DEEP SEA

 

The run was from Los Angeles to Panama to Alaska
Carrying Alaskan crude to Panama
Where it went by pipeline
To the east coast of Panama
Then by ship to the east coast of the US

Prince William Sound Alaska
A winter wonderland
Of course
This was before the accident that made it famous
For all the wrong reasons

Panoramic snow capped mountains
Rivers of ice – glaciers
Running down through the snow
Into the pristine water
Of the sound

We were flaking the mooring lines out on deck
As we slowly were pushed towards the dock
A mostly New Orleans crew
Many had never seen snow
Ed stood on deck looking up at the mountains

I stopped working and looked at him
“See Ed
A non-ending wilderness
A rifle, a bag of salt
A dog team

What more could a man want?”
Ed was a small man
Seventy-six years old
Wiry, all muscle
Had just celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary

He continued to look up at the mountains
Initially ignoring my question
It was a good solid ten count before he looked over at me
Dead pan and serious
“A little pussy wouldn’t be bad.”

He was quick for seventy-six
As we loaded
The ship dropped in the water
I was forward with the Third Mate tightening the mooring lines
Engage winch

Take off brake
Tighten lines
Brake on
Disengage winch
I was on this last step

The two-foot lever with little black ball on the end
Was tucked under my armpit as I used my body to push down and disengage the winch
This is when the brake slipped
And the lever I held
Took the full weight of the guitar string tight mooring line

Snapping the lever out of my hand
Swinging it in a blinding half circle
Catching me on the underside of my jaw
Numbness spread through my lower face
As I picked up a handful of snow

Pressed it against my jaw
Took another half turn on the brake with my free hand
Disengaged the winch
And turned to see the Third Mate staring at me
“Are you OK!”

“Fine”
“You must feel pretty good because you just took the equivalent of a Holmes right hand and you are still standing”
At dinner that night we could all feel the ship moving
The lights of Valdez were fading
As we began to eat

I put a veal tip in my mouth
Moving it to the back of my mouth
And bit down slowly
Probing the injury
There was a pop, and my teeth hit differently

“Fuck, fuck!”
I was standing now
Everyone had stopped eating
The bosun – a born again Christian
We affectionately referred to him as the Holy Roller

Stood as well
“What’s the matter Pete?”
“My fucking jaw is broken”
Silence hung in the air
“Are you sure?”

I am positive
He paused before speaking quietly
I do not know if they can or will turn around
But if you want me to I will make that pitch
Your call

I picked up my plate moving away from the table
“I am good.”
I looked back briefly
To see everyone looking down
Staring at their food

I was on the wheel that night
As we left the narrows
Only I could see them - they spoke to me
Trying to calm me down
On the silent and dark bridge

I threw the supertanker around
The Captain and the Pilot stood in the dark looking out the forward glass
Arms and elbows resting on the sill side by side
They were giving me courses – not rudders
We were coming right hard

When the ship turns the wheel makes a clicking noise
The faster the turn, the quicker the clicks
At this point, the clicks sounded like a playing card in bicycle spokes
The Third Mate came by me and whispered quietly
You better slow down or you will go right by…

It crashed down on me
“Fuck we were loaded.”
I had been throwing it around light for the last two weeks…
I turned the wheel hard left
And waited

The Pilot became aware of the rapid right turn
Looked at me, “Twenty left.”
“Pilot the wheel is hard left”
The Pilot and Captain backed away from the glass looking up at the rudder
We all waited

The clicks finally slowed
We drifted a couple degrees by
Came back
And settled up
Right on course

Weeks later
He sat across from me in the mess
We were alone
I picked up my bowl
Yet another bowl of soup and rice

He smiled warmly
You are going to be down to your fighting weight before you are off here
Years later
A second story bar in Singapore
Wee hours of the morning

The aging Stewart looked at me
“Whether you know it or not
You were in shock
The fact they had you on the wheel at night
In the narrows

When you had broken your jaw four hours earlier
Unbelievable!
Back ashore
I politely declined having my jaw re-broken
“I am good.”

That was a while ago
But as you can see
It stays with me
A few years ago
I seriously gave it some thought

I called them up and spoke to Jack in the New York hall
He was my friend
I heard his voice
“I do not remember you.”
What is your social?

A pause then more quietly
“You are right
Here you are
A-seniority deep sea shipper.”
His next words made me smile

“You owe a lot of dues
Now that we are speaking
Things are coming back to me
I am starting to remember you
When you are ready come in – you will get out.”

My younger looked at me
“Maybe I will go out on that ship with you.”
That is when I knew for sure
I could not go
Not yet anyway

I look up from my desk at the pencil drawing
Two stick figures in a big boat
With a big label
“Dad and Me”
Maybe someday…

But not now