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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20. Aftermath of a Life Unrealised

Silently returning from the cemetery and in the ways of our tradition, I stopped at the front of our home to *cleanse.  Then I went indoors and I bathed before I could settle myself to rest.  My mother, my wife, my sisters and the other family women were already in the house preparing for our evening.

We are sitting in the living room – just looking at one another or blankly into some space on the wall or the floor, it didn’t matter.  And the tea that was served didn’t taste the same.  There was nothing much to say and I for one couldn’t.

In the early evening the pundit came to perform the puja.  We all prayed together for our baby, our son, my angel, asking God to keep him safe and close to Him.

The next day Hemma’s father came to my house and declared he had come to take his daughter home with him; that they would take care of her there.  I asked my wife if this is what she wanted and she said, “Yes.”

She then asked me to go with her.  I couldn’t, I could not even imagine going over there with them.  I did want my wife, I needed her to stay here with me.  This was our home.  She left that same day.  

I was sure we needed each other to try and bring a sense of comfort in this shared broken-hearted pain, to mourn together but no, it seemed she needed to go back to her father and mother, to their home.  I didn’t know if there was a right or wrong in this event; I tried to understand but it was really all too much.

Weeks passed, I was feeling heavy-hearted and I thought many times how my wife must be getting on.  Although I had all the blessed love and support of my dear family, I couldn’t shake the feeling of being all alone.  I couldn’t bring myself to go anywhere, much less out of my room, not even to work.  

One weekend it happened that Noori came down to the house to see how the family was getting on.  I know she had clues from her best friend, my little sister.  I suppose Noori thought she ought to wait a while before coming over.  I know she wanted to see for herself how Gary was doing.  Perhaps she also thought Hemma may return …

She went straight into the kitchen and prepared tea for the family.  Then she brought a cup into my room for me.  No one seemed to mind that we stayed in the room for long hours, just talking.  My mother knew this was more helpful at this point than anything else.  

Noori reminded me of her promise; that she’d be around for me in case of emergency, and if ever I needed a different ear that would listen.  She said, “I am here to share your grief, your pain and I’ll come as often as I can so you can always use my shoulder to cry on.”

This girl helped me so much just by being there for me.  I was able to breathe again as I had someone to talk with, like a best friend who provided for me a way to express my feelings without reserve, about my child and how I was feeling with regard to the rest of my world.

We were getting closer and I was comfortable now with my support network.  Everything happened so fast!

One day Hemma sent her two courier pigeons my way with a note.  The message basically was an ultimatum which stated that if I wanted her back in my life, I would have to move into her family’s house.  

Otherwise she’d never come back to me.  Why oh why did I have a feeling this wasn’t my wife’s voice in these words?  What a sticky situation and what a demand!

Unimaginable!  No, no and still, no!

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*cleanse    – it is in our tradition when immediate family and the close relatives return from a funeral to the home we must first approach the basin of water which has been set-up next to a smoldering fire outside the house.  A mango leaf is in it.  

We take the leaf, dipping into the blessed water, sprinkling it upon ourselves 3 times and then turn to the smoke of the fire, bringing the smoke towards ourselves in a blessing sort of way; like it’s preventing any unwelcome whatever from the funeral location.  Then bathing and fresh clothes follow.