After seven consecutive years on the oceans between Oahu and every other island in the Hawaiian chain, a shipping barge begins to show a little age. In order to ensure that this barge doesn’t give up the ghost mid-journey, thereby sullying the Hawaiian seas with an assortment of used up rental cars, garbage, next week’s milk, and a dizzying array of folding beach chairs, the barge is taken out of the water, and inspected.
In order to inspect the barge, a hole is cut in the bottom of each 40 foot section of the four section vessel. The cavernous interior of each section is fully sand blasted and further inspected for any metal fatigue. This hole, in order to keep structural integrity of the section, is small. It is a pill shaped opening about two and a half feet by one and a half feet. It is big enough to allow access for one person at a time, with room for a few sand blast hoses and maybe an extra extension cord for lights and good keeping. Once the roughly 15 tons of sand blast grit is blown into the bowels of the barge to get a good look at the interior hull, that blast grit needs to be removed.
When I arrived at my new assignment at the Kapolei shipyard, I didn’t know what to expect. After four weeks on the job, I had been reassigned from the small and enjoyable assignment at the ‘in-town’ shipyard, where I’d been learning the practical uses of the forklifts, to the out of town yard. Little did I know that the out of town yard was the busy one, with all the refitting work.
I climbed out of my car on that beautiful cloudless day, and began to trek across the arid crushed coral of the parking lot. The white coral lot and the clear blue Hawaiian sky almost required sunglasses, and it was only 7AM. As I entered the yard and began looking for my new supervisor he saw me from across the yard, and yelled my name. I must have been the only haole under 250 lbs. who was not wearing an Aloha shirt and khaki pants, so it couldn’t have been too hard to spot me.
I try not to pre-judge anybody before I’ve actually met them, but this guy was perhaps the most muscular, no BS, bald, ‘not thrilled to see a haole college boy on my jobsite’ fellow, I’ve ever met. To make matters worse for me, his name was Melvin, and he could not have looked more unlike a man named Melvin. Mel, I could have seen. Vin, I could have seen. If he’d have said his name was Thud I could have accepted that too, but he said Melvin with such conviction I nearly bit my tongue in half trying to keep a straight face. Melvin handed me a respirator and something papery and white in a bag. He pointed to another new guy he also knew by name and gave him the same equipment. Then we started walking.
When we got to where we needed to be I was looking up at a not very big hole on the bottom of a very big barge. I put my white suit over my jeans and tee quietly, and tested the fit of my respirator. With little fanfare Melvin handed me a single 40 watt bulb attached to single incandescent work light, a flathead shovel and pointed me towards the ladder that half filled the hole. As I walked towards the ladder I heard him say to my co-worker, “Make sure this is done by four.” With that, I started climbing the ladder, and recognized I was climbing into a black hole.
Once inside, I managed to find the lone electrical outlet by following the cord from the entry hole. I plugged in the work light. It was the visual antithesis of dropping a black coffee from a ski lift in a blizzard. You can see there is something, something different there, but it just doesn’t matter, because it is so inconsequential. Even the entry hole in the hull provided more light, and it was on the bottom of the hull, forty feet away. My co-worker entered the hole quietly in his whitesuit and we began to dig 15 tons of black sand through a hole smaller than the opening of a Coleman cooler.
After 3 hours we took a break. It was 10:30, and we climbed out into the bright, bright world. It had gotten a bit hotter since 7AM and we could both tell there was a possibility of some serious heat inside the hull of black giant as the afternoon progressed. We had about 4 tons of black sand spilled through the hole on the ground, so I said I thought things looked pretty good. I got a grunt from my fellow digger, and as I finished my water and turned to re-enter the dark zone, I heard my co-horts white suit swooshing. I turned and watched in mild amusement as he bolted for the parking lot. “Fudge” said I, and I climbed back up into the darkness.
I kept digging the grit throughout the morning, and finally broke for lunch late. I ate under the massive hull to keep from the sun, which to my mind had gone from hot to scorching. The stagnant air in the enclosed hull section didn’t move at all, it just got hotter and more dense with dust. And the white suit I wore was a deep grey, with obvious wet spots where my sweat was amking its way through the fabric. I must have eventually gotten some sort of rhythm going, because by four I was brooming the last pile of grit out the hole. Sopping wet, grit colored grey and exhausted, when I finished I threw my shovel, the light and the cord through the aperture to the lit world. I followed the tools onto the enormous pile of sand that almost reached the bottom of the hull, and was blinded by the brilliance of the light reflecting off the white coral. As my eyes tried to adapt I could tell somebody was approaching me, some one large.
“Where’s the other guy?” asked Melvin, sounding a little peeved, and looking kinda puffed up.
I confessed, “Uh, he left at 10:30, or something like that.”
As my eyes were still adjusting, I saw this huge guy looking at me, he was considering what to do.
“Are you finished?” he asked.
“Yeah, it’s all clear in there. You can check if you like; I’m heading home.” I replied, feigning to exit, but knowing Melvin was going to check. I waited for him to climb the mound of sand to look through the hull portal.
He turned to me and it surprised me enormously when he smiled. For a huge and scary guy, he had the happiest, most easy going smile. He looked at me in a completely changed face and said “Listen, just walk into the ocean, you look beat. Just walk into the ocean and drive home in a towel or something. Nice work. See you tomorrow.” Flabbergasted, that just what I did, and the water was as nice as anything I’ve ever been in.
I saw the kid that I’d started that dig out with weeks later, but I saw him from the cab of a 40 ton forklift that Melvin taught me to operate. That guy should have learned his tools with MANVIL cards and stuck with it. C’mon in, the water’s great.