Well, the journey has begun- deep in south Alabama in a small town they call Bayou la Batre. A sticky-humid-shrimp-reeking-small town with fried food, wild hogs and southern drawls as thick as the butter on the cornbread.
Located in the bayou is SeaSchool- a Coastgaurd approved school offering training for all sorts of safety courses for seafarers. They offer programs as basic as 5 days, to programs as intensive as 30 days. SeaSchool draws men from all over the country seeking to renew the requirements for their licenses or get approved for a potential job. Either way, the characters here are colorful and the experience is worth sharing.
Everyone is housed on sight, and because of the typical clientele, it’s rare to have ladies around. We are strictly quarantined to our floor with signs reading NO FEMALES BEYOND THIS POINT and we were told from the get-go that “As long as you act like ladies you’ll do just fine here… it’s the OTHER kind of girls that don’t do so well.” Whatever THAT means.
Boy is it a different world down here in the south.
A couple of my other favorite signs include:
SEA SCHOOL IS A CLASSY OPERATION- NO PROFANITY ALLOWED
PLEASE DO NOT SPIT ON THE FLOOR
NO SWIMMING FROM OFF THE BRIDGE.
Oh and be warned that if its late at night, and you’re on your way to the local bar Rod Knockers (which is past the shrimpin’ boat Daddy Rabbit) you better watch yourself for wild hogs… seriously. Oh also fights between women breakout weekly at Rod Knockers, so just mind you don’t piss some lady off, now, ya hear?
The People of Bayou La Batre (Or at least Sea School):
Larry- the water safety instructor who surprisingly, is always singing old show tunes around the compound. Shameless, tone-deaf, and adorable, he informed us on day one that he takes voice lessons. His last voice recital included selections from Man of La Mancha, The Star-Spangled Banner and Lincoln’s “Four Score and Seven Years ago” speech. Would’ve paid money to see that.
Ricki- the loud-mouthed seaman who transports AWWL (oil) up and down the Atlantic Ocean. He claims he had to buy a new wardrobe for this week on “the account that my shirts were too crass and slutty to be around the likes of you female-kind.”
Patrick- the fully tattooed, self-proclaimed "Son of a Sea Cook," who is here for 28 days in the kitchen, training to be a cook for a boat. He gets so excited for what he is making each night, “ Just WAIT till you try this pound cake!” He also likes to watch you from the kitchen to see if you enjoy it. Sounds creepy, but it’s more endearing than anything.
Henry is a big, quiet black guy. He’s at least 6’ 5”. He’s from Jackson Mississippi and his words run together like syrup-no pauses and very little consonants. At first he didn’t pay any attention to me, but now we’re buds. I think our friendship turned the corner when I free style rapped for him.
Steve runs the place. He has a long blonde ponytail and a corgi tattoo on his right forearm. He walks a little bent over and has a huge gash over his left eye. He talks slow and raspy, and he always asks if I got the short stick for shower order because I go last most nights. Then he proceeds to about fall over laughing because he finds that so funny. He’s great.
Sheryl- is the only other female. She is getting the training so she can hopefully qualify to work on a boat. She is a single mom from Charleston and she is our favorite. She loves playing basketball on breaks and says at every meal "I haven't eaten this good in years, mmm hmm!"
Grayling taught our CPR class. He would shut his eyes and slow his speech every couple of words, and we always thought he was going to fall asleep! He has been a fire fighter for over twenty years. He told us, “I might seem cold-hearted, but in this job, if you aren’t cold hearted, you can’t get on.”
Miss Maggie is the profanity nazi. The saying “mouth of a Sailor” is really true- them boys here got some words! As we learned before, Sea School is a CLASSY OPERATION, so you so much as say “shit” around here and Miss Maggie with her frail little body and lipstick bleeding all around her mouth will pop out of nowhere screeching “WHAT DID YOU JUST SAYYYY?????” She’ll also throw away your full bottle of shampoo if you leave it in the shower…
Karl was the professor I found the most interesting. He is tall and thin and always has a smirk on his face- he’s a total smart ass. He started off the class saying “I teach this class two days every two weeks… and it is entirely too much for me.” He taught us basic Fire Fighting. He worked for the Fire Dept. in the Bayou for over 25 years, after serving in the Navy. He talks reeeeaaaaalll slow and yet somehow has the greatest comedic timing. He’d stand in front of us and tell a story. After finishing, he wouldn’t say anything for about 30 seconds. Then he’d start up a new story. It never bothered him to stand up there in silence- he didn’t speak unless he had something to say. His stories were amazing but sometimes hard to hear. He’s seen so much. He joked all day about how he is an alcoholic, has had his license revoked and has gone to jail for drunk driving- I thought he was just kind of a sloppy drunk. In the last five minutes of class, he told us that for the 25 years he was a firefighter, he could count on one hand the beers he would drink in a year. Then, two years ago, shortly after he retired, his wife died of cancer. He said since then, he hasn’t been the same… after all the horific deaths he's seen, nothing affected him like the death of his wife. It reminded me to never judge a book by it's cover.
Anyway, there are tons of people here- Oil Riggers and Shrimpers and Coast Gaurds and Ex-Marines and other men with jobs that I don’t understand, either because I can’t grasp the concept, or their southern accent is so thick that I can’t understand what they’re saying when I ask what they do.
Mostly it’s a lot of single men who work on boats, maybe a month on the water and two weeks off. I’ll tell you one thing for sure- none of them understand us musical theatre people. They just look at us like we are aliens, with strange accents, strange habits and strange humor. The fear of homosexuality alone drives most of the men away- and if not that, it’s the random bursts into song! I don’t think they’ve ever experienced anything like us. But that’s what this whole journey is for right? Me being introduced to new cultures, as well as introducing my culture to others. And let’s be honest, the “thespian” is kind of a breed of it’s own.
And so it begins. Here’s to frightening people around the world- one burst into song and dance at a time.