CABIN BOY ON DECK
CABIN BOY ON DECK
My favorite place to hang out was the corner drugstore where the Wise Guys congregated. Maybe it was their lifestyle of lots of money without working for it which influenced me.
Liked and trusted by these men, they took me under their wing. They made it possible for me to make more money doing favors for them than I could at an honest job. These men with their piles of cash, fancy suits and cars became my role models. I was determined to live my life the same way.
First I had to grow and learn, and that would take a few years. As I got older and wiser, I found I would face a serious obstacle that would cause me to reconsider my dream of becoming a Wise Guy.
In the spring of 1947 there were few jobs available to a sixteen year old high school drop-out, other than fish factories, light manufacturing, longshore man, and the best paying of all in war time, was merchant seaman. Almost all required a union card. It was no secret who had control of the east coast waterfronts as well as the unions.
Through the assistance of the president of the merchant seaman’s union, and recommendations from some of the local wise guys, I received my seaman’s papers. I had the endorsements of Oilman, Messman and Ordinary Seaman. I signed on as Messman on the SS Tullahoma, a T2 oil tanker. The job included pantry work, waiting on the crew by taking and serving whatever they ordered.
My mother did not want me to go, but an older friend I played cards with at the union hall assured her he would look out for me. Cecil Hoyt was a black man with a wife and children. He had been a merchant seaman most of his life and he would look after me as if I were one of his own children.
The T2 tanker was produced in large quantities during World War ll. They were the largest “navy oilers” built in the United States. Nearly 500 of them were built between 1940 and at the end of 1945. Many of them were still in service in 1947 during the conflict between North and South Korea. Ships sailing into these waters meant “Hazard Pay” for the crew, and many crew members were eager for the opportunity to sail into those waters.
Unfortunately for my current shipmates they never made it to Korean waters. After I had signed off in New York and returned home, The SS Tullahoma was rammed mid-ship by a lumber ship off the west coast of Oregon. At the time it was carrying high octane fuel, but did not explode or sink. We heard the news at the local union hall
I was concerned about my friend and protector Cecil, who had encouraged me to make that part of the trip. While members waited another ship they played cards at the union hall. I was in a game of Hearts, in which I became quite proficient when I heard a voice say, “Hey pantry man, how about some lunch? I’m buying.” It was Cecil.
After I said I never told my mother about the SS Tullahoma being hit, Cecil selected The Village Café, rather than Pat’s Lunch where my mother was working. Both were within a block of the union hall…no sense sinking my career.
Cecil had encouraged me to stay on the SS Tullahoma because it would go through the Panama Canal, and I would be able to save even more money. If you weren’t a single, horny drinking sailor, you usually wouldn’t blow your pay at the first port. We didn’t.
I had told him I had a bad feeling in my gut, and as much as I liked the money, I was raised to follow my gut feelings. He told me at lunch he was not going to get on another ship without me. He said, “You have either physic abilities or the best Guardian Angel ever, and I am not going to get on another ship without you.”
When he told me about the collision, I understood his superstition. He had been in the mess hall at the time of the collision not in our usual cabin. He told me if I had been with him in our cabin as usual, we would have been flattened against the bulkhead and killed.
We returned to the union hall and signed up for another ship, knowing we had to wait our turn, never mind getting on the same ship as before. Very few men then signed off because there was little work on land.
Punsky’s drugstore and the Wise Guys were only a block away, and either it was my Guardian Angel again or my mentors, but suddenly within a week there was another call for a two men, and Cecil and I miraculously appeared at the top of the list. Seems no one else wanted the jobs.
We signed on the SS Gulf Key as Able Bodied Seaman and Cabin Boy. Of course it was me who got Cabin Boy, which meant I made up the officers cabins, including the Captain's quarters, as well as serving the officer's mess. An additional duty was to put out fresh fruit and snacks for the officers who worked nights.
When we reached a port, we always went ashore together for a dinner and a movie. He was one of the kindest men I have ever known. I remember when we docked in Virginia; we went to see a movie called the “Thing.” It's about a monster found frozen in the Arctic. Explorers had him standing in a locked box for days thawing out. The box holding this creature stood a good eight feet high.
All the audience saw of this “Thing” was a large block of ice with what appeared to be an outline of a man. Of course, the moment came when we all sat in suspense as the experts began opening the door. That damn thing was alive, and jumped out and scared me so much, I threw my arms out and hit poor Cecil in the eye. He did not get upset; he just held his eye and laughed. After the movie, dinner, and some gift buying, we returned to the ship.
Cecil saw to it that we shared a cabin together. He was a really good guardian. He treated me as he would his own son. It’s been over sixty years, and I have never forgotten Cecil's kindnesses, or the things about life he taught me as a teenage boy. Things I should have learned from my father.
LESSONS IN HATE
I never saw Cecil as a black man until we arrived in Sabine Pass, Port Arthur, Texas. In 1947 I would get my first lesson in racism and bigotry.
In 1952 while serving in the U. S. Air Force in Montgomery, Alabama I would receive my second lesson, and when I disagreed with a white U.S. Air Force Officer over his racism, I would pay a price.
It was not until 1954; working in my father’s bar I was to witness a different type of bigotry. This was hatred with violence thrown in. For me, it changed not only my personal life, but my feelings for my father as well. He not only condoned the violence, but refused to assist the injured victim. The one lesson Cecil never taught me on board that oil tanker, I learned from my father…hatred of certain victims of violence.
As was the usual routine for us, we got dressed for our trip into town, with dinner, a movie, and later more gifts buying to bring home. It was at the gate, where we would catch our taxi, my mind and heart would first experience racism. Cecil opened the door to a cab with a black driver, and when I attempted to follow, the driver was apologetic, but told me that he could not take me in his cab. I would have to wait for a white cab driver, and he gave me the address to give to the white driver. It was the location where Cecil would wait for me. I do not know how to explain my feelings at that moment. I know I was shocked and uncertain as to what happened. Cecil told me it would be all right, and just take another cab to where he would meet me.
While I waited, I noticed the drinking fountains nearby. One shiny refrigerated one said, “White only” and one looking like a porcelain urinal said, “Colored.” I cannot describe my emotions at that moment except to say that I was confused. I found my cab with the white driver and met Cecil in town. We did not go to the movies or to dinner because we could not eat in the same restaurant, or sit together in the movies.
The colored had to sit in the balcony. We could go into a big drugstore, which sold souvenirs to any race. I remember I purchased a gold-colored cigarette case, with an engraving of the state of Texas it for my mother.
Back in the late forties, we all knew discrimination existed, but to experience it first hand is very different. My education was to continue on this trip a few days later at sea. I would meet another kind of people on this voyage to Texas. This too will remain in my memory, but for different reasons.
NIGHT SCHOOL FOR CABIN BOY
That evening, Cecil and I had our dinner aboard our ship, and walked around the deck for a while. He talked to some old shipmates, of which I had none, so I just wandered along on my own. I knew all the men by sight, and some even by name. Hell, I served three meals to them each day. I was just a kid to most of them, but a couple of twenty-year-old guys became friends with me. They told me about the many ports they had visited.
One of the younger guys seemed to bond more with me, than I did with the others. He became as an older brother to me. He had started as a mess man was now an ordinary seaman. I had the same endorsement on my document as well, but I would have to learn the ropes. He was on the eight to twelve watches this first night out of Sabine Pass and told me if I came up on deck later, he would show me the ropes. Besides, he said, it was a quiet and lonely time on board, and we could concentrate on his lessons. I agreed to meet him on deck at nine that night, and returned to go below with Cecil.
Cecil tried to explain the problem we had in Sabine that day, but I just found it difficult to understand. My barber in Portland, Mr. Hill, was black, and his children and I were schoolmates in grade school. We played a little Gin Rummy for a while, and Cecil won, as usual. He said good night, and jumped into his upper bunk. I put on a jacket, and started out of the cabin when he asked where I was going. I told him I was going on deck to meet my friend who was going to teach me about seamanship.
Well, this was really my day for new experiences. Cecil told me that I was not to go, and when I asked why, he said that particular seaman had other plans for me beside how to tie a seaman’s knot. To put it bluntly, he said, “He is queerer than a three dollar bill”. I guess I was not upset at Cecil’s warning, because I did go to bed. However, I was curious about this invitation, and found that I was a bit disappointed not to find out for myself.
I promised my mother I would obey Cecil, and I have never broken a promise to this day. I do not know if Cecil spoke to the seaman, but the guy remained friendly...just not as friendly.
I made a couple of trips, but really did not take to the life of a sailor. It seemed most of my time was spent being seasick. I jumped off in New York and took the bus home. My next similar experiences with blacks, and curiosity about other men would be a few years later while in the U. S. Air Force, during the Korean War.