Sunday, July 3, 2016

The Meeting of the Mates

Such a rendezvous seemed more typically the stuff of spy stories and mystery novels than the activity of retired merchant seamen.  Two middle age men, who had met briefly three decades earlier and who would not recognize each other today, were both traveling to a prearranged meeting point in midtown Manhattan for a discussion over dinner.  The thought of it made me smile, and also remember the first James Bond book that I had read many years ago.  It was You Only Live Twice, by Ian Fleming.  I bought this book in a small shop on a side street in Napoli not far from the Stazione Maritima when the Rigel was docked there one day in the summer of 1979.  Subsequently, I read all of Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories aboard ship.  At the time, I considered this to be an important part of my education in the humanities.

Silly thoughts like these filled my mind on Monday, March 28, 2016, as I rode the train westward from Mineola into Manhattan.  More seriously, I wondered how we would recognize each other after so many years.  For this purpose, I wore my Waccamaw hat, something I don’t often do.  I had previously lost my Furman hat, and I did not want to risk losing another irreplaceable item of memorabilia.  But today was a special occasion.  Arriving in Penn Station, I disembarked and walked the short distance to our meeting point, the Rare Bar & Grill at 152 West 26th Street, just off Seventh Avenue.  I paused at the big sign in front.  After a quick exchange of text messages, my friend emerged from the restaurant and invited me inside.  Rendezvous accomplished.

Walter Burke and I had last met 32 years earlier aboard the oceanographic survey ship Bartlett in Port Everglades when I relieved him as second mate.

On Friday, October 12, 1984, I departed from La Guardia Airport in New York aboard an Eastern Airlines A-300 and flew over the Atlantic Ocean to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  It was an uneventful nonstop flight, and it landed at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on time at 3:00pm.  Boots James, a former shipmate from the Waccamaw who was now posted aboard the Bartlett, met me at the airport and drove me to the ship in a rental car.  The Bartlett rested alongside the wharf on the east side of the Port Everglades basin and adjacent to Burt and Jack’s, the famous high-style restaurant that overlooked the harbor.  I had a 45-days-old chief mate’s license, and I felt very fortunate to be getting a job as second mate so soon after passing the license exams.

Once aboard the Bartlett I was duly logged in and introduced to the shipboard luminaries.  Captain Kim L. Giaccardo was the Master.  Richard Carlson was chief mate.  Walter Burke was second mate.  Joe Bogusis was third mate.  Boots James was the purser.  Walter had been on board for a year and had travelled to South America and back.  Soon he would head home while I took his place.  I spent Friday afternoon and a large part of Saturday with Walter.  He showed me around the ship, told me what my new job would be like, and introduced me to everyone else on board.  It was a very pleasant occasion, filled with good food, amiable conversation, and high hopes for the future.   

Five days earlier, I had reached the age of 27.  I had just under three years left to achieve my goal of receiving the Master’s license before turning 30.  Despite the gradually deteriorating employment situation in the Merchant Marine, the future looked bright enough for me to have every expectation of realizing my goal.  To this end, I planned to remain aboard the Bartlett for a good long time and possibly relieve Mr. Carlson as chief mate when he went home on vacation.  If someone with prophetic capabilities had told me then how the future would really turn out, I daresay I would have dismissed his predictions as sheer nonsense.

My time with Walter was limited to these two days.  Then he left for his vacation.  He and I had crossed paths once previously.  When I had joined the Waccamaw in Augusta Bay, Sicily, in June of 1982, Walter was third mate on the Rigel with my classmate Owen Clarke as chief mate and Captain Rigobello as Master.  The two ships were tied up directly across the pier from each other, which made for easy visiting.  This served as a common memory for us during our brief acquaintance on the Bartlett.  Then, with the business of relieving him concluded, Walter went his way and I went mine.  I spent the next five and a half months as second mate aboard the Bartlett.  The ship made oceanographic survey voyages in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.  Besides Fort Lauderdale, the ship made port calls in Key West, Florida, and Gulfport, Mississippi.  After experiencing some initial nervousness about beginning a new assignment, I became quite comfortable in my position.  The Bartlett was a good ship with a good crew, and I enjoyed sailing on her.  Now, many years later, I have happy memories of this time.

Such memories were what brought Walter and me together again.  Discussing the good old days at first via email, we found much common ground.  In many cases we had sailed on the same ships with the same Masters and the same mates, but at different times.  We had never sailed together, and our paths crossed only twice.  Like me, Walter had served aboard the Mercury, the Rigel, the Kane, and the Saturn.  Additionally, he had sailed aboard the Vega and the Truckee, two that I had missed.  He had also sailed with several of the great men of the fleet, including Captain Rigobello, Captain Iaccabacci, and the tragically late Captain Linardich.  And finally, we had both sailed aboard the Bartlett, one after another, with the now also sadly deceased Captain Giaccardo.

Unlike me, Walter had left the shipping business voluntarily in 1986 to pursue his second career on Wall Street.  I hung on to the end, when my illness and the failing job market combined to put me ashore in search of my own second career.  Now our ships are gone, many of our shipmates are gone, and our company headquarters in Bayonne is also gone.  But the memories remain.  And so, over a sumptuous dinner in a quiet corner of the Rare Bar and Grill in midtown Manhattan, we shared our memories and reminisced about the good old days.

They really were good days, too, although I recognize that more now than I did at the time.  Ironically, with the deteriorating vision that accompanies middle age, hindsight becomes twenty-twenty.  With this clear retrospective, Walter and I ate and talked.  The recollections transported us back through time and across the seas.  We talked of voyages we had made, places we had visited, colleagues we had known, and ambitions we had shared.  The people, the places, and the ships sailed back and forth across the table.  Two men in their fifties, who had known each other only slightly when in their twenties and who had not spoken to each other in three decades, discussed enough to fill a book.

We talked about coming ashore, our second careers, our families, and our homes.  Like so many of our shipmates, we had made the transition from the sea to the shore and had done well in our new professions.  We discussed the sad times, too.  Walter had been at work on Wall Street during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 2001. We also mourned the loss of the freighter El Faro and her crew in 2015.  Graduates of both our schools lost their lives in this tragedy.

One thing which in hindsight particularly impressed us was the level of responsibility that we had borne aboard ship.  Our employer placed great faith in us and in many other young mates just like us.  We were so young then, not long out of our teens, and on watch aboard a ship at sea we carried a burden of responsibility largely unmatched by young men in jobs ashore.  A single mistake on our parts could have produced devastating results.  But our superiors had confidence in our capabilities and entrusted millions of dollars’ worth of ships and cargo as well as many men’s lives to us.    

Like a scene in a Conradian novel, our private party took place on a island surrounded by seawater and in a city that had once ranked as one of the world’s busiest seaports:  

This could have occurred nowhere but in England, where men and the sea
interpenetrate, so to speak—the sea entering into the life of most men,
and the men knowing something or everything about the sea. . . .We were
sitting round a mahogany table that reflected the bottle, the claret glasses,
and our faces as we leaned on our elbows. . . .Between the five of us there
was the strong bond of the sea, and also the fellowship of the craft.[1]

Despite the non-English location, I felt that we and the sea interpenetrated quite intimately; after all, we had come together because of the sea  And while we were two and not five, we certainly knew something of the sea and shared the “bond of the sea” and the “fellowship of the craft.”  These intangible qualities, incomprehensible to the layman and unheard of by the mainstream of a large and mostly inland country, unite in spirit men spread literally around the world aboard the ships that carry the world’s commerce.  United physically for the first time in decades, two of these seamen, like characters in Conrad’s novels, swapped stories, shared memories, and philosophized on the ways of men, ships, and the sea.  It was a very pleasant reunion.

After dinner Walter and I returned to Penn Station and boarded a train for the ride home.  He went to Huntington; I left him halfway there in Mineola.  Our conversation continued to the last possible minute.  Then we bade each other farewell, shook hands, and I disembarked.  Once again, he went his way and I went mine. 

On the walk home from the station, my mind raced with everything that had just taken place.  Thinking again in Conradian terms, I reflected on Walter’s kindness in inviting me to dine and toast the good old days with him.  I was very happy to have met him all those years ago, but sorry that I had never actually sailed with him.  Nonetheless, we belong to the same fraternity, having known the “exactions of the sea”[2] and having endured its “elemental furies.”[3] We had both “made many voyages,”[4] gained “a thorough knowledge of [our] duties,”[5] and had each “become chief mate of a fine ship.”[6]   Decades later, these experiences and memories are precious, even sacred, to both of us.

As I thought back upon this happy reunion I recalled the scriptural injunction, “I exhort you to remember these things. . .” (Moro. 10:27), for these voyages were “ordered for the illustration of life, that might stand for a symbol of existence.”[7]  This is most definitely true.  I simply cannot imagine going through life without going to sea.

[1] Joseph Conrad, “Youth,” in Tales of Land and Sea, Garden City, NY: Hanover House, 1953, p. 7-8.
[2] Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., p. 6.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Joseph Conrad, “Youth,” op. cit., p. 8.

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