My father is in the Merchant Marine; he’s a tugboat captain. When he was a teenager, he told his mom, “I am going out to find my way in the world,” and she was like, “Good luck, son.” It was a different time then. He got a bus to New York City and tried to get work on a boat. They hired him and then found out he was fifteen and said, “No, you can’t come to work at sea when you’re fifteen years old.”
They sent him off, and he traded his boots for a bicycle and he rode to Vermont where his older brother did carpentry. He rode his bike from New York to Vermont, this kid from New Orleans. Ultimately, he did get back into the merchant marine, became a sailor, and I grew up hearing all kinds of bedtime stories about whaling and sailing, and reading those kinds of books.
When I graduated from high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself, and Pop was like, “Well, I can get you a job on a tugboat if you want.” So I joined the Seafarer’s Union, and I went to work on a 125-foot tug, pushing barges up and down the east coast. I actually liked the work and being on the water. But the thing with tugboats is that they aren’t the most seaworthy vessels. They are really strong, and they are stout, but they aren’t very elegant, and they don’t roll well. If you get into any kind of ocean, they have flat bottoms and they start smacking the water. I got violently seasick many times.
What’s worse is that in the middle of winter, when you are out in the Atlantic or on the Chesapeake Bay, and the tugboat is going through waves, the wind will whip spray up all over the superstructure of the tug boat. It freezes, and the boat starts to become encased in ice. If it gets too encased in ice, the tug will get top-heavy and will roll over and everyone will die. So. It’s scary. The very advanced method tugboat crews have come up with to counter this icing threat is to get two-by-fours and baseball bats and go out and smash the ice off the superstructure of the boat in the middle of the night.
It was probably February, and we were out in the middle of the Chesapeake. And I remember getting roused - they warned me that this was probably going to happen along the way - at two or three in the morning. We worked alternating six-hour shifts, and so you really wanted to get as much sleep as you could, but they hauled me out of my bunk and said, “Come on, man, it is time.” They handed me a baseball bat and we went out and started smashing ice off the tugboat.
The tug is actually really beautiful wrapped in ice, lit up by the running lights and shining out there in the dark. Of course, we are still plowing through the sea, and the spray is coming up and you are soaked and the spray starts to freeze on your jacket and hat and face. The engineers are up on the second deck swinging away, and the ice comes shearing off in big cakes and crashing onto the main deck, so you have to watch above you, too, for those sections coming down.
Well, it sucked. And to make a long story short, that was the moment at which I said to myself: “I will go to college next year. I am going to do it. I don’t know what I am going to study yet, but it has got to be better than this.” So, I did. That was a good moment for me, a valuable lesson learned the right way.
Of course, years later, I ended up working on ships again, and building boats. What can you say? I guess there’s just a little of it in the blood.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.