Maybe The Filthiest Engine Room Ever
By Capt. Ken Kreisler
I found this unattributed quote on the Internet: “I believe you should live each day as if it is your last, which is why I don’t have any clean laundry, because, come on, who wants to wash clothes on the last day of their life?” Indulge me here dear readers, as I flex some wordsmithing chops and try to explain how this fits in with the title of this installment of THE SALTY LIFE.
While musing one day, as I am often inclined to do, on how I got to travel on this life’s watery journey, and for whatever reason things like this happen, this particular time out I had a most peculiar thought; no, it was more like an image. Actually it was a complete sensory experience that while involving all of the senses had in fact isolated and excited the neural synapses of my olfactory and optical memories. Smell and sight shipmates; a little deep-gray-matter tap on the shoulder that asked, “Hey, remember this buddy?”
Now, allow me some leeway here in laying out the foundation for this essay. I promise you, I will try to make it an entertaining read which hopefully, will begin to materialize in your own consciousness and perhaps unfold your own similar memories as the words line themselves up and the images appear in the narrative. Peeling the proverbial onion as it were.
For those of you who have been following some of my past writings, you know I was born and raised on the inner city streets and in the environs of that most fabled of New York City boroughs known as Brooklyn, and for most of my growing up years, made a weekly family pilgrimage, usually on Sundays, to the Sheepshead Bay area where both my maternal and paternal grandparents resided. The mornings were spent with my father’s parents while the afternoons were set aside for mom’s kith and kin. For those of you who don’t know this, well, now you do and are up to speed with everybody else. And so, I take up again.
In those days, the stretch of waterfront along Emmons Avenue was still a bona fide fishing village and not the over developed neighborhood it is today. I clearly remember it, sans the Roll N Roaster’s, RB’s, and any of a number of ‘those kinds of places’ that now dot its length. In my youthful days, it was the original Randazzo’s Clam Bar—yes, with the hot sauce, please—and of course the not-so-sublimely iconic and Spanish Colonial revival-inspired building on the corner of Emmons and Ocean Avenues, that was an anthem, nay, a holy of holies shrine to some of the finest sea food found anywhere; that being the fabulous and wondrous Lundy Brothers.
It was said that in its heyday, the cavernous restaurant, always bustling with the noise of its waiters in constant motion, rushing here and there, huge trays of food, stacked skyscraper-high and held up in the air, seemingly and miraculously defying the laws of gravity and balanced on one hand, as they threaded their way through the always packed room, served as many as 2,800 meals per day. Also once known as the largest eatery in the United States, local urban legend has it that on one particular Mother’s Day, its kitchen and staff served some 15,000 meals by the time the doors closed late that evening and the lights went out behind the beautiful leaded glass windows. The huckleberry pie, the biscuits, the incredible raw bar where I watched in utter amazement as shuckers, their fingertips and the inside of their thumbs wrapped with white tape, opened and served up many a plateful of Littleneck clams in seconds, complete with lemon wedge, little fork, and a packet of those round, salty crackers; the incredible Shore Dinner, the whole Gestalt of the thing was truly, the stuff that legends are made of.
Sadly, like so many other things, the restaurant is gone. The landmark building is now subdivided into separate stores. Even the head boat fishing fleet across the street that ran along the waterfront, at one time one of the most prestigious and hardy found anywhere, and where things started for me, has shrunk to a mere shell of its former self.
The once proud line up, many of the them refurbished WWII U.S. Navy vessels, sometimes tied up three to a pier and stern to bow, their jaunty and salty mates with faces, arms, and necks wind and sunburned, the white outlines of their sunglasses clearly visible around their eyes and across the bridges of their noses on their five o’clock stubbled faces, suitably garbed in rubber boots and either yellow or black rubber bib overalls, perhaps one shoulder strap hanging rakishly loose from one arm, and out on the concrete walk, hawking and urging you aboard for a day’s fishing, are for the most part gone now, replaced by a cadre of dinner cruise boats.
But back then, in those halcyon days, it was one of the most exciting things in my life and I looked forward to going down there each Sunday afternoon, first as a young boy with my grandfathers, and then on my own when I got older. Hang in there, we’re getting real close now.
I remember always trying to be there about three o’clock in the afternoon when the boats came back, their horns blaring, announcing their return with fish, soon to be laid out for sale on the sidewalk in wooden crates packed with ice. They had names like Dorothy B, Grace, Brooklyn, Rainbow, Ranger, Wahoo, Eagle, Sea Wolf, Rocket, Amberjack, and many others. And then there was the Carrie D II and her skipper Capt. Sal Dragonette.
How I had first come to go fishing on her, and then wind up as an occasional mate, splitting my time aboard with mostly working as a yard snipe at the nearby Schatz Brothers Marina during one summer off from my junior year in high school, is a fairly messy mélange of memories and foggy recollections. But I do remember being hawked aboard one early morning back then for a day of drifting for fluke as I strolled the quay front with a friend of mine, our fishing rods seated with Penn 60 reels swinging from one hand, a small duffel held in the other containing extra sweatshirts, hooks, sinkers, a 100-yard spool of monofilament line, a couple of bottles of Hires root beer soda—one rolled up in the sweatshirt so as not to break against the other—a package of Hostess chocolate cupcakes—you know, the ones with the white squiggle across the chocolate fudge top, often a pb&j sandwich, and usually a piece or three of some chicken of sorts wrapped in tin foil and placed in a brown paper bag along with some candy and a couple of Tootsie Roll pops. Unlike today’s disappointing confection, back then there was still a fair amount of Tootsie in the pop. I digress.
“Five bucks a piece, ten for the two of you.” We got a wink and a smile from the wind- and salt-weathered mate, and I noticed the odor of fish and something else emanating from him even though he stood a good distance away from us. “Two spots left. Whaddya say, fellas?”
She was an old wood tub, painted with some kind of orangey-brown color on the trim with what still passed as a white hull and superstructure, given the rust stains and whatever else tinted her exterior. She had her pilothouse way aft and a very long foredeck, where on port and starboard sides most of the fishermen had already staked out their territories. There was some kind of boom apparatus forward that I assumed worked back when she did whatever it was she did before being put into head boat service only to find out later that it was a steadying sail. Whatever. I’m sure it didn’t work now either. I had already seen the movie version of The African Queen and by the looks of what I had paid my hard-earned five bucks to go fishing on, the Carrie D II could have been that vessel’s grandmother. But my friend and I could care less. We were going out to sea on a warm early summer’s day, to go fishing, and that was all we were thinking about when I heard a voice coming from the open forward windows of the pilothouse.
“Okay, let’s get it out of here,” it said, raspy, gruff, croaky, thick and husky, a disembodied and bellowing declaration from inside that pilothouse. Our captain, like Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, was unseen so far but yet whose presence, I now sensed, pervaded every bit of the boat. What had I gotten myself into here for five bucks a piece, two for ten?
“Get them lines off…an’ watch you don’t let ‘em drop in the water like you did last time, you knucklehead. Almos’ caught a wheel, fer Chrissakes.” And then the boat shook, making some kind of rumbling noise as if it were a great beast being rudely awakened from a seasonal sleep and now in a most foul mood and undoubtedly, quite hungry.
Thick black smoke coughed and belched from her exhaust ports as the mate skipped fore and aft, slipping and flipping the lines from the port side and up on the pier, each one of them landing with a soft thwacking sound and heralding the signal of one blast of the boat’s horn indicating all lines were off. The craft was quickly enveloped in smoke, what with the wind softly blowing from stern to bow as I now clearly recognized the aforementioned fragrance complementing the mate’s fishy odor. Lube oil and diesel fuel. Unmistakably a burned and acrid variety of Eau d’#4 Home Heating.
We started to slip down the pier as three more blasts of the horn were sounded—engines in reverse, but you knew that, right?—and by the time we had cleared the end and our phantom skipper had swung the bow to starboard and picked up the channel markers indicating the preferred narrow passage seaward through the bay, its outer sides dotted with many mooring balls, the breeze, now on our port, carried our smoke and scent landward from whence we came. As we turned the corner of the bay and headed for the buoys that would take us across the Coney Island flats and out to the fishing grounds on the edge of the Ambrose Channel shipping lanes, I noticed the trail of the now dark-gray smoke we were leaving behind.
Fishing was good that day with every long drift producing a flurry of activity for those with the right touch and feel even though, and more than once, someone managed to get themselves all tangled up resulting in a series of salty epithets delivered in various languages and dialects. Two got seasick, most likely from the pervasive exhaust smell as the sea conditions were barely noticeable, and were most emphatic is consigning verbal wills to their friends, adding several addendas at various times during their explosive episodes of mal de mer.
It was almost time to head back to the barn when I noticed the door on the port side of the pilothouse opening and out stepped Capt. Sal for what I was sure was the first time. He seemed as wide as he was tall with a red-flushed round face littered with a two-day stubble, a headful of wild hair, and big, meaty hands. I had to look back and forth between him and the pilothouse while trying to judge his girth with that of what I perceived was the interior dimensions of his inner sanctum. I had a most disturbing thought then: There was no head—a nautical bathroom for those not in the know—that could not have had any chance of even remotely fitting in there. Armed with that information, it was no wonder I quickly willed not going any further with that notion and instead, put that part of my mind under lock and key but not before I just managed to imagine the fleeting image of a five gallon bucket. Like not wanting to look at a train wreck…well, you know the rest.
He hitched up his tan khaki pants, and adjusted the tan khaki web belt that hung way below his ample stomach; the cinch that seemed to help prevent said gut from hanging to his knees, and tried to tuck in the back of his khaki shirt. He then gave a shrug of his shoulders, as if the whole ritual was a big waste of time. On his feet he wore some kind of bone-colored, paint spotted and oil-stained, and much worn boat shoes. Capt. Sal, I gathered, was an earth-toned kind of guy.
“How we doin’there, boys?” he croaked to some of the guys fishing at the rail as he flipped the butt of a cigarette up, out, and into the water and promptly lit another one. Not waiting for an answer, he waddled aft, totally at ease with the gentle roll of the drifting boat, looking at each fisherman’s catch, sometimes nodding and other times not until finally reaching a point on the other side of the boat just opposite where my friend and I had been fishing all day. And we knew where the head was.
“Hey,” I heard him say, after which he gave a quick, wet sounding cough and promptly took a big drag on his cigarette.
I didn’t know the mate’s name was Hey; I thought it was Dave or something like that. But he answered, “Yeah Cap?” as he made his way forward after netting a fish for someone near the stern.
“Go on down there an’ check the earl, will ya. I’ll be kicken’ them over and this’ll be the last drift. It’s almost time. Hiyadoin there boys?” he said to me as I looked over to where Hey had now joined him.
“Got some nice fish,” I said as my friend brought up a very big sea robin, swung it up over the rail and plopped it down on the deck. The hook came out fairly easily and he stood up and was about to throw it back overboard.
“Don’t be trowin’ dem big ones like dat back in. I got some Portogeese guys taken ‘em,” he said.
“What?” I think my friend said as the fish wriggled and slipped out of his hands and splashed into the water.
“Fer Crissakes,” Capt. Sal said as he shook his head towards the deck, the cigarette now dangling from his mouth. “Ah, what the hell. Go on now, check that earl so’s we can wrap this up,” he said to Hey and, brushing past him, made his way aft, down the starboard side to the other door that led to the pilothouse and in he went. A moment later, a cigarette butt launched itself out of one of the side windows and I had no doubt, another was promptly lit up.
As Hey emerged from the depths of what I gathered was the engine room, wiping his hands on an oil-stained rag, and looking towards the pilothouse, he gave a thumbs up sign after which came three quick toots of the horn signaling all lines up. The Carrie D II, heretofore under the influence of the somewhat hypnotic and low decibel rumble and vibration of the generator, constantly emitting its own noxious fumes from a hull vent, suddenly reverberated with the sound and shuddering of the main engines. First one, then the other, and then the billowing black smoke.
There was some sort of announcement that came over what passed for an amplified sound system aboard, but with the hanging rusted speaker secured by some piano wire and duct tape to keep it from dangling and banging off the side of the pilothouse from the lamp wire that snaked its way out of a disastrously drilled-out hole there, the words and message were wholly unintelligible.
“Pool fish in the stern,” heralded Hey, acting as interpreter for the other-worldly, public address, static-laden communication as he made the rounds of the deck. “I clean the fish too, for fifty cents each.” By the time we docked, the trail of dark gray smoke that had been following us around finally dissipated into the late afternoon sky.
I think by now I’ve painted a pretty clear picture of what kind of boat the Carrie D II was and how she was an unfortunate reflection of her skipper. I would imagine that in her hey day, those first few years after her launch, she was a pretty tidy craft. And while my friend and I continued to fish on her—that five buck a piece/two for ten deal to a pair of soon-to-be high school seniors suited us just fine—and even managed to win a pool or two, I would not realize the full extent of what I had only imagined was below decks until one mid-summer trip. Just as I was about to get off, Capt. Sal, leaning out of the lowered window of the pilothouse’s port side, and flicking a butt into the water, said: “Hey kid. I notice you’re pretty much a regular. I may need an extra deck hand. Wanna make a few bucks an’ fish for free?” he said as yet another cigarette appeared and was as quickly, lit, a cumulus cloud of smoke momentarily blocking out his face. ‘Well, whaddya say. Yes or no. This ain’t no math test.”
“I have another job over at Schatz. In the yard. I’ll have to check what days I work each week. It changes,” I remember saying, already with the lure of free fishing and a couple of extra bucks in my pocket presenting some tantalizing low hanging fruit to me.
“I know dem guys. Sommtimes when I got to get a wheel dinged out, I go there. Out and in the same day. Haven’t been since last year though. Okay den, you let me know. But don’t wait too long. I got a lot of guys want to work this boat,” he croaked, coughed, and took in a long drag.
“Okay,” I said and turned and got off the boat and looked back one more time.
“Free fishing an’ you get tips an’ the boat gives you a few bucks,” he said.
I managed to get a schedule that gave me Tuesdays off and since the yard was a short walk from the fishing boat piers, I left a message for Capt. Sal that I could give him Tuesdays for the rest of the summer.
Hey—his real name was Brad and for as long as I worked the decks, I never heard Capt. Sal refer to him by another other handle—and I got along just fine and I had no problem in acknowledging that he was the Alpha mate on board the Carrie D II. None whatsoever. But now being the new guy, I was relegated to perform all the slop jobs Hey/Brad was doing before, like Ishmael, I signed my soul over to Capt. Sal Dragonette.
Shape up was at six, and we usually tried to pull out of the dock by seven a.m. While Capt. Sal was out getting bait or whatever, Hey/Brad and I started to square things away for the day’s trip as a few of the regulars started to show up and grab their usual spots. I was shown the engine room hatch and, with a dirty old Boy Scout flashlight—you know, the olive-green one with the ninety degree bend to it, this one so oily I could feel the residue on it—stuck in a back pocket of my jeans, descended into the dark inner domain of the Carrie D II.
Now, in those days, my entire knowledge of working machines and wiring and pumps and filters and couplings and generators and harnesses and transmissions and expansion tanks and head gaskets and well just about anything that concerned making this boat move through the water was as nil as could be, making me as dumb as a bag of hammers when it came to its operation.
As I made my way down the slippery metal ladder, my hands getting oil stained as I went from rung to rung, until finally alighting on the engine room deck, still feeling that slippery, sliding effect underfoot, I looked around. The only light was that from the open hatch above and I scanned the densely packed space for a switch or a cord that would illuminate the place.
“Hey,” I yelled up at the open hatch above, smiling as I did and then adding, “Brad!” Only a few minutes aboard and I was already taking on Capt. Sal’s persona. I wondered about how Hey/Brad’s mind had so far been affected what with him being, more or less, permanent ship’s company.
“Yeah,” he said, peering down into the hold.
“There a light switch down here?”
“Port side. Behind the generator. But if it don’t work, maybe the bulb is out. Use the flashlight. Dips’re on the inboard sides of the engines. Also, check the oil in the generator too. But it’s on the outboard side so you’ll have to do some climbing over it. Sal’ll be back soon and want to fire it up, so let’s get going. If you need to add any oil, look under each engine. There’s a space there where we keep it. Fill it just past the top mark on the dips.”
There was a good reason the switch didn’t work; there was no bulb in the overhead socket. Actually, the screw-in neck was there but the bulb was not and I found a few remnants of broken glass underfoot as I stepped between the main engines. I took the flashlight out of my back pocket.
Suffice it to say, Dr. Frankenstein’s lab had nothing on the engine room space aboard the Carrie D II. The overwhelming smell of oil and diesel fuel, mixed in with a rather raunchy bilge odor, permeated everywhere and, with the hatch open, most assuredly wafted upwards. I was already enveloped in its bouquet and quickly realized how it followed Hey/Brad wherever he went. Now, I too was so anointed.
All three engines, the two mains and that of the generator, with their weeping cylinder covers streaking the blocks, needed oil and as I scanned the underneath areas under the now yellowing glare of the Boy Scout flashlight, the only things I could find there were about a half-dozen, oil-stained quart milk containers. I lifted one, feeling the weight of some liquid and, pinching the lid open, looked in. It was oil alright and even under what I knew was the quickly fading light of the flashlight, I could see it was very black and thick. I found a funnel and fitting it in the oil fill, started to pour the viscous liquid in. It only took a few minutes, even with having to climb over and then waist-straddling the generator, to get it done. Before climbing up and out of what surely was the inspiration for one of Dante’s rings of Hell, I gave each engine a quick coolant inspection as instructed in the recent past by one of the mechanics at the yard. I twisted the cap off, stuck my finger in and if it came up wet, it was okay. Today, all was fine.
Finally getting back to the surface world, after what seemed an eternity, I realized I was now covered with the kind of dirt and filth quite unlike that which I picked up while fishing, with the latter being totally acceptable. The spaces under my fingernails were black and there was a wide swath of gunk across my gray high school sweatshirt that also covered the waist area of my jeans. There was a black smudge across the top of my right hand and a matching one that ran across my brow. The palms of my hands were dirty and oily and I felt as if I were walking on a film of it as well. And of course, there was the smell.
Capt. Sal waddled aboard a short time later. He wheeled a rusted hand truck piled high with about 24 white rectangular boxes, 12 of each containing a frozen block of squid and spearing, from the beat up van he parked in his usual spot opposite the boat and left it on the dock as he let himself, step by step, down the boarding ladder—it was dead low tide and with no floating docks along the entire waterfront, it was the boats that rose up and down. By the water trail it left, that was now puddling up under the rusted conveyance, the bait was already beginning to thaw. Capt. Sal did not drive a van with a refrigerated compartment.
“They ain’t gonna get aboard by themselves,” Capt. Sal said to me as he tried to hitch his pants up above his ample belly, gave a ‘thumbs over there’ signal, and disappeared into the pilothouse. (Think what you want about the Carrie D II, but we always had plenty of bait aboard, what with the leftovers being added exponentially from the day before, albeit some of it, by the time the later part of the week rolled around, was getting a bit ripe and added to the overall multi-fragranced odor that always accompanied the boat.) I heard the low rumble of the generator coming to life, saw the belch of black smoke snaking up over the aft port rail from the exhaust port in the hull there, and recognized the crackle of the VHF radio as he turned it on. With a couple of buckets of salt water drawn from the bay to thaw out the bait, Hey/Brad and I got things ready for the day’s fishing.
This was the routine aboard the Carrie D II for all the trips I made on her for the rest of that summer. I indeed fished for free, made some tips, and got some bucks from the boat. For the most part, boats like the Carrie D II were already on the other side of the changing times. And as it turned out, even though she was an old tub and way past her prime with many of the other boat owners already bringing in newer, faster, and more comfortable head boats, and Capt. Sal was as an irascible character as there ever was, still it was loads of fun as the days slipped by and I went from being a high school junior to entering my senior year.
Whenever I have the opportunity to drive along the Belt Parkway, that famed roadway whose construction began in 1934, girdling the edges of waterfront Brooklyn, whether going east or west, I often take the Coney Island exit and stop at famous Nathan’s for a quick hot dog, greasy fries, and a root beer soda, after which I make my way to Emmons Avenue and begin a slow crawl along the concrete piers. It’s changed and changed so much to my memory’s eye that I find it almost unrecognizable. But still, the sights, sounds, and experiences that set me on my life’s course are there for me to bring up once again, whenever I please. And coming full circle in this bit of nostalgia that I have been sharing with you, is the image of the machinery space aboard the Carrie D II and the place it occupies in my consciousness as what could be, maybe the filthiest engine room ever.
If you have your own SALTY LIFE experience and would like to share it with us, please send it in, along with any images, drawings, illustrations, maps, or photos. If it gets posted, I will send you two dozen of my world-famous, hand-made, chocolate chip cookies. Promise. And don’t forget to let me know if you have any food allergies, like with nuts, so I won’t load them up with pecan, walnut, or macademias. You’re going to love ’em. Fair winds shipmates! -Capt. Ken