The busiest train bridge in America is an unassuming iron swing bridge that spans the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio, rather modestly called the NS South. At almost any time of day you’ll see a procession of freight trains trundling abacus like across it, heading east or west. This line joins New York to Chicago and is a vital artery to much of the rail-supplied mid-west. Some of these trains are three miles long and when we are bound up the Maumee to load or unload grain at the elevators there, we have to tread water and wait, sometimes up to an hour for them to pass. Four times a day they do a shift change which means the train stops, and the crews swap out. This can make the wait even longer. When the current runs strong it becomes difficult to hold position on ships as large as ours. The mate of my watch tells me there used to be a man who had a house on the banks of the Maumee who would fire golf balls from his lawn at the ships as they passed by.
Grain unloads are famously slow. It’s my job as a wheelsman to oversee the cargo as it leaves the holds. This is called ‘spotting cargo’ or ‘calling gates’. Our cargo holds viewed from above resemble an egg carton. There are sloped walls on the outside and a triangular spine, the saddle back, running longitudinally down the centre. There are smaller ribs that run latitudinally from the centre spine to the outer walls, these are called razor backs. Beneath each space where your egg would be is a gate that, when opened, allows cargo to fall onto a belt below which runs it forward and up onto the cargo boom that is swung over the ships side. In this manner we unload.
On board we have five holds, 19 hatches and 39 gates. There are two sides to each gate, port and starboard. When we unload, we do so from stern to bow starting at gates 39 and working forward. On a four hour shift I will stand above, leaning on the hatch lip which is conveniently just below chest height and watch the cargo slide through the gates. Iron ore is loud, fast and stressful while grain is hypnotically slow and relatively silent, hissing as it slides through the gates. It is like watching sand flow from an enormous hourglass, and time does seem to pass slow as I relay to the mate in the control room forward, which gates he should open and close.
It is nighttime and the unload is going particularly slow. A passing train sounds its whistle, and I can hear its brakes squeal and the clickety-clack of its wheels. I remember when I first moved to the UK and I lived in Wembley on the outskirts of London in a grotty old house. There were tracks nearby and I would often be woken by the sound of the mornings first train at 0430. I’d dread getting up and going to the job I didn’t particularly care for in a country I had yet to find my feet in, and the sound of the train was a comfort to me then; lying there in my small damp room, on cold winter mornings when the frost clung to the windowpanes.
One of the deck hands is doing his rounds and he stops for a chat and I bum a cigarette and smoke, even though I don’t smoke anymore.
Out here our time is measured in the watches we keep day to day and in the cargo, we haul and disperse throughout the Great Lakes Region. The speed and ease of this is either aided and abetted or stymied and slowed by the weather and the the season and it’s presiding mood. It can get a little like Groundhog Day, in the dog days of summer, the same interminable thing over and over again. In the past this was remedied by going ashore and ‘splicing the main brace’, a nautical euphemism for getting drunk, and this, though frowned upon, still occurs on occasion, though mostly our schedule is prohibitively tight and anyway, in the time of Covid shore leave is not allowed. I have occupied my spare time of late running anywhere from 6 to 10 kms up and down the deck every day. In the rivers, with banks close on either side, it is almost like running ashore.
In any male dominated arena locker room antics will doubtless prevail. Last night as he queued for his plate of food, one of our mates, F., was in deep discussion with the chef, a tall, thin man, who because of his good nature has ended up being the ersatz psychologist on board, when the 12-4 wheelsman, came up behind F. and yanked his shorts down, unaware that he had chosen to go commando that evening. Thus all in the galley were privy to a sight they would have rather not seen before they ate, and our chef was treated to a full-frontal glimpse of the husky second mate, steaming plate in his hands, al fresco from the waist down. Retaliation was swift and brutal and resulted in the waist elastic of the wheelsman’s boxers being hiked up over his head in atomic fashion. And so, the days pass.
It’s summer. Soon it won’t be. For now the night is humid, grain dust clings to my skin and another cargo flows through our holds. In a weeks’ time I’ll be getting off the ship for my leave and I can almost taste the first beer. A train passes, its whistle sounds mournfully in the distance. Sometimes I’ll look up at the bridge just aft of where we’re moored. Its occupied more often than its not. All those cars. An endless yarn of locomotion, threading through the American night, bound somewhere far from here. And the NS South Bridge, the busiest bridge in all the country, or at least that’s what I’ve been told, and why should I believe any different?