Preparation and use of a Bell Book

How the FBI managed it I don’t know. I only know they have their methods. However, I was under the impression those methods were effective only on land. On a Great Lakes freighter I never encountered a man dressed in a dark blue suit.

But somehow the former FBI director, while still serving, fashioned a version of a “Bell Book” suitable to his needs — a suitability he recently demonstrated. The last time I used a Bell Book the third engineer had me date and sign it then locked it in the engine room safe. I’ve not seen one since.


There had been a delay. We had to wait our turn to load so the “Old Man” had gone “Uptown.” He was a temporary skipper, a vacation relief guy.

After the first boat finished loading and sailed, our turn came. We had to back into a brisk southeasterly, make a 90 degree swing that exposed our beam, then move forward into the loading slip.

I was sailing as an “oiler,” an assistant to the third engineer. During our shift word of the Old Man’s return floated down the engine room stairs carrying a forewarning: the Old Man was besotted, bemused, and inflated. I doubt those exact terms were used but that was the meaning otherwise conveyed.

The Third was a crusty old salt. He had previously prepared for voyages where the skipper was already sailing off course. He told me the situation required our maintaining a Bell Book. Since he would be fully engaged with the engine, that task fell to me.

Lake freighters back then used a telegraph communication system between the bridge and the engine room. At each location is a telegraph device having a round dial. Forward and astern speeds are shown and movable pointers are on either side, one for the bridge the other for the engine room.

When the bridge orders a speed or direction change a bell rings in the engine room and a pointer on that telegraph moves to the selected speed in the ordered direction. The engineer then moves his pointer to that same position causing a bell to ring on the bridge and the other pointer there to move to that same position, acknowledging the bridge’s order.

The engineer then executes the order.

The Third directed me to write down the time, speed, and direction of every “Bell” sent from the Bridge, and our execution of it. He explained that the Old Man may telegraph an order he later regretted — one not based on actual fact — the effect of which he may wish to avoid.

To do so, he may try to cast blame on others and those others, cautioned the Third, that would be us. He explained the Old Man could claim he didn’t issue an order we executed or issued one we failed to execute properly, thus the need for a “Bell Book.”

Bells started ringing; I started writing.

I forget how long it actually took to make the move over to the loading slip but it seemed interminable. If my memory serves me correctly there were 17 speed and/or direction changes ordered, more than flexibility was at work.

I understand thousands of dollars of damage was done and the Coast Guard paid a visit. I suspect reports were filed, an investigation conducted.

Soon after, I slipped ashore and went back to school so I missed the ensuing action but I understand that what the Third feared threatened to occur — until he opened the engine room safe and took out that Bell Book.

I later learned Federal Evidence Rule 803 (5), allows a ” recorded recollection” such as a Bell Book or notes contemporaneously taken, to be used in Coast Guard hearings, a court of law, or before a congressional committee.

It appears the FBI director picked up on that as well.

Doug Pugh’s Vignettes run bi-weekly on Tuesdays. He can be reached via email at pughda@gmail.com.


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