YOU'RE NOT PAID TO THINK!
The call came in at midnight. One of the 12-4 watch banged on my door and gave me the word: all hands on deck to let go in forty minutes. Within fifteen the crew had assembled in the lounge on A deck. The Bosun shuttled back and forth between the bridge and the main deck, straightening out the logistics and trying to encourage a crew that was already tired and restless. This was it-within a couple of hours, all twenty-seven of the current crew of the SS Rose City would be committed to an overseas voyage, and only the executive board of the company sitting in the bidding room in Seattle could really say for how long.
The 8-12 and 12-4 watches disappeared down the aft stairway to work the stern. The 4-8 watch (Billy, Jake, and me) and the Bosun shuffled down the main passageway and headed for the bow. The quarter-mile walk from the house to the bow took about five minutes. Along the way Billy and Jake briefed me on the job that lay ahead. More important, they told me how to write it up on the overtime sheet. "Every minute counts. Take 'em for all you can get. Snatch it up!" Jake would say, grabbing as if to lift J. Paul Getty’s wallet.
Waiting for us on the bow was the chief mate, a tall, overweight man who wielded his walkie-talkie for all the command it could garner him. He and the Bosun conferred in authoritative tones at one end of the foredeck while Billy, Jake, and I leaned against the port anchor block, waiting to begin hauling in the five-inch-thick sea lines that trailed down from the gypsy heads to the docks below. Billy began to complain. Jake reacted by breaking into one of his comic monologues and cracking Billy up. Then the word came in from the bridge over the Chief's radio, causing Billy to immediately affect an air of gravity. The Bosun mounted his short, fat frame before the winch controls and Jake took position nearby, working the lines on the winch roller. Such is the prerogative of old-timers. Billy and I grabbed the lead line and stood by. Below, on the dock, one of the longshoremen cast off the first line, and the Bosun threw on the winch. I followed Billy's motions, dragging the line across the deck and folding it into neat lines along the starboard rail. The sea-soaked and brine-encrusted line grew heavier and heavier as we got to the end that lay in the water by the pier. As the eye of the line was pulled up, Jake yelled at me to help Billy, who was dragging the last twenty feet across the deck by himself. "Always back a man up!” This was my first on-hand lesson in the empathy among seamen. I grabbed the tail end and helped Billy stow it with the rest of the line.
By the fourth line my arms were dead. The winch only pulled the lines onto the deck; we had to stow them away. But gradually a rhythm set in. Jake and the Bosun set the pace, Billy and I executed it. The Chief leaned against the bulkhead and watched. The Bosun was uncharacteristically quiet around the Chief, and the other two wordlessly obeyed his commands. On the other hand, the Chief was continually glancing up at the bridge, where he knew the Captain stood watching. How the body politic functioned for the rest of the crew was as yet unknown to me. I had but one concern: to shut up and watch what the others did and try to learn it all as quickly as possible. It wasn’t exactly the First Law of the Jungle, but the stakes were just as high.
The stern was the first part of the ship to be free of the dock, much to the chagrin of the 4-8 watch, which always had to work the bow. The stern not only has fewer lines than the bow, but it is also worked by both the 8-12 and the 12-4 watches. Just deserts, as it turned out: The 4-8watch gets three more hours of overtime than the other two.
The port spring line was the last to go. The Chief, clutching his radio, stared at the dockworkers below. They weren't going to sea. As we let go, they'd leave for home; that was the unspoken thought in everybody’s mind.
The Bosun had been primarily concerned throughout the night only with the job at hand: Get the crew working, and don't get into a beef with the Chief. Billy and Jake just did the work, trying not to think about leaving. This was going to be a long voyage. The Chief's radio crackled: Let go the port spring line. For the last time the dockhand pulled the eye off the gypsy head and let it drop into the water. The Chief signaled the Bosun to start up the winch, and immediately our ears were pierced with the maddening whine of the outdated machinery grinding against itself. By now, neither Billy nor Jake had to yell out instructions above the roar-I responded automatically. The Bosun stared through his thick-lensed glasses at some undefined point beyond the bow. The Chief fidgeted with his radio and, with one eye on the bridge, surveyed our progress with a critical glare. Jake continued working the line on the winch, keeping up a truly magnificent semblance of hard work. Billy and I dragged the line. After a good five minutes the eye of the line finally slopped through the cholk, and the Bosun shut off the winch. It was now 2:30 a.m. The purring tugboats that eased us away from the docks would do all the work from here on out. With overtime money stashed safely away in our thoughts, we walked back to the house to catch an hour's sleep before we had to go on watch at 4:00a.m. We had missed setting sail on Friday the thirteenth by two and a half hours. No one said anything on the walk back. Everyone was tired. Tired and committed.
By the time we were in the house and had climbed the two flights to B deck, where the crew cabins lay, the ship was sailing under her own power. The dark banks of the New Jersey shore slipped by with increasing rapidity. On deck one could hear the huge engine room, buried stories beneath the main deck, begin to hum. The entire ship started to vibrate with the awesome gyrations of the massive diesel engines that turned the two-story-high screw. While you sat in your cabin, lights off and a watch pending, the hugeness of the ship could swallow you whole.
It was simply a question of escape. Life at the university had become so unbearably entrenched that the only thing that mattered was getting as far away as possible. Something motivated me toward the Seafarers International Union to get my Z-card and a job out at sea.
Despite the sick feeling in my gut, that twinge every hitchhiker knows between the time he decides to hit the road and is actually liberated by a series of rides, I felt optimistic and recklessly carefree.
Oddly enough, it was my parents who had helped me join the Merchants. As both a politician and former longshoreman, my father had number of connections in the Seafarers International Union. Connections like that had helped a couple of my friends get jobs on freighters. This dream of a trip to any number of exotic lands, especially via so romantic and potentially lucrative a mode as the Merchant Marine, helped me to survive the last few manic days of the semester. It was in wonderfully ignorant bliss that I first became aware of the seaman's world.
At the union hall my contact, George, smiled when he arrived, shaking my hand and dropping a few pleasantries. He knew I didn’t belong in the SIU-any one of the cigarette-smoking idlers outside watching the call board could tell you that. But inside the organization, business is business. The union officials never talk outright; they speak with their whole bodies, letting out a few exclamations here and there to make their point. It’s a nonverbal dialect that allows for discreet understandings between parties and prevents unwanted ears from listening in.
In this way George straightened me out on the logistics that go with obtaining Seaman's Papers. The first order of business was going to the Coast Guard station at Battery Park and presenting them with his letter assuring me work on a ship.
The Coast Guard station was classic Art Deco, sightly and genteel, a contrast with the attitudes of those inside waiting to get their Seaman’s Papers. The half dozen or so drifters who sat in the waiting room sucking on their cigarettes were much like their counterparts in the union hall.
Many were ex-navy men, old vets who had yet to settle down following their discharge, or who couldn't adjust to civilian life. I sat among them and smoked the better part of a pack myself. Periodically a gaunt kid in his twenties would call one of us behind the counter for the paperwork. The afternoon passed slowly.
At last it was my turn. The kid gave me a stack of forms to fill in, and I gave him my Social Security card. Then a large black woman fingerprinted me and told me to raise my right hand and repeat after her. The next thing I knew I had been sworn into the Coast Guard as a Merchant Marine.
With papers in hand, sea bag packed, and a valid passport, I returned to the union hall. George was no longer involved in the process of shipping me out; Abe, the bureaucrat at the desk, had been left with instructions that I was to be "taken care of." He took me into the main office and sat me before a desk while he left to arrange my job. I looked around, amazed. There in the office was the most disparate collection of journeymen I'd seen on three continents. A Rastafarian hustling his way into a flyout job in Costa Rica. A lithe secretary scolding a 330-pound bosun for improper registration procedure. Labor officials laughing with swarthy gentlemen in dark suits.
Abe returned with my job ticket.
"Ordinary Seaman on the Rose City. Leaves from Camden, New Jersey, early tomorrow for forty-five days in the Mediterranean."
I inspected the job ticket and felt a thrill of butterflies run up my spine.
Abe gave me a hard look. "You're John Moynihan. So far as anybody's concerned, your father is a bartender on the West Side."
I smiled. "He was, you know."
"I know. Good luck." We shook hands and I walked out accompanied by the furtive side-glances of those in the room.
That night I made my way to the Texaco refinery at Eagle Point in Camden. I got there at one a.m. and walked out to the empty pier where the ship was supposed to be. Somehow I'd imagined she'd be there already, friendly crewmen ready to greet me with a warm bunk and a cup of coffee. Instead there was only the hiss of the massive refinery, and the cold. Around three a.m. a security guard found me huddled over a hot-air vent for warmth and told me I could crash in the office. The office was locked, but the hall floor was warmer than the wet ground outside.
The dawn came and went, leaving the refinery looking like a madman's Erector Set creation in the harsh New Jersey sun. I sat on a bench outside the office, smoking my last pack of cigarettes between catnaps. Eventually a few taxis deposited other seamen at the gate. They had nothing to say, either to me or to one another. They only wanted to get on the ship before they changed their minds.
Then an old '67 Plymouth station wagon pulled up with eight noisy celebrants inside. They spilled out onto the pavement, took one look around, and, seeing that the ship wasn't there, jumped back into the car to the battle cry "To a bar! To a bar!"
When the dust settled, the other stranded seamen and I went back to the business of killing time. Before long two vans pulled up, followed by a caravan of cars. I nervously gravitated to where they set up shop, and soon found myself drinking dollar beers with a couple of the boys.
The topic of conversation was why the ship was so late. This was soon learned, with the flash of police lights along the river. A huge Wagoneer roared across the grass and pulled up in front of the vans. One of the two passengers yelled to a buddy of his by the beer cooler that the cook had gotten into a knife fight with the steward and the cops weren't going to release the ship for another couple of hours.
People were generally surprised to hear about the delay, but not the fight. One fellow leaned over to me and said he'd been on a ship in South America. "Pirates climbed up the anchor chain and stabbed the man on watch thirty-seven times in the back." He chuckled. "The poor sucker didn’t die." I drained my beer and reached for another.
The ship did arrive that morning, though. She glided up the river, one huge, magnificent envelope of steel. Moving at a nearly imperceptible pace, the huge bulk cautioned into the dock. I could make out on the bow the distant figures of men scrambling madly, desperate to finish their final chore and get the hell off the ship they had been stuck on for the past four months. As I stood amid the vast wasteland of the Texaco refinery, the extent of the undertaking to which I was now committed was lost on me.
Up the long pier we walked. And with every step the ship grew in size. As we stood gathered next to her, waiting for the gangway to be lowered, the ship became disproportionately large, stretching the laws of physics to impossible limits. Then, looking around, I noticed a silent, angry fellow staring back at the shore. I thought he was just one of the boys, but something about him was different. Then he turned and began to question me in quiet, suspicious tones.
"What's your job? Where'd you get it? What time'd it go up on the board?"
I had no idea what he was talking about, or what the story was. I did know that somehow I was in trouble; the ordinary's job Abe got me in the New York City hall was meant for someone else.
I tried to bluff, acting nonchalant, as if I'd gotten the job by conventional means (even though at the time I hadn't a clue how a regular seaman got a job). He knew better. He was Billy Mahoney.
Excerpted from The Voyage of the Rose City by John Moynihan. Copyright © 2011 by John Moynihan. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.