Friday, March 4, 2011

The Wicky Wacky

When the good folks in the crewing office in Bayonne, New Jersey, informed me that I would be joining the Waccamaw, Miss Patty asked me, “What kind of a name is that?”  I replied that all the tankers in the fleet carried Indian names.  The Waccamaw was one of several similarly named vessels.  Unimpressed, she retorted, “Is this going to be a wacky ship?”  I placed no store in nonsensical word games, however, and assured her that such would not be the case at all.  It was just another assignment.

I could not have been more wrong.  Without intending any disrespect to the etymology of the name, the Waccamaw indeed proved herself to be a wacky ship, or more accurately, the crewmen of the Waccamaw proved themselves to be a wacky lot.  Even Captain Rigobello, normally a very formal and correct officer, in a moment of frustration complained that we were sailing on a wacky ship.  Then, laughing, he coined the ship’s new nickname—the Wicky Wacky.

Like every other ship in our fleet, the Wicky Wacky carried her share of alcoholics, drug addicts, and convicted felons in her crew.  Most of these fellows were basically good guys; they just had one or two weaknesses.  The most prevalent weakness aboard the Wicky Wacky involved an obsessive-compulsive attachment to alcohol, with some of the seamen willing to pay almost any price for their uncontrolled consumption of the stuff.  It has since occurred to me that since we live in a world that is saturated with advertising for liquor, there should be advertising for temperance and sobriety as well.  The crew of the Wicky Wacky could provide this advertising.

A few years ago, the Church News made a similar point:

The advertisements show handsome men and beautiful women partaking of various alcoholic beverages in picturesque settings.  What is reality is what advertisers never show.  Advertisements don’t show how drinking has resulted in loss of work and the breaking up of families.  They don’t show the downtrodden soul without a home sitting in an alleyway drinking whiskey.1

            The reality aboard ship would not have made a pretty picture in an advertisement.  The truth is that there were no handsome men or beautiful women, and certainly no picturesque settings.  The reality was often harsh and ugly, with plenty of downtrodden souls.  When people would ask me why I didn’t want a beer or why I didn’t want my children to have a sip of wine, I would tell them, “Because I’ve seen too many good men ruin their lives with alcohol.”   Memory can serve a few examples to illustrate this point.  

            While lying at anchor one afternoon in Napoli, several crewmen returned to the ship by a motor launch from the city.  Two of them, both unlicensed seamen, came up the gangway carrying large bundles, unusual for a shore jaunt of only a few hours.  Captain Aspiotis just happened to be near the gangway when they came aboard.  Seeing their bundles, he told them to wait a minute and asked what they had inside.  Neither of these fellows wanted to open up his packages for inspection, so the Captain bent down and did it himself.  Thus he caught them sneaking hard liquor aboard ship.  One of them had the good sense to admit defeat and then keep quiet when he saw the game was up.  The other, however, became viciously angry, threw a temper tantrum, and screamed in the Captain’s face.  “You can’t do this to me!  I got my rights!  I’m an American citizen!  I’ll get the union after you!  I’m an American and I got my rights!”  Captain Aspiotis, a Greek, was not impressed.  He gave the quiet seaman a second chance, but he fired the screamer on the spot.  The purser then arranged to return this man to the United States by air.  The price he paid for a half dozen bottles of booze was his job.  He had eight hours to consider this exchange while the airplane crossed the Atlantic.

            On a later occasion, the Wicky Wacky visited Rota, Spain.  It was there that Captain Rigobello arrived and relieved Captain Aspiotis, who went on vacation.  One afternoon the third assistant engineer approached me and asked in a very friendly manner who would be standing the gangway watch late that night.  I wondered what difference this made to him.  Then he explained.  In preparation for a long transatlantic voyage, he needed to stock up on beer.  He planned to arrive back at the ship in a taxi at 2:00am when all would be quiet, and then he would very discretely bring his supply aboard.  He promised to be very circumspect about it and not make a fuss or cause any commotion.  He even offered to share his beer with me if I were thirsty.  Well, I wasn’t thirsty, and I knew better than to jeopardize my employment by accommodating an alcoholic’s attempt to circumvent the rules.  No licensed officer in his right mind would entertain such a request, let alone agree to it.  I told this fellow that his scheme would not work, but he didn’t want to hear it.

            I was the mate on duty that night.  Mitch was my gangway watchman.  Mitch was the biggest, blackest, strongest, and toughest looking character I’d ever seen.  He was also very intelligent, college educated, and soft spoken.    I explained the situation to him, and he replied, “Don’t worry, mate.  We can handle it.  I know just what to do.”

            Promptly at 2:00am a taxi hurried down the pier and parked at the end of the gangway.    The driver got out and opened the trunk, revealing a large cache of beer and hard liquor.  The engineer came up the gangway.  He asked me if everything was okay and got the surprise of his life when I restated what I had said earlier about this scheme not working.  Mitch stood next to me.  He held a two foot long section of steel pipe in his right hand and gently tapped the palm of his left hand with it.  Dressed in his ragamuffin best and glaring with his meanest looking scowl at the engineer, Mitch presented himself as a formidable enforcer of the law.  A brief discussion ensued, but the bottom line remained a firm “No!”  After a few minutes of hesitation, the engineer got back in the taxi, and the driver took him and his liquor away.

            Several nights later the Wicky Wacky was steaming westbound in mid Atlantic.  Before taking over the watch at midnight, I went aft to the mess hall to get something to eat.  Out on deck I met this same third assistant engineer.  Still angry at me for foiling his plans in Rota, he informed me in all sober seriousness that once the ship arrived in Norfolk, he was going to meet me ashore and murder me to settle the score.  Now, this fellow was bigger and stronger than I was, plus he claimed to be a former Pennsylvania state trooper with firearms and self defense training.  So I silently wondered why he didn’t kill me right then and there if he really wanted me dead.  But he went his way and I went mine.  Taking his threat seriously, however, I reported it.  Captain Rigobello, an Italian from Genova with a reputation for having a “hard-headed European attitude,” took a no-nonsense approach to this situation and radioed the crewing office in Bayonne about it.  When the Wicky Wacky docked in Norfolk, a young man with two suitcases was sitting on the pier.  As he came aboard the ship he introduced himself as the new third assistant engineer.  Once again, the price someone paid for liquor was his job.

            Another new crewman who joined the Wicky Wacky in Norfolk was Henry.  At least, that was what we called him; I don’t think I ever knew his real name.  Henry worked in the steward’s department.  He got up early every day, set up the dining rooms, served the food, and cleaned up afterwards.  The mates and the engineers had a lot of contact with him because he spent most of his working hours in the officers’ mess hall.  Henry was an older gentleman with a very cheerful personality.  He got along easily with everyone and was generally very well liked.

            In Henry’s time aboard, the Wicky Wacky was sailing in and out of Norfolk fairly regularly.  While this schedule was good for the local businesses, it did not work to Henry’s advantage.  One night, I was on watch with Mitch again.  A yellow taxi drove up to the gangway.  The driver stepped out, glanced at us on the ship, and the stuck his fingers in his mouth and let out a shrill whistle.  When he had thus caught our attention, he motioned with a jerk of his thumb to an unconscious figure sprawled across the back seat of the taxi.  Mitch and I went to investigate and discovered that it was Henry.  Mitch, who was easily three or four times Henry’s size, had no difficulty scooping him out of the taxi and carrying him aboard the ship.  He brought Henry to his room, laid him in bed, and covered him up.  That was at 3:00am.  Two hours later, Henry got up and went to work.  At breakfast he was his customary cheerful and friendly self, not showing a trace of his nocturnal activities.

            After Henry’s first night in Norfolk, his unconscious dead-of-night arrivals back at the ship became routine.  No matter who had the midnight watch, the drill remained the same. Henry would arrive drunk and passed out in a taxi, and the watch would carry him to his room and put him in bed.  Consistently, after only two or three hours’ rest, Henry would be on the job again, cheerful, friendly, and full of energy.  We all wondered how he did it and how long it would last.

            Well, it lasted longer than anyone thought it would.  The Wicky Wacky came in and out of Norfolk several times, and Henry followed this routine during each port visit.  Finally, there came the night when Henry never returned to the ship.  He was conspicuously absent at breakfast.  Confusion reigned as everyone asked, “Where’s Henry?”  The night watch insisted that they never saw him come aboard after his evening on the town.  The ship was searched, but to no avail.  Shipmates inquired at Henry’s known hangouts ashore, but this also revealed nothing.  Even phone calls to the crewing office in Bayonne proved fruitless.  The office folks insisted that Henry must be on the ship, for he hadn’t gone back to them.  Eventually the Wicky Wacky had to sail again, and she left without Henry.

            We never learned what happened to Henry.  He simply disappeared without a trace.  He was never seen or heard from again by any of us aboard the Wicky Wacky, and no one from any of the other ships in the fleet reported seeing or hearing about him, either.  But we did know that Henry paid a high price for his alcoholism.  It obviously cost him his livelihood.  We shuddered to think of what else it might have cost him.

            One of Henry’s friends aboard the Wicky Wacky was a young third mate.  He was in his early twenties, a very bright, college educated fellow with a promising career ahead of him.  He was not a heavy drinker, but on occasion he indulged.  Late one night he was driving back to the Wicky Wacky in a rental car after consuming too much liquid dinner.  The ship was by this time undergoing an overhaul in the Old Dominion Metro Machine Company’s shipyard across the river from downtown Norfolk.  Enroute to the shipyard, the police stopped him for driving while intoxicated.  His rental car was towed away and impounded, and he was arrested.  After taking some time to sober up, he posted his own bail and rode a taxi back to the ship.

            He told me later what had happened.  He freely admitted that he had drunk too much and that he knew better than to attempt driving anywhere afterwards.  He admitted that he deserved to be arrested and to have his car impounded.  The only thing about the whole business that annoyed him, however, was that the police officer who had caught him and arrested him was a woman.  This fellow had never impressed me as a misogynist, but he did hold that women existed more for recreational purposes than anything else.  He therefore took being handcuffed and hauled off to jail by a “girl policeman” as a personal insult, an affront to his masculine dignity that he just could not bear.  So he shot his mouth off in a somewhat less than ingratiating manner.  The police woman, and later her male colleagues, did not exactly treat him kindly in return.  But they were smart about it—they left no marks.

            This young man was smart about it, too.  He learned his lesson.  He never did this again, at least not in the time that I knew him.  He paid a comparatively small price for a potentially big mistake and realized that heavy drinking was not worth the loss of his career.  His story, at least, had a happy ending.

            In a different time and place, however, it would have been otherwise.  While still in the Mediterranean, the Wicky Wacky had made a brief stop in Iskenderun, Turkey.  Immediately after the ship had docked, the agent from the local office came aboard and addressed the crew at an impromptu assembly in the mess hall.  He knew that many American seamen liked to rent cars while their ships were in port, and he wanted to avoid trouble.  Standing on a table and speaking loudly and forcefully, he set down the laws of the land.  He explained that as an Islamic country, Turkey had strict laws concerning alcohol.  Drunk driving carried a mandatory death sentence.  Anyone caught driving in this condition would be arrested, brought before a magistrate for trial and sentencing, and then would face a firing squad either that same day or the following morning.  The agent further warned that neither an American seaman’s card nor an American passport would do the defendant any good.  American citizenship meant nothing in Turkey.  Americans in Turkey were required to follow Turkish law; Constitutional rights did not exist outside the United States.

            As one might imagine, everyone who went ashore in Iskenderun that evening returned to the Wicky Wacky stone cold sober.  The next day, the ship sailed.  

            In all fairness to the Wicky Wacky, she was not the only ship in our fleet that floated on a sea of alcohol.  Colorful characters sailed on all our ships, of course, but I spent more time aboard the Wicky Wacky than I did on any other vessel and so met more characters there.  But two men from other ships stand out in memory as well.

            One was a third mate aboard the Vandenberg, an older man who had started at the bottom of the ranks and worked his way up to become a licensed officer.  When he was sober, he was one of the most pleasant, friendly, and helpful people I ever sailed with.  After several drinks of hard liquor, though, he became surly, coarse, and belligerent.  The alcohol caused such a complete personality change that it was hard to imagine that this was all the same man.  I was very young when I knew him, only a few months out of school.  A few years later I learned through mutual colleagues that he had died of complications arising from cirrhosis of the liver, which had been brought on by alcohol poisoning.  He paid for his alcoholism with his life.  Such a tragic waste.

            The other man was a Chief Engineer aboard the Bartlett.  A very intelligent, refined, and well educated man, he had a grandfatherly personality that endeared him to everyone else.  He was reputed to be “the smartest Chief Engineer in the fleet,” no small compliment in a workforce that contained a hundred or so fully qualified and licensed Chief Engineers.  It was also said of him that, “He does his best work when he’s drunk.”  I found this puzzling.  Given his intelligence and capabilities, one can only imagine how good his best work might have been without the alcohol.  I sailed with him for only a short time, so I can’t help but wonder what price he may have eventually paid for his shipboard intoxication.

            These basically good but weak men, and many others like them, stand as unwitting witnesses to the wisdom of leaving liquor alone.  I would love to see a full color advertisement in a glossy magazine depicting any one of these fellows pitching the Word of Wisdom to a largely alcohol based society.  The photographs would likely be self explanatory, and the copy short and to-the-point:

Inasmuch as any man drinketh wine or strong drink among you, behold it is not good, neither meet in the sight of your Father. . . .And, again, strong drinks are not for the belly” (D&C 89:5, 7).

            The wisdom succinctly stated in the Word of Wisdom is good common sense and a sound life policy.  And it is very simple.  If one does not drink, then he will never become an alcoholic, cause a drunk driving accident, lose his job for bringing liquor to work, or die of cirrhosis of the liver.  These and a host of other problems can be avoided in the easiest way of all—by simply not doing something.

1 “High cost of alcohol,” Church News, February 17, 2001, p. 16.

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