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Voyages at Sixteen

From: Sewanee Review
Volume 121, Number 4, Fall 2013
pp. 560-579 | 10.1353/sew.2013.0090

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You would have expected the steel of the ship's forward deck to be smooth. But it wasn't. It was black and rough with the texture of a tar and gravel country road at home. It sloped sharply upward toward the bow and tapered from the centerline to the bulwarks so that in heavy seas the water would run off quickly. She was empty and riding high. Standing at the bow fifty feet above the water, I felt as if I were riding down the Hudson on a huge bobbing cork, leaving the Statue of Liberty to port, waiting for Sandy Hook and the Atlantic. The ship was quiet, the decks empty. It was Sunday evening and the late day summer sun hung like a flaming disk in the haze over New Jersey. I was fifteen, soon to be sixteen. It was June 1956.

"You're the American boy aren't you?"

I turned. "Yes, that seems to be what everybody calls me. Who are you?"

"Mike. I'm the officers' mess boy. I can ship as an ordinary seaman (os), but I wanted to leave home in a hurry, so I took the first thing that came along. I just got fed up with home. I'm from Jamaica."

"I could tell. You sound like Harry Belafonte."

Mike looked hard at me for an instant to be sure there wasn't some kind of insult here. Then he said, "Yes, I do, don't I? What are you doing here? Couldn't you get a good job in an office ashore?" The words flooded out.

"Whoa, and I'll tell you." I was now facing aft, with my back resting on the anchor ball pole. "I'm the starboard cabin boy. My sixteenth birthday is next week. I've read Moby-Dick. I just want to see some of the watery world, like Ishmael." Go somewhere straight away. My heart gave a sudden joyous lurch. Yes, straight away. I'm going. Mike looked at me strangely.

"Do you understand?

"I understand fine. That's why I am here too. I'm twenty-two. This is the fifth time I've shipped out, and I haven't seen much of the world yet. A port's a port. The girls, too. They all look the same. Maybe it'll be different this time. Have you been to Newport News? They say the whole place stinks of coal. You know that's what we're loading—coal! For the Far East. I've never been to Japan before. They say the girls are something."

That night, Gunnar, the second cook, whose cabin I shared, stared at me as I climbed into the upper bunk, carefully, without stepping on him. Gunnar, who was very tall and skinny, and was what we would call a neat freak, had jackknifed himself into his bunk and was reading a novel written in Norwegian, with a lurid cover of a near naked girl looking in fear at a man of exaggerated physique.

The space was very small. When I leaned over the edge and said, "Goodnight," Gunnar grunted and went on reading. The motion and vibration of the ship put me to sleep.

Thirty-six hours later we arrived at Hampton Roads, one day after my sixteenth birthday. I was unaware of our arrival before dawn, until the engine stopped and the anchor was released with a tremendous rush as the huge links passed through the hawse hole. I jerked awake and hit the close overhead so hard I thought I'd knocked myself out. There were a dozen or more ships anchored in the Roads, waiting to go alongside whatever pier their cargo required. All that day, as I was washing down the passageways, I occasionally ducked outside to see what was happening.

Once the steward was standing at the forward rail of the boat deck. He was staring at me. When our eyes met, the man's head jerked as if he were waking from a daydream. I heard my name yelled in a Norwegian accent. The steward's hand gesture was clear: What the hell was I doing out on deck sightseeing...

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