Double Life: The Camas Prairie Captain

Tim Woodward’s new columns will alternate with Woodward Classics for the duration of the pandemic. This one originally appeared in The Idaho Statesman and in his first book, “Shirttail Journalist.”

  The Corral Store floats on a sea of land. For as far as you can see, there is only the Camas Prairie and the surrounding hills. 

  That high plain is so big and silent, so softly enveloping, that it seems a world of its own. You can stand on the Camas Prairie, its gentle wind blowing in your face, and think that the land stretched forever.

  A sign outside the little red Corral Store advertises that “It’s Coffee Time,” and somehow it always is. The man behind the counter welcomes you with a tired smile. He sells groceries, pumps gas and provides direction to nearby towns as if he had done these things all his life. You’d never figure him for anything but a prairie shopkeeper.

  You’d be mistaken. Every other Sunday, usually around one in the afternoon, Bob Ertter takes care of last-minute details at the store, kisses his wife, Mamie, goodbye and drives his Chevrolet El Camino to Boise, 90 miles away. He parks at a service station near the airport, buys a newspaper at a vending machine in the airport terminal building and boards a jetliner.

  An hour and five minutes later, he gets off at the San Francisco airport, catches a limousine to his usual stop and walks two blocks to a cheap but decent motel. His other car, an old Pontiac, is parked outside. He spends the night, gets up early and drives to the docks. Bob Ertter is a man with a double life:  prairie shopkeeper and San Francisco Bay barge captain.

  Traces of the sailor emerge as the shopkeeper tells me his story. His eyes are blue and have that restless, faraway look common to men of the sea. His sleeves are rolled up, exposing a tattoo on each arm. Like most sailors, he is intolerant of landlubber terminology. If I said “ship,” he’d jump in with a correction. A barge isn’t a ship. A barge is a barge.

  The barge he operates is owned by the Crowley Maritime Corp.,  Ertter’s employer for most of his working life. It’s a hundred feet wide, nearly as long as two football fields, and is operated by a crew of  two tankermen, or captains. Ertter and his counterpart work seven days at a stretch, 12 hours on, 12 off – unloading the giant tankers and carrying their cargo to the Bay Area refineries where it becomes the stuff you and I pump into our cars’ gas tanks. 

  Barges are used to unload the oil because tankers are too large and draw too much water to reach the refineries. A single tanker can carry almost half a million barrels of oil. Ertter’s barge is small by comparison, holding 178,000 barrels. In one week, though, that one barge on the San Francisco bay can unload five tankers with a combined cargo of four million barrels, enough to keep the entire country running for six hours.

  Ertter and his fellow captain share quarters about the size of an average living room, with two desks, two cots and just enough room for a few personal belongings. One man works while the other sleeps or reads.

  You’re probably wondering how an Idahoan who lives in a place like Corral came to such a life. It began 40 years ago, just after Ertter graduated from Boise High School. 

  “I was a wanderer,” he said “I’m not any more, but in those days, boy did I have a case of wanderlust!”

  He joined the merchant marine as a seaman and spent 12 years seeing the world. I asked him if there was anyplace he hadn’t been.

  “Yes, there is,” he said after thinking about it. “We never made Russia.”

  After a dozen years at sea, the wanderlust was gone. Ertter went to work as a tankerman on the San Francisco Bay and has been there ever since – 28 years on the same job. He has the commute down to a science. He’s made it from the store on the prairie to the dock on the bay in three hours.

  “It’s nice to have a week off,” he says of his unusual schedule,”but I don’t usually make it down there in three hours. You use up about a day coming and going, and by the time I get home I’m tired. I spend the first couple of days here sleeping. That only leaves about four real days off.”

  He doesn’t mean it as a complaint, just a statement of fact. His complaint, and biggest worry, involves hanging on to his double life. Skyrocketing air fares threaten to end the lifestyle he and Mamie looked so hard to find. 

  For 16 of his 28 years as a barge captain, they lived in the Bay Area and “couldn’t take it any more,” he said. “I’d grown up in Boise, but we couldn’t take that, either. It was growing and spreading out so much. We looked three years to find this place and buy the store. My wife likes it here, and I’d hate to go, too. After twelve years here, we’re friends with practically everybody that comes down the road.”

  His round-trip airfare to San Francisco more than doubled in three months.

  “If it gets to the point that it’s eating up my paycheck, that’ll be it.”

  In the 12 years the Ertters have owned the store, it’s turned a profit once. Ertter is 57, still eight years from retirement.

  You hear it said that the sea is a sailor’s first love, but it isn’t always so. As we sat drinking coffee in the little store, its seafaring proprietor gazed wistfully out the window at the prairie he has come to love. His face was drawn, his eyes tired. You could see how badly he didn’t want to move back to the Bay Area to avoid the high cost of commuting. 

  “I suppose if we have to, we have to,” he said. “It’s the only thing I know.”

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@gmail.com.

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