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1965 built, US flagged steamship Pacific Tracker lays at the ready in Portland Oregon, picture by Martin Leduc

River Story: Swiss Cheese

Authored by Tom Winkle
November 2020

Chief Engineer Tom Winkle spent a 40 year career on the great rivers of the United States, working on massive tugs moving rafts of barges. Retired since 2015, Tom shares stories of life onboard these vessels and their unique trade. He is a skilled photographer, sharing some stunning marine pictures of life on the river in the SeafarerMedia area, and previously contributing anecdotes and stories - look for the "Bilge Rat" attribution. You can reach him at bilgerat4 at Gmail.


Over a long career, I had the misfortune to work for ACBL twice, and not by choice either time. However, it did at times provide some comic relief. A little background is necessary here.

Since we're on the move all the time, our groceries are ordered ahead and brought out to us by a "boat store", different ones are located at various places along the navigable waterways. It works like this: the cook fills out an order form of what they need for the next several days, it's turned over to the captain, and he sends it in (in this day and age) by email, the boat store fills the order and then runs it out to you when you go by.

Now, that "captain" bit... Some let the cook run the galley, some don't, and micromanage by striking items off the grocery order. That's neither here or there, but it brings us to our main character.

On one particular boat, the cook could not get Swiss cheese. Could. Not. This went on for some time. The cook got tired of it, and finally asked why. The reply, believe it or not, was this: "No I'm NOT going to order it! You know why? Because of those holes! There's nothing there, and you have to pay for the holes, so I won't order Swiss cheese."
OK, one major flaw in that "thinking"... Cheese is sold by weight, not volume, and... The bloody holes weigh nothing! Some people's kids...

Fast forward a couple of years, and this minor genius is running captain on my regular ride. The forward watch guys (me included) are having lunch. As lunch winds down, as often as not, the remaining time turns into a gab session. On this occasion, conversation turned to the odd behavior of some of the wheelhouse people. It went around the table for a while, and finally one of our guys threw this one out: "I've heard that there's some dumb son of a bitch here that won't order Swiss cheese because he thinks that we're paying for the holes!"

Wow! All you could hear was the engines running. We all shot him a hot look and he clammed up. Cappy excused himself, got up and left. After enough time to let the captain get up the stairs, one totally mortified deckhand blurts out, "Oh Gawd. PLEASE tell me that that isn't the Swiss cheese dude."

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