Four Men in a Boat story… ' Shipmate'

14 CHAPTER FOURTEEN  (The days of wine and roses).

Corner brook is in Newfoundland and is noted as the oldest inhabited colony of its size in Canada.  It lies in the Gulf of St Lawrence.

A huge pulp mill and newsprint manufacturer dominated the town, which together with its fishing fleet were the major industries.

Newspapers are printed at incredible speed so its important that few breakages occur that would cause lost production and costly ‘down time.’

To avoid problems, the suppliers to the great newspaper producers of New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, ensured as near as possible, problem free supplies.  To achieve this it was deemed essential to own and therefore control, the whole process from tree to reel.  Accordingly, from the land where the timber was grown, to the factories that produced the products, the company was the owner.  In addition they owned the shipping company and leased the docks where they employed their own labour.  Nothing was left to chance.

The ship had left Ellesmere Port in the UK ten days earlier and arrived shortly before Christmas to take on a full cargo of Newsprint bound for the East coast of North America.

A carpet of thick snow covered everywhere apart from a patch that had been cleared to facilitate loading.  The Officers and crew did not take part in the loading that was carried out by the very experienced shore crew who only handled newsprint.

Left with little to do, the customary visit to town in search of a good time was the one of the few pastimes to be had. 

The deck crew were forbidden alcohol whilst at sea, so their choice was usually a bar complete with bar girls.

Most of the Officers were less forthright though their goals may have been similar.  At least they started off with good intentions and visited the sights before ending up in a club or some other cosy establishment.

The Third Officer went ashore with his Irish friend, the Radio Officer known colloquially as ‘Sparks’.  Many of the community were either directly Scottish or Scottish by descent and had brought some of their cultural practices with them.  Through an unplanned encounter, where serendipity played its part and the two men were invited to the first night celebrations following a local amateur dramatics performance.  The whisky and wine flowed livening up the dancing.  The Third Officer was having his second dance with a petite ex Scots lady who had admired his uniform.  He restrained himself from telling her it was his warmest clothing but instead asked her how she spent her time in this rather remote community,

‘I’m a welfare Officer,’ she responded. 

‘Sounds a bit dull,’ he rather tactlessly replied.

‘Quite to the contrary.’  She said.  ‘ Last week I had to attend an incident some two hundred miles in the outback and the problem was far from dull.’

‘Some settlers regularly came into town to get supplies.  In the winter they left their two youngsters of three and five with their grandfather as minder. 

 Unfortunately while the parents were away he died.  When they arrived home, the parents found that their children had tried to skin the old boy.

  Out there anything that died was skinned.  Not only did I have to council the kids but their parents as well.’

Somehow this revelation diminished all thoughts of ardor and the Third Officer returned to sampling the whisky with his friend Sparks who was already happily imbibing with his Gaelic cousins.

The voyage down the East coast of America took just over a month for the round trip and often they would host Newspaper owners and their families on their return journey who had been invited to the company’s retreat.  It comprised of a remote forest lodge that was fully equipped for hunting and fishing and even boasted its own chef.

 The guests had to be given the utmost attention as the ship was the Commodore Ship of the fleet and was famous for its hospitality.  Apart from the additional luxury accommodation the Officers and guests enjoyed six course meals complete with fine wines and cheeses.  Looking back it was on one of those trips that the japes began albeit purely innocently.

Americans can appear a little naive to their European cousins but their willingness to conform when encountering unusual practices was a most endearing quality.

Confronted with a daunting amount of silver cutlery at mealtimes must have seemed strange even to the heads of the Great Corporations.

 The occasion of the first dinner was always chosen.  The Americans quietly observed the cutlery items being used by the Officers and followed suit.  Surreptitiously, the Officers exchanged the steak knives for fish knives that would go unnoticed by the guests.

 When the steak course arrived the visitors were totally frustrated. 

 Given the American habit of cutting the entire meal into small pieces, they had nothing to use but their fish knives.

The Officers pretended not to notice but later in private they uncharitably recounted the incidents with unabashed mirth.

To pass the time the guests strolled about the ship and were allowed unrestricted access that sometimes interfered with the carrying out of duties. 

It happened one evening to the Third Officer who was preoccupied with an intensive ‘ice’ watch.  He was used to his lonely vigil on the bridge and was visibly startled when a voice came from out of the darkness,

‘So this is where you work Buddy!’  The glow from the stout American’s Cigar was the only part initially visible.  ‘How about showing me around?’

Thereafter it became a regular visit that at first was welcome as it helped to pass the time.  Later it became a bit of a nuisance so a trick was devised to deter his visitor.

 The visitor always liked to view through the radar scanner, often leaving a pile of cigar ash when he left.  One night a smear of black shoe polish was applied to the rim of the viewer to brand the unsuspecting observer in the hope he would get the message and cease his nocturnal visits.

Unexpectedly that evening, the Captain accompanied the visitor as his host and guided him around the bridge.  The Third Officer was on tenterhooks, noticing every gesture and movement.  The Captain invited his guest to have a look at the radar but the polite American said, ‘No you first Captain.’

Next morning during the Captains regular visit at ‘Smokeho,’ he said to the Third Officer,

 ‘Remind me to get the Chief Officer to order a new radar viewer, the old one’s melting!’

The Third Officer grew to admire most of the laid back attributes of the Americans but was unable to take on board certain aspects of their casual manner.  The use of first names seemed alien to him but other characteristics such as their simple practicability and optimism, he found very refreshing.

On one such trip they arrived in New York and happened to berth at the pier alongside the Queen Elizabeth.  The guests were ecstatic taking part in all the activities including throwing the streamers to the tunes of the brass band.  The Third Officer’s fiancées birthday was approaching and the teenage daughter of one of the newspaper owners bullied him to going with her to ‘Macey’s’ a huge department store that made Harrods look the size of a corner shop.

The young Officer had trouble explaining that quality was preferable to size but was beaten when the girl referred to the great Ocean liner berthed nearby. 

 After all day looking for a suitable present near to his budget, he settled for a dozen red roses.  There were no credit cards in those days but he had permission from the Captain to bill the ship that in turn would deduct the amount from his accumulated wages at the end of the voyage.

He was suitably gratified to receive a letter bursting with thanks for all the roses which not only were displayed around her house back in England but there were enough to take some to work.

Just before Christmas they had returned to England to take their leave and on paying off he queried why his cheque seemed small.

He discovered that a dozen dozen had been sent.  Oh well, he thought, everything is big that comes from America.

In January 1962 he rejoined the ship at Tilbury docks and again made the North Atlantic crossing but thankfully though very cold the weather was kind and the trans-ocean passage was uneventful. 

 A quiet start to what proved to be a very memorable year.

The first tragedy struck on 30th August when the shipping fleet’s owner Sir Eric died.  The small fleet of ships all flew their flags at half-mast for a week out of respect.  Nobody imagined that to raise the death duties a massive change was about to begin.

In October the world was brought to the brink of annihilation by the Cuban missile Crisis.

The Soviets had responded to the United States defence policy that in 1961 placed IBM’s in Turkey and Italy, by deciding to deploy their own in Cuba.  The ‘Cold War’ was at its height and diplomacy between the US and the Soviet Union was almost non-existent. 

At first America blockaded Cuba and eventually placed its nuclear deterrent on full alert causing consternation around the world.  A euphemism came into being ‘MAD’ that meant mutually assured destruction and spawned the birth of the beginnings of nuclear disarmament but not before becoming frighteningly close to all out and totally destructive war.

The situation was eventually resolved when threats by President Kennedy prompted a solution that caused the Soviets to remove their weapons from Cuba on condition that the Turkish and Italian weapons were similarly dealt with. 

At the height of the crisis all British merchant ships were ordered to take on full bunkers and sealed orders were opened instructing certain procedures during a nuclear event.  Hoses were to be continuously kept playing over the decks to flush away any contamination, while remote destinations such as the Falklands were confirmed as their new destination.  The orders were speedily withdrawn following the resolution of the crisis.

November brought news from England that the administration of the Ships was to be transferred to a well-known management company already looking after the interests of several fleet owners.  The good news purported to be that employment could be available with shipping lines travelling all over the world.  The bad news was that salaries had to come into line with those of the already managed fleets.

Many of the ships officers had previously left some of the company’s involved so were reluctant to rejoin, particularly at lower salaries.  Long trips were often involved which didn’t suit family men. 

 At the time, two-year articles were signed which meant that a two-year contract existed between the signatory and the Ship’s Master.

The contract was only judged to be broken when foreign going vessels entered a United Kingdom port.  Had that not happened after two years, they were repatriated.

The hitherto sheltered life on the east coast of America would end at the finish of the voyage, when signing off would terminate the rather cushy contract.

Ships crews, many of whom had sailed together for years, would be redistributed, a prospect that decided most of them to ‘swallow the anchor’ which in sailors jargon means giving up their careers at sea.

Leaving parties became a daily event and rumor had it that even the Captain had decided to retire. 

Sir Eric’s benefactors, no doubt carrying out his perceived wishes, ensured a generous payment to the long serving crew members who had decided to leave.  This naturally decided those who were unable to make up their minds, bringing the total number agreeing to redeployment to zero.  As a consequence it was decided to have a final grand farewell party at the end of the voyage.

It was a very sad day when they left Cornerbrook for the last time.  They had come to consider it as their homeport.  The Mayor and other dignitaries assembled on the quay as a brass band played British American and Scottish classics while getting covered in snow.  The heavy mooring ropes were taken in and the ship slowly departed and disappeared into the heavy snowdrifts.  A single mournful blast of the ships whistle said ‘Goodbye.’

The trip south to Baltimore was uneventful but on entering the River Potomac they were held up by one of the renowned mules that plied their trade the length of Chesapeake Bay.  The mules consisted of long strings of barges pushed by tugs having blunt ends to enable the controlled movement needed to cope with the current.

Their pilot was a florid Virginian and constantly complained about the Government in D.C. by which he meant Washington.  Apparently he lived next door to a senator and didn’t like him.

They unloaded their complete cargo in three days and set sail without a fanfare of any kind, bound for home after loading pulp at St John’s Halifax a diversion they put down to the new management.

Fog shrouded the Thames estuary causing a reduction in speed as they arrived eight days later bound for a terminal near Gravesend called Northfleet.

The ship finally docked at eight thirty in the morning and the Party was scheduled for that evening.

The fog lifted, heated by a wintery Sun and revealed a perfect spring day that welcomed them home.

The quayside was full of activity with the arrival of stores and the comings and goings of shore personnel, as the ship was made ready for discharging the cargo.  As in the US, a specialist team of stevedores dealt with the cargo freeing the ships Officers for other pursuits.

The Third Officer decided to meet his fiancée from work in London and to bring her to the party in the evening since the ship was moored in the Thames only about thirty five miles from where they lived.

 He cadged a lift to the West End of London with the marine superintendent who was based in the City.

She was allowed off of work early and they went home to get ready.

As luck would have it the happy couple lived next door to one and other so there was no need to arrange a pick up.

At about six that evening they left in a large Jaguar limousine that was the Third Officers pride and joy.  He had bought it cheaply because it used petrol like it had gone out of fashion.

It sat idle while he was away but had earned its keep when it was used to take him to college a couple of years earlier when swatting for his mates ticket.

The drive through the Kent countryside was exhilarating and they arrived at the wharf just before seven.

A formal dinner preceded the party and apart from the Officers and some wives there were several guests including the offspring of their late owner whom the ship was named after.

Course upon course followed accompanied by copious amounts of wine.  Speeches were brief and revolved around thanking the chefs and stewards for the wonderful meal. 

They adjourned to the lounge, which had its own bar, and piano that was played expertly by the second engineer to encourage singing and dancing.

The lounge had been decorated with colourful balloons and complimented the smartly dressed Officers in their best uniforms and the beautifully clad ladies.

It was not without reason that London was responsible for the swinging sixties and the dancing and music carried on well into the early hours of the next morning.  Jive had become popular and energetic displays attracted appreciative applause.

The Captain had had to leave early to catch the last overnight Caledonian train from Euston to Inverness where he lived, leaving the Chief Officer in charge.

The Chief Officer, himself a seasoned drinker, knew when one of his charges had too much to drink and took the appropriate action.

 At six thirty a shore siren woke the Third Officer.  He glanced about him in disbelief, at first unsure of where he was.  The plush luxurious surroundings were one thing.  His fiancée asleep in the double berth beside him was another.

The realization that he was in the owners suit and still onboard gradually dawned on him.  Judging from the headache they had had a good time but he couldn’t remember anything about how he arrived where he was. 

The door had been locked from the outside and he saw an envelope that had been slipped under the door.

Good morning Margaret and John,

You car keys are with security.  I have asked your steward to call you for breakfast at eight o’clock when he will unlock the door.  I have to leave early to drive the three hundred miles or so to catch the ferry to the Shetlands where I will be staying with my parents.

It was a great night and you were both really good fun.  Your jiving and twisting to the music Margaret enthralled quite a few of the men, particularly those who were seated.

Be seeing you,

Charles Vansittart Dryden.

 It was fortunate that it was a Saturday and Margaret didn’t have to go to work.  Her first thought on waking was to ring home.  She was delighted that the telephone worked and after they had showered and dressed they decided to forgo breakfast.  She read the note and remarked at the Chief Officers funny middle name.

‘It’s a family name I suppose,’ said John.

At eight o’clock the steward brought tea and toast and handed over the car keys.

They had their tea and toast and left the Owners Suite taking the stairs down one flight to John’s less luxurious cabin.  He had already packed the bulk of his personal possessions so it didn’t take long to box up the remainder.  He asked his fiancée to remain in his cabin while he said his farewells to the few shipmates that remained aboard.  He explained it would be quicker but the truth was that he didn’t want her to witness any emotional lapses before they left for home.

With a last glance back at the ship they drove away from the dock, passing under a crane that was loading ‘Fullers’ earth onto a barge.  John fought back his feelings and blamed the dust for causing the tear that came into the corner of his eye.

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