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Saturday, May 29, 2010

Krishna Answers, What is Poetry?

"Light sustains you and breathes story into your future. It sets sail the letters of your karma, and with it the language of all existence, and so energizes the universe. Without light you'd be a frozen lump caught in a black hole. Without light, reality is inconceivable."

You said 'story'. Why a story?

"If you have any history at all, you have a story."

Why do you call history a story? It might after all be a history that is true!

"Yes it might. But whatever you say or think of yourself, it cannot be the same as what others think, or what will be though after time has passed. The only place where all facts are summed up exactly is within the body of existence itself . . . so anything else is therefor a reduction, or what I call a story. It is reduced, edited down. A story 'exists', as much as the 'reality', which it emulates. Editorialized, mythologized. History is more a 'story' than reality, but you can make the case that both are 'real'. It's useful to have history as a way to see the past. So again I ask you, what is your story?"

My story? I'm American. I'm not religious, I believe in the discoveries of science.

"Let me ask you this. Is the Earth alive according to your story?"

Well yes in a way. There is certainly life 'on' earth. But the mass of the earth isn't alive. Life has evolved on the surface, and in the oceans. It's a tiny thin film around a huge rock circling the sun.

"That's a good story. I like it. Do you believe that dust is alive? Or the cut stump of a tree? Or a rock?"

No. Not at all. The stump may have been alive at one time, before the tree was cut, whereas the rock wasn’t and isn’t alive at all. A dead body of a human being isn’t alive either.

"What of the tree stumps that have green shoots growing out of them. They are alive are they not?"

"Well yes."

"Or a dead log that has a living fungus growing out of it. . that is alive is it not?"

"Yes. I see your point. You're saying that it is not easy or really possible to draw a line between what is alive and what is dead."

"No. I'm not saying that at all. Let me ask you what is the difference between that which is alive, and that which is dead?"

Living things reproduce.

"Sand reproduces. It breaks into smaller pieces of sand."

Ah, but the smaller pieces of sand don't get large again.

"Nonsense. . . . the cycle of geology is endless. Sand compacts into layers and reforms into rocks under heat and pressure. Sand becomes rocks, and and rocks become sand. Stars burst and fall apart and explode and become stars again.”

Well a living organic thing thinks. Sand doesn't think. Neither do stars. A living thing makes adjustments in order to survive.

"Let me ask you a question. You write poetry but do you know what poetry is?"

Poetry is a literary art form designed to evoke an aesthetic or evocative response in addition to it's apparent meaning. I got that from Wikipedia.

"So then a short story or a novel should also be considered poetry should it not? Both of these provoke aesthetic responses. They have an apparent meanings separate from the feelings they evoke . .  but there is something 'else' as well."

You're right they do. But they are not poems. They are much longer.

“How can length have anything to do with it. Maybe you think form is the primary difference. Many poems dwarf many stories. Some of the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges read like poems. In fact some are. What is the difference then?"

You're getting into some difficult territory. We can't cover this easily or quickly. You have to read more poetry to find the answer. But most scholars of Borges easily agree which of his works fall into which category.

“I've read everything written since the beginning of history and remember every word. Here's a bit of a poem I've shortened."

It's not a poem if you've shortened it.

"No? Don't all essential things retain their essence when divided? Granite is still granite when it breaks into sand."

But life cannot be broken in two pieces.

"No? Tell that to a cactus. Cut it into a hundred pieces and it will be grateful. Plant any piece you want."

Well there are differences between living things and non-living things. I'll think on it and let you know. What were you going to say about the poem?

"It's a fragment. I've cut it down. Here's what I've got:

     On the crupper of a blue horse
     A boy in years, a man in deeds
     By nightfall, food for ravens.

"Now would you call this a poem, or a story?”

It’s a poem.

“Why? It tells a story, in a very matter of a fact way does it not.”

Yes but it is clearly a poem. The words that are used. The ‘crupper’ of a blue horse. Horses aren’t blue.

“They can be. The ancient Celts who wrote this often painted their horses blue before going into battle. We agree that he died in a war do we not?”


“But where does it say ‘war’ or ‘sword’ or ‘killed.’ Nowhere. It just says a young boy who was brave was on a horse and implies that he was food for ravens. It doesn’t even say that he was killed and then became food for ravens. It could have been a sentence that was cut off.”

That's silly.

"No it isn't. It's my loose interpretation of a very tiny part of a famous Welsh poem called the 'Goddodin', by Anuerin."

All right you win. What makes it a poem?

"Let’s try something else first. What is the difference between a car and a motorcycle?"

Now you are being silly. A car has four wheels, and a motorcycle has two. A car usually carries one to four people and a motorcycle usually only can carry two.

"Some cars have three wheels, and so do some motorcycles, the ones with side cars.Those motorcycles can carry three people whereas some of your cars can only carry two."

These things are not exact!

“More exact than you think. Every person I know will know whether to call a motor vehicle a car or a motorcycle or a truck for that matter. But despite this you don’t have a definition. These are objects made by men and are used to move from place to place. They have different names which are loosely used to describe them but essentially are the same. They are more similar than different. I’m trying to point out that definitions are employed to make distinctions where distinctions are inherently difficult, not easy. I do not ask you what is the difference between a rainbow and a baseball, though I could easily. The definition comes into questions in cases where it can be challenged. Am I not right?”

All right I’ll accept that for now. Whatever I say you will think of an exception.

“So we admit that definitions are difficult do we not?”


“And that definitions usually fail at some point. Might we admit that? You’ve admitted that on simple matter definitions are easy. Correct?”

Yes I admit that. But give me an example of a very simple definition.

“1 + 1 =2.”

That’s not a definition. It’s simply true.

“Within the world of the language that you know and understand it’s true, but it’s still a definition. I could say # plus % equals * and say that on an planet I know that is as true as 1 + 1 = 2 is on earth. I could even say that has nothing to do with math but rather is a recipe for baking a cake!"

You could say anything is true somewhere else.

“Yes I could, though I might not be truthful in saying it. You admit the idea, that mathematics has definitions and those definitions are fairly simple logically. Yes?"


"There is a set of whole numbers and a set of integers and they are not the same set. Yes?”


“And the set of squirrels is not the same as the set of whales.”


“If I said that was not always possible to distinguish between squirrels and whales you’d dispute me wouldn’t you?”


“Even though the set of wolves overlaps with the set of dogs and the set of coyotes.”


Because some wolves have become like dogs and some dogs have become like wolves and even scientists cannot precisely say which of these are coyotes or wolves.

Ok . . yes.

“So we admit that as things get more complex coming up with definitions gets more difficult.”


“And pointless”

Yes. I see where you’re going with this now. Defining cars and motorcycles is a little easier than distinguishing poems from stories.”

“Good. You’ve got the idea now. So now I’d like you to try and define what poetry is . . . as an exercise.”

I’d rather not right now. Perhaps I can think of it if you ask me questions.

“Give it a shot. Try something that will stump me.”

But you cannot be stumped. You’re not from here. You have the advantage of living millions of time as long as I do and experiencing a million times as much. Your brain is the size of ten suns.

“Yes that is true. But we are talking like friends in a cafe are we not?”


“We are in a cafe are we not?”

Well I am but only some little morsel of you is. I don’t even know where the rest of you is. I can’t even see the rest of you!

“Trust me. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if I did not think I could get you to the point where I am already, on this topic of poetry.”

Well just so you know it’s getting exhausting. We’ve been at this for months. I haven’t made any progress at all. Everything I say you shoot down.

“But you admit that your logic is flawed. That is good. So now I ask you why do you cling to logic so? Couldn’t I just be trying to make you let go of logic. Of definitions?”

You could be doing anything. But you keep asking me at the end of every conversation ‘what is poetry’ and we’re going nowhere!

“All right I’ll make it easier. What do baseballs, cars, motorcycles, teapots, and radios have in common?”

These are all man made objects. All made by men.

“Good. Is poetry made by men too?”


“Well that is where you are wrong.”

You’re kidding.

“No I am not. But to prove it to you I we will have to sit together for many more sessions.”

You mean to say that although I write and use language to make arrangements of words that I call poems that I am not the author of them.

“Yes and no. You are the author of most of them but most of them are not poems. The ones that are poems, you are not the author of, though you did participate in the making.”

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Notes from the S.S. Fairland

My godfather played Debussy on the piano, then after a quick breakfast the next morning, I took the R train to Brooklyn.

The Seafarer's International Union was headquartered at 19th Street and 4th Avenue, in a dull neighborhood of light industry mixed with small poorly built homes. The headquarters were marine styled, smooth white stucco, with round portal-like windows cut into the exterior. The ocean they viewed was a stream of trucks.

That first day at the hall I sat around and watched the men play cards. A shop steward appeared before a blackboard to write vessels due in port. He chalked "S.S. Fairland, Wiper + Ordinary." Two men needed. Suspense.

I returned to my godparents house. They were excited about the prospect of my getting a ship.

The following morning, I signed in at the desk and took a seat at one of the empty backgammon tables where the sailors sat to wait,  Minutes later, an official slid over to where I sat. He was a stocky Filipino, very brown skinned. He spoke English perfectly.

"Don't make a thing of it," he mumbled. "You're going out today."

"What about the other men here? They're ahead of me."

"Don't worry," he said. "They want you to get the job."

I looked around. One of the regulars at backgammon shot me a wink.

"Come up to the desk and I'll give you your papers. After that Chicken Sam can take you to the docks."


Chicken Sam had been a fireman. His first ship took him across the Atlantic, just before V-Day and the end of the Second World War.

"A fireman in those days shoveled coal. Now it's all automatic, oil."

We crossed Staten Island, the bright morning sun at the back of our heads. Chicken Sam talked a blue streak. It was all so new. I hardly had seen New York, but now here was the new Verrazano Narrows bridge.

"Good ship the Fairland. You got her because the men at the hall are waiting for the newer vessels. They're more comfortable!" he shouted. "She's been around. She's old little, and cramped, like me!"

Another bridge and Sam pointed out a smudge of buildings. "That's Elizabeth. We're headed to the docks."

We zoomed into New Jersey, and veered past a line of trucks at the entrance to the port.

It was impossible to miss the gantry cranes lining the docks. Huge monster robots they could be seen for miles. Guards waved us through, and we zoomed along a highway between rows of piled containers. Across the tarmac I saw a number of vessels, two very large, one tiny, silhouetted against a strip of water, bits of Staten Island, and Manhattan, in the distance.

Sam drove up to the gangplank of the smallest vessel at dock, the 'S.S. Fairland'.

Sam's fare was fifteen dollars.

"Just go on up. They'll take care of you."

Sam was off. I teetered up the gangplank with my duffel over my shoulder.


A sailor with grey hair and a stubble beard sat on a bench opposite the top of the gangplank. He seemed to be expecting me.

"I'm Mack. You're taking over from me. Couple a minutes an' I'll take you below."

I threw my duffel on the metal deck, and took a seat.


We went briefly to the mess hall, a tiny room of green steel with five small rectangular tables, and a blurry TV wired into an upper corner. Mack poured two mugs of coffee.

"This is it,' Mack said. "I'm leaving this racket for good."

Mack wanted to chat so I let him. He spoke like a man who had told tales his whole life.

"Ships were small when I first came aboard." Mack said. "Seeing you here makes me remember. They were slow. We spent a long time in port. Everything loaded on and off one pallet at a time, with onboard booms. You got to know the cargo you were carrying.

"You got to know the place. You went ashore. You made friends.

"Many sailors had two or more families in different parts of the world. It was peaceful. Now you roar in with one of these container ships and you're gone before anyone's had a chance to even look at the land."

Mack walked me aft to a covered stair under the poop deck, and down to the four bunk rooms, squeezed into a wedge-shaped windowless cubicle of steel by the rudder. One Ordinary and two AB's, also called Able Bodied, shared a tiny room. The bunk for the Ordinary was jammed against the ceiling. There was no space for duffel. You slept with your stuff, and it lived on your bed when you were working.

"Ain't much to it," said Mack. "Do the work. Do what you're told. Everyone's senior to you here. Just remember that."

We went back to the mess. More coffee. "Coffee's something you can have anytime of day or night," Mack said. "It was that way when I started, a young ripper like you.

"I worked them all. P and O, Onassis, all the lines. It was risky. You felt the sea beneath you. Sometimes the Atlantic made us sick to our stomachs. Sometimes a ship went down in a storm. Many got sunk by the Nazis. We always knew some of the crew that went down.

"Sailors all know each other. Remember that too.

"The steward gave us a mix of tobacco, with wormwood and ganja. We smoked it up front. That helped us stay warm. We chewed bits of dried pork rind with lemon to help with seasickness.

"Even today if seas get rough, just ask Steward for some pork and lemon. He keeps it just for that."


Engines ended the centuries of lazy journeys around the waters of the world. Even the first steam freighters were slow.

The old boom-type freighters reached deep into their holds and put something ashore like one or two pallets of machinery, or stayed weeks and were unloaded manually by longshoremen who carried cargo like an army of ants. Chocolate from Africa to France, coffee from Brazil to the US, bananas from Central America, copper ore from Chile, tools from Germany to North Africa, semolina on the return.

Mack said he would never go to sea again. He said it about five times.

Sure enough at fifteen minutes before six, he excused himself, went below. I was in the same seat that he had greeted me, when he walked past with a loaded duffel, wearing a pressed shirt and trousers.

"This is really the end Mack? You look sharp Mack. Take care."

"Remember what I said. You're junior man."

He left without any fanfare at all. No goodbyes to anyone but a new recruit who wasn't going to make a career of the sea.

He clambered down the gangplank and hailed a cab on the dock. There were always one or two, waiting for a sailor with a big tip. They sped away.

My first watch ended after forty-five minutes. The gangplank was winched up, lines cast off. I caught sight of the captain on the bridge, looking out over the heaving of the lines, and then the other side as the tug approached.

The First Mate, a tall man with a grey mustache, told me to hang tight and stay out of the way until morning, when I would begin a normal watch.

I met the senior Steward, a lean man with jet black hair and an impeccably pressed white uniform.  He was coming down from officer's mess.

"Important you stay to the crew galley," he said. "Upper decks only when you are working." He showed me what food and snacks could be had in the mess-hall. "Coffee's always hot. Have as much as you want."

Three hours later, at last light, we steamed beneath Verrazano Narrows Bridge. I marveled that earlier in the day I'd crossed it with Chicken Sam. I'd never seen the structure before, though I knew of it, a magnificent piece of work. The man who designed it was not even mentioned at the ceremony, when they opened the bridge.

His bridge receded to a dull outline. We sailed into a dense fog. Our horns boomed into the dark. An hour later we were thirty miles at sea and the only lights I could see were the single bulbs in the mess, one at the top of the bridge, and a glow from the officer's galley.

The crew mess-hall was on the main deck, in the midsection of the ship. Above that was a deck with officer bunk-rooms, and the officer's galley. Above that was the bridge, One of the mates and the radio operator had their bunks close to the bridge.

A junior steward was almost always to be found in the crew mess. Like the deck department, the stewards all worked watches. During long hours at sea the only duty for a steward working the dog shift watch from eight in the evening until four in the morning was keeping coffee hot for the few deck and engine crew who were awake and working. The Chief Steward in addition to serving the officers at table, planned meals, ordered supplies and managed linen for the crew. Both stewards assisted the cook and washed up after mealtimes.

The crew steward wasn't dressed as properly as his boss. I slouched into one of the mess hall seats and we chatted for a bit over the dull hiss of the TV. The TV in the mess hall was left on constantly, and reception was generally quite good, since we were rarely more than a few dozen miles from shore. The dull haze of the old small tube seemed our only link to a world left behind.

I spent hours alone at night in the mess-hall writing in my journal, interspaced with duties on the bow to look out over the misty black sea. During sea-watch every sailor gets a twenty minute break after being on duty for forty minutes. Often another ordinary or able bodied seaman was with me sharing coffee. The ship began to roll and pitch. Every aspect of being on the water was intensely beautiful, serene, perfect without object. I stayed awake until I was nodding off. Then when my watch ended I crawled to my bunk above the steering gear in the bowels of the ship.

We all served the traditional watch system, patterned after the Royal navy each watch lasts four hours. There are three watches, the first is the 8-12, pronounced "eight to twelve" the second or middle watch was the 12-4, which begins at midnight and ends at four in the morning. After serving for four hours the sailor then has eight hours off to sleep or do whatever he wants until his second shift. The 12-4 was the least desirable of the three watches. The other two, the 4-8 and the 8-12 were much easier and closer to normal hours. Overall the 4 to 8 was the most sought after and went to men who were senior.

As luck had it I had taken the place of a man on the 4-8. But that wouldn't last. After a couple of days an old ordinary who had been on the ship longer expressed a desire to move bunks. So I began my term on the dog shift. I loved it. The watch took place at dead of night, when only six men were awake and the only sounds were the morning calls of foghorns and the splashing of sea. The part of the schedule I didn't like was from noon to four. The bosun almost always gave me a can of paint and a wire brush and told me to get busy on the railings, which were heavily corroded by salt.

The S.S. Fairland marked a turning point in my life, but also a turning point in global trade. For an instant she was the new face of modernity, but now, old and haggard, she had aged amidst a global revolution she herself had started.

Liberty ships like the "Fairland" were built by the thousands to ferry war-machinery to Britain during World War II. Nazi U-boats sunk them by the hundreds. They sailed in convoys, dozens at a time, protected if they were lucky by a single light destroyer. A U-boat that surfaced amidst the "Fairland's" many sister ships was like a hawk set loose amongst pigeons. The Liberty ships carried no guns.

The U-boats hardly bothered the escort ships or destroyers. Their mission was to stop the flow of goods supplying Allied forces in Europe.

Not surprisingly, the 'Fairland' was damaged, but not sunk, during an attack. Then she was repaired, in Europe. At war's end she returned to international trade for a number of years before being sold to the Sea-Land Corporation, and its founder, Malcolm McLean.

An Alabama trucker, with a vision, Malcolm McLean. bought the 'Fairland', and transformed her into the world's first transatlantic container ship in 1956. According to the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Seas:

"Container ship, a cargo vessel, colloquially known as a ‘box-boat’ . . . was specially designed and built to carry dry cargo pre-Fairland, in 1956."

The 'Fairland' was tiny. Whereas the big container vessels that moored next to us on the docks carried thousands of 'cans', the "Fairland" was barely a fifth the size, and held only two-hundred-fifty.

Part of her modifications included a widening of her hull at midships, to stabilize her roll in high seas. Containers could be stacked high, so her hull was reinforced. Her first new configuration featured on-board gantries. Later, when all ports had adapted the new container standard, those clumsy shipboard cranes were removed, allowing yet another layer of containers to be decked on top. The new system of dockside gantry cranes could load a full container from the back of a truck to the hold of a ship in less than ten seconds.

The boilers for most WWII era steam-ships were Connecticut built, at Bigelow Boiler Works, on River Street, in the Fairhaven neighborhood of New Haven, where, co-incidentally, I located my pottery for the last ten years.

By the 1960's the work at Bigelow dried up. Newer technologies put the company out of business. The old factory fell into total ruin, and like so many industrial buildings it was acquired cheaply by a local businessman who ever since has cursed himself for making the investment. He tried to earn his taxes by renting space out to artists. I rented two thousand square feet on the first floor. I had access to acres of industrial roofed space in back, for four hundred dollars a month. I even built a kiln on the same decaying concrete slab, where the metal had been poured for all those thousands of ship boilers.

By 1972 the 'Fairland' was the worn out vehicle in a growth company that had developed a major fleet. Malcolm McLean revolutionized world-trade, inventing both the containers, as well as the easy-on easy-off trucks and train cars that moved them to and from ports of call.

He held on to the "Fairland" for sentimental reasons, though she had become a thorn in his side. His officers hated her. The crew quarters were cramped, and the ship stank of grease, and engine fumes. The engine and steering gear broke constantly.

In Cristobal harbor, at the north entrance to the Panama Canal, we stood at anchor for a week waiting for a vital engine part to be brought aboard in a giant wood box. The "Fairland" was a ship chandler’s dream, since she was always breaking. For some rebuilt piece of extinct equipment these specialized firms could charge top dollar. But she had started a revolution, so possibly out of love, Malcolm kept her afloat for many years, but relegated her crews to work  'coast-wise'.

We were a shuttle.

His larger vessels brought America's imports and exports across the seas, but the 'Fairland' became his local truck, distributing cargo to and from the various East Coast ports.

It depended on the destinations of the containers. If 150 containers from a large ship had to go to Boston, from Germany, a large vessel would bring them to New York. They'd be unloaded, and then put on the 'Fairland', and then we'd run them up to Boston. But if just two cans had to go to Philly, then Malcolm would have two truckers make the drive.

The need for the 'Fairland' became less by the day.

In the middle of that summer, after a string of breakdowns while I worked her decks, Malcolm recognized that 'S.S.Fairland's role in his company needed to end.

He agreed to sell the 'Fairland' to the Taiwanese. We received orders to sail to Hoboken shipyards for some quick tune-ups, then on to Puerto Rico with a full load, through the Panama Canal then north to San Francisco. From there we would sail for the Far East.

Old Al, the senior able-bodied on my watch, took me ashore in Baltimore for the right kind of rain-gear. We were headed into deep water.


The unions owned the New Jersey waterfront, and the mob ran the unions.

They had a way of sorting out people on the docks, I was never stopped from walking in or out of the Port Elizabeth facility, but others were, and had their papers heavily scrutinized. They knew I was just a college kid with a connection. I would be gone in a year. But some seamen got the runaround. The longshoremen could be tough. But they had one hell of a memory for people, as well as containers of freight.

Our home base was Port Elizabeth, the first port in the world designed to handle containers, as part of Malcolm McLean’s visionary idea for transforming the shipping industry.

Our secondary port of call was Baltimore. We rattled back and forth between the two muddy harbors sometimes only tied up for twelve hours. It was amazing how quickly our ship could be reloaded.

Giant gantry cranes would lower a metal frame with four ‘dogs’, that turned when they hit the top of the container. "POW" the container would hit the keel at the bottom of the ship. In an instant the crane operator would reverse direction yanking the gantry out of the hold as quickly as a housewife pulls her hand from a cupboard.

It was misery trying to sleep after a watch when unloading began, a little like being inside a metal box with someone pounding on it with giant hammers.

The beauty of the 'Fairland' from my perspective was that she was small. Because of our small size loading priority in the busy ports was given to Malcolm's larger vessels. This meant more days in port, and more time to go ashore and explore. But for Malcolm this was agony. The crew of the 'Fairland' cost the 'Sea-Land Corp. just much as the crew of the largest ships that carried five times as many containers.

If memory serves me, she carried 27 souls:

Crew - Deck Department:

6 Able-bodied Seamen,
3 Ordinary Seamen (I was one)
1 Bosun
1 Maintenance Man

Crew - Engine Department

3 Firemen
1 Wiper

It was the Fireman's job to keep the main engine going. I believe we had only 3 Firemen in the crew department.

Our Wiper that summer was a very athletic young black fellow named Tony from Baltimore, who was in training for the football team. He liked all the parts where they asked him to move heavy stuff. His hours were so different from mine that we only occasionally overlapped in the galley or during breaks. But when we had shore leave in Baltimore Tony took me and the other kid working a deck shift around town, showed us how to 'power walk' in the bad neighborhoods, and how to hold our own on the streets.

The Wiper's job very simply was to keep the Engine Room clean. He went around all day long in a normal 8 hour shift, with rags, wiping oil from all the surfaces. Every so often he'd help the Engineer and Fireman, shut down and service some piece of equipment.

The Stewards were in charge of all food, cooking, serving, provisions, linen, laundry, and maintaining the officer's quarters.

1 Cook
2 Stewards,

There was a steward for the officers, another for the crew. The fellow waiting on the officers wore a white jacket with embroidered trim. The fellow working for the crew had a towel tucked in his waistband, and on hot days wore a skimpy tea-shirt. I think they were paid the same though I'm not sure. They waited table in the mess hall, served and cleaned up before and after the meals.

It was definitely an upstairs-downstairs situation. Officers ate at tables with white cloths. The steward that served them dressed in a smart white uniform with gold trim. The only time a crewman was allowed 'upstairs' was when he went to assist on the bridge, steer the vessel, or perform maintenance.

Our Officers dined in a separate mess hall, more like a small room, one floor above the crew dining area, and a level below the bridge. Officer quarters were spaced amidships, with the captain, mates, and radioman sleeping closest to the bridge. All the officers had portals in their rooms, but they were small.

There were 7 officers to the best of my recollection:

1 Captain, also called the 'Master'
3 Mates (1st, 2nd and 3rd)
1 Radioman, "Sparks', without him it was not legal for the ship to leave port.
1 Chief Engineer. Larger vessels would have had a 1st, 2nd and 3rd.
1 Pursar

The Bosun was chief of the deck department below. He and the Maintenance Man shared a small bunk-room room at the stern. Theirs had a window located above the stairway, that led down to the hole that slept the rest of the crew.

Even thought the 'Fairland' had undergone extensive renovations, the quartering of officers and crew would have been exactly the same during her WWII tour of duty. Cargo holds were enlarged, sideways, but all the bulkheads were original.

The Pursar was the accounts guy on board, dealing with everything from late cargo, payroll, purchases of equipment, and all orders for supplies.

Baltimore had a bit of freight traffic in those days, though it was much diminished. Almost all of it belonged to Sea-Land's and I think the S.S. Fairland represented most of it. That shows how badly the port had declined. The recent TV series "The Wire" paid homage to the decline of our nation's ports, in particular Baltimore. The truth was that containerization had already eliminated a great many of our nations seaports. The major cost of loading a container and delivering it to a final destination occurred at the port, not on the road. So if Elizabeth New Jersey could handle freight for the mid-Atlantic states, it did, and the truckers merely made up the difference.

Gas was not four dollars a gallon in those days. In 1970 the nationwide average for a gallon of gas was thirty-six cents. The first Arab oil embargo occurred that summer while I was working. By 1980 the price of gas shot up to $1.25.

Cheap fuel for road deliveries, combined with high freight handling costs in the mafia run docks, brought a slow death to ports like Philadelphia and Baltimore. Boston had somewhat of a life, New York (Port Elizabeth) was the biggest on the East Coast. But all the rest were dead. Already Montreal had taken business away from stateside ports.

Nevertheless we occasionally visited Philly, tying up to decaying piers of rotting timbers, waiting for solitary functioning crane to unload us.

Even in Elizabeth, which we called 'New York', Sea-Land invariably had much larger transatlantic container ships that got preference to the modernized gantries that could unload multiple containers at once.

During these ports of call we used to go on board the giant container ships that stood ahead of us in line to be unloaded.

These modern seaports were really huge dockside parking lots, with mountains of containers stacked everywhere like obstacles in a PacMan game. Giant gantry cranes straddled everything, and could reach out to a ship, down to it's bottom and snatch a forty foot metal box like a kids block.

There was little talk of 'cans', or shipping containers, disappearing. In that world of no computers, the ship's master, assumed responsibility for all cargo. Loads were tracked by men holding lists on clipboards. The 'S.S. Fairland' carried just 250 cans, and the Master of the 'Fairland' knew what was in each of them.

Today with masses of data that move in the blink of an eye, and computer driven international trade causing mountains of empty containers to pile up on American shores without any commerce to go the other way, we worry about what could be inside.

Homeland Security is afraid of every container.

Weapons of mass destruction, contraband, explosives. Women and illegal immigrants are sometimes trafficked by organized crime, to become prostitutes or indentured laborers. Sometimes the air-vents rigged to these human smuggling crates become smashed by another container leaving the hapless refugees to suffocate inside.

The guys on these giant vessels hardly saw land. In some overseas ports they never even left the ship. Some piers processed their loads in less then twelve hours, unloaded and re-loaded with Dutch precision and Germanic swiftness at the end of giant fog-bound piers, designed precisely to keep a large ship idle for the smallest amount of time.

But the crew quarters on board these giants made up for it. We met the Ordinary with my position, lowest of the deck crew hands' he had a room larger and cleaner than the captain of the 'Fairland', multiple windows, air-conditioned and an entertainment center all to himself.

Of the other hand it was like an on-board prison. Time was taken up walking the length of the ship to and from his watch, and meals, just three times a day.

Wherever the 'Fairland' went, she waited. I used my free hours to go ashore, visit museums, and sketch the industrial docks around the ports. I loved it when, returning to the gangplank, I learned we'd be in port another day or two, or three.

Once we tied up, our duties changed.

The watch schedule remained the same but the work became easier. As ordinary seaman, it was my job to sit at the gangplank, monitoring those that came aboard, or left.

Honkytown was the lowlife strip with all the usual diversions. I used to run around there with a kid my age from North Carolina. He was the Ordinary on the 8-12. He also liked to write, and we spent time trying to come up with sentences that said something best.

I mean if we were getting lightly rained on just as we were setting foor ashore Steve might say,"Say it. Say it.", and it'd be up to me to quickly, without hesitation respond with something like, "Puddles of rain form on the tarmac. Freedom." or some such nonsense approximating haiku. We thought our writing was good then, but it was horrendous.

I spent a little time talking to truckers. They were union, few were women. Cargo was tracked with sheets of paper on clipboards, and then signed off. Pre-computer days, No barcodes, no instant access to information.

Pay, for sailors and longshoremen, was in cash. The paymaster for Sea-Land was a fat guy with slick black hair and an oversize white shirt, who walked between two brawny guards, packing sidearms. They turned the mess hall into a pay station. You presented yourself, showed some ID and then he started counting out bills. On payday he carried a quarter million dollars in a briefcase. Pay was irregular, sometimes two or three weeks apart.

There was a giant able-bodied seaman on board the 'S.S. Fairland.'

One ex-Hell's Angel, big guy named Bill was as much an outsider to the sea-faring crew as I was. Reputation was Bill got into fights on board every ship. He'd gotten into the union through the pull of a friend, just as I had but perhaps because we were so different, Bill had it in for me from the moment he arrived.

Who were the other sailors on board?

Puerto Ricans, and other Caribbean natives made up most of the group, as well as a few New York and Boston-born seamen.

There were also a few Filipinos, and a few from West Africa. These men had been in the Navy and had gone into the Merchant Marine afterward. Many of the officers had graduated from Annapolis, others had risen up through ranks of the merchant fleet. The Third Mate, Steve Robling, became a good taught me celestial navigation with a sextant. It was his goal to rejoin the navy as a sub-mariner and pilot a submarine under the Arctic ice.

The American-born crewmen were a mixed lot, mostly silent old men, who kept to themselves, and drank heavily. One spoke a few words to me an evening while we plowed through becalmed seas. The water was as still as a mirror. A ghostly red fog hung overhead.

"Look at all this fucking water." he said.

Spanish was the second language on deck, Tagalog third. I got to know one of the Filipino sailors, a Maintenance Man, who had settled in New York. The 'Fairland' was U.S registered, and didn’t have many un-naturalized foreigners, like most of ships that plied international waters.

"Most of the crew on Greek and Panamanian ships are Filipino, Pakistani, or Korean,”, he said.

“Officers prefer Filipino crew, they are much cleaner, though a little more expensive. After a Korean crew the company pays a fortune in maintenance, the ship is such a mess."

I did my best to not participate in such talk. Then he told me I should go ashore in Manila someday and get a bollito.

“What’s a bollito?” I asked.

“Filipino sailors file little pellets of Teflon, and insert them under the foreskin of their penises. They're called ‘bolitos’."

Apparently they load themselves with antibiotics and do this with their own pocketknives. They used to use iron, but iron has the tendency to rust and get infected.

"One of the ships electricians - we called him Doctor Bollito - he did the operations on all the crew. Most of the men had at least two or three bollitos.”

I didn't believe this, so he unzipped his trousers and whipped his prick out and showed me.

He himself had three bollitos; the head of his dong bulged like a vegetable. He said the women loved it.

He changed the subject and started speaking about the ownership end of shipping.

"The hard thing is getting your first ship. After that its easy, but you have to run the company right." It sounded to me like he was recommending that I start a shipping company since I wasn't as interested in taking on bits of Teflon.

He told me the deck-side biography of Aristotle Onassis:

Ari Onassis, who married Jacqueline Kennedy, and gave her the "O" of 'Jackie O', had begun his fortune as an ordinary seaman.

"Ari made trips to and from Brazil. The Brazilians were mad for Turkish tobacco. Being from Greece it was easy for him to bring tobacco with him onto the ship. During shore leave he used to walk about Rio selling tobacco. He made enough to buy his first ship, just after World War 1 when prices were dirt cheap.

'Then Ari did a smart thing. Tankers were washed out with chemicals after each load. Ari realized that he could get away with skipping that step. So crude oil could be unloaded to a refinery, and some product of the refinery taken on, without a noticeable loss in quality. He saved himself millions."

"The Greeks made running ships into a science. Now most of the Greek ship-owners live on the Isle of Ios."

That Filipino able-bodied was a fount of useful information. When I think back on it I chuckle.

Here was a man who within minutes of meeting me showed me his bollitos, and then, over a number of months, told me fabulous stories of ports and sailors, and fortunes made, then lost.


This Fish . . .

At riptide in a town that was tawdry and dark,
   I met an old fish with a guitar made of bark.
I pulled him aside and asked gently,
   If he really was a pirate, from the bloody Red Sea.

“I raided the merchants with letters of marque,
    I robbed them by day, and killed them by dark.
 Once all the stealing and robbing was done,
    No living was made by the point of a gun."

 This fish wore scales, that shimmered like day,
 Without fail he had money, that he wished he could play.

In a sack by his side this fish held his gun,
And a little gold cricket who kept time to his fun.
The cricket got chirping the old fish's rhyme . . .
"This fish keeps on singing,
 . . . This fish keeps up time."

“Lie still and be quiet, wait till she stinks,
See the whites of their eyes, . .
  . . . Blast away 'till she sinks.”

“Aim at the mainmast, hack the crew into stew,
    Let rip with a cannonball – run the officers through.
 Not a fighter can survive . . take your good time,"
    Kill the last man alive, . . . grab every last dime."

This fish tore the Moon,
 . . . from the streets of the town.
He ripped out its belly,
 . . . He tore out its arm.

This fish yanked the planets,
 . . . out from under the night.
He pulled them so hard,
 . . . the Sun didn’t fight.

At riptide in a town that was tawdry and dark,
   I met an old fish with a guitar made of bark.
I bought him a drink and asked gently,
   About life as a pirate, on the bloody Red Sea.

"I raided the merchants with letters of marque,
    I robbed them by day, and killed them by dark.”

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