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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.

Sunday, December 01, 2019

La Porte, Tx. to the Promised Land / December 2019

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💔  LEJ's  Louisiana,

Yours Truly in a Swamp

a monthly e-column by Leonard Earl Johnson, 
of Lafayette and New Orleans, Louisiana

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Archives: www.LEJ.org   
December 2019

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by Leonard Earl Johnson

Copyright, 2019, Leonard Earl Johnson
All Rights Reserved

"Pooh!, says he my dear, 
any port in a storm." 

From La Porte, Texas 

To the Promised Land

by Leonard Earl Johnson

~ Dedicated to La Porte native and WVUE-New Orleans Chief Meteorologist David Bernard and real estate investor, Charlie Urstadt of New Orleans and Miami.

The year of the last Cuban Boat-lift1980I was sailing aboard the M. V. Sealand, a U. S. flagged container ship, burning diesel, and running transatlantic 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, to be sure, but a joyful one owing to the large amount of shore leave it afforded.

During that year, the Sealand quit the wharves along Houston's downtown Ship Channel and began calling at a newly constructed container terminal at Morgan's Point, near the little town of La Porte, Texas, a spot so far out-in-the-boonies it was barely in from the Gulf of Mexico.  The Port Authority's decision to move the Houston container terminal to Morgan's Point was ~ and is ~ a great thorny urchin in the belly of thirsty sailors from every corner of Earth. 

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 along what we called, The after berth trail.  

Its services were mercifully available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. 

A hand-painted message in white scrawling letters with random splats and dribbles proclaimed this from a mirror behind the bar, "We No Closed Never." 

Fully appreciated by all, but hardly Houston.

George Ranch Museum Collection 
University of North Texas Libraries
    The town of La Porte was, also, a beckoning destination some two, three miles further inland.  

    I took a bicycle aboard ship with me in those days and it was a pleasant two or three miles ride over newly laid black asphalt roads winding through pastures filled with long-horned cattle and Spanish moss laden live oak trees.

    The town itself offered weary sailors a light respite from The Sea. There was the Space Shot Motel and Bar, for those who got lucky. A Spanish movie house, Rosetta's Cuban Cafe; and the piece de resistance, The Gulf Coast Railroad Emporium, with a back-lighted oval sign proclaiming: "Lionel Trains for All The Ages -- Toot! Toot!"

    The sights and lights of La Porte and The Little Goat Ranch were certainly appreciated, but they were thin dumplings compared to our plump memories of Houston's Ship Channel.  

    "You could fall in it, it was so polluted, and get yourself an automatic medical furlough with pay," we laughingly told the cold and disinterested barmaid, whom we nicknamed Senorita Goat-raunchy.

    "Every night, over the hill," the Bo'sun lamented, "were fine Greek and Lebanese restaurants with amazing Belly Dancers!" 

    Goat-raunchy grunted, "Rosetta's has black beans and ham hocks, tonight."

    Our Savior is 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 front 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 this 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, and we followed the red-eyed beacon of Jesus down the new blacktop road to the Sea.

    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.

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

    La ship, La Porte

    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 ladder of accommodation.


    Shore Leave and Liberty

    Ithose days, Houston was a shining alabaster city undulating on a pool of booming oil prices.  An anything-goes Babylon of the U. S. Third Coast.  Cowboy Castro's purple "pick'em up" was our winged angel carrying us Home.

    Despite loudly professed religiosity, and being on "extended break" from Texas A. and M., Cowboy performed these 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 twisted atop its flat roof showed chicken heads kissing among flashing red hearts and green dollar bills.

    Along a low-slung front porch a row of green wooden doors awaited each yearning visitor. 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 charms. 

    Praise the Lord, it was living porn! Shocking, I suppose, 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!" ~ one of his favorites.  He would then enter a door labeled "Girl" and, as he put it, "Wax philosophic with the Jezebel inside."

    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.

    Photo credit: Tony Politopoulos  
    After several, we slipped to the deck and passed out. As the sun rose over the fog bank we awakened rocking against the bulkhead beside my bunk. The Sealand was 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, 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 bound 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.  That night, we talked of how lonely Christmas was at Sea, and I told him 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.
    Passing south of New Orleans, which sits in a hole below Sea level, we picked up Baton Rouge television and saw tv-news films of the huge Mariel Boat Lift washing onto the beaches of south Florida.

    Cowboy laughed at Florida's "gringo governor" greeting 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 up to easy street USA."

    I was shocked and said so, "How could you, after fleeing Castro?"

    "Fleeing Castro?" He peered back 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 the poorhouse, 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.

    le Barco                                                     le Mar

    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.

    "Not with the fight I'm fixing to have with that drunken Chief Steward over six supernumerary," said the Bos'n. He turned off towards the crew's quarters. The six Cubans trotted close on his heels.

    The Mate shrugged, "Sorry, Leonard, I'm facing a long ton of Federal paper shuffling."

    "You best come," I said, rubbing me beard and cherishing the powers of pirates and rogues. "We're in close waters, Mate, rough enough to beach us."

    My actual power was that any ship's irregularity meant Federal paperwork for the Mate, and the Mate hated Federal paperwork. 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 Mohammed!" said the Mate, slamming the door.  He looked over at me and several words formed on his lips before, "Holy Mother of Lenin!" escaped.

    Cowboy's Second Coming

    In Miami, officers of the United States Coast Guard flooded aboard, and collected our Cubans. Now numbering seven with the addition of our handsome, blue-eyed, un-sunburned Cowboy Castro.  Who was ~ after all ~ just a poor Cuban, who came over too early.

    We sailed next morning for Europe, without Cowboy.


    On our return voyage we lashed a Norwegian Christmas Tree to our foremast and strung it with yellow lights we got from the Bos'n's locker.  As we hov'round Barbours Cut and slipped in against the wharf all eyes searched, but there was no Cowboy Castro waiting.

    Goat-raunchy said she had heard nothing of him.

    We found his beat up purple truck, used a key plucked from under the floor mat and drove 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, and come is white?" he asked.  "So Aggies can tell if they're 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, 2019, Leonard Earl Johnson
    All Rights Reserved
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    LEJ's Louisiana, Yours Truly in a Swamp
    is a monthly e-column @ www.LEJ.org
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