Captain Joe

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Captain Joe  (1899) 
by F. Hopkinson Smith

From The Century Magazine, 1889


WANTED—A submarine engineer, experienced in handling heavy stone under water. Apply, etc.

IN answer to this advertisement, a man, looking like a sailor and wearing a rough jacket, opened my office door.

"I'm Captain Joe Bell, out of a job. Seein' your advertisement, I called up. Where is the work, and what is it?"

I explained briefly. A lighthouse was to be built in the "Race," off Fisher's Island; the foundation was of rough stone protected by granite blocks weighing ten tons each. These blocks were to be laid, by a diver, as an enrockment, their edges touching. The current in the Race ran six miles an hour. This increased the difficulties of the work.

While my visitor bent over the plans, tracing each detail with a blunted finger that looked like a worn-out thole-pin, I had time to look him over. He was about fifty years of age, powerfully built, short, and as broad as he was long. The very fit of his clothes indicated his enormous strength. His pea-jacket had long since been pulled out of shape in the effort to accommodate itself to the spread of his shoulders. His trousers were corrugated, and half way up his ankles, in the lifelong struggle to protect equally seat and knee—each wrinkle outlining a knotted muscle, twisted up and down a pair of legs short and sturdy as rudder-posts. His brown hair protruded from under a close-fitting cloth cap, and curled over a neck seamed and bronzed, showing bumps where almost every other man had hollows: these short curls were streaked with gray. His face was round, ruddy, and wind-tanned, the chin hidden in a stubby beard, which clung to his lower lip; the mouth was firm, the teeth were like a row of corn, the jaws strong and determined. Everything about him indicated reserve force, endurance, capacity, and push.

Two things struck me instantly: his voice, which was deep and musical, and his eye, which looked through you—a clear, laughing, kindling, tender eye, that changed every instant, boring like a gimlet as he pored over the plans, or lighting up with a flash in the suggestion of ways and means to execute them.

As he leaned over the table, I noticed that his wrist was bandaged, the cotton wrappings showing beneath his coat-sleeve, discovering a partly healed scar.

"Burnt?" I asked.

"No, scraped. It don't bother now, but it was pretty bad a month back."


"Oh, a-wreckin'. I 've been four years with the Off-shore Wreckin' Company. Left yesterday."

"What for?"

He looked me straight in the eye, and said, slowly emphasizing each word:

"Me and the president did n't gee. He had n't no fault to find with me; but I did n't like his ways, and I quit."

So transparent was his honesty, self-reliance, and grit, that such precautionary measures as references or inquiries never once entered my mind. Before he closed my door behind him the terms were agreed upon. The following week he took charge of the force and the work began.

As the summer wore on the masses of granite were lowered into position, Captain Joe placing each block himself, the steam-lighter holding to her anchors in the rip of the Race.

When the autumn came a cottage was rented on the shore of the nearest harbor, and the captain's family of six moved in. Later I noticed some new faces in the home circle, a pale, sad woman and a delicate-looking child, both dressed in black. They would sometimes remain a week and then disappear only to return again. She was introduced by the captain as "Jennie, widow of my old mate Jim."

"What happened to him, Captain Joe?" I asked one evening when she left the room to take the child to bed, leaving us alone in the modest sitting-room, from the windows of which I caught a glimpse in the twilight of the tall masts of the schooners, coal laden, and the jibs of the smacks at anchor near the village wharves.

"Drownded, sir; two year ago." And he looked the other way.

"Washed overboard?" I asked, noticing his husky voice.

"No. Smothered in his divin'-dress, with a dumb fool at the other end of his life-line. We wuz to work on the Scotland, sunk in six fathoms of water off Sandy Hook. The president sent for me to come to the city, and I left Jim alone. That week we wuz workin' in her lower hold, Jim and me, I tendin' and Jim divin', and then I goin' below and he lookin' out after my air hose and line. Me bein' away that day, they put a duffer at the pump. Jim got his hose tangled up in a fluke of the anchor, they misunderstood his signals, and hauled taut when they should have eased away. He made a dash at the hose with his knife, but whether it wuz the brass wire wove in it, or because he wuz beat for breath, we don't know. Anyways he warn't strong enough to cut her through, and when they got him up he wuz done for. That wuz mighty rough on me, bein' with Jim mor'n ten years, in and out o' water. So I look out for Jennie and the young one. No, it ain't nothin' strange nor new. While I 've got a roof over me she's welcome. He'd done the same for me, and I 've got the best of it, for there's only two of his'n, and there's six o' mine."

Gradually an accumulation of old rope, blocks, chains, diving-gear, and odds and ends of wrecker's outfit were heaped up on the small dock below the cottage, where a "shanty," vacated by some fishermen, served as a store-house.

As the work on the lighthouse progressed the force and plant increased. A steam-tug was added, stone-sloops were chartered, and the gradual filling up of the interior of the foundation began. The owner of one of these sloops was a tall, sunken-cheeked old man named Marrows, who lived near the village on a small stone-incrusted farm. Outside of its scanty crop this sloop and her earnings were his sole resource.

Late one afternoon she returned to the harbor with her shrouds loose, her mast started, and her forefoot chewed into splinters. Her captain, a retired, bony fisherman, named Barrett, had miscalculated the tide, which cut like a mill-tail in the Race, and she had swirled, bow on, atop of the stone pile. When she struck, Captain Joe was in his dress, his helmet off. In a moment he had loosed his heavy iron shoes, caught up a crow-bar, and was bounding over the rugged rocks surrounding the foundation, giving quick, sharp orders to his men, who sprang into a yawl and began paying out a heavy line, Captain Joe following with the shore end of it, and taking breath meanwhile to swear at Barrett for his stupidity.

"Haul that line taut, you! Make fast to your starboard-cleats aft. Quick, you—fool! do you want her masts out of her? Now drop that kedge into the yawl."

While the men in the yawl pulled, as for dear life, astern of the endangered sloop, and slung the kedge anchor far enough out to get holding ground, others were leaping over her rail and running aft to the windlass, winding up the line, which tightened with a strain on the kedge.

All this time Captain Joe was under her bowsprit, his back braced against her chains, his legs rigid as hydraulic jacks. Every time the sloop surged he straightened out, concentrating his enormous strength and assisting the movement, so that when she struck again she came a few inches short, the wave having spent its force. There he stood for half an hour shaking his head free from the great sheets of white foam breaking clear over him, shouting his orders until the stern line began to draw, and the sloop was windlassed clear of the stone pile and saved.

Marrows was on the little harbor dock, peering through the twilight when his sloop dropped anchor. Captain Joe held the tiller. He began as soon as Marrows's gaunt figure outlined against the evening sky caught his eye:

"I tell you, old man, Captain Barrett ain't fittin' to fool round that rock. He 'll get hurt. I tell you he ain't fittin'."

"I believe you, and I 've told him so. Is she sprung, Captain Joe?"

"A leetle mite forrard, and her mast a touch to starboard, but nothin' to hurt."

"Will she be any good any more?" Then, as he came nearer, "Why, you 're soaking wet; the boys say you was clear under her." Then, lowering his voice, "You know, Captain Joe, she is a good deal to me."

The captain laid his great rough hand tenderly on the old man's shoulder.

"I know it, I know it; that's why I wuz under her chains." Then, raising his voice, "But Barrett ain't fittin'; mind I tell you he ain't fittin'."

The next day being stormy, with a gale outside and no work possible, Captain Joe tightened up the shrouds of the disabled sloop himself, reset the mast, lecturing Barrett all the while, and then sent word to Marrows that she was "tight as a keg, better'n ever, and everythin' aboard, 'ceptin' the bony fisherman who was out of a job."

The winter closed in with the foundation but partly completed. Before the first December gale broke on the rock the derricks were stripped of their rigging and left to battle with the winter's storms, the tools were stowed in the shanty, and all work was suspended until the spring. During the long winter that followed Captain Joe took to the sea, having transferred his diving-gear to the sloop; and before April three coal-laden schooners were anchored, or stranded, as befitted their condition, on the shoals in front of his dock in the village harbor. It made no difference to him how severe was the gale, or how badly strained the helpless vessel, he was under her bottom almost as soon as a line could reach her, and a patch of canvas, or half a cargo of empty oil-barrels, buoyed her up until the tug could tighten a line over her bow, and so on to an anchorage inside the lighthouse. It seemed in truth that winter as if each luckless craft, in its journey up the Sound, did its level best to keep its rail above water long enough to sink peacefully and restfully upon some bar or shoal within reach of Captain Joe's diving-tackle. There it died contented, feeling sure of a speedy resurrection.

If a wrecked schooner, coal laden, was an unusual sight along the harbor shore, a wrecker, distributing her cargo free to his neighbors, was a proceeding unknown to the oldest inhabitant. And yet this always occurred when a fresh wreck grounded on the flats.

"That's all right," he would say; "better take a couple of boat-loads more. Seems to me as if we wuz goin' to have a late spring. No, I don't know the price, 'cause I ain't settled with the underwriters; but then she came up mighty easy for me, and a few tons of coal don't make no difference, nohow."

When the settling day came, and his share as salvage was determined upon, there was of course a heavy shortage. He always laughed heartily.

"Better put that down to me," he would say. "Some of the folks along here boated off a little. Guess they wuz careless, and did n't know how much they took."

Little indiscretions like this soon endeared him to his neighbors. Before long every one up and down the shore knew him, and everybody sent a cheery word flying after him whenever they caught sight of his active, restless figure moving along the vessel's deck, or busy about his dock and wrecking-gear. Even the gruff doctor would crane his head around the edge of his curtained wagon to call out" Good-morning," although he might be clear out of hailing distance.

So passed the winter. With the first breath of spring over the marsh the shanty for the men on the rock was rebuilt and the work resumed.

During all these months the captain never once referred to his early life or associations, or gave me the slightest clue to his antecedents. Now and then he would speak of Jim, his dead mate, as being a "cur'us square man," and occasionally he would refer to the president of the Off-shore Wrecking Company, his former employer, as "that skin." Such information as I did gather about his earlier days was fragmentary and disconnected, and generally came from his men, who idolized him, and who had absolute belief in his judgment and the blindest confidence in his ceaseless care for their personal safety. This care was necessary: the swiftness of the current and sudden changes of wind, bringing in a heavy southeast roll, submerged the rock at wave intervals, while the slippery, slimy surface and the frequent falling of the heavy derricks made the work extremely dangerous. He deserved their confidence, for through his constant watchfulness but one man was hurt on the work during the six years of its construction, and this occurred during the captain's absence.

One morning when tacking across the Race in a small boat in a stiff breeze, with only the captain and myself for crew, I tried to make him talk of himself and his earlier life, and so said, suddenly:

"O Captain Joe! I met a friend of yours yesterday who wished me to ask you how you stopped the leak in the Hoboken ferry-boat, and why you left the employ of the Off-shore Wrecking Company."

He raised his eyes quickly, a smile lighting his weather-beaten face.

"Who was it—the president?" He always spoke of his former employer in that way.

"Yes—but of one of the big insurance companies; not your Wrecking Company."

"No, reck'n not. He ought to keep pretty still about it."

"Tell me about it."

"Oh, there ain't nothin' to tell. She got foul of a tug, and listed some, and I sorter plugged her up till they hauled her into the slip. Been so long ago I 'most forgot about it."

But not another word could be coaxed out of him, except that he remembered that the water was "blamed cold," and his arm was "pretty well tore up for a month."

In the shanty which was built on the completed part of the work, and which sheltered the working force for the three years of this section of the construction, were gathered that night a crew of a dozen men, many of whom had served with Captain Joe when Jim was alive. While the captain was asleep in the little wooden bunk, boarded off' for his especial use, the ceaseless thrash of the sea sounding in our ears, I managed after much questioning and piecing out of personal reminiscences to gather these details.

One morning in January, two years before, when the ice in the Hudson River ran unusually heavy, a Hoboken ferry-boat slowly crunched her way through the floating floes, until the thickness of the pack choked her paddles in mid-river. The weather had been bitterly cold for weeks, and the keen northwest wind had blown the great fields of floating ice into a hard pack along the New York shore. It was the early morning trip and the decks were crowded with laboring men, the drive-ways choked with teams; the women and children standing inside the cabins, a solid mass up to the swinging doors. While she was gathering strength for a further effort, an ocean tug sheered to avoid her, veered a point, and crashed into her sides, cutting, her below the water-line in a great V-shaped gash. The next instant a shriek went up from a hundred throats. Women, with blanched faces, caught terror-stricken children in their arms, while men, crazed with fear, scaled the rails and upper decks to escape the plunging of the overthrown horses. A moment more and the disabled boat careened from the shock and fell over on her beam helpless. Into the V-shaped gash the water poured a torrent. It seemed but a question of minutes before she would lunge headlong below the ice.

Within two hundred yards of both boats, and free of the heaviest ice, steamed the wrecking tug Reliance of the Off-shore Wrecking Company, making her way cautiously up the New Jersey shore to coal at Weehawken. On her deck forward, sighting the heavy cakes, and calling out cautionary orders to the mate in the pilot-house, stood Captain Joe. When the ocean tug reversed her engines after the collision and backed clear of the shattered wheel-house of the ferry-boat, he sprung forward, stooped down, ran his eye along the water-line, noted in a flash every shattered plank, climbed into the pilot-house of his own boat, spun her wheel hard down, and before the astonished pilot could catch his breath ran the nose of the Reliance along the rail of the ferry-boat and dropped upon the latter's deck like a cat.

If he had fallen from a passing cloud the effect could not have been more startling. Men crowded about him and caught at his hands. Women sank on their knees, and hugged their children, and a sudden peace and stillness possessed every soul on board. Tearing a life-preserver from the man nearest him and throwing it overboard, he backed the coward ahead of him through the swaying mob, ordering the people to stand clear, and forcing the whole mass to the starboard side. The increased weight gradually righted the stricken boat, until she regained a nearly even keel.

With a threat to throw overboard any man who stirred, he dropped into the engine-room, met the engineer half way up the ladder, compelled him to return, dragged the mattresses from the crew's bunks, stripped off blankets, racks of clothes, overalls, cotton waste, and rags of carpet, cramming them into the great rent left by the tug's cutwater, until the space of each broken plank was replaced, except one. Through and over this space the water still combed, deluging the floors and swashing down between the gratings into the hold below.

"Another mattress, quick! All gone? A blanket, then—carpet—anythin'—five minutes more and she 'll right herself. Quick, for God's sake!"

It was useless. Everything, even to the oil-rags, had been used.

"Your coat, then. Think of the babies, man; do you hear them?"

Coats and vests were off in an instant; the engineer on his knees, bracing the shattered planking, Captain Joe forcing the garments into the splintered openings.

It was useless. Little by little the water gained, bursting out first below, then on one side, only to be recalked, and only to rush in again.

Captain Joe stood a moment as if undecided, ran his eye searchingly over the engine-room, saw that for his needs it was empty, then deliberately tore down the top wall of calking he had so carefully built up, and, before the engineer could protest, had forced his own body into the gap with his arm outside level with the drifting ice.

An hour later the disabled ferry-boat, with every soul on board, was towed into the Hoboken slip.

When they lifted the captain from the wreck he was unconscious and barely alive. The water had frozen his blood, and the floating ice had torn the flesh from his protruding arm, from shoulder to wrist! An hour later, when the color began to creep back to his cheeks, he opened his eyes, and said to the doctor who was winding the bandages:

"Wuz any of them babies hurt?"

A month passed before he regained his strength, and another week before the arm had healed so that he could get his coat on. Then he went back to his work aboard the Reliance.

In the mean time the Off-shore Wrecking Company had presented a bill to the ferry company for salvage, claiming that the safety of the ferry-boat was due to one of the employees of the Wrecking Company. Payment had been refused, resulting in legal proceedings, which had already begun. The morning following this action Captain Joe was called into the president's office.

"Captain," said that official, "we're going to have some trouble getting our pay for that ferry job. Here's an affidavit for you to swear to."

The captain took the paper to the window and read it through without a comment, then laid it back on the president's desk, picked up his hat, and moved to the door.

"Did you sign it?"

"No; and I ain't a-goin' to."


"'Cause I ain't so durned mean as you be. Look at this arm. Do you think I'd got into that hell-hole if it had n't 'a' been for them women cryin', and the babies a-hollerin'? And you want 'em to pay for it. If your head wuz n't white, I'd mash it."

Then he walked straight to the cashier, demanded his week's pay, waited until the money was counted out, slammed the office door behind him, and walked out cursing like a pirate. The next day he answered my advertisement.

The following year, when the masonry was rapidly nearing the top or coping course, and the five years of labor were bringing forth their fruit,—the foundation and the pier being then almost ready for the keeper's house and lantern, from which since has flashed a welcome light to many a storm-driven coaster,—one lovely spring morning I was sitting overlooking the sea, the rock with its cluster of derricks being just visible far out on the water-line.

Beside me sat a man famous in the literature of our country—one who had embalmed in song and story the heroic deeds of common men, which are now, and will be, household words as long as the language is read. To him I outlined the story, adding:

"It is but half a mile to the captain's cottage, and, being Sunday morning, we shall find him at home; let him tell it in his own way."

We took the broad road skirting the shore, overlooking the harbor with its white yachts glinting against the blue. High up, reveling in the warm sunlight, the gray gulls poised and curved, while across the yellow marshes the tall tower of the harbor light was penciled against the morning sky. Over old fences, patched with driftwood and broken oars and festooned with fishermen's nets, stretched the boughs of apple trees loaded with blossoms, and in scattered sheltered spots the buttercups and dandelions brightened the green grass. A turn in the road, a swinging gate, a flagged path leading to the porch of a low cottage, and a big burly fellow held out both hands. It was Captain Joe. He was in his Sunday best, with white shirt-sleeves, his face clean shaven to the very edge of the tuft on his chin.

With a child on each knee, the younger a new-comer since the building of the lighthouse, we talked of the "work," his neighbors, the "wrack" the winter before,—the one on Fisher's Island, when the captain was drowned,—the late spring, the cussed sou'east wind that kep' a-blowin' till you thought it were n't never goin' to wollup round to the wes'ard again; in short, of everything—but himself.

Beating the bush with allusions to sinking vessels, collisions at sea, suits for salvage, and the like only flushed up such reminiscences as fall to the lot of seafaring men the world over—but nothing more. In despair I put the question straight at him.

"Tell him, Captain Joe, of that morning in the ice off Hoboken, when you boarded the ferry-boat."

He would, but he had 'most forgotten, been so long ago. So many of these things a-comin' up when a man's bangin' round, it's hard to keep track on 'em. Remembered there wuz a mess of people aboard, mostly women and babies, and they wuz all a-hollerin' to wunst. He wuz workin' on the Reliance at the time—captain of her. Come to think of it, he found her log last week in his old sea-chest, when he wuz lookin' for some rubber cloth to patch his divin'-suit. If his wife would get the book out, he guessed it wuz all there. He wuz always partic'ler about keepin' log aboard ship.

When the old well-thumbed book was found he perched his glasses on his nose, and began turning the leaves with that same old thole-pin of a finger, stopping at every page to re-moisten it, and adding a running commentary of his own over the long-forgotten records.

"January 23.—Yes! that's when we worked on the Hurricane. She was sunk off Sandy Hook, loaded with sugar; nasty mess that. It was somewhere about that time, for I remember the water wuz pretty cold, and the ice a-runnin'. Ah! here it is. Knowed I had n't forgot it. You can read it yourself; my eyes ain't so good as they wuz"—pointing to the entry on the ink-stained page.

It read as follows:

"January 30.—Left Jersey City 7 a. m. Ice running heavy. Captain Joe stopped leak in ferry-boat."

F. Hopkinson Smith.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.