Imagine being fresh out of high school in the 1960’s and ready for college, inspired by a well-traveled father with a love for the great wide world, and snagging a job at an international port. My duties consisted of spending the day slipping in and out of warehouses and along the docks on a three-wheeled scooter as I delivered mail and bills of lading to huge freighters and Navy ships.
I was seventeen going on eighteen, and I became the Port of Stockton messenger. Starting at eight every morning I entered the mail room, sorted through the undelivered mail and newly processed shipping forms, then organized them for warehouse destination and the ships in port for the day. I scheduled with special care so that at the end of my other deliveries I could use the extra time to lose myself on board the ships. Once the paperwork was in order, I left the mailroom and mounted up in the cab of my yellow Cushman three-wheeler. Time to shoot around the port from dock to dock, ship to ship. A new run every hour on the hour. I loved it.
And I was good at my job. Okay, truth be told, I did once fail to recognize a Libby Foods bill of lading and stacked it inadvertently in the bin with the nearly-identical Navy invoices. The next morning a shipping clerk took me aside to explain quietly that an ocean-going vessel had just spent an extra night in port, at the cost of thousands, all due to a seemingly missing shipment. Luckily for me, he had taken pity and personally assumed the blame for the misfiled bill, and I kept my job.
It was the massive freighters that enthralled me: huge, oily, filthy ships, reeking of diesel or molasses, rust and neglect. I climbed the gangway to meet friendly crew who understood little English. Mail in hand, I had orders to seek out the captain and deliver to him personally.
But to get to his quarters, I always found the most circuitous routes, ambling down gangways and descending ladders into the bowels of the ships, smelling the raw stench of bilges or the glistening oil of well-loved engines. I loved the foreign languages of the crew, the exotic melodies coming from the cabins, the stickiness of the decks of the molasses ships, the risqué pinups decorating the ship’s passageways. If you haven’t smelled a molasses freighter on a hot summer’s morning as temperatures already reach into the 90’s, you haven’t lived the life of Stockton’s inland port in the ’60’s.
Once found, the captain of the ship was usually some unkempt type who greeted me with warm regard and offered me a beer at nine in the morning. His tilted captain’s cap was the only sign of rank in an otherwise slovenly uniform of baggy trousers with suspenders and filthy wife-beater. Over there—he gestured toward a careless stack of “dead soldiers” polished off over night—there might be one in the fridge with some life still in it. Not tempted, but curious, I examined the empties labeled with exotic foreign names of other ports of call. Then, when I politely declined once again, he reached for a bottle of whiskey and toasted me before taking a slug. Ah, a world-weary traveler’s breakfast.
I was in my element, an exotic world far from small-town life.
The Cushman was fun. Its covered cab protected me from the worst of the sun’s glare. Its slanted front windshield offered a good view of the road ahead. And it had zip when I had to move quickly. And I soon learned that moving quickly was part of the job, because the longshoremen on forklifts deftly twisting and turning about the long, dark and stuffy warehouses thought the port messenger was fair game.
I would scoot from the baking heat into the dark recesses of a warehouse, my senses alert as I passed looming stacks of crates or cotton bales, for I knew that at any moment an attacker lay in wait, idling in the shadows and ready to spurt out into my path with the clear intent of impaling my vehicle.
I was quick. The first time it happened I thought it was an accidental near-collision, although the dockworker laughed mightily and offered me a special salute with his middle finger. The next time I almost ended up a shish-kabob, I realized that this daily threat was part of the job, and decided to make the best of it. “You may want to watch out for the forklifts,” the boss had suggested on my first day. Now I knew what he meant.
So I gathered my wits, and my forays into the dockside sheds became a game of cat and mouse, where I was the nimble mouse, ever alert to the perils. I would race along, then dodge behind the bales and spin around the stacks near the wall and then accelerate out a gap in the long rows where I was least expected, only to be pursued by a forklift or two and a spate of cursing at having eluded the trap. Once parked at each of the dock offices I was on safe grounds, for the foremen were polite and non-threatening. But back in the Cushman the game was on, and by the end of the day I prided myself on my driving dexterity and success at eluding the increasingly unfriendly dockworkers. They wanted their prey. This kid was making a fool of them.
It was a very hot day about one a.m.—I had just had my lunch break and begun the mid-day run—when I moved cautiously along a very long warehouse without incident and breathed a surprised sigh of relief. As I shot out the huge doorway into the glaring sun and accelerated I was momentarily blinded. And then it happened. The Cushman rose up at the front with no warning, the windshield came crashing in on me, and I was thrown backwards, my eyeglasses ending up behind me.
I drew myself together and gathered my wits. The sleekly slanted front of the Cushman Haulmaster was now deeply indented. It had met an inch-and-a-half steel cable stretched from a dock piling on my right to a tractor off to my left, just at the height of the steering column. The cable hadn’t given way, so my valiant three-wheeled ride had. I cleared my head and looked around, but not a soul was to be seen as the heat radiated from the baking pavement. The Caterpillar tractor stared at me in all innocence.
My head hurt where it had impacted the flying windshield, and as I limped back to the port offices I played out my imminent firing in my head. I had wrecked the Cushman. My job for the summer had come to an inglorious end.
Imagine my surprise to find great concern from the boss. “No flags on the cable?” he asked. “No one around to help?” he wondered. “Need to see a doctor?” he inquired, with the obvious implication that nothing of the sort would be needed. “Of course, you still have your job,” he assured me. “Do you have a car you can drive for the rest of the summer?”
I was too naive to think lawsuit. He was too sharp not to worry about one.
Until fall and my first college semester arrived I drove from dock to dock in the family’s ’62 Chevy. My own $800 Jaguar XK-140, which overheated at the thought of a summer’s day, hadn’t lasted a week in the Stockton dockside swelter. Now I drove around the warehouses, not through them, and made my deliveries to the offices on foot as the car engine idled in the stultifying heat. But I still enjoyed getting lost on the freighters.
No explanation was ever given for the cable linking tractor to dock piling. In fact, I was told it was gone by the time anyone surveyed the scene. But I knew. The nimble mouse had been too embarrassing for the aggressive cats. He had to be put in his proper place. And he was. A Chevy Bel-Air.
Copyright 2013 Patrick W. O’Bryon