Port to Port | Hackie | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published August 7, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

A call came from the bus terminal, which I hate. Half the time you arrive only to discover the fare is gone, having jumped in one of the many cabs that pass by the terminal all day long.

“Okay,” I answered the caller’s request, “I’ll be there in 15 minutes, but promise me you’ll wait for my cab, all right?”

“Oh, yes! We promise. Just please come and get us; we need to catch a plane.”

Twelve minutes later I arrived at the bus and — surprise! — no fare. I did notice an older man with thick, white, slicked-back hair, smoking a cigarette on the terminal’s outdoor deck area. Next to his feet was a battered, gold-hinged footlocker. I called out, “Hey, how about you, buddy — you need a taxi somewhere?”

“I do, but I’m waiting for the one I called.”

Thinking turn-about is fair play, I asked, “Well, where ya goin’?”

“I’m going to Port Henry. How much would you charge me?”

Port Henry is in New York across the Champlain Bridge — a terrific fare on a slow Wednesday afternoon. I know what the fleets are apt to charge for that — about $70. It took me exactly three seconds to think this through and come up with my price.

“I’ll take you for 50 bucks.”

It took the man two seconds to do his computation. It’s what’s known as a “no-brainer.”

“You’re on,” he said with a grin. “The name’s Rennie.”

“Pleased to meetcha. I’m Jernigan.”

His case fit — just barely — in the trunk, and Rennie got in the front with me. As we cruised south on Pine Street, I further pinned down the destination.

“I know how to get to Port Henry all right, but once we get there, do you know how to get to your location?”

“Sure do, partner,” he replied with a long-time-smokers’ growl. “We’re going to my nephew’s house. I visited him a few times. His mom — who would be my sister — died a couple months ago. I was out in the Gulf at the time. As soon as I got the news, I called and came up.”

“You bussed all the way from the South?”

“Heck, no,” he replied. “I drove until my Crown Vic gave out in Tennessee. Engine exploded.”

“No kidding? That’s gotta be a bad thing.”

“Yes, indeedy,” he said with a raspy chuckle. “That is what you call a bad thing. Anyways, I caught a lift with a trucker up to Boston and took the Greyhound the rest of the way. I gave the trucker most of my gear; it was too much stuff to carry with me. Gave him a marvelous car jack. That was tough to part with.”

This is my kind of guy, I thought to myself as we passed the traffic light in Shelburne Village. The heaviest Route 7 traffic began to dissipate after that. Salt of the earth, and perhaps even an actual salt, as I remembered what he had told me.

“So you said you were out in the Gulf. Are you working the oil rigs, or are you a sailing man?”

“No, I’m a sailor all right. More than 40 years now. Gonna retire pretty soon.”

The movie Forrest Gump popped into my mind. “Are you a shrimper?” I asked.

“Nope. I mostly work on tugboats keeping watch on the oil rigs. The big rigs are required to have tugs keeping watch in case of fire.”

Rennie then brought his fingertips softly together and, as I glanced over at him, a far-away look appeared on his face.

“Funny you ask, though,” he continued, “’cause I did start out on a shrimp boat. I can remember it clear as day. Feller named Joe Slinker was the captain. Yeah, Ol’ Joe was my sea daddy.”

“Did you say ‘sea daddy?’”

“Sorry, partner, that’s sea talk. We call the captain of your first boat your sea daddy. Some of these old boys can be brutal on newcomers, but Ol’ Joe, he took me under his wing. We worked together quite a few times in those early years. Best boo-ray player I ever seen.”

“That’s some kinda card game they play down in Louisiana, right?”

Rennie let out a croupy guffaw. He sounded like a clangorous radiator on its last legs. “That’s not just ‘some kinda card game,’ brother. We talkin’ boo-ray — the passion, pride and joy of the Bayou.”

“Sorry, Rennie,” I said chuckling along, “I’ll try to remember that.”

It was a beautiful ride through Addison County, the July weather being more than we could ask for. The windows were down and farm smells — wild flowers, newly cut hay, Holsteins and field-spread manure — filled the air. After the long stretch east on Route 17, the towering Champlain Bridge came into sight, its silver spans glistening in the late-afternoon sun. On days like this I almost feel guilty that I’m getting paid.

Port Henry’s downtown bears the architecture of its mid-20th-century heyday, but signs of 21st-century retail activity are few and far between. Still, it doesn’t feel depressed, like some other upstate New York towns. Plenty of people were on the street when we arrived, and the local creemee stand was going gangbusters. Rennie was pointing out various landmarks he recalled as he directed me up a long hill running west out of town.

A few miles up, we turned into a steep driveway that ended at a modest brick house with an enormous aboveground pool attached to its rear deck. Even before we came to a stop, three little kids came bounding out of the water and ran squealing and dripping into Rennie’s waiting arms. A man then came out the back door and leapt over the deck fence.

“Uncle Rennie!” the man said, giving him an affectionate squeeze around the neck with a husky forearm. “It’s great to see you! We were expecting you a couple of days ago.”

“Well, that’s a long story,” Rennie replied with a laugh. “We’ll get to it — and a few more, I suppose.”

The two men managed to get the kids somewhat settled down, and Rennie pulled out his wallet to pay me.

“There’s nothing like family, partner,” he said, handing me the fare. “Don’t ever forget that.”

“I sure won’t, Rennie,” I replied with a smile. “I sure won’t.