The Sinking of the Red Barge

Sheriffs power boat charging and ramming small skiff, with red barge behind teepee structure. Photo courtesy of Joe Tate from his blog Last Voyage of the Redlegs | post by Charles Bush and Larry Clinton


WHO: Charles Bush
WHAT: Reads from his novel Houseboat Wars
WHERE: Sausalito Library
WHEN: July 9 at 7:00 p.m.

Charles Bush is a former attorney who represented the waterfront dwellers during the County’s attempts to evict them in the 70s. He’s now written a novel based on those events, called Houseboat Wars. Like most historic novels, the book is a mix of fact and fiction. Some names have been changed, as Charles layers a murder mystery over his historic narrative.

Here’s a true-to-life excerpt from 1977, when the developers of Waldo Point Harbor brought in a pile driver to begin construction of the new docks that the existing residents opposed. Bloody battles between the houseboaters and law enforcement raged on for a week and a half. The narrator, Legal Aid attorney Rick Spenser, and another lawyer have gone to court to try to stop the construction but were turned down. From the standpoint of the houseboaters, everything looked hopeless:


The first winter storm of the season slammed into the Bay Area that December night, howling winds and driving rain in tow. The windows of my flimsy stucco apartment building rattled, the building itself shuddered. Whether because of the storm or because of the ignominious defeat I’d suffered earlier that day, I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned all night, images of loss and devastation tramping through my mind.

Yet despite my insomnia, I somehow managed to sleep through the alarm. And once awake, I felt so lethargic and unmotivated I couldn’t make up the time. As a result, I arrived at the office half an hour late.

Our receptionist Ruby greeted me with, “There’s an urgent message for you.”

I picked up the blue-and-white slip. It read: “Want to put a smile on your face? Come on down to Waldo Point ASAP. Kevin & the Gang.”

What the hell? How could Kevin be so flippant when just a day before we’d suffered a devastating defeat, with no promise of better times in the future?

I had a client coming in that morning for a meeting about her unemployment-insurance appeal. But managing to catch her before she left home, I rearranged the appointment for later in the day. Then, brimming with curiosity but also apprehension, I dashed down Highway 101 to Waldo Point. Fortunately, the rains had gone away.

Upon arrival I saw a large knot of people bundled up in blankets or heavy parkas, their faces covered with mud and sweat, their hair matted. Improbably, given that it was ten in the morning, most seemed to be drinking beer. As I drew closer, the scent of pot wafted.

I saw Becky and Kevin in the group. Becky was wrapped in a Navajo blanket, chocolate-brown flecks of mud decorating her tan cheeks, water having turned her wavy golden locks straight. Kevin had a beer in one hand and a bandage on the other.

“What’s going on? I asked.
“Come take a look,” Kevin said. He and Becky led me to the floating dock where, a week and a half earlier, I’d witnessed battles between houseboaters and cops. Several houseboats that had been there then were now gone—moved, presumably, by the cops—and in their place was the notorious pile diver. It was a silly-looking thing, a piece of equipment obviously designed for use on land—its huge rubber tires made that plain—rolled onto a small concrete barge. In front of the pile driver, three pairs of pilings poked out of the water. Next to it, a small tugboat floated idly.

But the pile driver held my attention for only a moment, for immediately behind it loomed something much larger. And more striking.

It was another rectangular concrete barge, like the one on which the pile driver sat, except this barge was much, much larger. At least a hundred feet in length. On top of it sat a one-story wood building painted barn red.

I looked more closely at the larger barge. Was I seeing correctly? I shut and reopened my eyes to make sure.

Yes, I was seeing correctly. The huge barge with the red building on top was sunk. It rested on the mud bottom. Like the Owl.

But that wasn’t the most shocking thing. The most shocking thing was that the huge barge appeared to have been deliberately sunk. Numerous jagged holes punctuated its hull.

Suddenly all the pieces fit together, and a chill ran up my spine. The pile driver was in a cove. The huge concrete barge blocked the only entrance to the cove. Or exit from the cove. And because it was sunk, the barge couldn’t be moved.

The pile driver was trapped! And not by accident, rather by deliberate —

I stopped myself just short of the word “sabotage.”

What had I become part of? I was a lawyer, an officer of the court, an upholder of the rule of law. What had my clients done?

On the other hand, I had to admire their ingenuity.

I turned slowly to Becky and Kevin. “Is this what I think it is?”

They both broke out laughing. “Seriously, is that big thing sunk?”

“It most definitely is,” Becky said, in her most alluring low, smoky voice.

“I guess I’d better not ask if it was deliberately sunk.”

Again they both laughed.

Charles Bush will read from Houseboat Wars at the Sausalito Library on July 9 at 7:00 p.m. The book is available on Amazon and at the Ice House and Book Passage in Corte Madera.