85. Open Sea Routine

First full day out on the ocean and with the Golden Gate’s disappearance into the now east, so to had to go my thoughts of what’s to come.  Well, at least on hold in the back of my mind.

It was time to go full steam ahead in the expected routine of my job which has only slightly varied from when we were at docks.  The transition was smooth enough as far as I was concerned, demonstrating to the CS I knew my assignments very well.

After breakfast our Chief Steward calls a meeting of kitchen staff, chef included.  “Things change a little now that we’re out to sea, you’ll find the law is different than when we were at dock.  Trash of any kind and especially cigarette butts will never be disposed overboard, is that clear?  There is a proper place for everything and I do mean everything!”

He went on, “It’s now time to get dressed up real warm ’cause we’re gonna stock the deep freeze and the main refrigerators.”  Coats, beanies and gloves were provided and we quickly bundled up.

The supplies that were loaded prior now had to be put away in orderly fashion; items must be readily available.  Bottled water, juices, milk, meats, veggies, etc., no hassles and wasted time trying to locate anything.

“Consider one of the engine room guys coming into the kitchen for a drink or snack, they shouldn’t have to waste time searching for anything in the refrigerators, so organization is always priority,” the CS spoke as he pointed out where to place the various items.

The boxes were opened, the large freezer and fridge shelves were stocked and the empties were broke down flat, bundled and placed in the holding spot.  At the next port they’d be removed.  The dry pantry was handled the same way minus the coats, gloves and beanies of course!

3rd day – our Chief Steward calls everybody to gather.  We would now receive instructions for handling a case of emergency.  An alarm was sounded. “Line up on deck and wait for the 1st or 2nd Officer’s instructions.”  

In each of our cabins there was a life jacket for every individual.  “Do not stop to put it on.  Grab it and get topside asap!  You can put it on as you go or once you are up on deck.   We will do this drill every third day.”  

I realized quick enough we’d be eating real good on this ship.  You say you feel like having a pork chop, the kitchen obliged by sending out a hot plate with about a half a dozen of ‘em!  There was no chance of anyone dining alone because someone would catch a whiff and be beside you in no time flat, sharing in the delights.

Away from the kitchen CS had the linen closet key so I always had to ask for that; seems like we had greater concerns than to worry about linens disappearing – oh well.  At least three times a week I’d change out the sheets and towels I used, all of us being responsible for our own.

Making certain the Skipper’s quarters were always clean and amply stocked with the necessities for his comfort was another factor of my duties; remember he was my personal assignment.

Daily routine breakfasts, lunches and dinners.  Once in a while the Skipper would make casual conversation with me.  I was the only Hindu person on board his ship and he asked me if I was actually from India.  I shared with him the short version of being born and raised in the Fiji Islands.  He was kind enough and for his liking, our Captain soon nicknamed me ‘Fiji’.

Coming out from one of the cabins, Nancy Sinatra’s hit single, “These Boots Are Made For Walking” sounded throughout the corridor -other tunes too but that one several times a day.  

Two of the deckhands, a middle-aged man and his son from the southeastern U.S. were the occupants of that cabin and this seemed be their favorite song.  It didn’t take long for that tune to stick like flypaper in my brain and to this day, it surfaces at the funniest of times.

My break after the lunch service was always a breeze, kickin’ it on the aft deck.  Often I’d get to see various fish leaping from the water and capturing my attention.  Otherwise I gave in to a sea of thoughts.  And in the evenings I anticipated with great pleasure, the sunset.

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These Boots Are Made For Walkingreleased in November of 1965 and was written by Lee Hazelwood.  By the end of January, 1966 it had topped the charts taking over the  #1 spot in both the U.S. and the U.K.  Cinema utilized the song in Full Metal Jacket, Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and most recently in Ocean’s 8, just to name a few.

 

83. Still Tied Up at Dock …Fire in the Hold! 🔥 Fire in the Hold!

Next day.

I awoke and went to find Phil, the Chief Steward you’ll remember.  He showed me our Captain’s quarters, the rest of the quarterdeck, some basic supply areas and at last the private dining area.  

If I’m remembering correctly we were on the top deck now where this dining room was situated.  Phil told me it’s where the Skipper, First Mates, Engineers, etc., would have their meals.  “You’ll give them the menu after they’re seated and take their orders.  Well, you know what to do,” he said to me with confidence.  

“They’ll be coming up in about an hour,” he pointed out the coffee machine as he spoke along with the table linens, sink, refrigerator, dishes & silverware, you know all that stuff to lay a neat table for the officers in their exclusive dining room.  

I’d always have my right hand man to assist me in the dining room.  I would utilize the dumbwaiter system for the food to come up from the kitchen below.  At the end of the meals we’d make use of it again for the return of the meal dishes.  I would also wear a starched white waiter’s jacket and those were kept aside on a few hooks… always at least three or four clean ones.

At this time the ship wasn’t fully staffed so only a few crew I would tend to.  As they took their seats they introduced themselves to me and were kind.  When the Skipper came into the room Phil pointed him out.  

And when the diners departed the room, my assistant and I had our breakfast and then cleaned up, changing the table linens,  making sure the floor was cleaned up and putting everything put away.

Phil arrived in time to see that all was done.  “You’re off for the next three and a half hours till lunch duty so have your time.  Go ashore if you like or rest or whatever.  And yes, Masala you have an appointment with the Skipper at 2:30 this afternoon.  You’ll be done with the lunch well before that.  He’ll be expecting you in his quarters.”

I left the ship to walk around Concord and most important to call Diana myself.  I walked up to a pay phone, pick one, any one, there were many scattered about here and there.  I deposited my coins and made the call.

Yesterday Phil had provided much useful information to me of which now I would share with my wife.  After asking after Alok’s health, I asked about Amar and Asha (I was missing my children even more now that I realized I wouldn’t be seeing my family anytime soon … maybe even never again).

‘How are you doing?’  I gingerly asked her knowing what I was about to lay on her.  It didn’t sound as though she was suspicious so I began to let it roll out.  ‘I didn’t get the opportunity to sail in the direction of Fiji.’

“Oh no, why not?” she asked rather casually.  In the quiet moment that followed she then of course wanted to know, “When are you coming home?”  My heart began to beat a little faster as I replied, ‘I don’t know.’  Diana plainly put it forward, “What do you mean you don’t know?”

‘I’ve been assigned to one of many ships belonging to Hudson Waterways which has been contracted by the U. S. Government during this war.  This is what the Chief Steward has explained to me dear.’

I listened for a few moments for her feedback but all I would hear was her deep breathing and so I continued, ‘I’m headed for Vietnam at the end of this week and the return date is unknown.’  Heavy silence remained on her side for a moment longer. “Did I hear you say you’re sailing to Vietnam?”

I told her she heard right and I begin speaking quicker.  I fed her all the information I had.  Diana just listened … or fainted, I don’t know.  I added that I was now technically employed by the United States Merchant Marines.  I also said that I couldn’t get back to Los Angeles before we departed and that we would be sailing under the American flag as a division of the United States Coast Guard.  

For added comfort I added the fact that the U. S. Marines would always be protecting us.  We were after all transporting vital supplies for the war effort. “I don’t believe this is happening!”  Okay she was still with me on the phone.

I told her about the pay, how it would be administered and that when we were within the border of the war zone (hazard pay), it meant double pay.  I don’t know what comfort that really brought her at the moment but there, I put it all on the table.  I think harder than the fact of my destination was the realization that we couldn’t see each other before I left.

Vietnam would have plenty of time to sink in.  What else did we have?  I know I didn’t need to remind her but I did; Susan and Lisa being there really was such a huge advantage.  Diana told me the kids were playing with their cousin (Lisa’s son) having a happy time and so I chose not to speak to them on this call.  

Unless I said something to them about what was happening they wouldn’t know but hearing their voices I expected, would devastate me and so I did not speak to them.  To be sure I would on the next call.

Conversation about the rest of everything transpired, I gave her an address to where she’d be able to write to me (everything went through New York) and so it came to pass and I sensed Diana was attempting to project strength on her part, for my sake and that didn’t occur to me till after I hung up the phone and opened the glass door, stepping outside of the phone booth.

The meeting with the Captain went well and why wouldn’t it.  He seemed a nice man speaking plainly with me and also with decency.  We finalized my employment that afternoon.  The Skipper had asked me questions mainly in regards with pay distribution to my family and final wishes should the need arise.

“And if you choose to go ashore at any port, be it known it’s your own discretion.  Also you’ll be given a ‘shore allowance’ from your own pay if you require it, you need only ask.”  

I smiled when the Skipper mentioned all the ports we may encounter.  “Oh yes and if you choose to go ashore in the not-so-favorable parts of the world and get your ass blown off, know it’s your call.”

One day as the last of the supplies and bombs were being loaded, there happened a fire in the hold, the bay if you will.  A few of the guys (not your everyday warship crew) and myself panicked, having never been in such a situation before … ever, decided to run off the ship and were stopped at the gangway.  “Where you running off to?” we were questioned.

Blank looks on our face, wondering why we were stopped and told straight up, “If this ship blows the whole town goes up!”  It was clear we couldn’t outrun the explosion should one occur.  We remained on the ship.

The fire was quickly handled by the crew who (thank God) knew what to do and in the end well, in the back of my mind this fear would stay with me every night …day time too actually.

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6. 🤷🏽‍♂️ Tailoring My Way Off the Island – part 2

June 1953.  I am now 18 years … and 2 months to the good.

Oh, the ol’ friend of a friend routine, eh?

From days gone by I had a friend who knew a man working as an agent under W.R. Carpenters Group (SS freighter ship owners among many other prosperous business ventures) which regularly came into the Port of Suva.

In turn he had a friend who worked on the SS Lakemba as a waiter who was most often in personal service of the captain by order of the chief steward and having been aboard for quite sometime, earned his trustworthy status.  My friend’s friend, called upon his friend.

It was easily decided between us; just as soon as an opening came up on the SS Lakemba, it could be mine.  That wasn’t so hard right?  There were a few other Indian nationals on the kitchen and dining room staff and so, in this new life’s adventure I could find a comfort in the workspace accompanied by sheer bliss of the open sea!

The freighter ships would enter the port about every 3 months and I was all but on board.  It was to the customs office where I would go to sign-up for employment on this ship.  And so with the confidence of a well-learned trade, an excellent letter of reference and the respected recommendation of a senior captain’s boy, I was ready for my life’s next chapter.

One afternoon while still at work in the tailoring shop, I heard from the Carpenters Group agent who called to inform me that my current future’s balloon had been popped!  Sadly, another chap unexpectedly took the position.

Even the agent was baffled at the thought of how someone else could’ve taken this spot as we were all but certain it would be mine for the taking.  I went home that afternoon with a splitting headache, restless, cranky and fevered.  I took some aspirin and fell asleep.  Little did I know my stars were lying in wait just over the horizon with some pretty serious plans for me.

The accepted candidate who should have come in to sign his paperwork and be officially entered on the payroll, never showed.  The slightly distraught Skipper then said to the senior waiter, “So where’s this guy you told me about before, is he still available?”

Right away Sir!  This young man -the agent’s friend- immediately caught a cab and came directly to my house.  He frantically pounded at my door and when my mother opened the door, she was greeted with, “Where is he?!”

She told him I was asleep and asked for the reason of his hurried inquiry.  He very quickly relayed there was an opening on his ship and I was to be brought immediately to the ship’s office for processing!  “Please wake him now!”

She left him at the porch, more than a bit suspicious of what her dear young son may have going on and she woke me.  She carefully asked me if I knew why there was an anxious man at our doorstep, asking for me and babbling on about taking me to a ship.

I popped up right away with a few thoughts of my own which were soon confirmed as I walked towards the door.  When he saw me his words were immediate and to the effect, something like, ‘We have to go right now, they’re waiting for you!  The job is yours!’

You can imagine my surprise … I knew also then -and in my excitement, left it alone for the time being- that my mother’s heart was being torn right out of her body.  “I have the taxi outside.  We must go to the office straight away!”

I quickly straightened my locks and locks of soft, wavy hair just a bit as I dashed past my mother with a smile, stopping only for a brief moment outside to splash my face with cool water and then climbing into the taxi.

We had arrived at the customs office in moments flat.  I was officially accepted for employment on the SS Lakemba that evening.  I couldn’t believe it!  I went home to begin packing, have my dinner and say my goodbyes.

I had to report back to the ship very early the next morning to begin my new position, my new life.  My mother cried … a lot.  I didn’t want her to hurt but I also knew that I had to go the way my heart was guiding me.  The next night would be my last night at home, this time.

⚓️ Once on board, my uniforms were assigned to me, the how-to of things to do were laid out and practiced and I received my cabin assignment, there were four to a cabin.  I found I needed no time to adjust, I knew I was already at home on the ship.  🏝 On the 3rd day, we sailed and I left my Suva behind for the first time in my life … my little tropical paradise was disappearing into the horizon.  Yes, that horizon.

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AND by the way, that bit about the locks & locks of soft, wavy hair is actually true, also … as everything else in these chronicles.  It’s just that today, Little Blue Masala still goes on about all the hair he used to have and well, I couldn’t resist the entry!