81. Puffed Up Arms in San Francisco

Early 1966

I thought about it most of the night and chose not to return to the hospital that morning as I knew it would be far too difficult to leave at all.  

I trusted Alok was safe and I hugged and kissed my children before leaving for the few days I assumed I’d be away.  My previous job at Santa Ynez I had left on good terms and with positive reference, as was my habit of doing.

I knew in my mind that if I was going to get to Fiji it was now or never.  Diana drove me to the station so I would catch the 10a Greyhound into San Francisco.  After dropping me off she went back to the hospital to bring Alok home.

For the most part it was a straight through drive up north with only a few key stops along the way.  I arrived some time that evening just after the dinner hour.  Upon arrival in San Francisco I took a taxi to a friend’s apartment.  I’d known Morris since Fiji.  This is where I’d stay for nearly a week.  

It just so happened the Seafarers’ International Union of North America was across the street from his apartment building.  What were the odds?

Next morning I took that fateful walk across the street and made myself known to them, stating my intentions and then fell into their process.  One of these things was to take their form to a doctor (choose one from a list f I didn’t have one up there, which of course I didn’t) for shots, check-up, etc.,  whew!  What a lot of technical to-dos.  

I returned to Morris’ apartment late that afternoon with the certificate of completion of the union’s medical requirements.

I also had the need to go to bed.  My arms were loaded with shots, painful, swollen and these caused me to feel quite ill.  Well I was forewarned by the doctor this most likely would be the side effect.

I did manage to call home and check with Diana about Alok’s health, how Amar and Asha were doing, how she was getting on, things at home and you know, stuff.  

She comforted me, telling me that all is well and how wonderful it was having Susan and Lisa with her young son just next door.  I told her about the not-so-fun time at the doctor’s office.

Fortunate for me, Morris’ wife nursed me a bit, fed me good Indian food and I was able to rest the remainder of the day and the night through.  The next two days I was really a mess.  I felt much better the third day.

In that next morning I returned to the Seafarers’ Union office to submit the doctor’s completed form and certification showing I had all the proper vaccinations.  

After what appeared to be a thorough review the staff behind the counter gave back to me all of my papers, the ID clearance card which I had previously obtained in Long Beach and my identification to include my British passport and my Green Card.

I was instructed to sit with the other fellows over in the reception area.  We would wait. Little conversations took place, something to pass the time.  I noted I was the only Indian, there was a small handful of African origin gents, a couple of Irish men and the rest were American or something.  I’m guessing.  It’s not really important, is it?

My name was called and I went back up to the counter.  I was told,  “We need a waiter.”  The one agent asked if I was experienced.  I replied, ‘Yes and I have worked on a ship before.’  I was then instructed to throw in my ID card, like literally.  

It felt like a gamble; it’s the way they do it.  Other people reviewed my papers and near immediately I was accepted for the position.

Next thing is I’m being told where the ship is docked.  It was at my own expense to get to this ship.  The location is on Suisan Bay at Concord, California.  I’ve been given everything I need to report to that ship.  Grateful for the job I returned to Morris’ apartment and shared my exciting news.  

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Suisan Bay   a part of Contra Costa County which is located in north-­central California.  This is where you’ll find the Concord Naval Weapons Station.  That’s about 70 miles southwest of the capital of Sacramento.  

 

48. All aboard!

First thing I did was surrender my suitcase at the entry level and having checked my ticket, it was accepted and my hands were free.  I came back down to the wharf where my family and friends, who had come directly to the docks, were waiting.  

Saying the this-time-for-real goodbyes to the family before climbing the gangplank was rough to say the least, especially seeing my mother’s face and knowing this was, once again, tearing her up … it hurt.  

Then there is my sweet Noori.  I was closest to her now than ever before and knowing how dearly she loved me didn’t make this farewell any easier.  

The loudspeaker blurted out the commencement of pre-boarding for those passengers who were already residing on that ship from the previous port.  My heart skipped a beat and I can only imagine what my mother, sisters and brother and Noori’s hearts were doing.  

“Send us a postcard!”  someone said.  “Don’t forget to write!” said another.  “Remember us and return soon …”  trailed another voice.  It was time to say our final (such a word!) goodbyes.  

One by one I went to each person, young and old, hugging, kissing and wiping tears and making the repetetive promise to take care of myself and return sooner than later.  

Do you know there were a few of my family members whom I had never in my life, witnessed them shed a tear up till just now.  How heart-wrenching.  It was a long line-up of dear ones and then I get to my brother and my sisters.  

I had never seen my brother cry either and in our embrace he poured which of course caused me to cry my eyes out too!  My dear sister-in-law stood by him silently crying.  To make her smile I told her I’d miss her meals as no one could touch her cooking where I was going.  It worked.

I gave my brother a personal promise; whether or not he wanted it I would send money to assist so that he wouldn’t have to miss me that way and I reminded him that I will definitely call for him as soon as I have settled.  

To my sisters I told them how much I loved them and would miss them (I knew my little sister would be the one writing to me) and to all my nieces and nephews I laid down the promise of goodies from America.

My mother, my dearest, most precious mother.  I don’t have to tell you about the nonstop tears there.  She said to me, “Maybe I’m not going to be here when you come back.”  What a stab in my heart, I had that coming.  

I knew I’d better say something comforting and quick!  ‘Amma don’t worry please.  I promise you as I have made the same to Noori that I will be back in two years to marry her.’  

Noori was naturally standing there right beside my mother.  That statement brought a gentle smile to my crying mother’s face … and to Noori’s.

It was nearly 4 o’clock and the steamship whistle sounded.  The call for all to board was heard and went through my bones.  Noori and I embraced, tightly, she cried a lot and we repeated our love statement for one another.  ‘I will see you soon Noori.’  I assured her and she assured me in return, “I will wait for you Gary.”

Orsova ticket to.. 1959I began my ascent of the gangplank and I could hear all the crying.  I made my way to the top deck of the ship.  Boxes of streamers were laid out for the passengers to throw as their departing gesture and final tie being broken … well that’s what it felt like to me.

I grabbed half a dozen of those paper streamers and made my way to the railing of the ship, obviously dockside.  The Fiji Military band had begun a tune and the mood was set.

I see my people down there on the wharf and I can tell they’re searching for my face among the many.  A couple of the excited children spot me waving and point me out to the rest.

The Orsova horn -that sound- was blasted again, twice.  It was 4:45p and the gangplank would go up in five minutes.  I hold one end of each streamer and then begin to throw them towards the crowd, in the general direction of my family and friends.

Then the departing song Isa Lei began.  A man had caught one of my streamers and as though by fate, handed it to Noori.  She may not have caught one on her own, I don’t know and I had no idea who he was.

The big rope at the stern was first released and the ship begins a controlled slip away from the dock.  The tears and emotions for nearly everyone present were uncontrollable.  It’s such a haunting piece of music and the way the lyrics are sung, one cannot help but to lose it.

Isa is God in Fijian.  A feeling of hearts full of pleasure and return right away and your absence will bring pain … that kind of a feeling, very haunting you know.   

“Why did you come if you have to leave …”

The band is still playing and the streamers have been flying.  Now the stern has been released as the ship pulls away under it’s own complete power.
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You know this goodbye with Noori reminded me of 1953, nearly the same scenario up in Vancouver with Sonia.  I had said to her I would return to her and that we would run away and get married.  Sonia had said she would hide me from everyone.  This felt a lot like the same and I really didn’t want to suffer that love lost once again.