Call me Emil.
About a month ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, and nothing in particular to interest me on shore (apart from corruption in Sandusky County), I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the Midwest.
Wait no. That’s not how it went. Let me start over.
About six months ago my wife landed a job at DePaul University in Chicago. Soon after, she loaded up her Volkswagen Golf and putted off toward the big city.
I got lonely.
And my mind was already a little twisted after four years of writing about murders and rapes and stabbings and thefts and heroin overdoses and the like.
It was high time for some manual labor to clear the head. That’s when I heard about South Chicago barge work.
Three weeks on, three weeks off, they advertised.
On May 20 I showed up in Lemont, Ill. lugging two bags stuffed with clothes and toiletries to cover the next three weeks. My fresh-off-the-DSW-shelf steel toe boots didn’t have a single scuff mark. When a group of seasoned deckhands started to stare I decided the aviator sunglasses would stay in the bag.
Inside the white-walled, air-conditioned office another fidgety greenhorn was already lounging in a row of seats. Danny, an ex-navy man, showed me a quarter-sized hole in his right forearm.
“Brown recluse bite,” he said. “Happened last Sunday. Bad timing. The doctor said if I’d have waited another couple days I probably would have lost my arm.”
Danny said he was anxious to get back on the water but the barge company doctor just shook his head and refused to clear him for work.
Having no venomous spider bites, I passed the physical with flying colors – even the urine test.
Two full days of vintage 1980 safety videos ensued – think mullets and fluorescent spandex. The tapes covered topics ranging from “slips, trips and falls” to “ladder safety.” During breaks, Jeff the crew manager, regaled us with stories of snapped ropes and steel wires and deckhand decapitation. Not too long before, Jeff said, a deckhand slipped between a barge and a lockwall and, were it not for the quick thinking of his leadman, he would’ve been crushed.
“Pretty much everything on a barge can mess you up,” he said. "There are hundreds of ways to get seriously (hurt) or killed."
I started to take notes.
It was pouring down rain on Wednesday when Jeff drove me out to the shipyard to meet up with my boat. I scrambled with my bags then jumped down from the concrete wall. My boots landed firmly on the steel deck of the Aggie C.
A bearded deckhand named Casey led me up two flights of stairs to the wheelhouse where I shook hands with a man named Ivar (ee-var) who sat at the boat controls. Ivar was a burly, red-headed Newfounlander with a goatee. He stood about 6-foot-2 and was second in command.
I’d already heard rumors of Ivar. They said he’d been a crab fisherman in Alaska. For eight seasons he braved the Bearing Sea’s frigid ship-swallowing swells and came out with a grin.
All he lacked was the eye patch.
“Welcome aboard,” Ivar said. “The only thing you have to worry about right now is not getting hurt. You’ll be with Brett, our leadman. He’s done this a long time and really knows his stuff. Listen to him, pay attention and you’ll be just fine."
Casey led me to back down to the deck, into the galley and then down a narrow wood-paneled hallway to a 6 by 10-foot room.
"Get some sleep," he said. "Your watch starts in three hours."
It was 2 p.m.
After grabbing some bedding, I climbed into the top bunk and went to sleep, lulled by the roaring of two massive Caterpillar engines below.
Aggie C specs:
Boat Dimensions 85’ by 26’
Engines: Caterpillar model 3512 B
Generators: Caterpillar model 3304 B, 105 KW