PHOSPHORESCENCE —Daniel Enderle
I had a summer job on an oil tanker running up and down the East Coast and across the Gulf of Mexico to ports in Texas. This was 1980, after my first year of college, when I was eighteen. The ship was built in 1953, only eight years before I was launched, but it was considered old. The most prominent feature of its outdated design was the house amidships where the bridge and officers’ quarters were located. The other house, at the stern, containing the galley, the mess, and the crews’ quarters was built around the engine room which extended from deep in the bowels of the ship up to the top deck with the stack towering above. More modern tankers have on only one house at the stern, in part, because the house amidships weakens the structural integrity of the vessel. Evidently, this fault has, at some point, been graphically demonstrated, but I never learned the details.
The engines on a ship are always running and the whole ship, every bit of it, every bulkhead, every railing, and all the decks constantly thrum with the steady energy of diesel combustion. Even when at anchor or when tied up in port you constantly feel that rumble and, when underway, there is the added knowledge of that giant screw churning saltwater. Together, they combine to become part of your subconscious and your nervous system.
There were a handful of us summer workers under the direction of the bosun. We spent the mornings blasting the trestles supporting the cargo lines and that ran along the centerline of the ship about seven feet above the main deck and just under the cat walk between the two houses. We used heavy three-pronged hand-held pneumatic jackhammers to pulverize layers of paint and rust to get down to bare steel. The water in the air lines powering these little bastards blew out as mist and combined with the rust and old paint to create a paste that each day required thirty minutes in the shower scrubbing with Lava soap to remove from my face and arms. After lunch we applied red lead primer and then gray carbo-mastic paint. Aside from this smörgåsbord of toxicity, there was plenty of fresh air and sunshine.
Including the rarely seen captain, the first and second mates, the three quarter masters, the able bodied seamen, the ordinaries, the engineers, the cooks and mess men there were something over two dozen people in the crew. Officers wore white, cooks wore stained white, deckhands wore blue, engineers wore tan, and summer workers wore jeans and paint splattered shirts. The second mate, a mess steward, an AB, and one of the summer workers were women. There were two old salts who had been merchant marines on Liberty Ships in the Second World War. One of them told me that both times he got torpedoed he stopped getting paid from the time he got into a lifeboat until he was assigned and on board another ship.
I brought fourteen books with me when I boarded the Jersey Devil, but one of the first things I learned about the about sailors was that most of them were better read than me. Regular crew members worked four hour watches. For instance 8:00 to 12:00 in the morning and 8:00 to 12:00 at night. This leaves much time to fill. In the evenings I’d roam around the ship often going up to the bow to watch thunderstorms blow along the horizon. At times there were people in the mess playing, cards, cribbage or backgammon. But most of the time the passageways and the decks were like the sidewalks of an empty town. I assumed most of the crew were reading in their cabins.
Early in July, after I’d been aboard about five weeks, during a southbound leg, the Devil made a stop to lighter off at a refinery in Port Everglades, Florida. That evening I walked up a steep gangway and boarded a jitney with handful of regular crew, two other summer workers and the bosun. His name was Dick and he put up with his charges with bemused resignation. He rarely joined our banter, but I got the impression that, for him, the brand of bullshit we talked among ourselves was at least different from the crap he was used to. We were dropped off at a rough little joint typical of the customary solitary bars opposite the gates of every refinery I saw that summer.
One of the ordinaries called a cab and took off. The rest of us drank several pitchers and, while some of the others played pool, I kept fairly quiet and listened to Dick, the guy who’d been in lifeboats, and an AB named Bird talk about the time a year earlier when a guy on the ship had a heart attack during lunch and got lifted off the ship in a basket dangling from a helicopter. Dick said, “I heard her crack his ribs.” The old salt said, “She was the only one who stepped up.” Later, when they called a cab, I got up and stood outside with them. We piled in and Dick, in the front seat, turned around to regard me for a moment, but he didn’t say anything.
The three of them found stools at the next bar and none of them took notice of me until, standing behind them, I ordered what my dad usually drank. Johnny Walker Red on the rocks. Something shifted slightly, the beer part of the evening ended, and the four of us hit several more bars that night. I don’t remember much about the rest except that it got so late that it eventually started feeling early. Bird disappeared at some point, but I stuck close to the old salt and to Dick who was now shit-faced, but had learned my name. I, too, was really drunk, but the little man in my head knew I was OK as long as I stuck with the bosun. I kept him in sight and only hit the head when he did.
The eastern sky was gray when the three of us rolled out of a cab and, instead of another bar, as I expected, we were confronted by a steel wall draped with a cargo net. It took me a moment to glom onto the fact that this was the side of the, now, nearly empty tanker, with its deck high above us. The gangway was stowed and the Devil was ready to sail. We climbed the net and, once on deck, we each formally shook hands with the grinning Bird who sported lipstick on his left cheek.
As we headed into the Gulf, the next day’s hangover was spectacular under the intense heat and light of the nearest star. At break time, while we were drinking coffee on the poop deck outside the mess, a quartermaster came by and told me to keep my cabin clean and to make my bed. I hadn’t known until then that they checked these things. At mid-morning the mates came up the deck and talked to Dick. The chipping hammers chattered away. I wore a hat, headphone-type hearing protection, a dust mask, and partially fogged goggles but I could see them looking at me.
After lunch, Bird told me to report to Dick’s cabin. He was sitting at a little desk when he told me, “Talbot’s missing, so you’re going to sail ordinary.”
I didn’t know right then what that meant so I asked, “Who’s Talbot?”
“He’s the one got inna taxi at the first bar last night. You’ve got the twelve to four watch, so you paint, but you knock off at four instead of five and report to the quartermaster in the mess at midnight.”
“OK, what happened to Talbot?”
Dick said, “Don’t know, but he wasn’t on board when we sailed at five.”
At four, while we were slapping paint, Dick passed by on the catwalk above us, pointed his finger at me and jerked his thumb. I said, “Well, that’s enough of that shit” and took my brush and pail forward to the paint locker. As I passed by the rest of them Tex said, “Where the hell are you going?” I just shrugged.
It turned out my job from midnight to four was to clean the six heads and four shower rooms and swab what seemed a quarter mile of passageways in the crew section. The first couple of nights that took me nearly the whole watch, but I soon improved my time. The cool part was that I got to go up to the bridge and relieve the quartermaster from two to two thirty. Being up there in the dark with the mate, gripping binoculars while checking the radar screens and walking the wings, was some of the best time I’ve spent on this planet, especially on clear nights with a sky full of stars and glowing blue green phosphorus fizzing on the top of each wave and streaming out behind in the wake of the ship.
After we’d gone up the Houston Ship Channel, spent two days within sight of the San Jancinto Monument and spent a night in Nederland, we headed back across the Gulf en route to Puerto Rico. By then I had my shit together, and could get the cleaning finished before two, so I’d spent the last part of the watch on the empty poop deck with a cup of coffee and only the yellow deck lights for company.
Except, I started seeing this older engineer I hadn’t noticed before. The engineers were always pale, but this guy was really white. He had disheveled salt and pepper hair and a face full of stubble. Around three, he’d come aft along the rail from the port side with a coffee mug in his hand, look through the hatch into the mess and then head forward along the starboard rail. I’d nod to him and he’d nod back. One night he walked up to me and said, “Give this to Kate and tell her I said thanks.” He handed me a butterscotch candy in a gold wrapper.
As usual, I went to bed and slept until lunchtime. When I woke something was very different. The engines were running but the whirling whoosh of the screw had vanished. We were stopped dead. It was strange. I didn’t know this could happen. It got even weirder as I opened my porthole and stuck my head out. Coincidental to the lack of motion, the entire sea was flat and calm as a mirror. I’d never seen the sea without a ripple but there it was… dead calm to the horizon.
When I went up to eat I found out that we were ahead of schedule with no berth available at the refinery at Yabucoa. I was heading out of the mess with the summer crew when the ABs came in and sat down. The rest of them went forward and I went over to Kate, put the candy by her plate and delivered the message. The few people still eating and the mess steward turned and looked at me, but I didn’t think anything of it and went on out. All afternoon neither the Devil nor the ocean moved an inch.
That evening after dinner, we were still becalmed, and I went up to the bow to marvel at all that water which seemed to have become a solid mass without having frozen. Bird startled the hell out of me when he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let me buy you a drink.” I followed him back to the old salt’s cabin which I’d never visited. It was close in there. Everyone had either booze in a coffee mug or a can of beer. There were seven others lined up shoulder to shoulder on the bunk, side by side on the desk, and on the up ended trashcan. They included the girl summer worker, the woman mess steward, and Kate who beheld the butterscotch pressed between the fingertips of both hands as they rested on her lap. Bird sat on the floor with his back to the door. I perched on one corner of the bunk by the old salt, in the only chair, with a bottle of Smirnoff and one of Johnny Red at his feet. He poured me a half mug of scotch and said, “Now, tell us who gave you the candy.”