Seagulls whipped around the air like kites zigzagging on taut string. The breeze buffeting them rippled through the marsh grass above the wavelets breaking over their anchor of plough mud. My hair rose and fell in the chilling air cavorting about my head. I clutched my wool herringbone coat tight against my throat. My cheeks were ruby red in the cold of early winter. I struggled to keep my balance on the weathered boards that made up the ramp leading to the dock out over the white caps of the Cooper River.
I caught my feet several times in the cracks and crevices of the old creosoted two by fours.
“Watch out, Rickey. Give me your hand. This wind is stronger than your daddy thought.” My mother grabbed my mittened hand. She smiled down at me.
“You sure you want to do this?”
“Oh, yes ma’am!” I yelled over the seagulls and wind.
My dad had only recently begun work on the Tugboats of White Stack of Charleston. It was the first job he had been able to get since bringing us to America keeping his promise to my mother. He told her often while looking for work that his accent was not helping his efforts.
“A touch of prejudice, I think.”
“Got nothing for a Limey,” he’d heard until he had approached the right person on the Charleston docks. His work as a stoker in the Royal navy throughout the war had been his ace in the hole for this one. He was hired on for twenty-five cents an hour. Big money in 1950.
“So, you want to see where daddy works, eh?” My answer had been yes to seeing boats on the water. Our trip from England had been by ship across the Atlantic. The smell of the ocean and rolling decks had become wondrous memories and here was a chance to go back onto the water.
“YES!” I yelled jumping up. He caught me in his arms and slipped me to his left hip in the crook of his arm. It was like sitting in a cradle of steel. He smiled at me and said, “I think it will be alright. The skipper said I could bring you both on a run one day.”
That had been a few weeks prior to his being able to make the date. Mom and I were walking out along the pier to where the tug was tied up. It was a blustery day with grey clouds flying along overhead, the sun playing hide and seek behind them. It might rain dad had told us.
Dad was at the gangplank waiting. He stood next to the anchoring post that stood stoutly beside him. Two posts over a couple of seagulls sat waiting to follow the tug’s wake.
“Come on,” he said waving us on impatiently. “We need to get aboard. The skipper is behind schedule.”
He took my mother’s hand guiding her along the gangplank over the gunnel and onto the deck with a slight jump. I held her hand tightly as I ran quickly behind her. Dad jumped onto the deck and picked me up. His mates stowed the plank and lifted the ropes from the posts and the engine began to throb sending vibrations up my legs when he placed me on the deck. The air was still active with an accompanying mist of salt water from the Cooper River.
I started to run to the port side when dad called out, “Don’t run, son, and stay near your mother. Both of you might like to go below to say hello to everyone and see if there is anything to eat. I have my doubts that you’ve had your tea yet.”
Reluctantly, I took my mother’s hand and we descended below deck. His mates were sitting at a table eating when we set foot on the lower deck.
“Welcome aboard!” they shouted almost in unison. “So you are Alf’s son? And you Mrs. Alf?” the nearest one said.
“Yes sir,” I answered eyeing the deviled eggs sitting in a dish. “What’s that?”
“That my boy is what is known as a deviled egg,” said the same man.
“Why do they call them deviled eggs?”
“I don’t have a clue, little ‘un. Would you care to try one?” he asked holding the plate in front of me.
“Nuh uh,” I said shaking my head. My mother gave me a triangular sandwich half which I bit into immediately still eyeing the eggs.
“Your husband is a hell of a deck hand, Mrs.,” said the same man. He was more open to us than the others. Something to do with a woman on board I guess.
“Thank you,” said my mother. She sat at the table and they began to talk. I finished my sandwich and slid my hand into the pile of egg halves snagging one. I climbed up the ladder with egg in hand. On deck the wind was blowing stiffly from the direction of the bow. The sun had decided to hide behind the curtain of grey which sent down a light drizzle combining with the spray of the river. It was exhilarating. I bit into the egg. I immediately knew this was to be one of my favorite foods. I gobbled it down and returned to the lower deck step by step latching my eyes on the eggs at the table’s edge. The grownups were caught up in chatter as I grabbed eggs, one in each fist. My right hand pushed the entire thing into my mouth and automatically grabbed another. Munching away I took one step at a time balancing over the rolling tug. Slowly I made it to the deck once again.
I walked to port and as I came from behind the cabin the wind hit me with its salt spray. I stuffed my right hand egg into my mouth and inched along the deck as it rolled to port. My legs scampered beneath me and I grabbed the rail as I bumped into it. I looked down to see water within reach sliding rapidly past. The wake was rolling along grey with white foam jumping into the wind steadily blowing against my face open to that spray and the needle drizzle from above.
I could feel the engine’s steady throb through my shoes, its power pouring into the screw pushing us forward. The pistons’ thrum was energizing and I began to walk forward while cramming my last egg into my mouth. As I chewed my new favorite food I bent into the wind keeping my eyes on the deck sliding my feet inch by inch toward the bow while clinging to the railing.
Almost in front of the cabin I looked up to see my dad. Behind him was a wall of grey steel. I followed that wall up, up, up… I nearly lost my balance looking straight up. The sky was totally block astarboard. It was the tallest thing ever to meet my eyes. True I had been aboard such a ship coming to America but to see it from this angle was awe inspiring. The tug was a puny vessel compared to the ship we were alongside near enough to touch. My mouth was locked wide open, startled by the size of the ship beside us.
My dad happened to see me. He was about to yell when I was picked up by my mother. Even in her arms I could not take my eyes off the height of this vessel we chugged along side.
“What are you doing out here?” asked my mother. “You were supposed to stay with me.”
“I just wanted to see the water.” My trance was broken. I looked at her face full of fear and concern. “It’s alright, mommy, I’m alright. I got good sea legs and I was holding on tight.”
She looked to dad who was frowning at her. A shrug of the shoulders and a whispered I’m sorry crossed the short distance. He turned back to his work and my mother turned back aft stumbling as the roll of the tug caught her off guard.
Back below I settled on one of the benches by the table and grabbed another egg shoveling it into my mouth. I quickly repeated this move twice more. Just one more I thought and began to reach. Before I could gather up one more egg the tug took a mighty roll and my stomach went along with it. Its contents continued up and over onto the deck as I heaved a second time. The deviled eggs refused to stay comfortably in my stomach. The deck, the seat and my coat along with my shoes were covered in the previously eaten egg halves.
I was told I turned green. I sat with my head on the table, the uncovered side, as everyone moved to clean up the mess I had made.
“How many did he eat?” I heard one person say.
“Looks to be all of them,” said another.
“Here let me,” said my mother.
“No ma’am. We clean up all the time like this. You sit back down.”
The ship was led into the port and our tug turned back toward the wharf we had left. The rest of that trip I remained below deck at the table with my head resting on my arm. Dad came in one time to say something to mom about allowing me to come on deck alone but didn’t say anything when he saw the mess being cleaned up. He came over and put his hand on my forehead.
“No fever,” he said. “Touch of seasickness, perhaps. He will be fine when we get back to land.” He returned to his station as the tug throbbed on.
The lines were tossed to the hands who tied them back to the anchoring points. As the gangplank was put in place, dad lifted me up. He placed his hand into my mother’s and led her up onto the dock. The steadiness of land settled into me. I lay my head on his shoulder and closing my eyes said, “Thank you daddy. It was so tall. That ship was so tall. How can anything be so big?”
“Some things just are, son. Some things just are.” I drifted to sleep as he walked toward the car.