a short, mostly true, story
A Short Mostly True Story
I was playing cribbage in the galley with some shipmates, all of whom were much older than me. I was a kid, a deckhand, a deck-ape. They were veteran seamen. Combined, the three of them had logged over a century at sea.
It came time to count our hands. I laid down my cards, counting a total of eight.
“Wait a minute,” interjected the chief engineer, a weathered old salt nicknamed “Stubby” who perpetually chewed on what was once a cigar, walked with a severe limp on a bowed leg, and stood maybe 5’6. Stubby spent his earlier years as a commercial fisherman out of Gloucester. He was focused on my hand. “You’ve got a million there,” he said unemotionally, but kindly. He counted 21 in the same hand.
Murrey and Jake made a foursome. Murrey was my best friend on board. He laughed and joked with me and generally treated me as an equal. He was a mechanic (AKA grease-monkey) in his late 30s who went on to murder a guy with an axe in a jealous rage, then spend the rest of his life in a maximum-security penitentiary.
Jake was the first mate – like the chief engineer, an officer. (A chief engineer carries the same grade as the captain.) Jake was on watch most nights on the bridge, taking the ship through the darkness, watching radars, listening to radio transmissions, taking readings, plotting courses. He was a decade older than Murrey and two younger than Stubby. He was huge – six foot seven means you bump your head a lot and learn to walk bent over like an old woman with severe spinal osteoarthritis. Jake had flaming red hair and dumped rivers of Mad Anthony’s Hot Sauce (20,000 SHU) on literally everything Cookie served up. Jake drowned about ten years later attempting to rescue people off a capsized boat in a hurricane.
Cookie didn’t play cribbage. Cookie rarely spoke, come to think of it. He’d been run out of the Army on a dishonorable discharge. (Drunk on duty multiple times) Cookie had exactly seven identical breakfasts, seven identical mid-day dinners, and seven identical evening suppers. If it was Thursday breakfast, you were getting greasy eggs. If it was Monday noon, you were getting an even greasier steak.
A week or so before our cribbage game, when we were still in port, Jake loudly aroused us out of our racks at 0300. Cookie was missing and we had to go find him.
Together, we began a sweep search of the seediest bars in the seediest part of a seedy city. Jake found Cookie – drunk, passed out in his own vomit, lying in a gutter behind a bar. Jake carried him over his shoulder back to the ship, and tossed him unceremoniously into his rack.
Two hours later, Cookie was in the galley stirring a mess of greasy eggs like nothing had ever happened. This pattern repeated each time we were in port. Under way, however, the ship was dry. Well, except for a small (locked) wine-cooler in the captain’s quarters well stocked with expensive imports. The captain was far too patrician to never play cribbage with any of us.
An oceanographic research ship carries two separate crews – ship’s crew and scientific crew. The ship’s crew is overseen by the captain and chief engineer. Under the captain were three mates (first, second, third – one for each watch), navigators, communication personnel, able-bodied and ordinary seamen, and Cookie and his assistant. The chief engineer oversees the other engineers, mechanics, electricians, plumbers – anybody who primarily works below decks. The scientific crew is directed by the chief scientist who orchestrates junior scientists, post-docs, grad-students, and technicians. Most of their work goes on in the laboratory. In an emergency, everybody obeys the captain.
That put me at the bottom of the chain. Deck hand. Ordinary seaman. No skills. I spent my days chipping rust with a pointed hammer, daubing paint where the rust had been, swabbing decks, cranking winches, bouncing up and down on a small platform while lowering and raising a gizmo that took water samples, or, similarly, core samples of the bottom. The samples then disappeared into the lab where the scientific crew found them fascinating.
Oh, and playing cribbage. We played a lot of cribbage. When Stubby recounted my hand, putting my peg significantly closer to the finish line, it strangely warmed my heart. A half century later, it still does. He treated me with respect, not like a dumb kid. No one mocked my ignorance of the game, or used my ignorance to their advantage. No one cared who won. No one lost. Stubby died quietly in his late 80s, his head cradled by a granddaughter.
In those days, the ship’s crew was all male, but there were women in the scientific crew – objects of adoration, awe, and wishful lust for Murrey. When we were in port, the captain would put on his dress uniform and escort “the ladies” to a restaurant. The male scientists smoked their pipes, shucked raw oysters, and spoke of weighty things.
We were a crew as divergent as you can get. Murrey was Latinx, Columbian if memory serves. Jake was thoroughly Irish. Stubby was African-American. I’m a mutt. We ranged in age from 18 to somewhere in the 60s. The captain felt that the Nixon-Agnew ticket was a divine gift. Murrey preferred Humphrey. I sported a big Eugene McCarthy button. Stubby was an RFK man. Then there was Jake. George Wallace. “Segregation now. Segregation forever.”
And yet, we all got along. No name calling. No one thought the other guy was an enemy or hated America. That ship was a microcosm of America – a variety of ages, ethnicities, genders, skills, educational levels, pay grades, experiences, political views, and skin tones. We genuinely liked and respected one another.
It’s hard to find unity like that even in churches today.