Liberty From Plastic, and Other Things

Early one Sunday morning, I decided to get a coffee and take a walk down to the Wharf, before all the tourists showed up. I ended up on Pier 45, which is home to the submarine U.S.S. Pampanito and the liberty ship Jeremiah O’Brien, both historic World War II-era vessels now open to the public.

Jeremiah O'Brien. Source: Chris Utter

I sat on the edge of the pier, dangling my feet over the side. Sipping my coffee, I watched the pelicans fly low across the water, always in groups of 5, or 7. I was comparing them favorably to seagulls when the Jeremiah O’Brien let out a loud blast of steam. I dropped my coffee and nearly fell off the pier.

I hadn’t realized that the old ship was still running. I walked over to to investigate, remembering when it used to be anchored at Fort Mason. At the time, I was in junior high and my friend’s stepfather worked as a mechanic on the ship. Handsome but alcoholic and angry, he didn’t seem to like his job, or much of anything. He was a volatile force that I did my best to avoid. I still couldn’t look at the Jeremiah O’Brien without thinking of him, and feeling slightly uneasy.

Near the gangway was a portable ticket booth, occupied by a white-haired man in overalls. “What’s going on?” I asked, pointing to the ship.

He smiled broadly. “Once a month, we fire up the engine, to keep it running smooth,” he said. He leaned toward the opening in the glass, “Would you like to go aboard?”

“Er. I’m not sure yet.” I said. I found WW II endlessly fascinating, but admission was $8. I picked up a pamphlet. The boat had made 11 trips ferrying supplies from England to the beaches at Normandy. Wow. In black and white times. In Hitler times. When we fought together against an evil empire that was not us. It was the last time that people grew vegetables, en masse. At the height of the war, these ships took only 42 days to build; American builders collectively turned out three per day.

It still seemed too foreboding. From the base of the gangway, the climb looked really steep. Inside the ship were dark chambers full of god knows what. Blasts of steam, lurking men, unstoppable engines. Unstoppable men, lurking engines? Something unstoppable. I wasn’t wrong to be a little nervous, but I was letting my imagination run away with me.

I figured the cashier might have some compelling stories, which would sell me on going aboard. So I asked him if he worked on the ship. He said he was retired, but volunteered as a mechanic in the boiler room. And did I know that this was the only liberty ship that had never been altered? (I didn’t, of course.) Also, it was one of only two that was still seaworthy. He got especially animated talking about sailing the ship to Normandy in 1994, for the 60th anniversary of D-Day.

“I’ll take a ticket,” I said, reaching for my wallet. How could I resist his enthusiasm? “You’re also welcome to volunteer on the ship,” he said. “Doing what?” I asked. Really, I couldn’t imagine that I was qualified for much. “Oh, anything,” he replied. “There’s no experience necessary. Do you live around here?” I felt slightly uncomfortable. Was he being pervy? Or maybe they really did need volunteers.

Jeremiah O'Brien stairway. Source: ssjeremiahobrien.org

I begged off and made my way up the narrow metal gangway, which creaked and swung unexpectedly over the water. Over the years, I had seen umpteen black and white newsreels of sailors climbing the gangway, duffel bags slung over their shoulders, on the way to war. But this was what it actually felt like. It wasn’t as easy as it looked. I imagined I was a sailor, gripping my bag with one hand and the rail with the other, lest I tumble four stories into the drink. On my way to Normandy, such a fall would be the first, and the least, of my worries.

I wandered on the windy decks, and through the cramped living quarters, stepping through the oval portals to move from room to room. Every footfall echoed deep and metallic. The walls were painted a light industrial green, and bundles of small pipes ran along the ceiling. Every once in a while I’d hear male voices, laughing or discussing their work. I couldn’t tell how near or far away they were. I became acutely aware that I was a woman wandering alone around a nearly empty ship. I wasn’t a sailor anymore.

Jeremiah O'Brien piston. Source: ssjeremiahobrien.org

I walked down narrow metal staircases and across catwalks built around two-story pistons that pumped methodically, turning the 18-foot propeller. There were pipes of all shapes and sizes, running and twisting everywhere. I was inside a giant machine; it was amazing.

Then whole enormous mechanism struck me as being rather phallic, which made me quite embarrassed. Then I got embarrassed that I had been embarrassed in the first place. I decided not to think about it and just keep walking down staircases.

Jeremiah O'Brien boiler room. Source: ssjeremiahobrien.org

Finally, I ended up in the bowels of the ship, in the boiler room, where two huge furnaces powered the pistons. The heat was stifling. A few older men in greasy coveralls were tinkering with a pipe. I felt like I was intruding, but I went up and asked questions about the boilers anyway. One of them gave me a piece of rectangular tinted glass, which I could use to check the color of the flames. (Apparently, you couldn’t look directly at them.) I lifted the hatch and peered in. I had no idea what was considered a good color, but there was certainly a major fire burning in there. It was amazing to see what actually powered the ship and moved the air and water through all those pipes and pistons to power the radar and flush the toilets and cook the eggs.

When I handed the glass back, the man asked me if I wanted to volunteer. Not again. I smiled and said I couldn’t, but thanks.

As I climbed the stairs out of the boiler room, slightly peeved, it dawned on me that everything on the ship was made of metal, from the rivets to the phone. And not only was everything made of metal, conversely, it was not made of plastic. WW II sailors would have gone weeks living in this floating metal tub. My god, it was possible to live in a world without plastic. I’d forgotten what it was like.

This was the unexpected gift of the Jeremiah O’Brien; it certainly wasn’t my all-too-predictable WW II nostalgia; or the familiar burden (paranoia?) of being seen solely as a woman, not as an interested person; or the frustration of never having learned about anything mechanical and practical.

It was only 30 years ago that refrigerators and cars and typewriters were made of metal, and foodstuffs were packed in glass, tins, or cardboard cartons. Slowly, plastic has crept into everything we use. (Try and go an hour without touching something plastic.) Pliable and lightweight, it’s a much more flexible material than metal or wood. It (nearly) goes without saying that it’s made our lives more convenient, and led to insane levels of consumption and pollution. Wikipedia says that, since 1950, over 100 billion tons of it have been produced. Do we really need that much plastic? Couldn’t we at least make it all out of corn or something?

Maybe I could volunteer as the ship’s anthropologist.

If you ever feel the need to get away from all the plastic, go visit the Jeremiah O’Brien. And they really do need volunteers, even if you don’t have any experience.

6 thoughts on “Liberty From Plastic, and Other Things

  1. I had a similar experience at the Exploratorium’s lame Mechanicrawl event last year. The Jeremiah O’Brien was operating & open for business, though I did not get to peer into the fire as you did. All that industrial age technology is certainly impressive to witness in action. When I toured it, they had 1940’s dance music playing on the deck, which really brought you back in time, though I rather disliked the implied nostalgia for “the good war.”

    I’m sure all those old codgers would love to you have you on board as a volunteer!

  2. Nice post! The issue of plastic really gives one food for thought.

    I gave serious thought about going out on their cruise but the price was a bit more than I was willing to pay. The submarine down there is pretty cool as well, though it may prove to be a source of further embarrassment. As a local, I really appreciate the fact that the boats are there, and really enjoy those docked at the Hyde Street Pier. It’s important to keep as much real history in the City as we can.

    1. Thanks, man.

      I was thinking about going on the cruise too, but decided against it for the same reason.

      I went on the sub with my family, quite a while ago. I don’t recall being embarrassed, but I’m sure I would be now. I imagine that the post would mostly consist of me wondering how you wouldn’t freak out on a sub. But you never know.

  3. Nice post! I think the proliferation of plastic has something to do with the proliferation in the use of oil. They both come from the same source – and it makes sense (in some weird way) use the by-product of oil refinery instead of just discarding it. I mean, the world only needs so much petroleum jelly…

    1. Thanks. I suspect the same. Another reason to be angry at plastic!

      It seems that 19th c scientists and inventors first made plastic using plant materials. It would be interesting to learn how the switch to oil-based plastics happened.

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