we have another blush-worthy post; read it here.
we have another blush-worthy post; read it here.
Three hours later, the Sea Witch’s belly had gone from four to fifteen feet below the water line as a result of its recently acquired load while the Ryujin sat that much higher. The deck hands fastening the fendering back to her side looked to Captain Reed to be no bigger than children. The Sea Witch was off, already moving upriver, while Captain Reed paced the deck, waiting impatiently for the arrival of the river pilot who would steer the Ryujin up the Delaware to the Marcus Hook refinery. The pilot was late and lateness was something Reed could not tolerate.
“Company, sir,” the first mate called.
A small water taxi, likely bearing the river pilot, was arriving. Captain Reed didn’t think much of river pilots on the whole, thought them a lazy lot, their navigational skills gone slack from disuse as a result of gliding back and forth on the same body of water – the epitome of a big fish in a little pond – but the law said that only the river pilots could take a ship upriver. The company that serviced the Delaware was run by an old codger named Lars Andersen. He was smooth and weathered like driftwood back when Reed met him fifteen years ago and despite his prejudices, Reed had come to like the man over time.
Captain Reed ceased his pacing to watch the water taxi’s approach. It pulled up close and tight to the Ryujin and a young man of about twenty-five reached for the rope ladder hanging down her side. Reed frowned and moved in to get a closer look.
The water taxi bobbed on the water while Pilot Christian Anderson stood watching the swell of the waves, looking for an opportunity. The Ryujin rocked and jumped with the swell of the rising tide. The taxi was at optimal height and Anderson had a split second to decide: he grabbed for a middle rung of the rope ladder, Jacob’s ladder, and pulled hard. He threw one leg around the outside rope and hooked his foot inside a square. He grabbed another rung with his free hand just as the sea tossed the water taxi and the deck fell away. Anderson held on with ease, suspended along the side of the Ryujin , his strong, well-tuned muscles tensing and flexing under his own weight as he climbed the thirty-odd feet to the top. He swung over the side of the supertanker, dropping effortlessly onto the deck, and looked into the face of mocking disapproval.
“Who are you?” Captain Reed barked.
“Pilot Christian Anderson. At your service, sir.” He bowed his head slightly.
“Christian Anderson? Where’s Lars?”
“Dead,” Anderson said, watching Reed’s face. The eyes changed, but the face did not. No way of telling whether the Captain was friend or foe of his father since the man had equal amounts of both – one either loved or hated him – or whether he knew Lars even had a son. “Any other questions?” Anderson asked. Reed took a step back to better appraise Anderson.
Christian Anderson had been a pilot for about thirty-three seconds. Actually it had been three years, but only three weeks since his father died and he took over the family business. So far, he hadn’t been able to lose that sick feeling in his stomach that sometimes came with the weight of being in charge. He’d played the prodigal son for so long that he couldn’t get used to this new appellation. Still, that wasn’t information he was about to be offering up, especially not to this dickbag standing in front of him looking all smug and holier than thou. He’d had a hard enough time convincing the other half a dozen pilots his father employed that he was up to the task of running the business, and not into the ground , as he had heard them prognosticate under their collective breaths. This business would flourish in ways his father never had the foresight to allow. They’d see. They’d all see. Then he’d have something to flaunt. He gave Reed his own forthright appraisal, looking him over like a prized heifer. Reed’s icy glare forced Anderson to turn his own face away as if stung.
Anderson pulled out a small brown leather case and flashed his pilot’s badge, then shoved it back in his pocket; Reed put a hand on his arm to stop him. Anderson narrowed his eyes at the Captain, but pulled it out again, handing it to Reed for examination. Reed examined the license then the man himself before handing it back.
“He was your father then?”
Anderson searched Reed’s eyes for some glint of emotion, and finding none, figured it was simple curiosity that asked the question. Anderson nodded.
“When did he die?”
“Three weeks ago.”
Captain Reed made a small gesture, a slight nod of the head, turned on his heel and walked away. Whether it was meant as an offer of sympathy Anderson couldn’t tell. He stared after Reed in mute astonishment, his delicate, Swedish features turning momentarily to granite. And as the Captain turned the corner, Anderson decided it prudent to follow and sprinted after Reed.
Hours later, the moon rose above the horizon at what might be considered warp speed in moon terms, bulging and engorged, a result of the last rays of the sun’s refracted light. As she climbed, she lost that overstuffed pancake look, shrunk down to normal size and simply became the moon once again, that giant, floating orb of light and beauty that possessed the mystical ability to control tides and sway men’s hearts.
Anderson, his hands set tightly on the joy stick, cast a glance up at the sky and relaxed his grip. To his right and behind stood Captain Reed, so close to Anderson’s shoulder that he could hear the man breathing although to Anderson it sounded more like a wheeze. The noise and Reed’s sheer proximity were unnerving.
“You know, you should have that looked at,” Anderson said.
“Your lungs. It sounds like your breathing underwater.”
“I’d thank you to mind your own business .” Reed emphasized the word business and Anderson’s shoulders tightened. He couldn’t stop thinking about the messy state his father had left it in.
“I’m going down on deck for a few minutes. Try not to hit anything,” Reed said and left.
“Dickbag,” Anderson muttered. It was only a hundred and two-mile stretch of river from the Bay to the Marcus Hook refinery, but already Anderson knew it was going to be the longest hundred miles he’d ever traveled. And by night, no less. The thought sent a shiver up his spine.
Had he been given his way, the Ryujin would have waited until morning to depart, but the tide had reached high water mark and was on the way down and the Sea Witch had already taken off upriver. Reed had wanted the Ryujin to follow as soon behind as the Coast Guard would allow to take advantage of the extra draft room the high tide would provide. He was pissed, that bastard, that Anderson hadn’t taken off right away, but Anderson was adamant about inspecting the ship, acquainting himself with all her innermost workings. With so few solo trips under his belt and a business on the line, he couldn’t afford any screw ups. Mostly so he wouldn’t appear lackadaisical and just to shut Reed up, he agreed to leave when his inspection was complete. Unfortunately, by that time it was twilight.
Anderson came from a long line of sailors and sea captains, a nepotistic bunch of Swedes, brothers, uncles, and cousins who were all active in the business Anderson’s father had inherited from his own father. During early childhood, he spent many nights curled up in a sleeping bag at his father’s feet as his Dad piloted a ship upriver, listening to the low rumbling vibration of the boat, the last lines of his father’s bedtime story resonating in his ears. Except that those stories were much worse than the usual macabre of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson. His father’s stories were of sailors lost at sea; of monsters with terrible fangs and breath like fire; of mermaids that grabbed unsuspecting sailors off their ships and bore them down to their watery graves; of the sirens, lovely creatures that lured men too near the rocks with their songs and laughed as the waves bashed their ships against them, leaving the hapless sailors to drown in the melee. The stories had delighted and enchanted him and Anderson would look up to catch a last glimpse of his father standing behind the wheel, smiling at him as his child’s eyes became heavy with sleep.
Anderson’s head bobbed, touching his chest. He opened his eyes and for an instant, he was a boy again. He came to full consciousness, shocked with the realization that he had fallen asleep at the helm. There was no telling if it had been seconds or minutes. He blinked and rubbed his eyes, then shook himself like a wet dog, dispensing the sleepiness that had settled on him like drops of water. It had been three weeks since he’d had a good night’s sleep, haunted as he was by visions of the giant of a man he’d loved so in life.
He felt a hand on his arm and turned, half-expecting to see his father. He saw Captain Reed instead. Reed said nothing, the scoundrel, just turned and stood off to the side, staring out into the blackness in front of him, his hands clasped behind his back, the picture of urbanity. Anderson cleared his throat to break the silence and cast a glance back at Reed, the asinine bastard. He saw the Captain’s face out of the corner of his eye, baleful and unwelcoming. He glanced at the radar screen. The next three channel markers were well lit.
“So how long have you been a Captain?” Anderson asked. Safe ground.
“Longer than you’ve been alive,” Reed retorted.
Anderson rolled his eyes and puckered his lips, blowing air out slow and silent. The air in the control deck felt thick and clogged in sharp contrast to the breezy conditions on the river. Anderson moved his head from side to side, stretching the muscles in his neck. As the silent minutes ticked by, his mind drifted to his father’s last months when the Alzheimer’s had him fully in its grasp. How time must have blended together for him; his stubborn refusal to retire, even in his lucid moments. Was time really not linear, as the physicists said, and even more absurd, all happening at once? That one would wreak havoc on the history books.
Reed spoke, but Anderson missed what he said so Reed cleared his throat.
“Excuse me?” Anderson said.
“I said how long? Until we drop our load. How long?”
“What, you got a date?”
Reed didn’t even crack a smile, just gave Anderson a stultifying glare.
Anderson harrumphed. “A few hours give or take. It’s slower going at night.”
“I notice you don’t use the radar much,” Reed said.
“I use it as backup.”
Reed’s eyebrows shot up in query.
Anderson gave Reed a half-smile. “I’ve been traveling this river since I was a boy. I can tell you where every rock and shoal lies.”
Reed made a small grunting noise that originated in the back of his throat, and strode over to the radar screen. A light blipped on and off signaling the presence of something buried well below the surface out of the path of the Ryujin . He grabbed the weems plotter, a fat ruler with wheels, placed it on a line and rolled it down making a compass angle.
“You think using a chart is funny?”
“Just laughing at the hardware.”
Reed raised his eyebrows, scanned the desk chart and then at the blinking radar screen. “What do you think that is?”
“Nothing to be alarmed about?”
“How do you know?”
“The GPS says we’re right where we need to be,” Anderson said. “There’s nothing at that particular juncture big enough to cause injury to his boat.”
Reed snorted. His voice was so sedate that a small shiver ran up Anderson’s spine. “When was the last time you were on this river?”
“Three weeks ago.” Three weeks ago, Anderson’s father had died suddenly while at the wheel of a ship very similar to this, leaving his son to sort through the mess.
“If you know anything about rivers,” Reed said curtly, “you’ll know the last thing they are is static. Things change. How do you know that a boulder hasn’t rolled, or wasn’t just missed in the plotting, or a school bus didn’t drive off the side of the road and is now parked in our path, waiting to tear a large, gaping hole into the hull?”
Anderson sighed. “I don’t. But regardless of that nice little speech you just gave, river bottoms don’t change all that drastically. Besides, the Army Corps is always dredging this part of the river to keep the silt down so the channel stays open.”
A wry smile formed in the corner of Reed’s mouth; he turned back to the chart. “Under the Coast Guard regs, you might be temporarily in charge of this ship, but remember this, son,” Reed said. “I’m the Captain. Before, and long after you’re gone.” Reed eyed the blinking radar screen. “What’s that?”
Andersen checked the screen and scanned the dark horizon. He saw nothing. “A small speed boat, maybe? Or a fisherman still out on the water.” Thanks to Reed, he was growing a little nervous himself. The blip on the radar screen moved erratically, not a stagnant boulder half-buried in the sea bottom, that was for Goddamn sure, but something, and admitting it to this truculent son-of-a-bitch made him queasy.
“There’s been nothing reported in the last week,” Anderson said, trying to maintain an air of calm about him. “As far as the Coast Guard and the Corps are concerned, we’ve got ten feet of water between us and the bottom of the river. We’re riding anything but light. But we’ve still got the residual benefit of the flood tide even though it’s turned.” He glanced out the window at the bank of the Delaware and gave silent thanks for the red buoys. Red right returning . As long as the buoys were on the right, they were safely in the channel. He shook his head, trying to cast off the vibes of impending doom that Reed was scattering about the cabin like wildflower seeds and stole a glance at the imperial jackass as he moved the weems plotter over the nautical charts, its wheels squeaking like baby mice.
“Man, would you knock it off? You’re creeping me out.”
Reed gasped. Anderson turned in time to see Reed lunge at him. Reed tossed Anderson aside and wrenched the joy stick from his grip, and with it, the direction of the ship, slowly altering its course by forty-five degrees. But before Anderson could react, they heard it. The sound started out low, like a hum, and grew in volume until it became identifiable. A small water craft. The speed boat raced by and they both looked out the window in time to see the stern of the motor boat disappearing from view; the laughter of its occupants left behind, floating on the breeze.
“Goddamn kids,” Reed said.
A feeling of de ja vu overtook Anderson and he entered a place where time was no longer linear. He knew more than a few seconds had passed because the sound of laughter, mingled with the small boat’s engine, had receded into silence, yet he couldn’t say how long that took or what had transpired in the interim. He regained his presence of mind and looked to the river for reorientation. The buoys were on the left!
“Jesus Christ.” By instinct Anderson grabbed the joy stick, shoving Reed aside, and cut it hard, aiming the ship back into the channel. She turned slowly on her axis, a planet caught in the gravitational pull of her own sun. She spun slowly, a giant arcing whale, then resumed her forward motion, course righted. Anderson breathed a sigh as they passed the buoys on their way back into the channel. But relief was short-lived.
It was no more than a slight jolt, what one might feel when riding on a train whose tracks needed tamping.
“What the hell was that?” Reed demanded.
Anderson looked out at the river as they were clearing the buoys, then to the radar screen. Something was blinking, and he had just run over it, or through it, depending on what the hell it was. He rubbed his eyes, but the blip was still there. The two men eyeballed each other.
Anderson cleared his throat. “Why don’t you go check the water off the stern and see if we’re dragging anything,” he said. “The moon’s almost full. Should help you to see.”
“What the hell would we be dragging?” Reed sneered, his voice rising. “You hit something.”
“You mean we don’t you.” The palms of Anderson’s hands were beginning to sweat on the wheel, but he retained his outward demeanor.
“No, I mean you. You’re the pilot of this ship and…”
“And if you hadn’t thrown us out of the channel…”
“…if I hadn’t steered us out of the channel, we would have had a head on collision with a motor boat,” Reed bellowed, spitting as he did. His face had taken on a crimson hue and his eyes were bulging giving him a toad-like appearance. “And somebody would have probably died you stupid, idiotic…”
“That boat,” Anderson said, “was playing chicken with us, and you know it. A bunch of kids out joyriding. They knew enough not to take on a thousand foot ship. Trust me. They would’ve blinked.” Anderson was sweating now from the rush of adrenaline and sheer nerves.
“Go check the stern, dammit,” he barked at Reed.
Reed hesitated momentarily before scrambling out the door giving Anderson time to collect his thoughts. He reviewed the charts and saw what he was dreading. There, just outside the channel, was the topside protrusion of a large boulder that had likely been in that exact same position since the dawn of time, the kind that originated somewhere around the core of the earth and kept twisting and rising until it reached the top with just its tip peeking out. The sneaky kind. The kind that sunk the Titanic.
A shiver of fear ran down Anderson’s spine. It’s nothing. A small jolt is all. We bounced right off her. He gripped the joy stick tightly and clenched his teeth. He knew what a “small” jolt meant to a ship of this size and the kind of damage a boulder could do to a single-hulled vessel. The Ryujin was well past her prime, and although she paid lip service to the Coast Guard regulations, her body worked and reworked a dozen times trying to keep her up to the current safety standards, she stayed afloat not because of strict compliance with the law, but because of some damn grandfather clause. It was the lawmaker’s fault. A single-hulled ship had no business carrying millions of gallons of oil, yet it was done all the time since, the ship owners said, the cost to retire her and build a new doubled-hulled ship outweighed any potential environmental damage that a spill would cause. And the law said that until 2015, ship owners could continue to sail single-hulled ships no matter how many dead fish floated to the surface covered in oil.
Captain Reed appeared half an hour later, looking flushed from exertion, but otherwise in good spirits, his normal dour countenance having momentarily shed its pinched expression. Anderson took this as a good sign.
“What d’ya find out?”
“Nothing,” Reed said. The briefest of smiles crossed his lips. “There is no damage to this ship.”
“You’re sure?” Anderson watched the man’s face carefully. After all, he didn’t know Reed from Adam, and now Reed held Anderson’s career between his two damn fingers.
Reed nodded. “Engines are all in working order, we’re not dragging anything, and we’re not leaking anything.”
“No sheen on the water? You looked?” Anderson asked. Reed nodded again. “How many times?”
“Three,” Reed replied. “Once at the beginning of my inspection and once at the end. And once in between. The oil is safely in the hold.”
Anderson nodded, uncertain. Whatever Reed may be, it was obvious he was a Captain foremost. He would not take kindly to any untoward incidents on the Ryujin while under his command although Anderson dimly suspected that Reed might be more concerned with the integrity of his ship than that of the Delaware River. Still, Reed’s environmental ethic was not Anderson’s concern right now. He sighed and looked out over the bow and beyond to the horizon hidden by night. Nothing much he could do but take the man’s word for it.
“Alright. Let’s get this baby to bed before she suffers another nightmare,” Anderson said. and bent to the task.
The full moon was all but eclipsed by the stratus clouds that stretched out, in full battle regalia, across a winter sky. An occasional break in their ranks gave the casual observer the tiniest peek at the moon’s frothy demeanor, but the blaze of light she heretofore sent streaming down river before the Stratus’s moved into the neighborhood was gone, gone, gone. Too bad, too, for the fish, birds, flora, fauna, and various species of plankton that thrived in the river because they were about to get a rude awakening. Thirty feet below sea level, a ten-inch gash ripped through the hull of the Ryujin by an errant boulder had begun to widen, resulting in the unfortunate release of the contents of the ship’s hold into the river. The seemingly small quantity of oil leaking out at any given moment would, hours later, add up to one of the worst environmental disasters ever experienced on the Delaware.
On deck, the crew, Captain and Pilot of the Ryujin were oblivious to the danger. As they headed north, the oil headed south and without the moon to light her stern-side, the crew would not see so much as a flicker of a sheen on the black night waters.
Of course, the Stratus’s did not move into town alone. They brought with them the North Wind and He, coupled with the outbound tide, pushed that pure, Arabian crude down, down, down toward the Bay, catching the whole hundred-mile stretch of that beautiful river unaware.
to be continued. . .
to get up to speed with what happened before start here
The Delaware River, the longest un-dammed and only remaining major free-flowing river east of the Mississippi also lay claim to the largest freshwater port in the world. The river flowed three hundred and thirty miles from Hancock, New York and made a pit stop in the Delaware Bay before spilling out into the Atlantic Ocean. It served as the dividing line between Pennsylvania and New Jersey and serviced twenty million residents of the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia-area with drinking water. Washington’s famous Christmas Eve ping-ponging across the Delaware began and ended on the banks of the river at Trenton, New Jersey. But the river’s abundance wasn’t limited to battles, boundary lines and the provision of potable water. She was a dichotomy in uses: heavy industry drew on her for its needs as did bald eagles and world class trout fisheries. As evidence of the latter, about one hundred and fifty miles of this magnificent river has been included in the U.S. National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
In the late 1800’s, approximately one million Philadelphians lived within the boundaries of America’s third largest city which boasted the second largest port in the country located in the Delaware Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the entity charged with assuring the river’s safety, dipped its long, federally-funded fingers into a bevy of construction, flood control, and navigational projects designed to improve, among other things, the river’s navigability. In 1878, before Philadelphia had electricity or the telephone, sixteen hundred foreign trade vessels arrived a year, and six thousand coastal trade vessels docked in the river’s port. Trade vessels gave way to supertankers: today seventy million tons of cargo arrive in the river’s waters each year. From sails, to steam, to the supertankers, the Delaware River and its Bay have lent their banks and waters to the growth of the interstate and international commerce of not only Philadelphia, but the nation.
At its deepest point, the Delaware was only forty feet deep which meant the river couldn’t abide a thousand foot supertanker between her banks. Roughly the size of three and a half football fields and bearing three million gallons of oil or other cargo, a ship of that size would have forty foot drafts, the depth which the boat sits below the water line, and in the Delaware’s case, deep as her most navigable channels. Low tide, which causes the water levels in the tidally influenced channel from the Delaware Bay to Philadelphia to drop as much as eight feet, would leave a thousand foot ship incapacitated, floundering like a beached whale.
The Corps of Engineers began its first deepening project in 1855 when the depth of the Delaware stood at eighteen feet. The Corps dredged down to the current depth of forty feet during World War II and maintained this depth by periodic dredging and removal of silt buildup in the channel to the tune of about 3.4 million cubic yards a year. Since 1983, the Corps has studied the feasibility of dredging the Delaware’s main shipping channel down to forty-five feet to better accommodate the world commodities market by making the hundred and two mile shipping route from the Delaware Bay to Camden, New Jersey more accessible.
To do so, the Corps would need to remove about twenty-six million cubic yards of silt and sediment from the river bottom and continue removing another 862,000 cubic yards every year thereafter. Cost notwithstanding – the Corps estimates original construction costs at $311 million, of which the federal government would pay approximately two-thirds – the Corps needed a place to put all that sand, clay, silt and bedrock. Six federally owned sites have been identified for placement of the initial construction material, some of which will go toward wetland restoration and beach front protection. The Corps believes the project would result in safer, more efficient vessel loading and transit as well as reduced lightering costs. However, environmentalists have concluded that the possible detrimental effects – those to drinking water, aquatic and bird life, and potential contamination from the disposal of dredged material – outweigh the benefits. That story – small town need vs. corporate greed; environmental stewardship vs. environmental recklessness; the rights of the few vs. the rights of society – has been around since the dawn of creation, told and retold a million times in as many different ways and, because of constraints of space and time, is a story best saved for another day.
The Ryujin dropped anchor at Big Stone Anchorage at Slaughter Beach, Delaware in the mouth of the Delaware Bay. The “parking lot” in the Bay was crowded this morning with a dozen supertankers waiting to offload their cargo onto barges that would take the goods upriver to Marcus Hook or Philadelphia Harbor or Becket Street Terminal in Camden, New Jersey. Once offloaded, the supertankers were light enough to make the trip upriver themselves. Some had been waiting as much as a week while tugs and taxis cruised back and forth, bringing food and supplies to the waiting supertankers, crisscrossing the Bay like a checkerboard and leaving white caps in their wake. The great ships were parked far enough apart to allow them to spin on their anchors, a necessity when considering the vagaries of the weather. From the air it looked like a mechanical ballet: dozens of ships turning and gliding on their axes, a synchronized dance brought to life by the formidable forces of wind and tide.
The Ryujin traveled from the Arabian Gulf and had been parked in the Delaware Bay for the last week, awaiting the offloading of a million gallons of its crude oil onto a barge which would make it light enough to navigate the Delaware’s forty foot channel upriver to the Akanabi refinery in Marcus Hook. While waiting, the Ryujin took on skid loads of food, supplies and mechanical parts sufficient to tide her over until arrival at the next port. And since the suppliers were not interested in receiving credit for these transactions, the Ryujin carried vast quantities of cash to pay for those stores as well as armed guards to protect it. The ship’s superstructure housed a three-story engine room, a machine shop, steam turbine and diesel engines, a mess hall, living facilities for her Captain and crew, and a single cat who relished the job of keeping the mouse population down. Where the mice came from was anyone’s guess given that the ship had spent the last three weeks at sea.
Beside the Ryujin sat the Sea Witch , an engineless barge about the third of the size of the Ryujin , but with considerably less girth. Motored by The Grape Ape , a seventy-five foot, single-screw, diesel-powered tug boat, The Sea Witch sat, waiting to remove a million gallons of elemental crude oil from the Ryujin and shuttle it up the Delaware River channel for her. Afloat on a tidally influenced body of water, both boats were subject to the fickle, yet predictable, moods of the moon.
Named for the Dragon King of the sea, an important Japanese deity said to have the power to control the ebb and flow of the tides with his large mouth, the Ryujin wasn’t living up to its name today. It seemed that the ocean, the Bay, the moon and the tides were all in cahoots, as the Ryujin spun on its anchor at the wind’s ferocious insistence and the Sea Witch tried to make amends.
The process of lightering was a tricky one. Not only was there the danger of an oil spill during the transfer, but if the tanks were drained one at a time in order, a Captain would have a highly imbalanced keel on his hands, the bow of his ship rising higher into the air as each tank was emptied, a potentially disastrous event for a vessel whose primary need was balance in the water. Therefore, the Captain took great pains to ensure that the oil was skimmed off the top of each of the tanks in a controlled fashion, draining some from one tank, moving on to the next, and back and forth in this manner until the process was completed.
Captain Heston Reed was barking out orders like a man possessed. After several hours of trying and dripping with the emotional and physical strain of the task, there was nothing he could really do until the barge, the Sea Witch had tied on, an event which, despite tidal fluctuations was imminently close to completion. The fendering bumpers which consisted of a large piping structure encapsulated by dozens and dozens of tires, the gestalt of which worked like a ball bearing in between the two vessels, were lowered into place, the black scrape marks from previous lightering operations still visible on both ships. With the fendering bumpers properly lined up, Captain Reed gave the command and the Sea Witch’s crew tied on to the Ryujin , latching on to the hip of the Ryujin’s stern like a newborn to its mother’s bosom. The giant mooring ropes creaked and groaned as the crew cranked down on the winches pulling them tightly into position. Satisfied that the ships were happily married with no visible gaps in between, Captain Reed signaled the operator of the Sea Witch and gave the go ahead to his own crew. The crew began the arduous process of lowering a dozen twelve-inch round, rigid rubber pipes down some twenty-five feet onto the deck of the Sea Witch . The pipes were attached by cables to small cranes. The cranes swung them into place enabling the deck hands to make the mechanical connection to a screw coupling which was part of a larger manifold system on the deck of the Sea Witch and which fed into the barge’s holding tanks. The deck hands inserted the pipes and, using a special wrench and the sheer torque of their body weight, screwed the couplings fast. The rubber pipes originated from a similar manifold system on the deck of the Ryujin and once Captain Reed and the Sea Witch’s operator were satisfied that all mechanical connections were secured, the transferring, or lightering process could begin. Captain Reed personally checked each of the connections. The individual pipes were hooked to another, larger pipe so the ship and barge operators could control, via computer, which tank would give and which tank would receive the oil.
Captain Reed gave the signal and the Ryujin began offloading its crude, the oil flowing from its holding tanks through the manifold system and into the pipes that would carry it down to the Sea Witch’s manifold system. The rigid rubber pipes lurched forward as the sudden thrust of oil was released. Frank Charlton, the manifold operator, sat in the control house on the barge electronically directing the distribution of oil into the various holding tanks and taking great pains to keep the ship’s balance.
“Alright?” Captain Reed stepped into the computer room to ascertain for himself the integrity of the operation. There’d be hell to pay if someone made an error on his ship. Charlton nodded and turned briefly to acknowledge his superior officer. Captain Reed took a deep breath and the corner of his mouth twitched, but he did not smile.
“Let me know when it’s done then. I’m going to see about the pilot.”
“Yes sir, Captain,” Charlton replied without taking his eyes off the computer screen.
to be continued. . .
to get up to speed and read what came before, take a giant leap here
meanwhile back at the ranch, we’ve got a whole lotta blushing going on
OIL IN WATER
That night, Kori and Jack sat huddled together on one corner of the couch and Avery at the other end. Gil and Max sat in rocking chairs, one behind the other, watching Santa Claus 2. A pizza box lay open on the coffee table with one slice left.
Gil held a toy with small tube-like arms sticking out from a colorful base. At the end of each of the four tubes was a little plastic disc that lit up in different colors. At the push of a button, the arms spiraled around and around like a propeller.
“By rights, it’s mine,” Kori said. “You guys all had two pieces.”
“What is that thing?” Jack asked, ignoring her.
“A whirligig, I think,” Avery said. “Or if not, it should be.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Kori said, pinching Jack’s side. “Technically, it’s mine.”
“Yeah, but I worked this morning. And I changed the oil in your car today and replaced your rotor cups, all in freezing cold weather. I think I should have it.” He leaned in and kissed her, but she wasn’t budging.
“Where’d you work?”
“Something went wrong with the home brain at the Callahan’s. The lights on the deck were flicking on and off and they couldn’t regulate the temperature in the hot tub. I rewired one of the circuit boards which fixed the problem, but I’m still not sure what happened.” He scrunched his eyebrows in thought.
Kori raised her own eyebrows like she wasn’t impressed.
“What?” Jack said. “You wanted me to tell them to wait until Monday?”
“It’s your business,” Kori said. “You could have.”
“Not if I want to stay in business.”
“I’m still hungry,” Gil whined. Kori looked at Jack and laughed.
“Here, Gil,” she said, offering him the last slice. “Guess you lose,” she whispered to Jack. Meticulously, Gil gnawed the edges of his slice, then up and down each side, all the while rocking and whirligigging. Not a spot remained untouched. He ripped a piece from the crust and tossed it to Max who caught and consumed it in one motion.
“Guess we need two pizzas next time,” Jack said, pulling Kori back toward him.
“Yooooohooooo,” Aunt Stella’s voice along with the smell of pastries wafted from the back door straight to Gil’s nose in the living room. He sniffed the air and tossed the rest of the slice of pizza to Max. When Aunt Stella walked into the living room, Gil jumped up, allowed her to kiss him, then took his seat while he waited for her to remove her coat and scarf.
She grabbed Gil’s chin and pulled it up so she could look in his eyes. “No worse for the wear,” she said, and tousled his hair. “You’re a tough one.” She held the basket out to him. “Go ahead then. A little bit of sweet is the answer to all life’s ailments, I say.” Aunt Stella’s belly shook as she laughed, demonstrating she took her own advice.
Gil didn’t wait for further prompting, but dug out two pieces of baklava, a square of banana-pecan coffee cake, and a napkin to catch it all. Max, still in his chair, waited for his share of the booty. Gil’s toy whirled and lighted as he chomped on his banana cake
“What, pray tell, are you doing, Gilly?” Aunt Stella said.
Gil’s mouth was full, so Kori explained for him. “They’re playing airplane. Gil’s the pilot. We’re not sure if Max is a member of the crew or all of the passengers.” Gil nodded and gave no further comment. Max circled the seat of his chair adroitly, still trying to find a position of comfort, but the chair was too small for all seventy pounds of him. He gave up and sat down, hind legs squarely on the seat, front paws on the floor.
“He looks like he has motion sickness. I wonder if they’re experiencing some turbulence?” Kori asked.
“How the hell does he get that dog to do that?” Jack said.
Avery got up, making room for Aunt Stella on the couch. She closed the pizza box with a “tsk-tsk,” muttering to herself about poor nutrition, and put the basket on top.
“Dessert,” she announced, as if it were necessary.
“Thanks, Aunt Stella,” Avery said grabbing a piece of baklava and a seat on the floor. Jack wiggled his eyebrows at Kori and she passed the basket to him just as the doorbell rang. Kori looked at her watch. It was almost eight. Max barked, jumped off his chair and ran to stand in front of the door.
“Now if we could just teach him to open it,” Jack said with a full mouth.
“If that’s one of your lame friends here to collect you so you can go out drinking…”
Jack raised his hands, palms up, as if to say “no contest.”
No one moved, but everyone looked at Avery who was propping himself up on pillows at his spot on the floor.
“No way. I just sat down. It’s Gil’s turn.”
Gil tried to ignore them, but the pressure was too great. With a sigh, he got up to answer the door.
Captain Russell turned his collar up against the inexorable wind and waited. He smashed his hat down more firmly on his head and looked out over the neighboring farm fields illuminated by the light of the full moon. Frost reflected the light back, giving the appearance of a light dusting of snow. Captain Russell shivered. He’d been dreading this visit since he got the call two nights ago. Army Protocol dictates that the family should have been told immediately, but he had waited, hoping the ongoing investigation would yield some evidence that the officers had at first failed to uncover. Unfortunately, the most damning evidence arrived by courier earlier this evening, and he couldn’t put it off any longer.
Russell left his office around eight and went to the Japanese Restaurant in the strip mall purportedly for a quick dinner. He left his plate of sushi untouched, but had several shots of saki. Now the courage gained from his liquid dinner was dissipating, replaced by a smoldering hole you could drive an army jeep through. He fingered the contents of his pocket again and swallowed the rising bile. It had been a long time since he had to do this and he wished to God he was standing elsewhere. His stomach gurgled. It was a bad idea not to eat.
Gil opened the door a crack, more to keep out the wind than the man standing on the other side of it, but once he got a look, the latter was closer to the truth. Something was wrong with the picture, but Gil wasn’t sure what. The man was dressed respectably in an overcoat and hat, but he looked sad. Bad news .
“Evening. Is this the Tirabi residence?” Gil nodded, but made no move to open the door. Max stood next to him, wagging his tail and trying to poke his snout through the narrow opening.
Captain Russell extended his hand. “Captain Jack Russell. May I come in? It’s wicked cold out here.”
Gil threw open the door and Captain Russell jumped in. At the sudden movement, Max began barking like crazy and Captain Russell jumped right out again. He stood on the front step, rubbing his hands together and grimacing.
Kori ran over and grabbed Max’s collar. “Take Max, please. To the living room.” Gil and Max retreated and Kori opened the door.
“Can I help you?”
“Captain Jack Russell. I’m at the recruiting station down at the Park Plaza Shopping Mall. I signed your brother, Robbie up.”
Kori stiffened. Aunt Stella appeared in the foyer behind her.
“Well child, let the man in. He’s not going to steal your television.” Aunt Stella smiled. “Come in, come in. Give me your coat and hat.”
Captain Russell stepped into the foyer for the second time that evening. “If you don’t mind, I’ll keep them. Give me a chance to warm up.”
“It’s warm inside,” Aunt Stella said, doting on Captain Russell as if he were a baby chick that lost its momma. She steered him from the foyer to the living room where everyone appeared to be watching television; the only indication that they were not was the undercurrent of motion traveling across the room. Gil rocked obsessively in his chair, Avery fluffed his pillows unable to get comfortable, and Kori kept looking at Jack as if she thought he might vanish into thin air at any minute. Captain Russell cleared his throat and Kori grabbed Jack’s hand.
“How about a nice cup of coffee or tea?” Aunt Stella asked.
“No thank you, Ma’am. I’m really sorry to intrude this evening and wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t of the utmost…”
A low wail broke from Gil’s throat and Max walked over and put his face in Gil’s lap. Avery got up and checked his brother’s eyes. Kori jumped up and did the same. She looked at Avery for confirmation.
“Couldn’t happen twice in one day, could it?
“I guess anything’s possible.” Avery checked Gil’s pulse. “You feelin’ alright, Gil?” Gil nodded. Avery let go of his wrist, less than satisfied.
“Is there anything I can do?” Captain Russell asked. Kori shook her head.
“You can tell us why you came,” Avery said, shutting off the television.
Captain Russell nodded, reached in his pocket and pulled out a set of dog tags which he placed on the table in front of them.
“Tell me that’s not what I think it is,” Kori said. She squeezed Jack’s hand so tightly his bones crackled.
“It’s my duty and my pain to tell you that we presume your brother, Robert James Tirabi, aged twenty-three, to be dead.” Kori gasped and buried her head in Jack’s shoulder. Aunt Stella coughed and put a hand to her throat. Avery fingered the dog tags, and Gil rocked furiously, eyes fixed on the blank television screen.
“Surely you’re joking,” Aunt Stella said. “We just got a letter from him yesterday.”
“That letter could have been written more than two weeks ago. The mail takes time.”
“But…how?” Kori’s voice quivered.
“Suicide car bomber. Robbie was in Khan Bani Saad. It’s a market town not far from Baghdad. A man drove a car loaded with explosives directly into an open air market. Twenty-three people were killed.”
“Where’s the body? Avery asked.
“We haven’t been able to identify it. We believe he might have been standing near the car when the bomb detonated. We found those,” Russell said, pointing to the dog tags.
“Well how do you know he’s dead?” Avery asked. “Maybe he was just wounded.”
“The wounded were all treated at the hospital. Your brother was not among them.”
“Well, how did his dog tags come off?” Kori asked.
“It wasn’t your typical explosive. It had amazing incendiary capabilities. Most things within a twenty-five yard radius were ashes when it was all done.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Avery said. “You’re still looking, right?” Captain Russell shook his head.
“So that’s it. You come here and you give us these lousy . . . things,” Kori picked up the dog tags as if they were a used Kleenex, “and you tell us he’s gone and you walk out the door. You don’t even know my brother.” Kori’s voice caught and Jack pulled her to his chest.
“What about his personal stuff?” Jack asked.
“It’s being shipped. You should be getting it within the week.”
A profound silence filled the room.
“Liar!” Gil jumped up from his seat, grabbed the dog tags, put them around his neck and ran from the room. He stomped up the stairs and slammed the door to his room.
“I’ll go,” Aunt Stella said, but Avery put a hand on her arm to stop her.
“If there’s anything else I can do . . .” Captain Russell’s sincere, but ineffectual offer froze in mid-air.
After several more moments of silence, Captain Russell stood to leave. “Feel free to call me if you have any questions or if you need anything at all.” He handed Aunt Stella his card. “I’m truly sorry for your loss.” Aunt Stella rose to show him to the door.
“It’s okay,” Russell said. “I can find my way out.”
They heard the door close behind him, heard his car engine engage, heard him pull out of the driveway, and then nothing more, but their own moist breathing and the ticking of the clock. The room was eerily quiet, like the last moments before dawn.
Avery traced a finger around the empty space where the dog tags had lain. “Shall I go up after him?” he asked. The question hung in the air like mist.
to be continued. . .
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a guide to writing
Jounaling works if you’re just a baby writer and not sure where it’s going or what you want from it. Journaling works if you’re a seasoned writer and you need something to keep your writing muscles toned when you’re not working on a project. It’s even good when you are working on a project and need an avoidance tactic that can still work to your benefit event while you’re avoiding working on the actual thing you promised to do. What you may not know if you’re new to writing, is that there is nothing like an assignment or writing goal to make you think of all the things you’d rather be doing at that moment than actual writing.
You might think you’re the first to experience the avoidance factor, but no way, Auntie Mae. You can’t believe how sparkly clean my house becomes when I’m on deadline. And it isn’t that you don’t want to write, it’s just that sometime a writer needs to focus on something else for the ideas to become clear. You know how when you try really hard to remember something, like maybe the name of your third grade teacher, you can’t? And then the minute you let it go, it just floats up through your mind like a leaf in a stream: Miss Gerber.
Sometimes taking a break works. Other times, you just need to plant your tush on the seat cushion and write. One day I realized that I became bored with my own voice when I journaled. Granted, I bore easily – but hardly ever where my writing is concerned; good, bad, or mediocre. Nevertheless it began to seem . . .familiar. This of course is what happens when everything starts with me.
It all began to sound the same: I see, I feel, I want. I found that my writing was starting to become labored with too much “I.” This was troubling, especially since writing is almost always fun. I wondered what was up. Then, I developed a method that added some zing to my narrative and my journaling hasn’t been the same since.
You don’t eat the same food every day, and you don’t wear the same clothes, right? It’s important for the human spirit to express itself creatively – otherwise, we would all be dull as rocks. But we’re not. There is an infinite variety all around – from the stars in the sky to the blossoms on a tree. Variety is the pickle juice of life. And the nectar, and the sweet cherry on top. It seems completely logical, requiring no leaps of faith whatsoever, that if you enjoy variety in your non-journaling life, that your journaling process might benefit from mixing it up too.
It’s very true that you need guidelines in general writing and in journal writing too, because if there were no rules and guidelines, there would be complete anarchy and no one would know what anyone else was trying to say. I’m not advocating that you give up structure at all. The same rules apply to journaling that apply to any good writing, and this is as it should be. There are the rules of punctuation, grammar, and sentence structure. A system is necessary, or your journal becomes complete gibberish, and that serves no one, least of all, the journal-ist in you. But it’s possible to add variety to your method, one tweak at a time. So if you suspend one element, everything else stays in place and a sort of balance is achieved and your journal entries still exhibit a sort cohesive read-ability. You may have heard that good writers break rules. But here’s the truth of the matter: they know the rules they’re breaking. They’re not just randomly committing bad writing to the page and calling it creative.
So here’s a very cool way to add variety to your writing, to maintain a certain creative flexibility to your narrative without sending all the rules up in smoke: change your point of view. This doesn’t mean change how you essentially look at life (though that sometimes leads to a creative breakthrough), but it does mean that you get out of your own head. You look at a situation not from your dearest, most precious vantage point; you step aside and consider it from a slightly different angle.
I’m not sure when but at some point in time, I found that I could increase my interest in writing exponentially, when I changed my point of view from first person to second or third person. I began to refer not to “my thoughts” but “her thoughts.” She did this, and she said that. Suddenly, ZOOM! I felt a shift of perspective that allowed me to view my journaling as something not so intensely personal, and therefore allowed me to the freedom to go writing on a tangent if I felt like it. It allowed me the freedom to drift from my life up close, to a view of some one’s life not unlike my own, but because of the distance, it was infinitely more interesting. I became a voyeur in my own life. It sounds like crazy-talk, but it works.
Sometimes feelings are too intense to embrace. This is why people get addicted to a million things: yoga, chocolate, sour apple martinis, you name it. Anything to put a buffer between our hearts and our heads, because otherwise, life is just too real to deal.
I discovered that if I wrote “she came to the conclusion that she had to fire the boyfriend” it pinched a little less, and by the way, made for some slightly juicy “fiction.” We can split hairs about what is “memoir” and what is “made up,” but that is a debate that’s been raging for centuries. Really. And all fiction is at least marginally revisionist memoir at its most basic level. So what if you make your journal slightly fictionalized? Does it really matter? If it helps you get to the heart of what’s bugging you about what your sister said, or the fact that when you opened the door for the plumber expecting a soiled tee shirt and three day stubble but found instead Adonis’s younger and slightly hotter brother, slide that narrative into third-person and start writing.
Shifting point of view allows you to explore themes and ideas from a slightly higher vantage point, and so allows a roominess to enter into your writing that might just allow you to spread your wings and soar.
go boldly, choose wisely, and blush.