Chapter IX: Maiden Trip to Sea
There was no doubt about it. I was about the best gangway man who ever set foot on board the Lake Gaither. Standing there like a wooden soldier, I was afraid to move. I had the glorious feeling that the ship belonged to me personally. Men were coming up and going down the gangway. I paid no attention to them. It was not until a few days later that I found out that I was supposed to keep track of people who came aboard, making sure they didn't walk off with the ship's contents. I was not, as I thought, to guard the gangway from someone who might steal it.
The next day I met the crew. Most of them were old-timers; a few were young people. They all went about their work as if it were the first time any of them had ever seen each other. The crew's quarters and mess room were at the after end of the ship. The galley was midships, and the mess man brought food back in small metal containers. No matter what the menu was, I managed to eat my share and more. For the next three days the Lake Gaither took cargo into her small narrow holds. At five o'clock on the third day, with hatches battened down and booms secured, the lines were let go on the dock and the ship eased out of her pier into the Hudson River. She turned slowly, and with her bow now facing the open sea, glided smoothly past the Statue of Liberty. Her course was set for the Gulf of Mexico.
I had just finished supper when the A.B. stuck his head in the messroom. "The mate wants an ordinary to the bow, on the double." The other ordinary told me, "You take the early watch, and I'll relieve you at midnight."
It was stirring to stand on the bow, looking over the forepeak into the vast expanse of sea, watching the shoreline grow dimmer until it disappeared. Lights were beginning to appear as the night settled in and around the ship. Now a little breeze started to blow. Before long it turned into a cold wind. I felt sleepy. The bow was slowly pitching as the sea grew rough. As I stepped back a few feet to get out of the chilly wind, I felt the heat from the cylinder head of the anchor windlass. It was good and warm. I found a burlap bag lying on the deck and folded it to place on the cylinder as a comfortable seat. I sat there feeling protected and cozy, just waiting for someone to come up to the bow and drop the anchor for the ship to wait until daybreak when she would steam up and continue on her way. I had no idea a ship traveled at night. How could they see, I wondered. And while I waited, I fell asleep. I must have slept for two hours. When I woke up, total darkness surrounded me. The ship was pitching and rolling as the seas roughened. For a moment the darkness scared me. While focusing my thoughts, I heard the footsteps of the ordinary seaman on the steel deck as he walked toward the bow to relieve me.
"Hey, you," he hailed as he reached the top rung in the ladder to the fo'c's'le head, "the mate wanted to know what the hell happened to you. Why don't you answer any bells from the bridge? Why aren't you reporting any lights?"
"What bells? What lights?" I asked, dumbfounded. The guy threw up his hands in disgust. I walked to the fo'c's'le. I heard eight bells ring from the bridge. It was midnight. Then I heard eight bells ring from the bow in answer. The voice of the seaman who had relieved me floated over my head as he shouted toward the bridge, "All lights are bright, sir." The mate replied from the bridge, "Okay." Sleep came easy that night.
The Lake Gaither was a slow ship, a real tramp as the word goes. She appeared to be in no hurry to get where she was going. As we sailed south the weather improved with each dawn. Now the seas were calm and beautiful. The days were sunny and hot. However, waking up and seeing no sign of land anywhere gave me an eerie feeling.
It soon became apparent to all hands that I had never been to sea before. As a result, the old-timers treated me like someone from whom nothing could be expected. Their instructions to me sounded like this: "Take this can of paint to the paint locker. It's located in the bow of the ship. When you get there, it will be the second door on the port side, or left side, facing the sharp part of the ship. The light is on your left when you open the door. Be sure to turn out the light and close the door when you leave."
At the same time, the crew was equally determined to teach me something about their profession. Whenever we were working around an item, one of them would give me a complete history of the item and its function on board ship. As for the routine work, it went on day after day. My previous notions of a ship and life aboard it were being kicked to smithereens. Besides my belief that the ship anchored nights to wait for daylight, I had an idea that, once the ship started out to sea, most work would cease until it reached port. I learned in a hurry that on board ship there is no such thing as running out of work. I found that, provided something were shown me correctly, I was able to latch onto the idea of it fairly quickly. I learned all the bell signals: a light to port, one bell; a light to starboard, two; a light dead ahead, three. When the quartermaster at the wheel rang the hour on the wheelhouse bell, I would ring the bell on the bow and politely holler up toward the bridge, "All lights are bright, sir." Then I'd hear the mate's response, "All right."
There was one thing I could not seem to do: learn how to paint. I managed to get the paint on the bulkhead, all right, but the paint bucket was always in danger of being stepped on or kicked over. I did my share of both on that ship.
There came the morning we were to arrive at Houston, Texas. I had been up half the night with a case of "Channel Fever." We sailed into Galveston Bay and slowly worked our way up the ship channel to Houston. At least a hundred Negro longshoremen were waiting for us. They grabbed the lines and tied the ship against the dock. Then they boarded us and began opening the cargo hatches. Texas: the biggest state in the Union! Somehow I had expected cowboys to ride down the pier to the ship. From the chilly sidewalks of New York only a few days ago, I was now bathing in the warmth of the Texas sun and watching the slower pace of its inhabitants. The longshoremen were proficient in their profession--the cargo hit the docks and it was trucked off quickly.
Along the side of the warehouses that dotted the long pier were drinking fountains 200 feet apart. Odd to my eyes was the sign over each fountain: "For Whites Only" and "For Colored Only." That evening I took a bus at the gate that took me uptown. Even on the bus there was a sign: "Colored seated in the rear." I found the whole thing puzzling. The idea of two different drinking fountains repelled me. It was my awakening to discrimination.
Emptied of its general cargo, our ship sailed for Freeport, a short distance down the coast. Here we loaded with raw sulfur which came aboard in bulk. With that, we sailed back up the coast to Texas City, where we topped off with more sulfur. Texas City was a small town with one movie show. Everyone in town seemed to have some connection with the sulfur production industry. All the night, ton after ton of sulfur was dumped into the ship's holds. sulfur dust was everywhere. No matter how we jammed down our portholes or trimmed the ventilators or sealed up our doors, our eyes smarted from the fine dust that seeped through everything.
The next morning after breakfast, a middle-aged guy came aboard. He had a bundle of newspapers. He handed me one. It was The Industrial Worker, a paper published by the Industrial Workers of the World, better known as the IWW. Out on deck, I opened the paper. I started reading the preamble on the editorial page:
The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few who make up the employing class have all the good things in life. Between these two classes, a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth and the machinery of production and abolish the wage system. We find that the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands makes the trade unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class.
There was a lot more, but I was interrupted from reading as I heard the steel bulkhead shut behind me. I turned to face the guy who had given me the paper as he came out on deck. "You find the Worker interesting?" he wanted to know.
"I don't know. I never read this paper before," I told him.
He put out his hand for me to shake. "My name is Gunnar Andersen. I represent the Marine Transport Workers for the entire Gulf." I shook his hand, not understanding a thing he was saying. He looked at me and asked, "You been going to sea long?"
"No, this is my first trip."
"You belong to a union?"
"Then you belong with us, in the MTW.," he assured me.
"Why?" I asked.
"To protect what conditions you now have and make improvements in them. How much are you getting now?"
"Forty-seven fifty a month."
"That's what I mean," he stressed. "You should be getting a lot more than that. They're taking advantage of you."
"The system. The capitalist system, that's who. They know you're young. They know you need a job, that you're inexperienced. So they try to buy you as cheaply as possible. Tomorrow they'll try to buy you even cheaper. We've got to stick together as a class. You can't make it on your own. It's the class that has to make it together. You must never forget that you're a member of the working class."
He was reaching into his pocket to pull out some pamphlets when the boatswain came along. "Get up to the bow and help work over some turnbuckles," he ordered. I said a quick goodbye to my new-found friend and hurried forward.
Finally we were loaded. Mooring lines were let go and we headed out to sea. Destination: Baltimore. Once a ship gets well under way, seamen's conversation usually turns to what happened the night before: "Who was that broad I saw you with last night?" Always one of them would be suffering from a hangover. Some guy who couldn't lift his head off the mess room table without yelling in pain would announce, "Boy, what a great time I had last night!" That always puzzled me. What a price he paid for enjoyment! Was it really worth it? I thought maybe such guys would ask for information about the damage they did or the mischief they got into the night before, but I discovered that, drunk as some of them got, they could nevertheless trace almost every step they took and every drink they downed before collapsing.
The Lake Gaither rode the Gulf waters beautifully when she was loaded down. It was pleasant to stand on her bow, riding the smooth tropical waters and watching the fast-moving porpoises race through it, zigzagging before the bow. Up ahead, the moon was full, fairly close to the horizon, straight in the course we were steering. The oceanic highway seemed to be lit up just for us and the ship headed right down the center of the lane.
The mate looked at his watch. It was time for the sailor at the wheel to be relieved for coffee. The mate walked out on deck and blew a whistle that meant for the ordinary to come to the bridge. I had taken a number of lessons from different sailors on how to steer the ship. I felt I was capable now of keeping her on course. I got behind the wheel. The sailor showed me the course we were steering. It was right down that moonlit path. For the first two minutes there was no problem. Then I noticed the compass move to the left. I tried to check it by quickly turning the wheel to the right. Then the compass came rapidly around, but moved to the right. I turned the wheel to the left.
Meanwhile, the mate had gone into the chart room to work over the course on some charts. After I had spent ten minutes trying to get the compass to stop on the course indicated to me by the sailor, the mate came out of the chart room. "What the hell happened to the moon?"
"I don't know," I admitted. He walked out on the wing of the bridge, looked directly aft and saw the moon in all its shining glory. He dashed back into the wheelhouse.
"What the hell are you trying to do?" he shouted. "Take us back where we came from? You're steering in the opposite direction. Get the hell back up to the bow and don't ever come up here again while I'm here." He took the wheel and eased the ship completely around. By the time I had reached the bow, we were once again gliding straight down the middle of the moon's light.
When the sailor returned from his coffee break, the loud-mouthed mate began telling him all about it. I could hear his belittling remarks. You would have thought I was responsible for the sinking of the Titanic to hear him talk. Right then and there I asked God to sink the Lake Gaither and see to it that the loud-mouthed third mate get his just desserts. While waiting for God to answer my prayer, I turned my attention to the crazy jumping and flopping of the porpoises, who seemed to be having all the fun.
For the next several days, while the Lake Gaither slowly worked her way northward, I dipped into the Industrial Worker. I picked up on what I had started on the editorial page, that preamble:
The trade unions foster a state of affairs which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping to defeat one another in wage wars. Moreover, the trade unions aid the employing class to mislead the workers into the belief that the working class have interests in common with their employers.
These conditions can be changed and the interest of the working class upheld only by an organization formed in such a way that all its members in any one industry, or in all industries if necessary, cease work whenever a strike or lockout is on in any department thereof, thus making an injury to one an injury to all.
Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," we must inscribe our on banner the revolutionary watchwords, "Abolition of the wage system."
It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized not only for the every day struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall be overthrown. By organizing industrially, we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.
One small article reported on some Colorado coal miners were striking for a daily wage of $7.50. It related how the state police were mobilized against the strikers. Men were clubbed and manhandled, then jailed for their efforts to organize mines. The articles interested me, but much of the contents confused me. I remembered the IWW representative telling me that I was a "member of the working class." I still didn't know what he meant by "the class," although my sympathies were with those the paper reported on. Why, I asked myself, do a thousand working men allow twenty policemen to bash their skulls in with clubs and chase them down the street like a bunch of wild turkeys? Why the hell don't they take a stand and rout the police? Pick up baseball bats and strike back; that's the way I'd play it. These questions left me feeling depressed and troubled.
We were in Chesapeake Bay, chugging our way ever closer to Baltimore. Soon word came down to "stand by fore and aft." I moved to the bow, which was my station, and helped stretch out the mooring lines. We tied up at Sparrow's Point, an industrial area on the outskirts of Baltimore. Within minutes, monstrous steel "grabbers" wheeled up on tracks and stopped at each hatch. Every time the "grabber" reached into the hatch, her steel jaws would close on sulfur. With every grab, four or five tons of the chemical were lifted out of the hold and deposited in gondolas for hauling away.
In a way, I was impressed with Baltimore. I'd never seen such rows and rows of brick houses with their white stone stoops. I wondered how a drunk could find his way in the middle of the night and pick the right house when street after street all were the same size, painted the same color and had that white marble-like stoop in front. I took in a movie, drank a gallon of fresh milk, ate a number of candy bars and headed back to the ship. The next day we set out for New York. The windy cold weather made my nose run and eyes water just standing lookout on the bow. The Statue of Liberty looked good to me. It felt as if I'd been away from New York for a hundred years.
The captain sat at a small table, the chief mate next to him. The ship's articles lay before them. A pile of bills and some change were neatly stacked on the table. We lined up according to rank, the boatswain heading the line. I brought up the rear, being the last name on the ship's articles, the ordinary seaman. When I reached the table, feeling good, the mate read my name off to the captain. The captain ran his finger across the paper. "Sixty-one dollars and thirty-four cents," he said. He peeled off five tens, two fives, a dollar bill and thirty-four cents in change. That little pile of bills almost frightened me. So much money! I picked it up, rolled the bills tightly and stuffed the roll into my pocket. The mate stopped me when I started out.
"As hard as you tried to desecrate the traditions of the sea-going profession, to set it back a hundred years, I still think you have the makings of a good seaman. If I were you, I'd sign on for another trip and learn some more about the sea. How about it?"
The money weighed heavily in my pocket. Such a large sum deserved a better fate than being lumped up in a pocket. Why, with that much money I could buy anything! I was rich, I told myself. "No," I told the mate. "I want to stay ashore a while."
"I'll bet you'll be broke in a week," he shot as I sauntered out.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book One