Tuesday, January 12, 2016

It's Only Me- Chapter 19- USNS Pawcatuck

I arrived in Barcelona on the 4th of December 1980. I proceeded to the Pawcatuck and was logged aboard. Now it was time to confront the reality that I was a Merchant Mariner. There was a fierce reputation associated with this occupation and I was a bit nervous about "measuring up."

The first thing was to get my berthing arrangements taken care of. When you board a ship you are given the next available cabin in your pay grade. This regulation prevents favoritism which can be attributed to race or influence. I was scheduled for a two man cabin outside the crews lounge. I was shown to it and began to unpack my sea bag. I assumed I would be taking the top bunk.

After about 10 minutes an eldery light skinned black man entered the room. Upon seeing me he went crazy. Actually told me that I needed to pack up and get out. He wasn't going to share a room with a young white guy. Everyone knows that young white guys are filthy, do drugs, have wild parties late at night and there was no way he was rooming with me.

Now on a Merchant ship you either swim or get sunk in the first five minutes aboard. It's all up to you and the attitude you take. In the Navy I boarded Neosho and was immediately asked if my Mother still menstruated. I had 2 choices- bust the guy in the mouth and risk the consequences, or rise to the occassion and meet the guy on level ground. I replied "She's flowing like the Nile, how's yours?" This set me apart as a guy who could take it and give it right back. That was what I needed to do here.

I informed the man, who's name was Sylvester Eldridge, that I was not moving. He went to get the Bosun, who is in charge of the deck crew. The Bosun informed me that Eldridge doesn't take roommates and that he had a private cabin for me. I refused. My position was that if I backed down and accepted a better room rather than the one I was legally entitled to, then I would have a rough time with the rest of the crew.

I informed the Bosun that I was staying in the assigned room. That was the end of it as far as I was concerned. The Bosun left and I kept unpacking while Eldridge continued to rave on about how the "Captain will straighten this out!"

The Captain arrived and asked me to change rooms. I informed him of the Union regulations governing assignment of berthing quarters. I also expressed my concerns about sharing a room with a black man. I told Elridge that everyone knew blacks smelled and were filthy. I was also concerned that he would be cluttering the place up with chicken wings and watermelon rinds.

The Captain refused to budge and ordered me to change rooms. I replied that if I had to move I was boarding the next plane back to New York and he could explain to the Command why he was wasting all this time and money. I also stated that if I did change rooms it meant that this old black guy was really in charge of the ship and if I had any future problems I would take them up with Eldridge rather than the Captain. That did it. He turned to Eldridge and told him "Meet your new roomate." And then he walked out.

Eldridge begrudgingly accepted the Captains ruling and I finished unpacking. It should be noted here that Eldridge and I became fast friends and that he followed me to my next 2 ships after Pawcatuck. He was a Bible thumping old Octoroon, that is a man of mixed blood from Louisiana with 1/8 black blood. Legally, in the old days, this made him white! He was one of the first Christians I ever met that didn't try to convert me. Actually he was quite pleased to be rooming with a Jew. He also was one of the first to make me understand the heritage that ran through my blood. Heavy stuff.

That evening I went out for a walk along the Ramblas in Barcelona. This is a huge boulevard lined with every conceivable type of shop. After a good walk about I noticed that every one was crying. I could gather nothing with my limited Spanish and so I headed back to the ship.

Eldridge greeted me at the gangway and told me that John Lennon had been shot and killed in New York outside the Dakota. I was shocked that he even knew who John Lennon was. His exact words to me were "Bob,a man of Peace has been killed." And this is what made John Lennon so unusual, that he could cross racial barriers and generation gaps. Eldridge summed it up best when he observed that because Lennon had not been afraid to be himself it was now easier for everyone to be a bit more free.

Eldridge and I became inseperable. We saved each others legs when they became fouled in the rigging during UnReps. He saved my fingers when I almost lost them while holding a trolley line and the saddle broke loose- sending the trolley so quickly down the line that I actually felt it brush my fingers as Eldridge pulled me away.

He was 65 years old and had been in the Navy from 1942 to 1960, never ranking above Steward in the Mess decks. That was the way it was back then. He had been home for only 3 Christmas holidays in 38 years! I was living with the Ancient Mariner and I loved it.

The Pawcatuck was built in 1946 in Chester, Pa. She was 34,500 tons displacement and could make 16 knots. She was old but pretty. She was named after a river in Rhode Island.

We worked the Med from one end to the other. Ships were literally lined up to the horizon waiting to take station for their fuel. We sometimes worked 24-36 hours, sleeping on our feet while pumping. We got overtime and also "penalty" time when we missed a meal. All in all this was going to be a good job!

When we hit a port we went crazy! Without the constraints of the Navy Shore Patrol we were like Kings in a foreign land. We had stacks of cash which made our behavoir acceptable to the locals, who depended upon our spending for their living. Actually I think they found us amusing the way we dashed about, buying up everything in sight, fighting with one another etc.

One incident still stands out as a true indicator of the difference between Americans and Europeans at the time. We were in Palma on the Island Of Mallorca. A few of us had a truly wonderful dinner at a nice local restaurant. We had sampled all of the local wines and were feeling quite good. One of the guys really admired the hand written menus, which were unlike anything we'd seen in the States. So he took it with him when we left. In the States this would have gone unnoticed.

We got about 150 feet from the restaurant when the waiter came charging down the street shouting "Alto, bandito!" Catching up to us he started stabbing my friend with a fork while unleashing a tirade in Spanish against the pilferer of the menu. It took 4 of us to subdue him and then we had to deal with the local cops. They took a $10 bill from us and gave it to the waiter, who seemed satisfied with the settlement.

There were 108 of us aboard Pawcatuck and we did the same amount of work as a Navy crew of 375 had done aboard Milwaukee. We were in the big league now. 108 was also our hull number- which never occurred to me until this writing.

After about 6 weeks I switched from Deck Maintenance to the Watch Division. This put me back on the bridge full time, most notably as an UnRep helmsman. It also kept me near the charts and navigation equipment which I had grown so fond of on Milwaukee.

The only drawback to the change was one of my new roomates. I had to switch to a 3 man room which was how the watches were set up. 3 men to a watch for 4 hours twice a day. Each team slept in it's own space so as not to disturb anyone else when being woken for your watch. But in every crowd there is one loose cannon and in ours it was Herb Feller.

Herb was a truly obnoxious and drunken fellow from Philadelphia who loved nothing more than to create problems. He soon set his sights on me. My crime was that I loved all the old movies and music that he had grown up with during the 1940's. I suppose he felt that I was robbing him of his memories or something, I'm not really sure. But it all came to a head one night at about 3:45 in the morning. The curtain to my bunk was ripped back and my covers snatched away. I opened my eyes and there was Herb holding a chair over his head with the clear intention of using it to reconfigure my countenance. He was on a tirade about my mother being a whore etc. Anything to get me to jump up so he could use that chair on my head! Not a chance.

Reasoning that a drunk can only hold a chair aloft for so long, I waited. Gradually you could see the chair lowering inch by inch as he became tired. When it was sufficiently lowered I sprung from my bunk. Taking advantage of the ships roll enabled me to knock him and the chair down. The Bosun was summoned by someone and the Captain awakened. Herb was taken away and I went back to sleep.

We weathered a few storms on this cruise, none so severe as the one on the Milwaukee. The worst place to be during a storm was on the tank deck which was one deck lower than our main deck and open to the sea. It would be very easy to get washed overboard from this location. Still it had a strange fascination, being so close to the swells as they buffeted the ship. It has a stark beauty which must be seen and felt up close to do it justice.

In March, after only 4 months we headed back to the US for a drydock period. We would be in drydock at Bayonne,New Jersey. This was directly across from about 57th Street in Brooklyn. I hailed a guy with a small boat and for $40 he took me across to Brooklyn. From there I carried my sea bag to Colemans Hardware on 5th Avenue at 51st Street. Mark Shorr was a part owner of this store with his father in law. It was always fun to see his face and the surprise on it when I would arrive unannounced. I stashed my sea bag with him and went for a walk.

I went home with Mark to the house in Rockaway. I had begun to stay with Mark and Lois everytime I was in port or on leave. Things with my parents would never be right and so Mark and Lois became my family. I was always treated wonderfully by Mark's Mom Estelle and Lois' parents, Aaron and Reva. As a matter of fact, it was Aaron who really started me thinking about what it meant to be Jewish.

Knowing that I had no family to speak of, Aaron and Reva always made sure I was included in the family gatherings on Jewish Holidays. I was still getting very high and although I was probably a sorry spectacle at times, they never once closed the door on me. I was always invited to the family functions and will always be grateful to them for it.

Funny thing is that Lois had a Grandfather who had been in the Navy. And no one in the family seemed to know it! He had actually been aboard the first Milwaukee, which was a light cruiser in the late 30's or early 40's. I used to marvel at that coincidence, and still do.

I remained at Mark and Lois' until May when I left again to join the USNS Jupiter which was on station in Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory. Eldridge was already on his way to join me there. So on May 17th I barely caught my Evergreen Airways flight to Diego Garcia. It would be a 21 hour flight with a pit stop in Athens, Greece to refuel.

1 comment:

  1. Still would like to get you in the group now over a hundred old salts