Armchair Peregrinations

July 13, 1999

Saturday, July 11
6:15 pm, Folly Beach, S.C.

It's a windy, late afternnon at Folly Beach. I'm sitting in front of the sea oats. It's very high tide, and the remnants of waves are spread out in their demise beneath my lounge chair, which is slowly sinking, but neverthless holding firm in the soft sand after the water has retreated. For a minute there I thought it would dislodge from the sand and float away on the retreating water with me still sitting there. That was the sensation I had, anyway.

The roar of the waves is continuous because the wind seems to be forcing them to break in rapid succession.

The sun feels warm on my shoulder. The sky is blue, no clouds anywhere in front of me or to the north. A lone seagul is flying off to the south.

The salt air smells wonderful. It is the smell of many summers past, reaching way back to my childhood and teenage years when we first came to this beach on vacation and walked the long stretch to the cove opposite the lighthouse.

I could sit here feeling this strong sea wind and listening to this ocean next to me indefinitely, it seems. It's a steady, rhythmic ordering of nature's forces. They are harnassed in a steady-state. Energy is in eqiulibrium. Land, air, sea -- they all draw upon and sustain each other.

I can picture myself years ago at this beach, in about this same spot, watching the waves advance and recede ceaselessly. Watching from a short distance away now, I'm fascinated anew by their foamy crests charging the shore and then dying out in quiet sheets of water. I'm surrounded by water in my chair again now, but it's gone soon enough. I'm waiting for the tide to turn. Not quite yet. It's not the exact moment yet when that occurs.

6:50 pm: I think the tide has turned. It's going back out. I'm on a firmer foundation now.

July 10, 1999

I guess you could say it was the first actual paying job I ever had; that is, a paycheck every two weeks, instead of a few dollars each week for mowing lawns in the neighborhood. I was really anticipating this new summer experience, not only because of the improbable nature of the job and uncertainties about why it even existed in the first place, but because it offered a way out of the house, a new routine, a new adventure, as it were. And what better way to have some new experiences than to work as a summer deckhand, on, of all things, one of two fireboats operated by the Port of New Orleans. And, they were moored on the Algiers side of the Mississippi River, just blocks from where I had graduated from high school only two years before.

Now the Board of Commissioners of the Port, in their civic spiritedness, and to take part in hiring youth for the summer, I imagine, received funding for four positions involving various upkeep jobs on the two boats. I and another student were stationed aboard the Fireboat Bourgeois and two other guys were assigned to a newer, sleeker boat.

The boat I was on was really an old relic from the 1940s, with manual signals from below deck in the engine room sent up via pipes and whistles to the captain operating the boat. It was all very strange and interesting.

One of my acquaintances from high school was on the other boat, and I was paired with another eager kid from across town who was as naive, enthusiastic and ready for new experiences as I was. After all, I had just completed two years of college, and this was a chance to finally make some money. Not much, but something. Getting hired was not exactly an accident, either. It helped that one of the higher ups at the Port just happened to be my father's best buddy from merchant marine days during World War II. I didn't ponder the larger ramificaitions of this at the time. I was just glad to have something different to do so I wouldn't be sitting at home brooding and writing melancholy journal entries, which I had been prone to do the previous summer, not to mention getting into arguments with my father about why I was brooding and not out doing things, such as working.

Well, as any one who has been to New Orleans in June knows, it's very hot and humid, and here I was going to my job on a fireboat (incidentally, this would make for great stories to tell in the fall back at school). Basically, our job was this: we chipped paint off pipes, railings, the sides of the boat and in the steamy, hot engine room, and then applied new paint. It was noisy, somewhat dangerous, and hot, hot, hot. But we loved it for some reason because we were out on the fabled Mississippi, catching the breeze off that mighty waterway, watching freighters from all over the world steam toward the Gulf of Mexico, and getting to know some really, shall we say, interesting people -- the regular crew of the boats. They were rather like sidelined seamen, wipers, deckhands, engineers, and others, all of whom were trained in the job of responding to, and putting out, fires on vessels along the river and adjoining waterways such as the outlet to the lake and Intracoastal Waterway.

This, needless to say, was a very rare occurrence, but it did happen once, that first summer, when we received the alarm and instructions, and furiously sputtered to life, cast off from the banks of the river, and madly dashed to a small fire on a ship a couple of miles away on one of the connecting waterways. Horns blared, drawbridges opened up for us, and we raced to the rescue. I was very excited by all this and momentarily swelled up with pride and self-importance. However, to our great disappointment and disillusionment, when we got to the scene, they made me and my co-worker ignominiously get off the boat and go home, since this was a job for the trained big boys. Disappointment was writ large on my face as I sulked on the bus making its way back across town.

Mostly, though, the days were very uneventful, and we had a lot of fun, mercilessly being hounded and kidded by the crew who looked upon us a mere pups, upstarts and spoiled college kids, who they nevertheless grew to like, and we them. They didn't do too much as far as we could tell, and most hot mornings while we were chipping paint, they were sitting in the air- conditioned galley playing cards or dozing in their bunks, despite the racket we were making with our paint chipping guns.

By far the highlight of the day was the noon meal where all ten or so of us congregated in the galley and feasted on good Lousiana cooking done to perfection by certain of those crewmen who prided themselves on making everyone fat and happy with a huge meal each day. We all chipped in a dollar or so, groceries were procured, and the good smells would start hitting us about 11. I can honestly say that I had never before, nor have I since, experienced such an intense appetite for, and enjoyment of, food. We would be famished and just stuffed ourselves, all the while listening to the ribald jokes, crude comments, bragging, laughing, tales of sexual exploits, real and imagined, and every other kind of talk you could imagine that would impress and intoxicate two know-nothing college kids from the suburbs who had lived pretty sheltered lives.

The crew knew this, and as I said, they hounded us mercilessly: mock insults, disparaging remarks, every imaginable cuss word and foul piece of language that you thought could be uttered, and more. But fortunately, they took a liking to us, and we got along great. In fact, it was, up until that time, one of the best experiences I had ever had. I was really pretty green in those days, having spent the better part of two years with my nose in books, lying on my spartan bed in a dorm room studying, walking to and from classes, keeping largely to myself, but never imagining what lay ahead of me that first summer on the fireboat.

All these years later, I can see certain of those crew members now -- big, fat, distended bellies squeezing through the narrow doors to the galley or the head, torrents of curse words whenever anything struck them as stupid or messed up, and, of course, toothless Carlos who was about the most comical character I had ever met in my life up until that time.

I did this for two summers, in 1971 and 1972, and with the same crew and the same co-worker. We painted that whole boat. I remember finishing up at the end of the day, cleaning all the paint off my hands, t-shirt soaking with sweat, tired and ready to go home, but satisfied with my lot that summer on the Mississippi. I guess at times I thought I was some kind of modern-day character out of a story by Mark Twain from his book Life on the Mississippi. We really got into the whole adventure aspect of the job, its pure novelty. It was like nothing we had ever done before, and we would surely never do anything like it again.

Here is what I wrote in my journal about the experience:

From my journal, June 24, 1972, age 21

Working on the fireboat again this summer has lifted me up and I feel very much the way I did last summer. In fact, in many ways this whole summer seems a duplication of last year. On the boat this month I seem to have forgotten everything about school, and this past spring semester has faded into vague recollection. Time is going by too quickly, but it is good to be at ease once again.

I learn a lot from the people around me, especially how sheltered my existence has been. I am realizing more often lately that I have been so single-mindedly preoccupied with myself that I have almost forgotten what it is like to have long-lasting experiences. I really have isolated myself, and only when I am around people so different from me do I realize how really inexperienced I am, how school and studying have driven me into a shell.

Sometimes I feel painfully inadequate when I discover, at my own expense, how little I know...But I manage to easily merge with the crew on the boat and understand them because they are so fundamentally decent. Behind all the crude humor are truly down-to-earth people who wouldn't want to hurt you for anything..

Their lives center around the most basic human drives, and I suppose sex becomes almost a sort of folklore topic that is always discussed with unabashed frankness. Novelty and imagination never wear thin in this area, and I am often convulsed in the general laughter of their stories and never-ending anecdotes. Even the new hand, a 19-year-old wiper in the engine room, can hold his own with the most seasoned deckand, seemingly.. Among those I work with the most happy are the most natural and spontaneous. One instinctively rises to meet their optimism.

And this is what I wrote not long after the job concluded at the end of that second memorable summer:

From my journal, August 26, 1972:

This is an exceptionally beautiful late summer afternoon -- skies are richly blue and clouds sharply defined. It is also two days until the start of school, and already a week has gone by since leaving the fireboat for the summer. I was rather gloomy and dejected that day because I hated to see this summer end. We had a farewell party on the boat. It was sad saying good-bye to everyone. Hector is one of the gentlest, best-natured human beings I have ever known, and Carlos, well, he is unforgettable and unquestionably the funniest, most comical character I've ever encountered. I wouldn't trade the experience of knowing them and some of the others for anything.

July 7, 1999

I was sitting in the rocking chair on the porch at the house in Charleston earlier this evening, about an hour before sundown, and a solitary cicada or two began its late afternoon song, that pleasant, droning, vibrating insect symphony that is summer personified, one of the surest hallmarks of the season. You find mention of these unusual insects time and again in Southern literature. They are reminders of all the hot summers past that seemed so never-ending. Cicadas and their song, just like the crickets and frogs which take over later in the night, make me kind of drowsy with the most pleasing sorts of memories and reveries.

That's what summer will do to you. I forget how hot it is and concentrate on the cooler times of day, those early evenings when I can sit under the ceiling fan, legs propped up on the porch railings, and watch life pass by just beyond. If I'm lucky, a thunderstorm will bring cooling winds.

A few years ago I bought a really nice book, a celebration of the season simply titled "Summer" (edited by Alice Gordon and Vincent Virga. Addison-Wesley, 1990). It's filled wth essays, poems, photographs, artwork and reminicences about summer. Some of the images include these: lawn chairs in a circle under the shade of a tree; a wide front porch overlooking a bay or sound, two girls in the middle of a diving platform in a lake or pond; baseballs; fountains, hammocks, tomatoes, roses, swimming pools; a crowded beach; kids standing in front of a lawn sprinkler; people sitting at the beach; a back porch filled with fishing gear; skateboarders; and, my favorite image: a dog in a green armchair inside the living room of a country house, door open to the porch on a bright summer day, a swimming pond in the near foreground. Everything about the scene -- interior and exterior -- bespeaks summer: truly that painting conveys the season of languid dreams and carefree days, however tenuous.

At the end of a summer long ago in New Orleans, in August 1971, I wrote in my journal about how endless bike rides held the end of summer at bay, but only for so long. Then, as now, I watch the season closely for signs that it is peaking, for those first little significant indicators that the grip of the heat and humidity is lessening, and for those subtle drops in temperature that are really only noticeable at night.

Summer was usually my optimistic season when I was young, and not just because school was out. Everything about it seemed pleasant to me, set far apart from the other seasons.

From my journal, Aug. 21, 1971, Age 20

Today is a perfectly typical Saturday in late August, alternately clear, blue skies followed by a succession of thunderstorms. I finished my summer job two days ago and once again the close of summer is regrettably approaching.

I feel like holding on to the last days before school begins because, in general, I've felt very good and optimistic this summer. I've had many satisfying hours of bike riding. My favorite route was through the quiet streets of old Aurora on a clear Sunday afternoon, down an old road clogged with undergrowth to the grassy levee along the Intracoastal Canal. There is a long embankment leading from the Belle Chase Highway to the locks on both sides and much beyond this on the other side of the highway where private property begins.

The woods are dense and richly green along the mile route, and tall cypress trees stick out prominently above the woods below. The summer songs of cicdas works up to a frenzy as one cluster of insects seems to try and outdo a neighboring group. Their combined drone makes every section of the woods seem alive. Orange, bell-shaped flowers appear in the tops of certain trees.

The grass on the levee is a thick, straw-textured plant that becomes dry and stiff in the hot sun. It leads down to high weeds and grasses along the muddy banks of the canal.

Then as now I watch and wait to observe the littlest details about the season. I don't ride a bike anymore, but I can dream and imagine summers past as I take walks late in the day. Every now and then, as long as I'm outside, small surges of recognition come over me, triggered by some slight smell or sound, and I'm transported to another time and place. The sensations are subtle, and I don't have to leave home and my familiar surroundings, for all that I really need to experience summer is here.

July 3, 1999

In a small town in South Carolina, in the wee hours of the morning, an editor labors over the pasted up pages of his 24-page weekly newspaper. Rolling down the pages once again, he makes sure the copy is secured by wax to the dummy sheets, that the 1-point lines around pictures are straight, and that there are no glaring typos.

It's 3 am. I'm standing at the light table wide awake at this point and ready to write more headlines, if necessary. L___, my wonderful and invaluable co-worker, stays late, too, as she does each week on production nights, tired after a day of laying out ads and doing darkroom work. I couldn't put the paper out without her. She's there sometimes until 11 pm or later and has a 55-mile commute home.

It's been a hectic day finishing up news stories, printing out justified copy from the Mac computers, writing cutlines for photos, doing preliminary layout and pasteup. By the time 6 pm rolls around I'm in high gear. Alertness personified, engergy flowing. I have my usual supper of chili-cheese hot dog, fried onion rings, and a root beer. That junk food tastes so good after working hard on the paper all day.

This supper provides a much-needed break, as I have to be on top of things over the next eight or nine hours because I'm the only one to see the paper through to completion, normally about 4 am when it is to be picked up by our delivery man and driven to another small town two hours away to be printed.

The reason I'm the only one there until the paper's finished is because I am a one-man show, from the standpoint of the news and layout. One of the reasons I took the job on this newspaper, one of 36 community newspapers in a chain headquartered in South Carolina, and including papers in three states, was because I would have a reporter to help me cover municipal, county and police news. When it was determined about a month later by the powers that be in the chain's hierarchy that I was competent and fast enough to be able to do it all myself, although with diminished overall quality, the corporate bosses decided to transfer my reporter to another paper and leave me stranded.

Mind you, I was in a tight spot. This was the job I had to keep for awhile no matter what since I had been out of work for those five months I wrote about recently. I couldn't believe what was happening to me, how much work I would have to do just to put out a minimally good newspaper. It was a rotten thing to do to someone, and I think they must have sensed that I wasn't going anywhere right away.

A few weeks after I was left high and dry to put out the paper by myself, that is, write all the news, features, columns, etc., the two bigshots from headquarters came by to inspect the office and tell us how we could improve the product. As soon as one of the two corporate honchos, head of an empire of 36 newspapers, came into my office area, I proceeded to tell him that taking away the reporter had "pulled the rug right from under my feet." Those were my exact words. I remember them well to this day.

Needless to say, he didn't appreciate my being so candid. I knew my days there were numbered, but I labored on in the full conviction that I was there to do the job I was hired for, minus all editorial help, and that was all there was to it. They had had such a hard time finding someone to take over this low-paying, thankless job, that I knew my immediate future was relatively secure. Farther down the road was another matter. Anyway, I always felt good that I had told that executive what I thought of his decision regarding the reporter. This was the type of organization, and unfortunately, I've worked for a few of them, which truly gives capitalism a bad name. Workers were treated very shabbily. Used, actually, and nothing more, until they were spent and burnt out, then discarded. It's a familiar story, espcially at small corporations in the South. This was also the type of company that would gladly allow you to work at minimum wage for years until you came crawling to them for a 25 or 50 cents an hour raise.

Back at the newspaper now, it's about 3:30 am, and the delivery driver is due any time. I've checked and re-checked until I'm sick of the whole thing, eager for it to be off.

Sometime right before I leave for the night, when the town is still and deserted, I hear the vibrating begin and build to a crescendo until the speeding train is diagonally opposite the front door of the office, whizzing by at 70 or 80 mph. The building literally shakes. It's an exciting sound, and a kind of strange experience that lasts just a few seconds, and then it's still and quiet once again. Often, these late night trains are AMTRAK coaches hurtling south toward Miami or north toward New York. And in my little newspaper office in the middle of eastern South Carolina, I would envy the passengers in those trains and wish I was speeding off to freedom and liberation from my writing and production deadlines.

After J___ took the pages off in his van to be printed later that morning or early in the afternoon, it was finally out of my hands. No stopping the presses for an error or two. If I had made some stupid or embarrassing mistake, 3,400 copies of it would appear. So, I'd begin worrying a bit, and this would continue until the bundles of papers were inside the door and the papers opened and examined. Relief! No major blunders. And then I could go ahead and relax a bit until the cycle began again.

When J___ left on production nights with the completed paper, I'd gather my stuff together and head out the back door to my car. I sometimes felt a little nervous because it was usually 4 or 4:30 am and no one was around, and I could have been mugged or worse. But I made it home fine each time.

Home was the ground floor unit of a garage apartment about six blocks from the newspaper office. This was my sanctuary. Barely furnished, set back from a quiet street, and surrounded by big trees and the remnants of a garden which the elderly lady who owned the adjacent house lovingly kept up until here death a year or so before I moved in. She had never raised the rent, apparently, so I was paying about $125 a month and couldn't believe my luck.

The place itself was appalling to look at. Kind of shabby and run down. It had a loud window air-conditioning unit in the back and an electric floor heater in the small, unfurnished living room. It had low ceilings, too, which added to the closed-in feeling. I had a card table and a chair in that room, and in the bedroom was a mattress on cinder blocks, a bedstand with lamp, and assorted boxes with books lying about on the floor. That was it. I wasn't planning on staying too long.

But I loved it. I could open the window by my bed and listen to the subtle outdoor sounds and never hear any traffic or cars. I could have been living somewhere in the country, it was so peaceful.

I'd come in the door on production nights and head for the bed, lying down and mulling over the day's events in my mind until sleep overcame me and I drifted off. Then I'd get up a few hours later and go to the Huddle House for a ham and cheese omelet. This was more or less a routine, although sometimes I just slept in late because I didn't have to be in to work until around 10 that morning. Small concession to the previous 20-hour day.

When I did arrive back at the office on those post-production Wednesdays, I'd open mail and await the arrival of the paper. Usually it came about 3 in the afternoon. By the time it arrived, I would already have made two or three trips to the Hole-in-One Donut Shop next door to the newspaper office there on Main Street for muffins and iced tea. This was a project of the Sheltered Workshop and the local Disabilities Board which employed mentally retarded adults. So I tried to give them as much business as I could. So faithful and regular a customer was I, that when I finally left the paper in October of 1991, it was there that my going-away party was held, complete with one of their cakes, decorated just for me with a camera on top because I had taken so many picutres of their events for the newspaper.

All of this occurred in 1990 and 1991, and now, at the end of the decade, it seems like many ages ago. But even now I can hear those AMTRAK trains racing through the still, late nights, headed north on invisible rails. And I can remember the good feelings I had about the great people I worked with and how we struggled together to put out that paper.

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