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.

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