CHAPTER 7 – THE COURTSHIP
How do you court someone when you live where you work, seven days at a stretch? Any time and any place, that’s how, because in the oil field, there is no schedule. Time doesn’t mean a thing. Ever heard the old saying, “Hurry up and wait”? Well, that’s the oil field in a nutshell. The only reason a clock hangs on the wall is so that the dispatcher can record what time a delivery arrived, what time it was loaded on the boat, and what time the boat left the dock and returned. That’s it.
Our office was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week with no holidays—the oil field never closes for holidays. One can only hope that the major holidays fall on your days off. However, Roscoe never got off, because he and his crew worked what they called “straight time”.
Straight time meant that they lived on the boat, which was totally acceptable back then. With a complete galley, a TV room, bedrooms with bunks, two bathrooms, sitting area with benches for transporting oil field hands, and of course, the wheel house, a crew boat was a veritable floating home away from home. Roscoe and his crew took turns cooking, the engineer kept the boat running, and the deck hand kept the boat clean. They made pretty good money, and for a single man, it wasn’t a bad deal really–no rent, no utility bills, no grass to cut, and the company paid for the groceries.
It seemed a pretty sweet deal, except for one thing: working straight time made dating a real challenge. Just because I left work for my seven days off didn’t mean that The Captain was getting off. I still had a life and friends in Thibodaux, and he was just not part of that life yet. So, I wasn’t quite sure how a “seven and seven” relationship might work. I for sure wasn’t going to hang around the dock after my seven days was up so that I could see him.
His only choice was to court me while I was at work. That meant giving up sleep on his part, because as I said before, time of day meant nothing in the oil field. So, whenever his boat was docked, he visited me at night while I was dispatching. Since there wasn’t a lot of work to do at night, and as along as I was there to answer the phone and radio, and accept deliveries, the boss didn’t mind if Roscoe was there with me in the living room that served as the office. There were three of us who worked and lived in that mobile home for a week at a time. So while I worked at night, the boss and the yard hand were asleep in their respective bedrooms.
Of course, the main entrance to the office was the front door, which opened right into the living room/office, not giving us much privacy at all. The desk, just inside the front door, looked out over a picture window allowing us to see everything going on in the “yard” at any time. Privacy was not something we had much of. but we made the best of it. We sat on the couch, watched TV, and occasionally I fixed us something to eat—a midnight snack.
The Captain asked all about my life in north Louisiana, while I asked him all about his in bayou country. I talked about college, while he talked about Vietnam. Even though we were six years apart, it sometimes seemed like we were a generation apart. Vietnam was the war I wasn’t quite old enough to protest; but if I had been slightly older, I would have been a full-blown Hippie Love Child, rather than a wannabe.
We came from two different worlds—me, born in a city and reared in a three-bedroom brick home in a subdivision with three siblings; and he, a Native American-Houma Indian born on the bayou and raised in a tiny two-bedroom house with seven siblings. The house was so tiny that they never had a Christmas tree, and often there was one doll for the girls to share and a toy gun for the boys; but always there was an apple and a navel orange for each child in a sock on Christmas morning—rare treats. They never knew how poor they were or how crowded the house was, he told me.
The girls learned at a young age to cook and clean house, as well as clean ducks and fish. The boys learned to hunt and fish, catch shrimp, and crab. Those were the life skills necessary to survive on the bayou. Education was considered a waste of time when there was so much work to be done.
During the 1960’s, while my older sister graduated high school with honors and a full academic scholarship, The Captain’s older brother was not even allowed to attend regular public high school. Rather, he (and other Houma Indians who wanted a high-school education) attended a small school in Houma that offered them a “certificate of completion” in lieu of a state diploma. My mind could not wrap itself around the idea that we lived in the same state with such educational differences.
He shared with me how he started first grade at a school down the bayou called The Indian School. He remembered being very scared to go, because his older sisters told him he would have to speak English. When he got there, though, a very nice lady named Miss Dillard spoke to him in French, allaying some of his fear. She told him she would help him to learn English, and that he should speak it as much as he could. I, on the other hand, had never ever even heard anyone speak native French, much less study it in school. Yet, there we were, both from the same state, with more differences than you could count on one hand, including different heart languages.
By the time The Captain reached high school in the late sixties, Houma had become more progressive, and some of the prejudice against the Houma Indians had subsided. A new high school had been built on the southeast side of town, just outside the city limits, and that is where he and three others became the first Houma Indians to attend high school in Terrebonne Parish. Four years later, he did his family proud by being the first (and only) one in his family to graduate high school.
While I was prancing around on a high school football field with the rest of the Bearkat dance team in the early seventies, The Captain was over in Vietnam, fighting for my right to do so. He punctuated his college career by signing up for the Army, rather than be drafted into something less desirable. He took and passed some aptitude tests that enabled him to be part of the war without being on the front lines. He was the “Radar” (remember M.A.S.H.) of his company, that built roads for the war effort. From the bayou to Vietnam is quite a long haul.
After serving his tour of duty, he stayed in the Army a couple more years before being honorably discharged to return to the bayou and carry on the family tradition of shrimping for a living. He worked on shrimp boats with his father until he learned enough to run a big shrimp boat owned by a family from Houma. As happened with many young shrimpers, it wasn’t long before he jumped ship from running a shrimp boat to running a boat in the oil field.
He started out on small crew boats in order to accumulate enough sea time and experience before going to captain’s school and getting his official U.S. Coast Guard captain’s license. Again, he was one of the first Houma Indian bayou boys to do so, and he encouraged all his friends to do the same. One by one, he helped them sign up for captain’s school, study, and earn their licenses.
The license, a 100 Ton Master’s, enabled him to run larger crew boats in the oil field, some as long as 120 feet. It was icing on the cake when the company he worked for told him there was an opening at a dock down on his home bayou, Bayou Grand Caillou. He and his crew gladly accepted the assignment.
Even though he and his two-man crew (one was a life-long friend and the other his younger brother) were working straight time, being docked close to home gave them the chance to occasionally get off the boat and go for “overnights”. (An overnight for Roscoe meant sleeping at his parents’ house, because his home was on the boat.) It was a win-win for all of them, which brings us current in our story, where we are dating in the office/living room of an offshore drilling dock.
On the days that his boat was docked, I started getting up a couple of hours before my shift began in order to visit him on his floating home. The boat was clean and organized, smelling like a mixture of 409, hydraulic fluid, and diesel fuel. All the brass and chrome reflected the sunlight coming through the wheelhouse windows. The Captain often sat in the wheelhouse playing his acoustic guitar. I secretly wondered if he knew I was a sucker for a man who played guitar.
Not only did he play, but he sang, too—in French, no less. All things Cajun had not yet become the craze, so the music and lyrics fell fresh on my rock-and-roll ears with a charm and lilt all its own. I listened in total amusement as he sang,
“Je jongle éyoù toi, t’es à soir” in his native French, and then in English, “I wonder where you are tonight.”
He easily went from singing in his native tongue, to singing country and western in English.
Now, I was never a fan of country music and would not be caught dead with my car radio tuned to the same, but listening to him sing opened up a whole new world of musical possibilities for me. Over time, I became comfortable enough to tell him that one of my secret desires was to sing in a band like Heart. However, much to my dismay, my voice was not rough enough for that, and my singing was limited to Sunday-morning solos in the church choir.
On one of my visits to his boat, soon after that revelation, he played a song from a cassette tape he thought I would like; telling me this was his favorite female vocalist. Her name was Emmylou Harris, and I had never heard of her before. She sang in soft tones that bordered on folk singing. Already a fan of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Carol King, folk music was something I could wrap my ears around. Emmylou’s voice resonated from the speakers:
“Together again, the grey skies are gone.
You’re back in my arms, right where you belong.
The love that we knew is living again,
And nothing else matters,
‘cause we’re together again.”
Food might be the way to a man’s heart, but music was definitely the way to this gal’s heart. The song wormed its way into heart and soul, and before long, he was playing it on the guitar, while I sang the words. The next song he taught me was one he was known for singing with a local band he occasionally played with. The song, called “I Wonder Where you are Tonight?” was sung in part French and part English. After that, he wooed me with the emotional way he sang, “Am I Really Losing You?” written by a friend of his.
“Am I really losing you?
Have you found somebody new?
Your kisses have grown cold.
Am I really losing you?
You treat me like a stranger
whenever we’re alone.
Tell me, darling, please,
Our dating friendship grew until one day, he popped the question: “Would you like to . . . go on a run with me?” He wasn’t talking about jogging, either. I jumped at the chance to do something so exciting and out of the ordinary. So, it was planned: At the end of my next hitch, I would get on his boat and go out with them on their next run to the Gulf of Mexico. I could hardly wait for Thursday– crew change day.