Part 11 - Working on the Mississippi River and
After settling into New Orleans, I went to work at a small yard for a while, but this did not last very long because the yard was full of with "good old boys" who treated those outside of their clique as something less than they were. I was rather vocal about this treatment and was let go after three months. I then went to work as a burner in a scrap yard for a few months.
Not knowing anyone in New Orleans I looked up the few local Wobblies, and I found that there was a small community of radicals that included Wobblies, an assortment of anarchists, a few MNSers (Movement for a New Society), and other radicals. I also found out that a few of the Wobblies and anarchists worked at a place called Dixie Machine.
Dixie, along with two other companies did direct ship repair. They had daily hire and fire with a shape-up at the beginning of every shift. From the shape-up they would pick the number of workers that were needed for each shift; so I started to show up at the night shift shape-up. It took a while before I was able to get much work because they did not know what I could do. Once they found out that I knew how to fit pipe I was able to get all the work that I wanted.
Most of the work at Dixie was out on the Mississippi River from Venice (Venice is as far down the river as you can get by road) all the way up to Baton Rouge (which is as far up the river as ships can go). Within this area we would be sent out to work on ships that need some type of repair done. This included general cargo docks (mostly in New Orleans), the container terminal (again in New Orleans), grain terminals (that were scattered on the river from just south of New Orleans to just south of Baton Rouge), the coal terminal in Port Sulphur, chemical plants (they lined the river from Norco to south of Baton Rouge - an area known as cancer ally), the Exxon refinery (in Baton Rouge) and an assortment of little terminals and docks. Often we would go down to a place called Nine Mile Point where non-U.S. flag ships anchored waiting for either dock space or to be inspected by Coast Guard. We got a good deal of work because of the Coast Guard inspections, for a ship could not move if the Coast Guard found violations and we were sent there to fix those violations.
Often we would catch a ship going up or down the river. We would get out to the ship by riding the launches, small boats that transport people and supplies to ships that were not docked. Getting from the launch to the ship was always an interesting experience. For reasons unknown to me foreign flagships would, most of the time, lower their gangway and we would struggle up it with our tools and material, but U.S. ships would not do this. They would lower down a Jacob's ladder. A Jacobs's ladder is two ropes with wooden ruts tied in between them. You cannot carry anything with you up a Jacob's ladder, for it is all you can do to hold on and climb the damn thing.
The worst situation was when you were trying to board a ship that was sailing up river in rough water. The launch would be trying to match the ship's speed while bouncing up and down in the rough water and trying not to run into the ship. As this was going on you had to grab onto the Jacob's ladder without going for a swim. The ruts of the ladder were only six inches wide so your footing was always a bit treacherous. Now image doing all this in the middle of a heavy rainstorm with the wind seemingly trying to blow you off the hull of the ship. While I worked at Dixie we never lost anyone, but I heard stories of river pilots boarding ships going up river at Pilots Town, and falling in the river never to be seen again.
The process of making the needed repairs accrued in the following manner. Either the day shift or the night shift would go out to the ship and remove the pipes that needed to be replaced and bring them into the shop. There they would be placed into a target where the old pipe would be removed and the new pipe would be built in the target. If the pipe was off a foreign ship we would have to cut the flanges off and reuse them, because foreign ships use metric measurements and the U.S. ships do not. The flanges would be sent over to be sandblasted and then the machine shop would bore them out to fit U.S. pipe.
Dixie was a very old company that started in the ship repair business before the Civil War. This meant that they still did some things the old-fashion way. One example of this was that they had no pipebenders; instead they bent pipe the old way. This meant you first had to fill up the pipe to be bent with sand. Then a worker would take a mallet and beat on the pipe until the sand was packed in very tightly. On titanium pipe it would take many hours of beating on the pipe before the sand was compacted enough for the pipe to be bent. Then the pipe would be dogged down on a slab and heated up until it was red-hot, then it would be bent. On larger pipe a big blow torch and a wench would be used.
Once the pipes were done the next shift would take them out to the ship to be installed. Given that the ship was out on the river somewhere, we had to make sure that we had everything we needed. We would always bring extra hardware (nuts and bolts) because you are bound to lose a few down in the bilge. We called that "feeding the bilge Gods".
Sometimes we were unable to bring the pipes that needed to be replaced to the shop; for example, when the ship was on the way and we did not have the time needed to return to the shop, or there was so much work on the ship that it was not practical to bring in each pipe. In these cases we would bring enough new pipe, a portable welding machine, oxygen and acetylene bottles for burning, chain falls and come-alongs, and everything else we needed to do the work out on the ship itself.
The hours we would work would vary a great deal. Basically, we would work until the job was done or we were relieved by the next shift. Our hours would begin at the shape-up at the shop and would end when we returned to the shop. Sometimes this meant just a few hours; other times it meant working very long hours. If the job was up in Baton Rouge or way down river, the shifts would overlap because it might take a few hours for the next shift to relieve us. Then we had to travel back to the shop. Twelve-hour shifts were very common because there were only two shifts. When we had to travel far from the shop it was easy to rack up 14, 15, or 16 hours. Sometimes we had to ride the ship up or down the river, mostly on Exxon tankers, until we got the job done; then we had to wait for the ship to reach a place where a launch could pick us up. The most hours I ever worked was 23 hours. This happened when we caught a launch out of Belle Chasse to an Exxon tanker and were not done before we passed the last launch on the river (Pilot Town). We had to get off the ship when a boat came from an offshore oilrig. We then took a helicopter from the rig to Venice where the company picked us up.
In my opinion the worst place to be sent to was the coal terminal in Port Sulphur. Coal ships, for the most part, have the deepest holes of any ship. Then you add to that the weight of the coal, the dock has to be extended out into the river because the ship's draft would exceed the water's depth. This meant we had to climb up the ladder to the catwalk along side of the conveyer that loaded coal on the ship, and then back down another ladder to the other side of the dock. This was a real pain in the ass when you consider we had to carry our tools, material and pipe with us. Often the work on coal ships was repairing steam pipes to the fuel oil tanks. That required us to climb down a 100-foot ladder down into the pipe tunnel.
Tankers were always fun because we could not do any hot work on them. Even in breaking lose flanges we had to make sure that we created no sparks. This meant we could not burn, chisel or use a nutbuster to get the bolts off. Tankers are a very messy place to work, particularity if you have to work in the pumproom or in the cargo holes. It does not matter how much protective clothing you wear, that damned oil always seemed to make its way to your skin. Protective outerwear was miserable in the hot and humid Louisiana summer, because protective clothing is designed to keep substances from penetrating it (though it did not seem to keep all that much oil out). This meant that your body heat stayed in your clothing and you would sweat like you were in a sauna; your inner clothes would be soaking wet.
The worst job on a tanker was working on the heating pipes in the cargo holes. First you had to put an air test on the pipes to find where the leaks were. There was always six inches of oil or more at the bottom of the hole and you had to slosh around in that oil inspecting every inch of the pipes. Then, when the pipes were repaired, you had to retest the system. If the system still would not hold the right PSI, you had to go back down there and inspect the pipes again.
Grain ships are also dangerous because grain dust is extremely explosive. You may recall reading in the newspaper from time to time about some grain silo blowing up; now you know the reason behind the explosion. But what I liked least about grain ships are the rats on many of them. Marine rats tend to be large and sometimes aggressive. Once, when we were replacing many steam pipes in the pipe tunnel I was sitting at an opening that we had cut in the deck to get long sections of pipe in. I was turning a pipe for the welder and a big old rat comes up to the hole and just stood there looking at me. It did not take long to find out that staring down the rat would not work, nor did yelling at it have any effect. I grabbed a pipe wench and threw it at the rat, which then ran off. Needless to say that made me a bit nervous and I kept an eye out for that badass rat with its nice shiny teeth.
Dixie leased a small dock from the Port of New Orleans for jobs that would take longer than a ship could stay at the other docks. They could get two general cargo ships tired up along the dock or one tanker or grain ship. Most of the work down there was on Lykes Brothers' ships, which Dixie had a contact with.
Periodically each Lykes' general cargo ship had to go through a general shutdown for inspection and repairs that they had held off on.
Among the many things we had to do was open up all the overboard clapper valves (this is a stop check valve to control the direction of flow) to make sure they were not stuck open or closed. Most of these were located in the cargo holes; one was located in the forepeak tank. Along with opening up the one clapper valve there were two gate valves in the forepeak that had to be removed every time. These valves were part of the ballast system and were located lower down in the tank. The first one was not so bad, but the second one was difficult to get to. In the middle of the forepeak is the bulkhead for the chain locker. To get to the second valve you had to climb to the bottom of the tank, go passed the chain locker and then up two levels to the valve. When a tank is opened up a marine chemist must check the atmosphere for toxic or explosive flumes and for oxygen deficiency. They would stay at the top of the tank and lower down their sniffer to the bottom and if the atmosphere was safe they would certify the tank as "safe for workers" and whether or not it was "safe for hot work". In the old days they use to put a canary in a cage and lower it to the bottom of the tank. If the bird was still alive when they pulled it out then they would let workers into the tank. The problem with the forepeak tank was that, with the chain locker in the middle of it, testing the atmosphere straight down from the hole would not give you a reading of the atmosphere on the other side of the chain locker.
Once when I had to go down into the forepeak tank to get the second valve out, I hit a pocket of dead air on the other side of the chain locker. I could feel myself getting dizzy and I had started to climb back down when I passed out. After I hit the bottom the other pipefitter pulled me over directly under the hole, where they lifted me out with a cherry picker onto the dock. I regained consciousness out on the deck of the ship. Had that been more than just a pocket of dead air I could have died.
Often when the ship was in for its inspection we would have to go down into the pipe tunnel and inspect steam pipes, replacing sections that leaked. It is very tight at the point where you go into the pipe tunnel from the engine room - you cannot sit up and it is hard to turn around. Some tunnels are so tight that the only way to get through them is to lie down on the bean and pull yourself through the tunnel sideways, for there is not even enough room to lie flat. In tunnels where there was more room we would ride the bean down on something that looked like a skateboard.
When Dixie could not get enough workers from the shape up they would call the union hall and however many workers were needed would be dispatched. The hall workers were mostly land workers who many of them had never been on a ship before. On one occasion I had cutout all the bad pipe from the pipe tunnel, and had fitted up the new pipe and was ready for a welder. The welder that I had been given was a hall welder who had never been in a ship's pipe tunnel before. (I might add that a pipe tunnel is not a place for someone who is claustrophobic.) The welder had to go down into the tunnel first so he was crawling in front of me. Being a bit of a joker at times, and knowing that he had never been down in a tunnel before, I was telling him about all the critters we supposedly had found down there. First I talked about rats, and then I brought up snakes and so on. When I am joking around like this I start off with what may be possible and then gradually get so ridiculous that the person should know that I am feeding them a line of bull. Being a person who loves dramatics, I then grabbed his leg and yelled, "Something has got you!" Well, I did not know that I had been getting to him. He shot ahead like a rocket, turned around (I don't see how he did it), passed me by and flew out of that tunnel like his ass was on fire. He passed by the toolpusher saying he quit and we never saw him again. Oops, I guess I got a little carried away there.
I came out of the tunnel to find out if he was ok and to let him know that I was just bull-shitting him. The toolpusher came up to me and asked me what had happened, so I told him the story. As he was laughing he commented that I should take it easier on the next welder or we might not get the job done. High on the list of undesirable jobs in ship repair is working on steam pipes on top of the boilers. Most of the time we would work up there while the boiler was still lit. More often than not, a steam joint had blown out and we had to go up there to replace the gasket.
Steam lines are one-way systems with globe valves (globe valves are one-way valves). We would close the valve upflow from the blown joint. If the blown joint is on the downflow side of a valve, we would close that valve. Then we would bleed off the pressure on the downflow side of the value. This meant that we might be replacing a gasket on one side of a valve, while the other side of the valve would be fully pressurize with steam. Depending on which steam system it was and the boiler itself, the system could be pressurize at between 1,500 to 2,500 PSI. As you could image it was extremely hot up there. On one side of the flange we would have to take out all the bolts for the flexitalic gasket to come out; on the other side we just had to loosen the bolts. Once the gasket was out we would slide in the new gasket then hammer the flange tight. Not all valves would hold completely which meant that we had to keep our body parts away from the joint.
Because of the heat we could only work for about five minutes at a time, so we did the work in shifts. One time the "stupidintendent" came over to the boiler and was watching us work. He asked us why both pipefitters were not up there? We told him that we were working in shifts because of the heat. Well this fool must of had some inner desire to prove why we called him a "stupidintendent", because he climbed up there to show us how a real man could do the job. After about 7 or 8 minutes up there he quickly climbed down and ran over to the bilge and puked his guts out, then disappeared without saying a word; proving the point that common sense ain't all that common. Dixie was an interesting place to work because you never knew where you would end up each shift. I must admit that after finishing a job on a ship under way, spending the rest of our time out on the fantail watching the country side go by was something that I enjoyed.
Dixie was also an interesting place to work because of the people that worked there. They all were real characters. Within our basic crew there were people from many different backgrounds. The foreman of the pipe department was Greek, and was really a nice guy; I never heard him yell at anyone. The night shift foreman was a young guy from Cincinnati who was taking a few College classes during the day. He got the foreman job for two reasons, first he was good with paper work (on this type of job most of the foreman's job was paper work) and because he showed up all the time. unlike the rest of us who would layup from time to time.
The toolpusher for the shop had lived all his life in New Orleans. In small companies like Dixie the toolpushers also worked. I like this guy a lot and he was a good example of what a toolpusher should be. Anytime you had a question about how to do something, he was always willing to teach you.
Among the working crew, who was to be the toolpushers depended on the job itself, where it was located, how many different jobs we were working and who showed up. Most everyone in our crew played the role of toolpusher at some time or another. Out at the repair dock an interesting fellow named Dead Eye was the toolpusher most of the time (that is when he showed up). He also had lived all his life in New Orleans, and was a good example of the fact that not all people with long hair were hippies. He had spent a number of years in Angloa State Prison for killing some guy in a bar fight. Dead Eye's younger brother was also a part of the crew.
There was one Black pipefitter, also of New Orleans' origin. It seemed no matter what the situation was or how long we had worked he was always smiling and joking around, but one should not be fooled by his easy going nature, because he was one of the hardest workers on the crew. He also did time in Angloa.
Then there was Ray who was a hillbilly from West Virginia who always had a good story to tell. Then there was an old drunk from Texas who would only work on those days that he was sober. There were two brothers who would work from time to time who were New Orleans' French (New Orleans' French are not the same as Cajuns); one of which had also done time in Angloa for manslaughter. The other members of the New Orleans' radical community worked with the machinists, so I did not directly work with any of them.
Also on the crew was a Cajun by the name of Joe. He was both a pipefitter and a welder, and on most jobs that he worked, he was the toolpusher. Old Joe would not work jobs that he knew would include overtime hours. I never heard him raise his voice to another person, but he had one hell of a temper and beat the shit out of tools and pipe. That man could run off a line of cuss words faster and longer than anyone could image. The interesting thing was that he was once a schoolteacher. In listening to him talk about Cajuns, I became fascinated by their culture and history. Cajuns were run out of Acadia (what is now Nova Scotia) by the English. Some of them, the English sold into slavery in Virginia, others scattered, and many came down to Louisiana. They did not settle in New Orleans for two reasons; they were poor farmers and fishermen and liked to live in the country. and also, the New Orleans French of that period did not much like them. The area that they first settled was north and west of New Orleans. Later plantation owners who wanted to expand their holdings forced them off their land north of New Orleans. The plantation owners viewed the Cajuns as inferiors and did not like the fact that most of them were opposed to slavery. The Cajuns were victimized by nightriders (vigilantes) and later by the KKK, their homes were burned down and many of them were lynched. This forced them further into the swamps and bayous of southern Louisiana.
The social and cultural make up of Cajuns is very similar to the Dineh (Navajos) of the southwest. They both live in expended family groups call clans, which are basically matriarchal. They both have a high respect for nature and they both base much of the healing practices on the local herbs they would gather. They are both oral people whose history, culture and stories are passed down by the Elders.
The last member of the regular crew was an old time seaman named Whitie. When he got too old to go to sea anymore he started working at Dixie. He was a radical working stiff, and though he never joined the IWW he was very sympathetic to Wobblies. He knew many stories about Blackie Vaughan, and you could tell Blackie was somewhat of a hero to him. I spent many hours out on the fantail of some ship riding the river and listening to his stories. People like Whitie, in my view, are living treasures of the working class because they can tell stories of the working class that you will never find in any books. I really wish I had taken the time back then to write down some of Whitie's stories. The same goes for many of the other Elders of the labor movement, who I sought out and listen to and learned from. Unfortunately, the radicals that came out of the "New Left" did not care much for the Elders of the struggle, and far too few young people ever heard their stories and most of them are lost as they died off. In the cargo holes of general cargo ships you will find graffiti from all over the world. Most of it was like graffiti you find any place, someone's name and where they are from. Occasionally you would find some radical message. That gave me the idea of putting up my own radical messages. I did not want to use my own name, thus Louisiana Jack was born. I used Louisiana because that would tell the origin of the message, and Jack because it just seem to sound right with Louisiana. So Jack's Wobbly messages were seen around the world.
Later I expanded Jack's role to one-page fliers on different working class issues that were all signed by Louisiana Jack. Among old Wobbly pamphlets there were many that were written as dialog between a Wobbly and some worker. They would talk about some important issue, and it seemed to me that this was a good method of conveying ideas so some of these fliers would do the same. Louisiana Jack would discuss issues with some worker; this made Louisiana Jack both a pen name and a fictitious character. I would place these fliers in different locations on ships from around the world, and I would poster them on the waterfront.
After I started a publication called Bayou La Rose, all the articles that I wrote about the maritime industry I would sign Louisiana Jack. The parts of Yardbird Blues that were previously published in Bayou La Rose were also signed by Jack. Later Louisiana Jack became a fictitious character again in stories about the "Low Dive Cafe" along with Northend Dill and Steele Street Moll. Years later some of these stories were put together as a pamphlet called "Down At The Low Dive Cafe". I realize that I may have broken some literary rules and created some confusion with Louisiana Jack, for it must be written somewhere that one should not use a pen name that is also a fictitious character in their writings, but what the hell, I play by my own rules. If someone does not like it then they can inform on me to the academic police.