No roads lead to Pilottown, but nary a ship passes it by

In days past, Pilottown might have been Old Man River's swan song.

One of the last outposts on the soggy banks of the Mississippi before it gurgles into the Gulf of Mexico, Pilottown was inhabited by a family dynasty of river pilots who made their living threading foreign freighters through the narrow channel between New Orleans and the ocean. Every so often, hurricanes would wash their houses downriver. And every so often the townspeople would rebuild. Destructive winds and waves became a fact of life.

During the last few decades, however, particularly after hurricanes Betsy and Camille successively razed the town, many of the old families threw in the towel. They headed toward New Orleans and settled on higher ground. The river pilots' work, however, kept them close to the mouth of the Mississippi. They stayed behind in Pilottown, along with a few dozen other hardy souls who had become part of the pilot fraternity.

Today some might argue that the term ''town'' is too loosely applied to this settlement so lacking in the accouterments associated with cosmopolitan life. It is true that Pilottown has no garbage trucks, no stop signs, no gas stations -- no streets, for that matter. No barbershop, no grocery store, no police station or crime to speak of. Among its modest possessions are a small post office and ZIP code (70081), a handful of houses on stilts, and rather comfortable digs for about 145 commuting pilots. In addition, Pilottown harbors the enviable indolence of a Huck Finn dangling his feet in a fishing hole. And beneath this tranquillity is a fierce community pride.

No roads lead to Pilottown, which rests on the southwest tip of one of the Delta's islands. It can only be approached by boat. Two hours south of New Orleans, Highway 23 ends in Venice, a tiny burg that sells groceries, crawfish bait, and helicopter services to oil companies ferrying roughnecks to and from offshore drilling rigs. From there the ride downriver to the town takes another half hour. Everything -- food, mail, drinking water -- must be imported. Up until a dozen or so years ago, it had to run its own gasoline generator for electricity.

Pilottown was meant as a destination; it is not on the way to anywhere else. Rarely does someone just happen by. Strangers stand out like ticks in a milk pail; journalists are downright declasse. Curiosity got the best of this journalist, however, and at first blush of day, I drove to Venice and caught a lift downriver on a pilot boat leaving the Texaco dock. The Mississippi was blanketed with a thick Scotch mist. For the next 35 minutes, we ran a gantlet of looming shadows that our radar told us were oncoming ships. But dodging freighters was child's play compared with tangling with the Pilottown postmistress. ''No, you reporters aren't too popular around here,'' said Postmistress Edna Smith, who announced when I stepped ashore that she didn't care to talk. As determined as she might have been, there was no holding back her cracker-barrel gift for gab. ''We don't get many journalists in here, but I'll tell you about one reporter who hitched in on the mailboat. He was a fast-talking wild man who didn't seem to listen at all. In his report all he did was knock Pilottown about its weeds, and the houses on stilts. From reading his story you would have thought if you fell off the boardwalk the alligators would eat you. I suppose people like you who read that stuff actually believed it.''

The postmistress doesn't take kindly to outsiders right off, yet she is probably as amiable a woman as you'll find on the Mississippi. Like the town she lives in, she is prouder than a peacock. In her burgundy pants and floral-print blouse, she wouldn't stop fuming about ''the last newspaper photographer who took my picture and made me look like a breadbox.''

Edna Smith is born-and-bred Pilottown. ''Growing up as children we were always playing in boats and going after crawfish,'' she recalled. ''It's hard to believe but there used to be 200 people here. My cousin had 12 children. There was a wooden boardwalk and a grocery store where I used to work. There was a regular freighter boat from New Orleans. It was a real lively place. . . .

''But that's what I like most about Pilottown; it's nice and quiet. Me, I'm scared of going into New Orleans. I hear they shoot people on the street like blackbirds. In Pilottown we sleep with the doors open. There's no crime here and it's all white. We're just like one big happy family. In fact, we're all related somehow.''

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.''

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.

''The responsiblity is mind boggling. You get on ships and face all kinds of weather and language barriers. Just figure the value of the cargoes: If they run aground, the whole port is tied up. Americans would feel the backlogs up into the Great Plains. Freight cars and grain ships would begin stacking up. And if ever two ships collided and blocked the pass, the port would be closed indefinitely.

''Bar pilots like Ittmann navigate ships to and from Pilottown to the open sea -- boats take them out to incoming ships. But between Pilottown and the port of New Orleans, a ''river pilot'' takes over. The Crescent River Port Pilots Association has about twice as many members as the ABP and a separate dormitory in the town.

''I've piloted most any ship you can name,'' Ittmann continued, spearing a chunk of beef, ''dozens of submarines, cruisers, destroyers, aircraft carriers, and supertankers. Ships are getting bigger, deeper, and faster. In 1945 when I was first made a pilot, we had 18 ships a day. Now it's about 45. I pilot an average of three ships a day. You're working about nine hours a day with 15 hours in between. Most of your sleep time is broken sleep, 2-3 hours at a time.

''On top of all that, this job doesn't allow for mistakes. On some of those big oil tankers you're sitting 10 stories above the water, and if you don't know how to judge the wind, it will blow you across the pass. I suppose it finally comes down to instinct. You can't always rely on those lights on shore. One night that light might go out and then what will you do?''Going out the Southwest Pass you got to cut a 45-degree turn and take your choice of running aground on one side or hitting the rock jetty on the other. Try taking a 900 -foot-long ship through a channel 700 feet wide with a strong current on the stern.''Weather, however, not terrain, is the pilots' nemesis. ''Fog is our biggest enemy,'' Ittmann said. ''The season's from November to April. Nobody likes to take over and pilot a boat in the fog. If you've got explosives or gasoline on board you take it slow. Sometimes you'll get a captain trying to make a deadline, or beat the tide. He makes the final decision because he 'owns' that ship.''The men here are part of an occupational fraternity knit tight as tweed. They carry an Old World mustiness about them. While at Pilottown they live together 24 hours a day. Many of them work hand in hand with their fathers and sons, uncles and cousins. First-generation pilots do exist, but they are the exceptions.

Ittmann is an exception that proves the rule. ''My father worked for the pilots during high school as an office boy,'' he recalled. ''In fact he had to take a day off from work to graduate from high school. After World War I he worked up to office manager. When I got out of high school in 1939 I went to sea on a Norwegian ship, working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for $24 a month as a deck boy. When you're about 20 you put in an application for boatman. It helps if you're recommended by a pilot. I got my son on a Swedish ship and he went around the world two times.''

After the preliminary year at sea, a pilot candidate may apply to the ABP for its bar pilots apprentice program. If voted in by the other members, he must then purchase a share of association stock, priced at around $85,000. A share in the Crescent River Port Pilots is said to run about $50,000. The candidate then spends another five years as an apprentice, repairing boats and ferrying pilots back and forth between Pilottown and the ships.

''Some quit, but most of the guys have known what the job is like since they were kids. Their fathers were pilots,'' said Ittmann. He had since finished his lunch and moved back into the television room. ''In the end if the other pilots feel they want to spend the rest of their lives with that apprentice, they vote him in.''

Only after an additional six to nine months of ''cubbing'' (piloting ships under the tutelage of experienced pilots) does the association again vote whether or not to accept the apprentice as a full-fledged pilot. With membership comes the honorary title of ''Captain.'' ''It isn't such a glamorous way to make a living,'' sighed Ittmann, gathering from his locker the gear he would need to spend the night in Southwest Pass and pilot another ocean-bound ship through the channel. ''In 1981 I had to work and miss Mardi Gras, Thanksgiving, my birthday, my wedding anniversary, and New Year's Eve.''

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