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.