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?”

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