No roads lead to Pilottown, but nary a ship passes it by
(Page 2 of 3)
The postmistress furrowed her brow. The mailboat was late. The fog bank had only just begun to burn through and she was expecting the neighbors to be by soon for their letters and packages from the outside world. ''Our post office is only general delivery, you know. People pick up their mail. We don't have individual postboxes here in the office. We'd need a lobby for that.''Skip to next paragraph
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The post office, a short aluminum-sided trailer, perches on pilings above the ooze. Geographically it is more or less the center of town. ''Town'' consists of a single string of one-story dwellings connected by a quarter-mile-long concrete walkway. During her lunch break, Edna Smith need only stroll a few yards down that walkway for a bite to eat in a tidy white house with geraniums blooming in a manicured front lawn. It is her second house; the first was washed away by Camille.
''Hurricanes are part of living here,'' she said. ''Betsy wasn't so bad. I only had water in the house. Camille washed us out. Most everybody was evacuated for Camille, but a couple of us sat out the storm. See that weathered boat over there?'' she said, stopping near an old shrimper beached in the reeds. ''That's my cousin's. Camille left his boat there and he's never moved it. That old crumpled building next to the post office is my cousin's, too. He said he's going to build a fishing camp (cabin) there. But he's never done anything with it.''
One of the few houses Camille left standing belongs to a neighbor, Margaret Gerkin. ''We had a neighbor who was in his attic trying to stay above the rising water and the wind carried his house a half mile away with him inside. We had 12 inches of water in the house and you can still see the water line on the refrigerator,'' she said, as she showed me into the kitchen to offer a platter of homemade cookies.
Like Edna Smith, Mrs. Gerkin also grew up in Pilottown and recalled life before the hurricanes: ''We had 26 children in the seven-grade school. Now the schoolhouse is closed down and there are only two school-age children in town. Boats didn't run as frequently back then, so when I went off to high school I only got home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. When I was home I remember dances round the nickelodeon.
"Now life is pretty dull. I have to get away at least once a week. I make Thursday my hairdresser day in New Orleans. Now Pilottown is mostly elderly people. Pretty soon I suppose it will be just the pilots and a few of the oil people left.'' Mrs. Gerkin married into the river-pilot clan. Her husband is chief engineer for the bar pilots and their son is an apprentice pilot. She also has a daughter married to an apprentice pilot whose father is Capt. Earl Ittmann.
About 1 o'clock that afternoon, Captain Ittmann came off a chemical tanker, his second ship of the day. He was back in town for lunch. The pilots work around the clock; they do their eating and sleeping when ship traffic permits. On his way to the bar pilots' 24-hour kitchen, Ittmann passed two pilots coming from the dormitory in their pajamas. They had been catnapping after a late-night shift.
To the uninitiated, the wall chart of the day's channel traffic reads like hieroglyphics, but it told Ittmann at a glance that he would not be on duty until early evening. He had some time on his hands and stepped out the kitchen door to join another pilot hunkered over a burlap bag. He was shucking fresh oysters and popping them in his mouth like peanuts. After a half dozen or so, Ittmann ducked back into the kitchen to flush down the salty aftertaste with a bowl of navy bean soup. This he followed with a plate of beef stew and cut corn. Explaining he was ''watching my waistline,'' Ittmann bypassed the cabbage, potatoes, carrots, freshly baked biscuits, and chocolate-chip cookies left out by the pilots' full-time cook.
Ittmann belongs to the Associated Branch Pilots (ABP), an 82-year-old organization that has exclusive rights on piloting international commerce ships through the 22-mile stretch of the Mississippi River between Pilottown and the Gulf of Mexico. The association has 44 members who each reportedly earn about $ 100,000 a year, working a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off shift. (The pilots avoid discussing the exact size of their paychecks but admit the $100,000 figure is ''close enough.'')
''Some people think we get paid a lot just to sit around and wait,'' Ittmann said between forkfuls of corn. ''Believe me, I don't back up for my money. I look the guy (who hands me my wages) right in the face. The port of New Orleans is one of the largest ports in the world. Half of the US drains into the Mississippi River. Billions and billions of dollars goes up and down the river, and we handle the big majority.