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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82. Sorry, Say Again … This Ship Is Headed Where?

The next afternoon when Morris returned from work, we shared a lite meal and then he drove me the just over 30 miles east towards Concord -to the USCNWS to be exact.  

It was near dark by the time we arrived at the gate of this high security dock.  We looked curiously at the sign reading Concord Naval Weapons Station but really I didn’t think too much about it at that moment.  

I felt privileged to utilize for the 1st time my security clearance card which got us both into the facility.  We were instructed on where to park the car and told to walk over to the one and only ship at the dock.  It was the Trans Western ship to which I was assigned.  Again my identification was checked.

Morris was still carrying my suitcase for me and was allowed to walk onto the ship as well.  It was the Chief Steward who I was instructed to look for, one deck up.  He would be the one to give me further instructions which of course would include more paperwork.  

We found him soon enough.  He was friendly and didn’t seem to mind stopping his routine to break and usher me through the steps.  He mentioned I would meet up with the ship’s skipper tomorrow.

Morris’ curiosity has his eyes roaming our surroundings and he’s still standing beside me when the CS asks me this, “Do you know where we are headed to?”  

Actually no, I didn’t and said as much.  Immediately I also added my intentions which of course were to head to Fiji.  Yes Fiji and well, the CS laughed at this.  

Not understanding his laugh I cracked a little smile too; he saw this on my face.  He replied, “Did you happen to see what’s being loaded on to this ship?”  I answered him telling him I did notice the cranes loading the ship but I really had no idea what the payload consisted of.

“I’m afraid we’re headed in an entirely different direction.  Those are napalm bombs man, we’re headed to Vietnam!”  I was struck with disbelief and definitely in shock.  “It’s too late Blue, you already signed the papers back at the Seafarers’ Union.  Sorry to tell you this,” the CS shook his head, “..the rest of the paperwork to be signed, you’ll do with the skipper tomorrow.”

It’s true, I did sign the papers yesterday and now I would have to comply.   It was time for Morris to leave me, he was speechless until he found his voice and then, he assured me he’d get ahold of Diana and give her the news.  

There was nothing I could do, nothing.  I knew I wasn’t going back to Los Angeles till I didn’t know when.  I was headed into a terrible war zone.

When isn’t war terrible?  

I was absolutely floored, Morris was gone and now I’d have to shift gears in my thoughts and behavior, my attitude.  I had to get used to the idea of this radical change in my life.  It was a definite change that would affect my entire family, only I had no idea exactly how.

The Chief Steward, I’ll name him Phil, quickly picked up the pieces of a shell-shocked young man in front of him and took me to show the cabin I’d occupy; I would be sharing it with one other young fellow.  

Along the way we stopped to grab the linens necessary for me in my new home for however long it would be.  I would leave my suitcase there and then we’d tour the ship.

There was much to show me and soon enough (not that I really forgot my earlier surprise.  No, no!)  I was in grateful-to-be-employed mode and absorbing all the information which I knew would be useful to do the best in my job.  

Phil told me I wouldn’t be working in the main dining room.  Instead I was assigned to the captain himself.  I was to attend the skipper and at meal time, the officers of the ship were part of my space.  He showed me everything there was to see on this ship, offering tips and advice to be as comfortable as possible.  

“Anything you feel like eating, you just let the chef know,” he offered.  He also told me I was welcome to come into the kitchen and grab a snack or anything I needed in a moment, permission already granted.

Phil asked me if I wanted some dinner and honestly I was lacking an appetite.  I wonder why.  I had a cup of coffee and retired to my room.  I unpacked my things into the dresser/closet thing beside my bed.  

While there was a bed next the window I chose the one beside the door.  I made my bed, washed up and fell asleep, knowing I’d be sharing my rude awakening with my wife tomorrow.

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Concord Naval Weapons Station –  located in north-­central California about 70 miles southwest of the capital of Sacramento, in Contra Costa County. 

napalm bombs – often referred to as the  jellybomb; there’s a website called GlobalSecurity.org which gives the lethal, grim description of this weapon saying napalm can have a gel-like consistency, which would cause it to stick to the designated targets.

6. 🤷🏽‍♂️ Tailoring My Way Off the Island – part 1

I was 17 years of age when, with the goal of getting accepted on the SS Lakemba freighter ship, I set off to get certified as a waiter in order to be considered for employment.  That was a good starting point.

I acquired employment in the personal home of one of Morris Hedstrom’s department+ store owners. The household chef was our family friend and so brought me into the fold.  The Mr. & Mrs. had a wonderful estate there in Suva and it was definitely a great place to learn the service trade.

I perfected formal service with the frequent business meetings held there in the home.  These often included luncheons, cocktail hour and many a dinner presented in precise style.  Equally important were the slightly informal meals (yet still proper to be sure) when serving their warm and wonderful family of four.

🚲 I would ride a bicycle from home everyday, talk about fit and trim!  There was no classroom environment here; it was immediate ‘hands-on’ training.  I maintained employment as a waiter in this private home for about 6 months, learning everything there is to know regarding formal dining room service.

With my father gone and my brother fully running the household, I always shared my salary with him, with the family – pounds and shillings, it was my contribution. 💷

This kind Mr. & Mrs. who employed me knew that I would be a temporary part of their household staff; I was there to be trained so I could work on the ships and yet we equally grew fond of one another, working together very well.

The family was more than happy to give this 17-year young man a chance and make certain I learned well.  With the very full business responsibilities of the Mr., the Mrs. ran the household beautifully and I could see all the employees loved working for her.

The time had come for me to move forward.  The Mr. had a beautiful document of reference drafted up for me on Morris Hedstrom’s letterhead, providing this to me upon my departure from the position; albeit with a heavy heart unquestionably on both sides.

I left the job feeling ready as ever to board my first ship as a full-time staff member.  Well laugh if you will, it’s okay because I didn’t discover right away that I also had to be eighteen years of age at the least, in order to work where travel into foreign countries was a must.   That part was sort of missed.

Here’s the way I handled things at that time; you tell me I have do that or learn the how and why of a thing or I must get this, then that’s what I would do as just another step to my advancement.  The age requirement simply hadn’t come up at that point.  Oh brother!

So to keep me employed my maternal uncle helped me get a job as a tailoring apprentice within a Gujarat family owned store called C & A Kalyan, Ladies Tailor, phone #758, while waiting to turn of legal age in order to work aboard a ship.  I actually tailored so well I found myself making dresses for the Fiji governor’s wife & daughter; point of interest!

My time with fabrics and all that fun ran about a year’s stretch; I did enjoy being able to create that way but not as content as I could be and not always patiently awaiting my break that would carry me out to sea; gotta go – I need to go!

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+  a retail organization serving the Fiji Islands since 1868

Good morning really; it’s now 2:45a – ugh! it’s been a real long night but fortunately I get my new computer (at long last) this coming week!!   So it would seem that I missed Sunday night post time (again), “Missed it by that much!” -as one of my childhood favorite secret agents, Maxwell Smart always used to say.  LOL

I want to say thank you for returning to the story and keeping the faith in the Little Blue Masala!  Have a great week ahead and the very best of the holiday season –which ever ones those may be for you– to you and yours!