Monday, March 21, 2011

A Visit to the Seamen's Club

After completing the long voyage across the Pacific, the Comet docked in Pusan, South Korea.  She and several other cargo ships delivered Army vehicles for the annual American/South Korean military maneuvers held in the early spring.  These vehicles, an assortment of trucks, jeeps, personnel carriers, mobile artillery, etc., were driven off the ship via the stern ramp and onto waiting railroad cars.  When the trains were filled, they departed for points inland.  Left behind in Pusan for about three weeks, the Comet’s next task was spring cleaning.  During this interval the crew spent their working hours cleaning cargo holds, scraping rust, painting, and making repairs.  On a busy ship like the Comet, there were always maintenance and repair jobs, and everyone had plenty to do.

Three weeks in an Asian port was a seaman’s dream come true, and everyone sought to make the most of this windfall.  Pusan was both a very busy seaport and a very cosmopolitan city.  Merchant ships from all over the world stopped there to load and discharge cargo.  Their crewmen spent their off-duty hours meandering through the famous International Market, an indoor-outdoor shopping extravaganza comparable to an American flea market but much more chaotic.  Vendors displayed merchandise on makeshift tables extending from the shopfronts and blocking the walkways and alleyways.  It was impossible to tell where one merchant’s goods ended and another’s began.  Because of the completely haphazard arrangement of all this stuff, it was impossible to walk a straight line through the narrow alleys, let alone drive a car through the mess.  The sellers of all this material were conversant in English.  Whenever they saw Caucasian faces such as ours they immediately approached us and spoke English.  Then the haggling over prices began.  They accepted American money and various European currencies as well.  No doubt they charged exorbitantly when the Westerners came along, but even with this the Comet’s crew did pretty well.  The most beautiful Korean clothing, jewelry boxes, dolls, furniture, and other handcrafts came at bargain prices compared to what they would cost at home.  I picked up several such items for Mom and Miss Patty.

Besides the International Market, there were numerous other diversions from shipboard in Pusan.  As in any seaport town, these ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the sacred to the profane.  One fairly tame attraction that fit in between these extremes was the seamen’s club.

Many years ago in most of the world’s major seaports, various benevolent and charitable organizations established seamen’s clubs to serve as safe havens for merchant seamen in their off-duty hours.  Some of these organizations were religious in nature, such as the famous Seamen’s Church Institute in New York.  Others were secular but still sought to keep the seamen off the streets, so to speak.  Typically, a seamen’s club included a dining room, a recreation hall, and an information desk.  Some of the more elaborate clubs also offered overnight lodging, gift shops, libraries, and medical facilities.  The club in Pusan was mid-sized.  It had a multilingual staff, two very nice dining rooms, a small bar, a game room, and along one wall a row of slot machines.  Several of my shipmates and I spent some very pleasant hours at the seamen’s club in Pusan.  The food was excellent and extremely inexpensive.  The slot machines, which we reckoned were a waste of our hard-earned money, we ignored.

Sometimes the seamen’s club could be very crowded.  One busy afternoon I went there with my friend Crazy Ed.  He was a third assistant engineer and a former schoolmate.  The host in the club asked us to share a table for four with two other men who were already using it.  This is a practice that most Americans find intolerable, but in Europe and Asia it’s commonplace.  These two men greeted us politely and continued their meal and their conversation in a Scandinavian sounding language.  Crazy Ed and I conversed in English as we ate, and everyone seemed quite content.

Crowding in the seamen’s club varied with the comings and goings of merchant ships in the port.  As the Comet spent not days but weeks in Pusan, we saw the club both at its busiest and its quietest.  Whatever the level of patronage, though, the food was consistently excellent at ridiculously low prices, and it was a change from the shipboard fare.  One evening three of us went to the club for dinner—Crazy Ed, the engine room cadet, and myself.  After a day spent running around the city, the seamen’s club was a restful place to eat and unwind before returning to the ship and going on watch at midnight.

But the Navy had come to town.  A small group of perhaps five or six American Navy seamen were patronizing the club that night.  They were well-behaved if a bit noisy.  They ate and drank and played pool and with one exception walked right past the slot machines.  This one exception dragged a table across the floor and positioned it in front of one of the machines.  He took off his coat, sat up on the edge of the table, and poured a sack filled with American coins into a mound on the table next to him.  His companions watched him as he set himself up.  Then they wandered off into the game room.  My shipmates and I watched him as we ate our dinners.

Very methodically and deliberately, this young Navy man inserted coin after coin into the slot machine and pulled the lever down after each one.  With each insertion of a coin and pull of the lever, the machine clinked and whirred.  The pictures on the face of it spun around and new pictures came into view.  Then the machine stopped.  The Navy man inserted the next coin, and the cycle repeated itself.  This went on for a long time.

My shipmates and I finished our meals but lingered to watch this strange spectacle.  The other Navy fellows returned from the pool table periodically to check on their friend.  We all wanted to see if he would win a big jackpot.  But he inserted coin after coin with the same result.  The machine dutifully went through its motions, but it yielded no return on the investment.  And the large pile of coins became smaller and smaller.

Shortly before 8:00 o’clock, the three of us from the Comet left the seamen’s club and walked several blocks to the telephone exchange.  Crazy Ed had suggested that we surprise our wives with a phone call from the other side of the world.  After some initial reluctance, I agreed, and off we went.

At the telephone exchange, we signed in with the front desk clerk and gave him our names and the telephone numbers that we wanted to call.  He then directed us to sit down in a large waiting area until he summoned us a few minutes later.  When our turns came, he directed us to a row of old fashioned telephone booths that lined one wall of the waiting room.  Each of us was assigned to a numbered booth.  As instructed, I went into booth number 8, shut the door, and picked up the receiver.

It was with bated breath that I took the receiver and put it to my ear.  After a momentary ringing, Miss Patty’s sleepy voice came through crystal clear.  When she realized that it was me, she suddenly sounded wide awake.  “You’re calling me all the way from Korea!” she exclaimed.  Yes, I was, and it was a carefully timed call.  It was 8:00pm on Tuesday, March 27, 1984, in Pusan; it was 6:00am the same day in New Hampshire, fourteen hours earlier.  I deliberately called Miss Patty before she had to go to college for the day.

At this distance of time I don’t remember the entire conversation.  I do recall that it was brief and expensive.  I still have the receipt from that phone call.  This document informs me in both English and Korean that we spoke for seven minutes at a cost of 14,420 won.  At the exchange rate of 781.75 won to the dollar, I spent the equivalent of $18.45 in American money.  With this little errand complete, Crazy Ed and the cadet and I returned to the seamen’s club for dessert.

The Navy guy was still feeding coins into the slot machine.  We watched him as we ate dessert and congratulated ourselves on surprising the girls at home.  The mound of coins that had been there earlier had in our absence become much smaller, and now that we had returned it continued to diminish.  The other Navy fellows were still periodically checking up on their friend.  By now he was getting antsy.  He expected the machine to soon spit out a huge winning jackpot that would give him all his coins back plus much more.  His agitation grew as his coin supply dwindled.  His shipmates urged him on.  At our table, my shipmates and I quietly commented to each other that this slot machine game was an enormous waste of money.  Couldn’t this fellow see that?  It seemed like common sense.  Still, we waited to see if he would suddenly strike it rich and prove us wrong.

In the end, the young Navy man lost his entire sack of coins.  He won nothing and lost a lot.  We estimated his loss at a few hundred dollars and possibly more.  His companions bought him dinner as consolation.  In all fairness to him, though, he took his financial setback graciously.  But all the good grace in the world could not change the fact that he had just irretrievably gambled away a ton of cash.  In short, he gambled big and he lost big.

My companions and I had fun analyzing this situation.  Of course, the Navy man had a chance of winning, or else he would not have gambled on the slot machine at all.  But we figured that his chance of winning anything, let alone his chance of winning a really huge jackpot, was so small that it simply wasn’t worth the risk of losing everything. He couldn’t even quit while he was ahead because he never got ahead.  It was all downhill for him from the start when he inserted his first coin into the machine.  When he was finished he had nothing to show for all the money he had spent.  My friends and I had spent money that night, too, although nowhere near as much, but we had each gotten something in return for it—a good meal and a phone call home.  We were not financial experts, but we knew that we had gotten the better bargain.  We concluded that the whole slot machine game was just a dumb idea. 

The three of us from the Comet soon had to return to the ship.  Two of us had to go to work at midnight; one had to get a good night’s sleep before starting work in the morning.  Everyone’s shipboard duties continued.  In time, the trainloads of Army vehicles returned to the Comet, and she sailed from Pusan.  Eventually, after another long transpacific voyage, she returned to California and docked in Oakland on Easter Sunday.  On getting busy aboard ship again, I had filed the conclusion that the slot machine game was a dumb idea away in the back of my mind.  Since then, I’ve concluded that all gambling is a dumb idea, especially when the odds of coming out ahead are so infinitesimally small that they are practically nonexistent.  Years later, I was pleased to read that I was not alone in this thinking.  President Gordon B. Hinckley summed up the slot machine experience of the young Navy man (and others) more eloquently than I could:

We try to gamble our way into prosperity, and in the process further impoverish ourselves.1

How true and how sad.  To spend all that money and receive absolutely nothing in return for it—what a waste of both the money and the time and effort required to earn it in the first place!  Another Church leader, Elder Dallin H. Oaks,  thought as I did but expanded on my reasoning and raised a good point:

Gambling is a game of chance that takes without giving value in return.  Gambling puts money or other things of value into a pool and then redistributes it on the basis of a roll of the dice, a spin of the wheel, or a drawing of a number.  Nothing of value is produced in the process.2

The Comet had been built by the Sun Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Chester, Pennsylvania.  In its day, Sun Ship was one of the three biggest and busiest shipyards in the United States.  Sun Ship and its employees earned their money by working and producing things of value for it.  Over the years, they produced hundreds of ships of great value.  Today, Sun Ship is long gone.  In its place on one part of the property there is now a casino.  This casino produces nothing of value.  A vice has replaced honest work.  Elder Oaks continued: 

Gambling tends to corrupt its participants.  Its philosophy of something for nothing undermines the virtues of work, industry, thrift, and service to others.  The seductive lure of a huge possible windfall for a small “investment” encourages participants to gamble with funds needed for other purposes, even the basics of food and housing.  Gamblers commonly deprive themselves, they often impoverish their families, and they sometimes steal from others to finance their indulgence.3

While the idea of getting “something for nothing” may seem attractive, on a practical level it also seems too good to be true.  It violates the basic laws of economics which hold that nothing comes from nothing. 

I had always believed in an abstract way that gambling was a very poor use of one’s financial resources.  Then, to watch someone deliberately feed a mound of money into a slot machine and walk away empty-handed after losing it all suddenly made the idea of gambling very tangible.  This immediate negative consequence convinced me that gambling was the absolute height of financial folly. 

1Gordon B. Hinckley, “Address to the General Society of Mayflower Descendants, September 12, 1998,” Discourses of President Gordon B. Hinckley, Volume 1, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2004, p. 676.
2Dallin H, Oaks, “Gambling—Morally Wrong and Politically Unwise,” Ensign, June, 1987, p. 69ff, at

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