“I mean, what am I, a fuckin’ sailor?” he slurred as he did the one-eye-drunk-squint out of the windshield of his brand new, base model F-150.
We were barreling down Highway 90 along the Mississippi coast, weaving in and out of traffic in the morning sun. My head was bobbing with each movement of the steering wheel, turning on occasion to stare droopy-faced at the angry morning commuters we were passing.
We had spent the last three hours at The Miss-A-Bama, an aptly named bar in a prefab metal building on Highway 90 near the Mississippi-Alabama line. I was only eighteen, but the middle-aged, rough-cut bartender said I looked like Russell Crowe, so she let me drink and even bought me a couple of Miller High-Life and several shots of Jack Daniel’s. We left because Kerry got mad and kicked the bathroom-stall door off of its hinges. I don’t remember why.
We were electricians working the night shift at Signal International Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. We had been working 7 days a week, 12-14 hours per day for the last two months and would be for the foreseeable future.
When Hurricane Katrina was crawling across the gulf, the crews on floating drill rigs were evacuated. The rigs themselves ended up getting pushed into the Louisiana Delta and flipped onto their side, where they lay for months afterwards. Crews were slowly collecting them, turning them upright, and towing them into the gulf shipyards for clean-up and renovation. The East Yard, where we were working, had four square bays in which these rigs were parked. The whole place was surrounded by a ten foot chain-link fence topped with three strands of rusty barbed wire. The actual bays were a small part of the overall yard, most of which was warehouses, administrative and communication offices, fabrication buildings, and worn-out trailers that housed the large and seemingly incarcerated population of Indian welders and painters; fodder for another story.
The process of returning these rigs to working order was grueling. Because of the huge number of these rigs that were damaged, the schedule for a complete rebuild was roughly a month. That included demolition of all existing electrical and mechanical components, reinstallation, inspections, and a fresh coat of paint on everything. This kind of timeline meant everyone was constantly working on top of each other, the stress level was high, and the heat was especially oppressive.
What Kerry was angry about was the announcement at the end of the previous shift that if the rig we were working on wasn’t finished by the scheduled date, it would be towed to its next drilling location off the coast of Brazil with a select crew aboard to finish the job en route. And, given the drill-pit fire that had occurred the previous night, setting us back several hours, we were not going to be done on time. I was excited about the prospect; Kerry was not. Though I never saw any physical evidence of it, I got the feeling that he had a methamphetamine problem, mostly because of his fast tic, periodic outbursts, and how it seemed like all of the veins on his upper body were trying to force their way through his skin. Even on his fingers, a skinny bump traveled all the way from the back of his hand to the cuticle, like some kind of grotesque anatomy figure.
The first to board any arriving rig was a group of burly animal control agents. Having been strewn across the delta like a toddler’s toys for several months, the rigs made a great home for various, terrifying genera of snakes and the occasional pissed-off alligator in the mud room. Next, there was an overall inspection of the state of the rig and a comprehensive plan and timeline was developed within a few hours. By the time our boots hit the metal grating of the main deck, every night was planned, down to the very last cable.
I started on the cable pulling team. We fumbled around in the heavy darkness with headlamps and ratcheting cable cutters and removed every piece of the 1970s, asbestos marine cable from the ship. Some of the cable was as big around as my thigh. We had to cut it with a sawzall and carry it out piece by piece on our shoulders, dumping it into huge buckets that were lifted from the rig by the tower crane that loomed over the ship. After all of it had been removed, we spent several days working with the welders, reforming the miles of cable tray that scaled every wall and covered every ceiling, bit by bit. None of the welders spoke English, but it didn’t matter since the noise of the huge banks of welders and generators reverberated through the metal hull of the structure at such a pitch that the drive back to the hotel at the end of the shift in my rusty ’73 Chevrolet with no muffler seemed like overbearing silence.
The communication was almost entirely non-verbal, a series of signs that was developed and molded by the crew. The high-pitched whooping, which could be heard through the foam earplugs we were required to wear, was used to signal different things, depending on the activity. I was surprised at how efficient and fast paced this communicative system was considering the variance of languages, dialects, and cultures we had on each team.
The huge spools of cable were lifted onto the rig by way of the tower crane and placed near a porthole, or stairway, or cable chase where they were balanced on a thick piece of rigid pipe. Four of the bigger guys would then lift in onto a set of rolling jacks that would allow the spool to turn. We would line up smallest to largest and climb head first into the hole in 10-15 foot increments, the first guy dragging the end of the cable along its specific route, the rest of us spreading out equally on the tray and jerking the cable along. The foreman stayed at the spool controlling its rate of turn. When a bulkhead was reached, the lead would let out a loud “whoop!” which would travel successively back to the foreman who would stop feeding the cable. The lead would climb down from the rack and find his way to the other side, the second puller would move against the bulkhead, and everyone would spread themselves equally between them, collecting around corners and rises.
When the lead had found the other side of the bulkhead and made his way onto the rack, the second would send a “whoop!” up the line and the pulling would continue, slowly feeding and routing the cable until it reached its destination and we would hear a longer “whoop!”, settle our portion of cable neatly into the rack, climb down from our perch, and meet with the foreman to plan the next pull. We did this hundreds of times for hundreds of cables of different sizes and weights, and we were good at it. The ends of the cable were coiled, labeled with numbers associated with the design prints and left hanging. They would be terminated by the day crew the following morning.
My first night on the yard, I was placed on a different rig, which was in the final week of the renovation. The rig was much larger and the crews were experienced and fast. I’ll never forget walking into the main engine room, where four Caterpillar diesel engines the size of school busses stood in a row running at full capacity. The room was incredibly hot from a combination of the activity, generators, and beating Mississippi sun that had just set. Welder’s blinding light flashed off of the metal walls and pipe fitters screamed at one another and banged on huge metal exhaust pipes. And the electricians scampered, in huge synchronized groups, on the canopy of crisscrossed racks overhead whooping loudly and raining huge, labored drops of blackened sweat on the generators and workers below, causing a steam to fill the room from top to bottom that smelled like sweat, smoldering metal and diesel fuel.
It was beautiful. It was like a fucking jungle.
When we got off work, we looked like coal miners, black from head to foot except for the strip across our eyes where the requisite safety glasses were strapped. Our clothes were completely drenched with sweat. I got in the habit of taking multiple shirts with me on my shift, just to retain some sense of comfort. After a couple of welders suffered heat strokes, we were required to take five minute breaks once every two hours and drink a quart of water under the supervision of our foreman.
When the shift was over, we would stack our tools in the gang-box and line up and the buck-hoist, which would take us down to the surface of the yard where we clock out and stumble through the gate to our vehicles.
One particular night, we got off at 6:30am, passing the day crew we had seen 12 hours before at the turnstiles on our way to the huge dirt parking lot filled with aging Chevrolet short-beds and beat up Toyota Corollas that were plastered with local union numbers and Bush ’00 stickers.
Up until this point, I had lived a fairly quiet and solitary life in an extended stay motel down the road. I was rooming with a huge, racist bald man who worked day shift in the same yard, so I never saw him. At a lull in the action, Kerry had somehow convinced me that we should drink some beers after work, his treat. So we hit the grocery store deli for breakfast and grabbed a 12-pack of Bud Light on the way out the door.
At that age I was not especially practiced in inebriated self-control. And this is how it happened that I was convinced to go with Kerry to his hometown of Calhoun City, Mississippi on a whim.
Calhoun City is just east of Grenada, Mississippi, west of Okalona, and North of Eupora. It is literally in the middle of nowhere, the backwoods, if you will. In fact, Calhoun City may be behind the backwoods, or at least partially obscured by the backwoods.
It was about a five hour drive from Pascagoula. Within that time, I had mostly sobered up and come to terms with my horrible decision. I couldn’t show I was terrified because I had been talking big-shit with Kerry all day and he thought I was a badass, which either says something about my persuasiveness or his intellect.
Either way, we stopped at his brother’s house somewhere south of Calhoun City so he could come with us. This was a complete surprise to his brother, who seemed taken aback by Kerry’s sudden arrival, almost like he hadn’t called at all. The guy had a family, a dirty family, but a seemingly happy one, in their tiny trailer sitting several hundred feet from a fairly major highway. There were a couple of kids piddling around in the front yard in various states of undress. When we pulled up, he quickly shut his wife inside and herded the kids to the door. We both got out of the truck and walked towards him, but he and Kerry stepped over to the side to have a personal conversation immediately, leaving me to the side, tamping dirt with my steel-toed boot.
He went inside and grabbed a small bag and we all got back in the truck, Kerry riding in the middle.
I never learned his name, even though we spent a lot of time together in the next 24 hours. This was mainly because of the colossal wad of chewing tobacco that was always tucked away in his cheek. He used nearly an entire can with each dip and packed it with sickening force into his mouth, with the practiced air of a veteran user. At the time he was using his right cheek, but I could see that he used to use his left from the stretch marks on it. Between the omnipresent Copenhagen and the heavy country drawl, we ended up communicating with signs and social cues, much like I did with the foreign workers in the shipyard, when we spoke at all.
Since I couldn’t understand him anyway, and because I was nursing a hangover and incredibly sleepy, I ignored their conversation for the rest of the ride to Calhoun City. We rolled into the outskirts of town and started stopping at different houses, trailers, and places of business talking to people. After the first couple of stops it became evident that it had been many years, maybe a decade, since Kerry had been home. And there were two polar reactions to the site of his squinty, scarred face, “Hey, Kerry came home!” or, “Oh shit, Kerry is home.” By the time we made it to the fourth or fifth place, the news was ahead of us and the people were expecting him.
The final stop was his mother’s house. She too, knew we were coming and was waiting in a chair outside the house when we arrived. I suddenly knew my place. I was the awkward, youngish friend of a prodigal son.
“Who are you?” they would ask.
“I’m the guy that got drunk with Kerry this morning. Nice to meet you.” I would answer jovially.
His mother greeted us with caution. Slightly hugging Kerry and looking me up and down suspiciously. “I don’t want to be here anymore than you want me here.” I tried to tell her with my eyes. They sat on the couch and talked like a family while I passed out in a green recliner for several hours. Maybe I would wake up in the morning, get back to Pascagoula and beg forgiveness from the superintendent. Maybe all this was just a trip home to see Mama. Not so lucky.
Kerry shook me at around ten that night and motioned for me to get up. I could tell he had never quit drinking. We ate some from-frozen chicken fingers over the kitchen sink in the dark and went outside where his brother was waiting in the truck. We drove around for a bit making more stops and surprising more people, eventually getting to a bar called The Dry Dock which has a Confederate flag painted on its dance floor and was packed full of people in their Calhoun City finest, dancing and singing along with the country band on stage. They pulled some kind of strings with the bouncers and got me in. Kerry put a High Life in my hand and I made my way toward the stage.
I was about halfway done with the beer and had just started a conversation with a cute little southern belle who thought I was 21 and seemed fascinated by the story I’m telling you now, when I heard Kerry yell something and turned around to watch him shatter a glass ashtray on another fellow’s cheekbone.
Kerry’s brother was immediately in the fray, tobacco juice squirting from his mouth like some agitated sprinkler repeatedly punching a seemingly random bystander. I figured that the best way to help would be getting people away from Kerry, so I jumped in and started pushing malicious looking people away from him, which only escalated the situation. When the bouncers finally jumped in, they pushed us out of the front door and the other group of miscreants out the back.
We convened at his truck. The brother was already in the driver’s seat staring forward. I got the feeling that he knew this was coming and I was beginning to understand why Kerry hadn’t been home for years. Kerry poured himself into the center passenger seat and began pummeling the dashboard screaming nonsensically and sobbing heavily. The blood from his knuckles sprayed onto the windshield, where it would remain, congealed brown, for the duration of our relationship.
He eventually composed himself, to a degree, and exited the truck to retrieve a beer from the cooler in the back. I got one for myself and his brother as Kerry announced that we should “…go find that motherfucker.” Apparently, an ashtray to the face was not enough to avenge the horrible wrong that this fellow had inflicted upon him.
It turns out that the guy was the current husband of Kerry’s high school sweetheart and had said something demeaning about or to him in the short time we were in the bar. Like a dutiful chauffer, his brother started the car and drove out of the parking lot. Kerry gave him some kind of coordinates that he seemed to understand and we sped down the road in the pitched darkness.
Eventually, we arrived at what Kerry thought was our target’s house. I got out of the passenger side and Kerry climbed out after me and slung what was left of his beer into the woods next to the road. He was teetering significantly on the sloped side of the road, but he got his footing after a moment. He told us to keep driving so that no one would know he was there if they returned and to come back in a few minutes.
We didn’t speak as he drove down the road and parked in a vacant lot, sipping our beers and looking out into the blackness. Passing the house a few minutes later, we didn’t see Kerry or any additional cars. We assumed that he was lying in wait and went the other direction, this time parking on the side of the road and killing the headlights. I’m sure he was wondering just what the hell I was doing there as we turned around and headed back, waiting even longer this time. When we came upon the house again from the opposite direction, he noticed that Kerry had in fact passed out in the ditch on the side of the road where we had left him.
His brother got out of the truck and pulled him up, walking him to the truck and laying him in the seat on top of me. He was still whispering in a calloused voice about all of the horrible things he would do his adversary. When we got back to his mother’s house, I tried to tenderly pry him out of the vehicle, and he took a drunken swing at me. His brother shook his head and we left him there hanging halfway out of the truck, like some virulent art piece.
I fell asleep again in the green recliner.
When I woke up his mother was sitting on the couch on the opposite wall watching the television and playing absentmindedly with the edge of her nightgown. His brother was in the kitchen and Kerry was gone in his truck. I went outside to smoke a cigarette and to feel less awkward. He returned while I was standing outside and gave me a sausage biscuit out of a white paper bag. “Helluva night, right?” he yelled, as I wordlessly accepted the package, “Let’s hit the road!”
I thought we were headed back to Pascagoula, but instead we spent the latter part of the morning drinking more beer before Kerry showed his silent brother and I a natural dirt berm in a dried up lake bed near his mother’s house. He called us pussies when we wouldn’t ride in the bed while he ramped it in his truck. He crushed the front bumper pretty badly, split his head on the steering wheel, and screamed about it for a few minutes before he admitted defeat and we headed back to Pascagoula.
After we dropped his brother off, Kerry asked me to drive back to the coast. He slept the rest of the way, head bouncing on the passenger side window. Waking up on occasion to bitch about my cornering or turn up the radio for some obnoxious radio rock song.
When we got to the hotel, he promised that he would get me a new job, that he had all kinds of connections, and that he would take care of me. I never saw or heard from him again.
Ian Hoppe is a student, writer, draftsman, musician, and electrician in Birmingham, Alabama. Ian will graduate from The University of Alabama at Birmingham in May of 2013 with a degree in Philosophy and Economics. He is a contributor to the Birmingham Free Press and maintains the blog Polymath Moshpit. He also works for a local engineering firm as an AutoCAD operator, plays with Birmingham based Irish-pub group Jasper Coal, and dabbles in computer science. He lives with his partner Nicole and their two dogs and two cats.