From La Porte, Texas to the Promised Land / December 2008
(This story is reprinted by popular demand.)
1980 was the year of the last Cuban Boat Lift. I was sailing that year aboard the M. V. Sealand Venture, a U. S. flagged container ship running scheduled stops between Houston, Texas and Rotterdam, Holland. I served as the officer's Bedroom Steward (B. R.) -- a kind of seagoing maid. Not a glamorous on-board ranking, perhaps, but a joyful one owing to the amount of shore leave it afforded.
A good B. R. could arrange to be on such terms with his officers so that all but the Captain would lock their doors in port -- to keep out thieves -- effectively ending the good B. R.'s duties after breakfast. I was a good B. R.
During that year the Venture quit the wharves along Houston's downtown Ship Channel and began calling at a new container terminal constructed at Morgan's Point, near the little town of La Porte. This was a place so far out-in-the-boonies it was barely in from the Gulf of Mexico.
* * *
The Port of Houston's decision to move their container terminal to Morgan's Point was -- and is -- a great thorny urchin in the belly of thirsty sailors from every corner of the Earth. Now, mind you, near this new terminal existed the dirt-floored, tin-roofed watering hole known as The Little Goat Ranch. It sat promisingly at the turn at Barbours Cut, on a jutting beachhead walking distance from our new berth. Its services were mercifully available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. A hand painted sign with white scrawling letters and random splats and dribbles so proclaimed from the mirror behind the bar: "No Closed Never." Nice, but hardly the Calcutta-like lure of Houston.
The town of La Porte -- a meager destination if ever there was one -- lay two miles straight inland. I took a bicycle with me in those days and it was a pleasant two mile ride over new black asphalt roads separating cow pastures dotted with moss-strewn live oaks and long-horned cattle.
The town, alas, offered sailors little. There was the Space Shot Motel & Bar, a Spanish movie house, Rosetta's Fajita Cafe, and the Gulf Coast Hobby Emporium, with its back-lighted plastic sign proclaiming, "Lionel Trains for All The Ages -- Toot! Toot!"
The lights of La Porte and The Little Goat Ranch were certainly appreciated, but they were dim, indeed, next to the memory of Houston.
A savior is found
On a memorable Fall day, at the Gulf Coast Hobby Emporium, I made the acquaintance of Cowboy Castro, a fine looking blue-eyed, brown-skinned local, with a not-so-fine looking purple "pick'em up truck." Crowning the truck's left fender, amid a lifetime's collection of dents and scratches, stood a two foot tall hard plastic statue of Jesus holding a bleeding red heart in His one hand and a chromium pigtail radio antenna in the other.
Cowboy Castro was in the Emporium purchasing tiny red lights for his rolling icon. "To light up the world through the eyes of Jesus!" he said with a proud and brilliant smile. I hired him on the spot to drive me and my bicycle back to the ship.
We followed the red-eyed beacon of Jesus down the new black top road. But we did not get all the way to the ship. We stopped for a refreshing beer beverage at The Little Goat Ranch.
* * *
In those days, Houston was a shining alabaster city undulating on a succulent pool of booming oil prices. An anything-goes Babylon of the U. S. Gulf. Cowboy Castro's purple "pick'em up" was our winged angel carrying us to our just reward.
Our favorite Houston destination was a long gray building along Westheimer Drive named The Green Door. Neon tubing atop its flat roof showed chicken heads kissing among flashing red hearts and green dollar bills.
One sacrament too many
Back at the ship one early December night, Cowboy helped us up the ladder and joined me in my fo'c's'le for a parting drink. After several we passed out.
I yelled back, "You Bible thumping Aggie, I don't want a stowaway in my cabin, for Christ's sake!"
The word "stowaway" brought us both up short and sober. He ceased his fretting and we made an agreement to make the best of our situation till reaching Miami, in two days. Miami was our last stop before heading across the North Atlantic to Rotterdam.
Cowboy could walk off the ship in Miami, we figured, and catch a plane back to Houston, with no one the wiser. We settled in and became comfortable traveling companions. He stayed calmly in my cabin drinking beer, watching television, and feasting on food I spirited from the galley.
At night we talked of how lonely Christmas was at Sea, and how Norwegian ships lashed evergreen trees to their ship's foremast at Christmas time. He told of his family's immigration from Cuba, "Before Fidel," and wondered if he might see the "Crimson Isle."
"Perhaps when we sail through the Straits of Florida?" he asked. I reckoned not.
Cowboy laughed at how Florida's "gringo governor" greeted Cuban boat people, while literally mopping his brow. Then Cowboy's eyes lit up like the red-eyed Jesus on his purple truck. "Carumba!" he exclaimed. "If I could pass myself off as a boat-person, I could slap-slogan those stupid Florida gringos all the way to easy street."
I was shocked and said so. "How could you, after fleeing Castro?"
"Fleeing Castro?" He peered at me with a prove-it expression and said, "Are you crazy? That Castro was still in the hills when we left Cuba. This Castro," he said, pointing his thumbs at his chest, "was fleeing poverty. And I still am!"
As Cowboy was saying this I felt the ship slow, then go dead in the water. I left him plotting his economic salvation and went topside.
The Mate and Bos'n were walking back from a Jacob's ladder slung over the starboard gunnel. Six sunburned Cubans walked behind them. Off our stern, an unpainted rowboat with an upended oar sluiced in our wake. From the oar flapped a white cloth painted with black letters spelling, "S. O. S."
The actual power of my mystery was that any ship's irregularity meant Federal paper work for the Mate, and the Mate hated Federal paper work. He came along.
At my fo'c's'le I turned the latch, opened the door and stood back.
"Jesus, Moses and all the saints!" exclaimed the Mate, slamming the door tight. He looked at me and several words formed on his lips before, "Holy Mother of Christ!" came out.
* * *
Cowboy's second coming
In Miami, officers of the United States Coastguard collected our Cubans. They now numbered seven, with the addition of our handsome, blue-eyed, un-sunburned Cowboy Castro.
On our return voyage we lashed a Norwegian Christmas Tree to the foremast and strung it with yellow light bulbs furnished by the Bos'n. As we hove'round Barber's Cut and slipped up against the wharf all eyes searched the dock. But there was no Cowboy Castro waiting for us.
We found his beat up old purple truck and used his keys to drive ourselves into Houston for Christmas Day. Then, two days after Christmas, as we tumbled down the ladder headed for The Goat Ranch, Cowboy drove up in a brand new, blue pick'em up truck.
"The new truck's blue," Cowboy explained on the drive into Houston, "because they couldn't find me no purple one." He laughed, slapped his leg and laughed again.
He told us how the Miami V. F. W. had bought him the truck and how, "The gringo governor of Florida got me an appointment to the National Maritime Academy at Kings Point." He grinned and handed the Mate a Lone Star Beer. "I start next Fall, then I'll be sailing with you legal like."
The Mate popped open his beer, rolled down the window and screamed a wild Texas "Wah-hoo!" at three steers nosing a discarded Christmas Tree. "God bless us all," he said, and pulled his head into the cab. "Welcome to The Promised Land!"
Copr. 2008, Leonard Earl Johnson