Chapter VI: Case of the Tragic Stowaway

Within a couple of weeks my back had healed. The aches were gone, and so was much of the money. On most busy street corners in New York City men and women were selling apples. It was a good way of making a small wedge in the wall of poverty. With my remaining few dollars I bought myself a case of nice red apples, found a corner and went into business. A case cost $1.50. If I sold all apples at five cents each, I could make a profit of six dollars.

For the next several weeks I labored at my job, shifting from area to area. One day I would work Riverside Drive, the next, Wall Street. The first week I sold two cases of apples. The competition was heavy. Even some unemployed stock brokers had set up apple stands along Wall Street. Huge boards announced in big bold letters, "Help those who want to work. Buy an apple." It was only when I saw some guy advertising two apples for a nickel that I knew the apple business was at an end. Well, back to making the rounds of the shipping masters and hope for a ship.

It was an occasion of being in the right place at the right time when I saw a middle-aged man cursing loudly in front of his car as I was about to enter the offices of the shipping masters of the United States Line. The man kicked his flat tire. Just to be nice, I volunteered to change it for him. Within a few minutes I had the car jacked up and the tire changed. He thanked me, gave me two dollars and asked what kind of work I did. I told him I was an unemployed seaman desperately looking for a ship. He handed me a card and told me to come to his office in the morning. It turned out he was the head shipping master for the entire line, serving some 30 ships.

The next day I found myself working in the boiler room of the SS American Farmer, a freighter with accommodations for 20 passengers that plied between New York and London. It was ten days to London, ten days back, and five days in each port, one full trip per month. On the first trip over we spent Christmas at sea. We had corned beef and cabbage instead of a turkey dinner. At each plate we found two packs of Wings cigarettes with a card that read, "The president of United States Lines wishes all its employees a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. In appreciation of your steadfast loyalty in these dark times in the company's history, we present you with this little token for the services you are rendering." (Wings cigarettes were a product of the depression. While regular cigarettes cost a quarter for two packs, Wings sold for ten cents a pack.)

One of the men I was arrested with in the long-ago warehouse caper lived in Liverpool. I sent him a letter before sailing and asked him to meet me in London. Upon arrival I received a letter saying he could not make the trip but would try on the next voyage. I spent five days in London taking in the sights as well as the local pubs. The city depressed me with its row upon row of tenements. The cold and foggy weather did nothing to endear the place to me. I couldn't help but recall all the cuss words my mother had used to describe the British for what they had done to Ireland. Eating fish and chips in a greasy newspaper while walking down the street only upset me more; I had the notion that the British were supposed to have better manners. Considering that I accepted Americans eating hotdogs while walking down Fifth Avenue, there was no rational reason for such an illusion. But somehow I expected something different in England.

The working class was in rough shape with unemployment so high. It was impossible to throw a cigarette butt into the gutter without someone diving into the street to pick it up. I couldn't understand why people had to pay a special tax to be able to listen to their radios. Still, I made the best of my stay in London and did find some interesting people to converse with.

Three days out of London the passenger steward reported that his lone passenger, a stock broker, had blown his brains out. Earlier he had received a radiogram telling him of reverses in the stock market. The body was wrapped in sheets and placed in the ship's ice box. The ship's doctor made out the death certificate, the cause of death being "by his own hands." When we arrived in New York the local authorities took issue with the report and it became a police matter. "Was he murdered on the high seas?" the police asked. An investigation was underway. Each member of the crew was questioned briefly. "What do you do on the ship?" the police asked me.

"I'm a fireman."

"How often do you get up on the upper deck, the passenger deck?"

"Never been up there," I replied.

"Not even for a lifeboat drill?" he asked, staring me in the eye.

"Not even for a lifeboat drill, since I'm on the twelve to four shift and that's the only time they hold the drill. I'm always in the boiler room."

Finally the police gave up on the matter. It was listed as suicide. The doctor, however, was removed from his position.

The next trip across started with a fierce storm on the first night out. Snow and sleet lashed the ship; mountainous waves crashed against her sides. We awoke to the news that we had a stowaway aboard. He was an Indian from Bombay who had lived in New York for five years, working as a dishwasher. His life's savings amounted to $7.60. He had received a letter from home saying that his mother was dying and had asked for him. He figured that since he was a British subject, he would stow away to England. Once there the British would be compelled to ship him home to Bombay. It was as simple as that.

Immediately the officers took a dislike to him. He was handed a blanket and told to sleep in the cold passageway, and if there was any food left over from the seamen's mess, he was welcome to it. To me he was a likable fellow. I spent time talking to him and understood his feelings about wanting to go home. To me he was just another one of those working stiffs who would never be allowed to climb higher than the bottom rung of the social ladder. I supplied him with an extra blanket, gave him cigarettes and managed to get him some extra snacks at night. A few hours before arrival in London, he was placed in the ship's brig to wait for the immigration authorities. I shook hands with him before the brig's door was bolted, telling him not to worry, for he would soon be on his way home.

My friend arrived from Liverpool and we both proceeded to have another look at the social life of London. We took in the pubs and strolled around Hyde Park later in the evening. It seemed like every whore in London gathered at this park to solicit. The bobbies enforced one rule: you could not stop and talk with the women. When you looked down the walkways, everyone was walking. There were benches, but no one was sitting. It was an eerie situation. Apparently it pacified the police and allowed the whores to stay in business.

My friend suggested that on the next trip over I should get off in London and live with him in Liverpool for a while. We would be able to see the whole country: Wales, Scotland, Ireland. I agreed.

We had just cleared Bishop's Light, the last navigational mark on the chart to the open sea. Our bow now pointed toward the banks of Newfoundland. I stepped out of the mess room and was shocked to see my Indian friend, the stowaway, resting on his haunches in a corner. "What are you doing here?" I asked.

"The British immigration wouldn't believe that I was from Bombay, so they are forcing the captain to take me back to New York." His face was wet with tears as he told me of the treatment he had received from the authorities. He had been locked up for five days, with abuse continually hurled at him. An hour before sailing, they took him back to the ship and into the brig, where he took more abuse, this time from the ship's captain. "I'll never get to see my mother," he said.

The North Atlantic weather was at its worst during this time of year. Lifelines had been secured around the deck. Snow and icy winds lashed at the ship. The distant cliffs and the shoreline of England soon faded into the cold misty night. Our bow would rise out of the sea, stay suspended for a moment on top of a wave, then plunge into a deep valley of churning sea. Our speed was reduced to no more than the steerage speed of two or three knots. In the boiler room we reduced our steam pressure. The storm raged all night without a letup. At breakfast my Indian friend approached me. "I would like to give you this five dollars in friendship," he said, thrusting his hand toward me. I was repelled by the offer and moved away. I would not take the money. My friendship was not for sale. He looked saddened by my refusal. I could see that he had not slept well during the night. He wore a heavy, long woolen overcoat buttoned tightly against his thin body. Someone had given him a pair of rubber galoshes to keep his feet dry and warm. Around his neck was a heavy scarf fastened with a safety pin. With eyes soggy from crying all night, he looked at me. "My dear friend," he asked, "do you think it wise if I talk to the captain and ask him to transfer me to any ship passing us that might be going to India? Do you think I should do that?"

I told him there was only one chance in a million that such a thing might happen. The seas were so rough that no lifeboat could be launched. Better to forget such a dream. Wait until you get back to New York to organize a plan, I told him. He turned, dragging his feet, and walked toward the port side of the passageway. It was the last I was to see of him.

I had been at work less than an hour when I heard a series of whistle blasts. It was the signal to stand by lifeboats. The engineer came running into the boiler room shouting orders excitedly, "Raise your steam pressure on all boilers; we have an emergency on deck." I could feel the ship starting to turn, then leaning way over on the port side. Would it right itself again, or would some big wave come along and lay the ship on her side for good? I found myself grabbing onto something stationary to hold to keep from falling or sliding into the boilers. Close to the opening ventilators that ran up to the boat deck, the sound of voices of men on deck could be heard. It all seemed garbled and only added to the confusion. For the next hour we went through a series of motions, lowering or raising steam pressure, slowing down the engines, then speeding them up, but never seeming to get anyplace. We continued to roll and pitch.

The engineer came into the boiler room for a routine check. "What the hell's going on up there?" I asked.

"Ah, that stupid Indian stowaway just jumped over the side," he shouted over the roar of a noisy motor. He quickly returned to the engine room. I felt a terrible disgust with myself. Had I used the brains I was gifted with, I might have been able to prevent that tragedy. I hated myself the more I thought about it. The offer of five dollars should have been my clue. Even in his naive way he must have known that he could not remain floating for long in the fierce North Atlantic, hoping to be picked up by a ship bound for India. It had to be out and out suicide.

We rolled for the next hour, then the search for the Indian was called off. We got back on course and headed for New York. At the mess room table, no one wanted to talk. Most of us felt saddened by the whole affair. The boatswain, a company man, uttered the last insult when he said, "Had I known the dumb bastard was going to jump, I would have kicked his ass some more and made him work harder." Most of us said nothing, but got up and left him alone at the table. The next day I talked to a sailor who had seen him go over the side and sounded the alarm. He said that in addition to the heavy clothing he had on, he also wore a life jacket. He watched, unable to stop him as he climbed over the rail and jumped into the sea. He saw him hit the water, go under quickly and never surface. His clothing and heavy boots were so cumbersome that he must have been dragged under the ship and sunk quickly. The life jacket was not able to suspend the weight of the waterlogged clothing. The sailor ventured to say that the coldness of the water would have killed him upon impact, so if consolation were needed, he did not suffer long.

Most of the crew hated the boatswain and the officers for their treatment of this man. One oiler was so embittered that he challenged the boatswain to a fight. "Try hitting me like you did that poor stowaway. Come on, make a pass." But the boatswain would not take the challenge. It became a standard joke on the ship that the captain was not interested in recovering the man, but just the company's life jacket.

We arrived in New York twenty days after we left London, ten days late because of severe weather, almost a record for late passage. If the stowaway's death was a surprise to me, I was to receive another, less tragic, surprise. Again some stoolpigeon had informed on me and said that I was going to pile off in London the next trip over. Again I was handed the one-way pass with bag and baggage to the street. Well, there went the tour of England. It was again my own fault for blabbing too much. I should have known that there are people in the world who will sell their souls to remain in the good graces of the officers, thus keeping themselves employed.

The death of the stowaway shook me up. I wanted to shout out to the whole world the plight of this poor soul and the result of man's inhumanity to man. Unlike in the death of the passenger during the previous trip, this time there was no inquiry.


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two