Monday, May 31, 2010

Common Sense: Part 1 of 4: Oggy Goes to Zanzibar

Common Sense
By Oggy Bleacher

In 1992, I joined the Merchant Marines. My goal was to join the Seafarer’s Union and ship overseas to the Persian Gulf where two friends of mine were making $400 a day in hazard pay looking for undersea mines. I arrived in New Orleans with a fresh National Guard endorsement and went to the union hall only to learn the demand for sailors was non-existent and the demand for green deckhands was even less. Able Seamen and Mates were taking jobs as Deckhands. Captains were taking jobs as Mates. Chief Engineers were washing dishes to stay employed. I was welcome to pay the health fee and begin paying union dues but it was likely I’d be donating to someone else’s union benefits and would never ship out. “Try Houston or Los Angeles,” said the dispatcher.

I only had enough money for the trip to New Orleans so I ended up in a homeless shelter in the French Quarter that was by far the worst shelter I’d ever stayed in. Personal effects were confiscated upon entry. They handed me pajamas with a size 52 waist when I wear a size 34. I tied them in a knot and shuffled through the dozens of cots and played cards with the Louisiana locals. The residents were 90% African American and 100% apathetic. When I told them of my plans to join the Merchant Marines one man said, “Won’t fahn me on no boat huntin’ bom’s. Nah. You crazy.” I was a long way from home but determined to pursue my dream of the sailor’s life.
I did not eat the green bologna sandwiches they passed out at dinner but I traded it for a package of crackers. We listened to a sermon about accepting the Lord as our Savior and then we were offered an opportunity to shower. There were not enough towels to go around and the water went cold after the first ten people so I brushed my teeth and slept with my shoes under my pillow, listening to the coughing and snoring of the chronically destitute. After a breakfast of a bruised apple and a slice of bread with peanut butter a man told me of a plasma bank in Metarie that would give me enough money to get to Houston in exchange for blood plasma. That sounded fair so my new friend and I crossed the river on a ferry and sold our plasma. On the ferry back to New Orleans my buddy sold shoplifted steak to the deckhands while I rubbed my sore right arm. Clearly, it’s a hustler’s world so I stopped at the union hall one more time and, though I got the same response, I did see a tempting red ad glued in a phone booth.
“$$$ Merchant Marine Jobs. No Experience Needed. Ship today! $$$”
I called and was told to come in to what turned out to be an employment service in west New Orleans that could guarantee me a job in exchange for a small fee. I was thrilled and signed all the paperwork, certain I was finally going to Kuwait!
“Got a supply vessel outfit that’s doing some restaffing. You have offshore experience?”
“Offshore? I’ve been in the ocean, if that’s what you mean. My friend and I took this canoe once and…”
The agent wanted to make money, not teach me the way of the world so he said, “Alright, let’s say you were a crab fisherman in Alaska.”
“And you worked on tug boats in New England.”
“Sounds good.”
He adjusted my resume and smiled.
“I’ll send this off to that company and lets see if we can get you to work.”
“Sir, I just want to thank you for this opportunity. It means the world. I’ve always wanted to go overseas to places like Turkey and Hong Kong. I can’t wait to…”
“Son, we’re just happy to help put people and jobs together.”
He sounded like he meant it.
I decided that it wouldn’t hurt to go to the union hall in Houston so I drove across Louisiana and down into Texas but found the same bleak fortune in the Lone Star State. They hadn’t shipped out a new deckhand in 18 months. I called the employment agency back and to my surprise, the company was interested in talking to me. I needed only to drive to a place called Galveston for an interview. I was thrilled. This was at a time in my life when I could talk my way into any job. My smile opened doors. To me, an interview was the same as a job. Zanzibar, here I come!
I drove to Galveston, met with a tall drawling Texan and nailed the interview.
“I know I don’t have a ton of experience but I want to emphasize my desire to learn how to work as part of a large team. I learn fast. Give me a chance. Please.”
It didn’t hurt that I was authentically desperate. I was fast running out of blood plasma.
The man leaned back and kicked up his cowboy boots onto his desk.
“Oggy, I kin see yer smert. But do yew got common sense?”
Common sense. That was the first of many times I would hear that term.
“You bet,” I said. “I fix a leak when I see it.”
“Lit me till yew what we kin do fer yew,” said the Texan after a pause. He just happened to have an opening on a boat that was leaving that night. I’d have just enough time to buy a pair of steel toe boots before meeting the boat at the dock.
“I won’t let you down. Where, if I might ask, are we going? South Africa? Panama? Tierra Del Fuego?”
The Texan just grinned slowly.
Technically, the entire world is offshore. I figured I would find out what country I was going to when I got on the ship.
I bought a pair of steel toe boots at a pawn store and had time to write a postcard or two to my family saying that the next time they hear from me would be when I landed in Alexandria or Rio De Janiero. I drove to the staging area for my company and was surprised when I didn’t see the ship. The only thing floating was a shrimp boat. A van arrived with two men who were on my crew. One man was built like a fire hydrant and I personally witnessed him lift a 100 pound tool chest in one hand while carrying 100 pound coil of cable in the other. His name was Mack. The other man in the van was asleep.
“Let’s go,” said the driver, and soon we were driving through the night.
“Does anyone know where we are going?” I asked and received no answer. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. Were there ports on the coast of Africa? I’d soon know. I’d soon meet the sailors of the world’s seas.
We picked up two other men on the way to a coastal town in Lousiana called Port Fourchon, absconded in the heart of the bayou and lit up by the blaze of industry. This, I saw, was where a dramatic struggle commenced between the jungle and the concrete, the darkness and the light, death and life. This was where men were separated from the meek. We might be dirty and slow and easily sickened but no one can say Men were idle when the sun shone. In Port Fourchon, the sun shines 24 hours a day.
Without a word, the van let us off and five mirror images crowded onto the van and drove away. I followed the other four men toward what I assumed would be our ship, but where was it? Where were the towering smoke stacks and high stern? We all climbed up a plank to a boat that was approximately 100 feet long. It looked like a tug boat with a big deck on the back.
“This is the crew boat,” someone mumbled when I asked which cabin would be mine. “Yew don’t git a cab’n” So, this was the boat that would take us to the real boat. Ah, it was clear now. Our boat was so big it couldn’t fit in these shallow ports. The crew boat was so empty that I could sit anywhere. The other four men fell asleep shortly after we motored out of the dock area. I stood near the railings and watched the lights recede over the watery horizon. When would I see land again? It was hard to tell since I didn’t know where I was going, to what country, and to what continent. Where would my journey end? I was so excited I did not sleep when I lay down on the padded benches with a blanket for a pillow, listening to the hum of the giant engines beneath me, feeling the roll and pitch of the boat as it skimmed through the sea.
I reflected on my uniquely American day: I’d awoken that morning 20 hours earlier, in my car on a hot Houston street outside a Soymilk processing plant and now I was plunging through the open ocean on a crew boat for a rendezvous with my first merchant marine assignment. This exact moment had been doubted by almost everyone I had described my plan to. This moment could never happen for a variety of reasons that I had overcome, as I knew I would. If you put your mind to it you can accomplish anything, but, as I would soon learn, you have to be careful what you put your mind to.
As it took 4 more hours to arrive at our boat, the sun was coming up over the ocean, a spectacle I never grew tired of, the tiny slices of orange and red gradually widening and reflecting and growing until the sun magnifies everything and you transcend the daily grind and take part in a ceremony of rebirth.
I couldn’t see our ship when I joined the others on the deck but I did see a gigantic steel pipe and corrugated steel floor building that was apparently floating on the water. Four legs disappeared into the ocean along with pipes and hoses. Water poured off the platform and a steady banging of metal on metal echoed across deck. Men on the platform moved like dancers with steel as their partner. From far above, hundreds of feet up, a crane dropped a safety net with a life preserver as a floor and I thought, “I pity the person who has to get in that.” That was our cue to stand in the middle of the deck. The mate asked me to hand him the tool chest and I could not pick it up. I had to slide it across the deck, stumbling on my awkward steel toe boots.
I hadn’t slept in 26 hours, my heart was racing from the straight black coffee the Mate had insisted I drink, we gathered our gear in the middle of the deck as the net fell from above. I slowly realized that it was us who were supposed to get on the life preserver.
“Uh…I….” I mumbled.
“What? Speak up?”
“What do we do?”
“You get on!”
“Wait till it goes slack. Then get yer shit on. And grab hold. You only get one chance.”
My hard hat was slipping off my head. The life vest I was wearing was banging into my arms and making it hard to move. I had to go to the bathroom. The noise from the platform was deafening.
“Here she comes!”
The netting fell heavily to the deck of the crew ship, narrowly missing the mate’s head. The five of us threw everything into the middle of the netting. But where would we stand?
“Grab hold!”
The other men had stepped onto the outside of the life preserver and were holding onto the net with one hand. The boat rose and was about to fall, which meant the net cage was going to take off without me. The oldest man’s mouth was opening and closing but I could not hear anything over the din of the exhaust from the 4000 HP engines and the banging of pipe from the platform and the thump of my heart in my chest. The sun was burning hot over the Gulf. My car, my life, my history, my home were a long way away. I held my breath and grabbed the netting and stepped onto the foam life preserver moments before the boat fell into a wave trough and the crane lifted us high above the ocean. The crew boat motored away leaving us suspended in the air. Directly beneath me in the water I thought I saw the shadow of a Hammerhead shark. What next?
“There she is!” Someone yelled.
Seemingly out of nowhere appeared a ship similar in shape to the crew boat but bigger by 20%, a flat bed pickup truck with a rudder.
I watched from above as the other boat backed up under us as the crane dropped us to the deck that was filled with long lengths of pipe and machinery. We landed with a thud and I tumbled to the ground while the men unloaded the net cage of their possessions.
The oldest man came over to me and said over a wrinkled finger, “You on my ship now. You fuck up and I’ll throw your ass overboard.”
This was the captain and I had just become a deckhand on his offshore supply vessel. We were about 80 miles south/south east of Port Fourchon and that was as close to Zanzibar as I would ever get as a Merchant Marine. I would not sleep for another 14 hours, spending most of my shift vomiting on the floor then moping it up again, and in that time the captain almost made good on his promise.
If you squint real hard you can see Alexandria, Egypt

Coming Soon: Part 2 Oggy meets Oil

Common Sense: Part 1 of 4
Common Sense: Part 2 of 4
Common Sense: Part 3 of 4
Common Sense: Part 4 of 4
Creative Commons License
Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.