As a youngster, those many years ago I had occasion to think
being a Merchant Seaman was something I wanted to explore. To literally get my
feet wet so to speak, I joined a Seaman’s Union, and finally went to sea on a
We first went to Long Beach, California and took on a shipload
of refined oil which we delivered to Japan. Once we offloaded the oil, we went back
out to sea. We spent three days scooping out bucketsful of the dregs from the
ship bilges, dumped it into the blue Pacific waters before heading back to Portland,
Oregon again to take on a load of grain. When the grain was loaded onboard, we
were off again heading for India.
Both coming and going into the entrance to the harborage of
the Columbia River, we had to pass over the ‘Columbia River Bar.’ It’s a huge
sandbar that juts off the West Coast and every ship or boat coming or going from
Portland has to cross over it.
I was on a large ship. An oil tanker. From my sleeping
compartment to the water line was about sixty feet. Going over that sandbar had
water pouring into my cabin because I hadn’t secured the porthole in the
bulkhead across from my bunk. To say the ship was rolling back and forth radically
is a mis-statement. I thought we were going to roll over and sink. That was the
first time I questioned my choice of a lifestyle and occupation. Of course, the
ship was empty going across the bar.
I was signed on as a Second Cook and Baker. My job was to
bake all the bread and pastries for the crew and help the main cook in his
preparations of the meals. A cooks job on a merchant ship is never ending. It
is without a doubt the most labor-intensive job onboard. I had no idea how hard
I was required to work on a daily basis. Getting up at three o’clock every
morning was normal to get the dough and other preparations going. If you ever
baked anything, you’ll understand the length of time involved in not only the
preparations involved, but the cooking time. That was only a portion of it.
We cooked for fifteen of us, three meals a day, and there were
always sandwiches for the crew if they got hungry during the night or early
morning. Not to leave out mentioning the gallons of coffee that was a constant.
I had to bake the bread, slice it, slice
the meat and vegetables such as tomatoes, and lettuce and have it all laid out
for those who wanted it.
When we stocked the ship before any trip, I had to help load
the stores and put them away. It was a tough job and I was beginning to feel
sorry for myself once we left Portland and after getting the crap scared out of
me as we crossed over that sandbar again heading for India.
The ocean crossing trip going to India was fairly boring. We
didn’t have satellite TV back then or Walkman’s. You either worked, slept or
read a book. Some played chess or checkers while other idled away the time with
cards. I was studying for the Third Mate’s Coast Guard license, so I studied every
chance I got. Part of the requirements was you had to have so many days at sea.
Of course, I did some of the card
playing too, but I developed a dislike for a man from Haiti who was one of the
It all started one day when he didn’t like a peach cobbler I
prepared. It escapes me now after all these years what it was, he didn’t like
about my cobbler, but he came down on me if front of the whole crew during dinner
one evening. I was tired, I’d been at it all day and into the evening hours.
The seas were a bit rough and all I wanted to do was to take a shower and get
rested up for the next day.
This Haitian was a great big man. As I recall, about six
three and probably weighed in at about two fifty. He had great big hands, his
breath smelled terrible as he yelled at me and his nose was only two or three
inches from my own. While he was screaming, he was spraying me with saliva. I
decided right then and there I didn’t like him very much. When he was done
berating me, he turned to the crew and began laughing at the rest of the crew.
He said something along the lines of,
“I sure told that cook, didn’t I?’
Being at sea, you had to be careful you didn’t get anyone too
angry at you because who knew, someone might disappear in the night while they
were leaning on the lifelines having a smoke? It was easy enough to do. Especially in a
storm or in rough seas. If you went overboard, you were gone. He was a great
big guy, and nobody messed with him. He was also the First Mate. The Second in
Command of the ship. He was the man who usually handled things while we were in
port taking on a cargo or stores.
During one conversation with one of the crew a small tidbit was
dropped about Henry, the First Mate. He was a Haitian as I’ve said, but Henry
was very superstitious. My little wheels inside my head were turning since the
altercations, and I was trying to figure out how I was going to get him. The
light bulb suddenly went from dim to full bright on hearing this news.
Superstitious? Now, there’s a way.
Henry had his own cabin forward in the pilot house
structure. Three people lived up there. The Captain, the Radioman and of course
the First Mate. In between his cabin and the galley, was the next deck up from
where the rest of us had our sleeping accommodations. From the galley, you had
to go up a set of steps. Remember the light bulb and the little wheels going
around in my head? Superstitious was the key to getting that Haitian. I decided
to put my plan into working order.
I waited each night until everyone was sleeping except the
man in the wheelhouse steering the ship. It wasn’t unusual for me to be up
because I always had to get the bread started and prepare the dough for the
pastries. I went about gathering firehose from here and there. They’re all over
the ship in case of fire. All coiled up and connected to a large valve that
someone could crank open once the rest of the men had a good grip on that nozzle
and the rest of the hose. I ran this section of hose from a place alongside the
deck and the lifelines on my deck just below Henry’s deck above me. One end
went to the porthole to Henry’s cabin. When I was ready, I was giddy. I damned
near peed my pants in anticipation of the show I was hoping would ensue. Of
course, I could get caught too. I was careful.
I spoke into the end of the hose on my end,
“Henry…..I’m coming for you…. You know what you did man….
Back on the island man, …..I’m coming for you…. It is time….. You will pay!”
Then I laughed the scariest hideous laugh I could come up
“You can’t get away…. You know what you did man…. It is time….
You cannot escape.”
Then I laughed again.
Nothing happened. So, I went about taking the firehose down
and coiling it back up where it was stored.
The next day the Captain couldn’t get Henry to come out of
That night I strung the hose again.
“Henry,….. your time is up man…… You have to pay for what
you did….. We are waiting for you on the other side man.”
Then, the laugh started again. I made it as insane sounding
as I could, and it was prolonged this time.
I went up the ladder to the next deck and there was a light
on in Henry’s cabin, and the door stayed locked. I turned the handle on the
door, real slow back and forth. It made a rasping noise when I turned it. The
door was locked. I rattled the door a bit and then ran back down to my hose
“You can’t hide Henry.”
I said his name slow and I drew it out a bit kinda like, “H….e….n.…r….y!”
Then I began to laugh my insane laugh again.
I ran back up the ladder and unfastened the hose and put it
away and turned in for the night.
The next day the Captain had a meeting with the whole crew. This
is what he said,
“Henry won’t come out of his cabin. He’s in there mumbling
something about an island and how he’s sorry. I can’t get him to come out or to
talk to me so I’m having the Boatswain throw all the fire axes over the side.
If anyone has any ideas, I’m wide open for any suggestions.”
That night the hose came out again.
When we got to India, the Captain had several members of the
crew cut the door off the hinges and they dragged Henry out of his compartment.
It wasn’t easy, he’s a great big man but they did it and sent him to a hospital
Sometime, when you contemplate battle with a superior force,
you have to fight smart, you use your mind not your brawn.
I don’t know what happened to Henry after that, and frankly, I don’t care. People cannot belittle another person in front of a lot of people just for the hell of it. I decided after that trip sailing Merchant Seaman wasn’t in the cards for me so I quit sailing until years later I bought my own sailboat, stocked it with my woman, a cat, some books and lots of food and water, I went out the Straights of Juan de Fuca and turned left, but that’s another story.
L Michael Rusin