Coastal Welding’s office in Houma, LA, where I was to sign up for the roustabout position, was dingy, with walls the color of cigarette smoke. Decked out in my painter’s pants, chambray work shirt, and steel-toed boots, the industrial feel of the place fuelled my enthusiasm. Behind the desk sat a very short, rather pudgy, middle-aged woman, Miss P., who gave me the twice-over, her eyes like brown buttons bobbing on threads behind her reading glasses.
“Do you have any idea what you are doing? I mean, are you sure you want to do this?” she asked reluctantly.
“Yes ma’am. I’m sure. What could be so bad?” I replied, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
She shook her head with uncertainty as she handed me her pen and showed me where to sign. This exercise in futility was lost on me. I was bound for the unknown world of seven and seven, and those boots were the only thing keeping my feet on the ground. No way this woman was going to burst my balloon before it even had the chance to fly high. Even her laughing at me for not knowing the way to Dulac could not bring me down.
Unlike the curvy, hilly roads of home, this road was long, flat and lay between a bayou on one side and rows and rows of skinny corn on the left. Familiar only with the red dirt of north Louisiana, my thought was that this black dirt must surely not have the proper nutrients for growing corn. Not knowing what grew in delta gumbo soil was just the crack in the door of all I did not know about south Louisiana, especially this place called Terrebonne, French for “good earth”. If this earth was so doggone good, why was that corn so skinny?
The Hughes dock was our destination—my brand new Buick Regal, “Kansas”, and me. “Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wiiiiiiiind.” And there it was–the trailer-office I would call home for seven days and share with a few men. As I walked in, James, my nineteen-year-old supervisor, greeted me. Is this for real? And next was Craig, the other roustabout, about eighteen years old. He and James were both from the same hometown in Alabama. Alabama? Not even Cajuns? I had driven to the end of the state, only to find that my boss and co-worker were cracker boys from Alabama? Was this some kind of joke?
Redemption was at hand, for not long after my arrival, a burly, deep-voiced Frenchman with the stride and shoulders of authority, arrived and introduced himself gruffly, “I’m Timmy, and I’m the real boss around here.” Turns out, he was the supervisor on the “opposite hitch”. Since he was older, I guess he felt it necessary to scope out the new hired help. By the time he stopped scrutinizing me and left, I found myself relieved that James and Craig were my trailer mates and not big, bad Timmy. With all the introductions out of the way, James asked if I was ready to “break out”, as they say in the oilfield.
“You’ll learn to operate this radio here. This is how we communicate with all of the platforms. Sometimes they call on the phone, but not often. Don’t use the phone or the radio for personal use. You will be working nights, but you’ll get used to that in no time. Let’s go outside so I can show you what else you’ll be doing.” James led the way, while I followed thinking that the office work would be a breeze.
It’s a good thing I was strong and fit, because no one had actually told me about the physical demands of the job. James explained to me that my job would include offloading crew boats and work boats when they came in, and reloading them with supplies for their return to the platforms out in the Gulf. The crane would also unload trucks making deliveries of heavy equipment. Crane? What crane? Nobody said anything about a crane. Looking up, a forty-foot metal monster loomed over me, cable swinging, as though to intimidate me into tucking tail and running.
He pointed to a group of large metal boxes, about ten feet cubed, lined up in the “yard”. “Those are grocery boxes that go out to the platforms every week. You have to take them off the truck with the forklift.” Forklift? You mean that huge orange hunk of metal with giant black wheels? Excuse me, but do you have a ladder I can use to climb up into that thing? Cool. I was very, very cool. So cool, that Cool Hand Luke would have been proud of me. Sure! I could handle that.
“Surprisingly enough, operating the crane and the forklift came easy to me. After watching some of the more careless operators making sloppy lifts and after seeing grocery boxes swinging wildly between land and water, I made up my mind to learn to do these things seamlessly. Every free moment I had, I was moving stuff around, and then moving it back again for practice. They all thought I was crazy. No doubt they were all inside, captains, deck hands, other dock workers, sipping coffee and placing their bets on when I would make my first big mistake.
The rule is NEVER TALK TO THE CRANE OPERATOR, but one particular day the guy who insisted on asking me a question while I was booming up the crane didn’t know the rule. As I turned to answer him, I failed to release my hand from the up lever—a mistake so embarrassing, you only make it once. Within seconds of looking away from my work to see who in the world was bothering me, the boom slammed straight up into the center stand of the crane base, and the sound could be heard for miles. Over the din, I thought I heard whoops and hollers from inside the mobile office. Not one hint of embarrassment crossed my face, but I was dying inside. Even so, I lowered the boom and finished the job without error.
Any girl could run a crane or a forklift or man a radio and answer a phone, right? The true test came in body strength, though. Before James went to bed that night, he told me there was a work boat coming in carrying empty cans that would have to be offloaded before morning, because in the morning, it would be reloaded with full cans. Sounded easy enough. Sometime later that night, the Rachel Renee` radioed that they were half an hour out and requested I make sure their docking space was empty. “Roger, Captain. Over and out.” I just loved that radio lingo.
There was always something so mesmerizing about watching the docking dance the captains performed. Each captain had his own style of sweeping the bow around, backing up, easing off on the throttles just so. Depending on the cargo, they would sometimes “walk” the boat sideways, using the bow thruster, steering wheel, and throttles, which intrigued me even more. The big iron T in front of me awaited the loop of the three-inch thick rope, tossed over it like a piece of clothesline, by a seasoned deck hand, hitting his mark first try. He tied the other end taut around the bit on the boat, while the captain held her firm against the dock.
Oftentimes, the deck hands helped the roustabouts offload the boats, especially if they were in a big hurry to get things ready for the next load, but not that night. He just waved at me and picked his way across the deck, through what seemed like a forest of tree stumps, through the galley hatch, turning the lights off as he went.
There we were–the back deck, all those cans, and me. Just exactly what did James mean by cans? Climbing up the stern of the boat and over the gunwale to get a closer look, I could not believe my eyes. Turned out, James’ definition of cans needed a little correcting. Those cans looked more like fifty-five gallon drums, and not just a few of them. They covered the entire back deck. Not the least bit flustered, I donned my black dot work gloves and dove right in. It only took a few drums for me to figure out the most efficient way to grab hold and throw them, one by one, over the stern, onto the dock.
Before the sun broke over the eastern horizon, a fresh pot of coffee was ready and waiting for James and Craig to start their day. Smiling, feeling smug that the assignment had not gotten the better of me, I wondered what they were going to do with all those empty drums lying in the yard—not my problem. I was just told to take them off the boat.
Stretching and looking out the front door, James turned to me smiling, “So, did you find that pallet sling that we use to lift those pallets off the deck?”
“Yea, I sure did, and I put it back where I found it when I was finished with it. Good night, guys.” There was no sling. There were no pallets. I guess they got those drums off the ground just like I got them off the boat—one by one. All I know is, there were two of them, one of me, and this little blond had gained their respect that night.
Tired and sore, I took my leave; but as I walked down the hall toward my room, I heard James guffaw to Craig, “It’s a good thing she’s strong, because she sure ain’t too smart. She thinks sugar cane is just skinny corn. Skinny corn!!” And they had a really good laugh at my expense. I had to admit, that was pretty funny, but lying there in bed with my new-found knowledge, I chuckled to myself, feeling like the one who really had the last laugh!