What if I tell
you to tell the fat prick that I don’t have any.”
The lad dropped his head for just a split second, the first hint of
frustration showing early in the conversation. “Look. He knows you
have it and he’s been a real ass so far. I really need to come back
with some, or it isn’t gonna go well for me. You have some, right?”
“Yeah, I do. Take it easy. I wouldn’t mess with you too long.” He
stood up while taking a last long pull off his cigarette, snubbing
it out on the container wall by the time he was upright. The lad
could see he was a tall guy. “I have it in another container. C’mon.
We’ll get it.” Now the little quiet man stood up too and followed
Tommy out of the container.
“Don’t let Bobby push you around,” he said to the lad as he passed
him. The lad followed the quiet man toward the container as Tommy
led. He continued, “Bobby thinks he’s hot shit because he worked for
a big diesel company before this but he get a check every Friday the
same as all us. If the old man told you to help with that engine,
you do that and you’ll do good. Bobby can’t do a thing about it.
They ain’t his engines.”
The lad was relieved that the skinny guy was talking to him at all.
He jogged a step or two to catch up and held out his hand. “I’m…..”
“I know who you are,” the skinny man said without looking at the
lad’s hand. “I’m Bridges. Donny Bridges. I work up on the dock if
you need anything from around there.”
“Ok,” replied the lad. “Thanks.” He was starting to realize that
Bobby wasn’t well liked by too many so far.
They reached the container where the paints and liquid goods were
kept. Tommy went inside and when he returned, he was carrying in
each hand a round five gallon can. He set them down in front of the
lad and then closed up the container. He and Donny wished the lad a
good rest of the day and walked away, headed up the dirt road toward
the office. The lad watched them for a few seconds and then bent to
pick up the cans of solvent.
He walked the other way down the road back to the dock. The cans
weren’t heavy but the thin, formed metal handles were digging into
his fingers. He set them down for a bit to give his fingers a chance
to recover some circulation, wishing he had a pair of gloves, but
items like these were not to found at this outfit. He would try to
remember to buy pair. Picking up the cans, he headed towards the
tug, stopping only once more until he arrived at the edge of the
dock where he made the step down to the boat carrying one can on his
shoulder and holding on for balance to the dock and boat with his
free hand. He left the cans on deck and headed down to the engine
Work had already begun on the engine. There were parts obviously
missing and with Roy on one side of the engine, Bobby on the other,
more were coming off as the two men tinkered meticulously.
Bobby heard the lad’s footfalls on the ladder and turned. “Get it?”
The lad nodded. Bobby stopped his work and waved him down. He took
the lad over to a tub made from the bottom of an old oil drum which
had been cut off neatly with a torch. He instructed the lad to pour
the solvent into this drum and to begin cleaning the parts that were
starting to pile up beside the tub. He was actually very patient
while he showed the lad the scrapers, picks, and brushes that he
could use to do the job.
But he made one thing very clear. This was as good as it was going
to get during the first half of the engine repair. If he wasn’t up
to it, to let him know now so they could get some other help.
“I can’t clean parts if we just stand here talking,” the lad
responded with a smile. With that, he set to work.