Chapter VII: The Problem Characters
It was never a joy to see some of our members come in after a tough trip of delivering the goods, get paid off, then go on a binge and end up two days later with empty pockets and a big hangover. They would come into the hall looking done in and sort of sheepish and try to take out the next ship. I would ask myself, is this all there is in life--a job, a payoff, a drunken binge, then a repeat of the same? Where do the fun and enjoyment begin? Maybe his next ship will not make it. Surely the brother deserves something better than what he has been getting.
As I looked into the faces of these men I began to see an image of myself, the way I was a few years earlier and the way I could have been now, had it not been for the Communist Party making me take a good look at myself and setting me on the track to make something of myself. "If you don't care for yourself, then try at least to care for your class. You are somebody, somebody important in the class struggle. Go out there and do with your fellow worker what we have done with you. That much you owe your class. Help them, rescue them from the tight hold the lumpen proletariat has on their throats and brains."
As I got to know a few of the "problem" characters and their weaknesses better I conceived a plan that could offer them something better than what they were used to. It required a little talking to get their approval, but in the end they agreed. When they paid off the vessel, I would take their money and go to the bank nearest the union hall, deposit it in their name, and give them enough money for things like room rent, clothes, and food. I would hold the book and make them come to see me in the event they needed more money. It was a pain in the ass, but it gave me a chance to keep tabs on them and try to exert a little fatherly advice in between binges. In most cases it worked well, and many times I held back on giving them money for boozing up.
Sometimes I would see them come staggering down the street looking for me and their bank book. Most bar owners did not like my approach to the problem. When they saw the money was not coming in fast enough, they refused credit. That suited me fine. Some of the bar keepers were agitating against me because of what I was doing to their business. "That so-and-so port agent who acts like their father! The nerve of that guy!" Hearing that, I knew I was doing the right thing.
Another method I used on a few of these characters was to see if I could prod them to take a trip home to visit the family. Life becomes so uncertain during wartime that perhaps the next ship would be his last. Why not see as much of the family as possible? A seaman, after a couple of months at sea, was entitled to at least 30 days ashore before the draft board got after him. Then it was ship out or get drafted. So this way he could easily spend a week with his family and he would be privy to certain priorities in transportation. It worked well.
Another scheme of mine was to get some of the lonesome characters into places like a Turkish bath for some relaxation after time at sea. I would also hunt down some places in the country like a spa or an inn where they could go for rest and relaxation for a week to enjoy nice surroundings and good food. On the surface, these things looked like they occupied a lot of my time, but they didn't. Most was accomplished by phone. Many good things developed from this small touch of care that was so important to some people. A few of the characters met some nice women who added a new dimension and meaning to their lives. New vistas that they never thought existed opened for them.
Many seamen had no living relatives at all. In case of their death the government gave a check for $5,000 to anyone designated by the seaman at the time of signing on for the voyage. A number of the seamen asked if it was okay if they designated me as their beneficiary. I turned this proposal down flat. No way would I allow myself to be the recipient of such an offer. Politely I thanked them and told them to leave it to some charitable organization. Seamen under such circumstances were wide open to be taken by every whore or shady barmaid. And I knew a few union officials that found no objection in encouraging their members to sign over their benefits to them.
We had a fireman in the union nicknamed "Deafy" Gannon. He had no hearing aid, and when you talked to him you had to shout your head off. While on board ship his sleeping quarters were located right below the five-inch cannon. While asleep one day, his ship's lookout spotted a submarine, and the emergency alarm brought the gun crew to their battle stations. Every gun on the ship fired at the submarine and the cannon fired a shot at least every minute and a half. Some 15 shots were fired. Each shot sent vibrations and quivers throughout the ship. They never hit the submarine, but scared it off. When Deafy awoke two hours after all the action died down, he complained to anyone within earshot that "a man can't get a decent sleep on board ship anymore because these young seamen are always banging shut the steel bulkhead doors and making all sorts of racket," and he wished the hell these young punks would be quieter.
One time a ship's delegate complained to me about a man in the engine room who should be removed from the ship; the men thought he was losing his marbles. I boarded the ship and found out that the fireman in question wore his "zoot suit" 24 hours a day. The suit was a head-to-toe rubber suit designed for the eventuality that one had to abandon ship. You got into it and pulled up the zipper, enclosing yourself in the rubberized suit with only your face showing. It kept you afloat and protected against the harshness of the sea. Your body heat was contained. The trouble with such comprehensive lifesaving gear was that it took too darn long to put it on in a life-and-death emergency. If and when a torpedo hit, time was too short to go to one's room, pull out the suit, put it on, and sally forth to the lifeboat.
What we had here was a man who so feared being subjected to an enemy attack that he judged his life as dependent on this rubber suit. He wore it in the engine room on watch, he wore it in the messroom while eating, and he wore it while sleeping. The men complained that he was creating a demoralized atmosphere among them. Besides, they said, he never took it off to bathe and he stank terribly. Wearing it in the boiling hot engine room was making him sick and he was beginning to show it in his actions and mannerisms. Thus, since everyone thought him crazy, he must be crazy, and he must be removed from the ship.
I found it a delicate situation. Just because he wore his zoot suit 24 hours a day didn't qualify him as a coward, because he was still standing his watches and answering the bell. I tried to reason with him and reach a compromise that would satisfy all hands. We ended it by claiming he was sick and obtaining a hospital form from the captain. Such a form got him off the ship for a vacation as well as a medical checkup, and everyone was happy. Of course, he thought he got the best of the deal by having a certificate that would guarantee him some extra time ashore. And the rest of the crew thought they got the best of the deal by getting him off the ship.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three