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By Monica Nawrocki

Tug Boat Platter by Ester Strijbos

Tug Boats

It was my big brother who taught me about tug boats.

Ben taught me many things, of course, but he was unaware of most of them: how to spit; that as long as Mother doesn’t see, it’s okay to pee in the yard; and that we pretend the dog is a nuisance until no-one is looking, then we love him up like a teddy bear.

In spite of our nine-year age difference, I felt we shared a lot of interests and I pestered him constantly to include me in his activities.

I wanted to go to Scouts. Not for girls.

I wanted to ride bikes with him. Couldn’t keep up.

I wanted to go to his school when I started grade one. No amount of patient explanation by my father would satisfy me. I was ready for high school by 7:00 am the first day of September in my 6th year, but alas, another bitter disappointment.

Turns out, some of those rejections were out of Ben’s hands – like when he took his driving test. I was up at dawn that day and even wore a dress – that’s how serious I was – but to my dismay, I was left at home. Always one to trade impotent anger for I-told-you-so action, I watched the driveway for my chance over the next few days. As soon as the coast was clear, I jumped into our baby blue Dodge Dart, popped it into reverse and was immediately confronted with the wisdom of not issuing licenses to seven-year-olds. Unable to operate the foot pedals while seeing over the steering wheel, let alone into the review mirror, I threw her into park with a jolt, returned the keys to the peg inside the back door, and let the subject drop once and for all. Especially when my parents interrogated Ben about why the car was parked at the bottom of the driveway blocking the sidewalk with the rear bumper hanging out into the street.

More than anything, though, I wanted to play soccer with Ben. By the time I got my first ball, he had been playing in a league for six years. I assumed the gift of Ben’s hand-me-down ball would be followed-up with league registration as soon as I learned to play and so I was at the park every day, flying recklessly through the crowd of dawdling walkers and stroller-pushers, chasing my soccer ball with dogged pursuit and shouting rushed apologies over my shoulder as I went.

One day, I returned from the park and announced I was ready to join the soccer league. Another stunning blow awaited and I was inexplicably signed up to play with a herd of small children. My brother and his teammates were nowhere in sight. I returned home at the end of my first match, stomped into my bedroom and slammed the door. Once Mother finished phoning the parents of all the children I had knocked down during the game, she came to my room and explained – again – that my brother and his activities were out of my reach until I was bigger.

“Fig Newtons!” I retorted. “I am big enough for lots of things and I hate soccer anyway and I’m never going back, so there.”

Mother’s patience expired with a soft sigh. “We paid the registration and bought you new running shoes so you will be playing soccer this season. Take a bath and set the table.”

The one activity my brother loved that I was not fond of, was fishing. I had gone once with my father on one of those rare occasions which was both a day off from the mill and also a day off from Mother’s chore list. Turns out fishing is a slightly misleading name for the activity. I might have called it Waiting, or, Being Shushed.

At any rate, I didn’t go again until the day after my first soccer game. My brother tapped on my bedroom door on Sunday morning and muttered something I didn’t quite catch. I sat up and tried to focus on his face. There was always an element of lip-reading involved with my soft-spoken brother.

“Come fishin’?” he mumbled.

“Affirmative!” I yelled, flinging back the covers.

We lived close to the ocean and a half hour walk delivered us to an ideal casting spot where the straight narrowed significantly. Considering we were less than a mile from a deep-water port, the fishing was surprisingly good.

Once we were settled, Ben took my rod from me and untangled my line patiently, baited the hook and pointed down the bank a few metres.

“Where’s the net?” I asked, trotting off to the spot he had indicated.

He pointed with his chin as he readied his own line.

“You be ready with that net, hear?”

He nodded without looking up from his rod.

I cast, narrowly missing Ben’s head, and reeled the line back in at a perfect, steady pace. When the empty hook popped out of the water, I almost couldn’t believe it. I looked at my brother. “Why can’t I ever catch one?” I wailed. I threw down my obviously defunct rod and crossed my arms.

Ben patted the ground beside him and after a few seconds of pouting, I plopped down and began to chatter. Then I remembered the shushing with my father and stopped abruptly. My brother looked at me with his eyebrows raised.

“Better I shush, right?”

“It’s okay,” he said. “Boats are noisier than you.” He nodded at the tug boat moving steadily through the middle of the channel. I pondered all the shushing from my father for a brief moment, then dismissed it.

“Why are they called tugboats?”

That one simple question launched my brother into a soliloquy. Turns out my brother loved two things: soccer and tugboats. That day, I learned that my quiet, unassuming brother had his life mapped out. He would work hard at soccer – and hard enough at school – and earn himself a scholarship to college. He would play four more years of soccer . . .

Here I interrupted him.

“And then play in the World Cup?” I asked.

“No,” he said with a soft smile. “Then I will graduate and get a job on a tugboat. I will be a captain with my own tug one day.”

“Why do you like them so much? Tugs?” I asked, squinting out at the squat little boat. It was not nearly as pretty as the sailboats.

“Look what they can do,” Ben said, pointing. I followed his finger to the huge container ship following the tug.

“It can outrun a big ship?” This didn’t seem like such a big deal.

“It’s pulling the container ship.”

I looked again. I saw the line. I had watched tugs move through this straight my whole life. How had I missed this?

To be certain I understood, I pointed at the tug, then the ship. “That is pulling that?” I asked.

“Yup.” Was that pride in his voice?

“Why doesn’t it just drive its own self?” I demanded.

“Well, the big ships can’t maneuver in small places. They need help to dock. And to get out of narrow waters. Lots of stuff. Sometimes, you just can’t get where you need to get to without a little help.”

I mulled that over.

“Well, why is the rope so darn long?” I asked.

“Has to be that long,” he said. “It’s safer that way.”

I looked at him with interest. His face was animated and his body posture alert. This was a whole new brother. I had grown accustomed to chasing him from afar and never catching up. Never really knowing him. But over the weeks of my seventh summer, I got to know my big brother for the first time.

I would rarely cast a line on our subsequent trips but would settle myself in the grass beside him and wait for a tug to go by. “What about that one?” I’d ask.

“That’s the Tanpeka. 3200 horsepower. Crew of seven. Looks like she’s heading out to pilot someone in. Probably a container ship. Watched her do a transverse arrest last week.” He glanced at me to see if I was interested in learning about a transverse arrest. I wasn’t.

He told me about the virtues of the noble tug. Listening to him, the squat little water bugs were transformed into powerful but agile heroes. My brother regaled me with stories of saved cargo, saved boats, and saved lives. He talked about tugboats with the same reverence he reserved for his favourite soccer players from Manchester United.

When the high school soccer team started practicing in late August, our fishing expeditions ended. I helped Father with harvesting in the garden, then helped Mother preserve vegetables for the winter. My brother came and went from the house, attached, but moving independently of the rest of us.

In late September, my father’s ever-present cough got so bad he had to take time off from the mill. When he still hadn’t gone back three weeks later, I began to notice conversations coming to a screeching halt every time I entered a room. I also noticed that Ben was being included in these conversations.

Feeling left out and slightly miffed, I began to pay more attention to my brother’s activities and one day noticed that he had left his cleats hanging in the porch while he was supposedly at soccer practice. That evening as he sat at the kitchen table eating the meatloaf and smashed potatoes my mother had kept warm for him in the oven, I confronted him about the shoe mystery. “Wasn’t at practice,” he grunted.

I peppered him with questions which he ignored until my agitation echoed into the living room where Mother was rubbing some kind of ointment onto Father’s back. She came to the doorway of the kitchen holding her wet hands away from her like a freshly scrubbed surgeon. “What on earth is all the racket?” she hissed. “Your father has a headache.”

My brother continued to eat.

“He didn’t go to practice and he won’t tell where he was!” I was simultaneously triumphant and ashamed.

My mother hesitated, then said, “He was at work. No more soccer for this year and you mind your p’s and q’s Missy. Get upstairs and take a bath.”

Confused by the feeling in the kitchen, I tiptoed out and went upstairs.

By mid-winter, my father rarely came out of the bedroom, my mother was run off her feet taking care of him, and my brother was like a ghost, still tethered, but far adrift from my ever-shrinking world of school and home.

Christmas Day was the last time my father came out of his bedroom and my last clear memories for several weeks after. I remember the ambulance coming to take him to the hospital. I remember my brother taking care of me before and after school, although I couldn’t say if that went on for a few days or a few weeks.

I remember bits and pieces of the funeral.

I don’t know how long it took me to realize that my father was never coming back, but it took no time at all to understand that life had changed. Immediately after the funeral, the whispered conversations between my mother and brother intensified and then he was suddenly home in the evenings again.

“Are you going to play soccer again?” I asked one spring night as we finished a late dinner.

He looked at me for a long moment, then shook his head.

“How come?” I asked.

My mother answered for him. “Because Ben doesn’t go to school anymore. He works at the mill. He is the man of the house now.” Her lips were tight to the point of quivering.

My brother excused himself quietly from the table. He placed his dishes by the sink, thanked my mother for dinner and left the kitchen. I stared at my mother, incredulous.

“I want to work at the mill, too,” I cried.

I was sent to take a bath.

It took me many years to understand what my brother did for my family; all the perils and potential disasters of my life’s path that were averted because of his sacrifice.

Mother came to my high school graduation, but not Ben. I don’t know if he was working or not. He wasn’t there when I graduated from college, either.

After Father died, Ben always kept a bit of a distance between himself and mother and me. Perhaps he felt it was safer that way.

You know, sometimes you just can’t get where you need to go without a little help.

It was my big brother who taught me about tugboats.