Monday, November 10, 2003

My Vietnam Experience

(June 1966 through May 1967)

“See where the river branches, there on the left?” The pilot said. “Well, when you get to that point, go ahead and turn. Make sure to stay in the middle of the river.” I was using the big, manual, wooden wheel to hand steer the SS Oceanic Cloud, a 440’ freighter, up the Mekong River from Vung Tau to Saigon. “Aye, Aye, Sir.” I said. It was November 1966 and I was 19 years old, one month from home and days away from my 20th birthday. Turning the 6’ in diameter multi-spoke wheel counter clockwise I made the left hand turn and before me, in the afternoon sunlight, lay what was known as the Pearl of the Orient. The sight was breathtaking. Ahead in the distance, still far away, were rows of white washed two and three level buildings set against deep green mountains topped by a cloudless blue sky. The scene before me was like something out of a travelogue. The capitol city of South Vietnam shone in the sun, gleaming in its brightness. It looked so clean, so pure, and so innocent. I watched the city grow in size as we drew closer. My heart beat more rapidly, my pulse increased, my eyes widened in awe. It was so very beautiful and, at the same time, so mysterious - the Orient! “How could a war go on in such a gorgeous place as this?” I wondered.

On another occasion up the river months later, I would listen to the bullets from the Viet Cong’s small arms fire bounce off our super structure. We would have to keep the dead light covers over the closed portholes, even though the temperature was close to 100 and the humidity not much less so as to not get shot by the snipers. Another time we were suddenly changed from being first in line to third to leave Vung Tau and go up the Mekong in an effort to fool the enemy. The first ship up the river that day, instead of us, was a Texaco Oil tanker. It caught a mortar directly down its smokestack and was blown right out of the water. When we went past it lay there against the river’s bank, a blackened, twisted mass of junk metal. I never found out what happened to its crew. No one ever talked about it.

As we moved on all engines slow ahead, I was able to take in this most wonderful sight. The river, on either side as we neared the port, began to fill with sampans. Many were docked four and five deep, lashed to each other. Children jumped over their sides to swim, women washed clothes off their sterns and men fished from their bows. Sampans also went by us in both directions. Their sloping bows and raised aft ends moved to the rhyme of the oarsmen as they paddled along. Those going with the current, as we were, merely guided their craft. Those going against had their backs bent to the task of moving the long stern paddle back and forth, making eddying pools where the long oar disappeared in the water. Both the men and women wore loose fitting clothes and conical shaped hats. They had flip-flops on their feet.

After docking and tying up, we were told to remain on our 4 hour on and 8 hour off sea watches instead of going on day watch, or 8 hour on 16 hour off shifts. I guess we weren’t expected to stay tied up too long, rather, just long enough to off load. Going ashore for a few hours, I was able to leave the dock area and walk around in Saigon. There were people zipping around on small mopeds, people in rickshaws being pulled by very thin men, people riding bicycles, walking. Everyone, it seemed, smoked cigarettes and had blackened teeth. I later learned that their blackened teeth were from the custom of eating betel nut. One thing that stood out, though, which was very annoying for me, was the sickeningly sweet smiles given by the Vietnamese men. Their smiles were almost as if they were gay perverts but, at the same time, leering at me. As I walked around, I saw tables set up in the streets with vendors selling everything imaginable. Clothes, food, trinkets, drinks, food, American products, all were for sale. One vendor had a table of knives for sale. American military knives, Swiss army knives, cheap switch blades from China, double-edged knives, all for sale right out there in the open. I couldn’t believe it. The American military knives were still in their original packaging. I figured that they must have been stolen right from the Army and sold on the street. In the twilight of the evening, back on the ship, I would look up into the mountains behind Saigon and watch the red tracers the F-14’s fired as they strafed the surrounding hills.

When we left Saigon, after off-loading the Company’s gear, we were headed back home. Our papers called for us to make this trip and then head back to the west coast. California here I come, I thought. We made our way back down the Mekong and out into the South China Sea, heading east going back to the west. During the night, however, instead of heading into the sunrise, we turned north, toward Japan. We found out we weren’t going home, we were going to become a shuttle operation. It was finding this out that, along with other events, set the stage for our almost having a mutiny at sea.

For the next six months we traveled in a clockwise circle around the China Seas. We made the circuit, going from Vietnam with battered tanks, jeeps and trucks that we took to Korea, Okinawa and/or Japan and traded them for fixed up ones. We then went over to Taiwan where we took on cement. We would lay over in the Philippines until a berth was available for wherever it was in Vietnam that we were going and then we would make a beeline for the harbors of Vung Tau, Saigon, Qui Nhon, Cam Ranh Bay, or Da Nang. It was an interesting way to see the war I had been trying to avoid getting to.

When I turned 18 it was 1965 and Vietnam was just starting to gear up. Even though I was in college I was summoned for the draft, along with my best friend, Richard Kirtley, and a bunch of other kids I knew. We showed up at the draft office in Highlandtown and, in a group, were taken by bus down to Fort Holabird to take our physical. We filed in to a barracks and were told to strip down to our underwear. Richard was very embarrassed because his drawers were as holy as Swiss cheese. A couple others weren’t wearing any underwear and so they were allowed to wear their pants. We all moved around in a line through several rooms taking a variety of tests. In one room we all had to drop our drawers and bend over, spreading our cheeks. In another room we took aptitude tests and in another we spoke to a shrink. Toward the end of the day a few guys got feisty with the military people and started speaking out. They were immediately taken right out of line and, as we were told, immediately inducted. At the very end we signed a bunch of papers, swore allegiance to the US of A, dressed, and got back on the bus to go back to the draft office. I was declared to be 1Y because I had flat feet. The Army physician said that because I’d need arches in every pair of shoes they’d ever issue me, it wasn’t worth the expense to take me in the draft. However, they said, it did not exempt me in the event of a call up and I was definitely not 4F. I figured because I was in college I wouldn’t be taken anyway. I felt ambivalent about going in the military. I was not pro-war but I was not yet anti-war, either. I was 18 and didn’t think too much about it one way or the other. I was busier thinking about how I could get laid.

Time went on and I forgot about the draft, the physical and spreading my cheeks so they could see if I had hemorrhoids. I got caught up in smoking pot, chasing women and playing lacrosse, all of which were infinitely more fun than studying. I had initially gone to college on a lacrosse scholarship. The University of Baltimore gave me a full ride and all I had to do was play ball. Being immature and having a wild hair, though, I wanted to be with my friends who were all at BJC. So, I turned my back on UB after one semester and headed over to the community college. I lasted 3 semesters there and, though I was playing some good lacrosse (except one time when playing while high I intercepted a pass and ran the wrong way; and also when my only lacrosse stick, made of wood, broke during a game), with a GPA of 0.8, I was academically dismissed. It was early in the summer of 1966 that I decided to go to New York City and find a job that I could do anywhere and then travel around the world doing it. My sister, Fran, laughed at me and said I didn’t stand a chance.

Packing my bags and saying goodbye to everyone, I left for NYC to stay with Linda, a woman I’d met while we were going through VISTA training in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan the year before. She’d washed out just like me for being too immature. Instead of returning to the mid-west, though, where she was from, she headed to the bright lights and city streets of the Big Apple. I stayed with her about a week watching her bring 2 and 3 different guys home nightly until I got a job and my own apartment, on the fifth floor of a five floor walk up, down on the lower east side on 2nd Street between Avenues B and C. Landing a job as a waiter in Pam’s, a breakfast and lunchtime restaurant in Greenwich Village that served the NYU crowd, I was taught the proper way to wait tables and was in training to become an assistant manager. Jerry Levin, owner and manager of Pam’s, offered to pay my way through NYU’s Restaurant and Management School if I stayed on as his manager. I enjoyed the work, liked the rapport I had built up with the regulars, was getting my nails manicured weekly and was seriously thinking about taking him up on his offer. At the time, I was hanging out in the Village and also in Washington Square and walked through the Bowery to get back and forth to work. I was having a good time, meeting people, going to the clubs, learning the subway system and going to Central Park. It was through Linda that I met Susan Paris.

Susan was from Cleveland. She’d been jilted by her boyfriend and ran away from home to be anonymous in the big city. Susan was a beautiful Jewish girl with long, thick red hair and big green eyes who worked as secretary by day and posed as a nude model at night. She was 5’7”, had a 42-21-38 body and was as solid as an athlete in training. Unfortunately for me, she was also very insecure and conniving. She convinced me to sleep with her without having sex because she wanted the security of having someone to hold her through the night. So, a couple to three nights a week for about a month I would stay with this gorgeous creature, hold and curl up with her and fall asleep, sans sex. That experience was my first lesson in self-control.

It was after I got the crabs from her toilet, which was out in the hallway, that I stopped coming around her place. Someone had broken into her water closet and I must have gone in right behind them because I had the little buggers. It caused me to stop dating this rich girl from Staten Island; actually, it gave her the excuse she needed to get rid of me so she could date Jerry, my boss. When I took my clothes to the cleaners the clerk was all bright and cheerful until I told him what I’d brought with me. He then handled my plastic trash bag of clothes as though it was toxic waste and, sliding the bag down to the far end of the counter, told me to come back in a few days.

I went to a pharmacy and got medicine that I had to put on while sitting in the tub with water just barely covering me. In a day or two the crabs all died and washed away down the drain. In the meantime, I had been robbed while at work. The thief had swung down onto the fire escape from the roof and climbed in my open window. He stole all my clean clothes (leaving the dirty ones where they lay), my good pot (leaving the home grown behind), my Koto and all my loose change. And that was how I met Alice.

Alice Mohle, a thin diminutive blond with not so great teeth, was a friend of the girl who lived on the fourth floor of my building that I met while freaking out about getting robbed. She was interested in me but made the mistake of introducing me to Alice. Alice had grown up in the Village but had gotten kicked out for dealing LSD. The local cops had made a deal with her: stay out of the Village and she wouldn’t get arrested. So Alice had moved to Brooklyn Heights. She lived in the basement of an old brownstone. I moved in with Alice, who was four years older than me, and became her lover. It was with her that I had my first LSD experience. Like my first sexual experience when I was a high school senior, it was a bad one. However, Alice was a good guide and a very nice person so she got me through it. The next time or two was much more pleasant and I had what I believed to be a mystical experience while listening to Beatles music. Alice and I used to take the subway to Coney Island and ride the Comet, sitting in the first car of the old, famous, wooden roller coaster. Alice worked as a secretary for the Seafarers International Union in Brooklyn and she was the one who got me into the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship, which was being operated out of the union hall. That was how I got my seaman’s papers and the job that would allow me to travel around the world. And my sister laughed at me when I told her I was going to find my way in the world in New York.

I moved out of Alice’s place and into the barracks of the union hall. The barracks were trailers that had been set up in the parking lot. The parking lot was surrounded by a 10’ high chain link fence which acted as protection for us but which was really designed to protect the union members’ cars from being vandalized and/or stolen. During the month I lived there, there were several instances of us being attacked in the evening hours by the local gang. The attacks consisted of them throwing rocks over the fence at us. We would hide in the doorways, in the dumpsters, wherever we could find cover from the 8 to 10 guys heaving rocks the size of baseballs over the fence at us. We weren’t allowed in the barracks until it was time to go to sleep, I guess in the event we did something weird in bed. At any rate, we either had to hang out inside the union hall or in the parking lot. Given that it was late August, early September and hot and muggy, we chose the outdoors, rock throwers notwithstanding.

Whatever training we received in seaman school didn’t stick with me because I don’t think we learned a whole lot about being a seaman. Once a week we would go down to the shipyard and walk around on a ship but we were told not to touch anything. One time while going back onto a ship after lunch on one of our weekly excursions this old seaman befriended me. Actually, he hustled me into smuggling his bottle of whiskey onto the ship for him. He figured, rightly, that this greenhorn kid dressed in black bellbottom jeans with matching jeans jacket, white t-shirt, cheap black work boots, and white cotton be-bop hat (the style which apparently Harry Lundeberg wore while a seaman) wouldn’t get frisked for contraband. I learned a lesson that day that I never forgot. Even though I didn’t get frisked, I never got hustled again.

Two other events stuck out in my mind about being in the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship. The first was that I was the only one in the school that had a driver’s license and so I became a chauffer for the ranking union officials. Once I was told to deliver some papers to some union honcho at a meeting in downtown Manhattan. My orders were to get the limousine there as quickly as possible and not to worry about the cops (the license plate read SIU 1). Their concern was that getting a ticket would only serve to slow me down from getting there as fast as I could.

The other event, which endeared me to the union guys and made my life a whole lot easier in the school and which also gave me added status, was my volunteering to work in the basement of a building using a handheld jackhammer to punch a hole through a solid brick wall 18 inches thick. A black guy and I were the only two recruits who volunteered to do this job. For a full week, all day long, he and I worked with this jackhammer. We would each take turns wielding the thing until we had made a hole big enough to put sewage pipes through. As a result of our efforts, we did not have to do anything else the rest of the time we were in the school. We didn’t have to police the yard, clean the toilets or sweep out the barracks.

At the end of September I caught a ship, or, rather I was assigned to one. I was taken down to the yard and told to walk up the gangplank and sign onto the S.S. Oceanic Cloud as an Ordinary Seaman, a deckhand. I started out on the 12 to 4 watch and bunked with the two AB’s, Fred and another guy who was taken off the ship in Cristobal and flown home because he was too sick and too old to sail. Fred was an alcoholic who drank a fifth of gin a day, every day. We came to call him Fred the Purple People Eater because he one time ran out of booze while we were at sea and starting going through the DT’s. His face turned purple, the veins in his neck and on his nose and cheeks popped out and he started hallucinating. He swore he saw sea serpents climbing up over the side of the ship, coming to get us. He ran around the deck like a crazy man, wheezing and coughing and clutching himself. Fred was taken off the ship in Korea, I think, and flown home. That was how, through attrition, I was eventually promoted at sea to AB.

Though technically an ore carrier, the SS Oceanic Cloud was a C3 freighter and a WWII and Korea veteran. It had been built in the early 1940’s, had been mothballed and then brought back out and re-fitted for the Vietnam War. This trip it was carrying all the gear for a company of soldiers off to fight in the jungles of a very foreign land. It was a ship too old to continue plying its trade and also carrying an assortment of personnel that no manager would ever have knowingly or intentionally assembled for his work force.

The Captain was a retired Norwegian who was making his last trip and, like the ship, probably should have stayed retired. The Chief Mate was two years out of Kings Point and was making his first trip as Chief. The Chief was about 25 years old, a short, rotund, balding, high strung guy with a lot of nervous energy. He would often be seen chewing his nails and also the ends of pens and pencils. His clothes were always rumpled as though he’d slept in them and all of his shirts had ink stains from the pens he’d chew leaking in his shirt pocket. Education and authority had apparently gone to his head. He reminded me of the type of person who had never measured up to his father and so now, as an authority figure, was going to lord it over all of his domain. No one liked him, not even the captain, and we all got the impression that he didn’t care too much for us, either. We all thought it was funny when someone would say they’d pissed in the Chief’s coffee prior to taking it up to him on to the bridge. His only friend shipboard was the second mate, a former schoolmate.

The second mate was making his first trip as a second and was a pretty nice guy. He was a laid back person and, as it turned out, his lackadaisical approach to his work as the ship’s navigator almost caused us to miss the coast of Japan and get us ship wrecked on an uncharted island.

The third mate was a black guy who had been a seaman that had worked his way up through the ranks into becoming licensed as a third. A self made man, he had taken courses and studied while shipping out initially as an Ordinary Seaman, then as an Able Bodied seaman and also as a day man, finally to achieve becoming an officer. His goal was to one day become a merchant ship’s captain. Like the other mates, this was his first trip in his position. He had no friends on board as the other mates regarded him as something lower than themselves as he was not a Kings Point or even a college graduate, plus, he was black. The crew, who would have otherwise and at the very least respected his seamanship, saw him as management and so ignored him. I got along pretty well with him and we had many conversations in the wheelhouse while I was on wheel watch or working in the wings of the wheelhouse. He taught me how to hand steer using the big wheel and also introduced me to celestial navigation. When the ship was on automatic pilot, which it always was in fair weather, he would let me watch him work out our position. It wasn’t his job to do but he was studying to become a second mate and he also didn’t trust the second’s abilities.

The crew was comprised of an odd collection of professional seamen, raw recruits such as myself, derelicts, and guys one step ahead of the law. Sunny was one of the latter. A tall thin guy of about 40 with thinning blond hair and a pot belly, he had a tattoo of a tag on his big toe. On the tag were the letters DOA. He figured that when he was finally taken to his reward the morgue attendants wouldn’t have to waste another tag on him. His girlfriend had tried to get him locked up again and so he had to beat feet out of Florida. This was his first trip overseas as he had mostly caught coastwise runs out of Ft. Lauderdale and Galveston, Texas. One time he came back to the ship while we were docked in Saigon with a newspaper all wadded up the size of a basketball. “Frank,” he said in his slow southern drawl, “what am I supposed to do with this?” I unwrapped the paper and found he was holding about a pound of marijuana in his hands. He didn’t smoke pot, preferring, like most seamen, to get drunk instead. He said some Vietnamese guy had sold him the pot for $5.00 in a bar.

The Bos’un was a professional seaman who, like Sunny, was southern and spoke with the same twang in his voice. The Bo’sun was also going bald but didn’t want to admit it. He would comb the few strands of hair he had on one side of his head all the way across to the other side, to make it look like he had a head of hair. When we were out on deck the wind would catch his few strands and make them fly like so many thin streamers in the breeze. He was a nervous sort, too, but was a good old boy who knew his stuff.

The Chief cook had been in the Navy during WWII and Korea. He was a nervous Italian who had been unable to adjust to shore life. He was married to his wife and also to the sea. Every time we got into any foul weather he would pace back and forth, chain smoke cigarettes and wring his hands. He had served on battleships during the wars and had seen one too many turn belly up in a storm, going down with all hands from being top heavy.

I always thought that the Chief Steward was just an old seaman who had been around. At the end of the trip, while we were flying home, I was told by Wayne, a recruit like me but who worked in the crew’s mess, that he had made over $500 during the trip letting the Chief Steward have his way with him. I never realized that the Chief Steward was gay. Wayne, a small town boy from western Pennsylvania, was sickened by the whole ordeal but apparently couldn’t refuse the Chief’s advances - or the money.

Another recruit, Carl, was from Alabama. Like Wayne, he was assigned to work in the Stewards department and served officer’s mess. Carl became deeply religious during the trip and, in his off hours, would mostly stay by himself in his bunk and read his Bible.

The Ship’s Electrician was an old farmer-looking person who liked to sit in a deck chair in his boxer underwear smoking cigarettes with his dick hanging out. He was an old salt who had been a seaman for a long time and stayed blissfully drunk for most of it.

The rest of the deck hands like Gene, Jerry, Lenny, and Kenny were all good, hard working guys who mostly stayed to them selves and who taught me the ways of being a seaman. Kenny was a tall, skinny guy of about 30 who was from Bar Harbor, Maine. He had a wife and 6 kids to support. He never drank, never slept with any women ashore and mostly stayed on board while we were in port indulging his one passion: playing cards for money. One time he lost over $300 in a single poker game with four other guys. He used to always kid about the tattoos on his arms, saying that when he was younger, in his drinking days, he had always been getting arrested for peeing in public in Bar Harbor’s main streets and intersections. To while away the time in jail, he would either get someone to tattoo him or he would do it him self. He credited his wife for straightening his life out.

He, Wayne and I went ashore in Okinawa, searching for a tattoo parlor so that Kenny could get his jailhouse tattoos covered up with some good work. After three evenings of trying, we finally found a tattoo artist who, by day, operated an engraving shop. Kenny got a bunch of different tattoos while Wayne got a cobra wrapped around a panther that covered his upper arm from his elbow to his shoulder. I really didn’t want a tattoo but was caught up in the frenzy of the hunt. I was talked out of the ones I wanted: A china man smoking an opium pipe, which would have covered the entire inside of my forearm, from the wrist to the elbow; or a Scorpion. It too, though, would have had to have been pretty big in size. I ended up with a single red rose, complete with three green leaves underneath it, on my forearm. When I got back home a month later I had it surgically removed. I think the doctor that painstakingly removed it using only a scapel and tweezers, the chief surgeon for the Baltimore City Police Department, purposely kept it intact for his own reasons. He got the tattoo and I was left with the scar.

We had left New York harbor and, traveling south along the east coast of the United States, passed by Philadelphia, Baltimore and Norfolk, traditional ports along the East Coast. We were always just out of sight of land but, at the same time, felt close to it as we sailed past Florida and into the Caribbean. Going past Cuba we were shadowed by one of their gunboats. Except for that unsettling incident, our voyage through the Caribbean to the Panama Canal was uneventful. We went through the Sargasso Sea, through the Panama Canal and across the Pacific Ocean to Vietnam.

The older, experienced seamen on the ship would tease us new guys about sea monsters and the mysteries of the Sargasso Sea but we would laugh it off. One story I did believe, though, had nothing to do with monsters. It had to do with getting mail and I was homesick. They had me believing that we would tie up next to a ship at sea who would give us our mail. My job was to wait and watch for the mail ship.

We tied up in Cristobal City while waiting our turn to go through the Panama Canal. It was the first time any of us had gone ashore since leaving New York two weeks previous. We were told that we would be feeling our sea legs, whatever that was, when we went ashore. Anchored out in the harbor, we took a launch to get ashore.

To get onto the launch from the gangway was always a tricky affair, even in the best of weather. The sea swells would cause the launch to rise and fall as it attempted to try to stay at the gangway and, at the same time, keep from banging against the side of the ship. The gangway was a long metal staircase about 40 feet in length that, when the ship was at sea, would be lashed to the gunnel. It was lowered by hand via a chain fall and would sort of hang diagonally down along the side of the ship. As the swells caused the launch to rise and fall, they would also sometimes cause the ship to roll from side to side. Standing at the bottom of the gangway one would be simultaneously swinging (in rough water the gangway would sway a couple of feet away from the side of the ship and then slam back against it) while attempting to literally jump off its end onto the deck of the launch. Timing was everything. And, of course, getting back on the ship was the same process in reverse. The launch would rise on a swell and, if your timing was just right, you could step off of it and right onto the gangway as if you were stepping up a curb. Time it wrong and you ended up in the ocean. If you really missed it, you could end up getting crushed. During my year’s worth of sea time, I never missed the gangway nor did I ever see anyone else miss it. Drunk as a skunk, blind drunk, inebriated beyond being able to walk, no one ever missed getting onto and up the gangway.

Flushed with the initial success of having gotten on the launch for the first of many times, we went ashore. Getting onto dry land for the first time in more than two weeks, I found out what getting one’s sea legs meant. The ground didn’t move; it didn’t sway from side to side; there was no roll to compensate for. I almost fell down trying to adjust to walking on a flat surface. The older seamen laughed and laughed. It was pretty comical watching us landlubbers adjust to walking on level ground. After a few blocks we were okay and then, as if by magic, and for the rest of the time at sea and going ashore, we got our sea legs and never had any difficulty adjusting.

Cristobal was an interesting city, at least the part I saw was. Of course, the only part I saw, aside from the dock area, was the bars and whore houses. Anything went in those places and, for a price, you could have anything you wanted. I got fixed up, through an older seaman, with a tall, skinny prostitute who, speaking no English, took me upstairs to her room. She pulled out a big bag of pot from which she proceeded to roll a gigantic joint. Then, she emptied out onto a mirror a big pile of cocaine.

It was a hot night with the humidity hovering around 90 degrees. I was sweating, as was she, when she handed me the joint to smoke. I took a few hits and my head started to spin around like a whirling top. Right about that time she unloosened her blouse and proceeded to show me her breasts which hung down from her bony frame to her waist like long, stringy, flesh colored cucumbers. Next she opened the window shutters, I guess, to let in the night air. I stood there stoned out of my head, looking at this big pile of cocaine, windows open wide and her without any top on. I immediately became paranoid, thinking that I was going to be robbed and/or arrested, certainly not getting laid (or maybe getting robbed and/or arrested while getting laid). I took another hit off the joint, looked at all that cocaine, at the open windows, at her stringy breasts and bony body, and said, “I think I’ll be getting back to the ship.” She laughed and tried to get me to stay but I was not having any of it. My first time with a whore or not, I was not doing it and I didn’t care what anybody said. Call me chicken, call me a pussy, call me anything you want but I was not going to lay down with that woman in that room with my head about to explode, my senses screaming that I was about to get ripped off or worse. No way, Jose. So, I gathered up my stuff, told her to keep the pot and the coke and to put her clothes back on, and I went back downstairs to the bar.

A couple of the older guys were at a table in the bar getting drunk so I sat down with them. I was too high to talk and too stoned to walk so I just sat there with a stupid grin on my face. It took them about a second to realize what was up with me so they just let me be. One of them asked me if I’d gotten laid but I couldn’t speak to tell him what had happened. Another asked me if I wanted a drink and somehow I ended up with a warm bottle of Coke. I found the bottle too heavy to lift so I really concentrated and, next thing I knew, I couldn’t stop it from rising. The bottle was lifting my arm up over my head as if it were filled with ultra strong helium. I needed to use my other hand to stop the bottle from going up into the air. For a moment I thought that I would be lifted right up out of my seat. Getting control, I was eventually able to bring the bottle to my lips. My mouth, however, was so dry that my lips were stuck together and I couldn’t get them open far enough to drink the soda so I ended up with it dribbling down my chin onto my shirt. Needless to say, I was the hit of the table as they had a good belly laugh watching me try to drink.

Eventually I wandered away from the bar and more or less headed back to the dock to catch the launch back to the ship. While waiting for the launch, Lenny, the day man, weaved and wandered his way over to a bench near me and, almost missing it, sort of sat down. I decided that he needed some coffee to sober up so I went over to a vending machine. I put in some money, pressed for coffee, cream and sugar. To my surprise, what came out was a cup of what looked like hot milk. It tasted sweet. I figured it must be Panamanian coffee so I gave it to him to drink. He took one sip, gagged, threw up and then passed out on the bench. After a time other guys came up and, as a group, we got on the launch and made it back to the ship. I can remember standing on the deck of the launch, the swells causing it to rise and fall, rise and fall. My head started to rise and fall, I got very dizzy and light headed and thought I was going to pass out but it was my turn to jump from the launch onto the gangway. Timing it just right I jumped and landed in a heap on the bottom step while, at the same time, grabbing the life lines to keep from falling off and tumbling into the water. I stumbled up the gangway and somehow made it to my foc’sle, immediately passing out in my bunk.

The next day we went through the Panama Canal. The canal is a series of locks that connect the east coast with the west coast. The ship would enter a lock and sit while the lock either filled up with water or had water let out of it, depending on which way you were going. The lock door would then open and the ship would move into the next lock and the process would be repeated. It was a very slow way to get from the Atlantic to the Pacific but still a whole lot faster and safer than going around the Horn. For some reason we went through the canal at night. As I was on the 12 to 4 watch at that point, I was up on deck at midnight. I had been warned to wear clothing that covered my whole body, including a hat and socks and shoes. I was told to button my collar and cuffs and also to tuck my pant legs into my socks. The temperature, at 0200, was over 90 degrees, as was the humidity.

I strode out on deck feeling very stupid and wondering what kind of joke was being played on me. Then I saw my first mosquito. It was the size of an F-14 Saberjet and had a stinger about a foot long. Trying to kill one was like trying to swat an eagle swooping down to carry you off as food with a paper plate. The mosquitoes were like kamikaze dive bombers. When their needles pierced your skin, through your clothes, it was like being bitten by a vampire. It hurt. Again and again they attacked. I went back to my foc’sle, got out a coat and gloves and put them on in the oppressive, jungle heat that made me feel like I was in a steam bath while dressed for the Arctic. I might as well have been naked because the mosquitoes used me, it seemed, as target practice. One after another they attacked. By the end of my watch I looked like I had a bad case of boils all over my body.

We popped out of the canal and headed west, bound for Vietnam. Most ships stopped at Hawaii on their way to the East and a small group of guys were ready to get off there, even if they had to pay their own way to get back home. But we didn’t stop. We were headed directly for the war zone, full steam ahead. It took us 30 days to get across the ocean.

Two days out of Panama one of the oilers caught a wiper stealing his booze from his hiding place. It was just after supper and about twilight. I was walking back aft to get high with a couple other guys when we saw the oiler hoisting the wiper over his head, ready to pitch him over the side. A number of seamen intervened and convinced the oiler that murder was not in his best interest. He eventually put the wiper down and then proceeded to beat on him for a while. After a time they became ship mates again and although the incident was never forgotten, the wiper, or anyone else for that matter, never found out where the oiler’s booze was stashed. It was about that time that I decided I wanted to go home.

It was about that same time that the two soldiers who were accompanying their company’s gear found out that they had gonorrhea. The Panama prostitutes gave them something to remember them by. The rumor I heard was that those 2 were in worse trouble because of what they’d gotten than from what they’d done to get it. I felt grateful that I was not put in that situation. However, my turn did come up, just not then, and when it did, I felt their pain for myself.

It was while I was trying to figure out how to get off the ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that I had my next life’s lesson, one that would have a major impact on me for the rest of my life. It all had to do with Gene and Lenny teaching me not to be a quitter and my breaking Joe Donaruma’s hand.

I was ready to quit. I wanted off bad. I was huffing and puffing, was miserable and everyone knew it. I wanted to go home. Finally Lenny and Gene backed me into a foc’sle and verbally laid into me. Was I going to be a quitter all my life? Was I going to always run away when things got rough? When was I going to grow up? Gene was a professional seaman. He’d been going to sea most of his adult life, probably for 20 years by that time and had sailed on the last of the wooden sailing ships. Lenny was New York Irish. He had a square jaw, was all muscle and had been a prize fighter before becoming a construction worker. He was on his first trip, too but being away from home didn’t faze him. He told me about having done a stretch on Riker’s Island when he was younger and that compared to that experience being on this ship was a piece of cake. Both of them had been through times that were rougher than I could ever imagine. They talked, yelled, cajoled and eventually convinced me that if I was ever going to be a man, completing this voyage was going to go a long way toward my successfully achieving that goal. Their harangue made a lasting impression on me and, from that day on, I never quit anything I took on. I learned in that foc’sle, through my tears, from their words, that you never walked away until the job was done. Joe Donaruma, on the other hand, was what many others may have thought of as a man’s man, at least in the blue collar worker sense of manhood.

Joe was a big guy, a 6’3”, 250 lb New York longshoreman. He was an Italian stallion who wanted to go to sea to see what it was like. He was having homesickness that bordered on hysteria. However, no one could say anything to him, chide him or talk to him because he would slam one of his ham sized fists in your face just as soon as look at you. I became his little buddy, but not in the prison sense, though. He was really just a big, dumb, garrulous wop who was not too bright but who knew how to use his bulk to get his way. Most of the guys shipboard just avoided him. Maybe that’s why he became friends with me: nobody else wanted to have anything to do with him. We started playing Gin rummy together mostly because nobody else would play with him and I was too intimidated not to. After losing a bunch of money to him and wanting to quit (he would watch how I arranged my cards in my hand and from that know what I had) he befriended me and confided (as in if you tell anyone I’ll kill you) that he could neither read nor write. So I would read his letters from his wife and girlfriend to him and write to them for him. I have to admit I must have written some pretty good love letters for him because they were gushing in their responses to him. I guess it was all the more reason he wanted to get off and go home.

What happened was, as we were docking in Saigon, Joe, being the big dumb guy he was, grabbed an unsecured hawser line in response to an order from the Chief Mate. The ship was swinging away from the dock, caught in the river’s current. The Chief told Joe to grab the line and stop the ship (as if anyone could stop a 400 foot freighter by himself; the other seamen just got out of the way). Joe grabbed the hawser, which was as thick as a man’s fist, and got pulled into the chock, breaking his hand. He was put into the ship’s hospital. Ashore he was x-rayed and, in someone’s medical opinion, it was determined that he could stay aboard, rather than be flown home. Joe wanted to go home so bad he could think of nothing else. So, he told me that he planned to drop a porthole on his hand, making the injury worse and thus, he reasoned, they would have to send him home. I wished him luck and started to leave the room. “Oh no, my friend,” he said. “Now that I told you what I’m going to do, if anyone finds out what really happened, I’ll get screwed out of the insurance money. So, you’re going to do it for me. That way, you can’t rat on me because you’re in on it.” I figured I didn’t have a choice and I certainly didn’t want this huge deigo hunting me down so I decided to help him go home. It wasn’t my hand, anyway. I wrapped his hand in a towel and put it onto the porthole ledge and, holding the porthole up, let it come falling down. As tough a guy as he was, he flinched when it made contact. We looked at his hand and Joe decided we had to do it again. This time, I lined his hand up on the ledge, did a couple of dry runs to make sure, unhooked the deadlight and, with the porthole, gave both a little push while they fell. The impact made a noise like that of raw meat being slapped down onto a cutting block. Whap! Joe unwrapped his hand and he and I watched as it swelled up like a balloon being filled with helium. His hand turned a deep bluish-black color and looked very ugly. Looking at my handiwork I was sick to my stomach. I left the room and never told anyone to this day what I’d done. Joe went to the Captain and said he’d accidentally fallen on the floor, using his hand to catch himself. I never saw or heard from him again.

One evening I was smoking some Panama Red with some Puerto Rican crew members. We were timing the sun going down below the horizon. One of them got very serious, all of a sudden. He said to me, “Hey man, don’ watch the sun go down, man, it will drive you crazy. I knew a guy once, he was getting high and watching the sun go down and he got like crazy, you know. He jumped over the side of the ship an’ drowned. Don’t ever watch the sun go down, man. I tell you.” Yeah, right. Watching the sun go down in the middle of the ocean was one of the best things God ever enabled man to do. The sky would be a beautiful shade of pastel blue, all the way down to the horizon. As the sun dropped to the sea the sky would turn yellow above it and gray above that and, looking behind you, the sky would start to turn black. The sun, it seemed, would pull the canopy of night over the sky. The sun, as it dipped below the horizon, sinking into the ocean, would turn fire red. Its heat would cause it to shimmer. It was Technicolor at its finest. As the sky turned black the stars would come out. They looked like diamonds on a sheet of black velvet. The stars would shine so brightly against the black sky that it was almost blinding. You could see the primary, secondary and tertiary stars, the planets, comets, and constellations so clearly that it seemed like you were in a telescope or a traveler in the heavens.

About one week into the crossing, we hit the South Pacific Ocean doldrums. Garbage would get thrown over the side and for days it would float along side of the ship. Sharks would swim behind the ship, eating the garbage. The days were relentlessly hot. There were no clouds in the sky, the sun shone down in all its fury and the garbage continued to float next to the ship where it had been thrown over the side. The only thing that changed was the number of sharks that followed the ship, eating the garbage. One seaman decided to catch a shark so he threw a hook, of sorts, over the aft end using a heaving line as the test line. Hauling in the hooked shark was a job for several people. It took almost a day and three seamen to get it tired enough to allow it to be dragged up and over the stern.

The shark was then hung up on the aft flag pole and gutted. Out of its stomach fell undigested garbage. Cans, bottles, boxes, tins, and trash clattered onto the deck. Eventually its dorsal fin was cut off and shark fin soup was made out of it. The carcass was thrown over the side and eaten by the other sharks. I wouldn’t eat any of the soup though others said it was very good.

One day I was on deck doing some chipping and painting when this cute little cloud appeared in an otherwise cloudless blue sky. It was a little rain cloud about the size of a small airplane. It was dark and had rain coming down out of it. It just drifted across the ocean and where it crossed over the ship it left a swath of wetness on the deck about 15 feet wide. The sun dried up the rain on the deck before the cloud drifted out of sight.

At night and in good weather, we stood lookout on the ship’s bow as part of our watch. Our four hour sea watch was broken up into 3 equal parts: wheel, standby and lookout. On lookout, we were supposed to be looking out for ships bearing down on us in the night. At first it was difficult to distinguish between a star low on the horizon and a ship’s light off in the distance. After a while, though, you could tell the difference. What was infinitely more interesting than watching for a ship miles away was watching the porpoises playing in the effervescent wake the ship made while cutting through the water. The effervescence was actually plankton that reflected in the moonlight. When the ship’s bow sliced through the water, it would create waves that fell away symmetrically on either side of the bow. The plankton would sparkle like the stars in the sky. It was magical. Porpoise would swim in the wave created by the bow and jump up out of the water in long arcs, swimming just fast enough to stay with the speed of the ship. Sometimes the porpoise would race ahead of the ship then fall back in line with it then race ahead again. It was obvious they were playing and having a good time.

In the mornings we would walk out on deck and throw the dead flying fish over the side before they started smelling up the place. During the day you would be just looking over the ocean and all of a sudden a school of flying fish, chased by a larger predator looking for a meal, would surge up out of the water a good 10 feet in the air and fly for a distance of about 30 or 40 feet. If they flew up out of the crest of a wave, they could easily attain a height of 15 to 20 feet in the air. At that height they would occasionally land on the ship’s deck. They were about 6 to 7 inches long and had long gossamer side fins that they would use to propel themselves with, both in and out of the water. When you watched them surge up out of the ocean, they seemed, in fact, to actually fly.

We were about a week and a half from the coast of Japan when the storm hit. It lasted for 3 days and nights. It was a Force 5 hurricane. The sky turned dark as night, the winds blew steadily in excess of 100 mph and the waves were more than 30 feet high. It rained so hard the raindrops stung when they hit your skin. We had to hand steer. No one ate anything other than cold sandwiches and we drank only coffee. In order to try to sleep you had to lay flat on your back spread-eagled and jam your feet and hands into the space between the mattress and edge of the bunk and hope that you didn’t get tossed out of it. On one wheel watch my instructions were to keep the ship headed into the waves and watch for and steer into the rogue wave.

The rogue waves were those that came at an angle to the rest of the waves. The rogues were the ones that would hit a ship from the side, capsize it and take all hands down to the ocean floor. You would steer into the storm for hours and then, out of the corner of your eye, see this gigantic wave coming from the oblique. Turning the steering wheel hard to port, you would make the ship turn to meet it and then, once clear of it, turn hard back to starboard to meet the rest of the waves coming relentlessly at you. You could never let up while on wheel watch.

Steering into the storm, you would ride the wave up and hold on to the steering wheel to keep from falling backwards. Your feet would be firmly planted and your legs spread wider than your shoulders for stability. The ship would go through the breaking crest of the wave and shudder while the water poured down and covered the entire deck. The ship would seem to disappear under the crashing water that swept away anything not tightly secured. Rising up and shaking off the water the ship would teeter on the wave’s crest and, the prop now being out of the water, the ship would shudder once again. You wondered whether the propeller vibrating so much would cause the ship to come apart or whether the ship, being perched on top of the wave, would break in half. While at the top of the wave, momentarily suspended, you could look out over the ocean and see the tops of the waves. It felt like you were on top of a mountain and everywhere you looked there were only more mountain peaks to see. The froth whipped up by the wind was like snow blowing off a mountain peak in a blizzard. Cresting the wave, you would then fall forward against the wheel as the ship plummeted down the back of the wave like a roller coaster racing down its first hill. You would stare at the onrushing wave trough and swear that the ship would, like a high diver neatly slicing through the surface, head straight down to the bottom without even slowing down. Somehow, the ship would slide down and over the wave’s trough and then rise up on the front of the next wave like a rocket taking off from its launching pad. Over and over again this process would be repeated. And, all the while, you had to watch out for and steer into the rogue wave.

After the storm played itself out, we were left with 12 feet of water in the chain locker. The water acted like a huge sinker and for the rest of the trip to Vietnam we plowed through the oncoming waves rather than rising up and over them. It was like driving in a car whose front suspension was shot and the result was a slow, plodding ride in which it was also hard to steer.

It was a few days after the storm was over that we tested out the lifeboats and found they wouldn’t float. In an effort to make to make sure the motors and cables worked in the event of an emergency, given that we’d almost had one, the lifeboats were lowered down from their davits into the water. The captain, not wanting to waste time but wanting to mollify the crew, agreed to have the lifeboats lowered but to remain cabled so that we would know that they would be able to be used. The lifeboats were lowered into the water and kept on going. The corks, in drain cocks, were supposed to seal up the drain under the pressure of the water against them. Then, when the bow or stern of the lifeboat was lifted out of the water by wave action, the corks would fall away and any water in the bottom of the boat would drain out. The problem was, we found, the corks were dry rot and, when they became wet, crumbled into dust and floated away like a little pile of sawdust in a moving pool of water from a hose’s spray. To make matters worse, there were no replacement parts. We all looked at each other for a minute and then the Bosun called for us to haul the lifeboats back up and be secured in their davits. The captain was duly notified and the drill was finished.

It wasn’t until we got to Vietnam that we found out the ship’s booms were also rotted and wouldn’t work. We had chipped and painted them while at sea so they looked good but no one ever thought to try to see if they actually worked. The Vietnamese longshoremen refused to use them and called the Army engineers in. They ordered the captain to lower the booms, which we did. The booms just fell, with a slight boom, onto the deck. The engineers called for off shore cranes on barges to come in and off load us. I guess that was why we were really so surprised when we found we were going to be put on a shuttle run instead of just going right back home.

We headed on up to Korea to pick up some fixed up tanks, jeeps, trucks and other stuff to take back to Vietnam. We all went ashore in the port city of Pusan. Somehow we ended up at Whiskey Mary’s, a bar and whorehouse. It was in Korea’s other major port city, Inchon, however, that Gaylen Powell, a raw recruit and a wiper who, like me, was from Baltimore, met his demise. His fatal error was that he fell in love with a whore in Pusan who was from Inchon. Gaylen had come from a poor family in South Baltimore. Going to sea was a way for him to escape the poverty and neglect he had grown up with to try to make something of him self. Although he grew up in the City he looked like a country bumpkin, kind of like the straw man in the Wizard of Oz. Gaylen was a quiet guy, not too bright and one who wanted to be liked. He was always looking for a way to fit in. The problem was, he was the kind of kid that was easy to pick on. He was easy to play jokes on and was often the butt of a joke shipboard. No one was really cruel toward him but he didn’t have many, if any, friends. When he went ashore in Pusan and met up with this one whore who was about his same age, she convinced him that he was her one and only. Of course, she was only doing her job, which was to extract as much money out of her customers as possible. Only Gaylen believed her profession of love toward him.

Most of the whores in Pusan came from Inchon and vice-versa. When the girls escaped from the poverty of the one city they would travel to the other to find work. Inevitably, being poor and uneducated, they ended up as prostitutes. They would send money back to their families and tell them that they had jobs as secretaries or some other type of office work. When they went home on holiday it was often to follow the ships as they sailed from the one port to the other. In this way the girls could make extra money, see their families and have a short holiday, so to speak. The seamen would put them up in a hotel and the girls would spend the days with their families and the nights in the hotel room. When the ship left port the girls would tell their families their holiday was over and they’d return to the other city. That was the way it worked. In Gaylen’s case, the girl worked his passion and need for love so well that he actually believed that she was following him because she couldn’t do without him.

One day Gaylen realized it was all a lie. The girls had been teasing him and his girl finally came clean. He really felt like a jerk. I was on gangway watch that night and, with Kenny, ate supper with Gaylen and watched him leave the ship and walk down the dock, toward town. At supper Kenny and I were teasing him about how come he was dressed up in his best (and only) suit and what was going on that night that he looked so good. Gaylen, as relaxed as he’d ever been, smiled a Cheshire cat-like smile and said he was going to go ashore and kill himself. We failed to take him seriously and didn’t recognize his relaxed and nonchalant mood as anything but that of a well-sated seamen going ashore to get some more action from his special babe. As he sauntered down the dock Kenny offered Gaylen his knife in the event he was seriously going to commit suicide. Gaylen turned, smiled and waved him off as he walked away, putting his hands in his pockets. I’ll never forget the way he walked away from the ship that day, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. The next day Gaylen was found dead in his hotel room, having ingested a whole bottle of sleeping pills the night before. He was shipped home in a body bag.

A couple of days later, a Korean longshoreman was killed down in one of the holds. It was never determined whether he had accidentally fallen, as claimed, or whether he had met his fate by someone in his crew settling a score. At any rate, the next evening we watched the religious rites of his family as they went about getting his spirit back home. The Koreans believe that wherever it is that you die your spirit stays there unless a rite is performed to get you back home. On this evening the family gathered on deck near the hold in which he died. The priest offered prayers while musicians played appropriate music and the family enacted ritualistic dances. At one point the priest killed a chicken and, sprinkling its blood into the hold, offered it to the Gods in place of the husband. The deceased longshoreman’s wife had a sash tied about her, the ends of which were held firmly by others. From time to time during the ceremony and the dancing she would try to jump down into the hold, to join her husband. As she was restrained by her ceremonial holders, we wondered whether her trying to jump was part of the rite or was she really trying to join her lost love. After about an hour the ceremony concluded, everyone packed up their stuff and left. I stood there a long time, just staring and wondering about all that had happened so far and what else was yet to come.

We left Korea, went to Kao Shung,Taiwan to load cement and then laid over in the Philippines, waiting for a berth in Da Nang. Jerry, an AB and Gene, a day man, had become friends and would go ashore together to get drunk. Jerry was visually impaired and wore extremely thick glasses. We used to call them his coke bottle glasses. He, like Gene and Lenny, was Irish and loved to drink and carouse. Gene, having a hearing impairment, wore hearing aids in both ears. When they went ashore they inevitably got completely plastered. One night while on gangway watch I had to go down onto the dock and help them up the gangway. They had both passed out just shy of the ship and were lying on pallets that were strewn on the dock. One by one I lifted them up onto the ship and into their bunks. The next day, when they woke up, they were each looking for their assistive devices. Jerry had lost his glasses and Gene had lost his hearing aids. We all had a good laugh and, for the rest of the trip, described their going ashore as the deaf leading the blind.

Going ashore the next day, both men went back to the places they thought they’d been in to try to retrieve their aids. Gene, going into one bar, inquired about his hearing aids. The bartender opened a drawer full of hearing aids and asked Gene to simply try a few until he found ones that fit. Jerry, on the other hand, had to have new glasses made. He always kept a spare pair in his sea bag, I guess having learned from previous experience.

We ended up staying in Kao Shung for 10 days while loading cement because it kept raining, and you can’t load cement in the rain. We got put on day watch and so all of our evenings were free, unless we had gangway watch. I went ashore and met up with a beautiful prostitute. She was half Chinese and half Philippine and about my age. We spent most of the nights I was ashore together. I got to teaching her English and taking her to nice places, away from the bars and the downtown area. She gave me a picture of her that I carried around for a couple years until a jealous girlfriend stateside ripped it up. One night the Navy was in town and she tried to dodge the owner of the bar where she worked, who was also her pimp. I was only giving $10 for all night and the Navy guys were being charged $15 for a short time. They would literally line up for a quick poke and a squirt. For the prostitutes it was an assembly line process they endured. They knew that they would never see the Navy guys again so there was no incentive to pay much attention beyond what they earned lying down. Merchant seamen, on the other hand, would return from time to time as a lot of guys made regular runs to the Far East. It was not uncommon for seamen to have families in the East and the West, unknown to each other, of course. As a result, seamen were treated very differently from military types. And, seamen had cash, not scrip. She and I got together the next night after the Navy guys pulled out and she was none the worse for wear. When it was time for us to go, she and I took a long quiet walk, holding hands and creating a memory. We didn’t know whether we’d ever see each other again and we didn’t make any promises, either.

Our load of cement took us to Da Nang. We had to take the launch to town. It let us off right in front of the Grand Hotel. And, it was grand, just as the French had built it. We went inside and I bought a bag of candy to eat instead of booze to drink. This apparently, set off a whole set of expectations on the part of the whores toward me. They asked me if I was interested in some good pot, which of course I was. I was told that when I exited the Grand Hotel and walked down the front steps to the street to be sure to look for a certain rickshaw driver. I agreed, got up and left. As I walked down the front steps toward the street I saw that there must have been 50 rickshaw drivers lined up on either side of the steps, all clamoring for me to go with them. I looked, bewilderingly, around at this mass of humanity pulling me when, out of the pile, came a calm man who simply held out his hand and said “come with me. I know what you want.” And that was that. I was with the right guy, I guess. He took me down deep into the bowels of Da Nang. We wound our way through narrow streets and alleys and, at one point we passed a uniformed cop who just looked at me and smiled. I wondered if I was going to come out of this alive. I was way far into this city that I had never been in before, was by myself in a country we were at war with and had no idea what was going on or was going to happen. At last we came to a small concrete walled, white washed, two room house with a thatched roof and a dirt floor. I was invited to sit in one of the rooms and wait. After a time an elderly Vietnamese man dressed in white silk pajamas, with white wispy hair and a matching fu Manchu goatee, came into the room and sat down on a futon like sofa. He did not look at me or speak to anyone and, quietly, opened a satchel and pulled out an oil lamp, a tin, some bamboo sticks, matches and a few other things. He proceeded to sit and roll opium into tiny balls which he then skewered one at a time and, holding them over the flame of the lamp, waited for them to start to smoke. When they did he sniffed the smoke into his nostrils. I watched him in rapt attention. I was fascinated with what was going on. I sat there as quietly as he, watching this almost religious rite going on.

After he apparently had his fill of smoking opium, he gestured for me to join him on the sofa. I declined, being completely freaked out by the entire situation. This was like something out of a foreign film. I thought this guy was going to put me into an opium delirium and then I’d be beheaded or something. In the end I bought some small containers of liquid opium from him as well as some pot and went on back to the ship.

Back on the ship with these little containers of liquid opium I mulled over what to do with them. I had the 4 to midnight gangway watch that night and felt that there would probably not be much action during my watch so…. But what do I do with liquid opium? I set up the stereo I had bought in Taiwan for $20 and put on a Rolling Stones record. While listening to the music I decided that the best way to deal with this dilemma would be to drink it. So I got a tumbler of water, dumped one of the small containers of opium into it and drank it down. For the rest of my watch I felt like a piece of smiling putty. I was real glad that my watch was as easy as the way I felt. I remember that all of the lights on our ship and those adjoining us were incredibly and indescribably colorful. The music wasn’t so bad, either. I also listened to records by the Beatles and the Supremes that I’d bought in Taiwan. What a way to watch the war!

On another night I went ashore and missed the last launch to get back to the ship. This was a problem as I knew that we were supposed to shift the ship the next day and I didn’t want to get left behind. One reason was that I didn’t know where we were shifting to and another was that I would have to find and pay my own way to get to wherever the ship went. Plus, I would get fined and written up for being AWOL. I was standing at the launch landing dock when I ran across a soldier who had a couple buddies patrolling the harbor. He hooked me up with a ride on a slate-gray Cobra gunboat. The gunboat’s captain said that if I could identify my ship out in the harbor he’d take me to it. “Sure.” I said, “No problem.” When we got out into the inky blackness of the harbor I looked at a harbor full of ships, most of them freighters and all of them lit up like Christmas trees.

The gunboat, sinister in its low slung shape that was obviously built to sneak up quietly on anything and almost invisible in the water that reflected a million lights, motored noiselessly like a snake in the grass. I made an educated guess as to which ship was mine and which, when we drew closer to its hull, turned out to be wrong. Then I made a second guess that upon closer inspection was also incorrect. The gunboat captain said to me that I had one more shot at it or I was going to spend the rest of their shift on the boat with them. I looked at the guy in the bow in full flak jacket manning a 50 cal. Automatic Machine gun, two guys on either gun whale with flak jackets on and automatic rifles at the ready and at the guy steering, who was nonchalantly smoking a cigarette. They all wore helmets and an expression of non-concern on their faces. I took a deep breath, looked long and hard around me and made a choice. It turned out to be the right one as I could read, in big white letters, the name of the ship on its stern.

They took me around to the side where the gangway was supposed to be, only to find it had been raised. I yelled, as loud as I could, to anyone that I hoped was up on deck that I was down below and wanted to get on. Heads popped over the side and, in a few minutes, the Jacob’s ladder came tumbling down, stopping just out of my reach. Timing the rise and fall of the gunboat against the end of the Jacob’s ladder, I jumped just at the arc of its rise and, using the action like a springboard, was able to get high enough to grab onto the ladder. The gunboat stayed long enough to make sure I wasn’t going to fall back into the water and then quietly disappeared into the night. I learned that the ship was shifting earlier than expected, in fact within the hour of my return. Two other guys didn’t make it back that night, had to fly to our next port, and got written up and fined.

We went back to Saigon on another run and I got a chance to really see the city. It was pretty incredible walking through a French provincial city. The streets were teeming with people. They were on mopeds, in rickshaws, on bicycle, and on foot. Occasionally someone would come by in a car. The American military was everywhere, too. On one hand Saigon was like any other big city, on the other hand, it was like the wild west. It seemed like anything went. The Vietnamese women were especially beautiful. Dressed in white silk tops and leggings with long black hair they were truly exotic. One evening I went ashore and somehow ended up with a prostitute for the night.

She took me to her home, which was located some distance from the downtown area. We walked for blocks and blocks then walked up staircase after outdoor staircase and finally down a long corridor to get to her quarters in a large high-rise apartment house complex. Her apartment was sparsely, though neatly and cleanly, furnished. In one corner was a crib and in it, an Amerasian baby. She spoke English and, showing me a picture of the baby’s father, told me he was a fighter pilot whom she hadn’t seen for some time. We spent the night in her bed, a four poster totally draped in heavy mosquito netting. All night I heard strange, scraping sounds. Looking around, I saw there were geckos, other types of lizards and large insects crawling around on the ceiling, walls and floor. In the morning I left, accompanied by pointed stares and quiet talking behind my back as I made my way back to the ship. A couple days later, as we were leaving Saigon and heading to Vung Tau, as I was urinating I felt a stinging sensation that became excruciating. Pus started to drip from my swollen penis. I went to the captain and explained my woe. He had a good laugh and, after we tied up, sent me to the Army field hospital in Vung Tau. While in the hospital waiting to be seen by the docs, I had a chance to see a lot of Polaroid pictures of what strains of venereal disease were doing to guys. It was very ugly. People’s genitalia and bowel areas were literally rotting away. The doc saw me and prescribed penicillin. Two weeks later, in Korea, I still had the clap. Going to the field hospital there, I learned that the penicillin was not working and I was prescribed tetracycline. The captain administered my injections and in short order my problem cleared up and I was back to normal.

As we continued to go around in a circle in the China Seas, the crew grew more and more restless, angry and fearful. The ship continued to have 12 feet of water in the chain locker and moved very ponderously through the water. The second mate had almost gotten us ship wrecked, the lifeboats didn’t float, and the ship was literally rusting away underneath us. The captain stayed in his room and had his meals delivered to him. The Chief mate took on illusions of grandeur and became Bligh-like. The second was his go-fer and the third stayed well to him self. We were as dysfunctional as any family could be: Everyone was at each other’s throats and no one knew what to do about it. Then, somehow, someone found out or realized that we’d only signed 6 month papers. When a seaman normally signs on to a trip, the contract is for a year. This protects the ship owners in the case of an extended lay over or other unforeseen events that might tie the ship up for a time and have them risk losing the crew. In the event the contract is up while the crew is still at sea, there is the option for the crew to be replaced, at the owners expense. Once we found out that we had signed articles for six months instead of a year, we all wanted to go home, right then.

The Chief mate decided he was going to instill the law and order amongst the crew that the captain should have. Fortunately, the only person on the ship authorized to possess a gun was the captain and he wasn’t going to give it up. The Chief did, however, have access to the flare gun and threatened to use it against us. Jerry got into an argument with the Chief in one of the passageways and became particularly vociferous. No one saw it happen but Jerry said the Chief hit him with the gun. Jerry had a gash in his forehead and was bleeding profusely when he came into the mess hall. We were all ready to riot and it was only the calming influence of guys like Gene, Lenny and the Bosun that prevailed and prevented a real disaster from happening.

In a way to work out our frustration someone made a voodoo doll in the likeness of the Chief mate, stuck it with pins, smeared it with blood and hung it in the wheelhouse. The Chief made light of it but he stopped walking around the deck or anywhere else on the ship by himself. He also refused the coffee routinely brought to him when he was on watch. When we docked in Naha, Okinawa we all left the ship en masse and went to the Coast Guard station. The union officials were notified, the ship owners were notified, and there were meetings behind closed doors between all of them along with the military. We were not privy to those meetings but, at the same time, we knew we were not going to be on that ship when it finally left Okinawa.

After a few days we were told that, in fact, the contract was only good for six months and that we were going to be flown home. I packed up my stuff, including an old Bowditch that the third had given me in the event I wanted to learn celestial navigation. I did, however, have to toss over the side a souvenir I had brought from Vietnam. I had become enamored of the baskets that the Vietnamese carried their goods in. The peasants, wearing black pajamas, flip flops and a concial hat made of bamboo fronds to ward off the sun, would carry wicker baskets attached on either end of a long bamboo pole that hung suspended across of their shoulder. They were able to carry enormous loads that way and I thought that the baskets typified what I wanted my memory of the Vietnamese people to be. Sadly, I had to throw them over the side and settle for just the memory, instead. I was able to keep the elephant hide boots and wallet that I’d bought along the way, though, and wore them on the plane home. The boots were actually too small and I ultimately ended up giving them away. The wallet I used for many years until it eventually wore out.

We left Okinawa, flew to Japan and then to Seattle where we transferred to a flight taking us back to New York City. It took us 8 hours to fly across the Pacific and four more hours in the air to get to New York. As we traveled over the international date line, we were at an altitude such that I was able to see the curvature of the earth and also able to watch the sun set in the west and then rise in the east.

When we landed in New York we all went directly from the airport to the union hall and met with the ship’s agent. Standing in line and one by one, we each went into a room and took care of business, signing our vouchers and receipts, receiving our wages in cash and formally signing off the trip. As I left the room after my turn I just kept walking, hoisting my sea bag over my shoulder and dragging my sea locker behind me. My first stop was to the bathroom where I took off my shoes and socks and, making the piles as even and as flat as possible, wrapped the couple of thousand of dollars around the bottom of my feet, put my socks and shoes back on and walked down to the subway stop to catch the train to the 42nd Street bus station where I boarded an express Greyhound bus to Baltimore. I never saw any of the guys I had spent the last six months of my life with again.