Sunday, March 21, 2010

On Ferry Boats and Other Stuff

At the beginning of the war,the population of Bainbridge Island was somewhere between 3 and 4 thousand residents. Now there is reportedly 26,000! Almost nine times more people on roughly 30 square miles of water-surrounded land. The Winslow Marine Highway and Ship Repair Yard that had once been a world class builder of many-masted sailing vessels, had shrunk over the decades and employed about one hundred fifty workers. But it was quick to join in war production. Contracts to build Navy mine sweepers were awarded to the tiny ship repair yard. The number of shipyard workers grew exponentially to around fifteen hundred. (The numbers were kept secret so actual numbers are difficult to pinpoint.) Islanders had long prized their privacy and invisibility; their rural environment; what they considered their unique-ness. "Newcomers" quickly exhausted all available housing. Woodsheds, garages, berry pickers' shacks, anything with a roof, though not necessarily a floor, were rented. Tar paper shacks, primitive trailers, and even tents housed families. Once they were sent off to camp, the Island's Japanese families' houses became fair game for rental. Their permission was not sought - afterall, they were now "the enemy."

Lots of Island roads, locations, and communities are named for local residents and old business locations. Other names are more obscure; such as, Toejam Hill, an interesting variation of its original name after a man who lived there, Torjam Hill. An early battle, before the settling of hardy pioneers, a couple of Indian tribes had a beach battle. It was a half-hearted affair with no fatalities but left its mark as Battle Point. During the war it was a military station with an airplane spotting tower. It is now a park and visitors' center. There were roads aptly referred to as "Suicide Lane", "Devil's Dip", and the like. Many of the roads were dirt or gravel. The few street lights in Winslow installed in much earlier years were left unused after a few short months of operation because there reportedly was no interest in maintaining them. And certainly there were no traffic lights - no need because there was little if any "traffic."

In the first frenzied and uncertain days of the war, all lighting at night had to be "blacked out." Blankets hung over windows as families inside anxiously listened to their radios for the latest news. There was a fear that lights seen from the air would help enemy bombing raids. Radio and newspapers were the common communication channels. Cell telephones, television, computers, were the stuff of science fiction. Each day Seattle newspapers were ferried to the Island. Lots of the papers were delivered by hardy boys on bicycles . They stuffed the papers into long tin cylinders nailed to mail box posts or tossed to a porch. One time, a popular boy on his dark, early morning route was seriously injured by a hit and run driver. Islanders were stunned by the heartlessness of "one of their own." The boy was rushed to a Seattle hospital. His condition was carefully followed in the local newspaper. The heavy, woolen watch hat he was wearing may have actually saved his life. But his injury left him unable to follow his dream of being a pro-baseball player. Another of the newspaper carriers took over his route during his two-month recovery, saving his job for him. The other boy only had to get up two hours earlier - 4 a.m. - to complete both routes - BEFORE heading off to school. Islanders stuck by their own.

Ferry commuters could purchase their daily news dose from a stack of papers on one of the docks. There were several landings; the ferries were small; not like the huge vessels of today. On the Island to/from Bremerton route, a tiny boat carried foot traffic only. Winslow's modern, state-owned terminal with its warm waiting room and covered walkway perched above and away from vehicles was years away. Not much thought was given in those times of the possible dangers to the foot passengers. It was the way it was. They gathered as a group either at the loading end of the dock or the lip of the ferry and were hurried on and off before the cars and trucks. In the land of rain the ferry decks and docks were often slippery. The stairs from the bottom decks to the upper decks were steep. It was part of the adventure of living on an island.

That ferryboat commuters consider certain seats to be their very own, is legendary and very true. It was said that ferry coffee, brewed in giant pots that held hours and hours worth of the hot stuff, could curl your hair, was almost true. The tarry liquid was served in thick white mugs and was ambrosia to the early morning crowd and cleared many fogged heads. Women in white uniforms and starched green caps and aprons, knew everyone and usually their orders. In the cafe, the counter curved around stanchions. In stormy weather, it was a balancing act to sit on one of the stools, hanging on with feet and legs wrapped around the pedestal, elbows tensed to the counter, fingers lacing the blistering mugs. Today it is a "Grande Latte" individually brewed and sipped while watching the rich scenery gliding by, no matter what the weather. Commuters still possessively guard their particular seats.

The ferries were little compared to today's giants. Those boats came from California. Part of their initiation was to be re-named to more suit Puget Sound culture - like Klahawnee, Quinault, Illahee, Kehloken, Quilliyote - chunky names for the equally chunky boats.

The ferries, their crews, and captains were almost family members; after all, islanders relied on them as more than just transportation. They were lifelines. The captains took on legendary status. Each vessel had a distinct personality - at least it seemed that way from news articles. They were talked about as if they were people. Nearly every Islander had a favorite boat or considered one their own bad or good luck charm. Sometimes it seemed the boats themselves were alive and kicking as headlines heralded feats and injuries. Headlines like, "Ferry Rosario Rescues Lost 16' Boat - Puts It High and Dry on Point White Dock," "Little Ferry San Mateo Suffers Severe Burns From Burst Steam Pipe," are examples of how personal the boats seemed.

Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters immortalized the ferries in song in 1943. They crooned "The Black Ball Ferry Line" over the radio waves. I believe Bing wrote the lyrics, "On the Black Ball Ferry Line up in Seattle . . . where the whistles blow and the bells toll and the ferry boats go chugging right along. . . . . "

Homesick service men and women were treated to many ballads with geographic and sentimental roots - "Chatanooga Choo Choo", "Moon Over Miami", - The list of hundreds of titles tell the emotional stories of that era - love, friendships, good times and bad, passion, heartaches, fear, joy and more, wrought by the unpredictableness of war. The music was dance-able and sing-able. The Armed Services uniforms opened all the doors at home and the guys and gals could do no wrong. Even though the pall of war darkened the air, it was still exciting and the country bounced with energy.

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