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!

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