Piney Point. My birthday month of May reminds me of Bobby Dylan, with whom I share the mysticism of the 24th; Elmore James, who left this blue veil on the same day back in ’63; and the beginning of summer.
Summer meant vacation, a fun combo of cousins and the kids of men my father worked with on the Fells Point tugboats. We always spent a week down the ocean and often a week here in the historical holy land of southern Maryland.
We’d pack up the car and go down to Piney Point.
Named for the tall, lonesome trees that dot the sandy soil, Piney Point is a small town of about 1,000 near St. George Island on the Potomac River. The town name is also shorthand for the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education, a 60-acre expanse that was once a Navy testing area for torpedoes.
In 1966, the campus was purchased by the Seafarers International Union, to which my marine engineer father has belonged for a half-century.
The SIU negotiated the 1960s labor contracts that put my family in an expanding middle class. The union’s pension and retirement benefits—along with Social Security, thrift, and prudence—have allowed Mom and Dad to remain in a shrinking middle class.
In 1967, the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship opened in Piney Point and, in a few years, we were vacationing there for a song with other Baltimore tugboat families.
In the summer of 1972, just before I entered high school, Al Green was singing “Let’s Stay Together” on AM radio, Earl and the Birds were in regular contention for the pennant, and the last thing my father—who left home at 17 to sail on Venezuela-bound ore ships out of Sparrows Point—wanted was for me to become a seaman.
Around us kids were cadres of young people apprenticing for work in one of the three departments on ships: deck, engine, and steward.
We swam, rode bicycles, played basketball, and saw free movies, including The Strawberry Statement, which was quite intoxicating for a 13-year-old at the height of the Vietnam War.
I was smitten with Joyce Ann, the daughter of my father’s Dundalk deckhand buddy Bobby Machlinski, and the last thing on my mind was going to sea.
There didn’t seem much chance of it: I was a bookish kid obsessed with the Beatles and knew from a very young age that school was easier than work. My father often said he didn’t want his boys following him “down to the boats.”
Four years later—a bookish kid obsessed with Frank Zappa—found me working on a container ship to pay for an education intended to save me from a life of working on ships. My father’s union connections allowed me to bypass training at Piney Point.
At first, he refused to pull those strings. Then I started getting into a little bit of rock-and-roll trouble, and the old man changed his mind. One day, I was getting my Mount St. Joseph High School diploma at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The next, I was heaving hawser lines, pretending I knew what I was doing.
The experience convinced me more than college ever did that—for richer or poorer—I would be a writer.
And all these years later, the Lundeberg School of Seamanship continues to offer a free maritime education and the guarantee of a first job to those who successfully complete the program to become U.S. Merchant Mariners. The jobs are on U.S.-registered commercial vessels on the deep seas, inland waterways, and Great Lakes.
And it all begins at Piney Point, which I revisited this year—some 40 years down the road from Al Green and riverside basketball—in the month of May.
Contact Rafael Alvarez at firstname.lastname@example.org.