Towboat captains are notorious for the tricks that they will invariably play on new hires known as “green” deckhands. A deckhand is just not a real member of the crew until the captain and crew has really pulled one over on him. That initiation rite often leaves the deckhand with a nickname that will last his entire career. Sometimes those gags get a bit out of hand, but for the most part they are just a little fun with no real harm done except maybe a little hurt pride. It’s not a malicious thing, it’s just good humor by people who are away from home too long. However, this particular story is about a joke that got way out of hand in my opinion as you will see right shortly.
The acts of collecting wheel wash samples, and tuning in the radar are among the most well known antics of the trade but over the years they have become tiresome and trite. A good captain has to have a very inventive, and creative imagination in order to keep this infamous tradition alive. I like to think I am such a captain.
Recently pure genius struck when a new crew member developed a very light heat rash on his foot. I had heard about the rash from my crew and also found out that the deckhand, Tagan was extremely worried about it; asking everyone what it could possibly be. He is a very protected nineteen year old kid from Georgia that had just joined the work force, and had never been away from home. I was confident that he had a small heat rash due to being out in the summer heat learning to build tow in steel-toed boots. But, of course I was about to tell him something very different than what I thought it was. While Tagan was in the rack getting some much needed sleep due to my cracking the whip for 12 hours per day, inspiration struck, and I informed the rest of the crew about the little ruse I had planned.
The next morning I requested Tagan’s presence in the wheelhouse. I started by telling him that I understood he had a problem with his feet, and I needed to see what was going on because of potential spread of contagious diseases while confined on a boat. If one crew member gets something then the entire crew is at risk. When he showed me the problem, I couldn’t really tell there was an issue, just a little pink skin and a few minor red bumps that evidently was itching. But my eyes got wide, and I said, “Oh my god, you have Towboat Rot!” He grinned like he knew I was pulling his leg, and asked what Towboat Rot was. So I began to spread it on thick and heavy.
I informed him that Towboat Rot was similar to trench foot that soldiers would sometimes get but that it was easily spread, and ten times worse than staph. It is in fact a highly contagious and infectious disease I told him. His grin faded to a look of stunned disbelief. I then told him that Towboat Rot was a flesh eating disease caused by a bacteria that only mariners pick up for some reason. His stunned expression quickly turned to a look of horror, and I could see sweat popping out on his forehead. I had him hooked and was reeling him in.
I think Hitler once said something to the effect of, if you mix enough truth with a lie then folks are more likely to believe the lie. And the bigger the lie, the easier people will believe it. Now, I ain’t no fan of Hitler, but when you are on a mission sometimes you have to use extreme tactics.
Therefore, I brought up scurvy. I went on to tell Tagan that I was sure that he had heard of scurvy, and how it was a disease that mostly only mariners got. He said he had.
The cure for scurvy is Vitamin C and that is why sailors are sometimes referred to as “limeys”. Towboat Rot is another disease that is unique to people on the water. I told him that no one was quite sure how or why mariners get it, but the vessel would probably have to be quarantined. At this point in the story Tagan wanted to go Google Towboat Rot. I told him that Towboat Rot wasn’t the official name of the disease, and I could not for the life of me remember what the official name for it was, after all it is rare. There was silence in the room as I let my expert diagnosis sink in on him. He didn’t know what to say, and I was suppressing laughter that was searching desperately for a way out.
Nevertheless, I maintained a straight face, and solemn disposition, and was finally able to add the final kicker. I proceeded to let Tagan know that since the disease had a tendency to spread so rapidly and was transferred by towels and clothing (like putting underwear on), that there were instances where people had lost a nut or two because of it. The young man looked at me sick with worry and finally asked the question that I had been waiting for; what can I do about it?
That is the good part I told him. The cure is simply peanut butter. He looked at me puzzled. Yes, peanut butter, I said. You see there are enzymes in peanut oil that will destroy the flesh eating bacteria that causes Towboat Rot. If you are lucky and the Towboat Rot has not advanced too much, you can apply peanut butter to the affected area and in a couple of days you will be fine.
However, this is a serious matter, and I will have to fill out an illness report to send to the office and we still may get quarantined. If the disease is advanced it will require z-packs of antibiotics and if it’s not stopped in time there is the possibility of amputation. In the meantime, go right now and put some peanut butter on your feet before it has any more time to grow and spread.
Tagan left me in the wheelhouse in a blistering hurry, and made a bee line straight for the galley. While applying the peanut butter to his feet, my mate, T-Don told Tagan a story of a man he knew while working a dredge that had developed gangrene due to Towboat Rot and had lost a leg. The story was absolutely true all except for the cause being Towboat Rot, so it was easily, and naturally told by my mate, and Tagan believed every word.
A while later I called T-Don via VHF radio in the galley, and told him to inform Tagan that I had finished his illness report, that the office would contact us with instructions soon, and that they also wanted us to take some precautionary measures. Namely, they wanted Tagan to apply peanut butter to his testicles to ensure that he didn’t develop Towboat Rot there. T-Don nearly lost it at that point, but somehow kept from laughing. T-Don was not confident that he could tell Tagan to apply peanut butter to his crotch without spoiling the joke, so he said he was going to give the radio to the Tagan, and I could tell him. So I did and Tagan replied, “WHAT??”
“Go into the bathroom and put peanut butter on your nuts, son this is serious business.” In just a Jiffy he was in the bathroom having intimate relations with Peter Pan. All the while we maintained our serious composure although it was extremely difficult. I could not wait until I could laugh, because I felt like I was gonna bust.
At watch change I secretly informed the crew coming on watch what was going on. I then called a safety meeting, and as luck would have it, one of the subjects required for the month was Heat Stress. We did the actual safety meeting, and then I used it to go into the subject of Towboat Rot prevention, and how it can be spread during the summer months. Eventually, I retired for my afternoon nap with a smile on my face. It had been a very fun morning.
Tagan was on call watch, working 6am-6pm and he kept peanut butter on his feet and nuts all day long. Fortunately, he had chosen the creamy kind and not the crunchy kind, as we were well stocked with both.
When I woke up to come on watch I got a surprise. When I made it to the wheelhouse Tagan was laid out on the settee. His feet were exposed with a very nasty, red rash with extremely raised bumps. He was red-faced and sweating profusely. My relief captain, Russell was on the phone making notifications to someone that we had a very sick young man on our hands. I asked Tagan if he was okay, and he mumbled something incoherently. Now I was worried. Obviously, the young man had indeed developed something far worse than a light heat rash, and I had been insensitive enough to play a trick on him.
Russell finally got off the phone and informed me that our deckhand was obviously allergic to peanuts and that my little trick had caused a severe reaction. He had the symptoms pulled up on his i Pad and he read them off to me. The symptoms for peanut allergies matched exactly with what I was seeing. “Oh, shit!” was all that I could say.
Russell told me that the office had been informed, and that he had been instructed to relieve me of my duties and have me pack my rags-I had been terminated from the company and would be removed from the vessel immediately. Emergency services had apparently been dispatched, and the USCG had a helicopter en route to get the poor guy off for medical attention. Oh my god, really? A little peanut butter had caused all this? Sure enough the boy was obviously very sick, and I was thunderstruck.
A million thoughts ran through my head all at once. If he stops breathing, I have to perform CPR. Will it be the Coast Guard that removes me from the vessel? How was I to know that he was allergic to peanuts? What will I tell his family? What will I tell mine?… I grabbed the phone from Russell and called our director of corporate safety, John Cox. John went off on me as soon as he heard my voice. He cussed me up a blue streak that made me feel so low that I could hide in Kojak’s hair. How could someone of my experience do something so foolish? That was a question I was asking myself. Everything was moving fast, too fast, and it was all becoming surreal. John eventually patched me through to a senior port captain who began to chew my ass as well. Then, in mid-sentence he said I have to go, the company lawyer is here, and I have to talk to him about this incident.
Lawyer? That means legal action! Will I get sued? On and on the thoughts and questions ran through my head, and I was very upset. Nevertheless, we had a sick man that I had to take care of first and foremost and what was in store for me could be considered later. I started barking orders to try to gain some control of a bad situation when my relief captain interrupted me. “Uh-huh partner, I don’t think you understand, you have been relieved of command! Get your shit together so I can make arrangements to get you off the boat.” In addition, Russel had summoned the mate to the wheelhouse to escort me until I was removed, while the tankerman watched over the nearly comatose deckhand. Man, I was in a mess, and I didn’t know what to do. I had no choice but to leave the wheelhouse and do as I was told.
I went to my room devastated by the pain and suffering that I had accidentally inflicted on another human being. How will I ever live with myself after this? God only knew! Then, I thought of my wife. I had to call my wife, but I didn’t want to scare her. She knows my job is dangerous and we are prepared for emergencies, but what was I supposed to tell her?
After much thought, I composed myself as best as I could, and made the call. I tried to sound as casual as I could muster considering the storm that was raging in my heart and mind. The good news, I told Miss Neci was that I would be home very soon. The bad news is that something has happened. Although I am okay (even though I wasn’t) I am in trouble, and I don’t know what the outcome will be. She wanted to know what had happened and I told her I couldn’t talk about it on the phone. I told her to transfer enough money from our emergency account to pay our house note for six months, and do a pay by phone immediately. I informed her that I had lost my job, and wanted to make sure that we had a place to live until it was all figured out.
Oh shit, I wonder if the Coast Guard will see this as negligence? The questions just kept running through my head. How in the hell will I get all my stuff off of this boat? But nothing mattered compared to the question of the man possibly dying in the wheelhouse. I got off the phone quickly before Miss Neci could ask too many uncomfortable questions or before I broke down like a babbling idiot. I was confident that she would handle things well on the home front until I could get there.
Just about that time Tagan came bee bopping into my room with a big ‘ole possum eating grin. What the f…..? He hands me a pack of Kool-Aid crystals. It was a pack of the red kind with a smiling pitcher on the front of the pouch. Tagan asked if the crystals looked familiar. The red Kool-Aid crystals looked suspiciously like an ugly rash that had developed on his feet. Relief swept over me. “You got me didn’t you?” Tagan started to cackle and told me he had got me even better than I got him. Relief was a red tide flooding my heart like a man that had just received a call from the governor granting a stay of execution while shitting in the electric chair.
The crew had gotten together and used liquid band-aid to make the Kool-Aid stick to Tagan’s feet. They had sent him out in the hot sun to do push-ups right before I came to the wheelhouse so that he would be sweating and red in the face.
Russell had called John Cox, and got him, and the port captain on board with the shenanigans. I was doomed right from the start, and I fell for it like a lead balloon.
I dropped my phone, jumped up from my bunk, and went at Tagan who at once lost his grin, and went on the defensive. I guess he thought I was mad, and was about to get violent. He was sure surprised when I grabbed him and gave him a big ole hug. Thank God! Then, I made my way to the wheelhouse so that everyone else could have their laugh at my expense. Tagan’s new nickname is Nutter Butter, and mine unfortunately is Captain Fool-Aid. But wouldn’t you know it… The peanut butter or the Kool-Aid or the combination of the two did clear up the rash on Nutter Butter’s feet. After everyone on the boat had their laughs, I called John Cox, and the port captain so that they could rib me too.
Later, I was finally able to settle into the wheelhouse chair to start my watch, business as usual. Was I forgetting something? I had this nagging feeling that there was something I needed to do. I couldn’t quite grasp what it was, and it didn’t matter much anyway-the boy was alright and life was good. I was just extremely relieved that I didn’t kill hi…oh shit!! Miss Neci!! I have to call Miss Neci!!
I am going to leave the details of my conversation with Miss Neci private as it was a bit heated. She was not at all amused with my little prank or the after effects. Fortunately, Miss Neci loves me, and is very forgiving. She finally saw the humor in the situation, and was soon calling me Captain Fool-Aid as well. I am sure it will cost me somewhere down the road. But you know, peanut butter spreads well on a Georgia cracker, and I will be able to pay the cost since I don’t have to worry about making my house payment for the rest of the year.
Ya’ll earn your salt, keep it in the ditch and I will see you on the one whistle!