The summer before my first year at college, I shipped out of Port Elizabeth New Jersey on an old container ship, the "S.S. Fairland".
I took a bus to New York City. Ten dollars lined my wallet, along with seaman's papers, obtained at great difficulty, and a verbal promise from the Seafarer's International Union that they would make an effort to find me work. My godparents in Manhattan agreed to put me up. I saw them for a candlelit evening meal. My godfather played some Debussy on the piano, then after a quick breakfast in the morning, I took the R train out to Brooklyn.
The Seafarer's International Union was headquartered at 19th Street and 4th Avenue, in a dull neighborhood, mixed with light industry and small poorly built homes. The SIU had styled its offices to look vaguely like a ship, white stucco, with round portal-like windows cut into the exterior.
My first day at the hall I sat around and watched the men play cards. A union official occasionally appeared to write the name of a vessel that was due in port on a big chalkboard, and a list of jobs coming up. Midmorning the shop steward took a piece of chalk and wrote "S.S. Fairland, Wiper, Ordinary." I was informed the 'Fairland' would be in port tomorrow. Two men were needed.
I returned to my godparents. Both were excited about the prospect of my getting a ship.
The next morning, I signed in at the desk and took a place at one of the empty round backgammon tables where men sat to wait, Minutes later, an official from the union slid over to where I sat. He was short and stocky and very brown skinned. I sensed he came from another country, somewhere in Asia. He could have been Filipino, but spoke English like a gentleman.
"Don't make a big thing of it," he said. "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. Some of the regulars at the backgammon tables watched, and shot me a wink.
"Come on 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 had taken 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 fed 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, old and cramped!"
Another bridge. Sam pointed out a smudge of buildings. "That's Elizabeth. We're headed to the docks."
We zoomed into New Jersey, and veered through 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. A few ships were in. 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 down."
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 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. Often for the steward on the 4-12 watch, only duty was keeping coffee hot for the few crew who were awake and working. The Chief Steward in addition to serving the officers at table, planned meals, ordered the supplies and managed the linen for the crew. Both stewards assisted the cook and washed up after mealtime.
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 because we were a small ship that rarely got more than a few dozen miles from shore, TV reception of the the three major networks was usually quite good. The dull haze of old small tube seemed to be our only link to the world we left behind.
I stayed awake late in the mess-hall writing in my journal, with frequent trips to the gunwale 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. So a lot of the time an 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 because it all seemed without object. Beauty has no purpose? I stayed up as late as I could until I was nodding off. Then I crawled down to my bunk above the steering gear in the bowels of the ship.
A watch on ship lasts four hours. There are three watches, the first is the 12-4, which begins at midnight and ends at four in the morning. The sailor then has eight hours off to sleep or do whatever he wants until twelve noon, when he does the second part of his watch, until four in the afternoon. 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 the 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. The watch 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 S.S. Fairland marked a turning point in my life, and a turning point in global trade. She was the new face of modernity for an instant, but now, old and haggard, she had aged amidst the global revolution she herself had started.
A bit of her history is in order at this moment:
The 'Fairland' and her sisters were built by the thousands to ferry war-machinery to Europe during the second World War. These were vessels Nazi subs sank by the hundreds. They sailed in convoys, dozens at a time, protected perhaps by a single light destroyer. A U-boat that surfaced amidst her many sister ships was like a hawk set loose amongst pigeons. 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 the 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', ours was a quarter the size and held just 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. She was widened amidships, to make her more stable. 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 have located my pottery for the last ten years.
By the 1960's the at Bigelow dried up. Newer technologies put the company out of business. By the 1970's the old factory had fallen into total ruin. The building was acquired 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 over two thousand square feet on the first floor, with 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 boilers.
By 1972 the 'Fairland' was the most worn vehicle in a company that had grown 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 must have 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.
The whole ship stank of grease, and engine fumes. 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. She 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 the 'Fairland' had started a revolution, so possibly out of love, Malcolm kept her afloat for many years, but relegated us 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' was became less by the day.
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 Maintenance Man
Crew - Engine Department
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.
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.
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.
In the evening the sailors would go to Honkytown, a lowlife strip with all the usual diversions. I used to run around there with a kid from North Carolina. He also liked to write, and we spent a lot of time studying women and the Honkytown criminals and trying to come up with sentences that said it best.
I spent a little time talking to the truckers. They were union, a few were women. Cargo was tracked with sheets of paper on clipboards, and then signed off on. These were pre-computer days. No barcodes, no instant access to information.
Pay, for sailors, and longshoremen alike, was in cash. The paymaster for Sea-Land was a fat guy with slick black hair and an oversize white shirt, who used to show up with 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.' A Hell's Angel, 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. 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.
Once at sea, everyone took up a rhythm. Each man seemed to retreat to his own inner clock, that was set somewhere in the heavens. We each worked two watches a day. Each watch lasted four hours. Four hours on, eight hours off, then four hours on again.
Shortly after I joined I was assigned to the 12 to 4, considered the dog-watch. You had to be up and alert during the darkest and coldest hours of the night.
There were three of us, two able-bodied, and myself that comprised the 12 to 4. We slept together in a tiny windowless room of heavy rusting metal plates, located inches above sea level. a few feet away from the huge throbbing propeller.
We got to it by going down a narrow metal staircase into the bowels of the stern of the ship. The propeller whooshed like someone turning on and off a waterfall. The rudder was powered by hydraulics which the sailors called 'the steering gear'. That machinery ran right through the little common room adjoined the cabin with our bunks There were four such little crew rooms, one for each watch, as well as one for the engine room guys. Hydraulic pipes ran across the floors and over the tiny metal table bolted to the common room floor.
The common room had no windows, and a single light bulb. It was painted a deep sea green.
Most of my summer was spent on the bow, at night when the whole world was quiet and dark and the ocean was restless and black, except for perhaps the phosphorescent glow of frolicking porpoises.
During the day we'd see turtles flapping through the swells, and in the roughest weather flying fish would land on deck.
The lookout station on the bow caught the rough weather full bore. I was outside, in my slickers, particularly if it was raining or windy with heavy seas, but there were warm nights too.
I wore shorts and a T-shirt when the weather was calm, as when we approached Colon, the entrance to the Panama Canal.
My lookout watch was relieved every half hour by another sailor from the 12 to 4. I was an ordinary, which meant I did a half hour on the bow, then a half hour in the mess hall warming up. I did my writing then. The AB's did a half hour on the bridge steering the ship, then a half hour on the bow relieving the ordinary, then a half hour in the mess hall. The three of us switched jobs until our watch was over.
The mess hall clock seemed to tick out the fate of all men at sea, and seemed to know the movement of every wave. The second hand pitched and clicked from one instant to the next, like a little cork, bobbing on that infinite blackness.
Beyond twelve miles from the coast the ordinary seamen were encouraged to steer the ship. It was part of our training. So I steered quite a bit when were on our way to Puerto Rico.
Steering was difficult to get the hang of, especially in a quartering sea. The wheel was huge, very easy to turn, but keeping a heading was really tough. I didn't know how the able-bodied guys did it, especially going up a narrow river like the Delaware with heavy traffic going both ways.
I once witnessed a scene in the bridge. The captain, first mate, and a river pilot were all standing with binoculars, watching the progress of the ship up the Delaware River. There were small craft all over the place, buoys, and large ships, not to mention rotting piers as we approached our Philadelphia docking spot. My watch-mate Al was behind the wheel. Al was the able-bodied on my watch. He was an old man.
Some number of miles out a motorboat sped alongside our gunwale. As ordinary it was my job to race back from the bow and drop a ladder. A man in in a black slicker, and white shirt clambered aboard. This was the pilot, a mariner who specialized in navigating ships in and out of that particular harbor.
Harbor waters constantly change. One could never expect the master of a ship to memorize all the underwater debris, the shifting sandbars, and mud, nor know the currents which varied at every time of day.
You could have heard a pin drop. Piloting a ship in confined waters is high-risk business. At slow speeds decisions have to be made that the ship won't realize for another minute or two at least. When sailing at top speed, the wheel is responsive. . and there's plenty of open water. At slow speeds. . . the wheel feels like it does nothing.
The pilot, who knew the channels, barked out commands.
"Right rudder 15, head 320." Rudder commands are given in 'right' and 'left', not starboard or port.
Al swung the big wheel till the rudder shifted 15 degrees, then caught the compass heading dead on, and parked the needle there like a bug.
It felt like a priesthood. You could hear the tick of the chronometer. Captain, First Mate, Third Mate all, strained with their binoculars.
I watched all this from behind. Coast Guard regulations said I shouldn't have been there, but my third mate friend sneaked me in for a look. A ship collision is a career breaker. The pilot, mate, and captain never saw me. They were too intent on what was ahead.
After a month on the ship some of the crew left the ship and others came on. At that point I rotated to the 4-8 watch, which was considered the top watch. Up at three thirty. . . a cup of coffee in the mess hall, then I'd walk up the side of the deck passed a cliff face of heavy containers, to the bow. That was where I usually relieved Bill, the Hell's Angel, who'd taken my old spot, and berth, on the twelve to four.
I was always nervous he'd toss me overboard. This was during the time that Hell's Angels were going around murdering members of other gangs. Bill wasn't happy in his job as a seaman. Seafaring jobs didn't grow on trees, I felt he should have been grateful - unemployment was high.
On the day that Secretariat was to enter the Derby, tensions between us had become unbearable. The more I tried to be nice to him the worse he got.
When my watch was over I joined a large group in the mess hall watching the preliminaries for the Derby. We had a TV and although we were off-shore about ten miles, reception was good. Everyone was talking about how many lengths Secretariat would win by.
"Twenty seven lengths" I yelled.
"Twenty seven lengths,? That's impossible," said Ruan, the Bosun. "No horse wins by that amount!"
Truth was I didn't know what I was talking about.
I have a lucky streak at making predictions with numbers though, and when Secretariat lengthened his stride and won by twenty seven lengths over the rest of the field, I must have boasted a little. Bill got mad, and drew a knife on me right there in the mess hall. I must have been like that annoying character ‘Ziggy’ to him. Anyway I had no choice but to go at him with everything I had. I toppled him with a lucky pitch of the ship, and he dropped the knife.
The Third Mate got involved and made us call it quits. No discipline for Bill. Sailors are allowed to duke it out on their own. Bill and I made up after that. Sort of.
I never made it to West Baltimore or saw the drugs there. But I did see evidence of it in South Boston, which was the other port we ran to. We got warned about it before going ashore.
In Puerto Rico all the sailors wanted to take me drinking. They each had their favorite whorehouse they wanted to introduce me to. The Bosun's favorite place was called the “Black Angus”, one of the AB's recommended a joint called the “Dove”. There were at least four. They all argued with each other about which was best and which one to take me to first.
“I’ll go to them all,” I said. “But I’m only going to drink ginger ale and make drawings.”
They all had a hoot about this.
“Don’t go,” said Al.
“Don’t worry Al,” I said. “But I need to go. I need to understand the other guys on this ship. This is what they do, so I’ll go.”
Al looked at me very disapprovingly and set off down the gangplank.
As it turned out they were all very boring places. I was terrified. The women were giants and they threw their weight around. “No!” wasn’t a word they listened to. Luckily my good friend Steve Bowen, the third mate, accompanied me and just when I was getting heavy pressure to join a lady at the Black Angus, we left to go to a discotheque in another part of town. We bought our way out of the darkened bar by dropping five dollar bills as we ran for it.
Then on the good side of town suddenly we were college kids having a good time. Disco music, pretty girls, great drinks with pineapple and cherries and little umbrellas, a throbbing beat, until four AM.
We found a cabby, offered him an extra twenty and said step on it. Steve was nervous. Two seconds after we made it aboard the able-bodied started to hoist up the gangplank. Technically we were late, and should have been thrown off the ship. The first mate phoned down to make sure we’d made it and then gave orders to cast off. At that moment another taxi showed up. It was the fireman from the 8-12 watch. He was even later. The Bosun had already shoved his belongings into a duffel. They threw it down to him from the gangplank.
When a ship sails a ship sails - if you miss it, you’re out of a job.
After an hour at the bow Al, my able-bodied friend walked forward. He was still frowning. “Don’t worry Al,” I said. “They were boring places. Very sad.”
“I told you,” Al said.
“What did you do?”
“I saw my wife and baby.”
“Really Al? You never told me you had family. How are they?”
“Fine.” He said. “At least I think so.”
“Why? Didn’t you talk?”
“No. I just saw them. They were asleep”
“How did you see them?”
“I climbed the fire-escape, and watched them sleep through the window.” He turned to the black ocean.
I went back to the mess hall for some coffee. Al’s wife and kid won’t talk to him. He uses his shore leave to watch them sleep, from outside their window.
One summer morning we slipped through the Chesapeake and Delaware canal. It connects Baltimore port at the head of Chesapeake with Delaware Bay. From Philadelphia, it was the shortest route to Baltimore and cut right across Delaware farmland.
In a dense mist our tiny vessel for once seemed enormous. It barely fit the narrow channel. I stood lookout on the bow, an experienced pilot had command . . . they told me just to yell if I saw any small boats . . . I held a telephone used to call the bridge . . . It was early but the fog was rising so my job was easy. We passed a small sailboat in the fog, coming the other way, ladies on the green grass dressed in white, they slipped by us and behind. It was so quiet. I looked over the fog to farmhouses on the hills, I saw animals, and tractors and the trees near their houses. Laundry dried on the lines, and cows were mooing, roosters were crowing, and country folk were stirring around their little white farmhouses.
And our ship, which in the ocean seemed smaller than a cork, suddenly was like a giant skyscraper, hovering above the earth.
The Chesapeake fog was very dense and I had to pay attention. It got cold. Suddenly out of the white bobbed a sport fisherman trolling at low speed. He had fallen asleep but I called it in and 'OOOOOOOOO!", our horn blast woke him up. He bolted to his feet in terror, looked up at me, and turned his boat out of the way just in time.
In Baltimore and tied up, and everyone went ashore. Tony and I hit the diners for a late breakfast.
Later I'll tell you more about our time in the Hoboken dry docks, and our journey through the Panama canal. Some repairs were needed to make us ocean ready. The ship was headed to the far East. Those that didn't want to go could get off here, or in San Francisco.
I wanted to tell you what had happened to the perceptions of those sea-hardened sailors the first time we saw land after just one week at sea.
It had been a little rough, but nothing like the North Atlantic in winter. It was a quartering sea, headed at us from an angle . . big rolling swells. We sailed north for three days. the deck pitched in an incessant clockwise spiral that really worked on the gut. I was sick as a dog. This was the first time I ever felt seasick. The cook got me a rind of pork to chew and a slice of lemon to suck on. Al said in the old days they used to smoke a mixture of tobacco and marijuana. but today they just offered pork rind.
Anyway, I'm wandering. The sea calmed and we swung East. Suddenly we saw an isthmus of land, shortly after that the Golden Gate Bridge loomed through the vapors at the horizon. Smaller than a Matchbox toy.
Then we saw trees next to the bridge . . . and all of us gathered on the bow and said those are trees right? . . . and the mate said . . . those aren't trees those are fence posts . . . and we got closer and it turned out they were the skyscrapers of San Francisco.
“Look at the sand” we shouted. "It’s shining."
But it wasn’t sand. Each sparkle was the rooftop of a single house, in a housing development south of the city.
We had lost all sense of scale. All of us. Seasoned sailors too. The Golden Gate at one moment was tiny like a picture in a book, the next moment we sailed under it. It was high noon. We sailed across the bay to Sacramento, where we put anchor for two hours. On the way the sailors pointed out Alcatraz. One of them knew an inmate. Then we steamed into one of the Sacramento births and tied up.
A man came aboard with envelopes of money. Our pay. That's when I left the ship. I had to go to college. The ship had to go to Taiwan. The sailors said, "A thousand little men with hammers and chisels will come aboard and chip off every speck of paint and rust. And then they'll paint her again and you can eat off any part of her. And then they'll sail her for ten years. And then they'll melt her down and turn her into cars to sell to America."
In San Francisco I read books and paced the city, and got my tweed jacket mended by an old man who made the tear invisible.
My old English teacher lived on Lake Tahoe up in the mountains. He contacted me and invited me up for a holiday. So I went up there. We hiked the Sierra's, snuck up on cutthroat trout in the crystal clear streams, and jumped from boulder to boulder.
His lovely wife mended my trousers. Then I went to Yale. I was so innocent though. I didn’t know anything . . . still don’t.
A long time later I learned that the 'S.S. Fairland' had been sold to be broken up for scrap. All she did in the China seas was three years. Either her turbine, main bearings, or steering gear must have given out. I remember the long wait in Panama for parts, and the fretting of the Filipino engineer.
All that about her being sailed for another ten years was a bunch of ballyhoo. Perhaps the sailors who took her across the Pacific wouldn't have gone if they'd known she was dead before she left port. Sailors are suspicious that way.
I joined the "Fairland" as an eighteen-year old deck-hand. She was just thirty-one or two. If she were alive today, as I write these words, she'd be sixty-five. We parted in San Francisco in 1973 - she went to Taiwan where the army of men with scrapers gave her another five or ten years of life.
I was on my way to university. A future beckoned. What became of her? Was she torn apart for scrap on those tidal flats of Gujarat?
Norman, Al, our captain, all the sailors I worked with tried to keep her afloat. That summer they fixed her steering gear three times . She saw wars and commerce, yet lived long beyond her expected age. She carried us across dark seas and through the Panama Canal. I steered a tiny part of her destiny, as we steamed north past blue mountains and into San Francisco Bay.
Online, decades later, Google helped me locate a last scrap of the "Fairland", This photo of her steering station appeared in an Alabama on-line classified listing and subsequently on eBay.
Alabama? Could this be Malcolm McLean, sentimentally collecting the brass paraphernalia from his first ship-love? I never found out.
Had she been a person, or a creature of any kind, this bit of evidence would have been akin to a skull.
Her wheel was advertised as 'solid brass'. I tracked down the creator of the listing, wrote and expressed interest. A month later I received a reply: "The item you are referring to has been sold."