Friday, April 15, 2011

Five Ships and Family History

The cable ship Furman remained at the Simplex Wire and Cable Company pier in Newington, New Hampshire, through the summer, fall, and winter of 1985 and 1986 and sporadically loaded cable into her holds.  Occasionally, she shifted berths when another cable ship with a higher operational priority entered port.  Sometimes she stayed at Simplex and simply moored to the offshore side of the other ship, and at other times she tied up temporarily at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in nearby Kittery, Maine.  Either way, the Furman never went far.  Her most ambitious sortie took her a few miles into the open ocean for a sea trial of the engineering plant following a series of repairs.

For all practical purposes, my seafaring career ended when I was diagnosed with cancer.  I did go back to sea briefly aboard the Furman and later aboard the Kane, but these miniature voyages served more as the last gasps of a dying career than as progression toward the next license.  But it was a happy time.  Even if my career was dying, the rest of me was recovering and my outlook on life was changing.  That was one of the benefits of cancer.  It led to a paradigm shift in values.  Many things that had once seemed of crucial importance afterwards became insignificant, and other aspects of life that had previously been taken for granted afterwards assumed a much greater significance.  After life itself had been threatened, health, family, faith, education, and the limited time one had to enjoy these took on a new importance.  Leading a good, happy, and useful family life became more pressing than pursuing an ambitious career.

Such were the thoughts during the many idle hours I spent aboard the idle Furman.  Yet I still wanted to go back to sea.  That yearning has never completely left me.  The management of our fleet did not concern itself with such romantic aspirations, however.  These folks dealt with operational and medical realities.  Thus, when the finally fully loaded Furman was ready to leave port, they decided that she would do so without me.  And thus I stood on the shore with Miss Patty and waved good-bye to this good ship as she sailed out of Portsmouth Harbor on that rainy morning in March.

I reported to company headquarters in Bayonne to undergo a medical checkup and convince the powers that be that I really could go back to sea.  They were skeptical, though.  Until they became convinced, I was on an extended vacation.  Fearing that this vacation might easily become too extended, I took a side job washing dishes in a computer company cafeteria to supplement my vacation pay.

This was a typical strategy in the mid 1980s.  Shipping jobs for merchant seamen were becoming scarce, and many seamen took vacation jobs because they simply did not know when or even if they would be able to sail again.   I both knew and heard about fellows who worked as dishwashers, janitors, delivery drivers, night watchmen, gas station attendants, and so on—anything that could quickly produce a paycheck.  The men who took these vacation jobs were both unlicensed seamen and licensed mates and engineers.  Dishwashing was my second such vacation job, actually.  Prior to joining the Waccamaw, I had worked as an evening janitor in another computer company for a couple of months.  After spending a similar amount of time washing dishes, I was assigned to the oceanographic survey ship Kane as chief mate.  A big step up from second mate and third mate, joining a ship as chief mate was both an exciting and intimidating experience.

The Kane was concluding a shipyard overhaul in Wando, near Charleston in South Carolina.  She was a mess.  With minimal time for cleaning up, she took on a contingent of survey technicians and went to sea.  Shipyard wires, air hoses, and sandblasting debris littered her decks.  As the Kane went to sea she looked like a floating slum.  She was the filthiest ship I ever sailed on.  I set the deck crew to the task of cleaning it all up, but the Captain objected that this was a waste of time.  Others felt differently, however, and several individuals surreptitiously cleaned up large areas of dirt that had gotten on their nerves.

The Kane demanded long hours.  Because of the employment situation and a new competitive bidding program in which prospective ship operators were proposing to take over crewing, the Kane’s manning scale had recently been reduced as a cost cutting measure.  As chief mate, then, I stood the 8:00 to 12:00 bridge watch morning and evening, supervised the deck crew and did administrative work after lunch, and helped with survey work after midnight.  The overtime pay was good, but for a person recently sick, this schedule was a killer.  Exhausted and not well, I consulted a physician in Charleston on the Kane’s return to port.  He recommended a less strenuous shipboard assignment in addition to the medicine he prescribed.  I had already requested relief, and a new chief mate soon arrived on board to take my place.

I left the Kane with mixed feelings.  That I was not fit for such a job was obvious, yet I was pleased that I had actually sailed, however briefly, as chief mate.  In the end, though, it worked out well for me.  Not long after my departure, the Kane suffered an engine room fire while at sea and was disabled.  She was subsequently towed to New York for repairs. 

I left the Kane at the end of May. In early June I returned to Bayonne for another medical checkup.  Then I was sent to Mobile, Alabama, to join the Saturn as second mate.

This was a good job and I liked it, but unfortunately, it only lasted nine days.  The Saturn was a freighter designed to carry military supplies, and she was undergoing a shipyard overhaul in Mobile.  Captain Stephen Aspiotis, formerly of the Waccamaw, was in charge and happy to see me again.  Because the shipyard work involved alterations to the crew’s accommodations, we were all housed in the Riverview Plaza Hotel, a high-class high-rise structure in downtown Mobile.  I especially enjoyed this.  An oversized room, a soft bed, an outdoor swimming pool, and excellent food—all within ten minutes’ walk of the Saturn.  I worked mostly at night, from midnight to 8:00am, which was the shipyard’s quiet time.  I spent most of those hours cleaning up and organizing all the navigational materials in the chartroom and bridge.  This part of the vessel had undergone some remodeling, and the shipyard guys had simply piled all the charts, publications, sight reduction tables, supplies, and related items in a big heap.  Most of the delicate instruments like the chronometers and sextants had been locked up for safekeeping, but everything else needed attention.  I enjoyed this work, though.  I was by myself, the ship was quiet, and the job was not overly strenuous.  At the hotel I could sleep uninterrupted and spend afternoons at the pool.  What a great life!

It did not last long, though.  One evening the third mate and I went to dinner at a local restaurant in downtown Mobile.  I’ve never been a fan of seafood, but this one time I tried the shrimp at the salad bar.  They tasted delicious, which enticed me to eat more of them.  Big mistake.  At the hotel afterwards, I became so violently sick that I was taken by ambulance to the University of South Alabama Medical Center.  After assorted medical examinations and procedures, the diagnosis was probable food poisoning.

The next morning, the hospital staff in Mobile called Doctor Horton, the company physician in Bayonne, with questions about my medical history.  Soon after that Captain Aspiotis received instructions from the crewing office to pay me off and send me home.  I protested because the ailment was clearing up, and he called Bayonne back and protested on my behalf.  But it was to no avail.  The decision had been made and no one would reverse it.  In mid June, then, I left the Saturn and returned to Bayonne.

After yet another medical checkup at company headquarters, I was assigned locally to the Vanguard as a night mate.  Doctor Horton wanted me to stay close by so he could keep an eye on me.

The Vanguard was a range instrumentation ship similar to the Vandenberg.  She had come to the New York area for the festivities involving the relighting of the torch on the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.  As a night mate, I was temporarily assigned to night watches aboard the ship while she was in port.  This allowed the second and third mates to take a few days off in turn and go home.  Interestingly, the Vanguard was moored along Furman Street in Brooklyn when I reported aboard.  After a few days she shifted berths, and then she stayed in Bayonne for the remainder of her visit. 

Night mating aboard the Vanguard was an easy job.  There was no cargo to load or discharge, no repair work going on, and no shipyard-generated mess to clean up.  One interesting benefit was watching the Statue of Liberty festivities on the Fourth of July.  A few days after this event, the Vanguard sailed for Florida with her regular crew and left me behind.

While at the Bayonne headquarters, the Vanguard was moored adjacent to the Hayes.  On the day of her sailing, I stood my last midnight to eight watch aboard the Vanguard, slept for a few hours, and then stood my first four to midnight watch aboard the Hayes.

The Hayes was an oceanographic survey ship, but she had been parked and doing nothing in Bayonne for a few years.  Long overdue for a major shipyard overhaul that would essentially be a rebuilding, the Hayes waited patiently while the wheels of fleet administration and finance slowly turned.  A small crew of caretakers looked after her.  Most of them lived in the New York and New Jersey area and commuted to the ship.  One exception to this was Commander Whitten, formerly of the Furman, who now took up residence aboard the Hayes.  Except for the loading of cable and shifting of berths that were done on the Furman, my new assignment aboard the Hayes was similar to my previous one aboard the Furman.  It lasted nine months, from shortly after the Fourth of July until the following April.

During this interval, as I had whenever I was in the area on business, I lived with my parents and grandfather in the house on Long Island where I had grown up.  I commuted by automobile to the Hayes in Bayonne for my late afternoon and evening shift.  Even with the long hours aboard ship and the time-consuming commute, I found ample free time to undertake the family history project at the house.

Little did I realize it then, but this project started “turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers” (D&C 27:9).  I had long maintained a dormant interest in family history and genealogy.  Going to sea afforded me little opportunity to pursue it seriously until I reported aboard the Hayes.  With several months of this assignment ahead of me and with several free hours available every day at the family headquarters, the prospects for finally accomplishing something improved tremendously.

This became a three-generation effort.  My mother and I collected photographs, papers, negatives, and artifacts from all corners of the house.  Using an old kitchen table and some dilapidated chairs, we set up an informal family history work room in the basement.  It was a humble arrangement, but it sufficed.  Tapping my grandfather for information about events of the distant past, we took copious notes.  We labeled and dated hundreds of photographs and organized them into albums.  We had several damaged and antique photographs redeveloped and enlarged.  Also, we had several important documents such as diplomas, licenses, and certificates, professionally dry-mounted and framed.  On a few occasions when Miss Patty came to visit, we went on field trips to sites of family historical significance in the area.  Like archeologists, we took notes and photographs, and these added to the knowledge base of our family’s history.  It was a very productive time.

When the Hayes was finally towed away from the pier in Bayonne in April of 1987, the family history project had yielded some impressive results.  But that was just the beginning.  Long after the Hayes had left, the family history project continued.  Once started, it could not be stopped.  There were sources outside the family headquarters to consult next, and they brought to light a steady stream of information about previous generations.

Now, over twenty years later, the family history and genealogy project does not occupy a makeshift work space in the basement, but a finished library with built-in shelves filled with family history volumes, paneled walls bedecked with family portraits, and a computer corner with compact discs containing scanned images of everything.  It’s been a growth industry.

All of this got its start from my last-resort assignment as a caretaker aboard a dead ship waiting to be hauled away to a shipyard.  In retrospect, the year of the five ships Furman, Kane, Saturn, Vanguard, and Hayes looks like a comedy of errors that led to a bonanza, a genealogical pot of gold not at the end of a rainbow but at the end of a failing career fraught with illnesses and abbreviated shipboard assignments.  We often remark that the Lord works in ways that we find strange.  I don’t know how involved the Lord was at the end of my career in the Merchant Marine, but I’m certain that he had a hand in bringing to pass our family history and genealogy efforts.

Finally, while this research served initially as a hobby and produced knowledge for its own sake, it took on a new and much greater significance when Miss Patty became interested in the Church and learned about the ordinances of the temple for the deceased.  In large part because of the Hayes, then, many of our kin on both sides of the family have received these ordinances.  A dying career aboard a dead ship thus yielded new life for many spirits in the temple.  A small price to pay for the blessings of eternity.

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