Captain Billy versus The Electronic Pop-Tarts

Submitted into Contest #184 in response to: Write about someone who has chosen to disconnect and live an analog life.... view prompt



Author's Note: Due to the bit of bad luck that befell The Good Tugboat Samson it was 86'ed out of San Francisco Bay and was repositioned North to Puget Sound. Deckhand Nicky has been replaced by his twin brother Deckhand Micky. (Refer to Contest #180 "It's Unlucky Not to Be Superstitious")

Captain Billy sensed something was wrong in the wheelhouse of the Tugboat Samson. He was certain that an invisible and ever present force was out of control causing errors in his navigation as the tugboat ran up the coast from San Francisco to their new homeport of Seattle. He radioed ahead to Dispatch Seattle and was ordered to tie up at Pier 17, Seattle and wait. Precisely at Noon, a lone figure of a slender elderly man appeared on the dock, dressed in a black suit and tie, with a black satchel in his hand. Was it the Exorcist Father Damien Karras? No, it was the Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock and he was here to make things right.

Captain Billy had always held a high regard for the Magnetic Compass. In this modern era of electronic navigation devices this apparent anachronism still held a important position in the wheelhouse. Much like Captain Billy, it was simple and yet it was not simple. It's only needs were a periodic adjustment to deal with Deviation and apply the Variation correction of it's present geographic location. Deviation is the error caused, simply put, by the particular proximity and amount of ferrous metals used in the structure of the vessel. This is where Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock and his skills and experience come into play.

Captain Billy escorted the Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock up to the wheelhouse of the Tugboat Samson and pointed at the magnetic compass and said, "There's the compass !" The Compass Adjuster drew a heavy sigh and silently nodded in complete agreement. He recalled the many past compass adjustment sessions over the decades with Captain Billy in rapt attendance. Over the many years Captain Billy's firm grasp for the obvious driven by enthusiasm for anything nautical had not diminished one gauss. Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock reserved any snarky comment that might squelch his positive nature but instead said, "You may observe if you desire and please feel free to ask any questions." Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock knew that there would be many, many questions and he mentally braced himself for the ensuing onslaught. Captain Billy was elated by this prospect.

Mounted in the most prominent location in the wheelhouse is the binnacle. The magnetic compass resides inside this fixture. Typically it is comprised of a shiny brass dome with a viewing port and polished wood pedestal that appears like a sea going cousin of an iconostasis. It is placed front and center of the wheel for the helmsman to steer by. This nautical tabernacle is where the mariner seeks and receives guidance for their vessel. A round raft with a magnet as a passenger floats on a spirit filled glass covered compass bowl supported on gimbals. The forces of magnetism and gravity steady this raft and points it toward the magnetic North Pole and keeps it level with the Earth's surface. The passenger on this little raft tries it's best to remain steady and true in it's allegiance to these natural forces but it falls prey to it's two enemies Deviation and Variation. However, Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock has arrived to minimize these bad influences.

The little raft is actually called the Compass Card with it's familiar N, E, S, & W markings. Letters for the 32 points and numbers for 360 degrees. One point equals 11 1/4 degrees, sort of like the rules for Cribbage. The nomenclature of the Magnetic Compass and all its accoutrements is a rather extensive list. Compass, Deviation, Magnetic, Variation, True are applied in the formula to derive a heading for navigation. The mnemonic devices for this calculation can be the moribund "Can Dead Men Vote Twice" or the saucy "Timid Virgins Make Dull Company". Please don't forget that East is least and West is best which should not to be considered a political comment on China and U.S. relations. Captain Billy could be quite verbose on the subject. It was his contention that the card did not move as it was floating in a bowl that was on a floating boat that the boat moved around the card! He was always ready to argue this salient point. It would be best if we did not get him started.

The short list of nomenclature would something like this:

  1. Binnacle
  2. Compass Bowl
  3. Compass Card
  4. Quadrantal Spheres
  5. Flinders Bar
  6. Heeling Magnet
  7. Jeweled Pivot Bearing
  8. Compass Fluid
  9. Gimbals
  10. Lubber Line

The Compass Adjuster with his thin lemur like fingers began his magnet opus. With the insight of Feng Shui Master and the deftness of a Vascular Surgeon he field stripped the compass into it's many components for inspection and cleaning. Many , many years ago when Captain Billy was a Sea Scout he had first met Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock. Aboard young Apprentice Billy's Sea Scout Ship 459's sloop sailboat they had installed the magnetic compass directly beneath the iron handled tiller. When the tiller was helmed the magnetic compass would swing erratically . The Compass Adjuster was bemused but not blaming or shaming . He had turned this apparent debacle into a teachable moment about magnetism that young Apprentice Billy had taken to heart. A lesson learned to last a lifetime.

The Compass Adjuster had finished the mechanical manipulations of his work in the wheelhouse and now it was time to "Box the Compass". The Tugboat Samson departed Pier 17 with the flags "OSCAR & QUEBEC" flying at the yardarm and began to follow various unerring courses across the waters Elliott Bay as directed by the Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock. Ferry Boats and cargo ships dodged out of the way of the Good Tugboat Samson as it had seemed to have cancelled it's subscription to Navigation Rules of the Road Book and was obeying a much higher power. After an hour or so with some fiddling of the placement of the quadrantal spheres, adding a few heeling magnets and slight tweaking of the Flinders Bar the the tugboat returned to the pier. With a freshly signed and dated Compass Correction card framed and hanging in the wheelhouse the satisfied Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock departed the vessel. Captain Billy felt reaffirmed and refreshed in all things dealing the magnetic compass and it's dependable qualities. No matter how rough the seas it remained stable on it's gimbals and quietly did it's duty. It set an example that he thought his crew could do well to follow. Captain Billy went below to the galley in a buoyant mood.

The Galley table,in Captain Billy's opinion, was the most dangerous area aboard a tugboat. Egos were bruised, feelings were hurt, reputations damaged and hopes crushed and the occasional back stabbed. This was where the "Smack Monster" resided and would materialize when two or more would would start chatting towards darker side of things. A chatty crew was a happy crew and a quiet crew was a brooding crew and difficult to fathom. The measure of conversation had six vectors according to Captain Billy. Like a joystick control with positions PAST- PRESENT- FUTURE - POSITIVE - NEUTRAL - NEGATIVE. The best combination was FUTURE- POSITIVE. The worst combination was PAST- NEGATIVE, which, for some of the crew at times seems it was permanently stuck in this position. It was as if they were walking about carrying a steaming heap of dung in their outstretched hands saying to all in earshot, "Look at what I almost stepped in last week!" Another vexing Galley table conversation for wheelhouse officers was when the Deckhand or the Cook or the Engineer,all with zero time behind the wheel and control levers, were discussing in hindsight the quality of the ship handling of whoever was driving the Tugboat Samson at the end of the day's ship work.

The galley was quiet, not a good sign to Captain Billy. He was accustomed to a usual " Chatty crew was a happy crew" aboard the Tugboat Samson. Well, at least up to a certain point. Some times a too much of a chatty crew was a bother especially when trying to get some well earned sleep. A tugboat crew can typically sleep like the dead in a stateroom located a few feet from the Engine Room where a roaring pair of Diesel engines that in size and horsepower would shame a train locomotive dwell. It was pleasing fact to Captain Billy that a these Diesel engine's drone and a house cat's purr were in the same soothing 20 to 30 hertz sound frequency. However, shut down these engines and things become too quiet. Voices carry. Chief the Engineer and Mister Mate Mark had acquired the bad habit talking well into the off watch after Captain Billy had hit the rack. By chance the acoustics of the passageways of the Tugboat Samson would channel these conversations directly into Captain Billy's stateroom. The volume was inverse to the quality of topics of these inane pontifications and were usually in the aforementioned and undesirable PAST- NEGATIVE. One particular conversation was about how 14 years ago somebody left a dirty fork in the galley sink. This must be dealt with as depriving a person of sleep was shortest route to mental ruin thought Captain Billy and so he took deliberate action. Long ago he had learned the secret of command which was for the most part, "Never tell anybody what to do" and "Confrontation never solved anything". So, rather than chiding and shaming Chief the Engineer and Mister Mate Mark, Captain Billy chose a Machiavellian tactic. Turn about is fair play. Captain Billy began get up at random off watch hours after Chief the Engineer went to get some sack time. He would find Deckhand Micky loitering about the galley table over a cup of coffee. In a display of apparent largesse and kind heartedness Captain Billy would top off Deckhand Micky's coffee cup several times and engage him in most lively conversations he could think of. Captain Billy would kindle the conversation into a roaring blaze and then himself remain quiet and spur on Deckhand Micky's diatribes with many silent nods of his head and conspiratorial winks of an eye. The usual verboten topics of Politics and Religion were encouraged. These two unstable conversational catalysts would excite and agitate Deckhand Micky and he would go into verbal overdrive. Opening a strategic passageway door or made for an ad hoc acoustic wave guide to directly deliver Deckhand Mickey's chi-ikings to Chief the Engineers stateroom. After two or three days of this treatment, Chief the Engineer had ceased in his off watch parleys with Mister Mate Mark. A considerate and respectful quietness had descended upon the Good Tugboat Samson.

When Captain Billy entered the Galley the crew were all silently sitting around the table. Mister Mate Mark, Deckhand Micky, and Chief the Engineer each had their own cell phone cradled in their hand. They were staring at their own palms like a trio of catatonic fortune tellers and oblivious to Captain Billy's presence. After moment or two, Mister Mate Mark appeared to regain awareness of the here and now. He asked "How it go with the Compass Guy?" Captain Billy replied, "It was all Gauss work."

"Oh thats too bad.. You can always use the Compass App on my phone." said Mister Mate Mark.

The double whammy the failure to recognize clever humor and referring a cell phone to take the place of the beloved magnetic compass sank Captain Billy's buoyant mood . He needed a snack . He opened the locker above the toaster where the Pop-Tarts were kept. His hopes were dashed when his discovered there no strawberry but only peach.

This whole cell phone thing did not sit well with Captain Billy's sensibilities. He recalled his past adventures in finding a pay phone to call home. He fondly remembered some of their locations especially the ones up in Alaska. There was Naknek where calls were curtailed in the evenings by appearance of bears. There was a pay phone at the "Weathered Inn" bar in Cold Bay located next a landing strip designated an alternate for the Space Shuttle should it have issues need to land. Captain Billy imagined a knock on the door some snowy night and space suited crew of the shuttle asking for change to use this payphone . There was a pay phone up in the Control Booth for the loading arm at the urea plant in Nikiski where had to crossover the barge across gang where the ice choke waters of Cook Inlet sped past. There was a pay phone at the "Sportsman Club" in Whittier once where he called home to report that his tug was dropping it's tow off and doubling back to make ship rescue in Gulf of Alaska and wouldn't be back for awhile. Then was that particular phone booth on the oil dock in Martinez, California where got the sad news that his Poppa was ill and that his time was up. Now, all of these pay phones had vanished.

There was a time when from the wheelhouse you could make a call using the boat's radio. You had the Marine Operator on various VHF channels and SSB. The VHF system were local stations strung along the coast. The SSB or Single Side Band was the extreme distance champion as there was a base station, KMI, that was located on the California coast at Point Reyes. Reception dependent on atmospherics and location as they could tune up their antenna farm for optimal reception. All this energy and apparatus was in place just to transmit a few words across airwaves. Now all extinct. Killed of by the cell phone and the sat phone.

The thing was, back in the day for Captain Billy, a tugboat was an independent entity . With minimal input from the outside world the crew would focus on the here and now mindset of working aboard a tugboat and get the job done. At mealtimes the Galley was filled with lively conversations of the days accomplishments and they would share talk about their homes. However, for good or bad, the cell phone had changed this crew dynamic. Captain Billy thought of his crew all slack jawed in the Galley which now had ambiance of an Opium Den. He decided that he was the only one who could save his crew from themselves. Somehow he must free their minds from these mesmerizing devices. This would require some fancy maneuvering on Captain Billy's part to snap his crew out their trance. "What would Compass Adjuster Leroy Schlock Do?", thought Captain Billy.

A few days had passed and the Good Tugboat Samson went about it's business. The galley remained in quiet pall as all three of the crew cradled their individual cell phones in a state of perpetual stupefaction. Captain Billy felt sorry for his crew and in his mind he thought there must some way to better their situation and liberate them from their zombified lives. And then, opportunity knocked.

Captain Billy went down to the Galley for a snack. He opened the cupboard where the Pop-Tarts were stowed. Well, happy day! There was a fresh box of his most favorite strawberry. He loaded the four slot toaster to the max with these tasty pastries and pressed down the lever to no effect. What the Devil is wrong with this thing he thought. Upon investigation he saw that it was unplugged and in the double wall outlet were plugged in chargers connected to all three of his crew's cell phones. At that moment an insight occurred to Captain Billy that the Pop-Tarts and the cell phones both shared the same pleasing dimensions of the Golden Ratio of 1 x 1.61. He cleared the socket and plugged in the toaster. After a moment of pondering , he removed three of the toaster pastries from the slots and replaced them with the three cell phones. He twisted the small knobs to the darkest setting. He then depressed the lever.

Later, a Board of Inquiry was conducted to investigate the explosion and fire aboard the Tugboat Samson. At the U.S. Coast District 13 Headquarters at Pier 36, Seattle the proceedings were held. In the somber Hearing Room at one end of the proverbial "Long Green Table" sat Captain Billy facing the possible charges of Arson and Barratry. At the opposite end sat a half dozen grim faced U.S. Coast Guard Officers of the Board in full dress uniforms. What was the reason for this nearly tragic and lamentable explosion and fire aboard the Tugboat Samson they asked? Before Captain Billy could answer, the doors flung open wide and a lone figure, a slender elderly man appeared in the courtroom. He was dressed in a black suit and tie, with a black satchel in his hand. Was it the Exorcist Father Damien Karras? No, it was Expert Witness Leroy Schlock and he was here to set the record straight. He testified the it was a simple matter that the toaster heating elements had transmitted an inductive electro- magnetic wave that bombarded the nearby lithium batteries in the cell phones similar to a cyclotron transmuting Uranium 239 into Plutonium to point of instability that set off a triple runaway chain reaction and the inevitable explosion. It was only brave Captain Billy's quick thinking and gallant action to scoop up all flaming evidence, uhh debris, into a metal dustpan and toss the hot mess over the side into Elliott Bay that saved the day . This selfless act was what prevented the loss of Good Tugboat Samson and any injury to the crew. He pointed at Captain Billy with a thin lemur like finger and matter of factly stated, "Captain Billy is a hero." He then proposed a solution to prevent future incidents such as this from occurring again. Install on the all toasters in the fleet Quadrantal Spheres and Flinders Bars at a great expense to quash these errant inductive waves or simply ban the crews from having cell phones aboard. At the conclusion of Expert Witness Leroy Schlock's testimony the US Coast Guard Officers all stood and applauded and gave three "Hip! Hip! Hoorays for Captain Billy!". The case was closed and court was adjourned. The Company went with the cheaper solution.

The next day Captain Billy entered the Galley of the Good Tugboat Samson tied up at Pier 17. It was on standby for it's next job. Mister Mate Mark and Chief the Engineer were languidly playing cribbage at the table. There was a snapping noise of the cards being shuffled and an occasional bickering comment about the method of each others scoring. Deckhand Micky was staring off into space absentmindedly and attempting to play the harmonica resulting in an asthmatic wheezing noise. Captain Billy was satisfied. The end had justified the means. He had won his battle with The Electric Pop-Tarts (aka cell phones). They had been vanquished from his tugboat and as unforeseen added bonus, all other tugboats on the entire West Coast. However, there was still a slight whiff of burnt Pop-Tarts in lingering in the air.

February 09, 2023 05:30

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Bob Banel
06:34 Feb 12, 2023

Dear Wendy, Captain Billy lives on because of your kind comment for "It's Unlucky Not to be Superstitious". As long as there is at least one reader such as you who understands and appreciates Captain Billy he will have further nautical adventures aboard the Good Tugboat Samson. As an exasperated Chief the Engineer once said to me, "I've never heard so many facts and so much bull***t in my life!' Best regards, Bob B.


Wendy Kaminski
17:54 Feb 12, 2023

LOL! Keepin' you honest. :)


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Wendy Kaminski
05:26 Feb 12, 2023

This was awesome, Bob! Your humor is spot-on, in a matter-of-fact, in-charge kind of way that is totally charming! I picture Captain Billy and his subversive efforts to behaviour-modify his crew without outright confrontation, and it makes me chuckle A LOT. So many great lines in this, in addition to the absolutely fascinating wealth of information about boats and seafaring that I would never likely be introduced to, otherwise - thank you for that! Some favorites: - Was it the Exorcist Father Damien Karras? No, it was the Compass Adjuster L...


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