22 December 77 San Francisco
They’re flying me to Guam! Where’s Guam?
Typhoid shot left arm.
Tomorrow Marine Transport Lines will put me on a 9 p.m. Pan Am flight to the Pacific where I will board a tanker that will hop around the Far East.
25 December 77 Port of Guam
The other two seamen and I have been treated okay. Upon arriving, a driver met us at the airport and took us to this hotel, private rooms, bath, radio playing Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, a view of sea cliffs, coconut trees, and a Shakey’s pizza parlor. American cars everywhere. The sun was strong at 8 a.m. A predominantly American atmosphere exists on this tiny island due north of Australia, due east of the Philippines, in the South Pacific sea.
Approximately one-fourth of flight 841′s passengers were Guam natives in U.S. military uniforms met at Arrivals by people with “Guam-US” license plates and “Fly Navy” bumper stickers.
26 December 77 Port of Guam
The ship’s agent, a guy named Sky Lee, called me and the other seamen at the hotel at six in the morning saying the ship got in last night, and the Captain isn’t paying us to hang around in a hotel and will pick us up in 45 minutes. I hadn’t finished writing a couple of letters, including one to Jill and Antonio and Mattia who still think I’m in Berkeley. I rush it off and pack. My duffel bag is packed tight with that coconut from yesterday—I climbed a tree and picked it.
First impression of the Chief Cook.
Fred, an ordinary, asked me soon as I climbed the gangway what department I was in. He then said, “Follow me,” and called ahead, “Chief, I got your man here!”
The Chief Cook looked up at me with his one eye.
“You’re in here every morning at 6:15,” he said. “You want to work, I got plenty of work for you, plenty of overtime. If you’re too drunk to work I send you up to the Captain. That’s all. That’s it. You come in the morning. I say, ‘Good morning, Clifford.’ That’s all. Maybe a few more words.”
He’d cooled out a little bit by the end of the day and started telling me about expensive blowjobs in Formosa.
He’s a big man, maybe six four, and heavy. His name is Al Massey. Gravy stains on the apron, and thickly cropped white hair. He’s got huge hands, and is a fast talker with a power voice. His words come out choppy, the way I imagine he sees things through his one eye; the other eye is closed shut. It is neither repulsive nor is it incongruous with Al as a character. Without being mean I’d have to say that the sealed eye socket somehow seems to fit him well.
He renders judgments chop-chop. His face has purple blotches, and his big knobby nose seems to crawl away from his face. He sharpens his pencil with a fishing knife, and eats a lot of olives when he’s working. And talks a lot.
“I don’t let nobody in my family know about my finances. My brother-in-law once got a job in the bank I had my account, and I immediately switched my account to another bank in Portland (Texas). I don’t let nobody know how much I’m makin’. My daughter don’t know. My son-in-law don’t know. My brother don’t even know. My wife knows, you know. There was a time when I beat my daughter’s behind—the only time I ever did that—when she sneaked into my bedroom and read my will. I whooped her. She couldn’t sit down. I told her, ‘That damn thing is to be read by a lawyer only.’ It’s my business what I got and where it’s going.”
He’s just as obstinate when offering favors as denying them. If you allow him to log your work hours including overtime, you’ll make $5,000 a month more than if you did it yourself.
We’re in a storm right now at the edge of a typhoon. The ship is tossing, and loose chains are clanging on deck. When the bad weather reports were picked up, the Captain immediately alerted all hands to prepare for undocking and set the ship seaward. The Chief Cook was running around the galley like an oversized chicken screaming, “Secure everything that can be secured down!” I asked him why go out to sea if there’s a storm, aren’t we safer being tied up in port? He answered that if the ship busted loose from its rigging we’d crash into another docked ship whereas out at sea we have more room to maneuver “out of the storm or else with it.”
30 December 77 Guam
Letter to Mom and Barney:
I spoke to one Guamanian dockworker regarding the American dominance of the island. He was glad to have the money rolling in yet wistful that the ‘Robinson Crusoe days of the island ended thirty years ago.’
The old pirate traditions aren’t over yet by a long shot. Most of the crew has tattoos and gray whiskers. My boss, Al Massey, I call him either “Chief” or “Steward,” and he calls me, “Son,” has tattoos of “Darling” on his right arm and an anchor on his left arm, one eye, a fist eight inches wide, close to three hundred pounds, a gravel voice. He tells stories of how when guys talk back to him, he knocks them out with one punch, sometimes gladly fracturing his hand in the process. I don’t mess with him. He’s pretty friendly with everyone in the steward’s department. We’re his chillun (children) and he’s pleased to “finally have a Jewish boy aboard. I’m gonna hav’ta whoop up some bagels and lox!”
31 December 77 at Sea
“Ain’t no booze aboard this tanker except the eighteen cases hauled in yesterday for the Captain,” Fred the ordinary said.
7 January 78 at sea
Since Paul, the gray-bearded ex-navy man, galleyman, strained his back lugging a crate of onions, I’ve been working two jobs. The work is not too difficult, it simply means I have no time to kill, and I must run up and down the ship making beds on the fourth deck and cleaning dishes in the galley.
Randy Iona, the portly pumpman from Hawaii, said, “Look at the bright side. You’ll be making double money.”
I’ve been getting into such a flow that laboring ten or twelve hours a day is sometimes easy.
The Chief Cook comes from a rural Georgia background where he followed his older brothers through military high school training. He says the South is the best place in the world, but “It don’t matter if you are a Jew, Wop or Mexican. If you are born in this country you are AMERICAN.”
In the 1930s he joined the C.C.C., Civilian Conservation Corps, and learned to drive a tractor, bulldozer, and fourteen-wheel trucks paving highways, sidewalks, and building national parks in Arizona.
“There was no easy welfare system like there is today,” Al said, “people had to work for their money.”
When WWII hit, he joined the merchant marines. He’d been a high school history teacher and football coach until then. He thought of going back to the field of education when the field of battle ended, but he hung on one more year, and one more year…. He had risen to the position of cook, accidentally. The money was good so he kept staying on. That was 30 years ago.
10 January 78 at sea
The days are passing quickly. I’ve been absorbed in my work making the officers’ beds, cleaning pots and pans, and book reading, the Divine Comedy and Camus’ The Stranger. Almost two weeks here, and it hardly seems like more than three or four days. I’ve adjusted to the work schedule—I have no choice. In Berkeley I’d quit a job after I had two or three months worth of money. When I am free I stroll on deck awed, truly, by the immensity of endless sea meeting endless sky. One domain seems to penetrate forever downward, the other forever upwards.
We’ve got orders to go to Honolulu after Kaohsiung, but as the Captain says, “When you get on one of these gray ships you never know where you are going to go next.”
The bosun describes how our schedule is determined by closing his eyes and imitating a dart thrower.
The bosun is a brawny guy with thick skin. Tall, muscular, tree stump legs, shaved skull, the biggest ears you’ve ever seen, radiant blue eyes. He has a deep voice and a smile he assigns to certain people. He is polite to everybody but particularly courteous to those who are on duty, he respects the work ethic. His life revolves around hard work. His name is George Niderost.
“Without mazel, you’ll never attain nirvana,” he said. His mother was Jewish, his father Swedish. At a young age he went to sea. In the Far East he met an Oriental Buddhist woman and took up her religion.
I sat down beside him in the mess hall. “How long did it take you to learn to speak Japanese so well?” I opened the conversation.
“Not too long,” he said. “I learned Japanese at Hayward High.”
Hayward is a middle class sprawl south of Berkeley, near Oakland. He joined the merchant marines and spent many years in it before he moved to Japan for 12 years. His wife was Asian, or Croatian, George said, it was almost impossible to delineate exactly. They gave their son an Asian first name. George pronounced it musically. “He will be 9 years old this month.” When his cabin door is open I see him sitting meditation in the lotus position in the dark hours of the morning.
“You can meditate in lots of different ways,” he said. “You can meditate during the day with whatever you’re doing. When I’m doing a certain job, I can get locked into it.” He talked admiringly about Asian culture. “They’ve been civilized a lot longer than we have.”
Bosun described the ship as a “tramp” ship. He said, “We go anywhere in the world at anytime shipping oil for the Navy to ports that don’t always welcome us. You get into port, start to throw your lines, and they tell you, ‘Go away. We never sent for you.’ And you got to turn right back around and head to where you came from.”
For the past two days there are gaseous fumes throughout the ship. The deck and engine departments are “butterworthing” the oil tanks. The empty tanks are being cleaned by having the gas sucked out by huge pumps. Randy the pumpman is running around sweating and wishing the Sealift Pacific had push button mechanics. The notice boards in both the officers’ and crew’s mess halls warn “DON’T SMOKE ON DECK!” It’s very dangerous to smoke on deck at this time, Al King repeated, puffing on a More cigarette in the mess hall. He says that if someone should light a match out there now, the spark would follow the path down into the tanks, set off a firecracker chain reaction, and we’d all be blown to Kingdom Come.
I try not to think about such a thing.
Paul, who smokes all over the damn boat and whom I hope is asleep for the next three days, says that it don’t matter what you do, you’ll go when He decides.
11 January 78 Kaohsiung, Taiwan
I got picked up by a girl in one of the local bars near the port, and we spent some of the night together in a hotel.
Later, I was meandering through a plaza crowded with colorful fruit stands and sharp voices that were inseparable. Small children began gathering around me. We walked together and soon they began to lead me to a hall where incense was burning a purple ribbon of smoke before a shrine. Music could be heard at a distance. I followed the sound of symbols down a narrow corridor where the floor was in the process of being uplifted. Beneath the emptiness of a high ceiling, aged women tribed around a drum. The drum beat was deep like a maroon sob. An expressionless woman beat a gong. When they saw me the worshipers smiled and said Come in in Chinese, and they handed me a hollow wooden object and rubber stick with which to keep time. A little boy looked on from outside with one shy hand in the doorway. I offered him half my seat, he accepted with a smile after shaking his head once. After a while I forgot I was alone, the surge of voices together kept rising like wind up a tall tree. When the drumstick bop…bop…stopped, the voices stood still and I woke up like when you’re asleep riding all night in a car and then the car stops. They played more songs. Eventually, I stood up, bowed holding my hands in a pyramid close to my heart, stepped backwards out of the room.
I found myself at the foot of a shrine, and again children gathered around my legs. We went into the plaza. I sensed that I was late. I hailed a cab who didn’t honk, I went whoosh-whoosh a fleeing motion with my hands telling the driver to hurry. The number of fruit stands diminished until we were in a dusty industrial area with sharp turns and cobblestone roads studded with railroad tracks. I showed the guard at the gate my papers, and I arrived at the pier and saw a young boy making a whooshing motion with his hands to indicate my launch had just left. I kicked the bow of a small fishing boat in frustration which gave me the idea of sleeping in it. I bedded down for the night wrapped up in a net stuffed with newspapers used during the day to wrap fish. The waves rose and ebbed. I thought of the women humming to the maroon drum. I fell asleep, and soon I dreamed of my first lover, of carrying her in the rain. It felt so good, so close, so much in one place, all her weight on me.
I reached the ship the next morning.
The Chief Cook stuck his fisted face through the doorway as I was vacuuming the Captain’s quarter.
“Where were you this morning?” He demanded.
“Here,” I said, playing dumb, or trying to.
“You wasn’t here at 6:15, the time you have to be at work according to the contract. I saw you come in on the 7:30 launch.”
I told him I’d arrived at the pier last night in a taxi five minutes after the launch left, but he didn’t care for excuses. He knew I’d been with a girl on the town for two nights, and one night should’ve been enough for the lowest man on the ladder, in his book.
I tried to be cool, hoping that would calm him. But it was no use.
“This afternoon I take you up to the Captain, and he’ll put you in the log book,” the Chief said.
I stared at him silently while he was expecting me to protest. My reticence seemed to unnerve him, and he repeated the threat, louder.
“He’ll put you in the LOG BOOK with a warning, and next time you’ll get logged,” meaning kicked off the ship.
11 Jan 78 2200 hours
Chief Cook: “I’ve got an 8” scar right here from a pipe my old man laid across my forehead when I thought I could whoop his ass. My father said when I was on the ground, ‘If you get up, I’m going to lay you down again.’ And I said, ‘I can’t get up.’ He said, ‘Okay, then. I’ll take you to the doctor.’ The family doctor asked me how I got it and I was too embarrassed to say I took on my old man and lost, so I told him I fell in the doorway, and he said, ‘That must’ve been the goddamn hardest doorway you ever passed through!’ He knew I’d taken a whoopin’. After he fixed it up, he said, ‘You can stay here the night or hit the road,’ so I let my father take me home.
“My son’s the toughest son-of-a-bitch you ever saw. I don’t give a good goddman how anybody wears their hair as long as they keep it clean. He costs me a fortune in gas and water bills washing his hair three, sometimes four time a day.
“I was telling my son a story about a son who took some drug, went berserk and chased after his parents with a meat cleaver. The father had to kill his son to restrain him. I read it in the Reader’s Digest. The man, before he buried his son, cut off all the boy’s hair and put a neck tie on him and a suit. My son said, ‘Dad. If I go, if I get killed or overdose or whatever promise me one thing?’ I said, ‘What is it, son?’ He said, ‘Dad, promise me you won’t cut my hair.’ I said, ‘If you want to get packed way with your hair down to here, ass naked, in a hole straight up—that’s how I’ll slide you down.’”
11 January at sea
Sparky is the nickname for the radio officer. His real name is William Seaman.
He asked me, “How old are you? 23. It’s a good life for two or three years, see the world, make some money. If you stay out here long enough you’ll wind up looking like the guys who have been out here many years—don’t think it won’t happen to you. It will. You live an abnormal life. Little things happen on a ship, daily, that don’t happen on shore. When you go home, things have been going on there when you were away, and you don’t fit in anymore. Your friends don’t believe the things you’ve done, even when what you’re telling them is completely true. You’re making a lot of money. They become jealous. They condemn you for what you’re doing yet they wish they were doing it. They get off hearing about your travels, then ask you why are you so lonely. Life on a ship is different, and when you get off you can’t work on land anymore.
“I’ve quit the sea several times. I worked as a truck driver, radio announcer, radio instructor, driving instructor, pilot. I’d like being a pilot again except there’s no money in it. This ship had it made. For years we only went coast-wise. Every ten days we were home for four days. Then somebody messed up. On a ship you can mess up just so much, then you got to get off. Lots of guys are always messing up, but this is their life, so they just change ships. All the crews of all the ships all over the world keep rotating. It gets lonely. I smoke too many cigarettes.
“People on board are free from the social order on land, from marriages, traffic signs, and general confinement. Out here they have union stipulations. They do their jobs according to the contract, and focus on minute details of official agreements because it’s one of the few social orders available in the limited confines of a ship.
“I’ve known guys who have gone to the merchant seamen school, shipped for three or five years and quit with enough money to set themselves up in something else on land. But after five years it’s a trap. You can’t get off and you can’t go back.
“I first sailed for adventure, romance and travel. Romance, adventure and travel.
“Everybody has his way of getting by on the job. The guy who had your job drank one bottle of whiskey a day.”
13 January 78 Friday at sea
Chief Cook prides himself on getting to work early. Yesterday he arrived exactly on time and was apologetic.
“Sorry, boys, I done slep’ in,” he said.
He lives by the book. What book it is, I’m not exactly sure.
He feels he can rectify any confusion by reverting to a law. He does what is right, always, and is his own man thereafter. He had a beef a while back with a captain. The captain said he would fire Al. Al said, “Fine with me, Captain. You’ll have to explain it to the labor relations board why you fired me, and before I leave I want the reason in writing. Here’s a pad and pencil. And just one thing, Captain. You are the Master of this ship, I’ll not refuse any order you give me. But nowhere does it say not in any union book or company contract that I have to like you. And I hate your fuckin’ guts.”
15 Jan 78 at sea
The Chief: “I don’t want to be 80. Hell, I should be gone within eight years. Another year or two out here for me and then it’s going to be fouled anchor.”
“Filed what?” Henry, the engine room mechanic.
“Fouled anchor,” the Chief repeated.
“Felled anchor?” Henry asked.
“FOULED, FOULED. When your anchor’s all twisted up. When your anchor’s fouled, you’re on the beach. You ain’t goin’ nowhere. I’ll have the wife close down her 7-11 outlet and travel around in our trailer home. I’ve got a picture of what it look like under the glass on my desk. A 30-footer. I’ll come back to Portland and tend my bar. Bartending’s a good line, at least it used to be.
“I was a bouncer for a long time in Portland, and I had some pretty mean characters come through. One feller came in twenty minutes before closing time. I said, ‘Sorry, friend, we’re closing up at midnight, town law.’ He said he didn’t make the laws, and he wasn’t going to live by them. ‘Where’s the bouncer?’ he asked. I said, ‘You’re looking at him.’ He said, ‘I want to beat the sense out of you.’ His eyes were protruding, stone solid. I said, ‘Wait a second, pal. We’re closing up soon but sit down anyway and have a quick drink.’ ‘I don’t want no drink,’ he said, ‘I want the bouncer.’ The son of a bitch is running around wanting only to kick some bouncer’s ass, and out of all the bars in Portland he chanced in on us. I was edging my way out from behind the bar so’s I’d have some room to maneuver, you see. Behind me was glass. I went whack up side his head. He didn’t even flinch. He grabbed me by the collar and threw me around before I knew it. If I’d get him in a half-Nelson, he’d break it. If I’d get him in a full-Nelson, he’d break it. I could hardly fit my arms around him. Finally, I grabbed a bottle of gin off one of the tables and cracked it over his head. That quieted him down. We dragged him onto the sidewalk and closed up shop. I was madder than a bull. He’d tore the collar clean off my brand new double-knit, two-button custom made Sears Roebuck suit.”
The Chief, while cooking soup, sings, “I’d do it all over again.”
The Chief was sitting in the mess hall, and something reminded him of the German Bohemian communities in Texas—Lockhardt, Weimar, Logan—who own the richest soil, “black as them there coffee grounds. They pass the land on from father to son, this girl’s parents match her up with those peoples’ son, each family throws in 40 acres, they build the children a house, and there they live the rest of their lives, German town. People scrub the streets every morning with hot water.”
“If you’re going to be a big fucker—be a fucker to the end!” —Chief Cook.
“You’re keeping a log? Put this in your log. ‘Wednesday, January 18, 1978. The Chief chewed my ass out for making messy beds.’”
19 January 78 at sea
I saw my first gooney bird today. It was close behind us. The ship churns up water bringing fish to the surface. Gooney birds can fly across the whole ocean, they don’t need to land, in fact, they are awful at landing on stationary objects—that’s why they call them “gooney.” They always make a crash landing. They make a smoother touch upon water. We’re in for a treat. These albatross fly to Midway, where we are heading now, to lay their eggs.
21 January at sea
It’s insane how much food gets wasted every day on a ship. The amount of food the Chief Cook is obligated to prepare is always way beyond the amount of food consumed. Two-thirds of most items on the menu are not eaten, the food remains on the stove top till it’s “let go.” It eventually gets spooned down the hole of a rubber-lipped garbage disposal. The Chief knows before he starts that he’ll be cooking too much. Each dish cooked and served must be enough to feed 27 people. It’s in the union contract. To eat all the food it would take 27 people to each order a meal that included roast beef, veal cutlet, red snapper, broiled steak, mashed potatoes, beans, rice, string beans, beets, candied yams and gravy.
22 January Midway
Midway is the first piece of land we’ve seen in ten days. White beaches. No surf. It’s placid as a lake, turquoise colored. The lava albatross have a sanctuary here.
“You may go your whole life at sea and never see an island like this,” Sparky says.
I walked close to the gooneys, and they didn’t run. Nobody bothers them here. There were a lot of them mating on a golf course, nesting in the sand traps, on the fairways. Their bodies appeared yielding, fleshy breasts, soft curves, feathers, the plumpness of a duck, everything was soft but their eyes were hard. They were outlined by what looked like black mascara, intense eyes I got close trying to photograph with the Yashica camera I bought while we were docked in a bay outside of Sasebo, Japan.
The gooneys were all over the place, couples squaring off, speaking beak to beak, clacking their beaks together, tilting their heads and sliding their opened beaks as far in towards the other’s tongue as possible. Withdrawing and nipping at the beak tips, bobbing, howling, squealing, and singing a shrill music, webbed toes well planted, raising their voices to the sky. Hundreds of birds did this all around. They’d join up and break apart rather easily. Sometimes two birds got into it pretty deeply and then other birds sensed that and left the lovers to their own embraces. One tired bird squatted while the other energetic one nudged him/her to get up, and it did, and they embraced.
That night after dinner on the ship, I strolled around the island again. A breeze was blowing. The evening sky was soft blue. I was sitting under a tree writing my brother Barney a letter when the old 2nd Engineer, a Jewish guy from Alaska, came over to talk. We walked on grassy knolls, the albatross lulled around. Over the soft curve of the land, a full moon rose. We walked down a fairway. I lit up a joint, and for the first time in his life the engineer took a hit but he said he couldn’t tell if he were getting off on it or not. The stuff was potent, laid on me six weeks ago, while hitch-hiking a few miles from Berkeley.
24 January at sea
I’ve been coming to an understanding of myself since being on this ship. There’s a calm within my sexuality unlike the spinning issue it rose to in Berkeley.
I choose to explore areas of society that are generally condemned and repressed.
In nine days we’ll be in San Francisco.
25 January Hawaii
The Chief went on a rampage this evening.
“Where the Hell’s my crew?” He cried. Who knew where Paul was? Later Hector told me he was on the ledge outside. He had the China Sickness, meaning he was homesick.
“This is no vacation! You’re here to work,” the Chief said.
I went inside and was ordered to carry glasses from the dishwasher to the rack in the mess hall, Paul’s job. The Chief hadn’t chewed me out in five days, and maybe he feared his authority was slipping. A large part of his anger was due to having to serve two lunches today, a late dinner and a midnight special for the guys working overtime on the tanks.
“If these messmen don’t snap to there’s going to be some replacements between here and Frisco!” He bellowed.
I remain silent when he blows his stack. The less I say, the sooner he cools off. Paul usually chides him, they have exchanges. They are both from Texas and need to lock horns.
How can we be replaced between Honolulu and San Francisco when there isn’t land for anyone to stand on?
The Chief Cook never liked to drink water from a glass.
Some years ago, every few hours the Chief needed to take a pill for his heart. He was in the galley working, felt his heart thumping extra heavily and would reach for the water he drank from a can. Then he’d put the can of water back on the shelf until he needed it a few hours later. In that time, along came another worker in the galley who was cleaning ovens with a poisonous liquid kept in a can identical to the Chief Cook’s, and he placed this second can on the shelf alongside the first. When the time came, the Chief reached for the wrong can. With the second gulp his throat immediately puffed up to the point where he could hardly breath. He poured cold water into his mouth and rushed to a doctor. His lips quickly blistered and peeled. After a few months of drinking soup through a straw, the Chief Cook was back to eating normally.
And drinking water from a can.
30 January at sea
I felt two enormous hands slap me on the back. They could only belong to the bosun.
“Shalom! Shalom!” He said.
We took seats at the same empty table in the mess hall. I could tell immediately George had something to drink. It made his face red, particularly his eyes. He spoke with the same clarity as when he was sober, but the alcohol increased the strength and intensity of his words, and he kept looking straight into my eyes.
“There’s something about you that I liked when I first saw you. You have peace. There’s something about you. You have good parents. But they don’t understand you. Go see them. See your father. I wouldn’t have survived if it weren’t for my father. He is always with you wherever you go.
“You’re going to be smart someday. I can tell by your eyebrows. They’re the same as mine. You’ll live to be an old man. And be smart; you’re not smart now. You have depth, you see things deeply. You and I have that in common. You see the whole truth of things. Without young people like you, I wouldn’t have any hope. Life is with you, carry on! Without young people, the rest of us are lost. Lost!”
“Aren’t we all lost?” I asked. “Aren’t we all going to die?”
“The body dies.” The bosun pinched his chest. “It must die. It’s nature’s way of recycling people. What’s inside of you will never die.”
He gripped my hand, and I felt his strength go all the way up my arm. As we shook, he pounded our hands against the table.
“You’re a good man,” he said, lowering his head, aiming his third eye at me.
He stood up, slammed the wall in a flurry of karate chops, smiled broadly, bowed religiously, and exited.
About the author:
Cliff Fyman lives in the East Village and attends weekly readings at The Poetry Project. More of his writing can be read at Napalm Health Spa.