George D. Costello Sr. (1949-2012) Dock Builder

Written By: Iona  Costello

I sit on the dock with my legs hanging down. My dogs surround me. When I sit they get a brief chance at affection, since I rarely stop moving. Now they flop down and want belly rubs and Thor, the big one, towers over all of us, threatening to step on us. The water is still and the sun warm. We all bask for a minute, letting the sun pour in our souls. I look at my husband’s boat, a tug called the Elsie M. Sitting there I am transported back to when I was 23.

We left at dusk on a clear summer night. Rushing after work we had to continue on. We were delivering fuel for Gardener’s Island. It was a long slow haul all night long with the Elsie M tied to the barge on the hip, maybe we were going 4 knots. There were many straight runs on the way, where we could set the course and then head up to the front of the tug. It was one of those summer nights, smooth dark water cascading from the push of the barge, like it had more viscosity, a voluptuous quality to it. The world was surreal and sensuous. The moon was so bright it lit our way, but the rest of the world was dark blue. We sat at the bow of the tug, taking in our world few people ever experience.

My husband tells me the stories of Vietnam. Through these stories I realize what type of man he was. There was no question about his guts, his fighting ability, and his quick thinking response. The man was lethal. But what I discovered was his acceptance of trusting in his higher power. All his fighting ability wasn’t going to save him, but his letting go and listening would keep him safe. When we docked from the trip I realized I had found the man I wanted, not in his strength, but in his acceptance of his weakness.

I asked him and his brother John one night, amongst shots of Uzo, ( God help us) would they have wanted to do anything else than dock building? Both stood side by side, unbreakable, and immediately answered “NO!”

I would go see him at work and would be astounded he got anything done battling the elements like he did without getting his crew hurt. Was this a lesson learnt from Vietnam, to protect your men no matter what? I would find him on a floating dock working on bolting a piling to the stringers. The waves would be battering him, rushing over his feet, threatening to wash his tools over board, the electric drills shocking him, making it almost impossible to stand and yet there he was yelling orders and getting a job done. I would be amazed and have pride at the same time. To come to grips with the elements and meet them head on, it is as if he knew how to tame the waves.

Using wrenches bigger than your forearm, 20 lbs. mauls, cranes rocking on barges moved by the surge, you think “how is it possible ?”. When I walked among the tools the weight stopped my heart and I thought “Giants live here”, no one else could build with such massive tools.

Yet he would tell me he loved me “Always”.

He dies three days after Christmas. He dies the way I would want him to, the way he would want to. I can still see him now, the sun as if God sparkles on the water in front of him. The colors of sea blue and silver dance before his eyes, the white light of the sun is intense even for December. He feels the boat pushing through the water, that strong comfort feeling of the water underneath you, the power of the boat, the camaraderie of the crew, like in the Marines, every man pulling together, no man left behind, he must think he is close to heaven right now. This man loved his life.

The day is clear and warm for December: he is driving the boat with a two man crew searching for the lost barge. A massive barge, which is laden down with five ton rocks, broke it’s mooring over Christmas, a steam train on a wrecking path. We had six nasty storms run through the area over a week. The last one broke the chain. He is searching, enjoying the day, knowing he isn’t legally responsible: it’s his job, but not his barge. I call him at 2:00, to check in as we always do. He says in a jovial way he can’t talk he is chasing a barge. I say,” Ok Hon” and hang up not wanting to be in the way. This is the last time I talk to him alive. The barge has landed on the beach safely without hurting anything, a miracle in its own. It was pulled with the tide of the ocean and had tried to head out the Shinnecock Canal. George is at his best right now: he is a man on a mission, formulating a plan, rising to a challenge. He is at the helm where he loves to be, his hands on the wheel. He never gave up that wheel if he didn’t have to. He utters “You lying mother fucker” and then drops dead. It is 3:00.