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Leonard Earl Johnson (photo credit Frank Parsley) covered Hurricanes Katrina and Rita (2005), and the 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico for ConsumerAffairs.com. He is a contributor to Gambit Weekly, New Orleans Magazine, SCAT, Baton Rouge Advocate, Advocate Magazine, The Times-Picayune, Country Roads Magazine, Palm Springs Newswire and the anthologies: FRENCH QUARTER FICTION (Light of New Orleans Publishing), LOUISIANA IN WORDS (Pelican Publishing), LIFE IN THE WAKE (NOLAfuges.com), and more. Johnson is a former Merchant Seaman, and columnist at Les Amis de Marigny, New Orleans; and African-American Village. Attended Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland. Winner of the Press Club of New Orleans Award for Excellence, 1991, and given the Key to The City and a Certificate of Appreciation from the New Orleans City Council for a Gambit Weekly story on murder in the French Quarter.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

December 2010 / From La Porte Texas to the Promised Land

Yours Truly in a Swamp
Leonard Earl Johnson

From La Porte Texas to the Promised Land
(This story reprinted, with new polish, by popular demand.)

* * *
Any port in a political storm
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 Sealand 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 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 Close 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 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 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 Goat Ranch.

Later that afternoon (still at The Goat Ranch), the ship's Mate, Bos'n, Chief Cook and I secured Cowboy's commitment to meet our returning ship each and every voyage, and drive one or all into Houston. 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

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.

Despite loudly professed religiosity, and being on "extended break" from Texas A. & M., Cowboy performed his duties well. Even, in time, joining our romps in-port out of La Porte.

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.

A row of green doors awaited the weary traveler along a low-slung front porch. Beside each door hung a lantern similar to those used by old-time railroaders. If the lamp was lit green you could enter for a price and talk privately with a scantily clad man or woman behind a plate glass window. By the power vested in money pushed through a slot in the glass, you could persuade your selection to display their many charms. Praise the Lord, it was living porn! Shocking, I guess, but with the possible exception of Cowboy, we were depraved salts and not missionaries.

Truthfully, Cowboy loved The Green Door as much as we did and always arrived screaming Biblical quotes like, "Better to spill your seed in the belly of the whore than upon barren rock!" He would then enter a door labeled "Girl" and, as he put it, "Wax philosophic with the Jezebel inside."
* * *

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.

As the sun rose, we awakened on the deck rocking back and forth against the bulkhead beside my bunk. The ship was gently slipping out to Sea.
"I've been shanghaied," Cowboy hollered. He cursed in Spanish and threw Lone Star Beer cans first at the Gulf of Mexico, on the other side of the porthole, and then at me.

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 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 Isle."

"Perhaps when we sail through the Straits of Florida?" he asked. I reckoned not.

Passing south of New Orleans, which sits in a hole below Sea level, we picked up Baton Rouge television and saw news films of the huge Mariel Boat Lift washing onto the beaches of south Florida.
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."

I followed them, and waited outside the Captain's door till they came out. "Excuse me," I said, "could one of you come with me?" Both shook their head.

"I got'a fight with that drunken Steward over these six extras," the Bos'n said. He turned off towards the crew's quarters. The six Cubans trotted close on his heels.

The Mate shrugged, "Sorry, I've got Federal papers to shuffle."
"You best come," I said rubbing my beard and cherishing the power. "We're in rough waters, Mate. Rough enough to beach us."

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.

"Hi, Mate," Cowboy grinned, lifting his beer can.

"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. 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. 2010, Leonard Earl Johnson

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