Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Summer in the Minor League - Part Two

On Wednesday, August 9, 1978, it was time to go back to work. And none too soon, I thought. Once again I rode the train from Mineola into Manhattan, and in Penn Station I caught the 7:30am Metroliner to Philadelphia. This delivered me to the 30th Street Station around 9:00, and from that point I took a taxi to City Dock, the Interstate and Ocean Transport world headquarters.

City Dock was situated on the west side of the Schuylkill River, near its confluence with the larger and better known Delaware River. A small and unpretentious facility, it lay just north of the Philadelphia International Airport and across the river from the big Gulf refinery in South Philly. Despite having such megalithic neighbors, City Dock was very much off the beaten path. Nonetheless, this small waterfront building and the adjacent dock space served as the operational headquarters for the Interstate fleet.

Once inside I met the man in charge, Mr. Richard Marvel. He decided who went where and when they went there. He made all the personnel assignments for the tugboats and barges of the Interstate fleet. I forget if I was early or if the Charger was late, but either way I had to wait. After a few idle hours spent reading Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra in a windowless room, I was called away and escorted to the just-arrived Charger. I went aboard and was warmly welcomed back by the Southern crew with whom I had sailed only last month. Unfortunately, however, I was not staying with the Charger this time. Just as she had been reassigned to work in the Philadelphia area, so I was being reassigned to work aboard the barge Interstate 50 in the same neighborhood. I would remain only long enough to collect my belongings and chat with my old crew.

I had mixed feelings about this change. I had hoped to return to the Charger, for I liked the boat and everything about it—the crew, the food, the itinerary, the work, and so on. The crew liked me, too, and appreciated my being with them. Captain Wilkins had several times remarked that “This young feller’s the best thing that’s happened to this boat. He’s gotten more painting done on here than’s ever been done before.” These accolades pleased me, of course, but it was a bit embarrassing when the Captain would hold forth on this subject in front of everyone else at the dinner table.

In this interval, too, I learned to my great disappointment that in my absence the Charger had made a voyage from Newark to Boston and back via the Cape Cod Canal. On the return, she stopped in New London, Connecticut, for a crew change. Then from Newark, she sailed on the broad Atlantic down the Jersey coast to the Delaware Capes, and then up the Delaware Bay and River to Philadelphia. This was so disappointing! How I wished I had made those voyages! But I realized how fortunate I was that my accident had been a fairly minor one. A broken leg would have kept me ashore for the rest of the summer.

I bade the Charger and her crew farewell, and then a company car brought me around the corner from City Dock to Hog Island. This facility, even smaller and more unpretentious than City Dock, lay on the west shore of the Delaware River and at the very edge of the airport property. Part of the land along the Delaware that became the airport had been an enormous shipbuilding complex in the time of World War I. The ships built there were known as “Hog Islanders” all around the globe. In my time at Hog Island some of the old wooden docks and railroad sidings still remained as vestiges of the long-gone shipyard. They were in poor condition and no longer used. Interstate maintained a modern concrete pier and steel plumbing for its oil operations, and it was there that I reported aboard the barge Interstate 50.

This vessel was crewed by two tankermen. One was in charge, and the other served as an assistant. Sonny commanded the Interstate 50, and he was rolling paint on the deck when I arrived. He had not been expecting me, and was in fact quite startled by my appearance. He wondered aloud why the office folks were sending me there to paint when most of the painting had already been done. I was dismayed to hear this, for I dreaded having nothing to do. As it turned out, there was work waiting for me, but not as much as on the Charger, so some down time became inevitable. Sonny’s assistant was Dave Steckel, a twenty-something fellow from Milmont Park, Pennsylvania. He and I became quite friendly. Sonny himself came from North Carolina.

At two in the afternoon, a tug came along and towed the Interstate 50 away from Hog Island. She went downstream a dozen miles and was moored alongside a large tanker anchored off Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania. Sonny and Dave quickly connected the hoses, and then the tanker started pumping crude oil into the little barge. This went on for several hours. Then another tug came along and pushed the now fully loaded Interstate 50 upstream to the Hess docks in Delair, New Jersey, about five miles upstream of central Philadelphia. Arriving in Delair at 4:00am on Thursday the 10th, the Interstate 50 was left by herself to pump half of the oil ashore. At 9:30am another tug arrived and pushed the barge about a dozen miles farther upstream to Burlington, New Jersey, arriving at 11:00am. There the rest of the oil was offloaded. At 11:00 that night, still another tug came along and towed the Interstate 50 back downstream to the Big Stone anchorage in the Delaware Bay. There the process began again, lightering another deep-draft tanker and proceeding to an upriver port for unloading.

This nomadic life was markedly different from the wayfaring I had previously done. Unlike ships and tugboats and ferries, the Interstate 50 had no bridge, and there was no navigational work to do. This vessel was almost entirely a cargo operation. There was some linehandling and an occasional anchoring, but the vast majority of the work involved pumping oil either into or out of the barge. While this interested me because it was so different, it did become somewhat monotonous. I missed the bridge work, the voyage planning, and the navigating and maneuvering. The barge men displayed no interest in these aspects of sailing, and they did not need to. Someone else on a tugboat did all that for them. Because the work was so specialized, life aboard the Interstate 50 seemed in a sense quite removed from the rest of the shipping world. But this did not occur to me all at once. Only gradually did I come to miss the greater involvement that I had formerly known.

Anyway, at 10:00am on Friday, August 11, the tug delivered the Interstate 50 alongside another tanker anchored in Big Stone. This anchorage was located in the southwestern part of the Delaware Bay, near the shipping lanes and out of sight of land. Maybe from the bridge of a large tanker one could see land, but we couldn’t from the low-lying barge. The Interstate 50 spent the day taking on crude oil from this enormous tanker, and then at 8:00pm another tug started pushing the loaded barge upstream toward Hog Island.

I did not record and I cannot recall the names of all the tugboats that hauled the Interstate 50 on her many journeys. There were several tugs, and their assignments varied. Besides the Charger there were the Driver, the Endeavor, the Voyager, the Voyager II, and so on. The names and the vessels and their crews grew familiar over time. The tankers we lightered were a different story. All of them were foreign ships delivering foreign crude oil to the United States. The Interstate 50 was always moored to the midship sections of these vessels, and from this vantage point the names painted on the bows and sterns were not visible. We therefore seldom knew what ship we were working with. We never had occasion to go aboard these ships, and most of the time there was very little conversation between their crews and ourselves. The language barrier was one reason for this. Another was the difference in size between these ships and our barge.

Fully loaded, the Interstate 50 had only two or three feet of freeboard. Light, she had much more, of course. Even so, to a barge low in the water the hull of a tanker seems like a giant steel cliff. A crewman on the main deck of such a ship appears very small and distant, standing at the top of this steel cliff. In that circumstance most communication took place by hand signals. At times when the tankers were still fully loaded and the barge was light, the disparity in height was less and the steel cliff seemed less formidable. But as the lightering proceeded, the ship floated higher and the barge floated lower, and the steel cliff grew. When fully loaded these foreign tankers drew much more water than the controlling depth of the Delaware River allowed. Often, two or three barges would be moored alongside a tanker simultaneously, all removing oil from the tanker to reduce its draft and enable it to go upriver to one of the oil terminals without running aground in the channel. That’s what the Interstate 50 did for a living.

With a full load of crude oil, then, the Interstate 50 was pushed overnight to Hog Island, arriving at 9:00am on Saturday, August 12. I spent the morning painting, but on a lark decided to take the afternoon off and go to Villanova University in Villanova, Pennsylvania. A friend from high school was a student there. While he was away during the summer, I nonetheless enjoyed visiting the campus for old time’s sake. I envied him the opportunity to attend a major university and get a first class education; he envied me the opportunity to roam the world and get another sort of education.

At 5:00pm the Interstate 50 was removed from Hog Island and brought to the Gulf tank farm at Point Breeze. This bucolically named location consisted of an industrialized tract of land adjacent to the western end of the Passayunk Avenue Bridge, a draw span that crossed the Schuylkill River. Bells, whistles, and sirens sounded regularly as this bridge opened and closed for the passing of tugs and barges through it. Once the Interstate 50 was safely moored at Point Breeze, Sonny ordered Dave Steckel and me ashore. We walked across the bridge to Sweeney’s, a neighborhood grill in South Philly. After a Saturday night out on the town, we returned to the barge to spend the rest of the night pumping oil ashore. The next afternoon, on Sunday the 13th, the Interstate 50 was towed from Point Breeze fifteen or so miles downstream to Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, arriving at 5:15pm.

It had been over a year since I had been to Marcus Hook, the home of the Sun Oil Company and the place where I had reported aboard the New Jersey Sun the previous summer. It felt good to be back! The Interstate 50 tied up at the BP refinery, just north of the Sunoco refinery. A dead end street, a few vacant lots, and an abandoned building separated the two large facilities. Once again Sonny ordered Dave Steckel and me ashore. His parents arrived in an automobile and drove us to their family home in nearby Milmont Park. A pleasant evening with dinner, family, and neighborhood friends followed. While this socialization was very enjoyable, it did seem like an odd way to be working aboard an oil barge. These folks all had the weekend off, though, and such a get-together seemed quite reasonable to them. Afterwards Dave’s parents returned us to the BP refinery in Marcus Hook. Returning to the Interstate 50, we found Sonny still out on deck but with little to do. Refinery workers were aboard and cleaning the oil tanks in preparation for repair work scheduled for the next day.

At 7:00am on Monday the 14th, a tug brought the Interstate 50 upriver from Marcus Hook to City Dock. Arriving at 9:00am, the barge spent the day at company headquarters undergoing maintenance and repair work to its cargo tanks and piping systems. This job took most of the day. I did my painting and cleaning, but had a chance to visit the company office as well. One section of this office was filled with attractive young ladies, mostly secretaries and typists, who I quickly learned were a source of distraction to many of the male employees. Several other tugs and barges came and went during the day, and all the crewmen found some excuse to come into the office building and chat with the girls.

With the repair work completed, the Interstate 50 was hauled away from City Dock at 5:30pm. During the night at 2:30am she was nudged alongside a tanker in the Big Stone anchorage. After spending the rest of the night and the early morning loading oil, she was taken away at 8:45am and pushed north to Hog Island, arriving at 8:30 Tuesday evening. This was a typical round trip voyage.

For the next week and a half, the Interstate 50 made several such runs: Big Stone to Hog Island, Big Stone to Marcus Hook, Big Stone to Point Breeze, and Big Stone to Delaware City, Delaware. With a normal crew size of only two tankermen, and loading and unloading on anything but a fixed schedule, the on-board living arrangements revolved not around watch keeping but cargo pumping. When the barge was making a long transit, both tankermen slept regardless of the time of day or night. When there was cargo work to do, both were up and on duty. Once all the hookups were made and the oil was flowing, they usually painted, cleaned, and adjusted mooring lines as the cargo schedule and the hours of daylight permitted. Meal service was self-service and haphazard; crewmen ate when they were hungry and not busy. Cooking was done on a propane stove. What little electricity the barge had came from a diesel-recharged battery and needed to be conserved. Also, there was no hot water unless someone boiled it. This meant we took cold showers, not a hardship in August. The living quarters consisted of a kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom at the stern of the barge. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound like much, but it was clean, comfortable, and more spacious than the accommodations on the Charger.

On Thursday, August 17, the Interstate 50 arrived back in Marcus Hook and spent the day there unloading at the Sunoco refinery. I basked in the glory of the Sun Oil Company as I went about my painting. No Sun ships were present at the refinery that day, but in passing the plant on the barge’s transits of the river I kept watch lest I miss seeing any of my former employer’s fleet. Just as I had done aboard the Charger, I noted all the American oil tankers that I observed, and it pleased me to see at various times the Delaware Sun, the Texas Sun, and the Western Sun moored at the Marcus Hook refinery. I wondered if any of my former shipmates were sailing aboard these great vessels. Chances were good that someone I had known was there. In the afternoon I walked around Marcus Hook with Dave and he asked about my career of the previous summer with Sun Oil. Then at 6:00pm a tug arrived and removed the Interstate 50 from the Sunoco refinery and towed it back down to Big Stone.

The next day, Friday the 18th, saw the Interstate 50 anchor off Delaware City while waiting for a berth. I seized the opportunity to jump in the water and go swimming, something no one else dared to do. Using a length of heaving line, I tied a life ring to the barge and did my swimming inside the life ring, lest the river current carry me out to sea! The next morning, Saturday the 19th, the barge weighed anchor and was pushed alongside the dock in Delaware City and spent the day there unloading. From this location we had a good view of the cargo ships transiting the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal on their way between the two great bays. I went swimming in the river again that afternoon, and that night another tug brought the Interstate 50 back to Big Stone.

It was with a new crew that I sailed south this time. Sonny and Dave left the vessel in Delaware City, and two other fellows came aboard in their places. One was a Virginian. The other came from New Jersey. They were decent enough shipmates, but after the jovial atmosphere of Sonny and Dave, the new crew seemed extremely serious, even somber. But I would not be with them long. My time was running out.

On Tuesday, August 22, the Interstate 50 returned to the Sunoco refinery in Marcus Hook. With some down time, I rode the train into Philadelphia and visited Penn’s Landing. This was the spot where the State of Maine had docked in June of 1976 while on her annual training voyage. Although this had only been two years and two months earlier, it somehow seemed much more distant than that from my twenty-year-old perspective!

I got back to Marcus Hook in ample time to make the 12:30am Wednesday sailing of the Interstate 50. Instead of going back to Big Stone, however, she was towed out into the Atlantic and eased alongside the tanker Scapmount, which had run aground. From 9:30am until 1:00pm the barge took on oil from this ship. By then the Scapmount was able to get underway again without scraping the sandy bottom, and both vessels then made their way to Big Stone.

While we were alongside the Scapmonut I got chatting with the pilot. He explained that the bridge watch had steered the ship on the wrong side of a buoy; hence the grounding. Furthermore, once aground, the crew hoisted the incorrect signal to indicate the ship’s predicament. The pilot made a point of telling me that all this had happened before he came aboard. In fact, the Scapmount was still well seaward of the pilot station. No oil was spilled, though, and no damage was done. The lightering continued in Big Stone that night, and the next day the Interstate 50 was brought back north to Delaware City to unload.

The barge’s next assignment was an odd one. On Friday the 25th, the Interstate 50 arrived at Pier 124 in South Philly. This pier proudly bore the inscription, “Pennsylvania Railroad Coal Pier.” Used primarily to load coal from railroad cars onto ships bound overseas, this pier also had an oil hookup. The Interstate 50 was moored alongside the petroleum piping and astern of large coal ship. While the barge loaded oil, this vessel loaded coal.

A skeletal steel beam structure held inclined railroad tracks high in the air. Loaded individual coal cars rolled down a track, continued uphill to a stop, switched tracks, and rolled downhill toward the ship. Caught by a dumping device next to the ship, each car was then turned upside-down, and the coal spilled out into a chute which guided it into the vessel’s cargo hold. An ingenious gravity-powered system, it was intriguing, even mesmerizing, to watch.

The rest of the South Philly waterfront was less impressive. Consisting mainly of finger piers with warehouses that were built to service the old fashioned break-bulk freighter fleets, it resembled the Manhattan and Brooklyn waterfronts. Most of these piers saw little use by the 1970s when containerization had taken over the freight business. Oil was the big product in Philadelphia. The region was dotted with dozens of oil docks with tankers alongside them discharging their cargos. Still more tankers sat quietly at anchor in the river waiting for their time to unload. Philadelphia was clearly an oil port.

At this point there remained little painting and cleaning left to do aboard the Interstate 50. I had finished painting the main deck, the cargo pipes, the anchor gear, the pump rooms, the house top, etc. I had thoroughly cleaned out the paint locker and the store room. I had a couple of small jobs to finish. Otherwise, I was running out of work.

While I was thus winding down, the Interstate 50 was towed away from Pier 124 at 8:00am on Saturday the 26th. An hour and a half later, she was moored at Point Breeze to unload. At 10:30 on Sunday morning, she was taken away from Point Breeze and brought alongside an anchored ship near Marcus Hook. She spent the day lightering this vessel and at 8:30 that evening departed for Delair, arriving at 12:30am on Monday the 28th. She remained there pumping oil ashore and then waiting for a tug until 10:30pm. I spent the day finishing up my work and putting things away.

At 12:30am on Tuesday the 29th, the Interstate 50 arrived at a refinery in Paulsboro, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from the Philadelphia Airport. This spot was mistakenly identified to us as Eagle Point, but the real Eagle Point actually lies about five or so miles upstream, opposite the old Philadelphia Navy Yard. Anyway, the Interstate 50 took on oil there until 1:00pm, when she was towed downstream to Marcus Hook. I decided to return home from there, since it was convenient to public transportation and I had finished my work aboard the barge.

At 3:00pm the Interstate 50 was moored once again at the Sunoco refinery. I packed my gear, bade my shipmates farewell, walked to the gate, and hitched a ride with some refinery workers to the Marcus Hook railroad station. I took a local train to 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, then Amtrak’s Bankers to New York, and finally a Long Island train home. My parents, themselves having returned from vacation, met their wayfaring son once again at the Mineola station.

And so my summer employment with the Interstate and Ocean Transport Company drew to a close. It had been a good experience and I had certainly enjoyed it, but it was not what I wanted for my future. Operating tugs and barges required a Merchant Marine license, but not the “big license” for which I was studying. Vagabonding along the American East Coast appealed to the nomadic inclination of my youth, but traipsing across the oceans to different continents remained much more attractive. These far-off places held, in Gatsby terms, the “wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.”1 That was the future I saw—transatlantic, transpacific, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Panama Canal, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean!

I had big ambitions, and I wanted to fulfill them.

1 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925, p. 63.

Friday, July 19, 2013

A Summer in the Minor League, Part One

Sometimes it’s fun to just reminisce. During the summer of 1978 I had the opportunity to work for a tug and barge company called Interstate and Ocean Transport, colloquially known as Interstate or sometimes as IOT. Compared to the big-ship, deep-sea operations which were my primary interest, Interstate was a minor league fleet that operated small vessels mostly on inland waterways. But it was both fun and educational, and a great way to spend July and August before going back to school.

I had returned to the United States from Europe aboard the State of Maine on Thursday, June 29. The job with Interstate was set to begin shortly after the Fourth of July holiday. During a few days’ interval at home, I received instructions from the operations office in Philadelphia to report aboard the tug Charger in New Haven, Connecticut, on Thursday morning, July 6. The Chargerwas scheduled to sail at 6:00am, so I needed to get there early.

My parents were somewhat less than thrilled when I told them I needed to get a train at the Mineola station at two o’clock in the morning. But it had to be. In Penn Station I boarded the trusty Night Owl. That left Manhattan at 3:00am and after several stops delivered me to New Haven about 5:00am. A taxi then took me to the Charger at the Arco docks across the water from downtown New Haven.

Reporting aboard the Charger, I found that I was unexpected but welcome nonetheless. Most of the crew of seven were Southerners, and they extended their Southern hospitality toward me generously. Promptly at 6:00am, the Chargergot underway, made herself fast to the barge Interstate 35, and departed for Newark, New Jersey.

I was in seventh heaven as the Charger and Interstate 35 sailed through Long Island Sound, into the East River, across the Upper Bay, and then through the Kill van Kull and Newark Bay to Newark itself. I was cruising “home waters,” the waterways that make New York a seaport and Long Island an island. These waterways delineated my home area, yet even with a childhood of sailboating on the Great South Bay and numerous voyages aboard the Staten Island Ferry behind me, I had never ventured upon the local waters as much as I would aboard the Charger. Plowing through these waterways aboard a fairly small craft combined two normally disparate elements, being home and going to sea. Besides, the size of the Charger yielded a different experience of the sea. Being closer to the surface of the water made everything look, sound, and feel different. The motion of the vessel and the rush of the water past the hull became more intimate than they could be aboard a big ship. Because of this I also felt closer to the sea metaphysically.

The Charger arrived at the oil docks in Newark at 2:00pm. A relief crew of more Southerners was waiting to take over the vessel, and the men I had just met were leaving for home. The new group expected me. I introduced myself to Captain Alford Wilkins of North Carolina, and he outlined my duties for me. That first day I spent mostly familiarizing myself with everything. It was all very different from the State of Maine and the New Jersey Sun!

The Charger carried a crew of seven, plus me. There were the Captain, a mate, two deck seamen, two engineers, and a cook. The crew stood six-hour watches, both in port and underway. The Captain, one engineer, and one deck seaman had the 6 to 12 watch, and the mate and the other engineer and seaman took the 12 to 6 watch. Meals were served at the change of the watch. Rooming space was cramped. The Captain enjoyed the privilege of a private room. Otherwise, the engineers shared a room, the deck seamen shared a room, and the mate shared a room with me. Despite the crowding and tight scheduling, an informal and congenial atmosphere prevailed. The food was superb. The cook, a crusty old codger of the old school named Ira D. Sawyer with political opinions ranging from violently vituperative to the mildly vitriolic, took a liking to me. Fond of my adolescent appetite for good food, he piled my plate higher than everyone else’s. When I finished one serving, he would whisk away the empty plate and replace it with a full one before I could even think about asking for more. Once a week inch-thick steak was on the dinner menu. I understood that each crewman was allotted one such steak. Without asking for anything extra, though, I found myself being served steak after steak after steak until our cook would finally bark out, “Ain’t you full yet?!”

My duties aboard the Chargerconsisted principally of painting and cleaning. This was officially billed as work, but as it had a year ago aboard the New Jersey Sun, it seemed more like fun than labor. I started promptly after breakfast, about 6:15am, and with a few breaks worked until dinner time. The hours and the break times were flexible as long as the job got done, which it did. In three weeks I painted almost all the outside decks, bulkheads, and superstructure of the Charger. I got some help from the two seamen, but they had other duties to perform, such as linehandling and housecleaning. I helped with the lines sometimes, too, once I’d seen how everything was done with the barge. I enjoyed that, too, of course, but my main job was painting.

What the Charger did for a living was haul the barge Interstate 35 from the loading docks in the Newark area to different ports in the Northeast. The barge carried gasoline, and it was sent where it was needed. In my time on board, the Chargerand the Interstate 35 made four voyages to New Haven, three to Providence, Rhode Island, and three to Albany and Rensselaer, New York. While the barge was being unloaded in these ports, the tug would tie up nearby and wait. When the barge was being loaded in Newark, the tug often waited close by, but just as often was sent on errands to nearby points.

When the new crew came aboard in Newark on Thursday afternoon, they settled into their places quickly. At 12:30 that night, the Charger was lashed up to the stern of the fully loaded Interstate 35 and the duo set out again for New Haven, arriving there fourteen hours later at 2:30 Friday afternoon. I spent the day painting the upper deck and occasionally looking in on the bridge. Late in the afternoon I went ashore again in New Haven. At 10:00 that evening, the Charger took the now-empty Interstate 35 in tow astern and started back toward Newark.

Once underway the Charger’s instructions were changed. Bypassing Newark, she made for Gulfport, Staten Island, instead, and left the Interstate 35 at the big Gulf refinery there for partial loading at 6:00am Saturday. Then the Charger moored across the Arthur Kill at Tremley Point, New Jersey. Later in the day she retrieved the barge from Gulfport and delivered it to Newark. Finally, at 7:00pm and with a full load of gasoline, the Charger and the Interstate 35 set out together for Albany and Rensselaer. I spent the initial part of this voyage on the barge as the Charger pushed it through Newark Bay and past Bayonne. Looking around, asking questions, and taking notes, I considered this exploration part of my overall professional training. The two tankermen were glad of my company, and they told me everything I wanted to know about their work and more. They had a lonely job and were interested in anyone who was interested in them.

The Chargerand the Interstate 35 arrived in Albany and Rensselaer at 2:30pm Sunday. I wasn’t required to paint on Sundays, so I spent the day sightseeing on the bridge of the tug as she pushed the barge up the Hudson River. This was always a beautiful ride. The two vessels passed along the West Side of Manhattan with its famous finger piers, in the shadow of the New Jersey Palisades, through the widest part of the Hudson that the Dutch had named the Tappan Zee, past my father’s home town of Nyack by the Tappan Zee Bridge, through the twisting channels amid the Catskill Mountains, past the dramatic Catskill landmarks of Bear Mountain and Anthony’s Nose, and around West Point and the United States Military Academy. It was all truly breathtaking scenery! North of West Point the river widened and straightened again. The remainder of the route northward was less intense but still beautiful. On arrival the Charger nudged the barge alongside the oil docks in Rensselaer for unloading. Then she tied up alongside a wharf in the south end of Albany and waited.

At midnight on Sunday the Charger took the Interstate 35 in tow astern for the downstream voyage back to Newark and Tremley Point. After spending the next night in New Jersey, the two vessels were bound for Providence on Tuesday, and they arrived there at 7:00am Wednesday. After unloading the gasoline, the two vessels got underway again at 2:00pm Wednesday, arriving back in Newark at 7:30am Thursday. The return voyages with an empty barge always went faster than the outbound voyages with a full barge.

On these voyages I spent most of my daytime hours painting and watching the world pass by. On the New Haven and Providence runs, the Charger and the Interstate 35 transited the East River between Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan and then between the Bronx and Queens before reaching the more open waters of Long Island Sound. This great inland sea carried both commercial and recreational traffic in considerable quantities—sailboats, motor boats, ferries, freighters, tankers, and tugs and barges. At the Sound’s western end lay the land formations of Great Neck and Manhasset Neck, the famous West Egg and East Egg of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Offshore of West Egg stood the diminutive lighthouse on the rocks called the Stepping Stones. Offshore of East Egg lay the Execution Rocks. The site of another lighthouse in the Charger’s day, this tiny island was the place where condemned criminals had been brought to be executed during the Colonial era. Farther along, the Cable and Anchor Reef and the Stratford Shoal interrupted the otherwise deep water of the middle Sound. At the eastern end lay the Race, a naturally narrow and very deep channel with strong tidal currents, tricky to navigate at maximum flood and ebb, and delineated by the well-situated Race Rock Lighthouse and Valiant Rock bell buoy.

On a typical day at sea, after dinner when my work was finished and while it was still daylight, I would go up to the bridge. I studied the charts and the radar, watched the maneuvering, learned the routings, and chatted with the Captain. Like the cook, Captain Wilkins was a man of strong convictions. His lively discourses covered a wide range of topics, including why the Civil War should never have been fought. He asserted that the North should have minded its own business and left the South alone in the 1860s. Both the North and the South would have been better off that way, and hundreds of thousands of lives would have been saved, he argued. Since this discussion I’ve heard more Southerners, and a few Northerners as well, make similar remarks.

Such was life aboard the Charger, a succession of voyages along the inland waterways of New Jersey, New York, and New England. I loved this vagabond life! I was always going somewhere. I had a great outdoor job in good weather. I had a good crew, good food, minimal dress code, no haircut regulations, and an office with magnificent views of everything.

One of my favorite aspects of these voyages was passing under all the New York City and Hudson River bridges. If as Fitzgerald wrote, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time,”1 then the city seen from beneath the Queensboro Bridge must carry even more weight. A unique way of seeing the town, there’s a certain thrill in sailing under a bridge that driving over one just doesn’t have. I had passed beneath bridges before, but never as many or as frequently as I did aboard the Charger. Besides the famous ones like the Brooklyn Bridge or the George Washington Bridge, the one that intrigued me the most was the Hell Gate Bridge. This is the railroad bridge that crosses the East River and connects the Bronx and Queens. It is used every day and night by the Amtrak trains that run between New York and Boston. As often as the Charger sailed beneath it, though, I never did witness the passing of a train over it.

But I did witness—and wait for—several freight trains crossing the Arthur Kill and Newark Bay. Long trains routinely crossed Newark Bay between Newark and Jersey City on the Lehigh Valley span, and the Charger waited patiently until the trains had passed and the bridge was raised. Occasionally a passenger train crossed Newark Bay between Bayonne and Elizabeth on the old Central Railroad of New Jersey span. The lives of both this bridge and its trains were drawing to a close. A year later the trains were discontinued, and the bridge itself has since been dismantled. Not far from this crossing stood the old Baltimore and Ohio Railroad bridge between Staten Island and New Jersey. This structure delayed the Charger only once, but for what seemed an eternity as the longest freight train imaginable rumbled across it going west.

As blissful as my time aboard the Charger was, it almost seemed too good too last. And it was going by very quickly. On Thursday, July 20, the crew changed again, this time in Albany. The first group which I had met two weeks previously in New Haven returned, and Captain Wilkins and his crew went home. Two weeks on and two weeks off—that was their schedule. Once aboard again, the returning crew brought the Charger and the Interstate 35 to Port Socony, Staten Island, for tank cleaning, arriving there early Friday morning.

Jaunts to Newark, Gulfport, Tremley Point, and into Sandy Hook Bay followed as the Interstate 35 was cleaned and loaded and as the Charger was fitted with a new radar. These were fascinating voyages along the back shore of Staten Island with its oil refineries, dumping grounds, and the ship graveyard at Smoking Point. There lay the beached and half-sunk remains of tugboats, barges, scows, and ferries that years ago had proudly plied the waters of New York Harbor. One tug, bearing its emblematic dignity even in its demise, still sported the insignia of the New York Central Railroad on its tall, slender funnel. A sad sight, these abandoned hulks, but an historically accurate one that reflected the decline of the port, the railroads, the passenger ferries, and the Merchant Marine’s role in American civilization.

Happily, though, the coastwise tanker fleet was still doing a brisk business. Taking my cue from my experiences aboard the New Jersey Sun the previous summer, I noted all the oil tankers I saw in the various oil ports that the Charger and Interstate 35 visited. Where there were refineries and tank farms, there were tank ships delivering the product. Texaco had a big facility in Bayonne. Gulf and Mobil had even larger establishments on Staten Island. And scattered along the shore line from Perth Amboy to Newark were several oil terminals of lesser renown. Tankers belonging to the major American oil companies were docked at these facilities, and I relished the sight of them. Their names read like a roll call: Gulfpride, Gulfoil, Exxon Bangor, Exxon Chester, Texas Connecticut, Texas Montana, Louisiana Getty, and my favorite, the Pennsylvania Sun. This ship in particular brought back many pleasant memories of my time the previous year aboard her fleet mate, the New Jersey Sun.

As with many things that seem too good to last, my sojourn aboard the Charger came to an abrupt and unexpected end on Thursday, July 27.

It was the proverbial bad end to a good day. The Charger and the Interstate 35 had left Albany and Rensselaer at 1:30am. After a busy but peaceful voyage down the Hudson River, I had the singular honor of seeing the passenger ships America and Queen Elizabeth 2 moored on the West Side of Manhattan. My grandparents had sailed on the America from Le Havre to New York in 1955. Back then she belonged to the United States Lines fleet. Since then, however, she had been sold to a foreign company and had fallen on hard times. I was elated at seeing these two grandes dames of the Atlantic, and my spirits remained buoyant as the Charger delivered the Interstate 35 first to Port Socony and then to Gulfport. As the barge was filled with gasoline, the tug went to Tremley Point to wait.

After dinner, while the Charger was still tied up there, I slipped and fell as I was stepping through a hatchway from a ladder onto the upper deck. My right leg came down hard on the steel hatch combing. This impact cut the skin open and left a bad bruise. Fortunately, though, the bone was not broken. With some assistance from the cook and the engineer, I applied some goo to the wound and taped it shut. The bleeding eventually stopped, but we all thought the injury would require stitches. In a consultation with the Captain, we decided that I should go home and have it professionally examined and treated. When I was able at a later date, I would rejoin the Charger.

Leaving most of my belongings on board, I took a taxi from Tremley Point to the Pennsylvania Railroad Station in downtown Newark. I caught a train into New York, called my parents to explain the situation, and then boarded the next train for home. My parents met me on the platform at Mineola. They were very worried, and they wasted no time getting me to the emergency room at the nearby Nassau Hospital.

The most painful thing about this accident was the fact that it happened. It was an extremely inconvenient and even stupid occurrence. Everything had been going splendidly for me aboard the Charger up to this point. I was having so much fun, merrily painting the tugboat and vagabonding along the various waterways of the Northeast. I was expecting to remain aboard the Charger and sail with her through the rest of the summer until it became time to return to school in Maine. I was sorely disappointed to have to leave the tug because of an accident. But I had no choice.

The emergency room at the hospital was not very busy.. The Doctor on duty examined the wound and decided that stitches were in order. My parents waited and worried as he sewed me up with seven stitches. Afterwards, he instructed me to rest with the leg elevated for the next several days.

Well, I rested on Friday and passed the time chatting with my grandfather about my recent travels. That morning the Captain of the Charger called the house via the radiotelephone. He was hoping that I would come back on board soon. Unfortunately, I had to tell him otherwise. On Saturday, I felt better and went out. After this, my parents insisted that I follow the Doctor’s instructions to the letter; consequently, I remained quite idle for the next several days. By the first week I August, I was getting really tired of resting!

On Thursday, August 3, I went to Doctor Lemonides, our family physician, to have the stitches removed. He took some out, but left some in, and he called for more rest while the laceration continued healing. I had other ideas, though, and I called the Interstate offices in Philadelphia and said that I would be ready to return to the Charger very soon. On Saturday the 5th, Doctor Lemonides removed the remaining stitches. That evening my parents went away on vacation, something they had planned and paid for in advance. This left me more or less on my own.

After a few telephone calls with the folks in the Interstate offices, I received my instructions for returning to work. I would go to Philadelphia on Wednesday, August 9, and meet the Charger there. I would collect my belongings and then begin a new assignment aboard the barge Interstate 50 operating on the Delaware River and Bay. And that is another story!

1 F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925, p. 63. This was one of my favorite books when I was young. I read it and reread it more times than I can count!

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Pier Head Jump

Once in a while, there is a great, big, mad rush to join a ship. Someone on a ship thousands of miles away gets sick, or he quits, or he dies, or something else happens. Then, the powers that be back in the home office must scramble to find a replacement and somehow get him to the ship. Usually this rush job comes after too many months of shore leave—in other words, unemployment—and the guy receiving the phone call accepts the assignment because he’s desperate to go back to sea. So on ten seconds’ notice, he packs his bags, leaves his family, joins a ship, and spends innumerable months traipsing across the world’s oceans because he’s deathly afraid that if he dares to take another vacation he won’t be able to get another ship again afterwards. So much for job security!

In the old days, a pier head jump was just that. A seaman would be recruited from a union hall, a park bench, or even from his own home, and sent by taxi to join a ship locally. If the ship was still at the pier, he just walked up the gangway. If the ship had already left, the new guy could jump off the pier onto a waiting tugboat, or possibly the pilot boat, and be delivered to the ship before it got too far away. Since the advent of the jet aircraft, however, the phrase has taken on a more figurative meaning.

Loosely speaking, I made something of a pier head jump many years ago. Overall, it fit this description pretty well, except that I did have some advance notice. That gave it the added measure of the hurry-up-and-wait syndrome. In the shipping business this is also known as the I-can’t-believe-they’re-doing-this-to-me situation. Among the seamen’s families it’s called the time-for-these-guys-to-take-up-different-work-ashore.

I picked up my new license as second mate at the Coast Guard office in Boston on Monday, March 29, 1982. That was such a happy occasion! Two days later, I called the crewing office in Bayonne, New Jersey, and told Mr. W. that I had passed the exams and gotten the license and was ready to return to sea. I had been home for three months since leaving the Victoria, and it was now time to go. When I had left the Victoria, it was with the understanding that I would spend two to three months working on the next license and then ship out again right after that was finished. Mr. W. remembered, took everything down, and promised to get back to me.

The following week I called Mr. W. again. Things were really slow, he told me. Wouldn’t I like to spend some more time at home? Well, I did have some work to do on the house, painting and carpentry and related items. So I stayed put a little longer, and then a little longer, and still a little longer. By the beginning of May, I was starting to feel desperate. Then the word came. Mr. W. had five ships that would soon need second mates. In the meantime, I could come into the office, get my medical checkup done, go to small arms school and refresher firefighting training, and then get ready to ship out. That sounded good, so I accepted the offer.

It felt great to get back on the payroll again. Unfortunately, it lasted only two weeks. Towards the end of May the five ships that needed second mates had somehow disappeared. With no realistic prospects for shipping out anytime soon, I returned to Nashua and took a janitorial job with General Floor Service, Incorporated, for the purely practical purpose of acquiring an income. Anything to fend off destitution, I thought. In retrospect, I wonder if this is what Isaiah meant by “the bread of adversity” (Isa. 30:20).

My new job started on June 1, the day after the Memorial Day weekend. I had a brand new license as second mate of steam and motor vessels of any gross tonnage on any ocean which I was very anxious to use, and there I was vacuuming carpets, waxing floors, and dumping garbage for a living! But it paid good hard cash which I desperately needed. And sure enough, a week after I started this new career, I received a phone call from the office in Bayonne.

This time it was Mr. A. The Waccamaw needed a new third mate. Was I interested? Of course I was! Then the stalling started. Mr. A. wasn’t sure about just when or where the other guy wanted to leave the ship, and the ship’s schedule was constantly changing, and he wanted to give me the job, but I might have to go on really short notice, and he didn’t know if I could do that because I lived so far away in New Hampshire, but he would keep in touch and let me know what developed, etc., etc., etc. I didn’t tell Mr. A. this, but I didn’t believe a single word of what he said. Remembering the five ships that needed second mates and then mysteriously disappeared, I told Mr. A. about my new job. I explained that my finances were such that I could not quit and go into Bayonne on a lark. I wanted to ship out again, yes, but I simply could not give up even a menial job unless he really and truly had a ship for me. Until that became absolutely certain, I needed to continue cleaning floors and emptying trash. In other words, Mr. A. needed to face reality and treat this situation seriously.

While Mr. A. thought about this, I continued working for General Floor Service. I did the after-hours shift, from 5:30pm to 1:30am five nights a week at the Digital Equipment Corporation’s two big buildings in Merrimack, New Hampshire. In all fairness, this job was enjoyable, at least up to a point. I did not have any serious responsibility; I simply did as I was told. I did not supervise anyone, so I did not need to deal with personnel problems. If someone came to work drunk, or didn’t come to work at all, or came to work and didn’t work, well, it wasn’t my problem! At the same time, though, I had no desire to make a career of the janitorial business. I really wanted to go back to sea. After all, that was my chosen profession.

After a couple of weeks, Mr. A. called back. He needed me to come into the office. When did he need me? “Well, you really should have been here yesterday,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” I replied, “but I can’t help you with that.” Privately I wondered, what is going on here? Why would anyone call and tell me today that he needs me yesterday? In the discussion that followed it came out that I had a choice of flying to Greece yesterday and joining the Waccamaw in Soudha Bay on the north coast of Crete, or flying to Italy and joining the ship in Augusta Bay on the east coast of Sicily a few days from now. The third possibility was that I would go to Soudha or maybe another location not yet known and join the ship there, either before or after she went to Augusta. Whatever the logistics, it started to seem definite that I would finally ship out soon. Given these choices, I opted for Augusta. I had been there before on the Rigel. I knew the place, and it was easier to get to than Soudha.

I gave my notice—very short notice, too—at General Floor Service. Not fully believing that I would soon return to sea, I stayed on the new job until the last minute. On Monday afternoon, June 21, I reported for my final shift. I finished at 1:30am Tuesday, the 22nd. After a few hours’ sleep, Miss Patty and I left Manchester, New Hampshire, at 6:45am on Bar Harbor Airlines. We arrived at New York LaGuardia at 8:25am. My parents met us there with a car.

Without any delay, I drove to Bayonne and checked in at the company offices. Miss Patty accompanied me. She had grown accustomed to having me home, and after six months she felt reluctant to see me go away again. But the Waccamaw would arrive in Augusta tomorrow morning, and I absolutely needed to leave tonight in order to join her. I spent my time in the office taking care of paperwork, airline tickets, and a brief interview with the Port Captain. The atmosphere there was of a rush job being done at a snail’s pace. A hurried phone call from the supervisor got the snails going: “This mate’s gotta fly out tonight to meet a ship!! We gotta get him processed right away!! He’s gonna need airline tickets!! Tell those guys in the travel section they can’t take a two-hour lunch today!!!”

Afterwards, we went back home to the family headquarters on Long Island. I was booked on a TWA flight that was scheduled to leave JFK for Rome at about 7:00pm. Happily, then, the family, including my grandfather, had part of the afternoon together before it became time to leave for the airport.

My father drove me into JFK along with my mother and Miss Patty. I had not thought of this before, but June 22 was the tourist season and everyone was traveling. The TWA building was a madhouse. I joined the mob to check in for my flight. Then a security agent approached me and asked where I was going. When I told him “Rome,” he said “Oh, you’re okay, then.” And he moved on to the next passenger. Looking around out of curiosity, I saw that this mob of people was really two check-in lines for two flights merged together. The other flight was bound for Israel. All the passengers going there were having their suitcases opened and searched right in the middle of the concourse. The floor of the terminal building was covered with opened and spilled luggage being sifted through by travellers and security guards on their hands and knees. The place was a mess!

With my check-in complete and a boarding pass in my hand, the four of us went upstairs to the waiting area by the gate through which I would soon leave. This spot was much calmer and quieter than the concourse downstairs. In those days, family members and friends could accompany travellers right up to the gate. Also, there were still large windows of clear glass in the waiting areas, so we could see the airplane when it arrived and parked at the gate. When the time came, we said our good-byes. My wife and parents watched as I walked down the corridor to the waiting 747. Then they went their way as I went mine. None of us had any idea when we would see each other again.

Once aboard the aircraft I found my way to my assigned seat, on the aisle but in the interior cluster of seats, not next to a window, and in the smoking section. I had been hoping to sleep as the plane crossed the Atlantic. As the other passengers came aboard, though, I began to realize that sleep would be unlikely. The level of jovial conversation and raucous laughter among all these people who were obviously going away on vacation rose to a dull roar and remained there except for during taxiing and takeoff. A carnival atmosphere prevailed. Dinner and duty-free shopping only added to the festivity. I became convinced that I was the only passenger who was there for work and not frivolity! Somehow I did doze off for a little while, but by the time the aircraft landed in Rome, I felt exhausted.

In the early daylight hours of Wednesday, June 23, the 747 landed at the big airport near Rome. On disembarking I felt very disconcerted. I was accustomed to crossing the Atlantic in ten days, not in less than ten hours! To be in another country with a different language, culture, monetary system, and time zone after a mere overnight journey was just too much! In a daze, then, I walked through the airport, fully able to read all the directional signs in Italian. I needed first to present my passport to a customs official, and then find my connecting flight to Catania on Alitalia. It seemed simple enough, and as I awakened more it became even simpler. I realized then that there were directional signs in English as well as Italian!

In the Alitalia terminal I met three unlicensed seamen who were also going to the Waccamaw. One was an engine room mechanic, loud and outspoken about everything; another was a steward’s utilityman from Puerto Rico who spoke little English; the third was an able seaman, Glenn Best, an older black gentleman who would turn out to be one of the finest men I ever sailed with. He was intelligent and industrious, and also calm and level-headed in all situations. We had all been on the TWA 747 from New York but did not know it. No one in Bayonne had said anything about traveling companions. In mid-morning we boarded an Alitalia DC-9 for the 45-minute flight to Sicily. This time I had a window seat, and the scenic highlight of the journey was circling the famous Monte Etna before landing on the plains of Catania.

At the small airfield near Catania we collected our luggage, went through an informal customs inspection, and engaged a taxi driver to bring us to Augusta. This was an exciting ride, dodging the chaotic Sicilian traffic amid the Sicilian hills. We anticipated that our taxi driver would deliver us directly to the Waccamaw at the oil docks across the bay from the medieval city of Augusta. Cresting the last hill on the outskirts of town at about 1:30pm, we beheld a panoramic view of the city and the entire bay before us. As the taxi started rushing downhill, our driver, in a moment of exhilaration, took both his hands off the steering wheel, spread his arms wide, and exclaimed, “Ahghooostah!!!” It was indeed a beautiful view, but one thing was missing. The Waccamaw was not in port.

We looked vainly in every direction including out to sea, but the Waccamaw simply was not there. We had come all this way for nothing! On arrival at the oil docks the taxi driver asked the dock workers about the ship. Some animated discussion in rude Sicilian followed. Finally, he said he would bring us to the harbor master’s office in the city. There were people there who could fix things up.

We rode along the shoreline around the north side of the bay, through the old city gate and winding narrow streets to the harbor master’s office on the waterfront. Making inquires in bad Italian and not much better English, we were asked to wait a few minutes while the man in charge looked into things. The outspoken engine room mechanic in our group had become quite agitated, perhaps almost panic-stricken, by the Waccamaw’s absence, and it showed in this interval. Glenn and I tried to calm him down, but to little avail. After what seemed like a long wait, someone came out and spoke with us. He explained that the Waccamaw had indeed been due in port that morning, but some unscheduled operational requirements had delayed her. Instead, the ship would arrive at the pilot station at 9:00am tomorrow. This man seemed puzzled and surprised that we had been sent so early to meet the ship. Didn’t the support staff in Bayonne know where the ship was? Wasn’t the home office was in daily communication with the fleet?

With little to do but wait for our ship to come in, we retired to a nearby waterfront café. The other three fellows went indoors. I lounged outside in the warm Mediterranean sunshine with all our luggage, including my sextant in its mahogany box. As the lone licensed officer in the group, I felt responsible for handling this situation wisely, and I did not want any luggage to disappear while everyone was eating and drinking. After a while Glenn Best came outside and relieved me. After some refreshment, three of us took a walk around the town while the engine room fellow minded the luggage. It was siesta time and the city was fairly quiet. Most of the shops were closed, but we found a money changer who was open. When we told him we were waiting for the Waccamaw, he jumped up from his table, danced gleefully around the room in circles, and shouted excitedly, “Wacaamaw!! Waccamaw!! Waccamaw!!” It was quite a sight.

Back at the café, someone from the harbor master’s office met us with a taxi. We were to be lodged in a fancy hotel on one of the hills just north of the city, and the taxi would deliver us. The next day, the taxi would return for us and bring us to the ship. What great service! And even better, it was free! The taxi, the hotel, and the meals would all be billed to our employer through the harbor master’s office.

So away we went in an air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz taxi—an unprecedented luxury—out through the old medieval gate and into the Sicilian hills. I felt quite relaxed about everything by now. Someone else had taken responsibility for our plight, and we were being housed and fed instead of being left to languish on a wharf. Then the one embarrassing and unpleasant moment of the day took place. Our steward’s utilityman from Puerto Rico who spoke little English started antagonizing the taxi driver in Spanish, which he understood, although he replied in Italian, which our crewmate understood. The rest of us didn’t know enough of either language to follow the conversation, but the tones of voice became increasingly obnoxious. Finally, the driver had enough. Banging his fists against the steering wheel, he shouted in fairly good English, “Dat’s enough!! No more!! I no wanta understand no more!! You got it?!” At this outburst our crewmate had the good sense to sit back and shut up, for which the rest of us were grateful.

At the hotel the steward’s utilityman and the engine room mechanic shared one room while Glenn Best and I shared another. They went their way and we went ours. Glenn and I took dinner together, a big buffet in the hotel dining room. This was very pleasant. He was good company and we got along very well. He was old enough to be my father, yet with my license I could be his boss. These social disparities evaporated in an atmosphere of mutual respect and courtesy, though. If only life could always be this way!

Being by this time overtired but well-fed, I slept very soundly that night. Promptly at six o’clock the next morning, I awoke to racket of a cat fight outside our hotel room window. These were not women, but real cats viciously screeching and howling at each other. It was Thursday, June 24, and the new day was announcing itself. At breakfast, a hotel clerk informed us that our taxi driver would come for us at 10:30am. He took us directly from the hotel to the oil docks. We watched as the Waccamaw arrived, behind schedule again, at 12:00 noon. It felt really good to finally see her! At 6:00pm the Rigel, also behind schedule, arrived and tied up directly across the pier from the Waccamaw.

I relieved the outgoing third mate and got to work promptly that afternoon. At ten o’clock the next morning, Friday the 25th, the Waccamaw sailed from Augusta bound initially for Port Said, Egypt. While this itinerary would change within 24 hours, the impressions made by my recent experiences would not.

The scriptures tell us, “We have learned by sad experience” (D&C 121:39). Three months of delays, empty promises, stalling, should-have-been-here-yesterday, and hurry-up-and-wait before finally getting a ship are not readily forgotten. I initially agreed to stay on the Waccamaw for six months, but I remained for thirteen, three as third mate and ten as second mate, until July 22, 1983. During this time she sailed the Mediterranean, transatlantic, coastwise, and the Caribbean, and underwent a shipyard overhaul in Norfolk. Like many mates before me, I feared never shipping out again if I took a vacation. After more than a year, though, I really needed a break. I could have returned to the Mediterranean with the Waccamaw, but having had enough for a while, I opted to finally go on vacation instead. This time vacation worked out much better. After three months ashore and no delays, I shipped out again aboard the Comet on October 28.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Flying High

Lest anyone get the idea that I dislike air travel, I don’t. But I do need to clarify a few points.

In the early days, I often travelled by air between my home in New York and school in Maine. Afterwards, most of my airplane rides have taken place because of ships, usually either going away to join a ship or returning home from a ship. The science of flight—airmanship, navigation, and the principle of physics that makes it all possible—I find fascinating. The idea of holding a heavier-than-air object aloft by a difference in air pressure on the upper and lower wing surfaces is intriguing, a wonderful example of a highly abstract concept yielding very tangible and practical results. Aeronavigation, similar by nature and in practice to shipboard navigation, is also very interesting, as are the mechanical means by which a solid object is maneuvered through a fluid medium, whether air or water. The laws of physics and mathematics govern it all, hence both ship and airplane operations are rigorously logical disciplines.

What I dislike about air travel is not the travel itself but some of the human factors that have become part of it. I don’t like mob scenes at airports. I don’t appreciate being treated like a criminal by megalomaniacal security personnel. I don’t like the cattle car atmosphere of some airlines. And I don’t enjoy the company of seat mates who talk incessantly about nothing or who can’t keep their elbows out of my ribs. Otherwise, I really do enjoy flying, and I always have. With a window seat in the non-smoking section and fellow passengers who behave themselves, an aerial journey can be very pleasant indeed.

Some of my favorite flights took place with Bar Harbor Airlines in the 1970s. This company, now long gone, operated a fleet of small commuter airplanes between Boston and various points in Maine and Quebec. The mainstay of the fleet was the Beechcraft 99, an unpressurized, low-altitude, dual-propeller aircraft. It carried perhaps fifteen passengers in small single seats on each side of a narrow central aisle. It also had big windows and a cockpit open to the passenger cabin. Visibility was thus excellent. On takeoffs and landings, I could look out the front and share the pilots’ view of the approaches and navigational lights and runways ahead. Bar Harbor also named all its aircraft, which I thought was a nice personal touch. I travelled aboard airplanes with locally exotic names such as State of Maine, City of Bangor, The Portlander, Aroostook Flyer, La Ville de Quebec, and La Ville de Sherbrooke proudly emblazoned on their tails

I rode on these aircraft several times between Bangor and Boston, usually but not always with a stop in Augusta. My most memorable of these journeys took place on Friday, December 16, 1977, aboard The Portlander. This flight ran nonstop from Bangor to Boston in an hour and five minutes. After flying overland from Bangor to the coast, The Portlander then flew over the ocean parallel to and only a short distance from the shoreline. I had a seat on the starboard side, and with a clear sky and excellent visibility enjoyed a truly magnificent view of the coast line from about Wiscasset all the way to Boston. All the harbors, beaches, and rocky outcroppings of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts were visible in detail. As the plane flew past Bath, I could with ease pick out my brother’s old house on Wesley Street in back of the Methodist church. He had lived there a few years previously when stationed at the nearby Brunswick Naval Air Station, and it had been the site of several family gatherings. As I contemplated these memories, The Portlander flew on and finally landed at Boston Logan Airport, a tiny speck of an aircraft amid a sea of sprawling concrete runways and taxiways.

Less scenically interesting but more ambitious were a few long flights over the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve made a total of two and a half transatlantic flights. The two were commercial runs aboard 747s operated by Trans World Airlines, the old TWA, which is now long gone. On the first of these I was returning to New York from London after leaving the Wilkes in Southampton, England, on Friday evening, January 23, 1981. On the second, I was going overnight from New York to Italy to join the Waccamaw. This one left JFK on Tuesday, June 22, 1982, and arrived in Rome early the next morning. On both occasions it felt quite disconcerting to get across an ocean so quickly—too quickly, really—and be suddenly disgorged onto another continent with a different language, culture, monetary system, time zone, etc. But that’s another story.

The half transatlantic flight was really just that; it went halfway across the Atlantic. Enroute to join the General Hoyt S. Vandenberg, I travelled aboard a Air Force C-5 cargo airplane with four or five other new crewmen. This flight was operated by the Military Airlift Command from Patrick Air Force Base in Florida to Ascension Island with an intermediate stop in Antigua. The pilots, navigator, and engineer were commissioned Air Force officers. The passenger and cargo attendants were enlisted men.

I arrived at Patrick in mid-morning on Wednesday, September 12, 1979, many hours in advance of the flight’s departure time. No one would tell me when the plane was scheduled to leave, just “Be back here around 3:00 o’clock.” With about six hours to kill, I went to the beach, went to the base library, and went out to lunch, all of which were within walking distance of the air terminal. At 3:00pm I returned to the check-in spot for the flight and met the other fellows who were going to the Vandenberg. We got in line, turned in our paperwork, emptied our pockets, and put our suitcases up on tables where they were opened and inspected thoroughly. When they were repacked, we were led outside and across the tarmac to the waiting aircraft. The flight crew then directed us up the steps and aboard the airplane.

I realized quickly that I was not travelling first class. The passengers’ seats were situated just behind the cockpit. They did not recline. They faced backwards. There were no windows. The only view was of containers of cargo lashed to the deck and the fuselage. I had known that passenger airplanes were often referred to as cattle cars in the sky, but this was a baggage car! I discovered that if I turned around in my seat I could with difficulty see up the small aisle and out the windows in the front of the airplane. At least the pilots have windows, I thought. But even this small luxury did not last. At departure time they closed the cockpit door. The next daylight I saw was in Antigua when they let us off the plane for a break.

From the airstrip in Antigua we passengers were bused to a little village where we got a free dinner. It felt nice to dine al fresco in the tropics after being cooped up in the sky for so long. After a while we were bussed back to the airplane and it took off for the long haul to Ascension Island, midway between West Africa and Brazil. Since it was an overnight flight, I curled up as comfortably as possible and went to sleep. I didn’t have anything else to do anyway. After I woke up, at some point over the Atlantic, my fellow passengers expressed their envy of my youth and ability to sleep so soundly. They had been uncomfortably tossing and turning in their seats while I merrily slumbered on! The crew then distributed box lunches to us. In all fairness to the much maligned airline food, these were actually quite good.

Soon afterwards, the aircraft started its descent for Ascension, and it landed on time at 8:00am, Thursday, September 13. Emerging from the airplane once again, I beheld the looming brown mountains, all extinct volcanoes, of Ascension Island. I also felt very grateful that we’d had a good, competent navigator in the air crew. He had successfully found this tiny speck of an island in the midst of the vast blue reaches of the Atlantic. He knew his business and it showed!

I travelled only this one time with the Military Airlift Command. Closer to home, a company that I flew with regularly was Piedmont Airlines. Styling itself “The up and coming airline,” Piedmont connected the mid-Atlantic states with New York, Boston, and other major cities. It’s long gone now, though. I rode on Piedmont’s fleet of Boeing 737s going to and from the Rigel, the Mercury, and the Waccamaw. A few of these journeys were scenic standouts.

I recall several occasions when I took Piedmont between Norfolk, Virginia, and either LaGuardia or Newark Airports in the New York area. The nonstop flight took just over an hour and passed over the Delmarva Peninsula between the Chesapeake and Delaware Bays. From a window seat on the appropriate side of the aircraft, I gazed down upon the rural landscape that turned first to wetlands and then to sandy beaches interrupted by inlets. Then the broad Atlantic stretched eastward. It was always a very lovely sight, bracketed by Cape Charles to the south and Cape Henlopen to the north. It was also a calm and peaceful view, a quiet and sparsely populated area sandwiched by bays and far from the urban commotion of Norfolk, New Jersey, and New York. I followed this route about ten times between 1979 and 1983, and I never grew tired of it.

One evening, I did something different. During the Christmas and New Year’s holidays of 1982-1983, the Waccamaw remained idle at the Naval Supply Center piers in Norfolk. Able to take a few days off, I flew home for a brief family visit. I returned to the ship on New Year’s Day, 1983, on connecting Piedmont flights from Boston to Richmond to Norfolk. The first of these took off from Boston about 8:00pm, travelled southwest over Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Long Island, and then went out over the Atlantic toward New Jersey.  I had a window seat on the starboard side. Through the crystal clear night sky I beheld in magnificent illumination the western half of Long Island, New York City, and northern New Jersey. The ocean and harbor waterways contrasted in black with the incandescence of the city and its suburbs. It was a truly spectacular view, beyond comparison to any other view of New York. Unfortunately, it receded more quickly than I would have liked as the aircraft sped on toward Richmond. The rest of the journey, while comfortable and pleasant, was anticlimactic after this breathtaking sight.

Less dramatic and more routine were the domestic flights I made on Delta Air Lines in the 1970s and 80s. It was often aboard Delta 727s that I travelled between New York and Maine. Later on, I rode with Delta while assigned to the Victoria, the Comet, the Saturn, and the Bartlett. I always liked Delta, probably more for sentimental than sightseeing reasons. My very first airplane ride took place with Delta in January of 1976, from JFK to Bangor with a stop in Boston.1 I recall my astonishment at arriving in Boston in about fifty minutes. Three weeks earlier, I had ridden the all-stops overnight train from Boston to New York. That had taken five hours.

Delta got me off to a good start, and in the end I made more flights on Delta than on any other airline. Many of these took place at night, and on a variety of airplanes including the Lockheed Tri-Star 1011, the largest aircraft in their fleet. I rode this one from Atlanta to New York to Boston in the midnight hours of Saturday, October 31, 1981, the night before Halloween. During the stop at JFK at about 3:00am, it seemed that the pilots had to taxi the plane all over the airport to reach the terminal. During this joyride I saw the British Airways’ Concorde for the first time. A sleek and elegant looking aircraft, she reposed under a battery of floodlights and was indeed an impressive sight. Years later, my children would take a liking to both the British and French Concordes when they would see them fly over their grandparents’ house while preparing to land at JFK.

Finally, I rode the famous Eastern Shuttle a few times between Boston and New York. In its day the shuttle was an aviation icon, but it’s been gone for a long while now. I remember one flight in particular, on a brilliantly clear and sunlit Sunday afternoon, May 25, 1985. I had a window seat on the port side as the plane took off from LaGuardia and headed east over Long Island. This gave me an unlimited view of the North Shore of Long Island, of Long Island Sound, and of coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island. It was truly beautiful. In about twenty minutes the aircraft reached Orient Point. Then it turned slightly northeastward and soon afterwards flew overland toward Boston. As I gazed down upon the Island, the Sound, and southern New England, I thought of how often my family and I had traversed this area by automobile, by train, by ship, and by airplane. In the future, my children would also traverse this area many times while going to and from their grandparents’ house. They would come to especially enjoy crossing Long Island Sound on the ferries between Connecticut and Long Island.

But while this family tradition still lay far in the future, the future had a way of coming very quickly. This Eastern Shuttle flight to Boston passed much too quickly, as did all the journeys of my vagabond youth. So many years have come and gone. So many airlines have come and gone with them. Delta has survived, but Piedmont, Eastern, Trans World, Bar Harbor, and numerous others have vanished. Likewise, many shipping companies have come and gone. Iconic names like American Export, American President, Moore-McCormack, United States Lines, and many others have disappeared. The passage of time has not always been kind to the transportation industry.

Nonetheless, it has been a privilege to travel across the vast globe by both sea and air, to see first-hand “the beauty of the earth”2 on which we live as well as “the beauty of the skies.”3 While professionally I have no future in the transportation business, I can still happily sign on as a passenger from time to time and enjoy the benefits without the responsibilities!

1 This probably took place on Sunday afternoon, January 11, 1976, but I can’t say with certainty because I had not yet learned the virtue of meticulous record-keeping!
2 Folliott S. Pierpont, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985.
3 Ibid.