Chapter IV: Trip on the Hungry Ship
The restrictions placed on one when leaving jail are tremendous. I reported to a parole officer once a week. I was constantly asked about my habits. "Do you see any of your old friends? If so, do they engage in any unlawful activities? Have you looked for work? Where? What are your prospects? What are your social habits? How many shows did you see last week? Where did you get the money? Do you have a girlfriend? Where does she work? Do you sleep with her? What time do you go to bed? What time do you get up?"
I walked around the streets feeling like someone was always looking over my shoulder, waiting for me to make one mistake that would let them haul me right back. I found myself disassociating myself from old friends. I walked past the old pool hall, fearful that if I walked in to say hello, the wagon would be around to haul me away. At home the pressure started again, too: "Get a job or back you go."
The parole officer did not want to listen to any complaints about pressure from the family. He would say, "Keep looking and stay out of trouble." He would deem it a pleasure to send me back for another stretch. Once in a while he'd feel sorry if I wasn't eating too well and hand me a few meal tickets for Beefsteak John's in the Bowery--ten tickets, each good for a fifteen-cent meal. "It's the best I can do," he'd say. He had no jobs to offer. "Just keep looking and report back." A month passed. There was no progress to report. Just managing to stay out of jail was progress, I thought. I told him I heard there were jobs on coal colliers sailing out of Boston. Would it be okay to travel up there? Sure, he said. Just write him a letter every two weeks reporting my whereabouts and progress. I think he was glad to see me go.
I packed a few things, said goodbye to the family and took off for the Boston Post road. Hitchhiking wasn't bad. In several short rides, I was halfway there on the first night out. Since it was summer, it was nice sleeping on the side of the road. I had a sister living in New London. I decided to stop in and see her on my way to Boston. That afternoon, I arrived unexpectedly at Isabelle's doorstep. She was glad to see me and offered me a good supper, a bath and a nice bed to sleep in. Next morning she served a hearty breakfast, gave me a 50-cent piece and I was on my way.
I arrived in Boston in the late evening and got a room at the Seamen's Mission. New arrivals were always good for at least a week's free lodging. I was disappointed to learn that shipping in Boston was the same as in most other seaports--terrible. The harbor was full of laid-up ships. Most of them were coal colliers. So now what should I do? Hang around and wait? Pick up my stakes and try somewhere else? But where else? Seamen were reporting no jobs in any port. I decided to hang around.
When the week was up at the Seamen's Mission, I had to find other lodging. I went down to the wharf to watch the fishing fleet come in. Most of the boats were known as beam trawlers, all steel-hull boats made to survive any kind of weather. They were discharging huge halibut they had caught off the shores of Newfoundland. "Hey, pal," I shouted to a fisherman, "any chance of a fish?"
He threw me a 20-pound halibut. I went off to a poor neighborhood. A knock at a door brought a prospective customer. "I need 50 cents for a night's lodging. Care to buy my fresh fish so I can have a place to sleep tonight?" For the next two months, that was the way I got lodging money. There was always a fisherman who would oblige and a housewife who would buy. Several times I got the 50 cents without the person buying the fish. That was extra money.
Eating during the day was not too difficult. In the working-class section of Boston, especially in Little Italy, all the delicatessens were owned by Italians. It was easy to walk into any one of them and ask, "Any chance of some bologna and bread?" And that's exactly what you would get, a half-loaf of bread and some bologna or cheese. I don't think anyone ever refused a handout. The only rule was that you never went to the same place a second time. There were so many of them it would have been an insult to repeat. Between the Italian delicatessens and the sympathetic fishermen, life was not so bad. I continued to write my parole officer, always assuring him that I was "getting closer" to a job.
I went aboard almost every ship that arrived in Boston, searching for work. If I couldn't get work, perhaps I could get a meal. After three months of this, the weather started to get cold. I heard a rumor that a ship called the John Jay was laying in the shipyard nearly ready to take on a crew. The chief engineer was at his desk in his office. He looked nasty, and had probably been up all night drinking, without benefit of sleep. "Can you fire a boiler?" he asked.
"Sure can," I replied.
"Okay, be aboard at midnight to take the twelve to four watch. Have your clothes with you because we sail at eight."
That afternoon I bummed three empty wooden cigar boxes from a friendly man at the United Cigar store, then spent the next several hours walking the streets, picking up cigarette butts until all three boxes were filled.
The John Jay was built during World War I. She had not seen any wartime duty. Her maiden voyage had been scheduled close to the end of the war, but as she steamed from the shipyard to her new berth, she ran aground on a sandbar in the river. With her back broken and the war at an end, it was decided to tow her to the nearest lay-up point and leave her there. A number of years later someone found a new use for her. She was taken to the yard, underwent some repairs and was declared seaworthy again. Or so they thought.
On our trip, we were to travel empty to some Gulf port, pick up a load of wheat, cotton or some other bulk commodity and then proceed through the Panama Canal to China. It sounded great. It was just what we all needed, a nice long trip to sea, a time to get some good chow into us and end up with a good payoff. It didn't turn out that way.
We pulled out of Boston Harbor jubilantly, just in time to escape the hard, cold winter winds already blowing down from Nova Scotia. The first surprise came at the mess table. The mess boy came in from the galley and reported that we had eaten the allotment of food for supper. There were no seconds. A few of the men grumbled, but nothing more. We stuffed ourselves with bread. Next came the surprising information that the captain did not carry a slop chest on board. That meant nothing to buy at reduced prices, including cigarettes. "We'll pick up a complete slop chest in New Orleans," we were told. Now I was popular; In my spare time I broke up the cigarette butts I'd picked up on the streets of Boston and rolled them into cigarettes. Most of the crew knew I had tobacco, and sooner or later they would all bum me for a touch. I guarded it jealously.
The third and most devastating surprise came when we tried to speed up the engine. We found that the boilers were in such poor shape that bringing them up to top pressure would endanger us and the ship. So the boiler pressure was reduced. Thus the engine could produce no more than five or six knots instead of the expected thirteen or fourteen. That wasn't even enough to produce good ventilation in the engine room. Since the trip was going to take longer than expected, and since the boilers were leaky and required extra fresh water, our water for personal use was cut down to one bucket a day. The steward had the men line up in the morning at the pump with their buckets. Usually the men in the engine room bathe twice a day, each time they come off watch. We, however, had to reuse the water the second time around and then save the dirty water to wash our clothing. There was plenty of saltwater to use, but without saltwater soap on board, it was only good for rinsing.
We moved down the coast at a snail's pace, hugging the coastline for our own protection. Each watch brought new leaks in the boiler tubing, and each leak brought a reduction in boiler pressure. When we reached the coast of Florida, we were just making steerage. With the heat in the boiler and engine rooms reaching new heights, the lack of fresh water, a meager diet of poor food and constant bickering among the officers about responsibilities, the lid was ready to blow off.
Someone had the bright idea to throw a line off the stern end and fasten it to a bit on board. We attached a sharp hook covered with a white dish towel and trolled it in the wake. For two days we looked astern and watched as the hook trailed behind us. Then, just as we were passing the Florida Keys, a barracuda grabbed the hook. There was much excitement as men ran off to assist in hauling in the fish. "Careful, men," shouted the boatswain. "Let's not lose the sonofabitch. Remember, he's our supper."
We got him aboard. He was a fighting fish, a good five or six feet long. Once on the deck, he fought fiercely to get back into the water. His tail slashed back and forth. No one volunteered to take the hook out of his mouth. We stood looking at this giant in amazement, fighting for his life in this strange environment. Then the hook fell out of his mouth. His leaps off the steel deck seemed to be getting higher and higher. One more good leap and he would be back in the sea. "Do something, you guys; our supper is getting away!" shouted the boatswain, who managed to remain a respectful distance from the tail of the barracuda.
Two men grabbed fire axes from their racks and, without a moment's hesitation or regard for their own safety, started to chop at the head of the fish. Within a few moments, this terror of the seas lay dead on the deck. I found myself feeling sorry for him.
An hour later, it was supper time. We were supposed to have a beef stew for supper. The mess boys brought in the food. It was potatoes and baked barracuda. "Where's the beef stew?" one of the crew members asked.
"The steward said he's holding the beef stew for tomorrow, now that you have the barracuda to eat," the mess boy replied. This was followed by grumbling among the crew. Voices were becoming louder and louder. Two men got up to confront the steward about his policy of small portions of food. There were threats. Someone remarked that the steward could easily fall overboard while walking around the deck at night. From then on he locked himself in his room after the evening meal was served and the galley was locked up.
It was now a struggle between the system that was starving us to death and survival. If the law of physics demands that for every action there must be a reaction, it was soon to take place. I watched my mate, Fitzpatrick, the water tender, work in silence while leaning over the bench in the workroom. From a few feet away, I could see that he was filing something he had clamped in the jaws of a vise. He rubbed it vigorously with sandpaper. My curiosity got the best of me. "What's going on?" I asked, approaching him from behind.
"This is my answer to those belly-robbing bastards," he said. He was working on a key--in fact, several keys that would open a big brass padlock. "Do you know what the officers had to eat for supper while we were eating the lousy barracuda?" he asked. Without waiting for my reply he said, "They were eating a roast leg of lamb. How about that? Well, I got news for those bastards. They're playing the wrong game with the wrong guy. I've lost ten pounds already, and I don't intend to pull into New Orleans and have to be taken ashore in an ambulance because of starvation."
It was one in the morning. Everyone but the man on watch was asleep. Fitzpatrick grabbed a bucket and headed for the upper deck to the ship's ice boxes. In the quiet of the night, he manipulated the keys he had made into the lock until he heard a click. The lock opened. The ice box was stuffed with food. He loaded the bucket with fresh eggs, baloney, cheese and fruit. Re-locking the door, he found his way back to the boiler room. We stuffed ourselves with boiled eggs and other goodies, then hid the rest of the food below the floor plates, where they were safe until we returned to the boiler room for our next watch. We also enjoyed my collection of fine and rare tobaccos.
Unfortunately, on his third trip to the ice box, Fitzpatrick found that the locks had been changed. Our emergency rations outlet had come to an end.
We were lucky in avoiding storms. The weather was hot and the sea calm. Most of us had predicted that we would be sending out an S.O.S. for tugboats to come and tow us to port, but the boilers managed to hold together as we sailed past the Florida Keys and entered the Gulf of Mexico. The skipper accused the chief engineer of being incompetent, now that our speed was reduced to four and a half knots. The chief engineer accused the three assistant engineers of not knowing their business and told them they were all fired upon arrival in the first port. The cook accused the steward of hoarding the food and being incompetent in running the catering department. The steward told the cook he was fired when he hit port. The third deck officer was the son of the captain. The captain accused him of being more interested in taking sunbaths to look nice and tanned for his woman friends than he was in navigating and running a tight ship. The son told the father to go to hell and that he was quitting when the ship hit port.
The steward was maintaining tighter precautions for his safety. He was spending less time in the galley and more time in his locked room. Every time he appeared in the galley, the cook started to sharpen his cleaver. No words were exchanged between them.
Tobacco was disappearing and the men were getting edgy. Even my small supply of butts was down to a trickle. I was rolling them smaller, and there was always someone right there to share a smoke as soon as I lit up.
It was easy to watch, day by day, the radicalization of the crew. At first the protest was just a murmur that soon turned to loud grumbling, ending in verbal abuse and threats against those in command. One day, two engineers left a bucket of dirty clothes outside the door of the wiper's room. This meant that the wipers were to wash the clothes and deliver them clean to the engineers. Had this occurred the first or second day, the clothes might have been washed. But this was the tenth day of the voyage. Bucket and clothes were picked up and thrown overboard.
The dream of a long, beautiful trip to China with a big pay-off was blowing up in our faces as we moved deeper into the Gulf of Mexico and closer to New Orleans. The engineers, knowing now that they were fired on arrival, paid less attention to their duties. They reported to the engine room to stand their watches but did a minimum of repair work. A sanitary line used to flush the toilets was constantly breaking down and had to be repaired. That, too, was ignored. Instead, a bucket had to be thrown over the side to obtain the water to flush. "No spare parts" was the excuse of the engineers.
It was midnight Saturday when we worked our way up the Mississippi River, pulled alongside a grain dock and tied up. Word got around that we would be paid off Monday morning, that all crew members had been fired and that a new crew would show up during the pay off. We had our Sunday morning breakfast, then most of us went aft to our fo'c's'le to loll around. The chief engineer and chief mate came to the fo'c's'le. "All right. Everybody turn to. We have work to do. Prepare the storeroom to take on stores." No one moved.
"Well, you guys gonna move? You're still on the payroll, you know. So let's get with it." Still no one moved.
The mate looked threateningly at the crew. "You heard the order," he said. "Now let's turn to."
"Hey, mate," said one of the crew. "This is Sunday, and we're in port, and I'm a Catholic and I'm gonna visit my church for mass."
"All right, you can go. But the rest of you men turn to."
"I'm a Catholic, too," said another voice from the far end of the fo'c's'le. Soon we all joined in.
Defeated, the two officers stepped outside the fo'c's'le for a moment. Then the mate returned. "All right. But everybody better be on board at eight in the morning to receive stores."
We were jubilant over our victory. Though none of us had any money, we nevertheless dressed and went ashore. Anything to get away from that ship. (No one did go to church.) Monday, after breakfast, we learned that pay off would be at one, the time when the new crew was to come aboard. It didn't matter to us, since our pay ended at noon. Three trucks, loaded with ship's stores, were waiting for us as we left the messroom after a breakfast of fried liver, fried potatoes, oatmeal and stewed prunes.
Both storerooms, the engine room and deck stores, were located in the bow on the port side. The crew's quarters were located on the starboard side. The John Jay's bow was so curved that if you stood on the fore deck you had to extend yourself far over the rail to see the anchor. The storerooms, as well as the crew quarters, had very large port holes. In fact, they were large enough for a man to crawl through. The way the John Jay was docked, the storerooms were on the offshore side.
The stores were loaded onto a pallet board from the dock, hauled aboard by the ship's gear and landed outside the entrance to the forepeak. All we had to do was pass the stores hand to hand until the two men in the storeroom had stored it. The chief engineer and the chief officer stood on the dock as the goods came off the trucks. They checked their list against that of the trucker, then watched as the stores were hauled aboard. They were items like buckets, fire axes, shackles, turnbuckles, lanterns and parts and pieces to keep the ship operating.
My watchmate, Fitzpatrick, and a sailor known as the "Philadelphia Terror" were closeted in the storeroom handling the storage. As I passed the items from the pallet board to the next man, I could hear a faint plop-plop sound. Something was hitting the water. I continued passing the stores. Within two hours we had cleared three trucks of their stores. I went into the storeroom to talk with Fitzpatrick. The storeroom was empty! These two guys had taken all the stores that came aboard and casually tossed them out the port hole into the Mississippi River.
The storeroom was secured with huge padlocks. After lunch we eagerly awaited the payoff. The agent boarded with a briefcase full of dough, and within minutes we were called one by one into the salon. For the 23 days I was on the vessel, I was paid $26, or about $1.15 a day.
An empty feeling takes hold of the stomach when leaving a ship for good. Maybe it's because your security, no matter how minor, is kicked from under you. I collected my belongings, threw them into a pillowcase and headed for the gangway, just in time to see a tall guy working his way up. I waited until he stepped aboard. "Where's the chief engineer's room?" he asked.
I pointed in the direction of his room, then asked, "Are you one of the firemen?"
"Hell, no," he said. "I'm the new chief engineer."
After that, going down the gangway wasn't so bad. In a few seconds, the old chief engineer would get the shock of his life. The dumb bastard had no idea he would be given the axe, just like he had given it to the rest of us.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two