Smoke Signals
12 June 2023

I waited for customs in the warm yellow light of the grain elevator in Toledo, Ohio. From where I perched on the bollard beside the aft accommodation ladder, if I craned my neck and leaned forward, I could see the dock and anyone approaching. I sipped tea from my battle worn but redoubtable Yeti travel mug and smoked a rollie as I read about the bloody business that was the Haitian slave rebellion and periodically glanced at my watch. The captain had told me to expect customs between 2000 and 2100 and it was 2105 when I finally saw a uniformed figure at the gate, dwarfed as he was by the high, ribbed walls of the cement silo.

Here’s our guy,’ I said to the chief mate over the VHF radio as I stood up and put down my book. He had a swift, athletic gait and when he got to just below me, knowing that some guys are squeamish about the height, I yelled down from the top of the ladder and asked him if he’d prefer me to come down with the paperwork.

‘No. I’ll come up,’ he shouted back over the roar of the ship’s generator and unloading gear.

From above, his black hair seemed glossy, almost reflective in the light, and when he got closer I could see it was shellacked tight against his scalp with Brylcreem. I have often fancied the idea of slicking my hair back. Going full grease ball as is my birth right. A Pacino/Macchio, Godfather/Outsiders kind of vibe. As yet my efforts have not been concerted, nor has any product been able to temper the stubborn resistance of the hair on my crown which grows insistently vertical.

‘Evening officer,’ I said as he stepped on deck. He said something unintelligible through the mask he was wearing. Whether for covid or grain dust or the smoke from the dozens of wildfires raging across Canada, I couldn’t tell. I led him into the crew mess and left him at the table where the binder with all the relevant documents were and I ran up to get the new crew member who needed to be cleared into the country.

[It is the onerous task out here, for all of the captains in our fleet to fill out customs paperwork for every member of the crew and the ship and cargo every time we enter an American port which is just about every other day. I would say this occupies as much of their time as actually piloting the vessel does.]

‘I helped myself to some cookies,’ he said, his mask now removed, when I returned with Conor our new deckhand.

‘That’s what they’re there for,’ I said. Our chef Jeff’s famous oatmeal cookies are only marginially less addictive than crack cocaine and the reason I can no longer see my abs.

The officer was in his mid-fifties. He had a swarthy complexion and wore black-framed designer glasses. He bore himself with the confidence that many in uniform possess. He was that rarest of things in the United States: thin. Sinewy even. He took Conor’s passport, looked him up and down and handed it back.

‘You’re done,’ he said, dismissing Conor who slipped off back to bed.

I often have to deal with customs agents out here and anyone who has travelled to the states will know that there is no more officious pedant under the sun than a US customs agent. That being said, the guys we deal with on the ships, with the exception of an exceptionally unpleasant woman in the Upper Michigan office, are very nice to deal with.

I had not encountered this guy before and unlike his fellow officers who, though polite remain laconic at best, I could tell he was itching to chat as he made his way methodically through the papers the captain had left him. I have always wondered if these guys choose where they’re posted, the US being the size that it is, and I asked him as much.

‘Yeah we can pretty much go wherever we like,’ he said as he rubber stamped another piece of paper. ‘I worked pre-clearance in Montreal for four years. Loved it. My wife –now ex-wife-wanted to come back home though and we have a kid and well, you know how that goes. He’s got one year left of high school. When he’s finished I’m out of here. We can work anywhere in the world too. Brazil, China, Europe…’

‘Pre-clearance?’ I asked.

‘No CSI.’

‘What? Like the TV show,’ I said.

‘Ha-ha. No. Container ship inspection.’

I asked him what brings them the most trouble in the port of Toledo, which between the ships and the trains he tells me, is the busiest port on the lakes.

‘Surprisingly, it’s our own ships,’ he said. ‘Guys trying to smuggle stuff in. And of course the salties. We’ll get the occasional absconder.’

‘Absconder?’ I asked.

‘An illegal jumping ship.’

I nodded.

‘We have an absconder in our fleet,’ I said, and told him about ‘Jimmy Jimmy’ who jumped off a Polish fishing boat in Montreal in the early ‘80’s and is now a much-liked 2nd mate on one of our other ships.

‘Do you? That’s great,’ he said with an empathy you would not expect a customs officer of the United States of America to possess.

‘Is he a citizen now?’ he asked.

‘He is,’ I said.

‘Good. Good for him.’

He arranged the paperwork and slid it back in the folder.

‘OK. You guys are good to go.’

As he stood up and made to leave he grabbed a few more cookies from the Tupperware container by the coffee station.

‘Do you mind?’ he asked as he did so. He told me more war stories as we walked. One about the security at the Mondalez dock down river.

‘Those guys are just assholes,’ he said. His voice adopting a tone of exasperation. ‘I went in there once to clear a ship and the security guard stops me. Says you need to wait here. I said I’m a customs officer, I need to go in and clear the ship. He says well ok but I’m going to have to wand you before you go in’ [meaning sweep him with one of those wands you get swabbed with in security at the airport]. And at this point he stops and looks at me and spreads his arms akimbo and nods down to his belt where there is a Glock, handcuffs, a can of mace and a Billy stick.

‘Are you fucking kidding me I told them!’

When we got to the ladder he asked me about the C______ [the ship in our fleet that caught fire last week and had to be evacuated].

‘That’s the second ship you guys have lost to fire in two years,’ he said [referring to the T_____ which burnt four years ago].

‘Yeah. They say this one is salvageable though. They’re saying she’ll only be down for a couple of months. Obviously the crew are worried about their jobs.’

‘Of course they are. Two months is a long time in this business…at least nobody was hurt.’

‘At least nobody was hurt,’ I repeated.

‘Anyway…Thanks for the cookies,’ he said through a mouthful as he held the half-eaten remnants of one up in a gesture of gratitude before cramming it in his mouth and swinging himself onto the ladder.

‘Have a good night officer’ I said.

‘You too buddy. Be safe out there.’

I watched him climb down and walk down the length of the dock. He stopped at one point and re-affixed the mask to his face. I never did ask him what he was wearing it for.

For the last week the sky has been overcast and it was only after a few days that I realized it was not only cloud but smoke. And while it cast the sky an unfamiliar shade of orange, and made for one quite spectacular sunrise, it has not affected the air quality where we sail. After the last bleak pronouncement, I posted, a friend messaged me.

‘At least you got out before the wildfire smoke descended on Toronto. Just brutal,’ she wrote.

Man’s capacity for cruelty and hubris is bottomless, as the book I am reading – about the unthinkable horror, the holocaust of the African slave trade – will attest. So is his greed. And all three are related. In this country we are currently book-ended by out of control wild-fires. You can literally see the smoke in the sky. It is the exam room equivalent of being tapped on the shoulder and handed the answers. And yet to many the words global warming or climate change remain an object of derision. Taboo. Amongst the good men and women that crew the fleet of ships on which I work, I am, as a ‘believer, very much in the minority. I am aware that I’m a hypocrite too, with my florid and inconsequential editorials which I write at the desk, in my cabin,on the ship where I work. Where in 24 hours’ time we will be loading coal from the blasted-out hilltops of West Virginia to feed the furnace at Essar steel in the Canadian Soo. I am complicit. Part of the problem. But beyond the pathology; the mean–spiritedness and misinformation that drives conspiracy theorists and fake news proponents there lies a more comprehensible lethargy. After all, it is easier to apportion blame and defer agency then it is to accept it. Any kid in the schoolyard can tell you that.

But there is of course, much more at stake here then a broken window or a black eye. Our home is burning. The oceans are dying. There will no longer be ice in the arctic in the summer. And unfortunately, and to our great shame, any kid in the schoolyard can also tell you that.

80 years ago, all over Europe, beyond the smoke of smouldering cities, there was further smoke, and some people claimed not to have known where it was coming from. Despite seeing their neighbours disappear. Despite their hearing the slamming of the cattle-car doors.