The days of the old tramp steamers were almost at an end when I signed on as a seaman in the merchant marine. Barely fifteen but able to pass for eighteen due to my height although I don’t think the agent was fooled. The wharfs were a man’s business, not a romantic playground for trashy novel writers. But I had some street smarts fueled by my hatred of my father, a harsh brute of a man who often laid my back with enough whelps and cuts that would shame a wash board. Maybe the agent suspected that I needed that time aboard ship, months at sea in the company of older men to work off the piss of outrage I had stored most of my life. Yeah, between my old man and reform school I needed a change of scenery in the worst way and working on an old tramp steamer just might do me some good.
I was lucky, the black gang was short an oiler. It’s a rough life I started back then. Cooped up in a noisy engine room with all the dirt and grime and oil awash on the deck and walls, my job was to constantly swash the two main shafts to the propellers and other machinery with oil to keep them lubricated. All engine rooms are hot and dark and dank and foul smelling. Even after a shower I could never get rid of the stench of oil, the feel of oil, and the sound of oil. It’s tedious and grinding work, mind numbing with the constant hum and thrust of pistons, whirl of crankshafts turning almost without variation until we came to the canal. The ship’s destination was Timor, we had a cargo of machinery below decks and no questions asked. My pay was thirty eight a month seeing how I was a green recruit and no place to spend it aboard ship.
As an Able Bodied Seaman I would have been just another bum, most were. A ship is a home for most. Sure, they all talk about quitting once shore is sighted but none ever do, a ship is just a warm womb to them. The black gang is different, they have skills to sell ashore except for me, I was too new to learn much, but the promise was there. The engineer or the chief would take me aside from time to time and show me a trick or too. Simple stuff, stuff to see if I could learn. If I couldn’t then next port I might be sent topside to be a bum. Funny thing about street smarts, they can kick in when you need them, even at sea. Yeah, the black gang is a tight knit gang. Let the bums scrape rust and paint, we kept the ship running in every way. Gives a man, even if he is still a boy, a sense of pride. More than that,it’s a family. Oh, at first I stood off, apart from them, didn’t let them get too close. But one day I took off my shirt and they saw the scars. I though I was alone and had kept my secret and my shame. But they saw and they knew. The engineer took me aside one day. “Laddie” he said, “You don’t have to tell us about the scars, we can guess. I’ve a few myself. My Pa liked to flay the skin off me before I reach puberty. You’re in good company. Ain’t a man on this gang who hasn’t felt the lash form one hand or another. Just do your job like you’ve been doing, we’ll look after you.” I guess there is that common bond between men who have been beaten but never broken.
Well, from that day on I felt a bond with the men on that gang that could never be replaced in a lifetime. We had some liberty in Colon and as a gang we took to a particular bar in hat city. More like a sprawling slum with a few wealthy neighborhoods, but what did that matter. While our topside brothers were busy getting drunk and starting fights that they usually couldn’t finish, we were fairly polite by seaman’s standards. The engineer shepherd us through the town and into the quiet bars where we could drink without getting too drunk. Hangovers and machinery don’t work well together. The gang decided that I must have my virginity broken and even paid for that privilege. Well, barely sixteen in 1960 and now a man of the world, I had arrived. Early in the morning we were aboard ship and stoking to boilers to get ready for a noon transit of the canal. I’s seems funny to speak of start and stop for a steamship. The towing engines pulled up through the locks while between them we make no more that five of six naughts. Then across the lake and through the final set of locks and out into the Pacific under a full head of steam. As we left Panama I was encouraged to spend a few hours each day on deck with various members of the crew. Philippe Hollande was one of the chiefs, just under the engineer. “I think you should know that as out engineer, Mr Mcilroy gets closer to Timor he starts to become more remorse. Most of us know the history of his stay on that island. He was one of the engineering overseers for a large coffee plantation. From what I know, he was involved with one of the local women. When she died he signed on with this ship. That was ten years ago if memory serves.” I started to ask questions but I thought it best not to be too inquisitive.
The black gang always keeps their own coffee pot sitting on one of the many steam pipes, a convenience for the gang and usually the coffee is better than what is served in the crew’s mess. Every one has his own mug sitting in the cabinet and at a glance anyone can tell who’s taking a break. Topside, the bums had to pull their regular watch and the extra ones. The Third Mate would kick their asses if any of them decided to take a coffee break. For us it was natural to take five or ten minutes as the need arose, no questions asked. There was plenty to do, most of it routine, but most of it wasn’t urgent or make work like scraping rust topside. Stuff breaks every day, mostly the little stuff. Might be a henge rusted out or a bolt sheared off. I was learning metal working on small repairs that would train me for the larger repairs. One day Matt, the engineer, came by and motioned to me. “Tommy, grab a cup of coffee and follow me on deck.” So I did and we went topside and stood by the starboard rail. “You’re doing good, kid. You got potential. So how old are you, bout sixteen?”
Matt caught me by surprise with that question. I hadn’t talked much about myself to anyone. But now he was asking me to level with him and I felt compelled to do so. “Yes sir, birthday was last Friday. How did you know?”
“All you got on your face is fuzz. We’re old hands at this, see lots of kids come and go, their habits never vary. How far did you get in school?”
“Ninth grade, hated it most of the time.”
“Can you read and do math?”
“Yeah, I suppose so. Kinda liked history and reading about science stuff. You know, how somebody discovered something and became famous.”
“Coffee is good, Last time we were in Timor we bought a bag of it, still got enough left to make it to the island. They grow some real good coffee there, perhaps the finest in the world. After mess come up to my cabin, we’ve got to get you a GED before you get back to the states.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are going to spend some time reading about all those high school subjects and learning math so you can pass your equivalency test. If you stay on board this ship by the time your are eighteen then you will have a few good skills and an education. the gang and I won’t take no for an answer. Finish your cup, almost time to get back to work.”
My education began that night and continued every day all day. Each gang member would stop me from time to time and ask me a couple of questions. This education thing became a group effort. Sometimes one of them would take over my duties for an hour so I could read a chapter in a book or work out some math problems.
It wasn’t all work and education. Sometimes we might sit around and talk about ourselves or some world situation. I was opening up but more than that I was growing up. By the time we docked in Kupang I was making great strides in my life, the world was starting to make some sense and I felt more confident.
After we docked and started to unload our cargo the gang spent most of the time shuting down the oil fed boilers and switching over to the diesel generators for the hoists and other equipment needs. A couple hours later Matt sent for me and when I got to his cabin I found him dressed in civilian clothes. He handed me a small gym type bag and said, “Go pack for a week’s worth of clothing and meet me on the deck by the gangway in ten minutes.”
“Yes sir, ten minutes.” I didn’t have much in the way of clothing so I packed a couple of shirts and a pair of pants, some socks and hygiene kit. I was waiting when he came over to the gangway while talking to the Captain. I over heard some of the conversation. Captain:”I expect to be loaded in a week if the cargo gets here by Tuesday. Have a good visit, Matt.” Matt: “Thanks, it’s been a couple of years since I was last there. see you a week from today.”
Matt then turned to me, “Come on, you’re in for a treat. Most western people never get to see the place I’m taking you to. We’re headed to Ainaro, it’s a village nestled between two mountain ranges and grows some of the worlds finest coffee.” We headed down the gangway and over to the customs shed. We were waved through as though we had nothing to declare, just a nod from the customs officer to Matt and a smart click of his heels. Outside on the street an old 1952 Oldsmobile waited at the curb. We climbed in to the back seat and the driver put the Olds in gear. The roads were rough, gravel and dirt for most of the ride. I understood why we rode in the back, there was less shock to our bodies. It was night, about eight when we reached our destination. I could not see much of the outside of the house but it did seem dark and imposing. In the front was a wide veranda that ran the length of the house. Thick candles were lit in the holders and the shiny metal backs through light forward. Our host rose from his cane chair and opened the screen door to the porch for us. “Hello Matt, it’s been a few years. How have you been?”
“Hello John. Yes, it’s been a while. Thanks for putting us up. By the way, this is Tommy. He’s one of the oilers on the gang. I’m seeing to his education.”
John turned to me. “Welcome to my factory. I don’t know how much Mr English has told you about this place but this is a coffee plantation. Please feel at home, Tommy.”
I shifted my stance and felt a bit awkward but I managed a simple greeting. “Er, thanks. It’s a nice place you have.”
“Sing will show you to your room, Tommy. Freshen up and come down for a drink before dinner. Don’t worry, we’re not very formal here.” The Chinese servant took my bag and led the way to the room I was to use. I swear the Chinaman looked like a fragile old man of maybe sixty.
“You want I draw bath? You have plenty time.” Then Sing disappeared into another room and I heard water running. He came back out with a large towel in his hand and looked at me. “You take off clothes, put on this.” He handed the towel to me and waited. I felt very awkward as I wrapped the large towel around my waist and took my pants and underclothes off. Soon I was naked beneath the towel and he led me into the bathroom. “Water cool, make you feel fresh.” as he indicated I should step into the wooden tub. Sing smiled at me. “It okay, I no look.” I handed him the towel and stepped into the tub. I think the water was about seventy five degrees and at first felt cold. But then my body became use to its coolness and I started to soap myself and wash the days grime and odor from my body. When I was ready to rinse off the soap Sing said. “You stand on grate, I pour water over you.” Well, I couldn’t argue with that. then he handed me another thick towel and I rubbed my body dry. I followed sing to the bedroom and saw the clothes laid out for me. I started to object but Sing held a finger to his lips. “Master say you need new clothes, so here, for you. Put on please.” The fit was loose but in this place of tropical heat and humidity they felt comfortable. I dressed and then went down stairs and into the salon. Matt was the first to speak. “Those clothes do you well. there’s a whiskey and soda on the tray, help yourself.”
John spoke next (I later learned his name was John Wellesley Langston). “This is Tommy Connors, Joan. He is one of Matt’s men. Tommy has come to learn a little of the coffee business. Tommy, this is my wife, Mrs Joan DeWinter Langston. You may call her Joan if you like. As I said, we seldom stand on cerEmony here.”
“I hope Sing was of service to you this evening?” Joan’s question took me a little off guard. She smiled. “You do feel refreshed, don’t you?”
Well yes, I am quite slow on the uptake when it comes to manners. My parents seldom had use of them. “Yes, ma’am. Ah, it was a very nice bath. thank you.”
The week went by very quickly. I confided in Joan that I hoped I didn’t seem to crude for I was not use to such goodness. “You mean curtesy. Yes, we all understand. An evil man can have the most impeccable set of manners and yet his intensions can still be determined. But you are an honest man, Tommy. Manners won’t change that honest. They only add to it. Remember that for me. You will learn good manners, of that I am sure. And we did enjoy having you in our company.”
The trip back to the ship was long but gave me time to think about what had occurred. “What did you think of John and Joan?” An hour into our trip back Matt had been very silent, now he was speaking to me in a new way, caring about my answer.
They have a nice place, a nice life, I guess. I mean it looks interesting for him. I guess she tolerates it well. But I never noticed any children. Do they have any?”
Time passed before Matt spoke again. “They have a son and a daughter, both of whom live in England. Neither of which has been to see them in four years so I’m told. Oh, I don’t really blame the children, it’s a long and expensive trip to make and neither child is well established at the moment. Still, it’s a shame, I suppose.”
“What about you, Matt. I saw you at the cemetery standing in front of one of the grave stones. Did you know that person in life?”
“Yes, Tommy, I knew her very well. She was my wife. Every time the ship docks in Timor I come to visit her grave. I always come back, always.”
“No need to be. Now let’s talk about you. John tells me that his engineer will be retiring in two to three years. Both John and Joan are impressed with you. Now before you say anything just listen carefully. I and the gang can teach you much of what you need to know about machinery, both service and repair. That will take the next two years if you pay attention and learn quickly. Depending on how well you do, John may take you one as a mechanic and let his engineer train you on the machinery there on the plantation. Fair enough?”
I though about what he had said for a minute and replied. “Fair enough.”
“Now one more thing to know. There’s not much social life for whites on the island. Most of the daughters leave by the age of coming out parties and seldom return. So you may do what I did, marry a local, a native. No shame in that but you’ll never take her back to America. That much I can guarantee. But you got two years to think it over, so no hurry.”
“Can’t say as I have anything to go back to.” I was quite for a couple of hours. I caught Matt’s eye and said. “You know, I keep holding on to yesterday. But I’m wrong, that yesterday doesn’t exist. Tomorrow, huh. In two years it’ll be tomorrow. Looks better than yesterday.”
“We’ll see kid, we’ll see.”