Just out of high school I went to sea.
The Merchant Mariner’s ID issued by the US Coast Guard arrived by mail just after my 17th birthday.
As good as a passport, it came like a driver’s license, the black-and-white subway booth picture with its unshaven, unsmiling, face framed by a dark roll-neck sweater preserved in plastic.
I stared down whatever was out there. I was Joseph Conrad, I was O’Neill’s Bound East For Cardiff. I was tough. I was ready.
I hoped I looked it anyway.
A few days later I put on my second-hand US Navy pea jacket, $15 from Army-Navy on Orchard Street on the lower east side. (This was when Orchard Street stores spilled half their wares onto the sidewalk.)
The jacket’s original owner’s name and rank was inked on the inside chest pocket. I felt with that jacket I put on a piece of his experience, borrowed some authenticity and power, like guys who lace up their Air Jordans before a basketball game.
His credentials would be my credentials.
In the privacy of my Bronx bedroom I did a final inspection. I adjusted my dark wool watch cap so it skewed slightly to one side, a mysterious and slightly intimidating look.
Pulling my collar up, I adjusted my Ray-Bans. Ready.
I opened the door, went down the elevator and took the #11 bus to the A Train on 207th and Dyckman Street.
50 minutes later I was walking through deepest Brooklyn.
This Brooklyn wasn’t cute. It was not something you named your kid or dog. It was not where you went to seek the perfect macchiato.
It was not yet an option for West Village people escaping rents and real estate prices that had become fit for the very rich or the lucky few who had clung to rent control.
This Brooklyn was a timeless, beat up place, clapboard houses sagging from the weight of the electric and telephone lines that ran overhead. Tram line tracks ran down the streets. The only espresso machines were in dark Italian bars where food came oozing tomato sauce, delivered to tables on which bottles of red pepper flakes and grated cheese stood ready.
This was working class Brooklyn, a place Walt Whitman would recognize. People walked slowly and looked tired. Clothes were old. They lugged their groceries back home with toddlers in tow or stood under shop fronts waiting for the rain to stop: that Brooklyn. A Brooklyn that still remembered the Dodgers and would never forget or forgive the slight of their departure.
The Seafarer’s International Union headquarters and training center was an old, large multi-story that suddenly appeared down a non-descript street.
Inside was a classless society as long as you were working class.
Everyone dressed in old leather jackets, baseball caps, overalls or beat up jeans. There were mostly men, mostly white, mostly older. Bigger guys, and bigger bigger guys.
Woody Guthrie could have wandered through or sat strumming, at home and unnoticed. Perhaps he did. I’ve seen pictures of him playing his guitar in McSorely’s, an old bar in a similar neighborhood in Manhattan.
Everyone was hanging around, except at the front of a large auditorium a small crowd of interested parties gathered.
Every once in a while someone called out ships and crews. But nobody else paid much attention. At the union, it seemed, you could get hired or you could hangout. It was a job center and social club. Maybe people listened with one ear.
Clutching my union card in my pocket I sat on one of the long benches in the back and tried to look bored, like I’d done this before. Many, many times.
Eventually another ship’s crew was called.
“The SS Bradford Island. Coastwise. Oil. East and Gulf, 4-6 weeks. Wiper, Oiler, 3rd Engineer, Cook’s Mate…”
I raised my hand.
Two days later, duffel bag on shoulder and a 4-day start of a beard, I marched up the narrow steps and stepped on board, trying to channel Marlon Brando.
Launched in 1945 in Portland, Oregon, the ship was a T-2 tanker. Rated at 10,000 tons gross tonnage. (Current super tankers weigh in at 275,000+ tons).
It was one of over 2700 cargo ships made with standardized, pre-fabricated parts from all over the US in the effort to win the war.
The Nazis had their Wermacht, Lufwaffe and Wolf’s Packs, but we had Detroit and its assembly line. Detroit won.
FDR said it was ‘the arsenal of democracy’. He was right.
When Detroit turned its attention to war it turned out tanks, planes and ships like nobody’s business. It produced ships exactly the way it produced cars: by the thousands: faster than the U-Boats could sink them.
That’s why 3000 miles away the Allies stayed in fuel and Britain stayed afloat.
American energy and know-how produced these ships. FDR made Henry Kaiser production czar and he applied the same principles to building ships as he had to building his cars.
He built them fast.
Some went from on the drawing board to on the water in under 4 days.
Now, a decade and a half later the Bradford Island sailed under the Cities Service Oil Company banner. She was looking her age. She appeared to me, at least, ungainly. Too long and too narrow, with superstructures in the middle and at the back, she looked like she might snap in heavy weather.
She was high in the water. I learned later that being high in the water was a sign of an empty tanker. An empty tanker is a floating bomb. It’s filled with highly volatile fumes from past loads. Nobody smoked on an empty tanker. We were careful about open flames and making sparks. Loaded, a tanker is low in the water and completely safe.
The Bradford Island was held together by the know-how and constant attention of the 3 engineers—the Chief, the First and the Second Engineer: all white southern men, all tall and rangy, all pretty silent. And they all knew what they were doing. I worked along side the Second Engineer. I never knew his name. He was called “Second” by me and everyone else.
These engineers had never been to a gym, had never “worked out”. They had no bulging muscles. But they were hard, as hard as any tough guy I knew. Work was their workout. They could fix things with their hands. They seemed to be able to repair anything mechanical and anything they couldn’t repair they made. They understood machines.
Like the rest of us they worked 12-14 hours in the heat of summer.
It was often 110F and above in the engine room.
The crew were mostly Mexican with a few Puerto Ricans thrown in. They were brown, short, loud and stocky. They had muscles made for t-shirts. They looked a different race. Where the southerners talked quietly if at all, the Mexicans never stopped. The southerners hardly smiled. The Mexicans smiled, joked, and gesticulated all the time. They too worked like demons. They never complained about the work or the heat or the hours. They enjoyed their own company and their well-paying jobs: the union wages, and plenty of over-time to keep the old ship going.
They also liked, I thought, the freedom of being at sea: out of sight of land and out of reach of society. They had, briefly, escaped to their own world, a world they ran.
I was the odd one: the kid with a high school diploma and college on the horizon. I was amazed they didn’t give me a hard time. But after initial inspections they saw that I worked and kept my head down. So they accepted me.
They didn’t throw me overboard.
We stopped in Wilmington, North Carolina and I saw the first of many refineries from the business end. Endless lights, a jungle of superstructures and pipes belching flames. The smell became part of my clothing.
After a while I didn’t notice.
When we turned west past the Dry Tortugas and into the Gulf the sea changed; it became completely docile, a lake on tranquilizers. There was no wind, no waves. There was no movement except for the path the ship cut through the water.
At night the Gulf seemed like glass: a perfect mirror for the stars. We spent airless and mostly sleepless nights in hammocks on deck, hoping for a breeze and that the horn on the smokestack didn’t suddenly blow. It did.
On the ship nothing mattered but how hard and well you worked. Get the job done, don’t let anyone down.
I had signed on a Wiper, the lowest rung on the engine room ladder.
It was a misnomer. My job was not to wipe machinery but to chip away the rust and the ancient layers of paint on everything you could see with a hammer and chisel. And then re-paint the bare metal with Red Lead. Red Lead was a rust-inhibiting paint. It was also health-inhibiting, noxious. In the dark claustrophobia of the engine room the fumes had nowhere to go but up your nose.
Rust was everywhere. From 8 to 8 every day, rust was me. I banged away at it and the sound reverberated around the hull and back again, a percussive rhythm with the deep hum of the turning drive shaft in the background. It was hot, repetitive work as well as noisy and not a little dangerous. I could have refused the overtime but I would have been the odd man out. I had no intention of being frowned on by the crew.
Day by day the crew got richer on paper. There was no place to spend their increasing pay. No Amazon to surf. No online porn. Some waited for the first port of call, sometimes the first bar, sometimes the first woman, to become broke again. Most had arranged for some money to be held back for their families so they couldn’t blow it all.
Work, eat, sleep; there was not much else to do. At the end of the day you climbed into your bunk and collapsed.
Alcohol was taboo. Strictly not allowed on board.
In Port St Joe, Florida, I watched a crewman struggle up the ladder dragging an enormous suitcase. Near the top it popped open and dozens of bottles of beer shattered onto the dock and into the water.
The small mess where everyone ate together was open 24 hours. The meals were good and they were gut-filling.
Steak and eggs, beef and potatoes. All you could eat. Appetites were big, calories needed replacing.
The refrigerator was always full of cheese and cold cuts. You helped yourself. There were large jars of hot peppers with their owners name taped on, prepared by mothers and wives of the Mexicans, which they delved into, even at breakfast.
I tried one, once.
One of my jobs was to haul buckets of old engine oil on deck and toss the contents off the fantail. The first time I did this a small crowd gathered to watch.
I launched it into the air. I was immediately covered in engine oil. Much laughter. Someone threw me a rag. After that, wet finger in air, I checked the wind direction several times before even spitting.
Even though we were coastwise the ship was sometimes out of sight of land and other ships too. Seagulls always and occasionally dolphins kept us company, the seagulls for scraps off the fantail, the dolphins for fun off the bow or in the ship’s wake.
At sea the Mexicans felt out of reach and free. A spirit of anarchy seeped in. Their constant refrain when anything or anyone annoyed them was: “over the side”.
And stuff did go over, from garbage to old chairs to the rare dish they didn’t like. But no people, to my knowledge.
The sea was therapy, their outlet: both emotional and real. I’ve sometimes thought that it would be a good thing to have in life: an instant disposal for whatever bothers you. Bury your problems and annoyances.
Over the side.
Throwthesonofabitchpoliticanovertheside. Throwthesonofabitchwhoroganizedthatmeeetingovertheside. Throwthesonofabitchclientovertheside.
It took me a while to figure out when and if they were serious. Because if something did go over the side, that was it. The ship couldn’t stop.
The image of the ship disappearing in the distance stuck in my head. I stared at the churning water quickly disappearing behind us.
The single screw was turned by a huge shaft at the bottom of the engine compartment. It revolved hypnotically. I used to wonder how long would take to stop turning if someone or something became caught in it down there. You didn’t need years at sea to know that keeping your hands, feet and clothing to yourself was a good idea around that shaft.
I filed this thought right behind keeping my mouth shut until you know what you’re talking about as the best advice for working on a ship.
Another piece of advice I received gratis while waiting to toss another bucket of oil in to receding ocean a I stood there idly whistling “Do not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”.
Miguel, the older Mexican who had happily offered me one of his mother’s peppers (and sat back to enjoy my first bite) sidled up.
“Listen Tex, only two people whistle on a ship, the bosun and the cocksucker. And you’re not the bosun.”
It was a joke but he was serious. Why take chances? I never whistled again.
We hit all the high spots, discharging and charging cargo in Wilmington, North Carolina, Port St Joe, Florida, Mobile, Alabama, Port Arthur Texas, New Orleans.
Of course I never really got to see any of these places. I saw hot refineries at midnight and, with any luck, air conditioned bars with their cold beers and local ladies. We all rushed down the gangplank given a couple of hours in port.
The refineries were mini-cities, worlds to themselves.
We’d arrive at night.
On moonless ones the stars would be matched by thousands of twinkling lights from the refinery. We’d pick up the pilot and slowly make our way up the dark channel, sometimes docking hours later. The heat, humidity and chemicals smell grew stronger.
The ship got as far as Port Arthur, Texas. It’s where Janis Joplin grew up and felt the need to leave. When we got back to New Orleans, I did too.
I had had enough, not of the ship and the crew but of the monotonous hard work. Red Lead can drain the romance of the sea. I wanted an egg cream.
I signed off. Pocketful of cash in hand, I spent a few days walking around looking for life. Finding little, I bought a Greyhound ticket for the 28 hour trip to New York.
The bus took us into a different and uglier world.
The gas stations and road stops had two water fountains, one for “Whites Only” and one for “Blacks”. The same for the toilets. Some “blacks” on the coach, unwilling to go in these stops, asked if I would bring out sandwiches or ice cream for them.
On the ship there was the equality of work. Here skin color defined everything.
Finally, we entered yet another world, my world. The bus rose up out of the Lincoln Tunnel and we were back in Manhattan. New York.
My home port.