I’ve been working on this story for a couple of months. I didn’t sit down to write with the intention of being biographical or autobiographical but it is what it is, so with a little help from family, friends and co-workers I’ve hopefully given a fair representation of my subject. There’s a lifetime’s worth of material to choose from and like many of us I’ve waited too long to put it down on paper. It’s a shame to lose the details, but there are so many and I’m sure I couldn’t run out of material even if I recall only a small percentage of it. bb
I was relating a story about my father to a co-worker the other day and was struck by how I had summed up my Dad’s life and how the story didn’t really begin to tell who he was.
Like many times before, I described his career in a few sentences, his work ethic, accomplishments, and heavy drinking. What caught my attention during the conversation was that my brother and I are the last people alive to know my father as he had been at work. None of my father’s friends or co-workers survive. My brother and I are virtually the only living witnesses of him “on the job”.
All that is left of the stories that were told during backyard parties and barroom nights are scraps of the originals that my brother and I can remember. The gems stick out, but there are many I’ve forgotten.
His career accomplishments are evidence of how far a motivated and gifted “hawsepiper” can go. He did some amazing things.
The fact is, when I was a boy like many other young boys I thought my Dad could do anything. The event that had me completely convinced was the day I found him in the cellar of our home re-attaching his boot-heel as if he’d done it a hundred times before. It needed doing, he did it. Another time I can recall was when he took an old Ford sedan apart on our patio. He disassembled it right down to the frame and then rebuilt it like it was a jigsaw puzzle on a rainy Sunday afternoon. When the car started, there was no denying he was the “Man”.
The following, which I have repeated in its short form many times, is my father’s story,as I know it. I know little of my dad’s youth. I do know he was described as a hellion and a real handful. His nickname to those who knew him as a teenager was “Ace”.
My Grandmother believed the sun rose and set on both him and his older sister, Emma.
At the ripe old age of 4 my grandfather threw him off the side of a tugboat into the Hudson River to teach him to “sink or swim”. Well Dad sank alright, right out of my grandfather’s sight and nearly gave the old man a heart attack, but he just as quickly surfaced to dog-paddle back to the boat.
He lost some vision in his right eye due to an injury that he suffered at birth. He was a “breach baby” and a pair of errant forceps had damaged his right eye. In later years you wouldn’t know he was impaired in any way seeing him handle a boat.
As a young man he got into his share of trouble, he never finished high school, quitting after the tenth grade. In fact my Uncle Arthur, (my Grandmother’s brother) bailed him out of fixes from time to time by giving away bits of real estate in the town of Tenafly, N.J. Those parcels eventually became the center of town and ended up being a movie theater and some small shops in the heart of the commercial district near the railroad station. There must have been a few whoppers for the old man to pay so handsomely. The real value of that property now is staggering to think about.
My father always seemed to carry a chip on his shoulder where it concerned my grandfather. It seems that old Bill was a bit of a gambler and on more than one occasion gambled away his paycheck, much to my grandmothers dismay and as a result of enough paychecks ending up in the bookmaker’s pocket, my grandmother took in sewing work to help make ends meet.
This may have had a hand in shaping Dad’s work ethic later on and even though my parents divorced, my mother never failed to credit him with fulfilling his responsibilities as a good provider for his family. We always had what we needed and we were taught to earn what we wanted.
At the age of 16 it was said my father and pal Eddy Whitney signed on as a deckhands with the Day Liner side-wheeler “Alexander Hamilton” on the Hudson River and thus began their careers as boatmen.
Many jobs followed as they did in those days. If you were a boatman, you worked boats for anyone who had a job to do.
The picture at the top of this article is of my Dad when he worked on the N.Y. State canal system aboard the tug Dynamic. He would tell the story that whenever that old wooden tug would *fetch up into its “gate lines” the galley stove would move.
(to fetch up; in this usage is to come up tightly into the towlines) (Gatelines; a pair of short stern lines run from the after main bitts to the outside bow corners of a barge or scow to improve control in the tight quarters of the creeks of the Port of New York and vicinity, used frequently when transiting Hell Gate in the East River of New York City ergo the name.)
The need to make a living was never forgotten even if it was a short-term job. The Tappan Zee Bridge has the ghost of my father’s hand on the wheel of some unnamed small work boat.
The Sea-land terminals in Elizabeth and Port Newark also saw my father’s contribution. The jobs with the railroads followed after a stint in the Army, which was spent mostly in Fort Dix. As I understand it, he learned to cook there.
He worked as a cook on tugs in the NY State canal system. My grandfather got Dad in at the New York Central Railroad Marine Division and helped him get his start in the tugboat end of the business.
The railroad tugboat jobs were where Dad and Whitney cut their teeth on real boat handling and decking skills. My father was soon a Mate. It wasn’t long before my Dad made Captain and had his own crew. Eddy Whitney, a superb boat handler in his own right, was content to be the Deck Mate then Mate for Dad. My brother Eddy was named after “Uncle Eddy” and had him as his Godfather.
The railroads, Erie-Lackawanna, The New York Central, The Pennsylvania Railroad, The New Haven. Mostly I recall many trips to the New York Central yard in Weehawken, N.J, where I was sneaked in to work by my Dad at the age of 8 or 9 to see what he did when he wasn’t home. I remember how he scared me the first time by warning me not to let the dispatcher see me, so I’d scrunch down as low as I could, afraid I might be discovered and thrown in “irons”. In fact for the longest time I was wary of any dispatchers for that very reason, Dad said they were evil and I believed him. The fact was the dispatcher Jimmy Campbell, was his good friend.These trips almost always coincided with my birthday in early July. I remember firecrackers, beer bottles, oil stoves and “peanut whistles”. Boats taking their water for the next shift on the end of a Weehawken Pier. A busy place at night with little radio chatter and boats everywhere, amazing and really beautiful. It all comes back in a rush whenever I catch a breath of salt air stirred up by the boat’s quick-water on a warm day.
It’s as clear as if I was 9 years old again.It’s no surprise I had a problem staying awake for these visits since my Dad worked the “midnight to 8” shift at the time. I was told to get some rest right after supper “because we’re getting up and going to work for midnight”. Yeah right, the rest I got was negligible. I was going to work with my Dad, who could sleep? I was awake enough for the ride to work and sneaking onto the boat. I even got to see the lights of Manhattan in those early morning hours. I marveled at how my father was able to keep up with the dispatcher spouting a seeming unending stream of float numbers and berths over the radio for the night’s work of moving railroad floats* 2 at a time bound for Manhattan, or Brooklyn, or Long Island City. I remember watching Eddy Whitney handle lines and how he made it look so effortless. Throttle and rudder commands were communicated with a police whistle using a code similar based on the “bell system“, it was really something to see. Eddy was as good a boatman as there was, but he was content to be a mate.
[The Bells, courtesy of Ch.Eng. B. Mattsson
From a dead stop;
1 jingle = attention!
Answered by 1 jingle = ready
1 Bell; half ahead
while going half ahead;a double jingle = dead slow / 1 jingle and a gong- a little faster From half to 3/4, a jingle and a gong.
If running with engine engaged at full, one gong from full was to go to half. One gong from half was to go to stop.
However, from any speed astern, one gong meant stop.
From stop; 2 bells= 3/4 astern, + 1 jingle=full astern after a short pause another jingle meant emergency full astern
1 bell= stop
1 bell 1 jingle = full ahead, after a pause, another jingle meant “all you got!” or emergency full ahead
1 bell go to half.
1 bell = stop
If things became confused, a rapid staccato of bells would mean start over from stop.]
When first I went to work with my father the tugs were mostly oil-fired steam-powered “bell boats”. I learned the bells from my Dad and practiced my knots and splicing during those trips. Brown bag lunches of bologna and cheese with mustard, big deli pickles, Pepsi Cola.
But try as I may at 9 years old I couldn’t keep my eyes open through the night. Come daybreak, I would be sound asleep on the pilothouse settee when my father would wake me and help me climb over 5 or so boats changing shifts in the morning sun. I was damn near invisible among the crews changing out, the dispatcher was none the wiser.
As I grew and the trips to work became a lot less frequent, my relationship with my dad was the same as any found in a working class family. He spent all his time at work and I attended to school and my 3 younger brothers. We were on different paths that didn’t converge all that often. I never really played catch with or had him attend school events. I thought nothing of it. I knew some kids had “normal” dads, but my Dad was different. Our interaction revolved around chores and gardens. Washing cars, painting and raking leaves were the things we shared as the work of the house came first.
He did attend my high school graduation, but that was pretty much it. Growing up in a small seasonal community on the Jersey shore was okay with me. We had everything we needed, just not everything we wanted. He worked as hard as he could to provide for his wife and family of 4 boys.
Things were functional in a dysfunctional kind of way in my house. Dad was a drinker but he was also one helluva cook. He introduced us to some incredibly different things as I grew up. Some I liked and others that still make me gag.
He would drink beer, wine and soda, or whiskey, or a “Tom Collins”. Whatever it was, he wasn’t terribly picky.
He’d get mean when he was drinking. I remember dreading backyard parties with all of his friends coming down from up north. They all were hard drinkers, but seldom mean. The party would start out nicely enough. My brothers and I would make a small fistful of change bringing beer or cigarettes to the guys while they sat and told their stories, pitched horseshoes, laughing and cursing as sailors did. Dad was one of the best storytellers, and I would hang on every word. He was talking about who he was, and it was intoxicating.
The parties customarily revolved around the food and the pig roast we had one summer was reported to the police by a neighbor who said we were roasting a dog. When the cruiser pulled up, the policeman was invited in for a sandwich and drink before leaving and laughing his ass off as he drove away.
Overnight fishing trips in my Dad’s boat, the “Alma Rose”, named in honor of his mother, were frequent in the summer. Not a few of which ended with bushels of crab, lobster, and any kind of fish you could name. His friends would meet at the boat, party all night, sleep, then fish the next morning and return to cook and drink in our backyard. One trip actually moved my Mom to call the Police to say they were overdue and she feared something bad had happened. The boys had drunk too much and fallen asleep, all of them. They returned the next morning as if nothing was wrong and the festivities commenced. All night poker games would ensue, smoking cigarettes, drinking, laughing, and the language, as blue as it gets! A family friend, Dave Keelen, was at one of the parties and even though he hadn’t played a single hand, he still lost a bundle of cash at the table.
As the the drinking began in earnest, Dad would become a little meaner with each drink. He would take aim on my mother and begin to say some ugly things in front of his friends. Even as his friends would try to calm him down and ask him to cool off it would escalate. No matter, he’d found his target and he wasn’t going to let it go. The parties always broke up the same way, friends leaving, Dad drunk and mean. The morning after usually found the yard strewn with the last stragglers sleeping it off in hammocks and chaise lounges till they were sober enough to drive home. They usually just slipped away quietly without coffee or breakfast.
It was no surprise the marriage ended and privately I was relieved. I still worked with my father, so I had to keep that little bit to myself. I didn’t understand how a man of such talent and ability could get so ramped up and mean with his family but be so effective at work. He was widely admired for his skill and experience. His judgment was unmatched.
My brothers and I had very different experiences with this man. My brothers were very young when the marriage was failing, they had a different perspective of what was happening and except for my brother Jim, I don’t think they have a clear recollection of how bad it got at times. As a result of the divorce he moved out of the house just before I was 19. We worked together for 9 months with me as the new guy. He was a tough when it came to the job and his lessons still ring in my ears as I find myself using his words when I break in a new guy.
Next; The Panama Canal beckons.
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