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!”

Tuesday, November 29, 2022



The first time I worked for ACBL, I received a message that I was to report to the engineering office in Louisville, Kentucky before I went to catch my boat. This message set the whole alarm panel off, all lights were flashing, and the siren was in full howl. I hadn't done anything (at least, nothing that I was aware of!) to rate a private audience, so I gave Chuck Miller a call to see if I could get some inside information.

Chuck had been my boss at Valley Line, and we had had an excellent rapport ever since the Valley Transporter had burned up underneath me. He had come over in the transition after ACBL bought us, and he was based in the engineering office in Louisville. I got him on the phone at the first opportunity, told him what the message had been, and asked what was up, specifically if I was in any kind of hot water. He laughed and said, no, no hot water to worry about, but he couldn't tell me what it was about. He just assured me that it was nothing bad.

A few days after this conversation, it was time to leave for Louisville. I had a ride from the boat store in Hennepin to the Peoria airport to pick up a rental car for the trip; once settled in the rental, I pointed it southeast for the long drive to Louisville and got a hotel room near the office. The meeting was scheduled for ten the next morning, so I was able to have a good breakfast out with the company picking up the tab, always nice.

At 1000 the next morning, I arrived at the office and was taken to a meeting room. Already there ahead of me was Tim Robinson, an engineer from Sioux City & New Orleans, Kenny Eads, an ACBL engineer, and Lance Jones, a young Valley engineer. Everybody said hello, and I poured a cup of coffee, had a seat, and asked what this was all about. Nobody had any idea, they were all equally mystified.

Shortly afterward, Butch Barras walked in. He was the head of engineering at that time and a very bad boss. Sneaky, underhanded, and arrogant, he was somebody best avoided. (More on that later.) He opened this with a speech the likes of which I've never heard: everything said and done in this room, stays in this room. When we are done here, we will take a thirty minute break for you to think it over, and then you are to tell us yea or nay. You are not to discuss this with anyone, including your family. We're sitting there all wondering what in the hell this is all about.

He finally got out of secrecy mode and got down to it. They were going to start an operation on the Orinoco River in Venezuela. It was to be a 300+ mile run, from the coast to an inland mine, to move bauxite for export to the coast for transshipment. We were to keep the boats running, and train locals for the job at the same time. The work cycle was to be sixty days on, and thirty days off. The Orinoco was an unmarked river, so there was that to add another element of excitement to this. He droned on for a while, and when we got to a Q&A session, Kenny Eads was the first to ask the obvious question. He looked at Barras and said, "This is all well and good, but what's the pay going to be?" With a straight face, Barras replied, "The same as you're making now. We feel that the prestige and the challenge is sufficient compensation."


The rest of what he was droning on about faded to background noise. C'mon, nobody goes overseas for the "prestige", that's just nuts! And Venezuela isn't exactly a politically stable place, either!

When the break came, the four of us had a private powwow, and the vote was 4-0 on the pay issue alone, and it didn't even rate five minutes, let alone thirty, to mull it over. The whole thing was sketchy enough, but "prestige & challenge" pay was more than enough to say no to this all by itself. When we reconvened in the meeting room, we all politely declined and were admonished yet again to keep our mouths shut. We left, and I departed for my boat.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I've been on the Rusty Flowers since the meeting. After lunch one day, I decided to hit the lounge for a little bit of TV news to keep up with what was going on in the outside world. The TV lights up and I find a channel with the news on. The first thing I see is the video of M113 armored personnel carriers rolling through a city. The narration kicks in, and the announcer is reporting on another military coup in Caracas, Venezuela...

Uh huh, vindication. Made the right decision.


A couple of years later, more information about the "Venezuela Deal" began dribbling in via the grapevine, and everything heard about only served to reinforce the decision to not do it. Chuck told me that twenty two engineers turned down the deal on the "prestige" pay, and they had to offer more pay before anyone would take the offer. Twenty to twenty five people were living on a boat, where we normally carried a crew of about ten. Running low on groceries turned out to happen a little too frequently, never mind the fact that the galley and food storage was built for American rivers (and a much smaller crew!), where replenishment was relatively easy. Spare parts were a big problem; there wasn't a lot available in the country, and much of it had to come from The States. Don't fall overboard, the Orinoco had piranhas! There were stories of watching cattle being herded across the river; they would get the oldest/sickest cow to go in first, and while the piranhas had a feeding frenzy on it, the vaqueros would herd the rest of the cattle across. There were some salacious stories, too, which may or may not have been true about some of the Americans having a family at home, and a side family in Venezuela. The work cycle was a mess, it didn't work out to be 60 on and 30 off; the length of the "commute" made it wildly variable, and of course, the traveling was entirely on your time off. All of this is on an unmarked river seven degrees north of the equator. No thank you very much!

ACBL started up another run in Argentina after I quit to go to the gambling boat in Joliet, Illinois. An engineer friend of mine, Ed Russell, took a boat down there. I asked him why, and he said that the main reason was that it got him as far away from Butch Barras as he could possibly get. I couldn't fault him for that.

Speaking of Barras, here's an example of why we basically agreed with Ed. Some years farther down the road, when I was on the Joy Anne Keller with MEMCO, Chuck Miller was out on the Keller on one of our stops in Saint Louis, and he was telling me about a tale that had been circulating in the management ranks about Barras.

He was firing one of the engineers. Barras had called him into his office, sat him down opposite, and told him, "You're fired!" That was the conversation opener. The chief stood up to leave, and Barras told him, "Sit down, I'm not done with you yet!" Chiefie said, "Yeah, we're done here. You fired me, this discussion is over." Barras told him to sit down again, but the chief refused again and it got really heated and ended up with Barras punching the chief in the mouth!

Chuck said that the engineer got legal representation, and sued ACBL. He said that they settled out of court, reportedly for $750,000! Chuck was grinning, and I asked him what he was thinking. His reply was why couldn't that have been me! (He had many go rounds with Barras, and had left engineering to run purchasing at Jeffboat, on the other side of the Ohio, just to get away from Barras.) I replied, "Same! Either one of us would have gladly taken one punch for three quarters of a million!

Saturday, August 13, 2022

An Echo Of A Prior Life


While cleaning out down the basement a few weeks ago, I came across this pen and ink illustration. It was drawn by a gentleman named T.C. Gillespie, and it was one of a package of correspondence cards that he sold back in the late seventies that depicted river scenes.

Shown is something that we did at locks and landings, lifting the valve covers to do a top deck inspection. You are checking that there is nothing adrift in there; valve springs unbroken and where they belong, no collapsed valve lash adjusters, fuel jumpers not leaking, etc. The engine is an EMD 645, likely a twelve cylinder, and this is the outboard side as the explosion doors on the crankcase (look for the handhole covers with the four circles on them in the lower row) are on this side, they were always mounted where we were not walking as a matter of course.

The engineer has the obligatory flashlight and rag, when you opened these valve covers, there was always dripping oil that you had to wipe away before getting your head in there for a close look, otherwise that oil ended up in your hair and on the back of your neck. :-)

I find pen and ink as an art form fascinating for the level of detail and the meticulous attention to detail that it must demand, and I like his use of selective detail here to focus your gaze on the subject.

It's a fine look at something that we did frequently, presented in a novel way.

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