Rust & Remembrance: Jacob’s Ladder, Part 1


Jay was in charge, what they called a Leadman.

Swarthy and thin, Jay’s hair was curly and black. His last name identified him as a member of one of the oldest families on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but his appearance could be more accurately described by anyone who did not know his pedigree as a cosmopolitan Arab. Meticulously groomed, his hair the shape of a globe, he had the best Afro you ever saw on a white boy. Jay was hedonistic and slothful, a working class playboy who wore a gold chain under his half-buttoned shirt, famous for hosting parties at a beach house he owned out on Nags Head.

What he lacked in character, he made up for in good humor. And I never minded working on Jay’s crew, since he always managed to draw those jobs you didn’t mind, jobs that were designated “time and material,” like high priority repair jobs, sometimes downriver and away from the yard. Lots of overtime with negligible effort because the longer it took to complete it, the more money the company made.

Jay was their man, their edge. He knew every trick in the book, how to slow down a job while giving the impression to the ship’s owners and crew that we were moving at light speed. It was a reversal of the old Yankee work ethic, especially where it applied to defense contracts, dockside repair work at Norfolk Naval Base or at Little Creek. Working on aircraft carriers and destroyers, LSTs, and supply ships meant three hour lunches at the topless clubs outside the main gate, jobs where I could bring my van on the dock at night, spend overtime hours on a chaise lounge with a fishing rod.

Welcome to capitalism.

Every job with Jay was like Sunday on the farm.

This particular night, the job was in the shipyard situated in the Berkeley section of Norfolk, Virginia, nestled between the southern shore of the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River and South Norfolk. Once part of the Norfolk Naval Yard, its western edge was directly across the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River from Portsmouth.

The job was on a tanker and we were slightly upriver, or south of the main part of the yard. The wharf where the ship was tied up was right across river from the older, eastern edge of the Norfolk Naval Shipyard (Which is really in Portsmouth, but hey, why quibble over names?) where the dry docks which now serviced nuclear submarines had once produced the Confederate Navy’s very first ironclad ship, the Merrimack (which was really the CSS Virginia, but again… what’s in a name?).

History buffs will recall the famous duel to a draw of ironclad ships in Hampton Roads between the larger Merrimack and the Union ship, the Monitor.  If you’re not a history buff you won’t think it a famous battle, but hey… long story, a little dull, and not all that memorable, unless you’re a history buff.

Jay was the boss on this job. I was the shipfitter and my burner was an old friend everyone called Stash. A burner is a specialist who handles an oxy-acetylene torch.  The best burners had steady hands and the ability to cut through thick steel like it was butter and their torch flame a hot knife. Stash was one of the better burners on the yard, but I never called him Stash. I called him Bubba. Sometimes I called him Son because Bubba always called me Dad. Maybe he never liked his real Dad, so he adopted me.

Bubba was, like Jay, from an old Outer Banks family, though he lived in Virginia where his family owned land at the edge of the Great Dismal Swamp. His accent, like Jay’s, was thick as black syrup. Shorter in stature than me, he resembled a young Brando, replete with aquiline nose, wide brow, and a nascent tendency to corpulence. He was still fit, well-proportioned like a boxer, but you could see it coming, a weakness for pie and hush puppies, fried chicken and white pepper gravy.

My last name, Davis, was also one of those famous old Outer Banks names, but everyone knew better, since I did not speak with the same cadence and lacked the subtleties of speech that set them apart. These Carolina boys tended to be clannish. Nonetheless, I seemed to get along with all of them, better than most of the people in the yard. Maybe because I grew up on a beach like they did, with sand in my hair and in my veins, the taste of salt forever on my lips.

Most of the families on the Outer Banks were descended from pirates and as a strange kid growing up on the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, I dreamed of romance in piratical freedom, did violence to countless whimpering and invisible victims with a vinyl cutlass. So maybe it had something to do with the way our minds work or the sublimation required to keep the wildness at bay.

This job was on a tanker. We’d worked it for three days in the dry dock, where a special crew had repaired the hull and replaced a damaged steel plate below the water line.

I say they were a special crew because they were riveters. Not much call for riveters in the 1980’s. Very few ships had riveted plates anymore, but this one did. It was an old tanker that had passed hands and changed names so often and so fast that you could see remnants throughout the ship of its various old names that no one bothered to remove.

A medium tanker, it generally carried lighter fuels like MDO. Marine diesel oil is the color of burnt sienna and emits an odor that smells like fermented soil, all earthy and rich, harsh but intoxicating. Work around tankers a while and you pick up a nose for it, like some insufferable wine buff. You become an aficionado of distillates. They have distinct odors and character, each with its own bouquet. Even when the tanks are empty, you know what’s been in them. No matter how well the tanks are cleaned, the odor lives on in the paint.

The repair job was done, the tanker was tied to a wharf and her crew ready to get underway. Her diesels were idling. We could feel the pulse of her engines in vibrations through our shoes. We’d volunteered to work “standby” because we got overtime pay for doing absolutely nothing except leaning over the railing and watching boats cruise up and down the River, which was a leg of the Intracoastal Waterway.

Sometimes, on warm days in the summer, young women in bikinis on fancy yachts would wave and we’d wave back, but it was going on sundown and a little chilly for anything but wool. It was almost cold and we had no coats. Nonetheless, Bubba and I were leaning over the railing, watching the street lights come on in the broad avenues of Portsmouth across the River, smoking incessantly like all good Virgi-lina boys, silent in our thoughts, when Bubba leaned away from the rail.

He drawled, “Hey Dad?”

I said, “Hey, Son. What?”

“What if we got it all wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if God put us on the earth just to fertilize it?”



“What are you smokin’, boy?”

“No… seriously, what if God put us on the earth just to cultivate tomatoes and what if tomatoes are actually the pinnacle of evolution?”

I grabbed the cigarette from his hand and took a drag.

He said, “It’s a Marlboro, Dad, honest, but… haven’t you ever stood in the presence of live tomatoes on the vine and felt like you was in the presence of a superior intelligence?”

“No, Son, but I can see where you yourself might get that impression.”

We were both laughing like maniacs when Jay came out of a nearby hatch and called us over. He looked unhappy.

“You need to get on over to the tool shop.  We need 250 feet of air hose, a magnetic drill and a whole mess of drill bits.”

“What size?”

“Same size it takes to put threads in for a grease tit. So get some taps and a tap wrench.”


“’Cause you’re gonna thread some grease plugs into the holes you’re gonna drill.”


“Because I said.  You’re gonna get maybe three or four grease plugs, too.”


“So you can use the grease guns you’re gonna get too.”

“Okay, but why?”

“’Cause you’re gonna get some red lead primer to put into the grease guns so you can pump red lead into the grease tits, so it’ll flow into the holes you’re gonna drill and… hopefully, leach between the riveted plates and stop that goddamn leak.”

“We got a leak?”

“Enough of a leak to keep this boat from sailing. Company starts leaking money on the job when that happens. They can fine the company for any part of a day they’re delayed from sailing.”  He looked at his watch, “And that day starts at midnight with a high tide. So, go on. Get all that stuff, and get back quick.”

Bubba said, “How much red lead?”

“I don’t know, maybe five gallons. Have ‘em mix it up for you at the Paint Shop.”

“How do we get all that back to the ship?”

Jay handed him his keys. “Use my pickup over by the plate shop. Be gentle. It’s new.”


I went to the tool shop to get all the gear and Bubba brought Jay’s truck up to the door. We loaded it all in the back. Took us half an hour to find a painter on the yard to mix the red lead, and another twenty minutes for him to get it done. When we arrived dockside, Jay was waiting with some yardbirds, laborers to help us carry all the gear up the gangway.

Feeling evil, I told Jay, “I think we might have blown your clutch… I’m real sorry, but Bubba’s gained some weight and we might have put a strain on your drive train while we was makin’ figure eights out in the parking lot.”

Jay’s eyes narrowed for a heartbeat, but he didn’t take the bait.


The tank was lit up with some lights an electrician had set down there and when the riggers brought an air manifold up to the deck near the hatch, we got right to work hooking the hoses together, dropping them into the deep tank.

After we plugged in the magnetic drill and mounted it on the leaking plate, Bubba and I took turns drilling holes where the leak was the most obvious. Only a trickle, but enough. The idea was to drill deep enough to penetrate the first plate where they overlapped and just deep enough into the second to allow the red lead to seep into whatever gap was between the plates so we could block the leak. We drilled three holes at two inch intervals across, threaded the holes with taps, and put in the grease plugs.

When I loaded the grease guns with red lead, I told Jay, “This will ruin the guns forever.  You know that.”

“So what?”

“I took ‘em out under my name.”

Jay smiled, said, “I’ll make sure they write off the grease guns. If not, you’re making a fortune in overtime anyway. You won’t notice the deduction.”

Took an hour and a half, but we could only slow the leak.

The ship’s engineer looked it over, said, “I’m not happy with that, but…”

He looked at his watch, looked over at Jay, said, “Chances are that when we ballast the tanks, right the ship and bring that plate down below the waterline, the pressure on the plate’ll finish the seal, but I want you guys to stick around ‘til it does.”

We started pulling the gear up out of the tank and after the first trip up, Jay stayed down to watch the plate. It was still seeping after the first trip, but when we went down to roll up the last of the air lines, it stopped. Jay went topside to find the engineer while Bubba and I rolled up and carried the last three sections of hose up the eighty foot ladder to the main deck. When we got to the top it was dark except for the lights on the wharf.

My jaw dropped as I watched the crane lift the gangway up and away.


Jay came up from nowhere laughing. He slapped Bubba on the back and said, “I guess we’re gonna ride this boat for a while.”


“We’re stuck. They’re getting underway. Just think of the overtime you’re gonna collect.”

“What?  Where are they going?”


“Fuck me if I’m riding this boat all the damn way to- ”

Jay laughed, said, “Just kidding. We’ll ride it to the turnaround in the river, then up the channel to Hampton Roads, out to the Chesapeake. Whenever the pilot leaves the ship, we’ll go with him.”


“Pilot boat.”

I felt the ship lurch, went over to the port side-rail and saw the yard’s tugboat straining at a hawser that stretched down from a chock on the bow of the tanker and was tied to a bollard set low on the stern of the tug. I went to the starboard side and saw the ship was already at least fifty feet from the pier at the bow.

I yelled back to Jay, “Man, I gotta call my wife! She’ll freak.”

Jay laughed, shrugged. “You can call her from wherever they drop us off.”

“Where will that be? When?”

“God only knows. The Capes, maybe? Don’t know when that’ll be. I’ll go on up to the bridge and ask the pilot.”

Jay turned and walked off.

I’d told my wife I’d be late, but now it was almost midnight and we were heading out to sea. The tugboat’s engine rumbled as it reversed. I went back to the rail on the port side, saw black smoke pour from its green and black stack as white water flowed straight out from the prop beneath its low, flat stern in a turbulent wake.


To be continued…


James Lloyd DavisJames 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, Public Domain, modified.

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