We all had nicknames in the shipyard up north, not so down south.
I don’t know why that is; maybe because the yards down south were so damned big and the bosses were always watching. We would never collect in groups out in the open in the southern yards, while up north we had real unions and some really tough shop stewards, so the ass-kicking went both ways. Down south, however, shipyard work went corporate in my lifetime, and with the native intolerance among the redneck yardbirds for “commies and troublemakers” the unions down there were always weak, even apologetic. The bosses got away with acting like prison guards on a work farm. All they lacked were shotguns and sunglasses.
The only time people could gather and get to know one another was at lunch breaks or down in the inner-bottoms of the big ships, which were tanks and spaces in the bottom of double-hulled vessels where the bosses never went.
Too dirty for them, too hot, pitch black like the coal mines.
Some guy could grab them and beat the bejesus out of them. They’d never know who.
Up north you got to know everybody, and during the winter we always gathered around the “hotpots” which were kerosene heaters. Our contract gave us ten minutes of warm-up time for every hour we worked outside and the chill factor was below twenty degrees, which was most of the winter after the Lake froze. Sometimes they were slow getting the hotpots out and we’d commandeer empty fifty-five gallon drums and make a warm fire out of staging planks we’d steal when the bosses weren’t looking. Took a while to get them to burn, but we had oxy-acetylene torches that we could crank up to a two foot long white hot flame that would blind us to stare at.
The flame was under pressure, so we could hold it over the wet wood and watch the white flame pour right over it and down into the barrel like water from a spigot.
Ten minutes of that? A roaring fire.
The drydocks faced north, and the winds came down from Canada across frozen Lake Erie with a vengeance, and we could never get warm enough.
We could be facing a fire so close that the vapor rose up off our coats and steamed our safety glasses, while the wind would sneak around behind our backs, reach up into our coats and make us shiver like we were naked.
But we talked, we laughed, told lies and made jokes. You got to know those men better than you knew your wife. I can remember all their nicknames, match them up with their faces, but cannot for the life of me remember their real names.
My nickname up north was Mad-Dog, for some reason I don’t remember.
That’s the nice thing about being old, selectivity. Selectivity of hearing, selectivity of memory… maybe it was my temper. Maybe because of my hair and my beard. We all had long hair and beards, but mine was longer, darker, and a little red, thick and curly, utterly untamed, so maybe I looked like a crazed French Canadian terrorist. Over time Mad-Dog shortened to MD, and I told people it was because I was “the doctor of love.”
That led to Doc, which was my last given name in that yard.
There were a lot of Tonys: Little Tony, Big Tony, BS Tony; all Italian guys, all big men, even Little Tony. BS Tony was tall, thin-waisted, broad-shouldered, a bit of a bully and a look-alike for some famous line backer from the Cleveland Browns back then.
Poser that he was, BS Tony even trimmed his beard to enhance the resemblance.
He could load you up, tell you a story so outrageous, you could not believe.
Literally. You could not believe it… hence the prefix, BS Tony.
Now, Big Tony was the exact opposite. A serious man, one of many men the shipyard hired through a prison work release program. Big Tony was from Cleveland and it was rumored he was connected to the same Licavoli crime family that had recently blown up a guy named Danny Green who was somebody I knew of through an ex-wife… blew him up with dynamite.
Maybe another time.
Anyway, if Big Tony was really connected, he would never say so. He never did, so… we took it for granted. He was all bulked up from the weight room in the prison. Kind of guy you never cross. You gave him respect. When he was working as a welder, he was no-nonsense: direct, terse, focused on the job, even questioned your work ethic if you tried to distract him. But when he loosened up with the guys, hanging out around the kerosene hotpots, he would tell these amazing stories about prison and about his life “in the game” as he called it, stories that would make you shiver or make you laugh, but whatever he told you? You knew it was true.
“I was leaving a club on Short Vincent, downtown Cleveland… and there’s this little parking lot off the street, surrounded by buildings, kind of dark. I go to my car, and this little guy, punk with a knife, comes up out of nowhere, says, ‘Gimme your effen wallet.’ I’m a little surprised, but I step back, look around, see that nobody’s looking, reach back like I’m going for the wallet. Then I pull out a revolver instead, a nice little .38 Special, hammerless, fits nice in your pocket. I pull out this pistol, stick it in his face and I say, ‘I don’t think so.’ Guy drops the knife, backs up, and looks like he’s about t’lose his water… so I say, ‘Come to think of it, gimme your effen wallet.’”
You could believe he did that.
He also told us this story about this lawyer and how he paid the guy two thousand dollars to pay off a judge during his last trial. Because the lawyer assured him of a guaranteed outcome, Big Tony opted out of a jury trial and instead told his lawyer to plead his case to the judge. Apparently the guy, his lawyer, put the money in his pocket, but he didn’t pay the judge.
End result? Big Tony did hard time for a felony.
He wasn’t smiling when he said, “I’d really like to find that guy. When I got out, they said he packed himself a bag, took off running… ran harder when he heard I was looking for him. He knows damn well what’s gonna happen when I find him. Last I heard, he was in Houston.”
He didn’t say, but you pretty much knew what Big Tony would do when he found him.
And you could believe he would do it, whatever it was.
You thought about it long enough, you could almost hear the screams.
Little Tony? I don’t remember a lot about Little Tony. He was always driving around in a modified golf cart with Sea Daddy Gino, who was a material expediter on the yard. Nobody knew what Little Tony’s job was. For all we knew, he was only there to act as ballast, to balance the golf cart, keep it from tipping over in the curves because Sea Daddy was an enormous man, weathered and fat, an older man with old school Italian mustachios.
Sea Daddy Gino had a dark pock-marked face, looked like a refugee from Godfather II.
Little Tony? He just looked out of place.
Triple Eddie was my closest friend, an ex-Marine who’d been kicked in the head by one of the horses he’d had on a farm in Ohio. He didn’t have any farm or horses anymore, even lost his wife due to some erratic mood swings that followed the kick in the head.
Triple Eddie drank a lot, but he was sharp, even brilliant when the clouds sometimes lifted, shocked the hell out of me when he quoted from memory several long, significant paragraphs from Moby Dick.
Triple Eddie got his nickname from his real name, which I don’t remember, except that it was Edward Something-or-other the Third… hence, Triple Eddie. We both hung around with the Sarge, an old guy who’d spent a full thirty years in the Marine Corps. The Sarge was a veteran of the Korean War, who’d been to China at the end of WWII, not long after leaving Combat Infantry Training.
Went into the Corps a kid, came out older than he was, “older than dirt” as Eddie put it.
He said, “I was greener’n’green, just eighteen years old, a kid off a farm and one day, I found myself sitting on the steps of the Imperial Palace smack in the heart of the Forbidden City in Pee-Peeng, China. But, by God, I loved the Corps.”
Triple Eddy thought the love Sarge had was never returned by the Marine Corps, thought it odd that Sarge had been in the Corps for thirty and never got past the rank of E-5 Sergeant, but he never mentioned it to Sarge.
He told me, “The guy should have at least made Gunny Sarge… maybe could have made it twice in thirty damn years.”
That’s not to say he never gave the Sarge any respect, but because the old man was a big drinker and a Mason, it felt to him like a weakness, and if he thought you were soft Triple Eddie could get mean. He got me into the game of asking Sarge to tell us some of his Masonic secrets, made a bet on which of us could crack him.
We never did. Sarge didn’t mind and would always indulge us, laugh it off.
But the games got worse, and I did something I’m not proud of.
To this day, I am ashamed to have done it.
We all carried tool bags with a maul, center punches, chisels and marking pens. The bags were big and made of canvas, with one thick loop that went over your shoulder. There was always a lot of molten slag and metal grit laying around on the decks of a ship in construction, little bits of metal left from when we cut the steel with torches, small iron wedges we used for aligning uprights to decks, stubs from welding rods burned down and discarded by the production welders.
It was my idea, but Eddie egged me on. I really liked him, but Eddie could be mean.
Sarge had gone up to the john at ten o’clock like he did every day, like clockwork.
We both watched him climb the ladder out of the deep hold we were working and I turned to Triple Eddie, said, “How about this. Every day when the Sarge goes up to the john, how about we slip a little scrap iron in his tool bag. Not much, just a little. Do this every day until he says something. I say it’s a week or more before he even notices.”
“Maybe. You up for it?”
He grinned, said, “Twenty bucks says he’ll notice it in under a week?”
We had a bet.
I leaned down and put a few little pieces of slag in there, small but heavy.
Triple Eddie shook his head. “More.”
I put in some more and said, “Fair enough?”
“Tomorrow, I’ll put some in there just to keep you honest. We’ll trade off.”
And so, every day at ten, the Sarge went up the ladder and one of us would slip a little iron in his bag. He’d come back down and we’d go to work and at the end of the day, he’d reach for his bag. We both watched as he lifted it, looking for signs.
One time he noticed we were looking at him maybe a little too closely.
Real quick, Triple Eddie said, all gravelly and grinning, “We’re just in awe.”
His eyes narrowed. Sarge said, “In awe of what?”
“A man of your age, your nimble reflexes, your grace and style. Truly phenomenal.”
Sarge shook his head, said, “You kids are smoking those funny little cigarettes again. Your brains are wired backwards.”
The end of the week?
I won the bet when he didn’t seem to notice, but we decided to wait for the payoff when he did notice the extra weight. I figured he was carrying at least thirty pounds of slag and scrap iron.
Two days later, we were getting ready for the whistle to go home.
Sarge lifted his bag, turned to me and said, “You know, Doc?”
By then my MD moniker had changed to The Doctor. I said, “What?”
Sarge got all serious, said, “Either I’m getting weak from age, or this friggin bag’s getting heavier every goddam day.”
I lost it right there. I leaned against a bulkhead, put my head into my elbow, and laughed so hard my teeth hurt.
Triple Eddie followed suit. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a twenty, which I grabbed up in a heartbeat.
The Sarge was confused, narrowed his eyes, said, “What now?”
Triple Eddie told him about the bet, what we’d been doing.
It wasn’t something he said, but a wincing gaze that the Sarge turned my way. He was hurt, really hurt. It was in his eyes. I didn’t expect that.
He didn’t say a word, didn’t clean the iron out of his bag. He turned, walked off, and went up the ladder in silence. Didn’t look back. Asked the foreman next day to work with another crew, then he went to the night shift. Never spoke to us again.
Several months later, we launched the last ship and the yard shut down.
I went back down south to the Tidewater and another big shipyard in Virginia.
Triple Eddie got a job as a prison guard outside of St. Louis.
The Sarge? Who knows?
I have no idea about the others, and even if I wanted to try and find them today, I don’t have their names. Just the faces. Nicknames. Remembrance.
They all had stories I could tell you… and interesting names.
The Zen Fitter.
Today it’s not a shipyard, but an upscale development of waterfront condos.
I went back out there last year, just to see it. There are docks for the yachts where once there were drydocks, where yardbirds like me made a living.
There’s one old shop building left, up on a hillside. It had been part of the yard, now used for a maintenance building serving the condos. A fresh coat of paint over ancient bricks. Patchy grass grows wild and sparse where the rust remains behind that building, where stacks of steel plate rusted in the rain. That rust bled down into the soil over decades, permeated the soil so thick and so deep that when it rains hard, little scarlet rivers trickle down the hillside and stain the roadway.
One day a little girl will maybe see these red stains and ask, “Daddy, what’s that?”
He’s sincere, so he’ll wonder what it is, what to tell her, but he’ll probably shrug.
James Lloyd Davis is a former electrician, shipfitter, pipefitter, boilermaker, ironworker and engineer. He resides in Ohio with his wife, who is also a writer.
Header Image: Creative Commons, From the shipyard by Astrid Westvang.