Chapter XVII: All Kinds of Solidarity
on a Dollar Line Ship
The President Garfield was on the final stretch of a `round the world voyage. She had left San Francisco two months earlier. We were to head for San Francisco, the end of the voyage. A new, spirited breed of men were on this ship men who had gone through the San Francisco General Strike. They were seasoned fighters who held the shipowners in absolute contempt, never forgetting the men who had been beaten or even shot dead in the '34 strike. They were tough, hard-drinking men with a strong sense of loyalty to each other.
We set sail for Havana with some 250 passengers. The most unique feature of this ship was its skipper. His name was Gregory Cullen. An old master mariner, he hated unions and, above all, men from the fo'c's'le. In the tropics he wore the typical gentleman's gear as he paraded around the deck or bridge: white shorts, knee-high stockings, a Pith helmet and swagger stick. Mussolini was his hero and his closest friend was the Italian Fascist Count Ciano. Whenever Cullen was in the Mediterranean and met an Italian naval vessel, he ordered his sailors to race back and aft and stand by the American flag on the stern. As soon as both vessels came abreast of each other, the mate was to give a few short blasts of the whistle, a signal to the sailors aft to lower and raise the American flag while he stood at attention on the bridge, extending his arm in a Mussolini-fascist salute.
The President Garfield had a large number of Chinese in the stewards' department. The Dollar Line had a policy of using Asians on their passenger ships and operated a special school in Shanghai to recruit and train hundreds of Chinese men for company vessels around the world. The average pay for these men was $15 a month, which they received when they were paid off in Shanghai. The "Number One Boy" received a little more, because his job was to keep his brethren in line during the voyage. Since the Chinese were characterized as "indentured slaves" and had been used by the Dollar Line as scabs in the 1934 strike, the West Coast unions were waging a campaign to get them off the ships and replaced with union men. Their days were numbered.
Because they needed money for shore leave in foreign ports, they were forced to engage in rackets. In some ports where beer, booze or wine was cheap, they pooled their resources to buy up as much as they could. After the ship cleared port and the crew hankered for a taste of something alcoholic to get them on an even keel, the Chinese sold their stock to the crew at quadruple the original price.
Havana, a city of dire poverty, a sailor's port of cheap booze, open to every conceivable vice, was our last stopover before entering the Panama Canal. Young kids followed foreigners ashore in this humid city around in droves: "Hey, mister, you want to sleep with my sister, huh? Hey, señor, you want a virgin, cheap?" Havana was like a city under marshal law; soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets were on every street. Still, it was the last good place for a sailor to "let go" before reaching the more restrictive atmosphere of the West Coast. And "let go" we did, returning to the ship either staggering, singing or being carried. While the sailors reveled in merriment, the Chinese crew members were buying as much beer and rum as their pool of resources allowed.
We cast off late at night and set course for the Panama Canal. The next morning the crew staggered out of their drunken stupors looking or begging for a drink, and as usual the Chinese crew members ran back and forth between their quarters back aft to their more prosperous but hung-over ship mates, their arms full of bottles. Usually, under such circumstances, the crew would be back to normal by the end of the day. But in this instance something went haywire, and the crew members continued to buy, drink and remain intoxicated while carrying out their duties haphazardly.
Captain Cullen convened a conference of officers, then made a decision that the booze supply had to be put out of commission. At ten the next morning, the captain, chief mate, chief steward, chief engineer and ship's doctor proceeded aft with three sailors who had managed to stay sober. Without warning they entered the Chinese crew quarters, opened lockers and dumped through the portholes hundreds of bottles of beer and rum. Far off in the distance one could see the bobbing bottles sway back and forth on a smooth Caribbean Sea.
This may have helped to sober up the crew, but it also helped to foment mutiny among the Chinese. That evening almost every Chinese crew member assembled at a meeting back aft. We could hear them shouting and orating, but we could only guess what they were talking about. They were furious about being ripped off. Their little side business was wiped out. Their investment was gone. Their sacred territory, their quarters, had been violated by the raid of the officers. They were furious and wanted revenge. They talked of a strike in Panama.
One of them was sent to talk with us. He posed the question: "If the Chinese crew members were to strike in Panama, would the rest of the crew offer some support?" Our answer was immediate and absolute, "Yes." We would do everything possible to support them.
We too had looked upon the invasion of officers into the Chinese crew quarters and the ransacking of their personal belongings as outright discrimination, an insult. It could be only rectified by an apology and restitution of their property. Word was quickly passed to prepare for action in Panama.
As we drew closer to the Canal, the officers got wind of impending action and commenced to dicker with the Chinese. First they threatened them with harsh action once they reached Shanghai, perhaps never allowing them to sail again. This had no effect on the Chinese, since they were aware that their days on Dollar Line Ships were numbered because of union pressure. A few hours before entering the first lock of the Canal, all the officers agreed to chip in and compensate the crew for their loss. The Chinese were elated and the action in Panama was called off.
The distance from the dock in Panama to the city was about two miles. Orders were posted on the gangway that sailing time was six that evening. That didn't allow us much time for shore leave. We could only grab a cab, speed uptown, have a few beers at one of the bars and get back to the ship. I joined one of the many cab loads of men hell-bent on getting away from the ship for a few hours.
It was either quinine-loaded rice beer or the hot weather or a combination of beer, rum, coke and weather that almost screwed me up. An hour before the ship was to sail, I saw the last cab of men take off amid shouts to get me back on board. Somehow the cooling beer and the comforting shade from the stifling heat of the city brought me back to the bar; I figured I had plenty of time to grab a cab and return to the ship.
My pockets were now empty. I had no wallet, no passport; I had nothing but the clothes on my back. I was in sandals, without socks. It seemed like hours since the last cab of men departed for the ship. Well, if I was to leave with the ship, I had better get back and aboard. I tried to talk a cab driver into taking me back. "No dinero, no transporte," he said calmly as he drove off without me.
The hell with them, I thought. I'll walk. I headed down the palm-lined highway toward the shipping area. In my mind I kept repeating the old refrain, "Time and tide wait for no man." Over and over it went in my mind as I increased my unsteady pace toward my ship's home. I became convinced as I slowly started to sober up that the ship had long ago departed for Los Angeles. All right, so be it. I would get to the pier and curl up and go to sleep. Maybe I'd wake with a clear head in the morning and report to the consulate that I had been left behind.
Passenger ships carrying U.S. mail don't dilly-dally. If they say the departure time is six, the chances are better than good that she'll be easing away from the dock at six. You could set your watch by it. With my head tilted down, I staggered into the vast open area of the pier, convinced that I would find myself alone. Now to find a comfortable spot to lie down and sleep off my disappointment. When I raised my head I was blinded by the bright lights of the ship. There she was, secured to the dock, the way I had left her. Passengers were lined up against the dock, staring down at me. I heard someone say, "That must be him now." Then everyone seemed to start talking at once as I worked my way toward the gangway. I could make out several officers up on the wing of the bridge, looking down at me as if they were counting my steps.
It was the voice of Gregory Cullen I heard shouting, "We can hoist the red flag now. Orders from Moscow. The number one commissar is aboard. We can sail now. Goddamn it. Who the hell is running this ship?"
I awoke the next morning feeling hung over. The air in the quarters was stifling. The hum of the engines and their vibrations on the deck were evidence that we were far out to sea. With a splitting headache, I strolled out of my hot, stifling room to the open deck to get a breath of fresh air. Some crew members were stretched out on the after deck taking a sunbath. Others were sitting around talking or reading. I spied my working partner sitting alone reading and enjoying the hot sun on his bare back. He stopped reading as I sat down beside him. "Feeling hung over?" he asked.
"Sorta. Head feels heavy. This hot sun should help."
"Lots of guys are mad at you, you know."
"Why? I carry my end."
"It's not because of your work, but what happened yesterday in Panama. You could have screwed things up pretty bad, you know."
"Why? Just because I had a few more drinks than I could handle? Why should the guys be pissed off at me?"
"You could have missed the ship. It's a good thing the guys like you, otherwise they would have sailed without you."
"You mean they're mad at me because they had to wait a few more minutes for me?"
"No; that's not it. Don't you know the whole story of what happened yesterday?"
"No," I said, surprised that there even was a story.
"Well, when the last cab came back to the ship, it was about ten minutes before sailing time and the gangway was to be hauled aboard. "Footpad" John said you had refused to get into the cab. We figured you would be back within a few minutes before sailing time. We were fortunate the way things worked out. It was low tide and the main deck was flush with the dock. We were on the dock, just sitting around, when word came around that all the passengers were aboard as well as the mail. The bridge had called for the sailors to stand by to let go. Then we knew you wouldn't make it. So about ten of us stepped across the deck to the dock and just stood there. Cullen shouted from the bridge to get back aboard or he would sail without us. Then 15 more guys joined us. Cullen sent the mate down to find out what was going on. We told him that one of our men was en route to the ship and we didn't want to sail without him. A deal was made with the mate, and he got the captain's agreement for us to send out three men in a cab to locate you and bring you back.
Footpad John, Frenchy and the Pope grabbed a cab and set out to find you. They were ready to slap you up if you offered any resistance. Somewhere along the line they must have missed you, since they went up to the last gin mill you were seen in. They had a few beers, then started back. You had arrived and been on board for about five minutes when they showed up. They were still in doubt about what to do to further delay the ship, but when we told them you were aboard and in your bunk, everything else fell into place."
"Well, I'm glad it turned out the way it did," I said. "I owe them a word of thanks. But why the hell are they so mad at me?"
"You should be able to get the picture, but if you need to have it spelled out, then here it is: we have a good union gang here. We're mighty proud of our achievements. We don't like to get involved in personal stuff, you know, in something not connected with union activities. The guys know you're a good union man and have been through the mill like the rest of us. But they also know you're a Communist, and Communists aren't supposed to get all screwed up on booze so you lose your perspective. You put us all where the shipowners could crack down on us heavy. You know they're waiting for us to make mistakes. That's why the guys are pissed."
I didn't have the gall to come up with an argument against my friend's explanation. I felt bad about the predicament I had created for the men and fully appreciated what the crew had done for me. Without their warm feeling toward me and their sense of solidarity, I would have been in the local Panama jail waiting for deportation home as a workaway. There was only one thing to do, and I started immediately. I went from man to man for the next two days, apologizing for my behavior. Every one of them was wonderfully understanding and kind. I would never forget that incident.
Gregory Cullen was not to forget it either. Every day, news leaked down from the bridge about what Cullen had in store for the crew when we reached San Francisco. He made it known that every man was to be fired upon arrival and, furthermore, if our conduct was not maintained on a high standard, many of the men would be logged several days' pay.
About three days before arrival in San Pedro, we held our ship's meeting. For two hours the men blasted the conditions, or lack of conditions, on board. Our sleeping quarters were below the standard prescribed by the union. There was poor ventilation, not enough fans. The wash rooms needed repairs. Everything, from mattresses to eating utensils, needed replacing. It had been over two years since the 1934 maritime strike had been won, and still the shipowners were dragging their feet in correcting grievances. The crew was determined to wait no longer.
A three-man committee was elected to draw up the demands and present them to the captain. I was elected, along with the ship's delegate and Frenchy Prefontaine, the deck engineer. We worked late into the night drawing them up and typing them in presentable form. After listing our demands, we carefully worded the last sentence, which read, "We know that the company will do everything possible to get these conditions remedied prior to setting the date and hour for the next departure so there will be no delay in sailing." Word was sent to the captain that we wished to consult with him on a matter of "grave importance to the well-being of the vessel."
Word came back: "Provided the committee is properly-attired in clothing the standards of which pay tribute to the best traditions of the American Merchant Marine, the master will give the committee an audience from 2-2:30 p.m. Attire shall consist of clean-pressed blue dungarees; a blue shirt, pressed and open at the collar; black oxford dress shoes and white socks. Men are to be neatly-shaved and their hair groomed. It would be appreciated if the men wore the company slip-over jacket with the company insignia on the back. There will be no smoking in the master's presence. Men will reach the master's office via working companionway and stay clear of all passenger quarters. It is expected that the men will arrive on time."
The bastard would have the last word. We decided to comply with the requests, although there were some who considered it an insult that we had to press our clothes. At two we were outside his door. He was ready for us. His steward escorted us to chairs. In the office were the chief engineer, the chief mate, the chief steward and the ship's purser with a notebook in his hand.
The captain's office was spacious, as captain's offices were on most large passenger liners. The bulkheads were loaded with neatly-framed documents from diplomats thanking him for this or that favor. Resting on his desk were several photos, two of Count Ciano, with "to my dear friend" splashed across them. One photo showed him riding a white horse, with the Count nearby on a black horse. Some of his documents had fancy ribbons attached to them. But the picture that struck me the most was one of Mussolini in his steel helmet, with some Italian words written across the bottom.
This Mussolini-, fascist-loving character allowed us a few moments to glance around his treasury, then abruptly looked at his watch. "I have other appointments to attend to; I suggest you tell us what this request for a meeting is all about."
"Our living conditions are deplorable," said the delegate, wasting no time in coming to the point. He handed the captain the list of demands. "We are giving you an advance set of these requests so you can get them into the hands of your representatives in San Francisco."
The captain read the list out loud. When he reached the last sentence he drew himself upright in his chair. "Are you telling us you intend to strike this vessel if all these requests, as you call them, are not met?"
"We don't know, captain," said the delegate. "But you know how difficult it is to get a crew to sail a ship under these conditions."
"Difficult?" said the captain, his voice rising. "I know a lot of naval reserve men who would give their right eyes to sail this ship under present conditions, and furthermore . . . "
He was cut off by the mate who faced him and said in a conciliatory tone, "Of course we will see that the company representatives get this list." It was obvious that he was preventing a long diatribe against unions from the captain.
The captain took the hint. "Yes, Mr. Warner is correct. We will see that they are acted upon when we arrive in San Pedro. If you have nothing to add, the meeting is over. You men are excused. Be sure to return to your quarters the same way you came here."
We heard later that the captain was beside himself after we left. "There's nothing I'd love more than to lead a hundred naval reserve men up this gangway to roust every one of these union Reds not only off the ship, but off the waterfront as well. It's high time that we act like Americans and put a stop to unions before they eat us up. Mussolini has the right idea."
Our stay in San Pedro was short. There was just enough time to allow some passengers to disembark and some mail to be discharged. And there was time enough to allow us to mail a copy of our demands to union headquarters in San Francisco. On the way up the coast, we did not wait for the list to be posted to find out who the ones to be fired were. Most of the crew started packing their belongings, list or no list.
In the middle of the night, the list mysteriously appeared on the bulletin board. With typical brevity it read, "The following members of the ship's personnel may sign on for another voyage." Five names were on the list--to the dismay of those five members who, embarrassed, scratched them off.
As we edged alongside the dock in San Francisco, we could see a lot of activity. While it was usual to see some people meeting their friends, the number we saw was larger than usual. When we lowered the gangway, many of those on the dock came rushing up. It was then that we could tell that they were workmen from different crafts rushing aboard to put into action the demands we had raised. Within minutes hammers and saws were at work as workers tried to complete all improvements in time for the next sailing date. While most of us were not to enjoy the fruits of our action, a lot of other seamen had a more comfortable trip when the President Garfield put out to sea.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two