Thursday, December 17, 2015

Chance Encounters of the Tugboat Kind



I've mentioned before that my current locale of residence isn't really a hot bed of nautical knowledge. Sure I live next to a great big lake that provides for a multitude of summertime waterborne activities. But that fun and frolicking on a party barge doesn't really transfer into knowledge about the commercial maritime trades. The chances that you run into someone in my town who knows anything about the maritime industry, never mind the small world of tugboats, is pretty slim. Or so I thought. (insert scary theme music)

A few weeks ago my wife and I were doing our evening walk around our neighborhood. It's happens to be very good exercise for me for recovering from my second installment of back surgery. Plus, we get to check out any of the multitude of new houses being built in our development. That night we were headed into the wilds of "Phase Two". Being that our neighborhood is still under construction we have to be able to delineate the new arrivals in the development compared to the original settlers. A rumor had been swirling around that someone in Phase Two had also worked on tugboats. So on this particular evening we had made it our mission to try to narrow down what house this supposed tugboat person lived in. I was going on the premise that a mariner is required to have nautical things outside of their house. An anchor, red and green running lights, or at the very least, a replica of a lighthouse should adorn the yard. My wife was a little more practical. An older gentleman and his elderly wife would probably live in a one story ranch style home. More than likely correct. She’s smart like that. But I was on the search for nautical knick-knacks.
You call yourself a mariner but don't have one of these at the end of your driveway?
As we proceeded on our walk, one ranch style house seemed to stand out as the most likely of choices that an ex-mariner would reside. Unfortunately, no one seemed to be home at the time. Plus, it seemed kind of creepy to just walk up and knock on their door and ask if anyone there had ever worked on a tugboat. So we continued our walk around the development. On the way back home we once again were about to pass the suspected mariners house. Just as we did, a car came down the street and slowed just in front of our suspect’s driveway. The passenger side window rolled down and an elderly gentleman poked his head out. Then, with a markedly Scandinavian accent, the gentleman in the car asked if I worked on tugboats. Now granted I happened to be wearing one of the many t-shirts that I have made that said, "New York Tugboats" printed on the front. However, I don't think that mattered.

Tugboaters know tugboaters.

We can pick each other out in the grocery store, at the airport, or any other public venue. I'm fairly sure I could have been wearing a superhero shirt and he still would have been able to pick me out of a police line-up as a fellow tugboater. We proceeded to have a very nice conversation all about our current and former tug careers. This very nice gentleman worked for Moran Towing, the BIG tug company with the giant "M" on their stack, for many years. My current employer happens to be a very short stone’s throw away from Moran's tugboat yard. So close that one day I may have to take the short walk to their office to see if I can get some Moran tugboat swag to bring back for him. Tugboaters love swag. Promises were made to get together again sometime soon for coffee and the inevitable sea stories. And with that, we continued on our walk, armed with the knowledge that another merchant mariner, a tugboater at that lives not only in the area, but in our own development.

Small world. Smaller neighborhood.
A Moran Towing tractor tug

A few days later, another happenstance meeting absolutely blew my mind about how small of a world it is that we actually live in.

I had been looking to purchase a new handgun and was in the midst of doing my due diligence and research to find just the right one. I had compared prices, options, extras, etc. and was quite sure of which particular model I wanted to buy. But I wanted to physically inspect this particular one before I was ready to put my hard earned money into someone else’s pocket. The only way to do this was to take a leisurely stroll down to the local gun range in order to get my hands on the model I was interested in.
After speaking with the salesperson for a while, another gentleman happened to come over to where we were talking. Very politely he asked me, "Do you happen to work on tugboats?" Now normally I happen to be wearing one of the multitude of tugboat t-shirts that I make in my spare time. Such as was the case when I met the elderly gentleman in our neighborhood. However, this time, I wasn't. No tugboat shirt. No tugboat hat. Nothing with a logo. No nautical accoutrements whatsoever. Not a single distinguishing piece of apparel that would give me away as a merchant mariner. Somehow this gentleman was still able to pick me out of the proverbial police line-up of tugboaters. As we continued to talk, I slowly recognized the one single distinguishing feature that most tugboaters seem to recognize each other by as one of their own. His voice.

I have always said that whenever we go to a company meeting, I don't recognize anyone there. These are the guys that I've worked with together for years. Yet, the vast majority of them, I have never met. We are just voices on the radio. One wheelhouse guy talking to another wheelhouse guy over the VHF radio as you do the job from your respective boats. The joke I have always used, was that if I didn't recognize someone face to face, all they had to do was give a mock security call as they would over the radio. By their voice alone, I would usually be able to tell you exactly who they were, what boat they were on, and which crew they worked with. You recognize the voices, not the faces.

As it turns out, I should have recognized his face, not just his voice. The gentleman in question, in the gun store, in my newly adopted hometown, was indeed a fellow tugboatman. In fact, he and I both worked on the same boat, on the same crew, some 16 or 17 years before. He was the Chief Engineer and I was one of the deckhands. It had been a very long time since either one of us had seen each other. To say that I had gained a few pounds from the last time I had seen him would be a bigger stretch than if I were to try to fit into my pants from a decade and a half ago. A little bit more gray hair for both of us was also evident. But the one thing that remained the same. That one distinguishing factor for both of us, was the voice. I was stunned.
The tug in question upon which we both worked.
In a small gun shop, in a town far removed from where we had both previously lived, a decade and a half of time in between, a voice from the past was all it took. I'm still absolutely amazed that he recognized me. Unfortunately, our chance meeting was cut short by other pressing responsibilities. Kids like to get picked up when school gets out. However, I know it’s only a matter of time before we cross paths again. Two tugboaters who escaped living in the northeast that now live in the same town in the south who like shooting guns. Yeah, we might have a bit in common. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to foresee yet another meeting for coffee and sea stories.

Maybe the tide is beginning to turn (obligatory nautical reference). Now when I meet a new person who says they have never met someone who works on a tugboat, I’m beginning to think these people don’t get out enough. I met two of them in two weeks. In my own town. Meeting one of them didn’t even require me to leave my own neighborhood. It’s a big, brave new world. Get out and explore it! Or maybe it’s just that the older I get, the smaller the world seems to become.

Then again, tugboaters know tugboaters.

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