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A Policeman’s Coffee

by Frank Reilly

"Can I borrow your hip boots?"

On that cold dark night, at the beginning of the midnight shift, I made that request to another deck hand while working on a clamshell dredge named the "SS Clark." Although the deck hand was not a close friend of mine, he had just finished his shift. I was soon to sorely regret the request. He would rue it too, for different reasons.

It was during the latter years of World War II, and I was almost 17years old. When the war broke out, many of the guys in Gerritsen Beach joined the Services and I wanted to be like them. My father, a former policeman, had gotten me a job on the docks and some of the dock hands told me about the "dredge."  They advised me to apply for a job as a deck hand.

Because of the war, the shortage of workers, and the influence of my father and these men, I was hired as a deck hand. That is how I ended up on the dredge. I had been told that it would be warm, I would have a place to sleep, and I would get three meals a day. It sounded heavenly. MUCH better than freezing on the dock.

Due to a childhood bout with polio, my left leg was thinner and a bit shorter than the right, causing me to walk with a slight limp. The boots fit fine after I had wrapped rags around my left foot because the rags made the boot tighter and my left foot no longer slipped around. When I wore the regular heavy boots found on the dredge I always got cold mud in my shoes, and the insides seemed to be wet. I was elated with my borrowed soft, supple boots, and I would be comfortable and my feet would be dry.

Basically, a clamshell dredge is very much as you would see at any construction site. It is the type of machine in which a large scoop, resembling a large clam with very large teeth facing downward, chews into the earth before it closes via cables. A waiting dump truck is loaded as the bucket is disgorged. This procedure is repeated until the truck is full. On land, these machines are called power shovels or scoops. A dredge is a similar seagoing unit that deepens the bottom of a channel or inlet. Channels and inlets gradually lose depth because of the constant movement of mud from incoming and outgoing tides. If the channel or inlet becomes too shallow, to the point where vessels traversing it are in danger of striking bottom, a dredge is called in to deepen the waterway. Wherever strong tides pass through, these channels are dredged constantly.

During this time, there were two types of dredges being used. One was the clamshell variety, and the other was called a "sandsucker." I also worked as a deck hand on the "sandsucker" variety, but that’s another story and another time. Bad luck seemed to follow me.

The clamshell dredge would repeatedly lower the huge jaws of the clam bucket to the bottom, accompanied by a huge splash. It would then close the bucket, surface, and swing the loaded bucket over to a waiting pocket of a scow. When fully loaded, the scow, with all its pockets filled, was then towed via tugboat to very deep water, where the mud was released to settle into the deep water. The scow was composed of compartments called "pockets." The bottom of these pockets had metal "doors," which had to be closed by the deck hands from the dredge before loading could begin. The doors were kept closed by chains connected to a "spool." The shaft and chains connected to the doors were kept in place by a large ratcheted gear, comprising the spool. The ratcheted gear, with its "dog" between the teeth, would close the doors by winding the chains around the shaft of the spool. These doors would not open until the "dog" in the ratcheted gear was struck with a large sledge hammer. I had never seen this done, but had heard that it was a risky job.

The empty scow would arrive via tugboat and loom very high above the dredge. Loaded, the scow would have its deck nearly even with the dredge. The empty scow was so high that ladders had to be used to climb onto the deck of the scow. The whole area of the dredge and the scow was alight with flood lights. There was also a great deal of noise from the dredging machinery. The deck hands would climb aboard the scow and close the doors of all pockets. It was a very strenuous operation. It took two deck hands to close these doors. A very heavy metal bar was used to implement this procedure. The ratcheting gear, with its dog, had large square holes to accommodate the metal bar. The bar was placed into the hole and two deck hands would then pull down on the bar until the dog clacked into the next tooth. For the first few holes, it was not too difficult. The doors, at the beginning, were not too heavy. However, as the doors came closer together, it took all the strength of the two deck hands to pull the bar enough to get, as the First Mate would shout, "Another tooth." We thought we had used all our strength to get the doors closed, yet, the First Mate would insist on "tighter doors."

I vividly recall the narrow metal deck of the scow. The mud dredged from the bottom was extremely thick and slippery. As the bucket would swing back and forth to discharge its load into any of the "pockets," a good portion would drip on the deck area. This would make walking on this 2-foot-wide deck a tricky experience.

It took teamwork by the deck hands owing to the narrowness of the deck and, more importantly, the slippery condition of the deck’s surface. One deck hand would place the bar into the hole, then both would pull the bar down until we could hear the dog clack into the next tooth. I weighed a bit more than my shipmate, though not that much more. Therefore, it was taken for granted that I was the one on the end of the bar. One night, cold and dark, this was my undoing.

We were dredging the Kill Van Kull channel between Staten Island and New Jersey. It seems the fishing boats from the Sewaren Yacht Club had hit bottom too many times. Therefore it was time to remove the mud and deepen the channel. We were closing the doors. All seemed to be going well. We were on the fourth pocket. They had already loaded the first pocket, which had been ratcheted closed by us, and were starting on the second. The First Mate was shouting at us to "get moving." We were ratcheting the fourth pocket when disaster struck.

I was pulling down on the bar, waiting for the dog to clack its arrival into the next tooth of the ratcheting gear, when suddenly my hands slipped due to cramping and the cold. The bar was about at its highest point when I lost my hold. The next thing I recall was my booted feet hitting the deck, slipping on the mud, and me going overboard, flailing and shouting. I hit the water, hearing behind me the cry, "Man overboard." Oddly, as I hit that frigid water, I thought to myself, it was a good thing I didn’t have that bar in my hands. It was very heavy and would have pulled me under quickly.

I fell for a distance of about 15 feet before striking the surface, head first. Then I started to sink immediately, and my first thought was to get some air. I fought with my arms as hard as I could. I couldn’t seem to right myself. I came to an erroneous conclusion that it was my heavy jacket. I fought to shed it quickly. I was able to get out of it, but I seemed to be drowning, and couldn’t understand why. It suddenly dawned on me that my legs were above my body. With all the strength I could muster, and desperate for air, I fought to pull my legs down below my body. I hadn’t realized that air was trapped in those hip boots. They probably would have kept me afloat but I was upside down. With a Herculean effort I got myself fairly level and was able to gasp for some most welcome air. Through cold-water-filled eyes, I was totally puzzled to see that the "Clark" was leaving me to drown. They were pulling away from me. Lights were being flashed into the water, but not in my direction.

After flailing hard to get my legs down, I was heard the sound of the trapped air in my boots gurgling past my face. I yelled to no avail. With the noise of the "Clark’s" machinery, my yelling seemed to vent into empty space. Then, as a beginning mariner, I realized it was the tide that was quickly moving me away from the "Clark." I decided to swim. The water was very cold. No matter how hard I swam, though, I was getting nowhere. I stopped swimming to decide a sensible solution to my immediate problem. However, when I stopped swimming, I started to sink again. It puzzled me, because I had righted myself. With effort, I could barely keep my head out of the cold water.

I was baffled as to what was dragging me down into the water. It then dawned on me. I took a deep breath and reached down to feel my legs. The rubber of the boots was tightly wrapped to my legs. These were the type of boots worn by fisherman. They were brown in color, soft, and pliable. The complete outfit consisted of the boots, a rubber front and back, connected to shoulder straps. I undid the straps and pulled the entire front and back down to my knees while somersaulting. I decided to get the boots off my legs. I struggled, holding my breath, to get rid of them. They would not budge. I remembered the effort I had gone through to wrap rags around my left foot to make the boot tight.

I resigned myself to the idea that I was to drown in the Kill Van Kull. When I stopped struggling, I would sink. Then I remembered having a knife on my belt that I had bought some three weeks back because I wanted to look like a mariner. I fumbled for my belt, found the knife, and, while holding my breath and somersaulting, I started to cut the boots as rapidly as possible. I was drowning and the dredge seemed to be moving away at too fast a pace. I was able to cut the side of my right soft boot all the way down to my ankle. I was amazed how I shed that boot as a snake would shed its skin. Being careful not to lose the knife, surfacing again, then holding my breath, I started on the left boot. I was able to cut it down around the ankle area, but couldn’t get the boot off my leg. I cursed myself for doing such a good job with the rags around my left foot. The rags were now swollen from the water, making the boot tighter. I decided I hated that leg anyway, and cut the rubber and rags as fast as I could. At that point I didn’t care if I ended up with only one leg. Somehow, I felt the boot come loose. I now had both legs to tread water, but due to the cold, holding my breath, and swallowing so much water, I was too weak to swim back to the dredge.

Looking around in the dark, I could discern the shoreline not too far away. I deduced, correctly, that the tide was out-going. The East River and the Hudson River were emptying their mud into the harbor of New York. The tide was probably at its strongest. I could see the lights of my dredge in the distance. Getting my bearings, as a greenhorn sailor, I correctly guessed that it was the shoreline of Staten Island. I swam on my back, then breast stroked. I floated for a while to gain some strength, and continued swimming, weakly, to the shore of Staten Island. After what seemed to be an eternity, I could hear water splashing on rocks. Getting closer, I persevered. Suddenly, my right leg struck bottom. I swam and crawled to the point where I could get my arms around the rocks.

Above me there was total darkness. There was not a light to be seen anywhere. Shouting brought no response. Though I had saved my life, I seemed to be on the shore of nowhere. It was an uninhabited area of Staten Island. Clambering out of the water and over the rocks, my next thought was the knife. My right hand was empty. Somewhere out there in the Kull was one hell of a good knife. I congratulated myself for having sharpened it. It had cut through the soft rubber and rags fairly easily.

I had no idea as to whether I had severed my foot because I was too cold to feel any pain. I huddled on the biggest rock I could find. Frozen, watching the dredge, trying to ignore the cold, I heard and saw the lights of a boat. It was a Police Boat from the Marine Division moving past me, heading north toward the harbor of New York and the dredge. I stood in my stocking feet on the rock and shouted, but they went right by me without slowing. Up channel I could see them meet up with another boat. I later found out it was the Coast Guard. I tried to estimate what time it was when I fell overboard. I was angry at myself for falling overboard at this late time of the year. In desperation, I realized daylight was a long time in coming. I wished for a hot cup of hot coffee. I would even settle for that black coffee back on the dredge.

I don’t remember whether I cried. I probably did. I remember the shivering and the freezing cold. I thought of dying. Drowning, I was told, was a horrible way to die. I recalled how awful it was swallowing all that water. I had heard that freezing to death was more merciful, and one would simply fall asleep and die. Seated on a large rock, I had wrapped my arms around my knees and put my head into my arms. Perhaps I fell asleep or lapsed into unconsciousness. I remember raising my head and seeing the rocks and the water fairly clearly. Dawn was arriving over Staten Island behind me. I looked out and saw the police boat slowly moving by my position. They didn’t hear my shouting as I stood on the rock. Out of anger, or fear, or desperation, I stepped off the rock and found some stones. I started to throw them at the police boat while cursing at them. They were in a warm, heated boat. Perhaps bigger stones would help. I located some and threw them with what remaining strength I had.

Suddenly I was nearly blinded by a light. The police were now shining their spotlight on the shoreline instead of the water. As I waved my arms, I thought they would just sweep right past me. To my amazement, the light stayed right on me. Shielding my eyes so that I could see the boat more clearly, I saw it turning toward me. The boat came to the Staten Island shoreline as close as it could. It was rocky and shallow.

The policemen questioned me through a bullhorn as to whether I was all right. I waved at them to indicate that I was fine. Actually, I was just damned glad to see them. They then asked me if I could get out to the boat. I concluded, numbly, that I was not dead, had already been wet, and that they would have blankets and maybe a good cup of coffee. With the meager amount of daylight, I took one look at my left leg, expecting to see a great deal of blood or no foot at all. To my amazement, there was none on the white socks I was wearing. I stepped between the rocks into the water, and, with a few weak flailing strokes was at the boat and pulled aboard.

I asked them about the dredge. They said everyone on the dredge thought I was dead. They looked closely at me and asked, "Where are the boots?" They said the deck hand that I had borrowed the hip boots from was rather angry as he had just purchased them the previous week. He had said that he felt sorry for me, but asked the police to return his boots when they located my body. He was, as I have said, not a good friend of mine.

The marine policemen wrapped me in several blankets. It took a while to feel any warmth even though the boat was heated. They conferred, then planned to take me to a hospital in New Jersey for a checkup. I could hear the crackling sounds of the radio and I watched as the officers reported their find to someone. I heard my name mentioned, which I had given them after boarding. I assumed they probably were not talking to my dredge for it didn’t have a radio.

The officer at the controls told me that I had struck their boat with a rock. I apologized. He laughed, explaining, if they hadn’t been struck with that rock, they would have turned around again. He told me that the Coast Guard had ordered all operations on the dredge to cease while they "grappled" for my body. It seems they had actually found my jacket though it was torn to pieces by the grappling hooks. He advised me that they had searched and scanned the shoreline of Staten Island. They knew about the tide and its effects but they hadn’t considered that I would be that far up channel. They had been in the process of turning around, back toward the dredge, when they were struck with my fairly large rock. It had cracked a small windowpane on the port side of the boat. One of the officers gave me a cup of coffee from his personal multicolored thermos. It was a great cup of coffee.

Eventually, they took me ashore to a waiting ambulance and to a very small hospital. I believe it was in Sewaren, New Jersey. When admitted, I possessed neither shoes nor jacket. It certainly was not the right time of the year to go without a jacket or shoes. They gave me a warm bath, in which I soaked until the water became cool. That bath was the warmest I had felt in a long, long time. The nurses were very kind to me and left me to soak up the warmth of that sudsy bath. They were told by the Marine Division of the New York City Police Department of what I had been through. Later, they produced my clothes, which had been washed and pressed. I was given a warm meal, which I ate in just a few moments. This astounded the hospital personnel. Even I did not realize how hungry I was. Perhaps, the ordeal in the Kill Van Kull channel took more of my strength than I had realized.

Then one of the nurses, a particularly kind one, came in to see me. She woke me with an apology for doing so. I was exhausted, and must have fallen asleep immediately after finishing the meal they gave me. She told me she did social work for the Church she attended. The church collected used clothing for the poor. She told me that she would try to get me a pair of shoes and a jacket from the donated clothes collected by the church. I thanked her and fell asleep again when she departed. It was about mid-afternoon of the next day when I awakened. The nurses brought me another meal that I dispatched rapidly. Though, as she told me, it was her day off, the nurse who was involved with social work came in to see me. She brought with her, in a bag, a jacket and a pair of shoes.

Shortly thereafter I was released from the hospital. One of the nurses offered me a ride to the dock where I could catch the rowboat out to the "Clark." She said it was no trouble for her as it would be on her way home. I never did find out as to whether she was telling the truth. I thanked these individuals for their many kindnesses. Upon arriving at the dock, and exiting her battered car, she hugged me with a warmth I had not felt in many years. I was near to tears.

One of the seaman from the "Clark" was there loading the rowboat with provisions. He was astonished to see me. He told me that he had been told that the police had taken my body away and that I had succumbed to the drowning in the Kill. He said he was told that I had died. He helped me aboard the rowboat with the remark, "Boy! Are they going to be surprised to see you."

They certainly were surprised. I headed for the bridge with the remarks behind me, "Wow! We heard you died." This, I had thought, was the result of not having a radio. Yet, it puzzled me. Surely, the police and Coast Guard had notified the "Old Man" that I was still alive. I reported to the Captain with the intent of taking my next shift, though two days late, telling him that I was fit and fine. I saluted him in respect, he turned and roared at me, "You’re fired." I was taken aback at this. I asked him as to why for I did not fall into the Kill on purpose. He then ranted about how much I had cost the Company. He had to shut down the dredging operation while the Coast Guard grappled for my body. I wanted to tell them that I would still have a job if they had looked in the right place. They had been grappling for my body in the wrong area. The tide had taken me up channel very quickly. I had been a long way from where they were searching. I was told, "Get off the boat as soon as possible."  The Captain told me that whatever pay I had coming to me would be sent to me by mail. He also shouted at me, "It's a goddamn good thing that the seaman you borrowed the hip boots from is sleeping. He would probably kill you." The individual who rowed me ashore gave me a few dollars, saying, "Here, that's all I got." It was another act of kindness.

As I bounced along on the train home I pondered the events of the past two days. I recalled almost drowning. I recalled almost freezing to death. I remembered the kindness shown to me by the nurses and doctors at that small hospital. I remembered how warm it was in that hospital bed. I remembered that hot bath. I remembered the good food. I remember the money I owed to that person on the "Clark." Most of all I remembered that Marine Division police officer giving me a cup of his "personal" coffee. I still maintain it was the greatest cup of coffee I have ever had.

Last changed: June 28, 2002

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