The Panama Canal
After making an application to the Panama Canal Company in early 1974, Dad was invited to spend a week-long, all-expenses-paid trip to check out the job and see if it was a good fit. The story goes that upon arriving Dad was shepherded around the “Zone” by his soon to be good friend John Brader. After touring the tugs and wandering through the apartment he’d have for the week, John was kind of feeling him out and asked if he’d like a cup of coffee. Dad’s reply was no. He then offered a soda and received the same response. Finally, John asked if he’d like a beer when Dad replied,” Christ, I thought you’d never fucking ask!”. A friendship is born.
It was during my first year decking for him that he decided to take the job in Panama. I don’t think he was completely sure of his choice but it certainly appealed to him that he’d be working in the tropics. Since the marriage to my mother was over and other entanglements were driving him to distraction I think he jumped at the chance to start fresh.
The adventure started just before Christmas 1974 when he drove from N.J. to New Orleans with all his “stuff” to have it shipped to Panama (including the car) on a ship headed for the Zone. He wasn’t very upbeat about it and seemed a little subdued by the whole thing. Although he wasn’t religious, it was Christmas after all.
He settled quickly in Panama and found his feet. He was a natural boat handler, so the job was not a problem at all. He frequently marveled at how well he was treated and described how he was brought a steak dinner if they had to work a minute of overtime. The boat had a phone hookup at the dock, cable TV of a sort and a fully functioning air conditioner throughout the boat. A far cry from anything he had ever worked on in New York Harbor.
I paid him a visit in early February 1975 after developing cold feet for my approaching June wedding. After leaving Newark in 16-degree weather I flew into Tucomen Airport’s 93-degree heat and 95% humidity landing at 9 o’clock at night. For 3 days he gave me the tour and took me to his new haunts, I met his new friends.
I must admit I wasn’t the best company. Anyone who has trashed their fiancée’s wedding plans and run off seldom carry a great deal of “carefree and happy” with them. My father quickly saw that I wasn’t there. I returned to the States to ask forgiveness and marry in June.
My brother Jim spent three years in Panama with my Dad and got the chance to work there on the dredge Hercules as well. He was able to share and enjoy the tropical scene much more than I could have. My younger brothers both got to live the tropical lifestyle for six months and came back tanned and tattooed. A good time was had by all.
My brother Jim was closer to my Dad, they shared the gift of being more than a little mechanically inclined. They were drinking buddies and kindred spirits. It’s kind of funny that Jim always gave Dad as good as he got, he never seemed to get rattled by him as much as the rest of us. My father’s persona was quite forceful, he had a knack for freezing you in your tracks with the “look”. When he raised his voice, it was like all Hell had broken loose. I think he did it sometimes just to see people scatter. Nearly all of my friends avoided the house when he was home and he liked that just fine. It made for a quieter nap time before hauling off to work.
He never tip-toed around people’s feelings, he called it like he saw it and he saw things in fairly simple terms. He expected you to work at least as hard as he did. If you disagreed with him you would get that “look” meant to make you change your mind, but if you backed down he wouldn’t respect you. He tested people frequently, on one occasion he “tested” my bride-to-be only to find he’d met his match, she gave no quarter and thereafter treated her with the respect she demanded (at least while he was sober). At dinner one night Dad yelled from the living room for one of us to bring him a drink, my mother and I were speechless when my fiancée stood up without hesitating and told him to quit shouting orders like an old bear and for him to get up and get it himself. Up until that day only his own mother and sister could redress him and get away with it. I was duly impressed by her courage. She showed no fear and he could respect that.
While Jim was in Panama, Dad was still steering tugs, training mates, and assisting ships through the cuts and locks.
Soon after Jim and the younger brothers moved back to the states the Panama Canal Commission invited Dad to become a Panama Canal Pilot.
This was huge, and Dad jumped on it. He fulfilled his training and licensing requirements in short order and was made a full share pilot. He was now a Panama Canal Pilot. He now held one of the most prestigious jobs in the world. If he thought it was great treatment on the tugs, the pilots had it knocked. Limos to and from the job, a real white shirt and tie kind of job. He was in heaven and said so.
It sounded like he missed his tugboat buddies and traditionally there may have been a separation of sorts between the lowly tugboat guys and the high and mighty pilots. They generally never associated with one another socially or otherwise. The real boatmen knew who they were and each group was convinced of their superiority. He chafed at that notion long before the offer to become a pilot arrived, but he saw it for what it was. He was a boatman that made pilot, not an academy grad/ring knocker, but a real hawsepiper making good. It was a natural progression.
My father’s sense of loyalty was if you were friends before, the new title was meaningless at the end of the day. He still sat with the friends he made when he arrived and kept in touch with all of them. The shame of it is that he outlived all of his friends.
The sad part of all this is Dad’s career as pilot did not last as long as he would have liked due to the poor supervision of a watch officer on a Korean car carrier that my Dad was to pilot through the canal in 1986. The boarding ladder, known as a “Jacob’s Ladder”, was not properly secured and gave way under my father’s weight as he tried to ascend it to the entry hatch. The ladder slipped its tie-downs and let go, Dad was dropped 15 feet and left hanging by one arm for dear life just above the water. His launch operator managed to maneuver his boat under him and Dad was able to land on the deck of his launch without hitting the water. He later said there was no way he was letting go of that ladder.
If the launch operator missed, Dad was headed for the spinning propeller and a messy end. The damage however was done. Dad ruptured his biceps and triceps and lost 70% of the use of his right arm. He could no longer climb a ladder or board a ship as Pilot again. He was retired on a full medical disability because of his “golden arm”, it undoubtedly broke his heart as much as it broke his arm.
After that, he moved to his home in Merritt Island, Fla. where he’d go to the beach, visit a few “gin mills” as he liked to call them and then hang around the house with his wife, my step-mother Mariela. The next chapters would be more of a mystery to me since I was removed by about 1,200 miles. I still lived in N.J. and my brothers all lived in Florida. Jim and Ed were in close proximity to Dad and shared a closer relationship than I ever had with him. My career on tugs continued and I kept him up to date on my progress over the years.
He was genuinely proud when I collected my Master’s ticket and he never failed to address me as Captain Brucato. My father wasn’t overly demonstrative, he was old school and unlikely to “get in touch” with feelings. He made a special effort to see my youngest brother Dan graduate from college, the only one of the four brothers to do so. He was sentimental, but he’d never admit it.
He had a hard time telling the people he loved that very thing. He would drink and get nasty forcing us to plan on visiting him early in the day to avoid the nasty part. He tried investing in a bar for a while and didn’t succeed. He didn’t travel although he could afford it. He loved the beach and bragged about watching the space shuttle launches and generally just putted around the house.
His drinking took a heavy toll on his health. He had “the gout” as it’s called. The damning thing about it was if you have the gout, you can’t drink without medication, and then only a moderate amount. It’s a shame he didn’t get that part. He refused to follow any doctor’s advice and he suffered mightily for it. He would eat healthy and drink as he saw fit and neglected the meds. The more he drank, the more pain he would have and he would drink even more to ease the pain.
He took to trying snake oil remedies advertised on late night TV. He would do anything except visit the doctor and heed the advice he knew would be given.
During this, Mariela, his wife of 25 years, was dying of cancer. She had a radical mastectomy before and now after a few years being cancer free she was diagnosed with a quick and deadly form of brain cancer. She was still sharp as a tack in her last days but after only a few months she succumbed to the disease and left Dad to himself.
After Mariela’s passing he was bumping around his little house alone except for my brothers calling on him when they could.
When it came to some things he was a riddle. He would appear to be a loner but would state unequivocally that everyone needs someone. Although he would deny it outwardly, he was lonely. The phrase he began to use was a bit chilling but it was all him “ I’m just waiting to die” he’d say to me. “All my friends are dead. What do I have left? I’ve done everything and been everywhere I wanted to go”. It was hard to get much of a conversation going after that comment was made.
He broke a hip and recovered.
According to my brother Jim, the endgame started once Dad had the misfortune to be involved in an auto accident a few blocks from home that he didn’t cause but subsequently failed the Breathalyzer at the scene and was held overnight in jail. After that he was not the same. He started to withdraw.
My brother Ed was nearby and was stopping by daily to take the old man shopping and help around the house. He was grateful for the company no doubt, and he was generous in his praise for Ed when he spoke of him. Ed remained devoted to him to the end.
The phone call came from my brother Jim that Dad had taken a fall and was not doing very well. My father refused Ed’s plea that they should go for medical help, he was a force to be reckoned with even then. Jim arrived on the scene after driving for 3 hours from southern Florida to Merritt Island. He ignored Dad’s orders and summoned an ambulance to have him admitted to the local hospital. At first it looked as though the Dad was going to get the help he needed. Jim and Ed took over his care and tried to make him comfortable but it was a huge task. Ed moved in to take on the lion’s share of my father’s care but it soon became too much to handle. After moving him back to the hospital/convalescence center it was becoming apparent Dad wasn’t interested in therapy or medications. He was done with it. He was refusing physical therapy because it was tortuous, without the therapy he would worsen and never recover his mobility. The doctors were at a loss and the brothers were unable to convince him otherwise. Dad was interviewed and signed off his living will and was moved to a hospice unit. When my wife and I last visited him I wasn’t under any illusions he may recover. We spoke about the car carrier that ended his career, and tried to make small talk.
He passed quietly a mere 5 days from the last time I saw him. When I got the call from Jim it took a good while for it to register. It’s not that it was difficult to accept since I knew it was imminent, but it was jarring.
The last act is to spread his ashes, for my brother Jim it’s a difficult step to take. He has yet to bring himself to go through all of Dad’s things since it was always taboo, but I’m sure when he’s ready, he’ll let go. There’s no hurry.
Rest in peace Dad.