Chapter XIII: Mediterranean Adventures
My radicalism was not too well-known among the conservative union officials in New York, and I decided that I stood the best chance of shipping out from that port. I hung around the office of the American Export Line, making sure that the shipping master saw me. I faced him when he came into work and I faced him when he left work. After ten days of this badgering, I was shipped as an oiler on the Exchange. I was to visit some 25 ports of North Africa, Spain, Italy and France.
The shipping company had a deal with the ISU. Although they had a contract with the union, they were not forced by the union to improve conditions on their ships. The company would tolerate union men on board, but they would have to come from the shipping office of the company. It was ideal for me, because it gave me the right to enter the union hall with my shipping card and obtain a full membership book. All I had to do was fill out an application and swear that I was not a member of a dual organization and that I would abide by all the rules and not bring the union into ill repute by any of my actions.
The ship had already been to several United States' ports to pick up cargo before I joined it. Now she was spending the next six days loading the balance of cargo at her Jersey City pier before starting on her trip to the Mediterranean. Two days before we were to sail my brother John showed up with another fireman known as "Trader Horn." Brother John had been friends with this Trader Horn character for a while, and it was by chance that both of them found their ways to the shipping master that day. It was also by chance that two men were immediately needed, and they were the only two around.
A grain barge pulled alongside of us and all that day poured tons and tons of grain down into one of the cargo holds. We put to sea. Over my bunk was the first Marxist-Leninist library that ship ever saw.
The Exchange was a turbine-driven freighter. She carried two passengers, both of them schoolteachers. She was a well-kept freighter. The fo'c's'le housed 12 men in one room. The inner structure was cleanly maintained and painted brightly, with a place for everything and everything in its place. From the time I awoke to go on watch until the time I went to bed, I agitated everyone I met. The topics covered everything, from creating one big union to a classless socialist society. I always made myself known as a Communist. The crew respected me for my openness and honesty, but more for my dedication to the work.
One night I sat lounging in the mess room; some men played cards or checkers, while others engaged in friendly debates on various subjects. Until now I had no idea of the background of my brother's buddy, Trader Horn. All across the Atlantic he had remained silent, being content to sit around reading or playing cards. Now he perked up when I mentioned a more desirable form of government, like that of the socialist kind in the Soviet Union. "Have you ever been to Russia?" he asked.
"Well, I have, and it's not like you say it is. I know. I even spent some time in their jails." He smiled as he watched the reactions of the crew members. He held their attention.
"Maybe it was partly my fault, but let me tell you one thing, it's no joke trying to live on two bowls of cabbage soup a day. That was more than the average worker was getting--out of jail." Even the checker players stopped playing.
He continued. "I answered an ad in the papers. They needed engineers to go to the Soviet Union to work for a year's contract. Two-thirds of my paycheck would be deposited in the bank in New York while I worked there. They gave me 50 men and women to train as engineers. With every damn move I made I had five of them under my feet, jotting down every damn thing I was doing. Some were so starved I had to smuggle some food to them. It was awful. I could have slept with anyone just for a piece of bread."
I was furious listening to this sonofabitch demean everything that was sacred to me. He went on.
"When I had been there about 11 months, I was arrested--pulled out of my bunk and carted off to jail. A couple of people who worked with me and spoke some English suddenly forgot how to speak. No one would tell me for three weeks what it was all about. In the mornings they opened the door and pushed in a bowl of cabbage soup and some black bread. Late in the evening they would do the same thing. After three weeks of this they accused me of being a spy and threatened to shoot me. After five weeks they yanked me out and shoved me aboard a train. For three days it rambled through Poland and into Germany. I ended up on board a limey ship and sailed from Hamburg to New York. If this is what you want to put over in this country, you're crazy."
"I don't believe one word of it!" I shouted.
"Do you read Russian?" he asked.
"Of course I don't."
"Well, let me help you." He reached into his pocket and took out some papers. A document had his picture on it. The page of writing with official seals were all in Russian, with a hammer and sickle imprint. There was no doubt that they were identification papers. "This is my special work permit, stating that I'm an engineer. This other document is my pay and subsistence book. Over here is the amount of rations I drew each week. Everything is here in writing. So there you are. I wouldn't be caught dead back in that place."
As they say in show business, this was a tough act to follow. There had to be more to his story than a group of Russian soldiers simply pulling him out of his sack and throwing him in jail. I must find out. I couldn't stay satisfied with his story. The next day, smarting under the abuse my ideals had undergone, I asked my brother about his "dear friend." "I won't tell you anything now," he said. "Maybe later."
A month later he told me the true story. Trader Horn had signed up as an engineer for a year in Russia, along with some 50 others. En route to the country, while passing through Rumania, someone contacted him and they made a deal. The Roumanians would deposit into a bank of his choosing the equivalent amount he was to make in Russia if he would submit a weekly report through a woman contact. He agreed, and for nearly a year he made his reports like clockwork. Then, either through his carelessness or the super work of the Russian police, Trader Horn and his double dealings were discovered. He fared a lot better than his young Russian contact: she was quickly disposed of by firing squad.
Now I was really mad at the bastard. Not only was he a liar, he was a two-bit spy who would sell his birthright down the river for a month's pay.
Aboard our ship there was a full-fledged, native-born Russian. He was called Big John. His last name was difficult to pronounce. He weighed about 245 pounds. He was very muscular and spoke decent English. The story went that his mother picked him up during the revolution and fled the country by way of China and Japan, finally settling in the United States. While he remembered little of Russia, his heart was in the Soviet Union. He hated his family for fleeing the revolution; he felt they should have supported the overthrow of the Czar and supported the soviets, or at least they should have stayed in the country to help rebuild it. Now that he was grown and could make his own decisions, he was trying hard to return to the Soviet Union. The Russian Consulate had his case under advisement and he was waiting daily for the news that it would be okay to return. In the meantime he pursued the sea for a living. On board he retired into his own world and had little or nothing to do with the rest of the crew, socially or politically. But my presence on board and my daily praise of the new Russian lifestyle aroused his interest. One day he invited me into his room. He told me about his life, how he grew up in an Indiana town and how he yearned to return to his native country despite his mother's protests. The Russian consulate had told him to "keep his nose clean" and perhaps in a year he would be allowed to "come home." This was the reason he stayed aloof from the crew.
Big John knew what was being said on board the ship. It was common knowledge now that Trader Horn had been a Roumanian spy operating in the Soviet Union. While Big John said nothing to anybody about it, he distorted his face in disgust whenever Trader Horn's name was mentioned.
We tied alongside the dock in Genoa. Just a few yards ahead was the stern end of one of Italy's big troop ships. It was quickly being loaded with thousands of young soldiers. In a few hours she would head across the Mediterranean, just another ship bound for the inglorious saga of Italian fascism and the invasion of Ethiopia. Blackshirt Fascists were among the mass of people who came down to the dock to see their sons off. Nearly every five minutes a cheerleader screamed out, "Viva il Duce!" and from a solid wall of outstretched hands a chorus echoed, "Viva il Duce!" Few smiles could be seen on any of the faces, except for those of the Fascist officers and Carabineri, who looked ridiculous with tall feathers streaming from their Alpine-style caps.
In the Mediterranean ports, a breakwater of stone generally curves out from the inlet, and the docks are built of solid slab stone right at the shoreline. Thus the ship lays snugly inside the breakwater against a flat wall. If the tides go down extremely low, one can wake up in the morning facing a solid stone wall. This was an opportunity I could not let pass. The tide was going out. The side port was already below the surface of the dock. A blank granite wall faced me. I got a can of white paint and a brush from the paint locker. With no one around to witness what I was doing, I faced the granite side of the pier and started painting.
The next night we finished discharging our wheat, and in the darkness we moved away from the dock and sailed for Leghorn. No one noticed the six-foot by six-foot hammer and sickle painted in white with the word "VIVA! written across the top. It wasn't much of a contribution, but it was something. That bastard Mussolini would know that no matter what his secret police did to wipe out the Communists, there was always one around to remind him that his days were numbered.
Our ship made some 14 ports around the Italian boot, and a few in Sardinia and Sicily. Our next and last port in Italy would be Naples. I had met a seaman in Palermo who had just arrived from Naples. He told me he had seen several Russian ships in that port. That suited me fine. If one was there when we arrived I would try to get a delegation from my ship to visit, so our crew could see the splendid conditions the Russian seamen were enjoying. I was on watch in the engine room when we sailed into the Bay of Naples. I had given instructions to a friend to scan every ship in port, and if he saw one with a hammer and sickle to pinpoint it for me when I came off watch.
He did sight a Russian freighter. It was tied up at the local coal dock not too far from where we were tied up. Now was the time to take this crew to see socialism at work. Ten men came with me, five, I'm sure, only because they liked me. Like most American seamen visiting strangers for the first time, they dressed in their best clothes--starched shirts, flashy ties, shined shoes. The day was hot and sultry. After we had walked about a block, I could feel the sweat running down my back. When we reached the coal dock we could barely see the freighter through the mist of coal dust that covered the area. We had to be careful making our way through the yard, crossing over several sets of railroad tracks and watching out for the huge buckets filled with coal that were constantly in motion. They swung from the ship's hold across our heads to the coal yard, where the coal was deposited in huge piles. The dust was heavy, and every time we put our feet down a cloud of coal dust arose. A few of the guys wanted to turn around right then and there, but since we had come this far they decided to complete the mission.
At last we reached the gangway. I encountered the first of several shocks.Not only was the gangway a rusty, dirty mess, but several steps were missing, rotted away. It would take a skillful sailor to be able to navigate the gangway if he returned to the ship drunk on a dark night. Our fellows were hesitant to climb aboard and they started to balk. I knew I had to take quick action, so I started up the gangway and showed how easy it was to bypass the broken steps. The men followed. About two steps from the top, a big Russian sailor suddenly appeared. He spoke in a deep bass in Russian, saying what could have been, "Where the hell do you think you're going?" I tried to explain in English. "Look, comrade, we're Americans. We come from that ship over there. To foster and cement comradely relations we would like to pay our respects to the crew of this ship and invite them to visit ours."
The Russian looked dumbfounded. "Nyet," he replied.
I gathered that that meant no. I would try another approach. "Look here, comrade. I am an American Communist and these are my friends. We want to look over conditions on your ship so we can make comparisons."
Again he answered, "Nyet."
"Hey," shouted one of the guys, "let's get the hell out of here before we're buried in coal. Tell him he can shove his ship."
The radio operator came on deck. He spoke some English. "What you men want?" he asked. I repeated what I had said to the sailor just seconds earlier. "But," he said, "I do not understand. Why you want to come aboard this ship?" Again I used the political approach. The fact that I said I was an American Communist may have swayed his decision. He allowed us to board. He said a few words to the sailor, who shrugged and walked away.
If the state of the gangway was a shock, so was the rest of the ship. A seamen can tell the condition of a ship by looking at two things: the crew quarters and the mess room. If the mess room is clean, with lots of portholes and plenty of condiments on the tables, one can assume she's a good feeder. On the Russian ship, there were no condiments other than a big bowl of salt. In the dish rack there were only soup plates. On the mess room bulkheads, or walls, were pictures of Lenin, Stalin and Marx. In one corner of the room was the "Red" library, which consisted of 40 or 50 books. On another part of the bulkhead was a three-foot-long design of the Russian rifle. There were no individual chairs at the table, only benches.
Our fellows scanned this room quickly and didn't find it interesting enough to spend more than a minute in it. Out on deck again, we came across a few crew members who eyed us suspiciously. We smiled at them and they returned the smile meekly, wondering if they were doing the right thing. They watched as we walked into the crew quarters, small rooms with two sets of double bunks. An old fruit box used as a chair was the only furniture around. A few hooks on the bulkhead held some dirty work clothes. The washroom was decrepit. The few sinks were stained with rust and water dripped from the faucets. No seats were on the toilets, and the deck was wet from leaky pipes. This was by far the worst ship I ever had the misfortune to be on board. There had to be something wrong. Surely a nation of revolutionaries who had just knocked off the Czar and repossessed the country would not tolerate such conditions.
My shipmates were giving me the nudge to get the hell off the ship and head for a gin mill and a cool drink. Since I was disappointed with what I saw, I looked for an explanation. I could not communicate with the crew, who just stood around grinning whenever we caught their eyes. As we moved closer to the gangway I met the radio operator. "You see what you want?" he asked, grinning.
"Hey," I said. "why the hell is this ship so rusty and filthy?"
"This ship was purchased from Romania six months ago," he said. "Maybe two more trips, maybe three more, who knows, we will finish with ship. Very old. We use to transport coal. Very dirty cargo. Too rusty to put on paint. Paint fall off. Chip rust, we put many holes in ship. Soon we make new ship. Russian needs many new ships. Goodbye."
Unfortunately the men were already on the dock when I had this conversation with the radio operator. They heard none of it. The first cafe we came across, away from the sprawling coal dust and noise of the overhead cranes, we shook off the dust and ordered drinks. Then it started. Everyone agreed that the ship was a disaster. They wouldn't believe the story that the ship was just bought from Romania. "That was the first Russian ship I ever visited," said one. "And the last." And so it went on for an hour as the guys drank their beer and thought of new things to criticize. Since it was our first experience with a Russian ship, we had no prior examples to use as comparison. Even my suggestion that we find another Russian ship to visit was ruled out with sarcasm.
The final shock came that evening when we headed back on board. Apparently Big John had run across one of the Russian seamen. After a number of drinks he invited the seaman aboard our ship. When we came aboard, Big John had left his friend in the mess room while he went aft to get something from his room. We found the Russian running his hand over the glossy-painted bulkhead and muttering in Russian. What the hell was he doing? As fate would have it, Trader Horn stepped into the mess room at that moment. He stood with us and watched the Russian now run his hand over the shiny, shellacked tabletop.
"Hey, Trader," asked one of the crew members, "you know anything about this language? What the hell is he saying?"
A grin appeared on Trader Horn's face. "He's telling us that he's never seen a mess room so beautiful and clean in all his life and how happy he would be to work on this ship."
What a mess, I told myself. Here I am trying to convince an American crew that their future lies in changing the form of their government and adopting that of the Soviet Union, and now one of the Russians who is supposed to be the fruit of socialism is on board a capitalist ship going nuts over a stupid paint job. I was furious and embarrassed and wished the Russian would get the hell off the ship.
Trader Horn's dislike of Russians surfaced. "Where did this crummy Russian come from? How did he get aboard our ship?" he shouted, grabbing the Russian by the shoulder. He was on the verge of dragging him to the door and shoving him out when Big John returned from his room. That was all it took. Big John swung an overhead right that caught Trader Horn on the head. He staggered toward the table. The Russian seaman, who was drunk by our standards, had no idea what was happening. He walked across the mess room to the icebox in the corner, opened it, reached inside and took out a few slices of bologna and started making himself a sandwich.We quickly surmised that a serious fight was developing. Acting in unison, we grabbed both men and held them back from each other. Trader Horn was content to lay partially stretched out on the bench and work off the dizziness from Big John's blow. The more we tried to restrain Big John, the more he bellowed curses at Trader Horn who, under the best of circumstances, was no match for Big John. As the shouting got louder and our grips got tighter, I noticed that the Russian seaman was wrapping three sandwiches he had made in old newspaper.
What had seemed like an eternity was over in a few minutes. Trader Horn was coaxed out of the messroom. Once he was out of sight, Big John quieted down and helped his friend bind up the sandwiches. On the surface, at least, peace reigned.
The next morning I came out on deck and discovered that the longshoremen were discharging copper ingots from number four hatch. They were coming out 25 bars to the pallet. I started thinking: Here Mussolini was invading Ethiopia. What was essential to his war machine? Copper. Copper to make bullets and artillery shells and to wire his communications system. I was ashamed of myself for being on a ship that carried this kind of cargo. I had not been on board when it was loaded, but if I had been I figured I would have done something. Now it was being taken ashore and perhaps being sent directly to the munitions factory. As a Communist I felt that I had betrayed the Ethiopians.
Marseilles was striking in contrast to the Italian ports. In Italy the national symbol was the protruding clenched jaw, steel-helmeted head and face of Mussolini. Most of the men there wore some sort of uniform, a sign of the war-oriented, Fascist regime. But here in this lovely seaport city the only sign of a uniform was that of the nattily-dressed French sailor with the red knob atop his blue felt hat. The dominant symbol here seemed to be the Communist Party's hammer and sickle. An election was in progress, and posters and signs were everywhere. One got the feeling of great strength and felt among friends. Only the language was different.
I was delegated to spend the daylight hours working with the engineer. He wanted someone who could stay sober for a few hours in a French port. I was the victim. I did my sightseeing during the night. I made contact with a French Communist whose English was as bad as my French. We managed to communicate our feelings of international solidarity while the rest of the crew was getting themselves plastered with French brandy and enamored of French whores. Our stay in France was much too short.
One of Spain's prettiest port cities, Barcelona seemed to be in some sort of upheaval as we stepped ashore. Soldiers walked around in pairs with rifles and fixed bayonets. They sauntered along the Rambalas to remind people that more than three persons congregating constituted a crime. Democracy was being challenged all over Spain. Miners were striking in the north and clashed with the police and troops who were dispatched to break their strike.
Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, the cradle and center of the anarchist movement in Spain, seethed with undercurrents of discontent with the news that the strike of their brothers in the north had been broken. King Alfonse had been forced to abdicate back in 1931, but the current Second Republic found it difficult to grope its way into the 20th century. The large landowners and industrialists, the military and the Catholic Church were forever exerting pressure on the new republic. While these groups gave lip service to the republic's efforts to improve the conditions of the poor, they conspired in the background to seek international support in bringing death to the republic.
Apart from the country's political problems, Barcelona was a vibrant city, full of life and action. The cafes and the dance-hall honkey-tonks that could be found along both sides of the Rambalas teemed with action. The proverbial "sailor's paradise" of wine, women and song was epitomized in this port city.
One day brother John unintentionally became the focal point of the crew's solidarity on an issue not political, but rather related to a confrontation with the officers. At the time such an action was unheard of. When we had entered Barcelona's harbor, a tugboat met us and commenced the slow process of easing us alongside the long wharf. Only the sailors assigned to tying up the ship and the men on watch below were busy. The rest of the crew, the day workers, busied themselves, preparing to be the first ashore. Someone located a bottle of French brandy, and within minutes the men in the "black gang" started the "Battle of Barcelona." There were no fresh water showers in those days. You washed from a bucket. You used the fresh water rationed to you sparingly. It didn't take long for the brandy to produce its effects. Everyone wanted to bathe at the same time, and someone threw a bucket of soapy water at someone else. This started a round of moving soaped-up bodies attempting to escape snapping towels or onslaughts of pails of soap suds. John, whom I suspected started all of this, was trying to avoid a bucket of suds when his foot slipped on the soapy deck, sending him skidding into the bulkhead. One of his toes rammed tight under a small pipe close to the deck. There was a scream of pain, and the gaiety came to a sudden stop as John was carried to his bunk. The captain was notified. Within minutes a doctor arrived on board. He diagnosed a badly-bruised toe and ordered John to stay off his feet for the next week, preferably in his bunk. The gang said goodnight to him and took off for a night on the town. They left him propped up in his bunk with the remains of the French brandy. I left to go ashore at about eight, stopping to see if he needed anything. He was finishing off the bottle.
The Gambias Bar was the seamen's hangout in Barcelona. It was a huge bar with at least a hundred tables spread around over a big dance floor. A live orchestra banged out any tunes that came to mind. Since almost everyone in the place was half gassed-up, no one was ever sure if the musicians were in tune with each other. Waiters worked like beavers, moving through the mass of men and women to keep the tables supplied with drinks. At about midnight, as I made my way back to the ship, I stopped off at the Gambias for another drink. A great commotion was taking place in the middle of the cafe. Through the heavy mist of smoke I thought I could see someone dancing on a table. The someone resembled John. I dismissed the thought that it could be him; he was back in his bunk, incapacitated. But I should have known better. When I approached the table, I could see--there was John, dancing on the table with some gal, doing the Spanish Fandango to the cheers of everyone in the joint. His big toe, wrapped in bandages, seemed to have no effect on his dancing.
Like me, the first assistant engineer was also making his way back to the ship and stopped in for a nightcap. His eyes popped out as he saw John who, feeling no pain, stopped for a moment to gulp down a drink from a friendly donor, then continued his madcap dancing. The engineer left, and I departed soon after, leaving John and his buddies to continue celebrating.
The next morning I was up and ready for work as usual while the rest of the gang was moving about the fo'c's'le like zombies. John remained stretched out in his bunk, sound asleep. At precisely eight, another oiler and I were ready for work. The first assistant engineer started to fume. He got hold of the mate and proceeded back aft to the fo'c's'le. He made the mistake of entering the fo'c's'le and stood over John's bunk, nudging him awake. "Get your ass out of that bunk and get to work below," he shouted. Some crew members quickly reacted. "He's an injured man," said one. "The doctors gave him orders to lay off for a week."
"The hell with doctor's orders. I saw him dancing his fool ass off in the gin mill. If he can stand on a table to dance, he can stand in the engine room and do his dancing there with a swab in his hand."
The reaction was quick in coming. One fireman threw an empty bucket at the engineer. Another threw a shoe. The mate quickly departed, leaving the engineer to take an avalanche of profanity and threats. He quickly realized he was in hostile territory and backed out the door. John, of course, returned to his stupor, not realizing for a moment that he almost caused a minor mutiny. But a ship and its crew, unlike in any other industry, have a fast way of mending the errors of the previous days. Things were quickly put back in order and life went on as if nothing had ever happened. The ship must sail.
Our next port was Tarragona down the coast, just a short sail from Barcelona. Since the crew was in the process of sobering up from their stay in Barcelona, very few went ashore. But I did. Tarragona was a very small port, with dock space for one or two ships. The town itself had been one of the Roman towns built along the Mediterranean shore. Ruins of the Roman period were everywhere, with high columns and arches still evident. As a sailor's seaport it was a flop, with only a few wine cafes about. But the people were kind and easy-going. Never once did I hear a hostile word directed at me.
Further down the coast was the port of Alicante, still within the influence of Catalonia province. It was larger than Tarragona. I saw a few hammer and sickle emblems, but mostly anarchist union signs of the Confederacion Nacional del Trabajo (CNT) and the Federacion Anarquista Iberia (FAI). Since this was anarchist territory it wasn't surprising. I knew very little Spanish and could not converse the way I would have liked to. Finding English-speaking people was difficult. But seamen and longshoremen have a knack of making themselves understood in a limited way, and I was able to talk with some people. When I returned to the ship, I found Brother John up and around and back to his old self, joking and wisecracking with the crew.
Valencia, a city about half the size of Barcelona, was quite beautiful, though it lacked the hilly back country of Barcelona. During the three days we spent there, I was ashore every day exploring the city. I was awed by its stately buildings. Like its sister city Barcelona, it was full of life. Here, too, slogans and posters pasted all over the walls extolled the republic. Hammers and sickles and clenched fists seemed to be everywhere. "Unidad" was the slogan most in evidence. The more I saw of this country and its people, the more I began to love it. Valencia was truly a working-class city, with light industry spread throughout. As in other ports, the kindness of the people impressed me most. I enjoyed eating in working-class restaurants and felt completely at home. Our three days in Valencia passed quickly. We had finished loading our cargo of fine Spanish wines and eased out of the harbor, away from the orange-blossom-scented air.
We worked our way down the coast, passing Cape Palos, and pulled into Malaga, another splendid city in the Andalusia province. It was a warm Sunday morning when we tied up. Once the engines were secured, the men not on watch were free to go ashore. Most of us had never seen a bullfight, and the excitement grew when we learned that this Sunday the bull ring was open. A few of us piled into a cab and headed for the Plaza de Toros and front-row seats. For the next two hours we watched the smooth maneuvering of the matadores and picadores who taunted, stuck, stabbed and inflicted every known insult upon the bull before finally putting it out of its misery. The animal did not stand a chance. Whenever he had his adversary in a position where he could do him harm, ten men would dash from behind the barricades to distract him. My sympathies were fully on the side of the bull. Weak-kneed from the loss of blood which poured from his wounds, he fell many times from exhaustion. It became the humane thing to finish him off. The animal then had an ear sliced off to be presented to the killer and was dragged around the ring and out the door it had charged through only minutes before, full of life.
I questioned this horrible game. How could it be a sport when the bull stood little or no chance of surviving? In the end it was doomed. Once in that arena it would never live to see the sun again. Since I liked animals, I could not bear to see them baited, teased, tortured and killed. How could such a warm and generous people go directly from church into the bull ring and enjoy the slaughter? It was my first and last visit to a bull ring. I could never reconcile myself to the existence of such a "sport." All sorts of arguments have since been offered me about what the bullfight means to the Spaniard and his culture, but I still could no more enjoy it than I could enjoy watching Christians thrown to the lions.
Malaga had more to offer than the Plaza de Toros. Wine shops were everywhere. Huge barrels rested on their sides; you brought your own bottle or jug and had it filled. The city was clean despite the large number of burros; the cobblestones in the streets scrubbed and polished. I had nothing but time on my hands until eight the next morning. I walked toward the edge of the city, my eyes taking in everything. Now that I knew a few words in Spanish to get me around, I had a little more confidence. Trying to order something to eat was still difficult, however. The menu baffled me. If someone sitting near me was eating something that appeared appetizing, I merely told the waiter with a nod, "Mismo."
I studied the bus line that ran down the main street and out of town. The fare was less than a nickel, and the bus wasn't worth much more. But the windows were down and it felt good to get out of the heat. I figured that if I didn't like what I saw at the end of the line, I could always stay on the bus and return safely. But when the little exhaust-spewing bus pulled out of the city and onto a dusty dirt road, laboring its way inland to another little town, I knew I had to get off and walk around. It was the last stop anyway.
Compared to the city I had just left behind, this little town was peacefully rural. Clean, like most Spanish cities and villages, it was surrounded by grape orchards as far as the eye could see, with olive trees in between shading the vines. The village inhabitants were peasants whose old little mule carts stood beside their stone houses. An occasional burro rested beside a cart, swirling its tail to shoo away flies. The people's faces, bleached by the sun, showed the years of their hard labor. They were friendly and smiled and nodded their heads. The houses they lived in, whitewashed stone with no electricity or water, reminded me of some small villages in Ireland. The water had to be hauled from a well in the square.
By chance I saw a sign on a door that read, "Partido Socialista." I walked into the storefront room about ten feet by ten feet. Three people were talking around a table loaded with literature. They stopped when I walked in. Wanting to show that I was a friend, I raised my fist in the international revolutionary salute and said "camaradas." They smiled and beckoned me to sit. Words poured out of them, none of which I could understand. "Americano," I said.
One quickly spoke to the others, "Ah, Estados Unidos, Americano, bueno."
"Uh, Americano marinero, vapor," was the next gem I came forth with.
"Si, si, marinero," said another.
I felt I was getting something through to them. "Communist, American," I said. Their faces broke into big smiles, and with a warmth for which the Spanish are noted, they extended their hands, each trying to tell me his name. "Mi vapor barco in Malaga," I said.
"Si, Malaga. Muy bueno," said one. "Muy grande," said another. There was a quick exchange of words between them, then one took off. The other continued talking to me as if I could understand Spanish. The only words I recognized were "comunista" and "socialista." After what seemed like only a few minutes, the person who had left returned with a friend, a young man of 20 who appeared better-dressed than the others.
"You speak English?" he asked with a bit of difficulty. I felt good now that someone was on the scene who spoke English, even if it wasn't perfect. For the next hour I talked to these four men. The fact that I was an American Communist and not an American socialist did not trouble them. They treated me as one of their own.
"You are the first American to come to this village. We are happy to see you and make friends. Do the American people know how we got rid of our king? What do they think of our new government? How are things in Barcelona? How big is the American Communist Party?" The questions went on and on. A bottle was brought out and we sipped wine and toasted my health and the new republic. Occasionally I would get in a question or two. From the interpreter's answers, I gathered that this little peasant village of campesinos was pro-Socialist but that they were still upset with the new government. The government had promised to redistribute the land after taking power, but up until now many obstacles had been created to prevent this. The people were unhappy with the delay; sooner or later things would come to a head.
It was getting late. I was afraid I might miss the bus and be left behind. I motioned that I had to leave, explaining that I had to return to my barco. We shook hands all around and shared a final drink of wine. This small group assured me that the revolution, which the Spanish people had started, would go on until won. I promised to return for another visit on the next trip. As I rode back on the bus, I felt elated about my friends, proud that I knew people who, against great odds, had dumped their king and were now trying to put the pieces together to form a better society for themselves. Little did I realize that only a couple of years later I would return to join them in defending their new republic against a fascist rebellion with a machine gun in my hand.
In Seville, the company agent came aboard with customs officials. In his briefcase he carried some cash for a draw and some mail. I expected a letter from my girlfriend, Pele. She said she would write often, but no letter. Damn that woman. Why couldn't she write like she promised? She knew how I valued her letters. She was probably surrounded by a bunch of boyfriends pawing her. That's the trouble with a beautiful woman, everybody was out with their fish hooks trying to grab her. Or maybe she was sick or hurt. After all, those gangsters in Chicago worked with the employers by going around and beating up on union organizers. She could be hurt and not want to say anything about it. Maybe she wasn't receiving my letters. I mailed a letter from every port. She couldn't be that busy. "Skipper's putting out a draw," the cook said. "Better go topside and get it before he closes up the safe."
Seville was overwhelming. Its churches were magnificent, tall steeples rising high in the sky over the beautiful, warm Andalusian city. It was a seafarer's port, with lots of nightclubs, restaurants and beautiful women. I took my customary walk, taking hours to go from one end of the city to another, delighted with the people I met. They were friendly and cheerful.
I looked for several things on my walks, especially the way of life of the people and the children. I found no children harassing strangers on the streets, offering to take them home to sleep with their sisters like children did in the poverty-stricken cities of the Orient. As in other parts of Spain, the people seemed to be managing. They didn't look well-off economically, but neither did they seem to be starving. They walked proudly with keen eyes, and one could feel their newly-found self-confidence.
Much political activity could be sensed in this region. Away from the main business street and off in the working-class residential streets, walls were covered with slogans and posters. Hammers and sickles were very much in evidence. I was angry that I couldn't speak the language well enough to be able to carry on a conversation. I could feel important things going on around me, but I couldn't put my finger on it.
The crew celebrated the first night in any port as if they had been at sea for ten years. Nightclubs were crowded with people, but the saloons were the places I liked best. On one side was the bar, on the other was the lunch counter. Between the two were tables and chairs. In Seville you were entitled to a plate of cooked shrimp in the shell with every beer or drink. If you preferred you could have a double-handful of peanuts; if there were other cooked meats, you could have them, too. It was just like the Hoboken free lunch counters in the old clam-broth houses on River Street--only with more goodies and more class.
Socially, I had been going ashore with one or two buddies to sit and drink or take in a nightclub. I discussed Marxism most of the time, which did not result in my buddies' being convinced of its validity. Still, they thought that it was more pleasant to be with me than with most of the other guys aboard ship. If for no other reason it was because we didn't end up in fist fights or by being carried back to the ship by police, dead drunk. They knew that I had to stay alert and not do anything that might bring me or my beliefs into ill repute. Once we had our fill of drinks a taxi took us back to the ship to be ready for work the next morning.
On the second day in Seville, at about two in the morning, I heard a skirmish taking place in the alleyway outside my fo'c's'le. By the time I hopped out of my bed and got into the alleyway, Big John had knocked down Trader Horn twice and was preparing to drag him on deck and toss him over the side. I doubt if any person other than myself could have had a restraining effect on Big John. "I'll kill the rotten bastard," John kept repeating as I raced for the doorway to block the exit. "Get out of my way, my good friend Bill. I want to drown this rat. He is no good to this world. Stand away." As much as I disliked Trader Horn, surely this was not the way to handle him. After some pleading on my part, Big John left Trader Horn lying on the deck, turned around and went to his room. Outside of a swollen lip and a few fingernail marks around his throat, Trader Horn showed little damage. The next morning he woke up feeling no pain. He couldn't remember what had happened the night before, so he said.
Two days later I found out what happened. Big John had been asleep in his bunk. Trader Horn came back aboard stewed to the gills and worked his way aft. Before getting to his room he had to pass the water tender's room which was Big John's sleeping quarters. He stopped, opened the door, walked in and put on the light. He walked over to the Russian's bunk, lowered his head and shouted, "You no-good Russian bastard! May you drown in your cabbage soup." Big John awoke shocked to see the man he disliked most standing within inches of him and hurling insults. He pushed Trader Horn out of the room into the alleyway and belted him. Trader Horn fell to the deck and remained motionless. The Russian figured that he was dead, but Trader Horn moved an eyelid. So the Russian decided to choke him to death. Since that was taking too long, he decided to throw him over the side and be done with it. That's when I stepped in.
I took a look at my status on board. Suppose something would have happened to Trader Horn, the big Red-baiter and ex-spy. Who would be blamed? Naturally it would be me, since the entire crew knew that Trader Horn and I never agreed on one single issue. It would have been difficult to convince the authorities that the number one Bolshevik on board didn't throw the sonofabitch over the side in the middle of the night. No, I had to protect myself, and the best way was by protecting Trader Horn, who by now was convinced that Big John and the Number One Communist were conspiring against him.
The return trip across the Atlantic was uneventful. As it was on most ships on the home leg of the voyage, the pace was more relaxed and less charged with expectations. There were two men that I concentrated my efforts on, my two buddies with whom I spent much of my time ashore. The questions of politics had become serious and our discussions longer. They wanted to help change the world but they were afraid that the discipline of the Communist Party would be too tough. I assured them that discipline was a necessary part of any serious organization that aimed to change society. Communist discipline was a discipline based on conviction. The more you were convinced, the greater the discipline. It was necessary, because without it there would be no worthwhile revolutionary organization among the workers. Revolutions are serious things. They can't be turned on and off like a faucet at someone's whim. There had been dozens of other politically-motivated organizations aimed at drastically changing the system, but because they lacked discipline they could never enter the mainstream of American thought to any substantial degree. They would wither and fade from the scene. Discipline meant giving account of yourself. It meant attending meetings, rallies and demonstrations, paying dues and answering for one's errors. In the final analysis, it meant contributing in every possible way to reach the final aim: that of changing the ownership of the means of production from the hands of the few, the capitalists, into the hands of the many, the working class, of changing a society whose mode of production was based on anarchy to a society planned down to the last pair of shoestrings, where guns and weapons of destruction would be a thing of the past and the adage of turning swords into plowshares a reality, where men could really call themselves brothers and to allow a person to go hungry would be considered a criminal act. To make changes toward these goals called for organization, discipline and conviction. At times many seemingly-insurmountable odds had to be faced. No time for summer soldiers. No one wanted violence, but there might be times when you couldn't run from it either.
The day before we reached New York, my two shipmates agreed to join. I would have something to show for my trip to the Mediterranean.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two