Biff and the Sinking Coal Freighter

A story for my five-year old granddaughter:

When I was little, my father told me about a bear named Biff, who was the captain of a tug on the Erie Canal. He steamed back and forth between great lines of ships and barges whenever he heard the toot-toot that ships gave when they needed a tug. When he wasn’t pushing and pulling ships and barges he went out on the deck, smelled the smell of hay coming off the fields, and began polishing the brass bell just outside the wheelhouse. There was not a single tug captain that had such a polished shining bell. That was because Biff was the only bear tug captain. All the others were people. And because they didn’t have fur, they couldn’t really get a good shine on their bells. They would tire of rubbing a piece of cloth against their brass bells. But Biff simply rubbed whatever part of him was nearest when he passed the bell. Sometimes, he gave it a nudge with his head, sometimes with the back of his elbow, and when he was feeling really pleased sometimes with his butt, as he went by.

Sometimes they went out through the locks onto Lake Erie where it could get quite rough during storms. Other tug captains had trouble standing and moving around in such weather, but Biff simply dropped down on four legs and got things done. He attached towing cables to the great capstan in the middle of the rear deck. He unhooked them when the tow was over. He could do all this in terrible storms because he had four legs. Such weather stimulated him, made him feel especially alive, so that even in dangerous weather, if he passed his brass bell, he gave it a brush with the fur on some part of his body.

For all these reasons, ship and barge captains tooted to him whenever they needed a reliable tug. And Biff would ring back in answer on his shining bell and approach these ship at full steam.

One night, a great storm blew out on the great black lake as big as an ocean. A very large coal freighter was in trouble and taking on water. Its desperate toots blew on shore with the night wind, but all the tugs were afraid to go out into the huge waves and freezing sleet. Except for Biff, who put on his bright yellow storm slickers, shoveled extra coal into the boiler below deck, tooted for the locks to open, and steam out into the raging night.

He steamed out for twenty minutes before he saw the freighter, low in the water and in danger of sinking. Men threw him a line from the bow of the freighter. Biff brought it around to the stern of his tug, the SV Grampi, and pulled on it until he got the cable and cinched it around the capstan. Then, on all fours, he crossed to the pilot house and pushed on the throttle and the SV Grampi pulled slowly until the cable was tight, then he began pulling the sinking coal freighter. If he could just get it to the beach, the sinking coal freighter could not sink because it was shallow at the beach. But because the freighter was so full of water, it would not go in a straight line and would veer to the right or the left, and hardly go forward at all.

Biff was sad because it looked like he would not be able to save the freighter and the men on it. The freighter would sink and the men would probably drown.

That was when he heard a toot behind him, from very close. He could see the other tug in the darkness, coming closer and closer at great speed. His heart leapt, and tooted back in welcome. Biff could not see the other tug captain in his dark pilot house. But he knew that tug captain was very brave coming out into the mountainous seas with only two human legs to stand on.

The sailors on the floundering coal freighter threw the new tug another line. Biff watched the tug captain – just the yellow blur of a figure in rain slickers – come out of his pilot house, take the line, bring up the cable, and loop it over the capstan with a clove hitch. Now there were two tugs pulling on the sinking coal ship, and so the stricken coal freighter came along straight ahead. Because, whenever it tried to veer left or right, the other tug pulled it back, and so it had to go straight ahead in a straight line.

When the coal freighter rode up onto the beach, the tugs threw off their towing lines and went around behind the coal freighter and, with each great wave coming under them, pushed the freighter farther up onto the beach where the giant waves could no longer hurt it. The crew of the coal freighter, seeing that they were saved, gave both tug captains a great cheer, in thanks. Biff and the other captain gave them a long line of toots to salute them. Then they, Biff’s tug and the other one, pulled away from the perilous breaking waves, reached deeper water, and steamed toward the locks, rolling so much – because the waves were hitting them from the side – that they themselves were in danger of rolling over and sinking.

The old man who manned the locks was out in his yellow slickers, watching for the tugs. And when they came, he pulled on a lever and the steam engine that was part of the locks screamed and roared, and the great steel doors opened wide, and the two tugs hurtled in through the great dark steel gates, the gates closed behind them, and the two tugs drifted to a stop in the protected calm waters at the beginning of the Erie Canal.

Biff came out of his pilot house. He wanted to thank the other tug captain for his bravery. The other captain came out of his pilot house then. He was smaller than Biff, and when he too took off his yellow slicker rain hat, Biff saw that it was not a person but a bear like himself, in fact the most beautiful girl bear he had ever seen.

He wanted to hit his shining brass bell, with his back side, that’s how moved he was, but he restrained himself, in order to make a good impression. He thought she was wonderful. And she was. The bravest, most wonderful, the cutest girl bear he had ever seen. “Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked across the space between the two tugs. As the wind howled out on the lake, and as some of it roared through the tops of the trees on the side of the canal, Biff went forward and tied the SV Grampi off on a mooring buoy. Then he tied the other tug against his, and he watched as both tugs began to swing around in the wind until the mooring line came taught and they rode at rest with their bows to the wind.

“The tea water is getting hot,” said the other captain. And so Biff leapt across the his gunnels and hers, the way bears do, and together, each of them down on four feet, they went across her deck and into galley, where they had hot tea and cookies, and introduced themselves. Already, they admired each other very much for each other’s bravery. And out of this came a deep and lasting friendship. And one month later, a marriage between two brave bear tug boat captains, one Biff Bennett, whom you already know, and the other, the princess of his life, Eleanor, the courageous captain of the SS Claypool.

5 thoughts on “Biff and the Sinking Coal Freighter

  1. Sterling – loved this. Been making a little dough lately telling stories. I just started writing some myself. This is inspiring. How’s life down there?
    big hug
    Kevin

    1. Kevin, I’m trying to think what it is about storytelling. In contrast to television, film, and other media. When a person starts to tell a yarn, a tale, a story, something in me comes alive and I listen with an intensity and alertness otherwise seldom called upon or available. I guess it’s like an invitation for the imagination to start doing what it was evolved to do: bring up images unique to only oneself, glowing and wonderful, from secret places within the Self.

      1. That’s what I’ve always felt about storytelling – that it engages the imagination in a different way. When I was doing more counseling, I often would get in the the same frame of mind, though less free and more focused, as I was listening to folks. I’ve found that storytellers who in some some way enter the story themselves, rather than just presenting it, evoke ( invoke?) a more profound response.

    1. Hey, Matthew! Glad you found me again. I wrote the tugboat story for my five year-old granddaughter. I think my father told me similar stories about a bear and tugboats. Are you still doing art? Abrazos!

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