Read Jacob’s Ladder, Part 1 here.
At sunset, we reached the turnaround in the river and the shipyard tugboat was joined by a commercial tug from Portsmouth, a big one whose engine thrummed and strained to turn the tanker around in a wide section of the river where it was dredged throughout its width from bank to bank to allow big coal ships that unloaded their black cargo in Suffolk to turn around and go back out to sea.
I was up on the main deck midship at the port rail, leaning, watching the lights, the smoke and steam rising from the Navy Yard. Bubba knew some of the crewmen and he’d gone below to find us some food. He’d been very friendly with a wiper who’d told him the ship needed someone with shipfitter skills and had given him an application for Exxon employment. Bubba didn’t know that I knew, but the wiper had asked me if Bubba was a good fit. I’d given him a good reference.
Bubba was forever trying to escape. From what I could only guess: crackerhood, his family, the stigma that comes when people call you Bubba. Not poverty, though. Bubba might be from Carolina, but he had skills and ambition. He’d even bought a home in Moyock. We both made a lot of money in the yard, taking every hour of overtime they were willing to give us. The past couple years had been busy ones, with a growing number of contracts for the Navy and constant work on Exxon tankers.
Bubba came back empty handed, said the cook was sleeping and the galley was locked up tight. He said, “I’m really starved. Ain’t had nothing but pack of vending machine cookies since lunch.”
“God only knows where we’ll wind up. Maybe Jay will be able to make some arrangements…”
Bubba leaned his back against the rail, lit a Marlboro. He said nothing, just shrugged and turned to lean his elbows on the rail, stared off.
After a while, he said, “It’s what we get… serves us right for believin’ Jay when he said we’d be standing around all day making time and a half for no kind of work at all.”
I grinned my best Dirty Harry grin and said in a Clint Eastwood voice, “Life is hard…”
He finished my sentence. “…and then you die.”
Bubba shook his head. “This really sucks. Job’s done and we can’t get nothin’ to eat.”
After a long silence, I looked over, said, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
He gave me an odd look, and with mock outrage, said, “Dad. I work in the damn shipyard… been there for six years now. Got myself a trade. Hell, you know… we worked all the overtime in the world last year and the year before that we worked downriver nearly every day, six days a week, ten hours a day. I drive a brand new Ford pickup I paid cash for. Bought me a damn house. Got money in the bank. Grow up? What does that even mean? And what makes you think I’m not growed up already… God dayim.”
I nearly laughed. He actually sounded angry.
I said, “Yer way too sensitive, son. But I heard you spent a lot of time greasin’ up the wiper on this boat for a job, trying to get yourself a berth with the ship’s crew. What’s up with that?”
“How’d you find out?”
“I know everything, son, can’t hide no secrets from yer old sea daddy Dave. But the engineer we worked for on the tank told me you were askin’ around… said he got you some papers.”
“Yeah. I thought about it. Hell, you were at sea. You know what it’s like, see the world and get paid for it. Those guys make a lot of cash. Besides, I’d kind of like to see something besides the backwater rump parts of North Carolina and East Virginia. It’s a big world out there.”
“So, you gonna put the papers in?”
“Thought about it. I might do it yet. Don’t wanna be a swamp runnin’ redneck jackass all my whole damn life.”
“But you’re so good at it.”
He laughed, said, “Fuck you. And speaking of swamp runnin’, when you comin’ out to go huntin’ with us? Me and Jonesy’s got us a duck blind over by Currituck on the Sound. And we got use of a cabin that’s not half bad, got windows and indoor plumbing. His Dad owns the damn thing and he just put up some sheet rock in the bathroom.”
“All the comforts of home.”
“So, you gonna come out this year?”
“Son, I’d sooner eat glass and stick needles in my eyelids than sit out over the Sound with a northeast wind and it’s thirty degrees and a couple of drunken rednecks are all cramped up around me hoping to kill something and fartin’ breakfast beans, sitting there for hours on end with loaded shotguns and a bottle of Jack between ‘em.”
“You don’t like hunting. You don’t go fishing. You go for months between drinks. What the hell you do with your spare time, Dad?”
“What spare time? Son, I got me a wife. Got a few rug rats. It’s not just a hobby but a way of life. One that can be really expensive. And time consuming.”
“See now, that’s precisely why I wanna get away. You stay in one place all your life and people expect you get hooked up with some woman… and that’s how you wind up.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“No? You know there’s a name for what you got, thinking that getting tied down in a marriage your whole damn life is… not so bad.”
“What would you call it?”
I had to laugh. “You’re too damn smart to be from Carolina.”
“Why, thank you, Dad.”
“Did I say smart? Maybe I was thinking smartass and left off the clarifying suffix.”
“If I gots to ‘splain it… maybe I was right the second time ‘round.”
“Dad… sometimes you can be…”
The ship was moving north then, after a gradual turn, moving up the main branch of the Elizabeth River where it opened up wide like a bay. Bubba noticed it was getting dark on the far shore.
He said, “Where are we?”
“That’s Craney Island over there. You go over to the starboard side, you’ll see Ghent and Norfolk. Be a lot of lights over there.”
“I’m goin’ up on the bridge and find Jay. When do you think the pilot will leave?”
“Hard to say. He’s gonna stay with the ship until they get past the channel on the Chesapeake Bay.”
“How the hell does he get off? How do we get off? This ship is riding pretty high out of the water.”
“It’s high all right. Tanks are mostly empty except for ballast to even the keel, so we got maybe fifty, sixty feet from the main deck to the waterline. Too much work to lower a proper gangway. They’ll probably lower a Jacob’s ladder.”
“Portable ladder. Made out of chains or nylon rope, with some wood rungs attached. They lay it over the side and we’ll climb down to the pilot boat.”
“While the ship’s moving?”
“Of course… once they get up to speed, takes miles to stop a ship and a lot of time to bring it back up. They won’t slow down, much less stand dead in the water.”
“Dad… ain’t that kind of dangerous?”
“Harbor pilots use them all the time. Only dangerous if you fall off.”
“Dayim.” He tossed his cigarette overboard, said, “I’m off to try and find Jay. You staying here?”
“Nah. Think I’m going up to the fo’c’sle. Be a great view from there. Long as I’m stuck here, might as well enjoy the ride.”
It was a great view.
I sat on a bollard and watched the lights in the night. Lights on the channel buoys were clear, green on one side, red on the other. There is a way to remember the color scheme, which is a phrase that sailors know, “Red, right, returning.” It means that the red lights will be on the starboard side of the ship when you’re coming into port.
The red lights then were on the left, or the port side of the ship, because we were leaving. The buoys were anchored to the edges of the channels that were dredged regularly to accommodate loaded ships with a deep draft. I’d known all the local channels and their depths, knew the names of all the rivers and the creeks, knew the landmarks the pilot would use to guide the ships in and out of port through Hampton Roads because I’d read all the charts when I was a kid, maps my father bought for me from a nautical supply store. He’d also taught me how to use them, how to lay out a course with a parallel rule over a compass rose on the charts, showed me how to lay out distances with dividers, taught me the differential between true and magnetic north on a compass.
He’d rightly guessed I would thrive on the deck of a ship.
Thrilled just then, to have a deck beneath my feet again and on a ship that was headed for the ocean sea, I wished above all to simply keep going. Past Hampton Roads, past the Capes and out onto the wide Atlantic to God-knows-where-and-who-the-hell-cares. We passed the Norfolk Naval Shipyard and I could see a crew from a shipyard working off a barge alongside an aircraft carrier. A welder in the bucket of a JLG motorized lift that was anchored and tied to the top of the barge was working on the hull of the ship thirty feet above the river, his welding rod sparking, throwing off little red balls of molten iron like a rain of fire that sputtered from the puddle beneath a light at the tip of his rod just as bright as a minor star in the heavens.
Ahead and broad on the starboard bow of the tanker was Willoughby Bay behind a spit of land that jutted out into a vast body of water at the juncture of the rivers James and Elizabeth where the ship would make a sharp turn to starboard and into the Chesapeake Bay. Where we would pass the house on the long flat beach where I spent my childhood.
I wondered if I would be able see the lights of it in the night. In the daylight, I was certain I could have picked it out from the ship’s channel as easily as I could name the warships that passed through the channel from the beach back when I was a kid. I could name them all by silhouette and by number if it was a clear day and I had the use of my Dad’s binoculars. If not, I could tell you by the shape of it whether it was any one of a dozen different types and, from memory, the size of its guns and how many.
We passed to the north of the island of Fort Wool, where the Hampton Roads Bridge ends and the Tunnel drops the highway under the Bay beneath the ship channel. When I was a kid, there was no bridge, no tunnel, and on that same pathway, from the end of Willoughby Spit to the port and the city of Hampton, there used to be ferries that carried cars and trucks across the wide water, ferries that ran back and forth all day and nested neatly on either side between fenders of wooden pilings rising from the water, multiple thick pilings that were bound together in a broad circle with weathered ropes, rows of pilings on which you could always see pelicans and seagulls resting, watching the surface for a sudden boil that would mean, for them, a meal. Gulls always followed in the wake of the ferries, dropping down to feed when white water boiled with disturbed schools of fish; croakers, spot, menhaden and minnows through which the ferries propellers had roughshod plowed, confusing the schools’ quick patterns and scattering its members on the surface in a daze.
It was a warm night, whatever wind there was aloft and at the bow it felt like silk over the skin and sweet. Swept the skin and closed the pores so sweat diminished, felt a little like some faux chill as though you’d need a jacket. I could only guess the approximate position of my childhood home on the far beach, a line of intermittently lit houses that rose slightly in the dunes and fell away again to the flat sands and smaller dunes at the edges of Little Creek, a deep water inlet that led to salt water marshes and wide creeks beyond where herons lived and nested in the forks of gnarly oaks, wild in the midst of little white houses on new winding roads and cul-de-sacs that encroached and threatened the beauty of it all.
It felt odd to be headed for the ocean, to know that my wife was ashore, that my children slept while she worried. I worried too, that she could be wondering where I was, maybe frantic. She could call the yard, but only the guard would answer and he would not know anything about where I was, where I was bound. Standing in the fo’c’sle with the vast ocean ahead of me and my life ashore slipping away in the wake of white water behind a ship bound for God-only-knows-where, it was like living at the edge of something I could not control.
There is a place in every man’s heart where the unspoken dreams reside, dreams of escape, dreams of freedom. Like the French painter I’d read about, Paul Gauguin, who left the grey cathedrals and damp prisons of bourgeois anonymity in France to beautiful Tahiti on the far side of the world, to a life of licentious indulgence, to freedom and creative purpose in a true paradise, surrounded by women with beautiful skin on which the rain falls and settles in drops like crystalline sweet sugar candy…
A man can love his wife and live for his children, but there is a caged hedonist within him, an horrible man who, but for circumstance and the chiding of civility, would likely roam the earth carefree and in utter self absorption. Is any man a hero for staying inside the lines, for curbing the natural and incessant impulse to flee? I think not. Fear alone restrains him. Fear of the loss of respect, fear for the certain despoiling of his name, fear of the curse of a woman and the pain of a child he would leave behind in the wake of his departure. Some men can leave. Some cannot. There is no reward for staying, no medals given, no recognition for the thousand or so momentary crises of conscience overcome, but there is, always, a very heavy price to pay for desertion.
But even if I’d wanted, I could not leave. Both Jay and Bubba came up to the fo’c’sle to get me. Jay said the words that woke me up from whatever reverie I was entertaining.
“Pilot boat’s on the way. They just put a ladder over the side. I asked the captain if they were gonna slow down while we climb down there, but he’s mad about leaving so late and doesn’t want to lose speed. It’s gonna be a rough transfer.”
“Where does the boat dock?”
“Up in Lynnhaven Inlet.”
“We got a ton of gear. How we gonna get it back to the yard?”
“I’ll find a phone and call them. I guess they’ll have to send out a bus. We got an electrician, a rigger and two painters with us, and they’ll have some gear as well.”
We lowered the air hoses and light stringers we’d hauled from the tank earlier, lowered them with rope. Bubba watched, saw how the boat had trouble keeping a parallel course with the ship, started to worry about climbing down there.
Jay could see he was distressed and could not help but nudge him for it, said, “What’s the matter, Bubba?”
“I can’t swim.”
Jay laughed, said, “Dayim, boy. Hell of a time to think about that.”
I felt a little mean, said, “Hey, Bubba, you needn’t worry about drowning… sharks’ll get you long before you drown.”
The ship’s bos’n smiled to hear us talk, called us over, said, “Who’s first?”
I wanted to go first, but the rigger from the yard got in front of me. The rigger was a woman, a short, very attractive blond woman everybody knew. They called her Little Angel.
As she climbed gracefully down the Jacob’s ladder to the pilot boat, I smiled, watched from the rail above, remembered a Bible verse, from the Book of Genesis. It was oddly fitting:
Jacob left Beersheba and set out for Harran. When he reached a certain place, he stopped for the night because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones there, he put it under his head and lay down to sleep. He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.
As I climbed down to the last step, laid one foot on the pitching deck of the pilot boat and got a sense of it all as secure, safe, I knew I’d be home in a few hours, but it would be sunrise at least and I would have been gone for just about twenty four hours. I knew my wife would be crying and angry and joyful to see me all at once. First thing she would say would be, “Where the hell have you been?” Then she would say, “Why didn’t you call?”
I would be dazed and exhausted, hungry for not having eaten for so long. My wife would calm down after I’d explained. She might even feel guilty for having cursed me. Then she would make breakfast and I would hug my children when they came down to the table.
I’d shower and sleep when they went off for school.
Those unspoken things in my head, those urges and dreams all men entertain and deny, both to themselves and the sunlight, would hide themselves in the dark and the deep of treacherous currents in my heart once again and everything would be as it was before. Until, of course, it is not.
But even then, in the silence of the unspoken, all will be well.
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, photo by M. Sullivan, modified.