After spending my first few weeks of retirement bored almost to tears, I decided to write the great American novel that had been rolling around in my head for years. It didn't take too many paragraphs to realize my bad grades in high school English, including having to repeat a year for failing senior English, were not conducive to creating grammatically correct, readable text. So I enrolled in a creative writing course taught at the local college by best-selling author Brett Lott. One of the first assignments he gave was writing a short story. I wrote a first person one titled "A Living Dog," I based it on an experience I had in 1949 as a nineteen year old. Mr. Lott must have found it acceptable. He wrote "wonderful" on it. Although I had to drop the course after a few weeks because of more pressing matters, I completed my novel in what I consider reasonably readable form. In the years since, I have found no publisher willing to look at it. But this is not about the novel, it is about "A Living Dog." I recently received an invitation to submit a short story to a contest being conducted by a magazine published by the University of South Carolina. I decided to use the one I wrote for Mr. Lott's class. However, it consisted of 3,800 words, and the contest required that the story be no more than 2,500. Following is what I submitted after editing out over 1,500 words without affecting the story line too drastically:

 

A LIVING DOG

The skin on my feet and ankles appear to my eyes as ragged, red peelings of freshly boiled new potatoes. Salt water, intermingled with silt stirred by our scrambling arrival, seeps through the flimsy fragments vainly trying to protect underlying muscles. “Excruciating” is much too feeble a word to describe the pain relentlessly emanating from them. Still I do not retract them onto the dry ground of the hardly more than a mud-flat of an island on which the kid and I fled to safety. Nor do I wince from the patches of blistered skin that span my chest and sleeve my arms and look as if they have been applied at close range by a blow-torch.

Slowly, a far greater pain, one from within, one of emotion, begins numbing my physical feelings into nothingness, a pain not fed by my nervous system shunting frantic messages from wounded extremities up to my brain, but by my eyes funneling images of flames down into my heart of hearts and raining them like a firestorm upon my hope of hopes. As I watch the two burn—the Mary Jean with outer eyes, my last desperate financial hope with inner eyes—helpless to do otherwise, I reel across the wide screen of my recall facts and events leading up to this ultimate frustration of my frustration-studded life:

My father had been a shrimper. His father had been a shrimper. And his father had been a shrimper. Beyond that, I don’t know. Perhaps the one before him had been a farmer who traded the vagaries of harvesting from the soil for those of harvesting from the sea. As it had been with them, so it has been with me that possessing no other knowledge save shrimping has been a chain of ignorance that keeps me bound to shrimping as if shrimping were my master, a cruel master who exacts and extracts from me, without let up, all that I am and have to give—and much too often what I will be and what I will have—and gives back nothing more than just enough slack on the chain to keep it from chafing me too unmercifully because that is all it has to give back.

The trawler, the one rapidly becoming a charred hulk before my eyes, had been my father’s. He had named it for a woman who—forsaking all others, including indoor plumbing, more than one pair of shoes, a Sunday dress, the wherewithal for three solid meals on the table year round, and all social status—had truly become one flesh with him, so much so that her hands ever reeked with the same putrid smell of aging shrimp that always loudly announced his approach to others steps before his arrival—my mother.

I became captain of the Mary Jean two years ago when my father went on a retirement plan. Fingers and hands too gnarled to pull ropes and work nets; legs too lame and stiff to ply a reeling, tossing deck; and eyes burnt too blurred by scanning into too many mirrored rays of sun had “retired” him. I was the “plan.” I, the only son, would carry on the family exercise-in-futility: shrimping-for-a-living.

Almost from the day I took over, shrimp began running like they never had in my father’s lifetime nor in his father’s. In the midst of this sudden prosperity, thinking the bonanza would last forever, I married Valerie and made a down payment on a house instead of paying off the huge debt accumulated at a local bank over the years in keeping the aging, wearing out, Mary Jean from becoming a derelict. I had staked too much on beginner’s luck. Just as quickly as the bonanza came, it went, leaving in its wake yet another mouth to satisfy and another on its way on the meager harvests that had barely sustained fewer mouths. A letter soon arrived from the bank warning me to make payments or else steps to seize collateral would be taken. Collateral was the Mary Jean.

In the midst of my quandary, I remembered a local fellow offering to buy the boat and hiring me to operate it. I immediately contacted him. The offer still stood He said for me to bring her by the next morning for one more look before making a final offer. His thorough appraisal inspection went better than I expected, considering Mary Jean’s age. The engine skipping a little was the only fault he found. I said replacing the badly corroded, ancient plug wires would resolve the problem. He agreed and instructed me to bring her back after I replaced them with new ones. He then quoted me the offer he would make, if the plugs resolved the problem. The offer could have been better, and would have had she been newer and had a diesel engine instead of gasoline. Still, it looked like the Promised Land compared to the or else option looming like a drooling vulture over me and those who looked to me with hopeful eyes for continued sustenance.

Delivery of the new set of wires I ordered would take two days. In the meantime, I had to get back to work. I called my deckhand to tell him to be at the dock in the morning and learned he had pneumonia. Valerie mentioned a new kid in the neighborhood, a teenager, who might be interested. I knocked on his door. He looked husky enough. I made no attempt to appraise his intellect; intelligence was not a requisite of what I expected of him. He readily accepted. I instructed him to meet me at the dock the next morning at five.

I could have had the blocks of ice loaded in her hold but decided I would save the job to test the kid’s stamina. As anxious as I was to get underway, I did not want to learn in the midst of a trawl that he didn’t have the muscle to be a deck hand. Besides, the engine sputtered more than usual, and I had spent the time fiddling with the wires.

The kid surprised me. He had the ice aboard in half the time I expected, and he followed to the letter my instructions in handling the mooring lines in leaving the dock. Just as I began to think I had lucked up on someone with the makings of a reliable deckhand, I discovered he had brought the dock’s ice tongs with us, forcing us to wend our way back through the lengthy maze of narrow marsh creeks to the dock. For a brief moment, I considered leaving him on the dock before a lifetime of experience quickly reminded me that one man working a shrimp trawler was a fool’s fantasy. I also remembered all the dumb things I had done as an overly eager apprentice aboard this same boat to try my father’s patience and provoke his wrath. Even so, I was ready to take him back to the dock after I ran aground in the rapidly emptying small creek on our way back to the river. Then, after having to suffer in silence being humiliated by the smirking comments of the captain of the trawler that extricated us questioning my piloting ability, I barely resisted a strong urge to throw him overboard and let him muck his way back to the dock.

We finally made it to the broad expanse of the river where I had no more concerns about depth between us and the ocean as long as we remained in the river’s zigzag channel simply by staying on its markers. Now I could tinker with the plug wire I suspected of being the culprit to try to make its cap tighter on the plug tip. Knowing I would have to rely on the kid to keep the trawler in the channel while down in the bilge made me apprehensive. However, from necessity, I convinced myself the simple act of holding the wheel in one position for a few minutes required no special genius. I asked if he thought he could do it. Appearing insulted, he gave me an “I’m not as stupid as you may think.” look and took the wheel.

I grabbed my pliers and ducked through the wide opening under the dash and into the bilge. After squeezing the cap of the suspected wire tightly to the plug’s tip, I worked it back and forth to rub away any oil film that may have built up on it. Some of the unevenness of the engine’s hum smoothed out.

I decided to do the same to the other plugs, but first I needed to check how close we were to the appointed marker. The kid had kept her right on the money. I pointed to a clump of marsh grass ahead. “Turn the wheel and head directly—”

Flames leapt up past my face and interrupted me in mid-sentence. I knew what would ensue. I had heard too many tales of the same scenario—the ignition of bilge fumes by an arcing spark plug—unfolding at the tips of our noses not to know that sound effects would instantly follow. “Get the hell—”

BOOM!!!

Thankfully, the pilot house door behind us blew open. The explosion lifted the kid and me off our feet, propelled us through it, and bounced us off the stern into the water. I made a decision the instant I hit the water that only a madman could have made. I made it because at that instant I was a madman, not from brain damage inflicted by the explosion nor the trauma of being hurtled so quickly from point x to point y, but by seeing flames eating away at my family’s one financial hope, knowing the deal on the trawler had not been consummated. At that instant, no power on earth could have restrained me from climbing back aboard to try to save her. Had the kid refused to come with me to help, I would have dragged him bodily—and in that instant, and for that instant, I possessed the will and the strength with which to do it.

We climbed aboard. She burned much worse than I had imagined. Flames filled the pilot house and poured through the broken glass of every window. Their tongues licked hungrily at the oil-coated tops of the two drums of gasoline strapped to either side of the pilot house. But the madman, still in charge, told me the two extinguishers hanging on the front of the pilot house were adequate enough to smother every flame in the twinkling of an eye. I snatched them from their holders. I thrust one into the hands of the kid, who stood paralyzed with fear, and pointed him to the port side of the pilot house. I began pumping the extinguisher against the starboard side as fast as I could move my hands.

As I watched the spray splash against the pilot house and run in ineffective fingers down its wall, one side of my brain spurred me on by convincing me the next spurt would start turning the tide against the flames while the other side repeatedly flashed before my inner eye images of Valerie, her belly fat with our child. Suddenly, pushing the madman out of my mind and into oblivion, my brain, both sides now together, decided I would rather be a jobless husband and father than a family martyr. I threw the extinguisher aside and dived overboard. The kid followed. As I hit the water, I suddenly felt as if I had brought the flames with me on my chest and arms and feet. I held up an arm and looked at it. Withered, blackened skin hung in hideous shreds from armpit to wrist.

We made our way with slow, easy side strokes, to minimize pressure against my blistered skin, to this mud flat on which we now sit and wait and watch her burn.

BOOM!

BOOM!

The twin balls of fire rocketing skyward from the drums are a terrible sight for me to behold. They signal the death of something that has always been part of my life, the only instrument of sustenance I ever knew. Tears begin to fill my eyes. Upon closer examination of the innermost feelings that propelled these tears, I find they are not products of grief but of a feeling of gratitude that is beginning to overwhelm my emotions, a gratitude for the fact that I sit on this mud flat in the living state—though half barbecued—and am not a briquette of charcoal lying in what is now left of her pilot house.

The reason I’m alive now occurs to me. I had begun picturing the kid as a Jonah whose presence aboard and his dumb mistake of forgetting the tongs had somehow authored the Mary Jean’s demise. Now, suddenly, I see him for what he really was, perhaps not an angel, but as close to one as I needed to have aboard. Kid or no kid, the Mary Jean would have met the same fate. However, had he not been aboard to make that dumb mistake that delayed our departure, she would have met it miles offshore, and I would have been unable to swim so far to safety with my injuries. Because of his mistake, I’m still a part of life, perhaps in a state far less propitious. Now, I fully appreciate a biblical passage I had often heard my mother recite: “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.”

With slow, painful moves, I turn my upper body and face toward the kid. “If it hadn’t been for you and them damn tongs, we wouldn’t be sitting in this mud. We would be far offshore swimming for our lives from sharks.”

For some reason, having said what I said, a feeling of total relaxation encompasses me. In the throes of this superb serenity, I pat the still soaking wet fabric of my right pants pocket, then my left. Frowning, I turn to the kid. “I left my damn cigarettes on the boat.”

He looks at me. A quizzical, mirthful smile is forming on his lips and is turning into laughter that is rapidly becoming hysterical. What is all of a sudden so funny? I wonder. Then the absurdity of my remark about the cigarettes hits me, and I quickly and involuntarily join him in a duet of uncontrollable laughter that, at the moment, I wouldn’t control if I could.

Years later, while trawling off Folly Beach on the Valerie, I will wonder if our jag of glee had not been, in reality, a sudden releasing of our consummate joy at still being alive.

 

 

Now For the rest of the story: "A Living Dog" was based on a true story. Johnny Fortenberry was Mary Jean's captain. I was the kid. I had written down all the details of that fateful day a few years later while they were still firmly etched in my memory and polished my writing in recent years.

 

My life story almost came to a tragic end in Folly River one August morning in 1949. Not long after I had arrived at home from my all-night stint serving hamburgers at McNally’s Grill, a man knocked on my mother’s door. He introduced himself as Johnny Fortenberry, a shrimper from Cocoa Beach, FL. He had just sold his trawler to a local company who hired him to operate it in waters off Charleston. He had been inquiring around Center Street, Folly Beach’s main drag, about someone who might be interested in being his deckhand. Someone mentioned my name. As the hourly rate he offered exceeded what McNally’s paid and I would have more time in the evenings to hang out with my friends, I readily accepted. He instructed me to be at the dock by five the next morning.

Upon my arrival at the appointed time, he informed me he was having problems with the gasoline-powered engine of his trawler, the Mary Jane, and for me to come at five the next morning. When I arrived the next morning, he had the engine running, but sounding a little ragged. The Mary Jane, a typical trawler for that era, had 55-gallon drums strapped to the outside of each side of the cabin, each filled with gasoline to allow an adequate supply for extended outings. As my first assignment as a shrimper, he had me load blocks of ice from the dock into the trawler’s hold for keeping the shrimp from spoiling. He told me to hurry it up because the out-going tide was rapidly draining the creek leading out to Folly River. I quickly complied with his order and we were soon motoring down the narrow creek flanked by tall marsh grass. After a couple a hundred yards, the creek widened where it made an abrupt left turn. Just before reaching the turn, Johnny scowled at me, “You left the damn ice tongs on the boat! They belong to the dock!” He swung her around in the wide turn and returned to the dock. I jumped off as he went by the dock, laid the tongs down as he turned her around, and jumped aboard as he came back by.

At least a six inches more of marsh showed above the water as we sped back down the narrow creek. Mud banks submerged on our first run were now breaking the surface, causing him some tricky maneuvering to avoid them. Going into the turn full speed, the boat slued too far to the right and ran aground on a still-submerged mudflat. He glared at me as he gunned the engine, first in forward, then in reverse, to no avail. At that precise moment, a trawler coming up the creek from the Folly River appeared. As its captain threw a rope with which to pull us off, he made a joking comment questioning Johnny’s ability to steer the boat. Now, Johnny really fumed, but made no reply.

We made it on out into the Folly River without further incidents before the creek became too low and he turned her westward. We began following the buoys marking the river’s channel that would take us to Stono Inlet. The inlet ran past the west end of Folly Island into the ocean. After a short distance, Johnny instructed me to take the wheel and keep the boat headed toward a certain marker several hundred yards ahead while he worked on the still sputtering engine. He took a pair of pliers and ducked through the open transom just below where the wheel was mounted. I watched him put the pliers on the cap of one of the sparkplug wires, and twist it back and forth, trying to make the cap fit snugger around the plug’s tip. Shortly, he came back up into the cabin and turned the wheel slightly. Pointing to a clump of marsh grass on a distant bank, he said, “See the marsh grass ahead?” I nodded. “I want you to keep her—” Before he could finish the instruction, a cabin-wide sheet of flame leapt from the bilge and through the transom, past the tips of our noses and to the ceiling. He yelled, “Get the hell out—” BOOM!! A spark plug had arced, igniting the heavy gasoline fumes in the bilge. The next thing I knew, we were both being propelled backward through the open cabin door. Etched on my inner eye is a vivid image of me passing, upside down, on one side of the boom and seeing him passing, upside down, on the other side of it. We bounced off the stern and into the water. He immediately yelled for us to climb back aboard and extinguish the flames. Not having any better sense, I followed him up onto the stern. As I stood in my tracks and watched him run to the front of the cabin where two extinguishers were mounted, I suddenly became aware that flames feeding off fuel residue were licking the outsides of the 55 gallon drums. As I watched in terror, he handed me an extinguisher and yelled for me to spray it on the drum on the left side of the cabin while he used the other extinguisher on the drum on the right side.

I looked down at the extinguisher. To my fear filled eyes, it looked no larger than a tube of toothpaste. Still standing in the same spot at the stern, I pulled the handle out and started pushing it in to spray its contents at the ever-growing fire on the drum—some 20 feet away. My hands shook so badly that I could not get the handle to push straight in. I threw it over the stern after two futile pushes and followed it into the water. Apparently, Johnny had not fared any better than I. He hit the water an instant later.

We swam for the closest shore, the one opposite Folly Island. I was a good swimmer but quickly fell behind Johnny. Then, I realized I still had on my rubber-soled canvas shoes. I kicked them off and caught up with him. We looked back after a ways and saw the Mary Jane, borne by the wind and tide, coming right behind us and gaining on us. Already swimming as fast as we could, we thought she would surely overrun us. I’ve never liked oysters, not even to look at, but for an instant I overflowed with love for them—the Mary Jane ran aground on a submerged bed of them, bringing her pursuit of us to a halt.

We gradually made our way through and around several exposed and partially exposed oyster beds and up on to the narrow beach of the river’s shore and flopped from exhaustion. Sitting propped up on our arms with our legs protruding into the water, we took stock of our injuries. We both had our eyebrows burned off and the front of our hair singed. On the boat, Johnny had been shirtless and shoeless and had his pants legs rolled up almost to his knees. Consequently, the skin of his feet, lower legs, arms, and chest looked like the ragged, red skin of a boiled new potato. My right arm, which had been outstretched reaching for the wheel when she blew, had the appearance of a blistered, peeling sunburn. Hypnotized by the sight of the inferno savagely engulfing the Mary Jane, we were, at first, oblivious of the severe pain of our burns.

BOOM! BOOM! Almost simultaneous, both drums exploded, sending spinning twin balls of flame skyward. Johnny patted one pocket of his soggy pants and then the other. “I left my damned cigarettes on the boat.” After a moments silence, we both burst into laughter at the absurdity of his remark—the pack would have been a mass of wet pulp had he brought it; besides, he would have had no way to light one.

Suddenly, the wailing of a siren filled the air. Across the river on Folly, we could see Folly’s fire truck speeding down the island as it passed each street running perpendicular to the river. This absurdity—what good would the fire truck do with the burning boat sitting in the middle of the river—brought another round of laughter from us. A shrimp boat arrived from down the river and began circling the burning hulk. We stood up and began yelling. The boat headed toward us, but the water had become too shallow for it to get closer than fifty yards or so to our perch. We had to work our way back through the mud and oyster beds and into water deep enough for them to pick us up. Mr. Tapley, owner of the rescuing boat, and his deckhand looked down at us with horror filled eyes. “We didn’t see you at first and thought you had perished in the fire.”

They carried us to a dock on the Folly side of the river. From there, we were transported by ambulance, sirens screeching, to the Roper Hospital emergency room in Charleston, eleven miles away. Johnny had third degree burns on the parts of his body that had been exposed to the flames. He was hospitalized. I had second degree burns on my right arm. The doctors dressed and wrapped it and gave me a shot of morphine to relieve the excruciating pain.

It was well into the middle of the afternoon by the time I got back to Folly. I didn’t go directly home. Instead, high on the morphine, I went up on the pavilion and spent the rest of the afternoon recounting to everyone I knew every minute detail of my exciting brush with death. When I got home, Mama, with her back to the door ironing and listening to a soap opera on the radio, asked, “How was your first day of shrimping?” I answered matter-of-factly, “All right, but I don’t think I’ll go back again.” About that time, the soap opera ended and the news came on. In the first item of news, the announcer told about the explosion of a shrimp boat in Folly River and gave the names of the injured. Mama, turned around, looked at my bandaged arm, and began screaming, “My baby! My baby! You almost got killed!” Hearing that she really cared about me made the frightening experience and pain worth it.

Johnny got out of the hospital in a couple of weeks and came knocking on our door. I answered it, and he began telling me he had another boat and wanted me to be his deckhand. Mama overheard the conversation and started screaming, “You get out of here, you s. o. b.! You almost killed my baby, and you’re not going to get another chance.

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