Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A True Sailor

Red skies at night
Sailors delight
Red skies at morning
Sailors take warning!

On a blustery cold winter day we departed out of San Francisco Bay in the late afternoon with a brisk chilly damp wind coming directly at us from the ocean under a thick and darkening gray sky from the west.

Our “ship”, not “boat”, pushed away from the dock with a sudden very loud shrill blast of its horn, then another and again another. We began to slowly plow through the mud brown dirty-white capped Bay towards the Gate.

We passed under the Golden Gate Bridge in slow motion. What just a few hours earlier I had walked up to, crossed over on foot, looked around on and down from… now, I was looking up at as we passed under.

It is a vivid memory imprinted upon all my senses. The cold salty air filled my nostrils and gave me the shivers. The wind pushed me in gusts, desperately doing its best to rip me away from the ship’s railing of which I clung. This massive expanse of steel hung above us, rising from two concrete columns out of mud brown bay and into a grey blanket of low-hanging clouds rushing to shore. She linked two isthmuses of land; the City on the left and Marin on the right. The open body of water ahead of us seemed to have no end, dark and foreboding with no visible horizon or any sign of life. The City By The Bay, with her tall buildings rising and falling on knobby hills; lights of life caring on in all their windows. The green and darker green hills of Marin, sculptured by eons of driving wind and rain; seagulls circling around and above looking down and calling out what seemed to be farewell. The slapping, chopping and washing of the waves against our gray hull. Yes, all of this filled all of my senses and washed over me.

Unforgotten memories of all this; even more so, I am sure. The previous total of all my meager first six years of life had been spent in the serene, dry, high desert of Albuquerque , New Mexico . It’s adobe low structures with ribbons of chimney smoke across a brown valley and was walled in on the East by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. What a contrast all of this seemed to me in 1953. Still, to this very day, it was as different as anyone can experience.

It seemed as if I was leaving all known civilization for an equally unknown one. This truly was my first day of being me and all around me was this new world straight ahead, out there somewhere, and it was now imprinting itself on each of my senses. Feeling, tasting, listening, and seeing for the first time in my life. A world of wonder had been magically blended with a child’s sense of apprehension resulting in a fair amount of reluctance.

I was traveling by ship to Hawaii with my mother, my thirteen year old sister, Bobbie Jean, and Grandmother Palmer on the USS Barrett. It was a Navy transport ship. My father was already in Hawaii at his new job with the Corps of Army Engineers, in Honolulu and we were on our way to join him.

My oldest sister, Pat, was seventeen and so much like a second Mom to me. Her absence on board was due to her staying behind in Albuquerque, just long enough to graduate from High School and attend her first year at the University of New Mexico before joining us. I would miss her on this trip, as well as later, as I first discovered and learned about Hawaii.

Hawaii, “an exotic island paradise”, or so I was told. I consumed every picture and every word about Hawaii in our Encyclopedia Britannica. It teased me with hula girls and pineapples, fragrant flowers and tall waterfalls, smoking red hot lava flows and a warm blue ocean with waves to play in under a perfect blue sky with the whitest fluffy cotton ball clouds anywhere.

I can still remember my sisters giggling with so much excitement, jumping around the living room when Mom and Dad, huge smiles beaming, sat us down and told us. ‘We have something very exciting to tell you. Dad has been transferred with a promotion to Hawaii ! Were moving to Hawaii!’ My sisters both, mouths agape, jumping off the couch and into the air, ‘ Hawaii! Hawaii! Hawaii!’ After bouncing around the living room with seemingly inexhaustible energy, they entertained me next by fighting with each other over the phone to call all their friends. ‘Guess where we are moving to? You’ll never guess. Hawaii . Really! …’

As a young boy with two older sisters, I might as well have been Cinderella when it came to getting a word in edge wise. I had become used to being ignored. In fact, once I had been left behind on a road trip to visit Grandma Palmer in Hatch, New Mexico . At night, alone in the desert, tail lights on my family’s car fading away, the engine sounding fainter and fainter until it was gone completely. But, that is another story and I am obviously still here, not having been devoured by hungry coyotes like I had imagined. Being ignored did not bother me. It just seemed to be the way it was with two older sisters. I will soon discover being ignored would also have its benefits.

Passing under The Golden Gate Bridge and even before clearing the last channel buoys our ship began to pitch and roll with the winter ocean swells. The Barrett was a converted navy transport ship with modest living accommodations for military families who were delivered to military assignments all over the world. Ship stabilizers for smooth sailing? You’ve got to be kidding.

It wasn’t long after we cleared the last channel buoy that we heard the chimes over the PA system call us to dinner. We ate at our assigned big round table with another family. There was a father and mother with their daughter who sat between her parents and who looked to be about ten. The room was abuzz with the chatter of a hundred voices. At one of the tables a man in a dark blue uniform stood up, and after getting everyone’s attention, introduced himself as our Captain. He informed us we were going to have a rough passing. All exterior decks were ‘Off- Limits’.
What is “off-limits”, I thought? ‘Mom, what is off-limits?’ ‘Shhh. Wait.’ I knew that any further inquires would lead to unpleasant results.
Everyone at our table talked about this, ‘off-limits’. Bobbie Jean, sitting next to me, finally told me, ‘off-limits means, you cannot go outside.’
Outside? Outside! Don’t worry, I thought to myself. The last time I looked we were ‘out to sea’.

Every passage to the outside decks had been secured with rope and signs posted, OFF-LIMITS. I’m not sure, but, this word ‘OFF-LIMITS’ which conveyed one meaning may have been my first word I recognized. I’m sure it wasn’t, in fact I know it wasn’t, but it had that kind of impact upon me. It must have been the yellow sign with large, capitalized black-block letters hung on thick rope baring all passage to the exterior decks on the ship.
After dinner, all of the passengers congregated in the main lounge, just aft and adjacent to the dining hall. The ship seemed to be full of families, all going to our one same destination, Hawaii . Every one of them seemed as excited as my two sisters, mother and father. With the now roped- off and secured exit doors posted with ‘OFF LIMITS’ signs to the outside decks, the families were now confined to this lobby. This big open room was the width of the ship. It was on the main level deck and it was lined with chrome framed couches and chairs. The brown vinyl covered cushions squeaked when you sat on them. The floor was covered in grey linoleum tiles. The walls were painted white and the ceiling grey, as was most of the ship.
The ship was now rolling pretty good and it had started to rain. The rain came in torrents and was pelting the exposed windows like B-B’s. My grandmother said she was tired, so my mother escorted her to our stateroom. I watched them, make their way, pressing against one wall of the hall as the ship leaned that way… and, then they’d do the same on the opposite wall as the ship leaned in that direction. Slowly, they made their way along the long hallway.
As Bobbie Jean and I stood there together taking all of this in, many of the kids soon found a way to enjoy this ‘OFF-LIMITS’ confinement. They created a mock roller coaster. Taking the cushions from the couches and chairs, and with each roll of the ship, embark on a quick ride from one side of the room to the other as the ship leaned one way and then the other. They’d all line up on cushions against one bulkhead, the heels of their tennis shoes holding them in place. When the pitch of the ship was high enough, they’d lift their feet and take off across the floor to the other side. It was a trans-pacific amusement park for them. It became a challenge to see who would be the first to cross back and forth without ever having their feet touch the floor.

All of the parents seemed to be oblivious to this carrying on. Even their loud laughter and sqills went ignored. BJ and I looked at each other as if to seek mutual endorsement for this otherwise disobedient act of disregard for the property of others. My sisters, mother and I shared a common, silent language when our eyes made contact.
I am not sure when I became aware of it, but, the lounge was becoming more sparse as the evening waned. Groups of families heading off down the two interior halls along the port and starboard sides of the ship. It seemed forever for my mom to return.
When she did come back, she told Bobbie Jean and I that grandmother was sick and had thrown up in the hallway on their way to our room. She, herself was not feeling well and was going back. I watched her make her way along the hall, again, pressing along one wall and then the other with every lean of the ship.

My focus on my mother was suddenly interrupted by a kid with a silly grin on her face. She sat there at our feet having slid into us from across the room. BJ said we should probably go, too.

The next morning I awoke and rolled over on my side in my upper bunk bed above Bobbie Jean. I looked across our stateroom into the bathroom where the light was on. I saw my mother on the floor holding onto the toilet for dear life. Bobbie Jean was also awake and sitting up in the bed just below mine. She held a trash can firmly between her legs. Grandmother Palmer was moaning. There was a knock on the door and Bobbie Jean looked up at me,
“Bob, can you answer the door?”
I found the ladder at the end of the bed, climbed down and walked over to the door. I opened it. A black man in a white shirt and white pants looked inside and asked,
‘Is everyone okay in here?’
From his position in the hall he could not see my Mother, sister and Grandmother. I looked at him.
‘I’m fine but I don’t think my family is’.
He looked at me and asked,
‘You’re not sick?’
‘ No.’
My Mom called out to me: ‘Bob, who is it?’
“The Porter” he answered, ‘I’m the Porter, ma’am. Can I help you?’
My mom struggled off the floor walked out to the middle of the room. Standing there she asked him if he could help us with the rubbish cans. He came in. I climbed back up the ladder to my bunk bed and sat. He told my mom to have a seat and he would take care of everything. My Mom sat down in our vinyl cushioned chair between the two bunk beds. He cleaned up, washed out the cans and put some clothes in a bag which he got from a drawer in the bathroom and told my mom that they would clean them and return them.
He then turned and looked at me, then at my Mother, sister and grandmother. He again looked at me. “Are you hungry, little man?’
“Yes, sir” I replied.
He asked my mom if he could take me to the dining room to eat. She said it would be a good idea. He then asked if she would you like him to bring back some rolls.
She said “Please, that would be good.”
He looked at me and said, ‘Come on, let’s get you some food’.
I climbed back down the ladder, got my clothes on and we walked, hand in hand, one wall to the next and back again, all the way down the hall, to the dining room.
The ship was really rolling now. In the lounge, as we walked through to the dining room, you could look out the windows on one side of the ship and see only grey and white ocean. Out of the other, you saw only grey sky. I discovered it was the white water in the ocean that gave you any sense of perception and movement forward. Otherwise, it looked all the same, grey.
It was raining something fierce and you could hear the water pelting exposed windows and doors, still secured with their “off-limits” signs. They now had placed ropes down each of the hallways. They’d been tied to the hand railings to the dining room entrance on both sides of the double doors, strung across the open lounge.
We opened one of the two big metal doors into the dining room with a clunk as the stainless steel bar handle folded in and walked in. The large dinner room was empty. Giant round tables with chairs around each of them were spread out across the entire room. Last night it had been filled with people. Now, it was nearly empty, all except for a few resilient passengers who sat around one table.

Ceiling recessed lights seemed to amplify the absence of anyone. A few porters stood next to each other along the walls wearing their white shirts and pants. They were all now looking at the porter and me as we walked in. The one table that was occupied had two men at it and the man who I recognized as the captain from last night.

The three of them turned in their seats to see who had entered and now they, too, were staring at us, as we weaved around and through the tables toward them. There were no windows in the dining room to see out. As we came up to their table, the porter introduced me to the captain. He told the captain about the condition of my sister, mother and grandmother. They also talked about other passengers. As the porter talked, the captain pulled out from the table a chair next to him. He looked at me and gestured with his hand to have a seat. When the porter finished talking, the porter leaned over and spoke to me.
“Just wait here. Have your breakfast with the Captain here and I’ll come back in a while.’
I said: ‘Okay’.
The Porter went to a buffet table and then left.

I must have put my hands or arm on the table and was surprised to find out that it was soaking wet. The captain noticed my surprised look and said they always wet the table cloths so when the seas were this rough the dishes and glasses would not slide off the table. The table cloths, I noticed, were also clipped to the tables with metal pieces that fit on the edges to hold them secure.

He looked at me, smiled and told me I was a true sailor. The two other men who accompanied us at the table must have been true sailors too. We eat breakfast. The two men and the captain carried on in conversation as I quietly sat there, feet barely able to reach the floor.

The porter returned after some time and asked the captain if he could have a word with him in private. The captain excused himself, got up and went over to talk with the porter.

After a few minutes, the captain returned.
He looked down at me and said: ‘How would you like to go up to the bridge and learn something about being a sailor?” he asked.
‘Wow, really! I would like that very much! I guess I should ask my mom.’ I replied.
The captain beamed down at me, “The Porter’s already taken care of that. Your mother said it was up to you if you want to.’
‘Oh, yes!’ I cried out.

After breakfast, the captain took me up to the bridge. We walked forward in the ship along a narrow hallway, up a flight of stairs, through a gangway and a second flight of stairs. We came into a room that stretched across the width of the ship. This was a very bright room painted grey as you would imagine, but, in the natural light with large windows across the entire length.

As we stepped into this very bright room, someone called out loudly, ‘Attention! Captain on the Deck!’ It startled me. The Captain was quick to respond, ‘At ease, men'. This sailor here is Robert. He’ll be learning the skills of navigation from you. It appears he is the only one with sea legs on our ship.’
As I stood there, taking inventory of where I was, someone lifted me up and set me in a big high chair on a pedistol. Suddenly I was in the middle of the room with all these men in dark blue uniforms, again, looking at me. Well, at least one was smiling at me.

This was very interesting. I was now sitting in the captain’s chair and, as I sat there and looked around the room, this is what I saw. Inside the bridge were these sailors. One was steering the ship. Another was standing at the engine controls. There was an Officer with a similar uniform as the Captain wore. He was the one who had called out when we entered. Two other sailors were just looking out the windows. One on either side of the bridge, one port and the other starboard. They, I found out were ‘on watch’.

As I sat there looking around, the ship was leaning far one way and then moving back over and leaning in the opposite direction. Back and forth. But not fast. Slowly. Very slowly. And as the ship rolled back and forth, it would creak a lot. The creaks got louder and louder as the ship reached out and could go no further at the end of every lean. Then, the creaking would reverse itself as the ship mirrored this very same procedure in the opposite direction.

Looking out the Bridge windows was something I will never forget. I could see the front bow of the ship, sometimes. When I saw the bow, I also saw a valley of water. A valley so big the whole ship fit in it. Then, we would roll up and out of this deep, wide trench and everything would go white. White with torrential rain and the spray of an angry ocean spitting us right in the eye. You could not see past the glass windows no matter where you looked. The windows on the bridge went all the way across the breadth of the ship. The last windows on the sides going aft were made up of glass doors and again had signs posted on them that read, ”Off-Limits”.
I should point out these names I’ve bandied about were not names I knew before. All these new nautical terms were taught to me by the captain, the porter and the officers and crew of the ship. For example, the word ship. You’d never call a ship a boat.

My Mom asked me later if I was bored.
‘Are you kidding, mom?!’ I responded with a smile wide enough for her to share.
I was having the time of my life. I got to steer the ship. I learned about radar, radios, reading maps, compasses, speeds and bearings, two kinds of knots, sheee, I was a sailor.
“Two kinds of knots” she inquired?.
“Yeah, mom… you know, the kind of knot you tie and the knots with which you measure your nautical speed.”
So, for that day, and the next… and the next… and the next… this was my time on the ship. I would get up in the morning, look out the port-hole and see pretty much what I could see on the bridge, but, not nearly so clearly. I would get dressed and go to the dining room. I would eat my meals at the captain’s table. Anything I wanted I could eat. I ate French toast with butter and powdered sugar. I drank orange juice anytime I wanted. For lunch I ate a sandwich made with potato chips and I could have as much milk as I wanted from a dispensor. Every day it was a different sandwich. For dinner I ate steak, mashed potatoes, milk, and of course, ice cream.

After breakfast and lunch I was always up on the bridge assisting the captain and his crew. I learned all about the compass, the radar, the speeds of the ship, port and starboard, bow and aft, bulkhead, deck, how to tie a bowline knot and how to steer the ship. That was the coolest. The sailor would help me correct the degree. Our entire day was a constant recycling of complete white-outs with rain and water crashing into the windows with great valleys of grey water, rolling into them before rolling back out of them.

I remember one evening after dinner sitting on my bed and asking Bobbie Jean if she was still real excited about going to Hawaii. It was the only time on the trip that my sister, my mom and grandmother laughed. Otherwise, they spent the entire voyage just lying on their beds, all day, all night, sometimes moaning and sometimes throwing up. With all the wonderful food on board the ship, they only ate rolls and crackers the whole entire time ocean crossing.

After dinner, I would go with the porter to my cabin. We would check on them. My sister, my mom and grandmother each had their own buckets by their beds and we would make sure they were emptied and kept clean.

Our trip to Hawaii was only supposed to take five days, but, it took us nine. When we finally arrived in Hawaii , we docked into Honolulu Harbor . There was a band that played Hawaiian music for us as hula girls danced. Newspaper people took pictures and asked us about our trip. I got my picture taken and they put it on the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser. It was a really cool picture of the captain and me. But, before we could dock that day something really special happened.
The porter came to our cabin early that morning and knocked. I don’t remember who called me, maybe him through the door, but, I climbed down the ladder and opened the door. There stood the porter. He wore a big smile which showed off his gleaming white teeth. He said we were going to arrive at Honolulu today and we could already see the islands.

This was so exciting. I got dressed and ran all the way to the bridge. This was interesting because I could run down the hall without bouncing off either one of the walls. When I arrived on the bridge, I had to cup my hands around my eyes in order to look out into the early morning dawn. As I looked out, I saw the dark silhouette of a massive mountain sitting on the ocean still some distance away. I could see even from this distance that it was huge.

The ocean had changed. It was now relatively quiet. Quiet compared to before. Oh, there were still waves and white caps, but, they were now fairly small compared to before. The giant valleys were gone. The driving spray from the peaks of each wave was also gone.
I ran back to our stateroom as fast as my legs could carry me and told my mother, sister and grandmother what I had seen.

‘It was Hawaii !’, I told them. ‘A big giant mountain sitting on the ocean! You got to see it!’
They actually listened to me. They got up and got dressed, which seemed like an eternity, and finally we were off to the lounge. When we got there, someone had already removed the ropes and the ‘Off-limits” signs. The doors were open. We walked out onto the starboard deck and there ahead of us was the big mountain sitting on the ocean. Now, as we watched, we saw the sunrise; its light coming through breaks in the clouds and shinning on the mountain. It looked absolutely beautiful. A layer of clouds lay like the rim of a hat around the mountain tops, the morning sunlight reflecting the small patches on the eastern or windward side of the mountain.

As our ship continued along in the calming ocean, I suddenly smelled the fragrance of foliage coming wafting from the island. It was so fresh. Intoxicating. Almost sweet and wonderfully clean. After a week and a half of salt incrusted ocean spray, not to mention the unspeakable contents of far too many wastebaskets filled by my stateroom companions, this sudden change was so fresh and wonderful.

We traveled along the lee side of the island chain coming in under the Big Isle, then Maui Koolawe, Lana’i and Moloka’i and across the Moloka’i channel where the ship started rocking once again. Finally along the leeward track alongside Oahu where we slowed and were met by tug boats who escorted us gently into harbor.

Dad met us at the dock waving up at us with a big smile. He had flower and Li Hing Mui leis which he hung around our necks. More than enough hugs, I thought, but mom thought differently I guess. After the newspaper people took a picture of the captain and me, we got our luggage and went directly to Waikiki beach and the Hawaiian Village.

On the dock, as well as on the way in our car, my mother, sister and grandmother told my father how terrible our trip was… all the way to Waikiki . Terrible, terrible, terrible, they said. I looked at my Dad and winked. He told us the navy had called him at work and informed him we were okay, but, had been taken way of course by a severe winter storm and would be arriving late. A navy plane had been sent out daily to track us just to make sure we were okay. As it turned out, the ship’s radio antenna had broken off in the storm and the crew had fashioned a make-shift one which only had limited range. In the newspaper article, the captain said this voyage was his worst in over twenty-five years… anywhere.

When we arrived at the Hawaiian Village with its unusual curve shaped roof over an open entrance, we parked and walked through the lobby and out onto a large open patio around a pool next to the beach. Again, we sat around another round table, just like on the ship.. But this time, it was brightly painted, with an umbrella stuck in a hole in the middle. We sat there as a family for the first time in a long time. As I sipped from a bright red drink and stared out across the beach, I thought about how much I missed my sister, Pat.

The flower leis Dad had given us smelled so strong. I had never inhaled such sweetly perfumed flowers as these. Not even the roses in our garden back home were any match for either the white plumeria or delicate pikaki.

The waiter brought me a pineapple boat. It was a pineapple cut in half, length-wise, filled with cut up pieces of papaya, pineapple, mango, and topped with whip cream and a cherry. I can still close my eyes at night and see our waitress… she wore a flowered dress with a big red flower in her hair I soon learned was called an Hibiscus . Hawaiian music played as we sat around this table, on that big patio next to the beach, alongside the aqua-green and then blue, blue ocean. Palm trees nestled all around us, their leaves fluttering in the trade winds. The sky was painted the brightest of blues with fluffy dabs of perfectly placed white clouds. It was warm. It was warm and humid… but, wonderful.
My encyclopedia back home hadn’t lied to me. Hawaii was paradise.


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