Chapter 2 of ” Four men in a boat” by ” Shipmate”…”

Tielbank was the ex Samburgh. She served from 1947 to 1960 (2 years after when this story was set) She then had 2 years as the Italian ” Giacomo” and a further 7 years on the Liberian register as “Sorrelhorse”.

2 CHAPTER TWO (Queer Folk)                                        

 Nineteen hundred and fifty eight was not a remarkable year for most people but for the young sailor it was quite memorable as it marked his second trip to sea.  He would remember it for other reasons, but being over thirty-four years old, the ship he joined in Rotterdam was exactly double his age, which was barely four months past his seventeenth birthday.

The deck Officers, apprentices, and engineers had travelled together from London to join the ship in Holland’s most prestigious port.  The crew, both deck and engine room, were already aboard being mainly Indian, and had been signed on in Calcutta the year before.

Arriving at the busy docks, a tender took the men out to their ship that was moored to a buoy.  Some of the older hands were heard to skeptically comment that the reason that the ship was midstream was to discourage the newcomers from deserting.

As the launch rounded a flotilla of naval vessels, the name of the ship became visible on her transom.  A mood of resigned apathy settled on the group at the sight of their future home, which was by far and away the oldest ship in the harbour.

The bow was straight up and down with the deck crew’s accommodation in the forecastle.  Their galley chimneys were soot blackened ‘H’ stacks that together with the outdated girder derricks did little to enhance the ships superstructure.  The wrought iron hull was of rivet construction that had become obsolete since the Second World War.  The main deck was sheathed in teak in the traditional fashion, probably a legacy from sailing ships and served to keep feet from burning in the tropics.  On the downside, they constantly needed cleaning by scrubbing with a ‘holy-stone’ and coconut husks, an unwelcome chore for both the crew and the apprentices.

The accommodation proved little better with no running water or central heating and the small electric blow heaters provided, were noisy and often inadequate.

The Captain and senior officers luckily enjoyed running water of sorts when the apprentices, using a relay of buckets from the stern fresh water supply, manually topped up the ‘monkey island’ water tank, before breakfast each day.

A strange device was located in the apprentices cabin.  It consisted of a piece of bent copper tube with a brass connector brazed on one end.

Its true purpose came to light before going ashore during the voyage. It was a magical device that provided hot water for washing and shaving.  All one had to do was fill a five gallon drum with fresh water hand pumped from the after peak tank.  Having carried the drum to the boat deck the rest was simple.

  The engineers were cajoled to put steam on the winches and the resulting hot water was bled from the cylinders.  When all the water had been drained off and just steam was evident, the copper tube was fixed to the drain cock with the screwed connector.  The free end was submerged in the cold water and in no time at all the bubbling steam heated the water to perfection.  That is after the scum of grease was skimmed off the surface.  Either the Italian coffee machines were centered on this method or some earlier crewmember had cleverly adapted the principle as the only means for sprucing up in case of a liaison with the opposite sex.

Discharging and formalities complete, the ship sailed from Rotterdam at first light next morning.

The trip across the North Atlantic was wet from both the constant squalls and heavy sea’s that came aboard from time to time but the passage enabled the ship’s compliment to get to know one and other and settle into routines familiar to vessels all over the world. 

The, otherwise uneventful crossing, saw them arrive on the American eastern seaboard about to pick up a pilot.

Ahead of them, a luxury liner entered the estuary and at her reduced speed was still travelling faster than the ancient cargo vessel.

The apprentices rigged up a ‘pilot ladder’ and stood by to assist the pilot from the approaching launch.  A heaving line was tossed to the pilot boat and used to retrieve its headline, which was secured to a bollard.

John, the junior apprentice was amazed.  The pilot nimbly scaled the ladder and waited while the apprentices hauled his bag aboard and cast off the pilot boat.

The pilot was unbelievably different from his European counterparts, who were usually ex-ships officers and wore smart uniforms and conducted themselves with dignified aplomb.

The man being escorted to the tiny wheelhouse was a huge Texan wearing a florid and brightly coloured shirt, wide brimmed Stetson hat and ornately engraved leather boots.  Taking his ever-present cigar out of his mouth, he shook the Captain’s hand and looking round said, ‘What museum did this come out of?’

The Captain, momentarily lost for words, ordered ‘full ahead’ and the engines responded to the telegraph’s instructions by belching a dense cloud of black smoke from the tall narrow funnel.

European pilots seldom conversed with junior ranks when the Captain was around but the Texan was not so inhibited, particularly as he sensed that he had got off on the wrong foot with the Captain.

The pilot commented to, no one in particular, that ‘had I not got stuck in the traffic this morning, I would be having breakfast on the bridge of the Liner instead of this rust bucket.’

He appeared oblivious to having hurt the feeling of those around him but little did he know what fate awaited him, perhaps in retribution for his careless comments.

Another difference the junior apprentice noticed was that, in his rather limited experience, pilots communicated with the tugs by whistle.  Either the pea variety used by referees and policeman or by using the ship’s whistle situated on the funnel and operated by a lanyard.

  The Texan, however, was using the latest technology.  As they approached land, he produced a ‘walkie talkie’ from his bag and commenced a conversation with the skippers of the tugs, mainly centered around the baseball game of the previous evening. 

 A short lived calm settled on the bridge whose occupants included the Captain, the pilot, the helmsman, and the two watch keepers consisting of the officer of the watch who was the third mate for berthing and the apprentice who recorded all orders.  His responsibility was to make handwritten notes that included the time and various instructions.  In addition, he made written records of notable points such as lights or recognisable buildings including the time they passed abeam. 

With hindsight, the problems all began when the pilot, in an act of high spirits, decided to signal with the ship’s whistle to the coast guard station as they passed.

  Had he consulted those around him things might have turned out differently.  As it was, he tugged on the lanyard and a surprisingly loud series of three long blasts, more in keeping with a great ocean liner, echoed around the port.  The reason for the unusual loudness was that the whistle was not the customary steam type but activated by compressed air. 

Unfortunately the air tank became totally depleted and was to have a devastating affect on later events.

It was thought that the ship was approaching the quay rather rapidly although only at eight knots that was almost her maximum speed.  In any event, everyone thought that the pilot was fully in control which in all fairness, probably would have been the case, had he had a modern and responsive vessel.

The concrete quay was lined with expectant handlers and Stevedores.  Railway trucks, full of cargo were waiting to be loaded, but were partly obscured by giant cranes whose jibs were raised in readiness.

The pilot, noticed their rather rapid approach and ordered, ‘full astern’.  Nothing happened.  The order was repeated and the third officer, once again, rang the telegraph but was left unrewarded by the lack of an answering signal from the engine room. 

The hitherto calm of the bridge deck was shattered.  The Captain picked up the ancient telephone to the engine room.  He violently wound the handle that caused the connection to ring below.  Perhaps it was his haste that was responsible for the instrument becoming dislodged from the bulkhead but there was little doubt that the weight of the telephone itself caused the wires to part as it fell heavily onto the deck.  The Captain, who was known for his quick thinking, grasped the ‘voice pipe’ and blew with all his might causing a backfire of years of dust to fill the air. 

The slow drawling Texan started speaking excitedly into his ‘walkie talkie’ but realizing that the battery was now flat due to his long chat about last night’s game, he bellowed loudly to the Chief Officer manning the windlass in the bows.

‘Drop the left hook’, he ordered.

The chief Officer, a Yorkshire man, was from Hull on Humber or so he told everybody and was a bit deaf.  Nevertheless he would have picked up the instruction had it been – ‘Let go Starboard anchor”.  He stood looking towards the bridge with his hand cupped to his good ear and shouted ‘Eh?’ 

The junior apprentice was trying hard not to laugh and wanted to ask what he should record.  He decided that in the circumstances he had better keep quiet and instead, to write everything down which, after the event, proved to be a very useful record.

Seeing the gap between the bows and the concrete quay swiftly diminishing, the Captain raised the electric bridge megaphone to his lips and cried, ‘Let go the anchor.’

The crowd of onlookers waiting on the shore could hardly believe their eyes at the sight of the rapidly approaching vessel.  It was if they expected some sort of intervention, divine or otherwise.  Almost as one they started to run to escape from the imminent collision.

The pilots frantic whistling was lost in the noise that followed.  Three things occurred almost simultaneously.  The solid wrought iron bows ploughed into the Quay.  The Chinese carpenter released the brake on the port anchor, which fell onto the dock and became entangled with the string of railway coaches.  The engineers finally engaged the engines astern causing the funnel to belch clouds of, soot laden, black smoke. 

There was plenty of slack on the anchor chain allowing the ship to steadily move astern, dragging the railway coaches with it which became snarled up with a crane whose driver just had time to jump clear before the crane was dragged unceremoniously into the water, together with the several cars that had been parked beneath it.

The pilot was beside himself and had removed his Stetson and was holding his arms out in a silent plea to the Captain as though to say, ‘What have I done wrong?’

Meanwhile, the current had caught hold of the ship and slewed her round parallel to the quay.  The tugs were unable to push her alongside because the wrong anchor being dropped too late and the pile of debris that was dragged into the water prevented any progress.

The harbour authorities, the Longshoreman’s Union, the shipping company’s agents and the Insurers later took independent statements. 

 The pilot blamed the Captain who blamed the engineers for not going astern.  The Chief engineer, an irascible Scot, in turn blamed the pilot for using up all of the compressed air.

  ‘We had to wait for the tank to recharge,’ he said, ‘before we could engage the engines astern.’ 

 He correctly asserted that the telegraph was still calling for reverse movement when the engines finally responded.

After several meetings between the various parties at the Insurers palatial offices in downtown Houston, a conclusion was finally arrived at and the Chairman scribbled his signature beneath the four words at the end of the lengthy report.

’ An act of God.’

 After the repairs had been carried out, the ship loaded her cargo without further incident and left Houston heading south towards the Panama Canal, bound for Australia.  Prior to her passage through the Canal she received a message from Head Office to call at the nearby Port of Brownsville to take aboard a number of wooden cases containing scientific instruments.

Brownsville is largest southern City in the United States of America and lies on the Rio Grande where the great river enters the sea.  It is also close to the bridge forming a border crossing between Mexico and the United States.

The port is just a few miles from the center and was where they were due to load the last minute cargo.

They arrived around breakfast time on the Saturday before Easter.  The customs and health authorities cleared the ship but they had to await loading until the following Monday morning.

The junior apprentice had requested a day’s leave as he wanted to go into town to buy a birthday present and ‘take in a movie’, as the Americans would say.

When he had asked the Chief Officer’s permission to go ashore it was suggested that instead of taking the bus that perhaps the ships agent would give him a lift by car when he shortly returned to town.

The apprentice had freshly showered in the Officer’s shower and was waiting by the gangway when the agent who had agreed to transport him, had finished his business and was ready to depart.

As they drove towards the town the agent engaged the young sailor in conversation.

“Where are you off to lad?” he asked.

“Just to get some shopping Sir.”  Came the reply.

The agent raised his eyebrows – he couldn’t remember the last time he had been called ‘Sir’, if ever.

But then, he’d never met a rather unworldly English lad before.

“Do you like a bit of fun?” the agent asked, “What’s your name?”

“John.  Yes Sir, I do.”

“Well,” the agent said, “I’ve just got to call on my friend and being Saturday I’ve got the afternoon free so we can have some fun!”

They drove to what looked like a business park and pulled into an almost empty car park.

“Come on in John and meet my friend Ralph.”

They entered a large warehouse full of furniture of all kinds but nobody seemed to be about.  A lone figure appeared from the rear of the store where he had been locking up.  It was Ralph. 

The two men greeted one and other, hugging like long lost friends.  The agent disengaged and introduced John to the storekeeper.

“John’s off of a ship.  We’re going to have a bit of fun.  Shall we go to your place?  He can meet the dogs.”

John got into the back of the large American car and was asked by Ralph, “Do you like dogs?”

John replied, “Yes.  We used to have a dog but we’ve got a cat now at home.”

“And where’s that?” asked Ralph.

“England”, came the reply.

“Oh, that’s why you talk so funny!” commented Ralph.

John kept quiet but fleetingly thought that Ralph also spoke a bit weird with his high-pitched voice.

Ralph’s ‘place’ was a large remote single story house surrounded by a wire net fence about five feet high.  The garden was not particularly interesting being mostly covered over but was paved at one end containing a built in barbeque.

 “What’s that?” asked John pointing to the barbeque, a feature that had yet to be exported to Europe.

The dogs went mad at their arrival but soon became quiet when they saw who it was.  The pair of Rottweiler’s slavered all over the agent and their master but hardly acknowledged John’s presence.

Ralph said, “You’ll be perfectly safe with us here, they only become upset when people try to enter and funnily enough, leave.” 

Ralph disappeared through a door and the dogs followed him, presumably to be fed.

The agent said, “ would you like a drink?” and without waiting for a reply he poured half a glass of Vodka in each of three glasses adding ice that chinked and crackled as it met the spirit.

  He passed a glass to John and said,

“It’s a pity John, you haven’t a friend who likes a good time, – we could’ve made up a foursome.”

Ralph returned without the dogs and announced.

“Let the party begin!”  He downed a large swallow of Vodka and grimacing said,

“That’s better, I’ll put on some music.”

Elvis Presley’s dulcet tones filled the room as ‘Love me tender’ began to play from speakers concealed in each corner of the room.

After they had listened to the singing for a while, he turned to John and asked,

“Have you got a stiffy?”

“Yes thank you, I’ve got a large Vodka,” answered John politely, thinking he was being asked if he had a ‘stiff’ drink.

Young inexperienced and naïve he might have been, but alarm bells suddenly started to ring in John’s head.

The choice of music brought it home to him, and the term ‘Stiffy’ that he felt may have another meaning.  Coupled with Ralph’s vocal intonations, he started to get quite worried.

His immediate problem was how to get away especially now he was aware of the guard dogs.

In addition, he felt he couldn’t challenge his new acquaintances for fear he may have misread things. 

His brain was working at full speed when a way out occurred to him.

“I’m supposed to meet one of the other apprentices at five to go to the Pictures,” he paused.  “We could all go together!”

“Sounds good to me,” the agent said, “Don’t you just love that accent Ralph?”  He started to go through the motions of Jiving.

“By Pictures he means movies,” said the gyrating agent.

Ralph replied,

“‘There’s a lousy film on at the moment, wouldn’t your friend like some fun instead?”

John said that the other apprentice loved a bit of fun and that they would certainly take on board Ralph’s views regarding the film.

They finished their drinks simultaneously with the end of the record and Ralph cuddled his dogs as though he was going to be away for weeks.

This time Ralph sat in the back of the car where there was space for the other apprentice.

It was ten past five as they arrived at the Cinema that was situated in a busy thoroughfare in the center of the town.

“I’ll see if he’s there,” said John.  “He may have got impatient and gone in already as it may have started.”

With that he casually climbed out of the car and entered the Cinema.

The foyer was empty: he knew it would be, as his supposed meeting was imaginary.  Nevertheless he continued with the charade.

The girl in the sales kiosk could hardly understand the smart young chap who was saying something about meeting someone.

When he asked if it was all right if he took a look inside, she nodded her head and wondered what the lucky girl looked like.

He quickly pushed through the double doors and for a moment couldn’t see a thing until his eyes became adjusted to the darkness.

A dim light marking the ‘fire exit’ stood out at the bottom of each row.

Careful not to disturb anyone, he made swiftly for the exit and was soon out in the clean fresh air.  Without glancing back he ran two blocks before entering a drug store and mingling with the customers.

When he judged that half an hour had passed he ordered a banana split with a coke and asked the waiter to call a cab, which arrived just as he finished his food and drink.

The relief he felt to be on the way back to his ship and safety, turned to mirth when the talkative driver told him the name of the movie showing at the only Cinema in town.  It was the latest release entitled, 

‘Close Encounter.’

                                     —       —       —

“Hello honey I’m home.” the agent called as he entered the house from the garage.

His wife came through from the kitchen where she had been preparing a pot roast. 

“You’re late, have you had a busy day dear?”

He took the can of Miller’s she had given him, popped the ring pull, and swallowed the ice-cold beer, before answering.

“Not really, I finished at the docks early and knowing you’d be at the hairdressers, I went round to see Ralph.”

She added some bay leaves to the dish and slid it into the oven and said,

“ How is he getting on after the operation?  If it’s not one thing it’s another.  Bad enough loosing his wife and only son in that boating accident.  Probably the stress manifested itself and that’s how he developed the growth in his throat.”

He sat down at the kitchen table and rested his feet on a stool.

“Some people are very strange.” He said.

 “ I picked up a lad from the ship.  I reckoned I would show him a good time.  Thought Ralph might like a change.  Hardly sees anyone and just lives for those dogs since the accident.  Took the lad with me and it seemed to cheer Ralph up.  He even put some music on.  First time since, you know…”

He lit two cigarettes and passed one to his wife.  “Third today, how about you?”  He exhaled deeply.  Without waiting for a reply, he continued,

“ Ralph joined the mood and I think the lad reminded him a bit of Jimmy as he even looked forward to some fun for once.  Thought we’d take the boy to the funfair or maybe the recreation park but all that the English lad wanted to do, would you believe, was to go to the movies.

Anyway, he disappeared inside.  We waited for over a quarter of an hour and then got moved on by a traffic cop.  We didn’t see him again.”

“That’s a shame dear, particularly for Ralph, after all he’s been through.”  She said, stubbing her cigarette out.

“Mrs. Wilkinson told me that when she was walking her poodle in the park she saw Ralph with his two dogs.  He was chatting to that fancy stuck up widow on the corner.  “ They seemed to be getting on very well, if you know what I mean,’’ she said. 

‘Well, would you credit it.  I suppose it takes all types,” her husband responded.

Back on board the ship the apprentice pondered his recent experiences.  Starting with the pilot and then the agent and his friend, he thought that the people he had met in America were a very queer bunch indeed.  Perhaps it was because they were too casual and over friendly and in some ways, unworldly.

 He decided that he would wait until Adelaide where his brother lived before going ashore again.  After all the Australians were more like the English or so he had heard and especially as he was now broke and had to save up some more money. 

all comments welcome!

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