World’s Biggest Blender

I really can’t remember whether it was the USNS Haleakala, Shasta or Kilauea but it was probably one of those AE’s that got my careful and complete attention that hot summer afternoon. She’d arrived a bit early and a bit fast but it was no nevermind to me as I was counting the mules on Pier 2 at the moment getting them ready to transfer over to Pier 3. The bay smelled of warm river water, not mud or brackish salt marsh, always a tell that the tide was mixing West and fast on a hot summer day. The infamous Suisun wind was up enough to make me tighten my hard hat and there was a mild chop on the bay. Suisun [sue soon] in Patwin means People of the West Wind. That wind is so consistent and strong that the trees that grow in its path all point a bit to the East. I suppose that’s why Travis Air Base was over there as it was an assist to the B-52’s take off runway. They could go out heavy and get into the air pretty quick. Now that low gray ship had slipped by me as I finished my inventory and I stood leaning against one of the forklifts, we called them mules, just enjoying the privilege of watching one of our finest munitions ships come home to dock at Pier 3. I though it a bit odd she was alone, no tugboat or pilot or zodiac was near and as an unescorted vessel it was an unusual site in that part of the bay. I watched and tried to figure out what she was doing, maybe moving on to Stockton? But no, she suddenly veered hard to port and slipping her tail just past the dock by about 25 yards seeming to run hard ahead out into the no mans land of the huge explosions of Pier 1 during World War 2. Nobody ever went out there. Well except for that really stoned and famous movie star and his girlfriend who got stuck in their pretty little sailboat in the shallows near Pier 2 a year or so before. Boy did that piss off the Master Chief. Anybody who sailed, or rowed or swam (if they were damn fool enough to try) past the red and white DO NOT ENTER – UNEXPLODED MUNITIONS buoys was a write off as far as I and most other Sacramento River Rats were concerned. Having grown up next to Suisun Bay they were a hazard you just never challenged. And the idea of stirring the remains of the sailors who gave their lives there and the idiocy of trying to bounce off a USN anti-ship mine or maybe a 100 pound bomb that was under the shallow water out there made almost all local folk be really uninterested in going past those warning buoys. But maybe this Captain was training and in a hurry to try a combat style docking method. He had the ship pointed toward the shallows and turned a few degrees NorthWest by this time and suddenly went full reverse (maybe hard starboard with the rudder?) looking as if he was trying to back the ship into a turn and then cleverly parallel dock in reverse on pier 3 against the combined strength of both the San Joaquin and Sacramento rivers as they rushed together into the channel called Carquinez (Ohlone for the Karkin tribe) Strait which at the moment was draining an area about the size of the Tennessee into a narrow little deep channel six miles away and a thousand yards across. Now that backed up body of water is a bit unusual as all the flow swells and reverses back into the delta between Sacramento and Stockton trying to get out of the Central Valley so it forms an inverted V to make kind of a reverse river delta. It concentrates water flow along the deep shipping channel and if you think you know something about river deltas you got a cute surprise when you find that while you just pulled a hard to the port turn the wind is suddenly leaning against your port side and the water is pushing exceptionally hard against your Starboard hull so you end up in a kind of stall which will reverse your intention. Anyone who has boated that region will tell you that all boats are sailboats in Suisun. The Sacramento River Delta is different. It usually had less of the Suisun wind – but not today. As she stalled into irons the steel ship’s captain tried really hard to avoid what happed next. The engines shifted again and her propellers stopped and began to churn hard ahead as the captain realized the ship was going to drift back neatly into the pier. Ever so slowly she slid backwards crabbing slowly a bit as the underwater current (sometimes over 3 knots) treated her rudder and hull as a kind of upside down sail and pulled her back, swinging her bow around, stern to the port as she crunched slowly thru the telephone pole sized pilings and skidded a bit thru railings tossing chunks of lumber, asphalt covered decking and river water into the air. I stood there watching, all alone on one of the two surviving Port Chicago piers wondering if I would be the sole lost witness if she took enough damage to catch fire or explode so I picked up my radio’s microphone and called to the Naval Weapons Station Trans Division Dispatch. “2 this is 39, over.” “39 this is 2.” I paused as she began to turn further down stream yawing a tiny bit like a sailors first steps on land, wondering again what fresh hellish joy would happen next to this benighted captain. “2, please call the Station Captain, the Coast Guard and Fire Department out to Pier 3. You might as well call security too.” “Please repeat?” “One of our ships has just struck Pier 3 and we’ve got damage to the pier.” “Damage?” “ Yep, she’s busy as a beaver right now.” I held my microphone up pointing it towards the raucous moist lumber chewing noise, keying it on as the wet crunchy nautical cacophony went on. Putting the microphone back toward my mouth I said, “Hear that?” In the background the immense heavy crunching noise went on as the prop and stern of the ship chewed the western pilings of pier 3 to small car sized chunks, pieces of piling throwing into the air and splashing back into the now muddy channel. “Roger 39, calling the captain now.” As it never really paid a civilian employee to get involved in the mysterious methods of the US Navy I decided that having called the services needed to get it taken care of I was certainly not qualified to stand any nearer or testify in endless queries about who saw what so my job was finished. I started the truck and did my idle best to disappear quietly down the pier towards the motor pool. As I left the scene I caught sight of the Coast Guard Tug heading toward the mess. I could only imagine what the Master Chief of the CG station was going to say to the soon to be desk jockey who had crashed into his dock, I knew it would be very choice. As the tug made fast contact and pushed the ship around and back toward the other end of the pier the Station Captain’s car pulled up on the pier then carefully up on the loading deck driving up the ramp to stop near the ship as she made to the dock. The breeze has stilled for a moment and from a distance I watched as he pulled his cap off and wiped his brow with his forearm, looking not to the damaged pier, he seemed to not care about that. He stared out across Suisun Bay with that sailor’s endless thousand mile stare of his. He knew this wasn’t real trouble for him or our country. But it would be a royal upbraiding for the skipper of the ship. It seems that Port Chicago is not a kind place for captains. But I will always wonder what was going through his mind. He looked as if he could see all the way to mount Shasta. But I never asked, I just drove away and headed back to my beans, I think we played tonk that night.


2 Responses to “World’s Biggest Blender”

  1. The Mothball Fleet: Aboard the Dying Ghost Ships of Suisun Bay | Stephen Darori on Iconic Photography Says:

    […] World’s Biggest Blender ( […]

    • bobbymorganeddcDD Says:

      As a kid growing up in Suisun Valley in the 1960’s it was one of our tests of bravery to raft out there during a slack tide, sneak past the fleet security, climb a chain and get to the deck of any of the Liberty (Ghosts!) ships then climb back down again. It was a stupid dangerous stunt but in the end the hard part was explaining the huge cosmoline stains to my mother.

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