A Tale of the Sea and Me (For Sam) – Installment 27

Notes from the Southwest Corner: Fathers, heritage and work

by Jim Jewell

SAN DIEGO – Last week on a cool, marine layer grey day, I walked a wooden pier in the Southwest corner.

Crossing the end of the pier to Pamela Ann, a barge used for storage, I thought of my father.

Pacific Tugboat Service was at work that morning: work most marine service companies avoid because it’s just too hard.

I wished my father could see me in this environment.

It’s old-timey work: Men working on motors, chipping and painting, craning heavy loads, rearranging the company’s tiny chunk of bay space so cranes, barges, caissons, crew boats, pusher boats, and tug boats fit like a jigsaw puzzle. There was oiling and greasing going on. There was chipping and painting going on. Beating metal into something useful made ship repair sounds, music to my ears.

Tugboats were hooking up to barges and cranes to tow them where they would be utilized on some job. One ocean-going tug was getting ready to sail up to San Francisco pick up a barge, and bring it back to the Southwest corner. Stores for the journey were being staged on the pier, transferred to the tugboat’s deck by crane, and hauled below for storage.

The 62,000 ton “USNS Bob Hope” moved south from the marine terminal under the royal blue arching Coronado-Bay Bridge to the Navy Base. Pacific Tug’s “Harbor Commander,” a small pusher boat, was dwarfed while she pushed against the big monster, holding her steady in the channel.

The scene took me back to the spring of 1974 and Terminal Island, a two-hour drive north of here. My father, Jimmy Jewell, had come to San Diego, a rare trip without Estelle Jewell accompanying him. Six months earlier, I had become the chief engineer of the USS Hollister, a World War II destroyer named after three sailor brothers killed in combat in 1943.

The engineering plant would have made Rube Goldberg proud. My father and I toured the fire rooms (think boilers) and engine rooms while I explained the operation and maintenance requirements of the massive machinery. While Jimmy Jewell knew engines and mechanics better than most humans on earth having worked on them since he started fooling with cars in 1924, his elder son had jumped around a variety jobs and had been much more focused on writing rather than the mechanical side of the world until he rejoined the Navy two years earlier.

My father quietly took in the multiple pumps, forced-draft blowers, distilling plants, generators, and switchboards of the old tin can as we climbed up and down ladders, and finally ascended back to the main deck. As we crossed the brow back to the quay wall, he looked back at the ship and then to me and said, “It’s amazing you are in charge of all that.”

In the late 1800’s, my father’s family in Statesville faced a crisis when my great grandmother passed away. The two boys, one my grandfather, Hiram Culley Jewell, were sent to separate uncles to be raised. One uncle believed in education and sent my great uncle to college. The other uncle, the one who raised my grandfather, believed in hard work, not education. So my grandfather, my father, and my three uncles worked from that point on.

It was old timey work: steam-engine sawmills, plumbing, automobile maintenance, farming, and a myriad of other physically demanding work.

After my ship department head tours ended, I had not delved into old-timey work until I hooked up with Pacific Tugboat, a thirty year gap. I find it somewhat ironic, even poetic that I am back to what my great, great uncle determined: work is good for you.

In that context, I looked at our country today. Most “work” doesn’t require physical work. It’s brain power, service jobs, financial planning, technical expertise, salesmanship, writing, acting, and even talking, which bring home the bacon (if the family hasn’t gone vegetarian).

It seems we have prospered moving into this type of work. But I wonder. Physical labor used to be part and partial of living. I think it made us stronger, more focused on the moment, less fad and protest oriented.

Sunday in a break between golf and dinner, Father’s Day gifts from my wife, I stopped and thanked my father, my grandfather, and that great, great uncle for giving me an appreciation of old-timey work.

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