Chapter I

So this is what happened on April Fool’s Day 1964.

My old man had been in the middle of a double shift down at the Socony docks. A double shift wasn’t uncommon for a refinery foreman because oil tankers would not always arrive in planned sequence. When that happened, it became high priority to get the hold pumped out fast of any ship already at the unloading dock, get it back to sea, and bring in the out-of-schedule one so that it didn’t have to stay in a holding pattern in Narragansett Bay.

Pop’s dealy was simply to add another foreman with his crew to double-pump the docked tanker—in this case an English-flagged one named the LLOYD GEORGE—get it on its way and bring in the Mexican tanker, the ZAPATA. Chucky Sorensen’s crew was also working the docks, so Pop and Chucky would first make sure they were on the same page as to who was doing what. Then they started cleaning the crude oil out of the LLOYD GEORGE. Pop’s crew was pretty representative of East Providence’s working-class guys. Couple of Portuguese fresh from the Azores, three Italians (one of them a dead ringer for Dean Martin), and the Murphy boys, Timmy and Tommy. Pop was pretty tough on them, but he liked them all, and at Socony’s annual clambake at Rocky Point, he’d always introduce these hard, tough characters as “my kids.”

About one o’clock in the afternoon, when the two crews were uncoupling the heavy unloading hoses, somebody smelled smoke. For about thirty seconds, the men stopped working, stood silently and sniffed. They stared at one another as the rancid aroma of burning crude and gasoline wafted over them. Not very much scared these guys. Fire did. Pop counted up his crew.

“Where’s Tommy?”

Pop barely got the question out before someone started yelling.

“Fire in the pump house! Fire in the pump house!”

The pump house was set back a hundred yards from the dock. About the size of a two-car garage, it sat in red brick on top of a slab of concrete. In 1964 it had already been in continuous use for nearly fifty years and consisted of two huge, simple engines sitting side by side. One to take the crude out of the ships and the other to drive it up the slope of the bay and into the refinery tanks on the other side of Pawtucket Avenue.

Pop and Chucky’s crews shut down the unloading and quickly disconnected the hoses from the tanker. The dock was cleared and all hands of the ship followed them out to a rise overlooking the docks, perhaps five hundred feet away. The last time there was a flame-up around the pump house was the day after the great hurricane of 1938. Twenty-three men lost their lives.

When they were all a safe distance away, Pop asked it again.

“Where’s Tommy?”

Nobody knew and Pop didn’t ask twice. He jogged back down to the dock and started calling Tommy’s name. He was jogging toward the men’s room adjacent to the pump house when the flame-up came. The door popped off its hinges, and a sustained shoot of white-hot torch hit Pop midstride. There was only an idea of my Pop to bury.

Tommy had driven over to Riverside for a sandwich.