Sea Stories (Chapter 5)

Onboard Ship – “Shipmates”

Throughout my service in the Merchant Marine, I had numerous crewmembers, some memorable, some not so. One thing must be said: In all my experience I knew only a very few who were not stand up guys in every way. When I first started talking about shipping to my friends and peers, I was peppered from all sides with tales of thievery and debauchery. Debauch I saw plenty of but never a thief. Perhaps it was the luck of the draw but nearly everyone I had the pleasure of going to sea with was someone I would have little trouble bringing home for dinner. These were crude men of the sea with all that brings to mind, but honorable to a fault, willing to come to the defense of any wronged man. A few of these characters stand out in my memory for one reason or another.

“Peter and the Boxer”

Of all the people I shipped with, Peter was the most identifiable as a “seaman”. He was a big man, broad shouldered with upper arms like small tree trunks. He was a member of the deck crew and well liked by almost all aboard. Never derelict in his duty, Peter could always be counted on at sea. It was on shore leave that things would unravel. Peter was a happy drunk but unable to handle the copious amounts he would imbibe once ashore. Typically, one or two others would go on leave with him in order to insure his safe (and timely) return. Most nights in port Peter could be heard returning to the ship late at night, in the company of his chaperone, singing his head off.

One night, though, he was not so lucky as to be out with companions. This is not a story of the waylaid seafarer, as Peter was perfectly capable of defending himself from the harm of others. No, this particular incident was entirely his doing. The ship was set to sail at 9:00AM and Peter was nowhere to be seen. The Bo’sun (who on the deck crew is next in the command line below the Third Mate but he is also a fellow union member to the crew and as such commands great respect, even deference) asked around as to his whereabouts but no one knew. At this point there was no time to go ashore for a search and so, reluctantly, the Bo’sun called to cast off. On a ship as large as a freighter, getting underway takes some time (hauling anchor, retrieving the very large pier tie-off lines, etc.), so meantime men were lining the rails keeping a watch out for any sign of their wayward friend.

Just then, as the ship pulled away from the pier, Peter came running up (actually staggering very rapidly). The Captain, a stickler for schedule wouldn’t hear of making any accomodation for him and instructed the Mate to carry on. Men started shouting at Peter to talk to members of a tugboat crew that were watching this whole drama unfold but, given his condition, he was unable to comprehend what was being asked of him. On the other hand, the tugboat crew knew exactly what was up. A few of these men went on to the pier and gathering him up, dragged poor Peter onto the tug and cast off, making for our ship which was by now steadily steaming away. As they pulled up alongside a rope ladder was deployed and, with the Old Man hollering his disapproval, other crew members went down the ladder and hauled prodigal Peter aboard.

At the top of this story I mentioned the fact that Peter was well liked by “almost all” on the ship. I used that qualifier because there was one who detested him. This was The Boxer. I call this man The Boxer because I cannot remember his given name (Nick?) but I do recall he was a retired pugilist. Actually this could be surmised without even knowing his history. His nose was mashed into his face until it was nearly flat. His eyebrows and forehead were thick with the scar tissue of numerous beatings, giving him the look of a Cro-Magnon. The ears were the very definition of “cauliflower ears”, ripped apart so many times they spread like floral attachments on the sides of his head. The Boxer also had an obession with Keno.

Keno was the focal point for what was a mutual dislike between these two. By way of explanation, Keno is a basic lottery game. Players buy cards with set numbers on them and someone calls out a series of numbers which, if they match the numbers on the card, produces a winner. It is pure chance. The Boxer insisted he had figured out a “system” for this game. Each night he would come into the crew mess (the common dining area that outside of meal times served as a gathering place) and declare his new infallible system. Peter would invariably be there ridiculing this “system” as a crock (which it was), testing it, proving its fallacy and then needling The Boxer.

It should be mentioned that, on this particular cruise, The Boxer was my fo’c’sle mate; I shared a room with him. Night after night he would sit at our common desk working feverishly on his “systems”. Bent to his task, he would mutter and curse as he worked out ideas only he could fathom. The fact that his brains were pudding from one (or more) too many beatings administered by men intent upon his complete annihilation surely was instrumental in the formation of his particular delusions. Suffice to say he was bonkers, as I knew firsthand, and all too well.

On one ominous night, I was still at work washing dishes when Peter began to bait The Boxer. At this point in our story a description of the pantry and my place in it is in order. The pantry was a small narrow room with a single doorway at on end, off the galleyway. Opening onto the crew mess, at the same end, was a large serving window which was at right angles to the doorway. Along the the bulkhead shared with the doorway were two large sinks that ran the length of the small room. At the other end of the pantry, on the opposite bulkhead and kitty corner to the doorway, a very small serving window opened onto the officers’ mess. Along this same bulkhead a counter ran beneath both the windows, running under the officers’ mess window, turning at a right angle under the crew mess window and ending at the doorway. All that was left was a narrow aisle with barely room to turn around, convenient while working but a trap in what was to come, for this is where I stood.

After awhile, Peter’s relentless needling began to unhinge The Boxer. Muttering and cursing (as was his wont) he left the crew mess, turned right in the galleyway and right again, entering the pantry. For his part, Peter came up to the crew mess window and continued his harangue. The Boxer began rummaging around in the silver draw and presently, with a gleam of unstable malice on his face, his hand came up gripping a large carving knife. Peter, sensing things were getting out of hand, tried to reason with The Boxer but at this point he was too far gone; he wanted blood. Peter then came around to the pantry doorway and began to grapple with The Boxer. By this time other members of the crew, realizing that things had gotten out of hand, began attempting to intervene both vocally and physically.

In the meantime, while big Peter and the almost equally large Boxer were struggling like two gladiators, I was cowering at the far end of the pantry feeling like I was about to breathe my last. I quickly surveyed the situation: the officers’ mess window was too tiny to provide egress, before me the two goliaths blocked any hope of escape. I was beginning to have visions of being carved up like so much roast beef when suddenly the Bo’sun appeared. He grabbed the arm with which The Boxer was gripping the knife and, on the strength of what I could only assume was his place of authority on ship, for he was not as large as the two combatants (and in fact possessed only one functioning hand), all hostilities ceased. As soon as the doorway cleared, I was down the galleyway, into my fo’c’sle and onto my cot. Needless to say, that night, with The Boxer snoring away peacefully, was mostly a sleepless one for me.

“Whitey and the Man from Mobile”

The food served onboard ship, to my great surprise, was first rate. I say surprise because my impression of sea-going life and the food provided was drawn from anecdotes I had heard from people I knew that had served in the Navy and of course from the aforementioned books and movies. I was expecting slop and hardtack. The reality in the U. S. Merchant Marines (at least in my experience) could not be further from the truth. Three meals a day were served by crew messmen, complete with menus providing a variety of choices for breakfast and the midday meal. Supper was typically a single entrée offering but usually of superior quality.

This was true of nearly all ships but I was forever spoiled by my first Chief Cook, Whitey. He was, to me, a man of indeterminate age. Given my perspective at the time (that of a teenager), I was ill equipped to judge the age of anybody outside of my own peer group. But Whitey was something else again. He was a frail little man, hair white as snow and thin as a rail, who appeared to me to be sixty, seventy years old, maybe older. He was in fact in his early fifties, his body ravaged by years of alcoholism. Yet, the man could cook. Nightly he turned out the most delectable meals imaginable. Whitey, whatever his personal failings, was in complete command when it came time to put on a feed.

In the heirarchy of the cooking world onboard ship, the Chief was his own man, answerable only to the Steward and even then only on a limted basis. He was in full charge of all daily menus but in reality he was really only concerned with the preparation of the evening meal. The main funtion of the Second Cook was as the baker. The Second would awake each morning at approximately 2:00AM and proceed to do the day’s baking: breads and rolls, pies and cakes, etc. He also handled breakfast. To fill out the staff, there was a Third Cook. The Third was principly an assistant to the Chief but he also assisted the Second at breakfast and pretty much handled the midday meal on his own. This left the Chief to concentrate completely on the evening meal.

And what meals they were: roast beef with bread pudding, glazed hams, turkey or chicken roasted whole and carved per order. Everyone agreed life was good with Whitey onboard. During the one holiday season I was a mariner, the sailing schedule put us at sea over both Thanksgiving and Christmas. This actually turned out to have its advantages. Whitey went all out producing a menu worthy of a major restaurant. On Thanksgiving not only was the traditional roast turkey with all the trimmings offered but also included on the menu were a huge ham as well as prime rib. At Christmas he surpassed himself with a menu that included: turkey, ham and roast beef with potatoes, sweet and mashed liberally doused with giblet gravy; various vegetables; assorted fruits: apples, oranges, bananas, as well as plums, figs, nuts, and dates; and to finish it off cakes, puddings and three types of pie.

He also provided eggnog and the task of ladling it out fell to the Pantryman. After I had set up the bowl and goblets and before I had begun serving, the Captain presented me with a fifth of brandy to spice up the nog. Not everyone was drinking alcohol, so I was spiking the drinks individually. This quickly led to a “one for you, one for me” type of approach and soon I was having a very happy and very, very merry Christmas. It took me slightly more time than usual to clean up after the meal that night and the call to rise the next morning for the breakfast shift came way to early.

In the middle of my second tour on the Mohawk, Whitey fell ill and had to be transferred to a hospital. That same day his replacement arrived, The Man from Mobile. I call him this because (besides not remembering his name) he went on constantly about Mobile, Alabama, his home town. The crew were well aware that Whitey was pretty special so on the whole they were already apprehensive about who was taking over as Chief Cook. They quickly learned that the days of living high on the hog were about to come to an abrupt halt.

The Man from Mobile could not have been more of a polar opposite from Whitey. His meals invariably had a thrown together quality about them. He would also feature left overs as a meal. Under Whitey this was never done, leftovers would be left in the crew mess reefer as snacks for those on late night watches. The Man from Mobile would serve spaghetti with sauce from a can on Monday, frozen pre-breaded veal cutlets on Tuesday and complete the culinary affront by serving Tuesday’s cutlets covered with Monday’s sauce, melt slices of American Processed Cheese Food on top and call it Veal Parmigiana on Wednesday. And that was a good week.

Inasmuch as Whitey’s illness struck just before our arrival in the Philippines and we were only there long enough to take on fuel for the long trip back to the States, there was no way to rectify the situation until we returned. After a week or so, the constant complaints from the crew were coming fast and furious. At the height of the discontent, the Old Man, being a reticent fellow who usually allowed his actions to speak for him, ordered a single, simple bowl of plain white rice for his evening meal for five days running. At about this time the clamor from the crew reached its apogee as well and a union meeting was called.

At sea any party with a grievance deemed egregious enough could petition for a union meeting. This particular meeting was called due to a ship-wide unanimous grievance. The Man from Mobile was called before the entire crew in the crew mess and was forced to stand, hear the airing of criticisms and answer for them. After a number of men had their say, The Man from Mobile attempted to defuse the disapproval with a defense based on the quality of the stores he was forced to work with. Since Whitey had worked with exactly the same supplies, this argument was greeted with derision and disdain.

In the end the crew had to live with it until the ship reached San Francisco at which point The Man from Mobile was unceremoniously put off and a new Chief Cook was brought aboard. He too wasn’t up to the high standards that Whitey had established but at least his fare was palatable. By the by, after the union meeting, for the rest of the journey back to San Francisco, the Captain had meals specially prepared by the Second Cook at midday and skipped the evening meal entirely. On ship, where meals are looked forward to as a necessary break in the day’s tedious routine, the highly symbolic nature of this act of forfeiture was not lost on the crew, and appreciated to a man.

Okinawa – “Dizzying Heights”

I have always been afflicted with a bit of acrophobia (fear of heights). So from the time I first boarded ship I became perversely fascinated with the crow’s nest that sits atop the main mast high above the deck, 120 feet or more. A narrow ladder mounts the mast, leading to the nest. The crow’s nest itself is a four by four by four-foot cube (no top) made entirely, floor and walls, of thick, metal mesh. I got it in my mind that if I could just climb that ladder and reach the nest, my fears would be conquered forever.

One day, as the ship was leaving Okinawa, I decided that it was now or never. I figured that any hesitation would keep me from my goal so I quickly began to ascend. Every few feet the ladder was encircled by a protective hoop, which periodically gave me a small sense of security. I heeded the advice I had heard before when attempting climbs of any height: Don’t look down. This seemed to work and as I was moving swiftly, hand over hand, rung after rung; soon I was approaching my objective. I took the last few rungs almost at a run, passed through the square hole in the floor of the nest and lay on the floor, winded and petrified.

I mean literally petrified: I couldn’t move! I had been so involved in getting to the top I hadn’t sorted out what I was going to do when I got there. The ship was now at sea and, although it was relatively calm, the gentle swaying down on the decks (all those yards below me) was translated up here into a broad arc. As I swayed back and forth and clung to the mesh, I could see the island of Okinawa receding and, off in the distance, the other, smaller islands of Japan spread out like a string of gems upon the turquoise sea. I contemplated this picturesque scene for several moments and, since I wasn’t looking down and my mind was occupied, my fear subsided.

Just then I was hailed from below, apparently by some mate who didn’t take kindly to my being somewhere I shouldn’t. Suddenly, my momentarily muted fears washed over me, returning in a rush, awakening me from my reverie in a flash. Now I had little choice but to descend. I crawled on my belly (I still hadn’t stood up) inch by inch toward the gaping hole trying to figure out how I was going to begin lowering myself onto the ladder without my heart coming right out through my throat. I gained the opening and slid my foot over the edge and onto a rung. “Good”, I reasoned, “This isn’t going to be as bad as I originally thought”. Oh how wrong I was. For the life of me, I could not advance my body another centimeter; I was frozen to the spot.

Another shout from below snapped me out of it and somehow I managed to lower myself through the dreaded hole and onto the ladder. Slowly I worked my way down, step by agonizing step, until finally I was again standing on the solid deck. The mate was saying something about what a damned fool I was but I heard little of his tirade, all I could think of was how lucky and/or stupid I was to pull such a foolhardy stunt and get out of it unharmed. One thing is for sure. Confronting that particular apprehension did not bring conquest, only the determination to never attempt anything like it again. Facing your fears is one thing; dying for them is something else again.

© Stephen Alexander 2008

Sea Stories (Chapter 5)

stephen hewitt

Lanexa, United States

  • Artist

Artist's Description

Chapter 5 of Sea Stories


sea stories

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