River Traffic is the title of my upcoming novel about a Merchant Seaman during the early days of WW2. It sprang from a lifetime’s interest in tug boats and their work as well as family connections in what I always thought were very widely removed cities: Brooklyn and New Orleans. Walter Scott Reilly seems to lead a double life, and the particulars surrounding his death in Cristobal, Panama at the end of a secret mission towing important materials into the South Pacific seem to have been lost in the shuffle as is his connection to his Brooklyn family.
I’ve been working at this for several years now and have taken the time to travel to NOLA enough that I feel very much at home there as in Red Hook, Brooklyn where much of the story takes place. During my research, I found that at the end corner of the old Atlantic Wharves in South Brooklyn, stands a series of direction and distance signs to various ports outside New York Metro. One of those signs shows the distance to New Orleans. I learned during the research phase of this project, that, in fact, the two cities had very strong family connections and even similar speech patterns and pronunciations. The two cities, it turns out, though separated by many miles over water, remain quite connected in many ways including blood. Here is an excerpt from the opening draft chapter in River Traffic…
Opening Excerpt from River Traffic
by Richard Sutton
Cristobal, Canal Zone, October 1944
First Mate Walter S. Reilly sat in the park thumbing his rosary while studying his shoelaces. There was enough shade here to block most of the sun’s late afternoon heat. His ruddy coloring and light blue eyes didn’t get along too well with the tropics, but he never let that stop him. A light breeze was coming in off the water, cooling him almost to the point of comfort. But comfort alone wasn’t why he was here. He could close his eyes, inhale the wet, jungle smell as it mixed with the salty air, and if he let his mind wander enough, it almost felt like… home.
While the sun continued its fall into the distant horizon, the shadows under the eyes of the looming stone Jesus grew sterner and sterner. In Reilly’s mind, there was nothing playing there but accusation and blame, so a stern demeanor suited the Lord’s face just fine. Last night’s bottle hadn’t sat too well, but there was always today’s… waiting. He settled back, waiting for his stomach to quiet down a bit more as the breeze wafted over him, sending him back. Back in time and back over the miles. Back home. But which one?
A prayer asking forgiveness began to form in his constricted mind but he was sending it out, not to the Savior, but to his wife. The one farthest north. Maybe to both of them, so maybe he could just nap for a few minutes, first. He settled back against the bench and let his legs straighten out in front of him. As Reilly’s eyes slowly closed, his chin settled against his chest.
* * * *
“Wha’z that?” The military cop who’d brought the dead seaman in, leaned over the examination table and stared at the dirty linoleum floor. He’d heard the sound of a coin, or a key, or some small metal object hit the floor as they rolled the body over. Normally, Chief Petty Officer Hastings didn’t get involved once he’d completed the forms and dropped the corpse, but today, the examiner was missing his assistant, Guillermo, who’d left early for a family quinceanera. Annoying was the least of it. The way they ran things down here, it amazed him they ever got anything done, or right.
“Y’ hear that? Somthin’ must’ve fell out his pockets.”
The Examiner, Dr. Nunez y Chavez, glanced down, then stood back from the rust-streaked table to see if he could spot whatever Hastings heard. “I see nothing on my side…” His eye caught a glint of metal caught in a broken-off section of torn flooring under the table’s edge. “Wait – there is something. A coin?”
Nunez y Chavez bent over stiffly, one hand upon the table to steady himself and came back up holding a small, light brass coin. He offered it to Hastings, who took it and held it up to the light for a better look.
“Well… I’ll be damned. It’s a Brooklyn Trolley token! “ A smile crept across Hasting’s face as full recognition set in. Brooklyn. That was a place he knew pretty well. Then he wrinkled up his dark eyebrows and said, aloud, “But… I thought this guy was from… “ He reached over to where the departed seaman’s billfold was lying near a pocket knife in a chipped, white porcelain tray. He flipped it open and ran his fingers over the contents, then pulled out a small card. “Yeah, this guy Reilly was from New Orleans. Wonder why he carried around a token for a Brooklyn trolley?”
The Examiner raised his hands, palms up. “There’s no saying why these men do anything. Why do they drink so much? Why do they fight so much? Can you tell me?”
“Not me, Doc. It’s a mystery.” Hastings lifted his palm up towards the light, where the filigree pattern of lines on the token caught the light. He gave it one more glance, then put the billfold and the token back into the tray. He asked the Examiner what he wanted him to do, adding, “You think I should wear some gloves?”
“Why bother. No blood or vomit – there’s a sink and some soap in the corner if you have hesitation or something about handling the dead. They are just dead.”
“Nah. I got no problems with that – I bring lots of ‘em in.” Hastings didn’t really like it much, but didn’t want his squeamishness to show. They removed the dead man’s boots and socks, and tossed them on the floor, then began removing his clothes to inspect the corpse for signs of injury. After turning it over once more, the Examiner reached for his clipboard. There was always a new Certificate of Death ready to go, and he began filling out what he could. “Chief Hastings? You know his captain? Moresell?”
“I think so… yeah!” Hastings had already taken several steps back from the table, adding, “Why y’ask?”
“Well, someone needs to contact him so he can make positive… uh, I.D., you know?”
“I guess I can find him. Their tug is over at the Pilot Quay. He’ll be around a few more days now, since he’s gonna hav’ta find a new Mate, eh?”
“Today would be best.”
There was such a tone of finality in the Examiner’s voice, Hastings just repeated him. “Today.”
Dr. Nunez y Chavez glanced at the clock on the wall then back to the table, where he lifted the dead man’s arm and tried to work the wrist joint. “When did you say you found him?”
“It wazzn’t me. Some kid said he was just lyin’ on a bench all the way up the Paseo to the Kid’s Park across from that Jesus Statue. Thought he was just sleepin’. I think the little bastard was gonna roll ‘im or somethin’, you know? But he got scared and found me eatin’ my breakfast on the corner. Brought me over to the bench.”
“Yes, yes, but what time was it?”
“Oh, yeah… maybe eight forty?”
Nunez y Chavez looked up towards the high window on the far wall. Without turning back to Hastings, he said, “He must have been there all night.”
* * * *
The deceased’s big oceangoing tow tug, USMMC Libby Island, lay snug against the quay wall between two barges. Hastings stood leaning on a bollard until he saw some activity, then he called out, “Cap’n Moresell ‘round?”
A seaman on his way to the engine room heard Hastings’ shout. “Yeah – I’ll get ‘im for ya,” he called back, heading below. In a few minutes, the wheelhouse door swung open and a large, rough looking customer wearing the scrambled eggs on his cap’s visor walked over to the nearest rail and called down to Hastings, “Whaddya want, Hastings? You got trouble?”
“Yeah. Sorry, Cap, but we found your mate.”
“Where is the sonofabitch anyway? He was supposed to be aboard by now? You got Reilly in the brig?”
“Nope. He’s dead, Cap.” Hastings hated to deliver this kind of news dockside. He added, “The Examiner needs positive ID and … well, I didn’t really know him.”
“Jesus. Why the hell not? You hauled him in twice this week alone!”
Hastings shuffled his feet, then replied, “Yeah, but Somebody’s gotta take his belongings and notify the next of kin. I can’t do that. That’s your job, I guess.”
“Yeah, yeah. My job.” The gruff tug captain turned and started down the gangway to deck level. The stair rungs echoed a hollow metal sound. He walked over to where the bulwark was gated. A wide wooden plank lay across the gap to the dock. It bent a bit, Hastings noticed, as the big man stepped across it.
Hastings gave him the details and the time. Moresell just rubbed his chin, his head shaking slowly back and forth. Finally, the tug captain said, “OK, I’ll get down there in an hour. That OK with you?”
“No problem at all. See ya ‘round!” Hastings replied cheerily, almost free of this stupid detail.
He headed towards the base, where he’d have to rehash it all over again, explaining why he was late to report. Then there were the forms. As he passed a clump of palm trees that leaned out over the seawall, he noticed the slick, greasy water rising and falling in a slow rhythm like one of those dance numbers he always heard in the bars here. Hastings had been thinking how ridiculous it was for him to be planted down here in Rummy Heaven with a war on, since he was posted here last October. There must be some place he could do something better than this. Maybe shoot some Germans or Japs? Deep down, he even wished he were back home in New York. At least at the Navy Yards, there was more to do than round up drunks and haul dead sailors to the morgue. A parrot flew overhead. The flash of its bright colors just made him feel worse. It made him more homesick. Damned token. he thought, why’d the stiff have to have that BRT token anyway?
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