Dad commanded the Military Sea Transportation Service in the Navy from 1959 to 1962 and secured a fascinating summer job for me as a waiter on a Merchant Marine ship. My three cruises took me to ports in the Mediterranean Sea and Bremerhaven, Germany. During the summer of 1959, after obtaining a passport and passing a physical exam, I carried my suitcase, a bundle of favorite records, and my record player to the USNS General Maurice Rose (T- AP-126) docked at Brooklyn, N.Y. The personnel carrier was similar to the General Randall I had taken to Japan.
I trudged up the gangplank and reported as a crew member who earned $400 per month with free room and board. A Filipino steward took me to my room on the bottom deck where I bunked with three other “messmen,” who served meals to the large crew and cleaned officers’ rooms. Surrounded by a diverse mix of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, and Caucasian crew-members, I stepped into an entirely different world that made me hope it would broaden my perspective and help me mature.
Before we left for Spain, Coney Island’s great amusement park attracted my interest. Zooming around on the roller coaster, spinning on the tilt-a-whirl, shooting at targets, and ringing the bell with the sledgehammer, satisfied that youthful urge. The ocean breeze atop the Ferris wheel provided a relief on a scorching ninety-five degree day and my first spectacular view of the “Big Apple.”
While walking near the New York theater scene, Sidney Poitier appeared on a downtown street early that evening. Blackboard Jungle, Edge of the City, and The Defiant Ones brought race relations to a focus for me. He stopped, strolled into the Ethel Barrymore Theater, and played a leading role with Ruby Dee in A Raisin in the Sun, I absorbed from front row.
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Poitier played the son of a family that received enough money from an insurance policy after their father’s death to purchase a house in an all white neighborhood in Chicago. As a chauffeur, he soon trusted a hustler with the money his mother gave him to start a new life. When cheated out of her savings, he was tempted to sell his parents’ new home to a group of white racists, but detected the racist motivation, declined to succumb to coercion, and united the family as the leader his mother wanted him to be.
Poitier’s charisma penetrated my consciousness and made me realize how little experience I had with Blacks in my sheltered existence. Spending three hours with a Black family trying to solve their problem and hearing their dialogue express how they felt to be treated like second class citizens, made me better understand their plight. It also reminded me of the civil rights lecture I heard a year earlier on a train. These influences had begun to grow deep inside me and would blossom later.
The Navy used the General Rose to transport government employees, ambassadors, diplomats, military personnel and their families to overseas destinations. The Rose carried a complement of fifteen Merchant Marine officers and a crew of two hundred men to service the ship with its three hundred passengers. Many college-aged students embarked for the Mediterranean to visit their parents who resided in Europe. The only naval officer in charge warned the crew, “Do not socialize with civilians, or I will cancel your liberty.”
Unintimidated, on the first cruise I made a number of friends by surreptitiously joining them in civilian clothes where mixers were held for the students. When the officer caught me, the red-face shouted, “Get below with your kind. Never come topside again.” I had to avoid “hawk eyes,” but found it amusing he associated me with the crew he disrespected when my Dad was his superior officer. Beyond serving meals to the crew, my duties included cleaning Merchant Marine Officers’ rooms, changing sheets, swabbing, and waxing floors that required me to ascend to the upper deck where their large staterooms were. Not as disciplined as I imagined, many left a mess that required hours to clean.
I had three roommates. Jake was a street-wise, muscular Black and a natural leader in his forties who organized a black market cigarette operation. A smaller Mexican named Ramon, who loved Fundador cognac and bar hopping, bunked next to me. The oldest, he was quiet and muscular, but his belly stuck out like a watermelon. Chris, a lanky white scullery dishwasher from Minnesota, was about thirty, and had a scraggly beard. He was always with Sonny, who weighed more than three hundred pounds, had a dark beard with a goatee, was blind in one large ominous eye, and resembled a pirate with a Bronx accent.
After the ship departed, I met Frenchie, a crew-member and former bodyguard who lifted weights in an open area in a hallway on the bottom deck. He invited me to work out daily when I told him I wanted to get in shape for football at Duke. He outweighed me by forty pounds, but was four inches shorter. A disciplined athlete with a bull-neck and huge muscles that rippled over his body, his square head, reddish blond crew cut, sparkling blue eyes, and common sense, made him unique and interesting.
“You should lift your own weight soon if you work with me daily,” he said and started me pressing one hundred pounds. Eventually, I worked up to two hundred and twenty pounds by the end of the summer, added twenty-five pounds of muscle to my frame, and changed my body from slender to muscular.
Ben, a smooth-talking Black in his mid-forties, was the chief steward in the galley where messmen served the crew meals. Everyone respected him because of his leadership, superior intelligence, and position. Sporting a well-groomed goatee, he bore a striking resemblance to Jeff Chandler, a famous white movie actor.
The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, enlightened me how most white people, who had little contact with Blacks, failed to realize the differences in their facial features. When I took the time to observe them in conversation, they had every variation of nose, eyebrow, ear, chin, mouth, teeth, or any other feature white people had—a lesson I had learned regarding the Japanese when I lived in their country.
Panama at sixty had a full, but sparse, beard flecked with white, blood-shot eyes, and mumbled constantly. A slender Black from Panama, he spoke Spanish, broken English, and was mysterious. He never performed his duty of cleaning out the large commercial urn that served a hundred men that made the coffee almost unpalatable.
“The coffee tastes so much better when the urn is cleaned. Are you going to clean it?”I said, hoping to have him do a task I would have to perform if he refused.
“Don’t mess with me, white boy,” shot from his lips as red-veined eyes glared.
Taking that as a threat and feeling the need to assert myself, I said, “Panama, you don’t scare me. Just do your job.”
He crept close to me and through heavy alcoholic and tobacco breath sprayed vitriol while jockeying his head left and right with each word: “Boy, I goin’ cut yo throat wid my knife while yo sleepin’ God Dammit! Leave me lone. I kill yo ass.”
Retreating from the verbal assault, my mind wondered, “What made him respond with a death threat?”
Ben warned, “Be very careful with everything you say to Panama. Never, ever, criticize him. He’s crazy in the head, man. Don’t you know that?”
“Do you think Panama would actually cut my throat?”
Ben rolled his eyes, “Man, Panama is very dangerous. Leave him alone.”
Days after we left for the Mediterranean Sea, I heard some yelling at night outside my room and opened the door along with Jake. A small, skinny black crew-member in white tee shirt and khaki slacks held a knife in his hand and stood over a bulky white German crew-member who worked in the engine room. Blood from the German’s neck gushed. In seconds, security guards and medical staff surrounded us, carried the victim away on a gurney, and escorted the black crew-member out. I never again saw the German, nor the black man who stabbed him. That violent action demonstrated as nothing else could, that I must not offend any crew-members. Who knows which one might be angry, hostile, or hold a grudge? Ben’s warning about Panama raced through my mind, as did an image of Panama resting a knife on my throat while I slept.
The Rose docked at Rota, Spain after eight days. It had taken me a while to acquire “sea legs” after the rocking and rolling of the ship but was relieved to have the motion of the ship cease. When I went ashore I experienced an odd feeling—the land continued to move as if the ocean were under it for a few hours.
Cadiz, only a few miles away from Rota, was inviting with its brilliant white homes dotting the countryside and green hills leading to the blue silk Atlantic Ocean. I walked the streets of Rota noting they spoke Castilian Spanish lisping their S’s and C’s followed by a vowel. When Spaniards understood me, it made the adventure of interacting with them enjoyable. Invariably, the citizens of any country we visited in Europe appreciated conversing with an American teenager in their native tongue. My Spanish improved dramatically. The locals spoke rapidly making it hard to understand them at first. Slowly, Spanish vocabulary and grammar came back to me, my mind deciphered the unfamiliar sounds, and communications improved. If I had more time in Spain I could become acclimated to their culture.
Barcelona was our next port that offered a breathtaking view as we sailed in. There were foreign ships, a huge castle on a hill, and promenades throughout the city with quaint streets, shops, and walk-up bars. A group of college students joined me for a hike to an impressive castle whose winding stone walkway beckoned us. We toured inside and decided to go back to the city by taxi and order dinner.
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Bartenders welcomed the tourists to sample specialties. Champagne, fresh seafood, ceviche, and escargot were plentiful, delicious, and inexpensive.
The messmen dressed in fancy civilian outfits meandered through the city to dance-bars like the Kit Kat Club, a chain of clubs prominent in most of the large ports where prostitutes were available, but dangerous. Fortunately the ship had warned us about VD. I drank local beer, wandered to clubs, bars, and promenades sightseeing, while hookers wearing heavy make-up hustled shipmates. They were interested in how much money they could make quickly before returning for the next trick. Ignoring the warning many shipmates spent a week taking pills to cure their symptoms later.
Bored by the scene, I tried out my Spanish on a vivacious red-haired female bartender named Rose who spoke English, appeared intelligent, gave useful advice about where to go while in Barcelona, and mixed a mean margarita. At twenty-five, she was a person I wanted to learn more about, but the bar noise made conversation difficult. My Spanish experience in Cadiz helped me gain her confidence and friendship while she entertained the customers with jokes. “One of the best Spanish customs in Barcelona is Las Ramblas--a late evening walk about eleven PM for an hour or more,” she said and added smiling, “You need to get away from the bar scene to appreciate my country.”
“Will you show me Las Ramblas this evening after you finish?”
“Come by when I quit at midnight and I’ll gladly take you there.”
Many men in Barcelona wore berets, as did a few of the messmen while ashore including Frenchie. When I put one on it changed my appearance from a college boy to a more sophisticated person.
At closing time Rose showed me Barcelona nightlife. We walked the tree-lined Las Ramblas past the Catedral de Barcelona. Kiosks were everywhere and vendors sold souvenirs and flowers. Street performers, cafes, and restaurants sparkled with the friendly crowd strolling by.
At the Royal Square she took me to a pub that played popular American music with a dance floor. We drank sangria, danced to “Kansas City,” “Donna,” “There Goes my Baby,” “So Fine,” and “Dream Lover.” On our way back to our table, I pulled her close, kissed her neck, and squeezed my inflamed body against her. She kissed me back and bit my lip, then playfully took my hand and scampered away with me laughing all the way into the street. A fire ignited inside when she invited me to her modern apartment. We slow-danced to soft music. A moth to her flame, I fell into a burning passion. She bit me again and giggled through her voluptuous lips and smile. We were so attracted—off went her red skirt, orange blouse, my slacks, and sport shirt. In an intoxicating blaze her soft breasts and limber legs aroused all the passion of our entwined bodies like a volcano about to erupt, “Eres bonita...Te quiero...Cómo fantástico eres...Estás espectacular...”
A taxi took Frenchie and me to a beach resort not far from the city with some college friends from the Rose past the bustle of foreigners and travelers in bars where we nestled on the beach. A cool swim in the Mediterranean energized us for a nearby beach bar and ceviche marinated in lime with onions and chilled champagne.
At Livorno, Italy, a taxi drove me to the leaning Tower of Pisa. As I walked beyond each turn, gradually ascending the Tower, an increasingly spectacular view of the city with Mt. Vesuvius in the background spread before me. From there we visited Naples, Pompeii, Tripoli, Athens, Istanbul, and Izmir before returning to the United States. These ancient cities awed me for the thousands of years of civilization that had transpired and the different history each left their descendants. Walking the same roads, observing the artifacts, and touching the statues sent chills down my spine and inspired me to dive into the study of history my first opportunity at Duke.
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When we returned to Brooklyn, a train brought me to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium for a baseball game. With monuments to Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Miller Huggins in front of the centerfield flag pole, the fans were raucous, ferociously partisan, and demanding. The Yanks won a double header against the Red Sox and Whitey Ford won the first game. Mickey Mantle, Enos Slaughter, and Elson Howard homered and reliever Ryne Duren saved both games striking out most of the Bosox.
We departed for Bremerhaven, Germany and reached the port after eight days. I visited parks and gardens, drank at beer halls, and wandered cobblestone streets. Their open air Maritime Museum contained a large collection of German ships and the “U-Boot” WILHELM BAUER. I purchased a Black Forest cuckoo clock with hand carved figurines for my mother. The variety of clocks at the store had a collection of carved people and animals appear in a clock window or door at the beginning of an hour. Their melodies filled the room astounding me as did their size and quality.
The exposure to people from different backgrounds with whom I lived and worked, visiting foreign ports, learning about exotic cultures, and having some success communicating in Spanish with local people and Rose, expanded my awareness of the world. As did developing my body with Frenchie, reading a stack of novels, and making friends with the diverse crew. I had gained confidence and felt excitement from sharing my adventure with others, especially my family. Arriving with beret, suitcase, and a newly developed husky frame, my appearance suggested my personality had undergone a complete transformation, but at nineteen, I had just begun to heighten my consciousness.
Wanting to share my experiences from this summer with Mom, Ruthie, and Grampa, I returned to Fernandina Beach, Florida. When I arrived, Mom informed me Grampa had fallen very ill during the summer and died from cancer. His death made me deeply sorry for his pain and suffering. I felt a great loss not having my brilliant grandfather at home to play cards, discuss sports, and make us laugh at dinner. Ruthie hid her grief by playing her Hammond organ. Mom loved the cuckoo clock. Every hour a red and yellow wooden bird emerged from a door and chirped a cheery “cuckoo,” bringing needed laughter.
Mom wished she could have pursued college when younger but she sacrificed that to raise her children until Dad returned from war. His winning custody when I was five added to the burden she carried from her breakdown, shock treatments, and abuse. She and Ruthie worshiped at the Episcopal Church, watched sunrise every morning as it rose above the sand dunes and glistened its hues upon the incoming waves, seagulls, and Brown Pelicans gliding on wind currents. The Grey Porpoises rose and dropped in perpetual rhythm with the sloshing of the sea on the shore providing nature’s relief from the world’s conflicts on the most caring observers in my world.