DUTY DAY©

By J. Rossotti

©2001 J. Rossetti - All Rights Reserved



The novel this excerpt is from is called SEA STORY and is being published by Starlight Word Publications in July of this year as an e-book. That means it can be ordered from the company's website as a download or on a disk. It will also be available in print on actual paper. Sea Story is based on my experiences as a coxswain.

     

 0715 hours

        Fantome exploded out of the boat shop.

        "Rossy!  Jumper!"

        I threw down the hose and scrub bucket and tore out after him as he ran towards Riverside moorings.  I knew that Chandler had gone up to the base to get something at the exchange.  If I couldn't find him I would grab the first engineer that I saw.  Then up ahead he stepped out of the last building.

        Fantome yelled, "Chandler!  Jumper!"

        Chandler jammed the bag of potato chips in his pocket and joined the race.

        We ran the length of the base, dashed through the tunnel under the road and up the concrete steps set into the levee.  On the other side of the levee was the tiny dock that made up Riverside moorings.  Chandler got to the boat first.  He threw open the hatches and leaped into the engine room.  Fantome flung off the mooring lines, and I jumped breathlessly into the captain's chair.

        "Go ahead!" Chandler yelled.

        I hit the start buttons, and the engines kicked in.  A quick check of the dials and a look at the shore tie to make sure it was disconnected, and I pushed the throttles ahead.

        "Coast Guard Group New Orleans, Coast Guard 32332".  Fantome set the mike down long enough to jerk on his life jacket.

        "332, Group," the radio answered.

        Another voice cut in.  "Group, Coast Guard helo 5521."

        We listened while the helicopter outlined what search pattern they planned to use.

        I said, "Fantome, tell the Group that we'll do a bank to bank creeping line down the river.  See if they have a description."

        Group answered, "Subject is male, wearing a red shirt and jeans, jumped from the mid-section of the Greater New Orleans Bridge."

        "Group, 332, roger out," Fantome answered.

        We turned the corner of the Industrial Canal and entered the Mississippi River at full speed.  Blue light flashing and siren wailing, we whipped around Algiers Point where the GNO bridge came into view.  The helo overhead made sweeping passes from the bridge down river and then back.

        "Group, 332, on scene."

        "332, Group, roger out."

        Fantome took up a position on top of the cabin, arm wrapped around the mast, while Chandler, holding onto his hat, fought the wind to reach the bow.  I drove the boat to the starting position under the bridge and began zig-zagging across the river from bank to bank.  I kept a watchful eye on the river traffic which was fortunately light at the moment.  I had no delusions about the blue light and siren.  Our 32 foot patrol boat was very insignificant on the Mississippi, and certainly no tanker or cargo carrier would watch out for us.

        After the search pattern, I pulled the boat carefully to the docks and wharves so Fantome and Chandler could peer into the damp, creosote smelling darkness for a body.

        "Ain't gonna find anything in there," Fantome said.  "The bridge is high, and that water is rough."

        The Mississippi River in the spring was a brown, churning, mass of currents and backwashes but we searched for five hours. 

        "Group, 332," I said wearily.  "No luck."

        "332, Group, return to base."

        "Group, 332, roger out."

 

        1339 hours

        "This is a boring ass spring," Fantome complained from his chair in the Patrol Boat shop.  He turned his head to watch Valise fish through a bag of M&M's.  "What the hell are you doing, Valise?"

        "He only eats green M & M's," I explained, sitting on the corner of a desk.

        "Why?"

        "They're aphrodisiacs," Valise mumbled without looking up.

        Fantome shook his head in disgust.

        I pulled out a buck knife from the sheath on my hip and idly ran one finger down the edge, then looked around for the sharpening stone.

        Novak dropped his bulk into a plastic-cushioned chair, resting his head on the back and pulling the black ball cap over his eyes.  "I like peace and quiet."  He glanced sideways under the edge of the hat at Valise still eating candy.

        West said, "Valise, you the only fool I know eats M&M's for lunch."

        I said, "Well, Kyle eats Chitos and soda for breakfast."

        Novak grimaced.  "Yeah, and look how he turned out."  Closing his eyes again, he said, "Who has the dirty duty today?"

        "We do," I answered for my crew.  "We already had a jumper this morning, so we expect it will be a suck duty day."

        "Oh great.  I never get any sleep when I know that you and The Phantom are cruisin' the river."  Novak sighed heavily, pulling his hat lower over his face.

 

        2021 hours

        Fantome said, "Ross, you see something movin' up ahead?"

        I squinted into the night, pulling the throttles back.  Our boat slowed and then stopped, turning slightly sideways in the river current.

        "I hear a boat engine," I admitted.  "What is it?"

        "Looks like a crew boat," he answered, referring to the small boats used to ferry people and material to the oil rigs and ships.  "The asshole doesn't have any running lights."

        "Okay, I'll go alongside on our starboard, and you and Chandler board him.  If his lights don't work at all, we'll escort him back to his dock."

        Fantome, snapping on his gunbelt said, "Right."

        I switched on our blue light, cutting in front of the crew boat.  It hesitated and then slowed.

        "Tie us up!" I yelled to Fantome and Chandler.  I didn't want the river to carry the crew boat too far out of earshot.  We drifted, two boats lashed together like handcuffed prisoners, as I moved the throttles in and out of gear to steer us.  A few minutes later, Fantome jumped back on the 332.

        "Ross, this guy doesn't have working lights, fire extinguishers, or life jackets, and he's drunk." He pushed his hat back and shook his head.

        "Terminate him.  One of you...hey!  Who the hell are they?"

        Another crew boat had come alongside the first and dropped two men off before disappearing into the darkness.  The men walked towards the wheelhouse where Chandler stood with the skipper.

        "Stay where you are!" I shouted to them from my open window.   

        Fantome leaped back on the crew boat while I kept my eyes on the two men.  I couldn't see any weapons in their hands but I unsnapped my holster flap anyway.  Fantome had one hand on his gun as he approached the men.

        "Please stand over there," he said, pointing.

        They reluctantly moved in full view of all of us.  I checked around the river and then slowly turned both boats upriver.

        When we arrived at the crew boat dock, I edged the boats in, and we tied up.  The two uninvited guests had a quick conversation with another man on the dock.  We couldn’t see much in the poor light, and the boat engines covered up their conversation.  Suddenly there were several angry men there.   I knew they were unhappy about the termination because it meant a boat was unusable until the violations were corrected.  I leaned towards the bench on our 32 boat to make sure that the radio had channel sixteen dialed up, and then noted with approval that Fantome and Chandler stood so they could cover each other.       

        A mountainous man, obviously in charge, walked ponderously towards Fantome and shouted in his face with much waving of arms.

        Turning his head slightly, Fantome yelled, "Rossy!  He wants me to go up to the office and talk to his boss about the boarding!"

        "He's not going anywhere!" I told the big man.   "If you have any questions about the boarding, call the base!" 

        I didn't know if this was the correct procedure in this situation, but with only a crew of two, I wasn't taking any chances with our safety.  We'd had run-ins with crew boats before and, while most of them cooperated, a few were nasty customers.

        Fantome and Chandler re-boarded our boat, and I pulled away.

        "They were pissed off, Ross," Chandler reported as he unstrapped his holster and dropped it on the bench.

        "Tough," Fantome said, leaving his on.  "Goin' up and down this river with no damn runnin' lights.  Hey, Rossy, good thing you didn't let me go talk to the boss because they probably would've worked me over."

        I grinned at Chandler, and we headed back to the base.

       

        2310 hours

        I dragged myself out of sleep with great reluctance and yelled, "What!"

        The knocking stopped and a voice said through the door, "GODO wants you."

        "All right," I grumbled.

        I sat up pushing in the hairpins that kept the thick, waist length, braid in a bun on the back of my head and slipped on my shoes.  That was all I had to do since I slept fully clothed on my duty nights.  It was uncomfortable but saved valuable time.  I checked the clock's glowing face.

        "Hell."  It was eleven thirty.  Only one hour of sleep.  I knew that Forrest was the Group Operations Duty Officer that night.  That boded ill.

        I tucked in my uniform shirt as I hurried down the night-dimmed corridors to the GODO office.  Fantome and Chandler appeared behind me, blinking in the brightly lit Comm Center.  Ensign Forrest glanced up from his desk and said, "You have a man overboard."

        My eyes snapped open and the guys tensed to run, needing only to know which mooring-Riverside or Industrial Canal.

        "A man fell off a barge at mile 130," he went on calmly as he wrote in the logbook.

        We froze, and I said in a level voice, "Mr. Forrest, that's way up past Kenner Bend.  It will take us at least three hours to get up there."

        He shrugged.  "Well, we have to respond." He then ignored us since he had more pressing matters to attend to.

        On the way to riverside moorings, I added up the hours.  "If we get there by two o'clock and search for a while, we might be back by daylight."

        Fantome groaned.  "That stupid bastard.  We can't do nothin' about a man overboard way up there.  That guy was probably sucked down under the barge and is dead by now."

        "Yeah, well, it's no use arguing with him," I said resigned.  "I hope it's not too foggy tonight."

        As I unlocked the boat, Chandler sniffed the air.  "What's that awful smell?"

        Fantome answered, "It's the dump.  It's on fire again.  The wind must've changed direction. Now it's coming towards us.  Great.  That's all I need tonight, to smell other people's crap burning."

 

 

        Fantome said he would drive so he jumped into the chair behind the wheel.  I sat in the other chair for a while, and Chandler slept hunched up on the short, padded, bench under the window.  After an hour or so, Chandler and I swapped positions.  I fell asleep immediately.

        A conversation intruded into my dream.

        "Where are we?"

        "Mile 132."

        "That's too far."

        "No it's not."

        I sat up.  "Where are we?"

        Fantome said, "132."

        "132!  We only had to go to 130, you morons!"  I shoved Chandler out and took the captain's seat.

        Fantome said, "I told you."

        "Shut up," Chandler replied.

        "Call the base and tell them we're on scene," I told Fantome.  "Mile 132!  For God's sake!"  I glared at them.

        Arriving on scene for real, we saw no evidence of a search.  In fact, there was no activity at all.  I put the boat up to the side of a building-sized push boat, and Fantome and I walked inside.  It didn't look like the interior of a boat at all.  With the carpeting, desks, and phones, it resembled an office.  A man looked up at us with surprise.  I introduced us and asked where the guy had fallen in so we could search.

        "But we didn't ask for the Coast Guard to come up here and search," he said.  "We looked ourselves for three hours.  We got some more tugs coming in at first light to move the barges so we can check between them."

        Fantome and I shared a bitter look.

        "Sir, would you mind explaining that to the duty officer at the base?" I asked him.

        "Why, sure."  He reached for the phone and placed it in front of me.  "Would y'all like a cup of coffee?"

        "Sure would.  Rossy, I'll fix a cup and then go back to the boat so Chandler can come get some."

        Ten minutes later we stood up to return to our boat with Styrofoam cups of strong, black coffee.  Forrest had ordered us to return to base.  We thanked the man and left.

        Chandler drove for a while, then I took over.  Pockets of fog waited around every bend where the wind had trapped it.  I hummed to myself to keep awake and ignore the tomb-like silence that fog brings to the Mississippi River.  Our boat rounded Algiers Point, and I saw that fog obscured the opening to the Industrial Forebay.  I squinted and could barely make out two fuzzy mast lights.  They were amber colored, a configuration that told me I was behind a tug pushing barges.

        A few minutes, later we entered the fog ourselves, right behind the tug.  I took a breath and gagged.  It wasn't fog, it was foul smelling smoke.  The wind had changed direction again and now blew the dump fire smoke across the river.  I searched in the haze and once again found the amber lights.

        There was something wrong with them.

        They were too close to us.   Why would a tug stop in this smoke?

        I slowed the boat apprehensively and looked for the riverbank, an alarm ringing in my head.  Where was the bank?      

Peering through the front window, I could see something moving.  Then a curl of smoke parted, allowing me to see what it was.  In front of us, in the air high above our bow, was a small, white light blinking off and on.

A barge bow light.

        Comprehension and horror slammed into me.  I grabbed the throttles and rammed the engines in reverse.  The boat rocked back on its stern so hard that water sloshed up over the deck.  Pumped with adrenaline, I pushed the engines forward and turned the wheel hard to starboard.

        "Get up!" I shrieked in case it didn't work.

        Fantome gripped the chart table, and Chandler picked himself up off the deck as I brought the boat to the middle of the river.

        "What the hell's goin' on, Rossy?" Fantome demanded.

        "Damn," Chandler mumbled as he checked himself for broken bones.

        I gasped, muscles starting to shake.  "I saw two amber lights in the smoke and followed them."  I had to take another long, shuttering breath.

        "Yeah, so?"

        "They weren't amber.  The smoke colored the lights amber.  They were really white."

        Fantome's mouth dropped open.  "Tug mast lights coming towards us!"

        I nodded shortly, my neck still stiff with fear.  "I saw the barge's bow light flashing just yards off our bow.

        Chandler plopped down on the bench as Fantome continued to swear.  "They'd 've smashed us to fiberglass toothpicks and never even known it."

        We tied the boat up to its tiny dock and silently walked up the gangway from the dock to the top of the levee just as a faint smudge of pink colored the sky.

        Fantome laughed abruptly.  "Well Rossy, this night wasn't a total loss.  We got to have the shit scared out of us."

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