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In 2001, journalist Jessica DuLong ditched her dot-com desk job for the diesel engines of a rusty antique fireboat, the John J. Harvey, and the storied waters of the Hudson River. My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson tells the story of this mechanic's daughter and Stanford graduate who had left her blue-collar upbringing behind until the fireboat drew her back, offering a chance to become an engineer and a taste of home she hadn't realized she was missing.
The more time DuLong spent toiling in the engine room, running the boat's finely crafted machinery, the more she wondered what America is losing in our shift away from handson work. These questions crystallized in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, attacks, when the FDNY called the retired fireboat back into service, and DuLong and the rest of the boat's civilian crew pumped water to fight blazes at Ground Zero. As blue-collar workers clambered on the pile, DuLong was struck by the dignity of physical labor and the honor of having joined the world of skilled labor whose talents were useful at the site.
DuLong brings her two worlds vibrantly to life in this beautifully written memoir that evokes the vitality of New York City's bygone working waterfront and the Hudson River, a birthplace of American industry. Blending four centuries of Hudson River history with unforgettable present-day characters and events, DuLong offers a porthole-view narrative of the river and its social tapestry as a microcosm of postindustrial America. As she tracks changes along the shoreline, where industrial sites give way to recreational respites, a celebration of American labor and craftsmanship emerges. While searching along the river's edge for the meaning of work in America, DuLong pays homage to our industrial past and raises important questions about the future at this pivotal moment in our national story.
My River Chronicles is a journey with an extraordinary guide, a woman who bridges blue-collar and white-collar worlds and turns a phrase as deftly as she does a wrench. Soulful and illuminating, My River Chronicles is a deeply personal story of a unique woman's discovery of her own roots -- and America's -- as she runs the fireboat's diesels on the ever-changing river that flows both ways.
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Jessica DuLong, a U.S. Coast Guard-licensed Merchant Marine Officer, is one of the world’s only female fireboat engineers. She’s also a journalist whose work has appeared in Newsweek International, Rolling Stone, Psychology Today, CosmoGIRL!, Parenting, Today’s Machining World, and Maritime Reporter & Engineering News, and other publications. Her passion for the Hudson River took shape at her post in the diesel exhaust-filled engine room of retired New York City Fireboat John J. Harvey, where temperatures climb to 130 degrees. The 1931 vessel, dubbed “Ambassador of the Hudson,” now operates as a living museum, offering free public trips around New York Harbor and an annual whistle-stop tour up the Hudson River, with DuLong at the engine-room controls.
On September 11, 2001, Fireboat John J. Harvey was called out of retirement to pump water at the World Trade Center site. The John J. Harvey’s civilian crew, including DuLong, pumped water alongside FDNY crews for four days. Later recognized in the Congressional Record for “ensuring constant smooth running of the engines” during her service in the days following the attacks, she was also immortalized as a character in Maira Kalman’s award-winning children’s book, FIREBOAT: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, and featured in Ben Gibberd’s New York Waters. DuLong’s boating and writing worlds first collided with the publication of her essay “Below Decks” in the anthology Steady As She Goes: Women’s Adventures At Sea (Seal Press, 2003)–a piece that was singled out in Publishers Weekly as “stylish” and a “high point” of the collection.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
IF THE CANARIES found it in their hearts to sing, no one could hear them. One minute they were flitting about the treetops in Germany’s Harz Mountains. The next they had been netted and stowed in the belly of the steamship Muenchen. Each bird perched in its own tiny wooden cage that hung side by side with six other birds in six other cages, all swinging from a single wooden rod. Then another rod with seven cages, and another, and another. Seven thousand caged birds swayed in the cargo hold as the ship’s bow cut through the squally sea.
Twelve storm-tossed nights after the birds—involuntary immigrants—had departed Bremen, Germany, they arrived in New York harbor, two days behind schedule. On Tuesday, February 11, 1930, as the ship approached Manhattan’s Pier 42, no one knew that the cargo in nearby Hold Six had already begun to smolder. The 499 sacks of potash, forty drums of shellac, 386 rolls of newsprint, 234 bales of peat moss, along with steel and aluminum, all stored side by side, were a recipe for a mighty conflagration.
Two hours after the steamship’s arrival on Manhattan’s West Side, four longshoremen stood in Hold Six, unloading bags of potash— fertilizer bound for New England farms. They heard a crackling noise, and a streak of blue flame shot up from the sacks at their feet. They stamped on the smoldering bags trying to smother the flames, but soon thick black smoke filled the hold. The men, coughing and choking, scrambled for safety as huge tongues of flame began to lick out above the deck. The blaze spread quickly to other cargo holds, and within minutes fire consumed the whole rear of the ship.
An electric pulse from the New York City Fire Department’s dispatch office snapped through telegraph wires to ring a bell in the station house at Pier 53, fourteen city blocks away. A specific sequence of clangs summoned Engine Company 86 to the scene. Firefighters readied hoses and engineers stoked the boilers of fireboat Thomas Willett, and pilot John Harvey hurried to the helm. Surely he could already smell the burning. With more than two decades’ experience on the job, Harvey took the wheel, signaled the engine room, and the Willett steamed south at full throttle.
Meanwhile, the Muenchen’s crew, with the aid of longshoremen, hooked up a hose from the pier and raised it on a boom to reach the upper deck. But the hose line was frozen. Soon the billowing smoke was so dense that the men standing near the hatch were scarcely visible to spectators gathering on the pier, a crowd that by day’s end would number ten thousand. None of the firefighters rushing to the scene, by land or by river, knew then what Hold Six contained.
At 11:30 a.m., fireboat Willett rounded up on the south side of the pier. The whole stern of the Muenchen was aflame. Directed by the battalion chief, Harvey brought the boat as close to the fire as he could. He had no idea he was sidling up to a bomb.
© 2009 Jessica DuLong
SEVENTY-TWO YEARS later, nothing more than a pegboard forest of disintegrated pilings remains of Pier 42, where pilot John Harvey met his fate. Today is Memorial Day 2002, and we, the crew of retired New York City fireboat John J. Harvey, are preparing to pay homage to our boat’s namesake.
Pilot Bob Lenney, who steered this vessel for more than twenty years while the boat still served the FDNY Marine Division, noses her slender bow toward the stubby remnants of the covered pier—a grid of timbers, their rotting tips sticking out just a foot or so above the water’s surface. Chief engineer Tim Ivory swings a leg over the side, clutching a small bouquet of all-white flowers that he has duct-taped to the end of a broken broom handle. A crowd gathers on the bow as he leans out over the water, holding on with just one leg, to stab the jagged handle-end into the top of one of the crumbling piles.
I know all this only by way of hearsay and pictures. From where I stand belowdecks, my fingers curled around the smooth brass levers that power the propellers in response to Bob’s commands, I can’t watch it unfold. Because I, fireboat Harvey’s engineer, stand in the engine room the whole time we’re under way, this ceremony, like all the rest, is to me just another series of telegraph orders: Slow Ahead on the starboard side; Slow Astern on the port.
Between shifts of the levers, I steal glimpses of the harbor through the portholes—round windows just above the river’s rippled surface. Above decks, pilots use the Manhattan skyline for their points of reference, to know where they are or where they’re headed. Here, belowdecks, I use low-lying landmarks: the white tents where fast ferries load, the numinous blue lights in South Cove, the new concrete poured to straighten Pier 53 (which firefighters call the Tiltin’ Hilton) where, on February 11, 1930, FDNY Marine Division pilot John Harvey signaled his deck crew to drop lines and shot south at the helm of fireboat Thomas Willett on his final run.
Nearly three-quarters of a century after his death, as the fireboat named in his honor leaves the pegboard forest, I hold my own private memorial service, issuing a silent prayer. It’s something of a thank-you and something of a nod of acknowledgment: We remember. I whisper about the work we’ve put into preserving the boat over the past year. I tell him about rewiring shorted-out circuits. About our efforts to dis- and reassemble failing, rusty pump parts. About coating her steel surfaces with protective epoxy paints. All this, I explain, is done, in part, to pay homage to him—the man who lives on through this fireboat.
As the boat pushes through the water, I stand at my post, sweating. Though I can’t hear the slosh of bilgewater over the growl of the engines, I can watch it through gaps in the diamond-plate floor. Like every steel vessel, this boat fights a constant, silent battle with the salt water that buoys her. The river seeps through little openings in her seventy-one-year-old skin. It trickles, etching burnt orange stains into the thick white paint that coats the riveted hull. Sometimes the boat rolls and sways and a splash of green overwhelms my porthole view. That’s when I remember that I’m underwater. Less than a half-inch of steel plate separates me from the river.
Only after we’ve pulled away can I make out, through a porthole, a small speck of white where the flowers stand tall in the May sunshine. As the speck disappears against the muted gray of the concrete bulkhead at the water’s edge, the significance of the ceremony fades into the everyday rhythms of the machinery.
When I moved to New York City from San Francisco in 2000, I had never heard of a fireboat. Now I have found a home in the engine room of a boat born four decades before I was. During long stretches at the controls, when the drone of engines drowns out the mental clutter of my landside life, I wonder about the men stationed here before me. Did they feel left out of the action down here in the cellar? Did they chain-smoke, read, play cards to pass the time while they waited for the pilot’s next command? Career guys, most of them. Firefighters, with an engineering bent. Irish and Italian. Their uncles, fathers, and brothers—firefighters before them—had laid down the paving stones that marked their nepotistic path.
There were no paving stones for me. My father is a car mechanic in Massachusetts. I’m here only by blissful accident, having stumbled aboard in February 2001—a naive young upstart with a university degree. A bubble-salaried dot-commer. A striving, big-city editor. A woman.
When I look at the black-and-white photographs of old-time crews—ranks of short-haired men, some young, shirtless, and grinning; others defiant; a few older ones, impassive, their stern expressions suggesting what a handful the younger ones can be—I want to know them. But I’m not sure the feeling would be mutual. These men probably never imagined that someone like me would be running their boat, their engines. All my compulsive investigations began as an attempt to bridge that gap. The distance between us is what first fueled my fascination with the fireboat’s history—a fascination that escalated to obsession, then swelled to encompass the history of the Hudson River, whose industries helped forge the nation. I’ve since fallen in love with workboats, with engineering, with the Hudson.
As American society continues to become more virtual, less hands-on, I’m a salmon swimming upstream. I have come to view the transformation of our country through a Hudson River lens. More and more, my days are defined by physical work—shifting levers, turning wrenches, welding steel. As I work and research, a picture begins to form of the history of American industry mapped through personal landmarks. As the United States faces economic upheaval that challenges us to rethink who we want to be as a nation, I have discovered that it pays to take stock of who we have been: a country of innovators and doers, of people who make things, of workers who toil, sweat, and labor with their hands.
My own, personal compulsion to understand the country’s progression was born out of the ashes of the steamship Muenchen. Maybe not being able to witness, firsthand, the leaving of the flowers is what drives me to dig up the details.
Classic Fireboats in Action 1900-1950 isn’t available on DVD, so when it arrives in a brown padded envelope, I have to pull the TV down from a shelf in the closet instead of just sliding a disc into my laptop. Perched in front of the twelve-by-eight-inch screen that I’ve wired to an old VCR, I rewind the tape over and over again, playing back the same scenes, dredging for details. I slow it down, letting the video advance ...
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Book Description Tantor Media, 2009. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1400114136
Book Description Tantor Media, 2009. Compact Disc. Condition: Brand New. unabridged edition. 5.50x6.50x1.00 inches. In Stock. Seller Inventory # 1400114136