Whispering Willie taught his boy to tie a Turk's head and a monkey's fist when the kid was barely 7. Difficult knots for a child, they are basics along the working waterfront, the sort of thing passed down in shipyard families.
In a city that once manufactured everything from brooms to tin cans, no industry defined Baltimore as much as the building of great ships.
"It was in my blood, I used the tools my father used," says Al Phillips, who followed his father into the riggers' trade at Bethlehem Steel's Sparrows Point shipyard in 1967. "He loved ships. To him, building ships was like being a great artist."
Shipbuilding in the Phillips family -- the iron-tough but soft-spoken Willie, a waterfront legend who died in 1959, and his son Al, now 53 -- began with the Great Depression, back when vessels with wooden decks were still being launched from the Point.
"Years after Dad died, I went out to sea to test the new ships I helped build, and it was like taking your baby to kindergarten," says Phillips. "To build a ship and do it well made my chest swell."
Nearly a decade after the last ship was built from scratch there, BethShip is a virtual ghost town, down to fewer than 700 workers.
At its height during World War II, when Bethlehem Steel Co. operated 15 shipyards around the country, the Sparrows Point yard put food on the tables of more than 8,000 families.
More than 650 ships were built there, most during a time when a young man with little education, a reasonably sound mind and a strong back could push his way into the middle class with a hard day's work.
Now, some 250 years after the first ship was built in Baltimore, Bethlehem Steel's last shipyard is on the block, to be shut down or sold. Three groups of investors reportedly have submitted bids to buy the yard, including Orioles' owner Peter G. Angelos, who has said he wants to see ships built there again.
Improbable, say industry analysts. And what may be a business opportunity for some reads to others like an epitaph.
If the end comes, Al Phillips will think of the man who taught him to make a monkey's fist and he will feel his heart break.
"Anybody who says another ship will be built at Sparrows Point is blowing smoke," says Phillips, who not long ago was laid off. "I hope I'm wrong, but I know I'm not."
Sprawling but silent
Amid the stilled, cavernous buildings and silent cranes that stand like giant, rusting insects, only sporadic repair work is done.
The place is so sprawling that bicycles are used to run errands or pick up a tool on the other side of the yard, but it's a rare day when all of BethShip's current employees are needed at the same time.
When the yard thrived, everything from barges to the largest oil tankers ever made in the United States were built there, 652 vessels in all. The last was in 1989, when the Navy commissioned the USS Tanner.
In his 30 years, Al Phillips saw a half-dozen men die in accidents, had his arm skewered by a falling wedge of steel, and narrowly escaped death when a mooring line hit him in the head.
But like so many others who remain, he isn't ready just yet to lay down his fid knife and marlinespike.
"I've paid a great price, this job has taken my youth and my health, but the pride I have from doing a good job, putting ships to sea and making them quality vessels outweighs the rest of it," says Phillips.
"All us shipbuilders linked together, we built a ship. A ship is a she, held in high regard like your mother or wife."
Linked together, those shipbuilders span generations that predate the incorporation of Baltimore itself, back to the first sailing ships built along the Fells Point waterfront in the 1730s.
The oldest living members of the trade meet monthly at a Dundalk Avenue union hall for a retirees luncheon where they find out who is alive and who is dead, and remember the days when they did exhilarating work alongside guys named "Slippery Eddie," "Dirty Neck Frank" and "Killer."
"Do you think a gang down there now could build a ship on the ways like we did, Rocky?" asks Raymond Staniewski, a retired machinist sitting at a table of retired machinists.
"No way they could get an engine passed," answers 75-year-old Roscoe Cottrell, who with his fellow machinists was responsible for setting up and aligning a ship's working guts -- pumps, engines and main propulsion system. "None of 'em would even know how to use a declivity stick."
The declivity stick is a good gauge of how much has changed since a guy like Staniewski could get a helper's job right out of the eighth grade and hang on long enough to learn a trade.
Used to measure an incline as if it were level, the stick, or board, was a necessity when ships were built on sloping ways with bows pointed in the air. Now they are built level with the ground in deep basins called graving docks.