Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Joe's Gas Station Adventure

I did a stint as one of the engineers at Harrah's casino boats in downtown Joliet, Illinois, from the end of 1995 to mid-1998. They had two boats, and I did time on both boats, on nights and days. Working this way, I had the opportunity to work with all of the assistants at one time or another. Two of them that were standouts for the shenanigans that they got into were Joe Luchowski and Larry Garvey.

Joe Luchowski was one of my helpers on the Northern Star. Joe was an ex-navy engineer; he had had plenty of sea time over his many years in the Navy, and he was a damn good person to have on watch in a crunch. He had a wealth of practical knowledge on the kind of things that could go wrong in the engine room, and a good mental store of ideas on how to effect a fix with a minimum of time, effort, and money.

As an indicator of Joe's practicality and clear thinking, consider this.

On the Northern Star, we had several sea chests in the engine room. These boats were built down to a price, not up to ABS standards, so sea chests were done during the build on the quick and dirty. Typically, they were a piece of 12 or 14-inch diameter pipe about a foot tall, welded to the bottom of the hull, with a piece of plate steel welded onto the other end to form a top, with a few pipes of various sizes welded into the sides to serve the devices with the river water they needed.

We had one of these in the center of the engine room, and it had a two-inch valve that was leaking and needed to be changed out. One of the other engineers was worried to death about this. He didn't have a lot of experience, tended to exaggerate the possibilities of what could go wrong, and honestly, he was a very inept mechanic. He had been on a tear about how we were going to have to drydock the boat to change this valve.

That was never going to happen. A gambling operation was never going to interrupt the money flow for something like that, and there was nowhere nearby where it could have been done anyway. Curt was still going on about it one evening, and Joe was tired of hearing about it. Joe asked me if we had a 2” valve, and I told him we did. He said, “C'mon, let's go. Curt, you can watch.”

Off we went, and I had a good idea of what he had in mind. Up came the deck plates, and pipe wrenches and other necessary items were set out. Joe shut off the refrigeration stack (just bar coolers) that depended on that line for cooling water, closed the valve, and was disconnecting the copper line from it. I was busy prepping the replacement valve by spreading a heavy coat of sealant on the threads of the valve end that would go on the seachest. With everything ready, Joe loosened the old valve.

At this point, Curt's eyes got wide, but he stayed silent. I had the new valve ready, opened wide. The draft of the boat was only about six feet, and it was only a two-inch line, so the water pressure and volume wouldn't be that great. Joe looked at me, grinning, and said, “Ready?” I nodded in the affirmative, and he spun the old valve off. A fat stream of water shot out of the line, and I jammed the new valve down over it. The water started shooting out of the open end of the new valve, keeping me mostly dry and allowing me to easily get the threads started. A quick spin to engage a few more threads, and then, spin the valve wheel to close it, and no more water! It took about five seconds, and I doubt that we let in more than five gallons of canal water. We tightened up the valve, fitted the copper line back up to it, restarted the three bar coolers and it was done. We were still pretty dry, too.

Curt was utterly flabbergasted. When he found his voice, he began threatening to fire Joe for endangering the boat. Really? I told him that I'd write Joe a commendation for taking care of a problem without a drydocking with innovative problem solving. We argued about it for a while, and Curt finally gave up and went home. It made a good tale to tell our reliefs when they came in in the morning.

OK, we've established Joe's creds as a resourceful, quick thinker, so this brings us to Joe's gas station adventure.

We were sitting around one evening in the shop area on the Northern Star, swapping lies, and Joe rolled out this little gem of an early morning encounter he once had while fueling up his old Jeep in Norfolk, Virginia.

Joe had spent a lot of time assigned to the Norfolk Naval base while he was still in the navy and he had an apartment off base that wasn't in the greatest neighborhood. Leaving the base in the small hours one morning, he stopped to gas up his ride. He swung into a gas station not too far from his apartment, pulled up to the pumps, and started filling the tank.

While he was doing this, a bum approached him. He started hitting Joe up for money, and Joe told him that it was three days till payday and all the money that he had was going in the tank so he could get to work, there wasn't any to spare. They went back and forth for a while, and the bum was developing more and more attitude as it went on. Joe got tired of this and told the guy to leave him alone and go away.

At this point, the bum pulls out a knife and yells, GIMME YO F!@#$N' MONEY!!! Joe looks up, and this guy is closing on him with a knife. Without missing a beat, Joe pulls the gas nozzle out of the tank, aims it at his would-be assailant, and squeezes the handle.

Joe is telling this whole thing in a calm, even tone. When he was describing this scene, his comment was, “You'd be surprised at just how far gasoline will shoot out of one of those nozzles.”

He hoses down his would-be attacker with gasoline, all the while fumbling in his shirt pocket for his cigarette lighter and yelling “YOU WANT WHAT?? WHAT?? WHAT DO YOU WANT???” “PLEASE, MISTER!!! PLEASE!!! I'LL GO!!! I'LL GO!!!” The lighter was empty, out of butane, but the flint wheel still worked. Joe gave it a couple of flicks with his thumb just for effect. The would-be robber dropped the knife and ran.

Joe goes in to pay for his gas and finds the night guy inside his bulletproof glass enclosure laughing heartily. He bought Joe's gas for him, saying that that was the best thing he'd ever seen in years of working nights there.

Joe won the storytelling competition that night, we all threw in the towel after hearing this one.

                                                 (Not Joe, but you get the idea.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Towknee Lights

 "You take the lies out of him, and he'll shrink to the size of your hat;
you take the malice out of him, and he'll disappear."

                                                                                Mark Twain

During my time on the Joy Keller, we had a mate who was a solid gold five-star jerk. He made the deckhand's lives hell with his petty, vindictive martinet ways, and was universally detested for it. The one exception was the captain because the mate would do the captain's dirty work, allowing the captain to keep the veneer of being a “good guy”.

His name was Mr. Smith*, and he was brought up, so to speak, by one of the biggest assholes that ever walked the line deck of a barge, a mate at Federal Barge Lines named Jack Thurman. I had heard plenty of tales about Jack Thurman back in my days of hiring out through the NMU hall in Joliet. Thurman had a habit of picking on the youngest, greenest deckhand in the crew and making the kid's life hell on earth. At one point, a new deckie that he had been picking on turned on him, and he ambushed him out on tow, whacking him in the back of the head with a cheater pipe (a long, heavy extension handle made of pipe for tightening ratchet turnbuckles) while they were making a lock on the Upper Mississippi one night. It laid Thurman out unconscious and bleeding. The deckhand walked back to the boat and up to the pilothouse, collapsed on the seat behind the pilot, and told the pilot to call the law, that he had just killed the mate. As it turned out, he hadn't killed Thurman, but he was off work for a long period with serious damage to the back of his head. You would think that something would be learned from an experience like that, but not Jack Thurman. When he finally came back, he was just as big of a bullying asshole as ever. I'm passing this along as background as to who Mr. Smith learned his trade from, and who he looked up to.

Watching most of this at a figurative distance was painful, as I had no say in any of it, it was not engine room business. He abused the deck crew with petty BS daily. They would be cleaning around the boat, and when they were done and taking a well-earned break, Mr. Smith would appear before them and proclaim something along the lines of, “I found dust. You need to figure out where.” Break over.

We had a young woman deckhand on the forward watch for a while. She was physically capable of the job, but she knew the job better than the watchman (lead deckhand on the forward watch) did, and the watchman was a minion of Smith's. The two of them proceeded to make her life a living hell, while the captain sat back, keeping quiet, sphinx-like. I'm certain that the fact that she was gay also factored heavily into this with all of them.

We were standing by somewhere while this was going on, and I needed to replace the jumper hoses between the boat's hard piping for the starboard main engine cooling system to the grid coolers with a more durable type of hose. This was in a void space alongside the starboard main engine, and some help would be good, so I asked Sarah if she would be OK with helping out. She was, so we gathered tools and materials and entered the void space.

Having her out of earshot from everybody else while we worked, I told her that, with changing attitudes, either the wheelhouse or the engine room was open to her, if she could hang on and weather the storm of abuse that was being landed on her on the Keller. She seemed at least somewhat relieved after our talk, but she quit the company right after that trip on the Keller, and would not answer calls from her friends on the boat.

Which brings us around to the main event. Midnight watch change came around on this particular night. My helper John squeezed his way into the booth at about 2300 to take the after watch, and John and I had a chat for a while, getting the boat's business out of the way first, and then carrying on with a general bull session for a bit. Around 2330, we said good night, and I went to my cabin, which is just off the booth and connected to it by a door.

I got undressed and settled into my bunk to read for a little while before lights out and hopefully, a decent night's sleep. 

At about midnight, I was ready to turn the light out, when the yelling erupted in the booth and in the companionway outside my main door. I could tell from the voices that it was John and Smith, but I couldn't make out what was being said. Pretty soon, the door from the booth to my cabin opened, and John stuck his head in. “Would you come out and look into this?”, he asked. “Everything checks out, but that dumb son of a bitch won't take my word for it.” “OK, I'll be right there. Give me a minute to get dressed.”

I pulled on my clothes and stepped out into the companionway. John and Smith were standing at the main deck electrical panel, directly across from my door. “What's the problem here?”, I asked, and Smith went off into a rant. “The towknee lights are out! And this dumbass (meaning John) is telling me that nothing is wrong, but the towknee lights are out!”

A short explanation is in order here. At this point in time, we still used 120-volt running lights for the head of the tow. There was a port and starboard running light and a flashing yellow 180-degree light to mark the center of the tow's bow. These are as much as 1,400 feet from the boat, so the deck crew had to run out 200 foot long extension cords to power those running lights, and they plugged in on a weatherproof outlet on the starboard inboard tow knee, so this was where Smith was coming up with “towknee lights” when what he meant was “tow running lights”.

OK, easy enough to check. I opened the electrical panel and checked the circuit breakers. All the handles were pointed toward the middle of the panel, nothing tripped or turned off. I pointed this out to Smith to no avail, he was on his high horse and wasn't about to get off. “I don't give a shit if that breaker is on or not! There's no power out there and what the fuck are you going to do about it?”

OK, mister, you've gone too far. I was willing to be reasonable despite the rude start, but you had to push it.

Curtly, I told him to go out to the deck locker and wait for me, I needed to gather up some test equipment. He left, and once he was out of earshot, John grinned and said, “What are you going to do?” I told him to follow me out there but hang back in the deck locker.

I headed out into the engine room to get my “test equipment”, which was nothing more than a light bulb pigtail with a plug on it. On the way back, I ducked into the booth and picked up my little inductive tester. If this played out the way I was sure that it would, there would be some fun to be had with it at Smith's expense. I clipped the inductive tester into my pocket and went forward.

I passed through the deck locker and out onto the head of the boat and went over to the running light outlet on the towknee. Smith followed me out there, ragging on me all the way. I ignored him, unplugged the light cord, and looked it over, the plug and cord were in good shape. Pulling the pigtail out of my hip pocket, I plugged it into the running light outlet, and lo and behold, that 100-watt lamp lit up the head of the boat completely.

Mr. Smith didn't say a thing, so I did. 


He had his back to the deck locker while I was yelling at him, but I was facing it and could see what was going on. Since it was watch change, all five of the deck crew were still out there, and all of them and John had a front-row seat to me showing him up for the ass that he really was, and if there was one thing that this little self-appointed kinglet couldn't stand, it was being made to look like an idiot in public in front of his supposed underlings.

I left him out there and headed back to my cabin, and the deck locker was roaring with laughter. This wasn't the last run-in that I had with Jack Thurman Junior, but it was the most satisfying.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Dumpster Diving

One of the commodities that we moved frequently was scrap metal. It was one of those things that moved in both directions on the river and, not being “in the know” about the dimensions of who was shipping it to where and why, remained something of a mystery to us. Usually one barge, seldom more that two, they were often mangled steel and sometimes a load of mangled stainless.

What we did know was that we had a potential cornucopia for our personal use. The deckhands were always on the lookout for decent sized and straight bar stock to use as “toothpicks”* and (with the addition of a cut chain link from a strap & links), C-bars for opening and closing pelican hooks on their ratchets. For me, steel plate in whatever thicknesses was fair game as long as it was straight, bar stock (gotta fight the deck crew for that!), pump shafts, angle iron, pipe, whatever looked useful for whatever project was currently underway or coming up in the near future.

Any engine room has a number of hoses and such that need to be hung up, so finding old car rims that weren't bashed up was always a plus. For a little bit of work with the torch, an angle grinder and the welder, you could have two decent hose hangers made from your find. On one barge of scrap, I found several eight inch trailer rims, and those made a nice rack for our stock of Aeroquip hoses that we kept on board.

When the deckhands found scrap that was useful to them, I would be the one that actually did the cutting and welding, the companies being fussy about who was wielding the things that got really hot, but I never minded. Spending a morning doing a little fabricating was a pleasant pastime.

One afternoon in the mid-nineties, we were working the Illinois River, and I was visiting with our pilot prior to supper. Shaggy was on a mild rant about the fact that where he lived, the kids liked to get drunk on the weekends, and cruise around smashing mailboxes with baseball bats. He was carrying on about this at length, and I was standing there eyeing the scrap barge we had in tow, one length out from the boat... I interrupted him to say, "Shags, I think that I'm looking at the solution to your problem." He asked, "What are you talking about?", and then he followed my gaze and went, "Oh, shit. Just what are you going to do?" I grinned and asked him what he had his mailbox mounted on, and he said a 4x4.

I grabbed a life jacket and took a walk out on tow to the scrap barge. Sure enough, there was a large amount of 5/16" coated steel plate in the barge. I sorted a few pieces out, headed back to the boat with them, and got busy.

Over the next few evenings, the plate steel was reshaped into a ball bat proof mailbox that had a lockable door that was hooded to prevent a bat from getting anywhere near the door and had two pieces of plate welded to the bottom spaced and drilled so that it could be mounted to a 4x4.

Shaggy took it with him when he went home. Grinning, he asked me if he owed me anything. I laughed and said that this one was on me, just get a photo of their teeth lying in the dirt after that aluminum bat had connected with the mailbox. 



Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Of Harassment and Fire, Sexual and Otherwise

In my earlier days on the river, sadly, harassment of the cooks was a fairly common occurrence. Over the years, I knew several cooks that had to face this issue, and it took one helluva lot of courage on their part to stand up and do what had to be done.

When I started out in 1976 at Twin City and Material Service, it was completely male cooks so my first exposure to female cooks was at Valley Line, when I started there in the spring of 1977. The first instance of cook harassment that I remember was aboard Valley's salvage rig. There, the captain, the pilot, and the engineer told the new cook that part of her job was sleeping with them. Luckily enough, she hadn't come down with yesterday's rain. She didn't waste time with telling the office either, she quit and got a lawyer. Valley settled out of court for $40,000, pretty small potatoes, actually.

Another one at Valley was an engineer from who I learned a lot and who helped me get my license. I did not hear or see anything like that in my time working with him, but one of the cooks told me that he had pestered her incessantly, and just would not take no for an answer.

At Memco, it wasn't sexual harassment on the Keller. The cook and one captain liked to sit up most of the afternoon and play cards. That's all well and good, but when Linda went home on her days off, the one captain demanded that Linda's relief do the same! Understandably, Marty refused, she wanted her afternoon nap before preparing supper. With the refusal, Cappy went way out of his way to make Marty's life aboard miserable. Cutting the grocery order unnecessarily, unreasonable demands with the amount of food to be made available at each meal without going over budget, and no leftovers to be served, etc. Marty put up with it for quite some time till she couldn't deal with it anymore, and she finally took the case to HR and made it quietly. They took her side and moved her to another boat. That guy was a real piece of work; one of our pilots moved to another boat because of him, Marty left us, and he had a habit of calling the office on me without talking to me first. The last time that he did that, I found myself on the phone with two port engineers at 0800 on a Sunday morning. After that was resolved, I went up to the idiot box and told him if he ever did that again without talking to me first, I would come back up with the biggest pipe wrench we had and swat him off of his throne. He would not look at me or answer me.

It's a long road that has no turning, and karma did come back to bite him. With Marty and his demands for huge amounts of food served for each meal and no leftovers, he actually got fed a lot of leftovers! And he finally did himself in. He bypassed the designated fueler that we were supposed to get fuel from and ordered a bigger amount of fuel from another supplier that we did not have a fuel contract with. To make matters worse, our next stop was drydock. We were way over-fueled to get the boat on the dock, so it had to be pumped off, stored, and then pumped back on once we were done. So all told, the fuel he got cost far more, there was a per gallon charge to pump it off and store it and another charge to pump it back on. An enraged port captain came and got him and put him in a hotel in Paducah with 24 hours to decide if he was going to quit or be fired. He quit.


Marty on the Keller with some of her Thanksgiving creations.

I had a temporary cook on the Rusty once, and the mate and the watchman decided that they were going to make her life miserable. This was being done in plain sight, so I decided to weigh in on her side. It was winter, and the main deck had central forced air electric heat, and it had an early digital thermostat that was programmable. I set the 'stat up to shut the heat off at about 2300, and not turn it back on till about 0400 when the cook started breakfast. I warned her, and let the deckhand who was on the main deck (It was just the deckie and me with main deck cabins.) to make sure he had a heater in his room, and I locked out the keypad so nothing could be changed.

Three nights later, we left Cairo northbound, and I stayed up past midnight to take firing pressure readings on the main engines. When I was done about an hour and a half later, I went up to the galley to get a drink from the water cooler before going to bed and found the mate and his two deckhands huddled around the open oven door. The mate saw me and goes, “What's the matter with the heat on here?” I told him, “Nothing that an attitude change on your part won't fix.” You could see it sinking in... 

Things calmed down somewhat after that but the mate had to try again, and that was when the cook dumped a mug of hot coffee in his lap. He came to me whining about it later, and I told him he was lucky that it wasn't freshly brewed and much hotter than it was.

There was one who didn't take being harassed at all, and she dealt with the harasser herself. Mary was a very good cook, and hands down the most foul-mouthed woman I have ever known (admiration here!). She was sent to the Robert A. Knoke for a trip, and this was where she and the nastiest engineer employed by Valley had locked horns. Mark, the engineer, took an instant dislike to Mary and decided that he would use the office to harass her. Bad idea. He waited to the end of Mary's trip, and called the office on her for, of all things, leaving cupboard doors open in the galley. The office called Mary at home, and the phone call was basically, “What the hell??” Mary told the crew dispatcher she would deal with it herself, just get her back on the Knoke before Mark was due back. The crew dispatcher knew Mary, and he had to have a good idea of how this would go down.

Sure enough, when Mark came back, Mary was waiting for him. She waited a couple of days, and then she confronted him about the phone call in front of the whole crew. She started up on his ancestors somewhere around the time of the Fourth Crusade and worked her way up to Mark in five-year increments without repeating herself, and finished up by telling him that nobody was ever allowed to fuck with the way she eats, and by fucking with her job, Mark was fucking with the way she ate. It shocked me a bit when she told me about it, and I asked her what happened, and she said that he got about ten shades darker than he already was and stormed out of the galley with the whole crew laughing at him and that he wouldn't eat with them for the rest of the trip. A win for Mary and Mark deserved worse, actually.

Now, we're around to Captain Hands. This was about 1990, and I was still at Valley Line on the M/V Rusty Flowers. Norma Owens was our regular cook, and Norma and I were pretty good friends. She had told me about Captain Hands. Norma said that he was slick and calculating, and he never put his hands on her if there was any chance that he would be seen by another crew member and that he had either backed her into a corner or got her when she was bent over dealing with something in the oven several times.

She had had enough and finally went to the office with what he was doing. She told me that she had the distinct impression that hers was not the first report on him, although nothing was said directly. They promised Norma that she would never have to work with him again, and that was where the talk ended.

Fast forward about a year. We were turning another boat one day. I was out on the side, chatting with the other engineer, and Norma stepped out of the galley to see if her counterpart might be out. She wasn't, but Captain Hands was out on the wing bridge, and when he spotted Norma, he started screaming, "I'LL GET YOU! I'LL GET YOU YET, YOU BITCH!!! YOU GOT ME IN A LOT OF TROUBLE!!!". Norma just looked up at him and went back in.

Our next officer's meeting was not long after this, and there we had the first sexual harassment class that I ever attended. There were about one hundred and fifty people in the room, but the presenters were basically talking to just one person.

The following spring, the Rusty was back on the Upper Mississippi after the river was open to navigation again. We were in the ice harbor at Dubuque taking on drinking water one morning at the Coast Guard dock when the captain hollered at me from the wing bridge to come up for a minute. The water still had a long way to go to full, so I trotted up the stairs. He told me that the Kevin Flowers had had a fire in the accommodations the night before and that we needed to get up to McGregor, Iowa where the Kevin was tied off as we were going to be the ones to tow it back to Saint Louis, and could I hurry up with the water, please?

No problem, Joe. Three-quarters of a full load of water would get us back down to Saint Louis, so we were out of the ice harbor and headed north a little bit later.

When we got to McGregor, it looked pretty grim. There were broken windows on the second deck with smoke smudges on the paint above the windows. Our safety guy, Jack Quinn, and two other office people met us when we came alongside, including Bill Robertson, our VP.

Once we were tied off, the captain and the mate and I went over to survey the damage. It was pretty thorough. The fire had started in the mate's room, in a waste basket near the bed, and there was a chair by the waste basket. There was an ashtray at the bottom of the waste basket. This mate was known to stretch out on his bunk on watch when nothing else was going on to read and smoke. He had been doing this when he got a call from the wheelhouse, and he had put his cigarette in the ashtray on the chair and left. Boat vibration did the rest, and dropped the ashtray and cigarette into the waste basket, and the rest was history.

The grimmest part was in the cabin on the other side of the companionway from the mate's cabin. That one belonged to Captain Hands. They had found him dead from smoke inhalation halfway through the door into the bathroom. He wore hearing aids that he took out at night, so he likely didn't hear anything until it was far too late, and it doesn't take all that much carbon monoxide to do you in.

The funny part of this tragedy was found in the engineer's cabin, all the way aft on the second deck on the port side. My old nemesis, Mayfield, was the engineer. In his cabin, the window was smashed out, aluminum frame and all. These windows were two panes with one pane being a slider, and they were only about sixteen inches high by twenty-four inches long. Now, Mayfield was very roly-poly, and he likely weighed in at 240 on a good day, and he was short. Ol' Fatty Pants had made it out through that window opening. He was prone to panic in low-stress situations, so the adrenaline spurred on by the fire had to have had him in hyperdrive. That window was set pretty high on the bulkhead, too. It's a shame there's no video.

We towed the Kevin down to a shipyard in Saint Louis, and life went on. After the fire, more cooks started telling about their experiences with Captain Hands. Cindy Clingan, Norma's relief, had her cabin on the Rusty next to the captain's on the second deck, and she had to keep her door locked when she was in her cabin. This didn't deter him, he kept pecking at her door and crooning, “C'mon Cindy, you know you want it as bad as I do!” She said that he had done the same to her as he had done to Norma. Afterward, I cannot recall a single cook who knew Captain Hands who didn't use a variation of, “Good. I hope that the son of a bitch suffered.” when talking about his death.

A little sidebar to this tale.

At the same officer's meeting where Cappy Hands got his sexual harassment class, Jack Quinn and I were having a beer together at the end of the day, and I had it pop into my mind and asked, “Jack, how come we don't have smoke detectors on the boats? Evidently, the question hit him hard and he replied, “I don't know, but I'm going to find out.” Some months later he was out on the Rusty when we were in Saint Louis. At one point, he pulled me aside and said, “I want you to know that the smoke detector idea isn't dead, but management is arguing over who is going to be responsible for changing the batteries.” This was before the fire on the Kevin. Guess what happened immediately after the fire.

Monday, March 27, 2023

Contraband, and a “Missing” Crew

So, it's 1995, and we're three years into ACBL's acquisition of Valley Line, and I'm deep into the grind of a 40 days on, 20 days off work schedule. The only good thing about it was that I was able to do the whole hitch on my regular boat, the M/V Rusty Flowers. Leonard, my relief, wasn't so lucky; his life was home for twenty days, on the Rusty for 20 days, and then on the Jack Bullard for twenty days, with rental cars in between. Lather, rinse, repeat...

In the spring of that year, we were on the Illinois River, and it was wilder than usual due to a combination of a quick melt of the snow cover and a lot of rain. It got to the point that the river was high enough that the Coast Guard closed the river to navigation; this caught us northbound at Havana, Illinois, so we tied off our tow in one of the fleets and prepared to stand by with a full crew for a few days til the river went down enough for navigation to resume.

Things get a little relaxed under these circumstances; watch change times aren't rigidly observed, and people tend to drift off of them. Late on the night in question (It was about 2200 hours.), the pilot was up and about earlier than usual, so the captain had gone to bed. I was stretched out on my bunk, reading a book. As the only person on board attached to the engine room, my hours were even more flexible.

As I was reading, I thought that I heard some activity outside, but I couldn't really tell what it was by the sounds I was hearing. Oh well, likely nothing... I read for about another half hour and decided to hit the sack.

My lights hadn't been off for very long when there was a knock on my cabin door, and the door opened. It was Mike, the pilot. When he knew that I was awake, he started telling me that he had tried calling the crew over the intercom several times, and nobody had answered. He went on a prowl of the boat looking for them and didn't find anybody. What he had found was that the yawl was missing, too.

This is bad.

Evidently, these guys had launched the yawl and taken off to god knows where at night on a flooding river. Furthermore, due to several grain elevators being located in Havana, there were also barge fleets anchored on the side of the river where we were tied off. All it would take was for them to be in the wrong spot and have the outboard quit, and they would be swept under the bow rakes of a fleet of empty barges, and we would have multiple drownings on our hands.

Mike was near frantic. He wanted me to start the engines so he could get underway, and go looking for the yawl. I jumped out of bed, got dressed, and got both main engines started, along with the steering, and I went forward and untied the boat. He backed out from our spot and started slowly upriver.

After a quick round of dipstick pulling in the lower engine room, I trekked up the stairs to join Mike in the wheelhouse as an extra lookout. He was just putting along at idle with both engines engaged, using our searchlights to check the bank and the fleets we passed for any sign of the yawl. Nothing...


We kept working our way up the river this way, still with no results, and Mike is getting more worried by the minute. As we got close to the Highway 136 bridge at the upper end of the harbor, he started scanning both sides of the river. Sure enough, not too far above the bridge, here's the yawl, tied off to a small tree on the steep bank. He raises the searchlight and, what do we have here? It's the “missing” deck crew, half sliding down the bank towards the yawl, along with a cardboard box full of liquor bottles...

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels banned alcohol on U.S. Navy ships with General Order 99 in 1914, and the U.S. Merchant Marine followed right along, drying out anything that sailed and flew the US flag, and it was still the case in the 1990s. Having alcohol on board was a firing offense, and the companies had no sense of humor about it.

They got the yawl around to the port side of the boat and tied it off under the davit. I lowered the hoist, and they got the bridle attached. I lifted the boat and set it in the cradle, and got my flashlight out for a better look. It was a big box, and there was a lot of hard liquor in it. This one was outside my pay grade...

As soon as the yawl cleared the water, Mike backed away from the bank and headed downriver, back to our tie-off spot alongside our tow. The deck crew had disappeared. I went to the wheelhouse and told Mike that he needed to have a look at the contraband and that I would tie him off, and then meet him back at the yawl.

We slid into place, I caught a head line that he backed into, and I flipped two or three more lines on between us and the barge, and met Mike at the yawl. I pulled out my flashlight and shined it in the box, and Mike let out a low whistle. I said, “This one isn't my decision. What do you want to do with this?” Mike didn't hesitate. “Heave it over the side. All of it. I don't want any part of this bullshit. The word always gets out, and I need my job.”

And so we did. The bottles went overboard from the second deck, and that was it. I went below and shut down the engines and steering and then went back to bed, and Mike went back to the pilothouse.

The next morning, the grumbling started. It seemed that in addition to the deckhands, the captain had three or four hundred dollars in that booze run. Nothing was said directly, but there were several people unhappy with the way that things played out. We were all pretty sure that the captain was having trouble with alcohol, we had watched his piloting skills deteriorate over a few years. He used to be able to wiggle twelve barges up through the bridges in Joliet, Illinois without touching anything, but by this time, he had trouble getting six or nine barges through Joliet without bouncing off of most of the sheer fences and cells at the bridges, but we didn't think that he was bringing liquor onto the boat. If the office ever found out about what went on, I never did hear.

I left ACBL and the Rusty Flowers for the gambling boat in downtown Joliet not long after the smuggling incident, but there was one more adventure in store for the captain.

About a year later, the Illinois was going wild again, and the three deck line boats were too tall to get through the lift span of the railroad bridge at Ottawa until after the river crested, so they were all waiting at the fleet downstream from the bridge. Joe, one of my pilots on the Rusty (we met Joe in the tale about the whistle), was on one of the boats waiting on the river to crest. I got in touch with him via walkie-talkie and told him that I would stop by and chat with him when I got off work at Joliet and was headed home to Utica.

We got to talking over the radios when I got to the fleet. We got caught up with each other, and Joe asked me, “Did you hear what happened with Charlie?”, meaning the captain from the contraband episode on the Rusty. I told him that I had not. 

It seemed that he was also a mean drunk, and had a habit of taking it out on his wife. Joe said that Charlie had come home drunk one night a few months prior, and went after his wife, but she had had enough, and this time she pulled out a pistol and held him off. That state of affairs lasted till Charlie passed out, and at that point, his wife changed her grip to the barrel of the pistol and then proceeded to pistol whip her husband to the point that he had to be hospitalized.

Joe said that when Charlie came back to work, he still looked terrible. And while he was on the boat that trip, his wife started the divorce proceedings, and she got pretty much everything by the time it was over.



The Illinois River at flood stage.


Sunday, March 26, 2023

Tugster: A Waterblog

 Got turned onto Tugster's blog the other day by good friend Randy Leo. Tugster hails from the NYC area, but he's been on a journey along the Mississippi, starting at New Orleans and going north, photographing what he sees on the water as he goes. Here's a good place to start. :-)

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Floyd and Me


It's early evening in the late seventies, and I'm up off watch, helping the chief to fuel the boat. Chief Henry is busy monitoring fuel tank levels, and opening and closing the proper valves, and I'm taking care of getting the potable (drinking) water on board. 

The Valley Transporter, being an older boat built in the mid-fifties did not need to carry huge amounts of potable water. We had a good sized free standing tank in the forward hold, and another small built in tank under the engine room stairs. This was adequate for a couple of weeks, as all it was used for was drinking and cooking. Showers, laundry, toilets, and boat washdown were all done with clarified and filtered river water, so that served the bulk of our water needs. Modern boats have gotten away from this practice, and tend to use filtered and treated potable water for everything.

Anyway, this was what Henry had me doing. It was easy, all that needed to be done was to hook up the fill hose to the fitting on the head deck, and check the levels in the two tanks every now and again.

The tank under the engine room stairs would fill up first, the vent overflowing onto the deck near the engine room door. All that needed to be done was to close off the fill valve, and the rest of the water would go to the bigger tank up forward.

A little explanation is necessary here. When you fill a tank, whether it is free standing or part of the hull, there has to be a vent. As you fill the tank with liquid, the liquid is displacing the air in the tank, and that air needs to be able to escape somewhere. A vent pipe is fitted near the top of the tank for the displaced air to escape through. If the vent is plugged, you will rupture or deform the tank.

You never fill a fuel tank to the point that it overflows through the vent, but that's the standard method with a water tank, just leave the hose hooked up and the pump running till water comes out of the vent.

This brings us to the whole point of this tale. The forward tank was near to full, and Floyd wandered up to the head deck and sat down on top of the starboard capstan. He sat there, and we yakked for a little bit about nothing much, just passing the time.

The vent line for the big tank was a two inch line, and it came out of the deckhouse up high, and in a direct line with the starboard capstan. Due to the way the piping was run, the vent would make a loud gurgling noise a few seconds before the overflow happened...

It gurgled, and I said to Floyd, “You might not want to be sitting there, Floyd.” He grinned, and said, “F#*% you, mother f#*&$^!” I stepped aside, and the vent line erupted, and that fat stream of water would have reached past the capstan if Floyd had been elsewhere. I gave the high sign to the tankerman on the fuel flat to kill the pump as soon as the overflow started. He did, and the stream tapered off, and Floyd looked like a drowned chicken, not a dry spot on him.

“Goddam! Goddam!” he kept moaning. “Well, I tried to tell you, but you just had to be a smartass!”

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