Down to the sea in ships (or, summers on the not-so-high seas)

Vic was the only one of us three brethren to realize his childhood dream. He loved the ocean and wanted to sail the seas. After graduating from Kings Point Merchant Marine Academy in the late ’40s, he got a job with Sun Oil as an advanced deckhand, called an able-bodied seaman (universally known as an AB), rose steadily through the ranks to become, finally, Captain of the Fleet. He retired as the company’s top sea dog.

As his brother, I had an in with Sun Oil, so I sailed two college summers on the ships as various types of dogsbody. 

The normal complement of bottom-rung deckhands, called ordinary seaman (universally known as, yes, ordinaries), was augmented in summer by temps to repair the damage resulting from the winds of winter. These extra-ordinaries removed rust and repainted every exposed surface on the deck.

I was hired on at a time when the family-owned company hired no Blacks or known non-Christians. I sailed initially on Vic’s ship, the Eastern Sun, where he was the regular first mate but was then on vacation. Over those summers, on several ships, I never sailed with my brother.

Graceful, ambidextrous, athletic, Vic was yet dogged by physical misfortune. He broke several fingers, a leg and an arm (while clumsy me, I’ve never broken a bone… well, I did cut off parts of a couple fingers). For example, he slipped on an oil slick while carrying a glass sample phial and deeply cut a finger. The tendon retracted before it could be attended to and he was left with a permanently curled digit.

Example two: Each ship carried an “anchor buoy” – a piece of wood attached to a rope which was attached to the anchor chain. Why? Because (snort, chortle, GUFFAW) they’d once lost an anchor in the river! Now, if one dropped along with its chain, you’d know where the poor thing had gone! Vic was standing near when the anchor was released one time and the buoy rope whipped around his arm, smashed it against the rail. His shattered bones were patched with screws and borrowings from other parts of his body.

The worst disaster did not hit him, personally (except spiritually). Whether he was first mate or captain at the time, he was in charge of a three-man crew sent down to check an empty toluene tank. A spark, probably electrical, caused an instantaneous explosion. All three died of oxygen deprivation or seared lungs. The bosun leading that crew was tall, blond, magnificent, a near perfect physical specimen. Almost unimaginable to think of him dead. Vic’s conscience was in shreds for months.

The Eastern Sun‘s captain was an ass. Stupid, superstitious, fearful, he killed the ship’s engines the moment we entered the Delaware River channel lest he might lumber into something while chugging north. It took four hours to drift up the river to the docks at Marcus Hook (once a hangout of Blackbeard the Pirate). One time his tardiness missed high tide and he tried to cinch the ship to the dock by over-tightening the three-inch polypropylene lines fastened to the mooring capstans. One snapped. Under massive tension, the broken line moved faster than the eye could register. It could have cut a man in half.

By contrast, Capt. Brown, the “relief captain” who filled in on vacations (to the entire crew’s relief), would zip upriver in under two hours, screech to a stop mid-stream, then slap the ship home against the dock like parking a motor scooter.

Between full-timers and us summer ordinaries, the Eastern had a varied load of seamen.

Blackie was bosun (foreman of the deck crew). A short, growly taskmaster, he was an OK guy if you enjoy tough love while doing boobic jobs.

Smitty, probably in his mid 30s, was imperturbable, amiable but quietly cynical. 

Tiger, in his late teens, a fundamentalist or born-again, boasted incessantly of his sexual conquests. When he left, I inherited his cabin. The top dresser drawer was stuffed with those little green and-purple-inked religious tracts.

Bell, another spare ordinary, could fart on command. He introduced me to the six categories of farts: fizz, fuzz, fizz-fuzz, pooh, tearass and rattler.  He had little trouble producing on request, though he could not always guarantee a pure category – a fizz-fuzz, apparently, is especially taxing. 

I can’t recall the name of the AB who bestowed the best advice ever given a fellow worker: “Walk fast in the open spaces.” He would barrel along the deck at full-throttle, arms pumping, to midships, where he would enter the paint locker, heave himself up onto a wide shelf, and fall asleep.

My difficulty, as in many (if not most) physical situations, was trying to comprehend what was going on. When first told to help stow the lines after casting off, I shuffled sideways, grabbed something, backed away, looked panicked – and froze. The first mate (Vic’s vacation replacement) asked why I was “standing around while everybody else is doing something.” Because I don’t have the least friggin’ idea what to do.

(Recently I’ve realized that, for all the times I would stumble and bumble through some simple task, most fellow workers ended up liking me. I find that unnerving.)

For entertainment… well, there wasn’t much. The lounge – what the hell was it called? can’t remember – sported an ancient shortwave radio that could being in countries from across the waves. It was also where we did our laundry in a massive washer, using a super-powered detergent called sougie (sp?) kept to clean the decks. It could incidentally dissolve the accumulated oil in our clothing (and probably our faces if we dared apply it).

While a deckhand, I numbed the nerves of two fingers using a handheld pneumatic paint chipper for hours on end. It took six months for full feeling to return. Later, working on a small Sun barge along the southern New England coast, the idiots in charge insisted I steer the thing into a canal – me, who had never driven a car, who had fallen off bikes at five years old and refused to ride again. Two years later, the barge was cleft in twain by a larger ship. I wonder why.

My next bottom-feeder job was “wiper.” Wipers toiled in 110-degree heat and 90% humidity down in the engine room, sopping up grease, servicing machinery, crawling through bilgewater. To offset the gloom, we painted the handrails bright yellow, the steel flooring kelly green. (Later, on an older ship run by pistons, I sat in inch-deep puddles of oil trying, with two others, to loosen steel nuts half the size of my head that held a gargantuan piston in place.)

For a trip or two I even worked in the galley (kitchen), serving meals and cleaning officers’ cabins. The steward – the galley boss – was mid-40s, heavy, bald, profane, likable enough. He ran a constant game of cribbage, a card game where scores are tallied by moving pegs along holes in a wooden board (an English game, of course).

The steward nearly always won; here’s why: The cards were old, greasy, nearly rotting. The galley crew was usually half drunk and about as bright as pewter. They’d shuffle the cards two or three times, which left them adhering in clumps. After half a dozen cards had been played, it wasn’t hard for the steward to determine who was holding which sticky wad. I watched, never played.

Most Sun tankers seldom went anywhere interesting (though over many years Vic ended up in Egypt, Japan and India). The standard run was to Port Arthur, Texas. Tooling up the Sabine River, you passed lush houses along the banks, but when you got to P.A. proper, you had the choice of a couple dive bars, where the crew blew enough money to need to draw against their next paycheck by the end of the run.

I did get to Puerto Rico once, and hired a taxi up a switchback hillside road to the local town, where I was greeted with some amusement. I don’t speak Spanish and, in my shorts, verging-on-albino hair and dead-white skin, I looked as Latin as a border collie. I grinned, nodded and found my way to a liquor store where I bought a couple bottles of rum. Then I shagged up into the hills, sat down, and read. Later, I skittered down at full run, holding my bagged liquor and thinking Hemingwayesque thoughts. 

On every voyage, I hauled along my battered Underwood portable typewriter. I’d buy government-issue postcards – no pix, just an outlined green lozenge on the front above the address space. I’d type across the entire back and front, right around the address, which I’d circle in pen: not a millimeter wasted. Many of the cards I sent to a lovely young lady in Providence, RI. She had gorgeous legs but did not in any other way excite me. The cards were just a mark of friendship.

One who did excite me:

Between trips, I had just enough time to take the commuter train from Marcus Hook to Philly and spend a few hours at our house on Mole St. in Philly. Why, I can’t recall, but this time I was sitting in the small, quiet, concreted back yard, talking to a very bright, belligerent 17-year-old and his mother. The mother was slim and wondrously sexy. At one point she sat in my lap – some sort of comment to her antagonistic son? What effect it had on him I don’t know. The effect it had on me ….

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