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Four Days North With the 'Sun'

HE warned me ahead of time, the captain did. We would not know our destination until we arrived at the terminal and received instructions. That's the way it was. No predetermined schedule. Just show up at the dock, there by the pipelines and tanks, and, with only a few eagerly anticipated days on board the "Newark Sun," hope that the coming voyage would be not a short hop but to some far-off place. Like Boston or Portland. We could wait hours - even days, when business was slow - for the order to shove off with a loaded barge to an oil marine terminal in one of any number of not-so-exotic North Atlantic ports.

The tug was ready. It was tied up along the Passaic River in the industrial wasteland near where the river meets Newark Bay. We did not have to wait long for word from the dispatcher. And although the tugboat captain, my father, had a different perspective on the coming trip, it was an adventure that was about to begin.

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I had four days of vacation from a government desk in Washington to spend as an interloper among men who lived and worked two weeks on board a tugboat. (Their working stretch was followed by two weeks "off.")

The boat was familiar territory to me. Years ago, my father would smuggle my brother and me onto a Pennsylvania Railroad tug for a night visit to New York Harbor. To young eyes, nighttime New York was magical, glistening with city lights. Most people saw it from a fixed point on the Jersey side or from street level in a Manhattan canyon. I felt privileged to see the city skyline, and its many perspectives, from the water - and in the water. Fluid images of skyscrapers and the Brooklyn Bridge were reflec ted in the wet black. The running lights of otherwise invisible vessels glided by, ghostlike.

This time, years later, it was to be four days and nights. This time, per the dispatcher, it was to Boston and back. Late afternoon had arrived by the time all was ready. Loosened lines were flung to the deck and stowed by the deckhands. The barge, low in the water with its belly full of petroleum, was separated from the dock. The tug's diesel engine below deck rumbled to work. We were on our way.

By the time we reached the Oz that is Manhattan, the sun was nearly set and the city lights were lit. We crossed the expanse of the harbor, in easy sight of the landmarks that help make New York harbor the great port it is. Pushing its cargo before it, the Newark Sun crept up the East River, as if sneaking past a sleeping giant.

Immediately in the foreground are the 20th-century ruins of the old hospital of Welfare Island. The shell of the building stands as if it were Gotham's memorial to Dresden.

The island, a miniature of Manhattan, is now a more proud address for urban dwellers and the welfare name was dropped for a more prosperous label - Roosevelt Island. We passed through Hell Gate, the confluence of the East and Harlem Rivers that is treacherous even for the experienced helmsman. By nightfall we were on the Long Island Sound and set for the long haul north. The barge we were now towing was given a longer line. A hawser as thick as seaman's fist was the tie between the stern of the tug and the barge's bow.

Barges, especially those laden with volatile cargo, are not to be taken for granted. Capsized, a heavy barge could pull down a tugboat and its crew with little notice, and leaving little trace. It has happened. In a storm a barge can be tossed by the waves. It is a leaden, directionless vessel whose path is determined by the greater of forces pulling or pushing it. That is why a captain is as alert to his work in bright daylight as he is when, in the black of night, the working vessels silently hold cou rse from one point to the next.

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During the daytime, the captain mutters at the sight of a weekender's speeding powerboat or graceful sail heading in the direction of the near invisible hawser or, even more maddening, on a course that will cross paths with our bow. At night, frustrations grow. More mutters are heard. The radar detects a weekender literally drifting asleep. The captain studies the screen and his course to determine how close the lifeless sailboat will come to the tug or, worse yet, the barge and line. He paces the pilo t house deck. The only one consciously concerned for the weekender's safety is the captain who is largely helpless in altering his course. For while he could spin the large steel pilot house wheel and avert a collision with the tug, he is unable to effectively alter the course of the ungainly barge over short distances. The green glow of the radar reveals many sleeping, unmotorized blips on the sound.

The time on the boat - four days - was the closest I would ever come to the time-honored tradition of a son learning the business from his father. That I would not venture to earn a wage on the water - nor did my father want me to - was irrelevant. I was there with him at his place of work, observing him and his considerable skill, and hearing him explain the operation of the vessel, the placement of the crew, and the elements of navigation. I learned from the radio exchanges he had with other tugs, the Coast Guard, and the dispatcher. My hands steered the boat and adjusted the spotlight; my eyes studied the radar scope and explored the charts.

My father noted the landmarks and their names: The Narrows, Block Island, Buzzards Bay. He even noted which radio stations in which coastal towns offered music to suit his Montovani ("Ah, that's beau-tee-ful"), country (Patsy Cline, yes; Dolly Parton, no), and cocktail-lounge-electronic-organ tastes. And while we listened to strings and accordians, he talked about most everything: his past and present life; his cynicism about the government; his time on the North Atlantic during World War II. He even sh ared some of the poetry he took to writing in the rumbling-quiet of his cramped cabin. Four days at the feet of the master.

Years ago my father taught me carpentry, the basics of boxing, the parts of a bicycle, the secret to his chicken cacciatore, and the trick to walking on stilts and winning at Ping-Pong. All in the blur of youth. But the time spent in the pilot house of the Newark Sun was especially instructive. In addition to the lessons of a four-day maritime apprenticeship, I gained a clearer sense of my father whom I wanted to know much more than time has come to allow.

Twenty-four hours after leaving New York, the Newark Sun entered the Cape Cod Canal. The sun painted gold the generously sized cottages and estates sitting in sight of the canal entrance. We arrived in Boston in the early hours of the morn. The barge was once again at the tug's bow, moving slowly in the Revere section of the port where the docks, dispatcher sheds, and tanks dot the waterfront like cabin settlements and roadhouses along the old highways.

We arrived at our destination. The dock was lit by little more than a single street lamp whose cone of illumination shone down through the damp air to form a circle on the dock. After breakfast, while the barge was emptied, we walked to the highway and caught a bus to the city. To see Boston town.

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