The Raritan River Ferry
by H. Schwab
I caught myself dreaming one day. About great things. About the great things which I had wanted to do in my life and didn’t do. The remodeling of our house, a trip along the length of the Andes, the writing of a short story, some really significant writing. Why do I never get to do them? Too many little things. They have to be done first. My budget runs low. My job does not leave me any time. My inertia. Ah, when I retire, then I will do all these great things.
Next morning, I woke up from one of the bad dreams that befall me from time to time. I had seen an old ship anchored behind a red buoy. I had thought how nice it would be to go on a big trip on this ship. Then, I saw how workmen came and removed the engine from the old ship. Never would it go out to travel again. I was deeply saddened. Why had it not left before the workmen came? Did the red buoy stop it? What nonsense.
For most of that day, I felt a bit depressed, a bit confused. Late at night, when the clock had just struck midnight, I started to write the story of the ship.
Entering the New Jersey Turnpike at Exit 9, going north, one immediately crosses the Raritan River over a large bridge. Few people notice the river -- most are too busy concentrating on merging into the New York-bound traffic. But that is the place where one should look -- right, over the bridge railing -- toward the river. Choose the truck route on the right side of the turnpike, then you can get an even better view of the river!
The Raritan was once a beautiful river. At New Brunswick, the river leaves the Piedmont between the steep slopes of the last hills, formed millions of years ago, when Europe separated from the North-American continent. From there on, the gray-blue Raritan flows east through the sedimentary plain toward the Atlantic, gaining in width, winding in gentle curves, framed by an increasingly broad belt of swamp grasses, tender and green in spring, golden and brown in fall.
In olden days, ships came up the river from New York, with passengers and cargo, to New Brunswick. From there, passengers and freight continued along the King’s Highway, now Route 27, via Princeton to Philadelphia, or further yet, to Baltimore or Washington. The ships no longer come up the Raritan. Railroads, cars and trucks rumble along. Several bridges cross the river. The newest and largest is the Turnpike Bridge, two times three lanes in each direction, a total of 12 lanes wide, all lanes intensively used! Nobody has the time to look over the railing at the river.
Modern development brought garbage problems. Big cities and industry brought junk. A whole scrapped ferry boat became deposited on the shore of the Raritan, in the midst of the swamp grass, just a few hundred yards east of the Turnpike Bridge. A much smaller boat was deposited next to it and, in front of both, still floating in the water, a buoy. The big ferry once plied the waters of New York harbor, going back and forth between the city and the towns on other shores. It is a big boat, long and wide, two-storied, painted in a lively yellow color. At each end, on top, sits a little hut just big enough for the captain and the helmsman -- those huts are painted a light blue-gray. The huts are located at each end so that the ferry can go back and forth. In the center of the ferry is the big smokestack, painted pink, very pretty. That was a beautiful boat. . . once. Now it rests half-tilted in the swamp, surrounded by the high reeds. The bow just touches the open water of the Raritan.
The small boat next to it is white. You would not notice it unless you really looked. The buoy in the water also came from New York Harbor. It is painted red, with a small tower on top, a square panel mounted to it.
For eighteen years now, I have been crossing the bridge. Whenever traffic permitted, I looked at the ferry -- on hot summer days, in the snow in winter, on brilliant mornings, on foggy evenings, even in the moonlight. Otherwise, I knew nothing about the ferry ......
..... until I asked the old toll collector at the Turnpike’s Exit 9, who sat there contentedly as I paid my toll.
“What’s the matter with that stranded ferry downriver?” I asked.
“That is quite a story,” he said.
“What kind of story?” I asked
“Requires too much time to tell here,” he said, as somebody honked behind me, in a hurry to get through the same tollgate.
Two weeks later, I visited with Henry, the old toll collector, at his tidy little house. It was in the old part of our town, where the houses stand closely together, on a quiet, narrow side street. There, all houses still have a covered wooden porch -- a few steps up, with comfortable chairs or even an old sofa. Everybody sits there on warm evenings -- old couples, young people, sometimes the whole family -- talking with the neighbors across the street and to the side.
It was just such a warm summer evening, so we sat on Henry’s porch. Right away, Henry’s grandchildren came -- a little girl and a boy -- sitting there with big eyes, ready to listen to whatever we had to talk about.
“Grandpa, can you tell us about your trip around the world, again?” asked the little girl.
“Or about some more adventures during the war?” asked the little boy.
Apparently, Henry had traveled quite a bit in his younger years, and had experienced many adventures. Now, he lived quietly, more so since his wife had passed away a couple of years ago. Lately, his own health was declining, that he could not travel any more.
When the children learned that we would be talking about the ferry, they called their friends from across the street. “Henry is telling the story of the ferry again!” Quickly we had seven or eight small children around us.
“Well,” said Henry. “Well, well. I will tell you once more what really happened to me many, many years ago.
In those years, when I was much younger, I liked to fish, especially on the Raritan River below New Brunswick. Now, every fisherman knows that some fish bite best at night, especially when the full moon is high up in the sky.
It was on one of those beautiful nights in spring when I got into my little fishing boat and let myself drift down the quiet river. The water stood very high. That happens when the full moon produces a high tide, which doesn’t let the water leave the river for the ocean. I had a fishing line hanging down from each side of my boat. The moon looked so beautiful in the sky. It gave a soft light to the scene. I was so happy, feeling as if I were part of nature. There were the voices of the night animals here and there, of frogs and unusual birds ..... but that, .... what was that?
‘Krrrrrrrrr ....... queeeeeeek ........ krrrrrrrrr ........ queeeeeeeek,’ on and on.
I quickly pulled the fishing lines in and laid down in my boat as low as I could, always listening to that noise. The further along I drifted with the river, the louder it seemed.
‘Krrrrrrrrr ....... queeeeeeek ........ krrrrrrrrr ........ queeeeeeeek.’
Now I could hear some other sounds.
‘Krrrrrrr ..... tock tock ..... queeek .... click click ...... krrrrrr.’
Slowly, my boat moved closer, drifting to the side of the river where the high reeds stand. As it moved around a bend of the river, I suddenly saw a large boat in the moonlight in front of me. It was painted yellow. High on top, at the end, was the small captain’s cabin, painted gray. The smokestack, in the middle of the boat, was a light rose pink.”
“Oh, how beautiful!” said Henry’s granddaughter.
“Don’t interrupt!” said her brother. “You do that all the time!”
Henry continued, “The big boat was wedged sideways between the reeds, but the bow stretched out into the open water of the river. Since the water ran high this night, it may have lifted the boat, moving it lightly with the movement of the water. Was that all? I didn’t trust those noises. Stretching my hands over the sides of my little boat, I paddled as quietly as I could toward the reeds. Then I pulled myself by their stems deeper into their thicket. Nobody could see me there. But I could observe the big boat through the last row of reeds.
“I heard a distant clock strike twelve times -- midnight. Not far from me, an owl called out with a sad cry ...... then I heard a big yawn ...... very close ..... from the direction of the big boat!
I sat motionless in my boat, pressing myself real low, eyes wide open, and my ears .... I wished I could have made them larger!” and Henry pressed himself so deep into his chair that he could just barely look out over the banister of the porch to the dark street beyond. It was very quiet now. The children all sat there, motionless.
“Now I heard a small yawn ‘...... haaawwwwww!’, ” continued Henry after a few moments to let the suspense build up.
“I saw a smaller white boat -- a runabout -- next to the big boat, also moored between the reeds. And in front of them in the water ...... what strange thing was that?”
“The red ghost!” said Henry’s grandson.
“Yes, really!” said Henry. “It was a small red ghost. It was balancing on a red buoy, swaying back and forth. It kept its arms tightly to its sides and had a big, square head. Only as my shock wore off did I realize that it was a red buoy with a small tower mounted on top, swaying with the waves of the river. But what was happening now?
Shutters opened, one on each side of the ferry. The two windows behind were illuminated by a weak light, as if the big boat had eyes. The same happened on the small white boat -- two headlights were turned on, looking like two bright little eyes. And on the head of the buoy -- were those two big fireflies with their greenish light?
Now I heard the voice of the small white boat, ‘Did you wake up, big ferry?'
‘Oh yes,’ answered the deep voice of the ferry, as if coming out of the depth of a big metal barrel. ‘Did midnight at full-moon come up again?’
‘You must continue the story of the big storm of 1921, which you couldn’t finish last time!’
‘Oh, yes! That was a real bad one!’ said the ferry, wide-awake now. ‘The night had come, and the weather was worse than ever before. The storm blew so wildly that the whole harbor of New York churned as if it were the high seas. Just as I crossed the middle of the harbor to return to the city, a big ship came by, full of people, and then it was just blown over by the storm. Everybody was thrown into the water. I shifted my engines to the highest speed, turned my big siren on, and fearlessly I hurried right into the mighty storm toward the capsized ship! I saved the people ... all of them! I stayed in the storm till everybody was on board! Then I quickly turned, over to the city, to let the people get dried and warmed up again.
Next day, the mayor of New York came and brought a flag of honor. I flew that flag for a whole month while going back and forth across the harbor. All other ships were ordered to make room for me.
Another time, the King of Sweden visited New York. He was scheduled to cruise the harbor aboard a nice, white yacht. But when he saw me, he thought I was more beautiful and wanted to cruise with me. A band came aboard and played music while I cruised with the king on that sunny day -- to the Statue of Liberty on its little island, and back to the city. Late in the evening, there were even some fireworks!’
And thus the stories went on and on. Every big storm of the last hundred years and every big event anywhere in the world had taken place in New York Harbor. The proud ferry always emerged as the hero, saving, helping, bringing joy to people, always punctual, in every kind of weather -- heat of summer, cold of winter -- always!
‘We should go out into the open harbor again,’ said the small white boat excitedly, ‘as we did in times past!’
‘You know that is not possible!’ said the big ferry. ‘Right in front of us is that red buoy and you know very well that one is not allowed to go where there is a red buoy! Oh, if a green buoy were there, then I would go again, right away. Then I would turn on my big engines, the water would foam around me, all ships would make room for me and we would again be in the middle of New York Harbor, in the midst of all that traffic!’
‘Dong!’ ...... A distant clock sounded the time. It was one. The owl hurried back to its roost.
The lights at the boats, which had looked like eyes, were turned off, the windows and shutters closed. ‘Haaawwww,’ sounded a small yawn. Then all was silent again.
‘ .......... Krrrrrrr ............ queeeeeeek ............ krrrrrrrr ........ queeeeek,’ was the noise coming from the ferry, the little white boat, and the red buoy -- nothing else. The moon had moved lower. I suddenly felt quite cold. Had it all been a dream? Quickly, I rowed home.
Next day, I had to leave on a trip. I returned five months later, in November. That afternoon, I immediately went back to the Raritan River, got into my little boat and went to see whether the big ferry was still there. It was now fall. The trees had lost all their leaves. The sky was gray. A cold wind blew over the water.
A big boat passed me. It had a large crane mounted on top and had loaded plenty of scrap iron -- the whole boat was full of it. Five men stood on deck, coarsely dressed and dirty. Were they bandits who had stolen the old iron in order to sell it as scrap? They really looked dangerous! Their boat did not have any markings, so it could not be identified and located later.
As they reached my ferry, they stopped their ship’s engine and looked.
‘Let’s see if there is anything left on board worth taking along!’ said one of the bandits to the others. They were so close to the ferry by now that he could jump over, that dirty guy. Quickly he disappeared within the ferry.
After a few minutes, he appeared on deck again and called over to his buddies: ‘The big engine is still inside! We should take it!’
Now they turned their big crane around, so that it reached over the ferry. The crane quickly lifted a large lid on top of the ferry. A big hook was lowered down on a steel cable. One could hear banging and swearing by the man inside the ferry. Then the crane started lifting, and slowly an enormous motor came out of the ferry, still shiny with oil that dripped from the disconnected ends, as if it had worked only moments ago.
‘We’ll take that red buoy, too!’ called one of the bandits from their boat. ‘We can put it in front of our hideaway. Then nobody will dare to come in looking for us!’
To make room on their already full boat, they threw some old iron overboard. A small green buoy, which they had stolen before somewhere else, was dumped, too. It happened to fall in the water just where the red buoy had been before ... what a coincidence!
I could not look any longer. I felt so miserable, angry, and helpless in my tiny little fishing boat, alone against five big bandits.
In no time, they started their ship’s engine again, and disappeared around the next bend in the river.
It was only three days until the next full moon. I couldn’t wait to be with the ferry when it would come awake again at midnight. Maybe I could comfort her.
I was there right on time, three days later, as soon as night fell. I felt cold and lonely. I looked out into the dark emptiness of the water. I soon glided close to my ferry, hiding between the reeds close by.
‘Dong, dong, dong .....’ sounded the clock at midnight. A bird called out in the distance, as if crying. The window-eyes of the two boats began to light up faintly. I heard the yawning again, ‘Haaaawwwww!’
It was the small white boat that spoke first again. ‘It is turning cold, ferry. Winter is coming. We should move closer together! Together, everything is more bearable.’
‘Yes.’ said the ferry, as if in deep thought.
‘Ferry!!!’ cried the small white boat suddenly. ‘“Ferry, ferry! Look there! The buoy turned green! We can go out again!’
‘Ohhhhhh!’ cried the ferry with a sound like I had never heard before -- so warm, so full of life and strength! That must have been her voice when she was young, and went back and forth through the harbor!
All of a sudden, all shutters opened, all windows were full of light. It was as if the ferry became bigger, as if it were collecting all its strength and power again .........
............. however, all remained silent!
Again, all windows lit up and it was as if an enormous tension was running through the ferry .....
............. again, all remained silent!
Several minutes must have passed. The windows showed no more light. Then, the ferry said with a weak voice, sounding old and empty, ‘I cannot go any more ...... never again ..... I .... .... I no longer have my motor.
It appeared as if the ferry rested deeper in the cold, black water, a bit tilted, helplessly stuck in the reeds.”
My dream had ended here. I paused in writing. What a bitter dream. For many, that’s all there is to life. They see a read buoy stopping them all the time. They wait for the green buoy and if it ever comes it is too late. But I could not end my story like that. Is there nothing left in life when great expectations are lost? Could there not be peace in accepting life as it is? Writers know that stories one begins to write sometimes take a course of their own. Here it is.
Henry continued talking:
“There was a long silence between the boats on the Raritan River that night.
The small white boat pressed close against the ferry in the dark cold. Then it said, ‘Ferry!’
‘What is left to say?’ whispered the ferry.
‘We must have been mooring here for twenty years now,’ said the small white boat.
‘Yes,’ said the ferry.
‘It was nice whenever you told stories ...... all these exciting and colorful stories!’
‘Yes,’ said the ferry.
‘Why do we have to go out again, then? ......... Why do we have to squeeze through all those strange ships again? ...... Why must we take one more trip? ...... Why can’t we just rest here -- together -- where it is so nice and quiet!’
The small white boat leaned against the big ferry. ‘We can be quite happy here ……you keep telling me stories, ….and I’ll keep listening!’
‘Dong!’ sounded the distant clock and the magic hour was over.”
Henry looked out into the dark and remained silent, as if in deep thought.
His little granddaughter was leaning close against him, trying to smile at him through her tears.
When we returned from a long trip in December 2008, the ferry could not be seen any longer. What had happened? Was she scrapped? Or did she leave for the open waters once again after all?