Editor’s Note: The following text is a verbatim transcription of an article featuring stories by Captain William O. Benson (1911-1986). Beginning in 1971, Benson, a retired tugboat captain, reminisced about his 40 years on the Hudson River in a regular column for the Kingston (NY) Freeman’s Sunday Tempo magazine. Captain Benson's articles were compiled and transcribed by HRMM volunteer Carl Mayer. See more of Captain Benson’s articles here. This article was originally published August 17, 1975.
On a tugboat, the one member of the crew that seems to have more than its share of "characters" is the cook. Cooks come in all shapes, sizes and degrees of ability. When they are good, they’re worth their weight in gold. When they are not, about the only thing you can say is they cook food.
One time when I was pilot of the tugboat Lion of the Cornell Steamboat Company, we had a cook who was what is known among boatmen as a “sea lawyer.’’ He was the world’s greatest expert on any subject. He was forever holding forth on one topic or another and always in an exceptionally loud voice.
My room on the Lion at that time was just ahead of the galley with a very thin partition between. If anyone spoke in a loud voice in the galley it would seem it was right in the same room with you.
One morning the cook was arguing with someone about something and, as usual, at the top of his voice. It was about 8 a.m. and I had been in my bunk for less than an hour, as I had been up from midnight until 6 a.m. steering my watch. I told him to pipe down. But the next morning it was the same thing. This time I didn’t say anything, but thought there must be some way to muffle this man’s voice.
A morning or two later we had a tow on the upper river and about 2 a.m. I blew to the deckhand to come up in the pilot house to steer while I had a cup of coffee. After I had the coffee, I went to the cook’s room and, disguising my voice, called him. The cook in a sleepy voice said, “O.K. O.K.” Apparently, as I thought would be the case, he never bothered to look at the clock.
I went back up to the pilot house and kept the deckhand engaged in conversation there. About 45 minutes later, the deckhand said, "I smell bacon frying." I said, “So do I." When the deckhand went into the galley, there was the cook making oatmeal, french toast, coffee and frying bacon.
The deckhand said, ‘‘What in the devil are you doing up? Its only 3 a.m." The cook replied, “You called me didn’t you?” Then, for the first time looking at the clock, he said, "I know, that so and so Benson did that because I woke him up the past couple of mornings.”
After that, if anyone talked loud in the galley, the cook would practically whisper, “Talk low. Benson will blame me for waking him up and then he’ll get me up about 2 or 3 a.m. again.”
At least, for several weeks afterward, I was able to get my sleep undisturbed. In all honesty, I have to also admit that the pleasant aroma of frying bacon and brewing coffee wafting up through the open windows of the pilot house in the stillness of the early morning wasn’t bad either.
Captain William Odell Benson was a life-long resident of Sleightsburgh, N.Y., where he was born on March 17, 1911, the son of the late Albert and Ida Olson Benson. He served as captain of Callanan Company tugs including Peter Callanan, and Callanan No. 1 and was an early member of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. He retained, and shared, lifelong memories of incidents and anecdotes along the Hudson River.
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