From La Porte, Texas to the Promised Land / December 2013
|Santa L. E. J.|
|Santa L. E. J. Photo credit: Dave Therrien|
|Yours Truly in a Swamp|
From La Porte, Texas to the Promised Land
by Leonard Earl Johnson
The year of the last Cuban Boat Lift, 1980, I was sailing 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 rank but a joyful one owing to the large amount of shore leave it afforded.
A good B. R. arranges to be on such terms with his officers that all but the Captain will lock their doors in port to keep out thieves ostensibly, and effectively ending the good B. R.'s duties after breakfast. This is a kind of gratuity, a tip to the good B. R. I was a good B. R.
* * *
Now, mind you, near this new terminal existed a dirt-floored, tin-roofed watering hole known as The Little Goat Ranch. It sat promisingly in 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, "We no Closed Never." Nice, but hardly 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 strewn with long-horned cattle and Spanish Moss laden live oaks.
The sights of La Porte and The Little Goat Ranch were certainly appreciated, but they were dim lights next to our memories of Houston.
* * *
Our savior was found
In the Gulf Coast Railroad Emporium, one memorable Fall day, 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 left fender, amid a lifetime's collection of dents and scratches stood a two foot tall plastic statue of Jesus holding a bleeding red heart in 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 the world through the eyes of Jesus!" he said with a 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. But we did not get all the way to the ship. We stopped for "refreshing beer beverages," on Cowboy's suggestion, at The Little Goat Ranch.
Cowboy was to wait as long as it took, then round us up gurgling in the morning light, and return us dockside and, need be, help us stumble up the accommodation ladder.
* * *
Shore leave and liberty for all!
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.
Praise the Lord, it was living porn! Shocking, I guess, but with the possible exception of Cowboy, we were depraved salts and not missionaries.
* * *
One Day, one sacrament too many
On a warm December night, back at the ship to meet an early sailing, Cowboy helped us up the ladder and joined me in my fo'c's'le for a parting drink. After several we passed out. As the moon rose mid sky, we awakened on the deck rocking against the bulkhead beside my bunk. The ship was gently slipping out to Sea.
I yelled back, "You Bible thumping Aggie, you think I 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, Florida in two days. Miami was our last stop before heading out across the North Atlantic for 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 sailors 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 Devil's 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 can 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 back at me with a prove-it expression that asked, "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 still is!"
As Cowboy was saying this I felt the ship slow and 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."
I followed behind them and waited outside the Captain's door till they came back out. "Excuse me," I said to the Mate, "could one of you come with me?" Both declined.
My actual power 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 Mohammad!" 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. With the addition of our handsome, blue-eyed, un-sunburned Cowboy Castro they now numbered seven.
We found his beat up purple truck and used a key under the floor mat 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.
Cowboy explained on the drive to Houston, "They couldn't find me a purple one." He laughed, slurped from his beer can, and handed a fresh one to the Mate. He told us he was going back to school, but not to Texas A. and M.
"You know why piss is yellow?" he asked. "And come is white?
So Aggies will know if they are coming or going!" He slapped his leg and laughed again.
He told how the Miami V. F. W. had bought him the truck and the gringo governor of Florida had gotten him an appointment to the National Maritime Academy at Kings Point. He grinned and said, "I start next Fall. After that I'll be sailing with you legal like, Mate!"
The Mate popped open his beer, rolled down his window, and screamed a wild Texas "Wah-hoo!" at three steers nosing a discarded Christmas Tree. "God bless us all," he said, pulling his head back in the cab. "Welcome to The Promised Land!"
Copyright, 2013, Leonard Earl Johnson, all rights reserved