In the Time of COVID. Day 68
May 25, 2020.
Aboard the Cuatro Hermanos: Part 2
Like many of you, it is hard for me to stay focused day after day with this COVID quarantine. I’ve been adrift, not writing for three days, wondering how to proceed with the story of crossing the Gulf of Mexico on the Cuatro Hermanos, those 47 years ago.
A month ago, my pal Steve C. recommended a must-read book. Steve was raised in Bakersfield and is an aficionado of the unique musical contributions Bakersfield has gifted the world. I purchased the book but it gathered dust on my desk. That is, until yesterday when I started reading (strike that, “devouring”) ‘The Bakersfield Sound’ by Robert E. Price and jeez but I dreamed it last night. It helped expose a memory aboard the Cuatro Hermanos involving the ship radio in the dark of night, out beyond the site of land, out in the rolling, phosphorous sea below the blanket of The Milky Way.
We pulled out of the harbor about four in the afternoon. The sun was bright and I was excited to be at sea for the first time. I stowed my gear on a bunk and oriented myself to the galley. The skipper wanted dinner in an hour. The Cuatro Hermanos was 110 feet long and 20 feet wide. It hauled frozen gulf shrimp from the processing plant in Campeche on the Yucatán Peninsula to the mouth of the Rio Grande River at Port Isabel, in south Texas. There was no shrimp available in the galley. There was frozen meat but it couldn’t thaw in time. Fortunately I had purchased chicken.
I whipped up a white rice and plancha chicken with a big salad. I made an oil and vinegar dressing. When I served the dinner up in the wheel house the skipper was pissed. He was not a salad guy. He wanted meat, rice and beans and more meat and coffee. Keep the coffee coming, damn it. There was a definite hierarchy going on and I was the piss-ant. The other guy, the small guy, Andres, was the mechanic. He and the vessel hailed from Porto Cortes, Honduras on the Caribbean coast. I got both of them fed and learned my place, no doubt about it.
The Diesel engines rumbled beneath the galley deck. As we crested waves the propellers came out of the water and the noise roared until we slid down a trough and so it was for three days and nights. The first day aboard I was fascinated with the newness of my surroundings and standing out on the deck I saw flying fish arcing out of the water as the last hint of Campeche and land fell away. Soon the sun dipped down into the water and the sky turned tropical pink before the sun tucked in for the night.
I spent some time planning breakfast and making sure to top off the skippers coffee mug. Andres opened a hatch in the galley floor and climbed down into the engine compartment. He was diligent about gauge readings and fuel levels and the engines hummed along. He climbed back up, ducked into the water closet, grabbed a plastic bucket with a rope tied to it. He went out on the deck and gathered sea water to scrub off the grease. Then he used engine-heated fresh water to finish his clean up and then he hit the hay. He stood the late night watch in the pilot chair.
The whole bunk, galley, water closet and wheel house was no bigger than a small Winnebago. So there wasn’t a lot of standing around near each other. I sat in the galley booth and looked over the navigation map. Pemex oil platforms were circled and the navigation line was well out of their way. That first night they occasionally lit the horizon before being swallowed by the darkness.
When Andres took the watch, I climbed up into the wheel house and took the second chair. He was a nicer fellow and he explained the dials and headings and then we just sat there watching the radar sweep. This was a commercial lane and other vessels would ping if they came within a few miles. Plenty of time to maneuver away from each other.
Andres and I listened to the radio. The signal throbbed as the Cuatro Hermanos rode down wave troughs and came back strong as we crested waves. That night we spun the dial. For a while we listened to Rockin’ Sidney, a zydeco DJ on KAOK AM, Lake Charles, Louisiana. He played Boozoo Chavez and Clifton Chenier and then switched to Cajun with Joe and Cleoma Falcon and D.L. Menard. I’d never before heard the hypnotic pumping of the Cajun accordion and fiddle with French/Cajun lyrics it was waltz like and wonderful. The zydeco had a big accordion sound and was much wilder, hot dance music and the lyrics were a mix of French and English but in an unusual Afro indian dialect. I loved it.
We lost the KAOK signal and spun the dial, this time KROB AM, Corpus Christi , Texas came in an there was a throbbing hour of Little Joe Hernandez, y Familia. That was a kind of Tex-Mex music I had never heard before. It had a brass section but nothing like the brass music in Mexico. This was jazz influenced, had a little Cuban flavor and little Joe squealed and laughed and sang out what had to be very happy dance hall music. It was clear I was slowly approaching a rich coast line of amazing musical styles.
Over the next two nights I spun the dial several times. Briefly I could hear a Cuban station playing Rumba, and then we picked up a New Orleans R&B station playing Dr. John and Professor Longhair and Etta James . When we lost that signal up came that Border Blaster station XERF, that Mexican station throbbed at 250,000 watts and could drown out a local broadcast in Cleveland. It played Tex-Mex Conjunto and Norteno with intoxicating accordion and corrido balladry.
That spread of the southern border from the Valley of Texas to The Louisiana bayou was absolutely alive with unique music. On the last night we brought in Texas Night Train, a program out of San Antonio, Texas. It was Texas Country and Blues.
I cooked, and steered clear of the skipper, and burned my arm on the steel wall of my bunk. That wall was above the Diesel engines.
I wasn’t warned before I did my business on the toilet. After all, we peed off the back of the boat. I was finishing up, and like I’d always done, I flushed while still sitting there. I guess the flusher just opened a stopper. Sea water rushed up the toilet pipe and up came the swill, coating me head to toe, even in my hair. It took me about an hour to get cleaned up. I had to haul out several plantain bunches and douse them with sea water and mop the galley deck. That is how I learned to close the lid before pulling the chain, a textbook example of ‘learn by doing”.
Finally we rounded the harbor buoy at Port Isabel and a harbor pilot came out and steered the Cuatro Hermanos to the customs dock. Immigration searched me and my bag. The skipper stood there with crossed arms and a menacing glare. When I was cleared to enter the US, he smiled and wished me well. He didn’t want his boat confiscated.
I walked down the dock and a pickup was just leaving. Some shrimpers off a commercial rig were headed for a cheap flop in Brownsville. I hopped in back with three or four guys and next thing I knew we were all let out a funky shrimper’s flop called Hotel Casa Blanca.