Tuesday, August 23, 2011

On the Cuba Victory

During my first war I had the good fortune to sail on mostly new and quality ships.  Here's a list with approximate sailing dates:

T2 Tankers:   Woodlake  (1944)
              Draper's Meadow  (1945)

C2 The Sea Dolphin 1944

Victory Ships  the Cuba Victory 1945 was the last merchant ship I sailed on before returning to school.

Ships for radio operators were assigned by the communication union (Communication Workers of America).

In 1946 I went home again for a visit. This time the union rep offered me a berth on a Mississippi Shipping Co. freighter. They had a premium route, down the coast of South America. I probably would have left the sea sooner if I had not got on the Cuba Victory. As it was, I made four trips to Buenos Aires and points between. I think those trips must have been as interesting as all the rest of the trips I made.

I realized that the job I had was a lazy man's paradise. There was so little to do, I answered to no one but the skipper and he couldn't care less about my activities. While we were in port I lived ashore, if I cared to. The only expenses I had were discretionary; in fact I could have saved every cent above the income tax, had I wanted to. As it was, I saved about $5000 during a 3 1/2 year period and used the money for three years of school.

The Cuba Victory was one of a large class of ships built for the war. The largest class, the Liberty ships were slow, jerry built, awkward, and barely worthy of the name of ship. The Victory ships were some improvement; they generally ran about 14 knots. As always I had nice quarters more or less to myself and could spend as much or as little time with other people as I cared to.

I struck up an acquaintance with Bill Wolfe, the second mate. His stateroom was up the hall from mine. We spent some time together. He was about 18 months older than me, but he could easily have passed as my father. A great big belly and dissipated face; Bill said he had had "clap" 8 times. Nevertheless he was basically a fairly decent sort. On the third trip the first mate got sick or left the ship or something, and Bill had to work in that capacity. It was really too much for him; he came down with an advanced case of hives.

During those three trips we stopped at a lot of ports on the east coast of South America. First we stopped at St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands for refueling or at Trinidad. I don't remember ever getting ashore at Trinidad, but I did go ashore at St. Thomas once. Both of these places were free ports, a good place to get duty free liquor or whatever other consumer goods you might want.
The South American ports of call were Para (or Belem) near the mouth of the Amazon (of that more later), Recife, Bahia, Rio, Santos, Rio Grande do Sul, Montevideo and B.A. and one or two others that don't immediately come of mind. We didn't go to all these ports each trip, but to all of them at least once during the year or so that I sailed on the Cuba Victory.

My three favorite ports were Santos, B.A., and Montevideo in that order. The easiest way to recall my experience is in terms of each port rather than each trip. I guess the most exciting experiences of my twenties took place during the couple of weeks that I visited Santos. Santos was probably the primary coffee port in Brazil, and we customarily put in there going and coming from B.A. The fun part of Santos (for me) was the beach area, several miles from the port area. It was a sort of resort; I suppose many people came down from Sao Paulo, the industrial capital of Brazil, for vacations on the Santos beach. It was lined with hotels and pensaos, these last being more modest establishments in the business of entertaining vacationers.

My adventures on the beach at Santos began when I mysteriously got a phone call on the ship. It was actually for someone else, but anyway I was called to the phone. A girl named Maria Teresa was on the other end, very friendly. She had apparently met one of the other ship's officers, and she wanted to continue the acquaintance. She encouraged me to come down to the beach at 3 P.M. or some such, which I duly did and met her.

Maria Teresa provided for me a tremendously stimulating experience. Fairly attractive, very bright and outgoing, she had a large group of friends, many of whom I met. We would spend the evenings together on the beach. They were very well educated young people; they all spoke English fairly well, and most of them were fluent in Spanish and French as well as their native Portugese. Their level of culture surpassed that of any group of people I had known; in addition they were the first group of young people I had been intimate and comfortable with. I suppose they met some of the Cuba Victory officers through me, and we had many enjoyable evenings.

We used to take part in the paseo every night, a very economical way to spend the evening. It was simply a two block area that people walked up and down, greeting friends, stopping to chat, moving on, etc., an informal social hour. When you got tired of walking you could sit down on the terrace of a large hotel in the midst, enjoy a drink and watch the festivities. I thought the Brazilians were wonderfully civilized people.

Most of these girls were going to a "normal" school. My mother would know what a normal is, although my children probably wouldn't. A normal school was for the preparation of teachers. These girls expected to teach school for a year of two before they married. Maria Teresa was one of twelve children; her father was said to own 18 coffee plantations. I never knew how true that was, but simply had no reason to doubt it. She was obviously upper crust, as were most of her friends. Maria had a cousin named Lais, really a more attractive girl than Maria, although Maria was my sweetheart. Lais' father had lost everything in the 1930's crash, as had so many other people in Brazil and in our country as well. Maria was spoiled, self indulgent, but Lais was much less self centered.

Maria also had a close friend named Leda. What I remember about Leda was that everything was hyperbolic to Leda. She exaggerated everything. Life was a series of peak experiences. Leda's little sister, Wanda, was really a favorite, and after I became disenchanted with Maria, I got a crush on Wanda, probably mainly because she obviously admired me. She was as smart as the others, talked about studying philosophy in school, but later went into medicine. It was because of Wanda that I took pre-med and went to medical school---not really a good enough reason to go to medical school!

All of these girls were charming and friendly, and made a young American feel like a prince. I asked them once why they liked American boys so much. Wanda said "because they're not malicioso." She confirmed the low opinion I have always had of the male latins with reference to their sexual values. By and large they saw women primarily as potential conquests. Their primary fulfilment seemed to be the bragging they did in their mens' clubs.

On one of the trips we spent over a week in Santos. I got a room in a pensao on the beach. The food was terrific and lots of it. Since my eating schedule varied somewhat from that of the average Brasileiro, I often found myself the only person in the dining hall. Twice a day it was a 7 course meal. The waiter stood behind my plate and as soon as I got it half way empty, he would feel it up again--with the existing course. Finally I would say in desperation no mas, no mas. Then he would bring the next course.

Those were golden days in Santos, the most normal and enjoyable days of my youth. Unfortunately they were all too brief. It was a really sad time for me when I left Santos. Later I thought seriously of going back, on my own, but I never could figure out any reasonable way to do it.
Buenos Aires was my next favorite port of call. I'll never forget my first visit. The ship was docked not too far from the main street--Avenida Corrientes. I overtook a well dressed Argentino (they were all well dressed and well fed, all in B.A. that is. I never saw the interior.) and with great effort managed to get out a halting message, "Puedo ...Ud....decirme....donde..esta. Avenida.....Corrientes?" He gave me a funny look and then replied. "Oh, Corrientes St., it's two blocks over that way."

The argentinos were proud, anxious for us to know how great they were. They were quite friendly. I was getting a hair cut, and the barber was bragging about the people there. He said, "In B.A. everybody dresses like a millionario." I replied, "In my country the millionaries try their best to dress like ordinary people." So it went, the culture shock. It's tremendously stimulating to get acquainted with the people in another culture, and Brazil and Argentina are among the few places where I experienced that with some intensity. In general I was too young and naive to get much out of foreign visits.

We got acquainted with some naval cadets, probably by visiting the ship nearby. They were much like the Santistos, cultured, friendly. I don't remember much in the way of details, just that I felt their warmth.

Montevideo is a beautiful place. In the harbor were the remains of the Graf Spee, a German pocket battleship. Finding itself hardpressed down in that area, it gained refuge in Montevideo harbor and was scuttled. I met one girl who seems very cultured. The thing I remember most about Montevideo was going into a bar and finding the entertainment was a string quartet.

All this was a pleasant experience--at least pleasant days surrounded by weeks of tedium. It made in fact for a pretty irregular life. I had weeks of boredom and frustration punctuated by intense peak experiences. I came to realize a dispositional proclivity toward a manic-depressive cycle. Mother suffered from this although it did not become evident until later. But I knew of the danger.
I remember a conversation with Maria about this. I told her my life was made of up a series of mountain peaks and low valleys, and that I wished I could even things out a bit. She replied that I shouldn't try to do that, but simply conquer the peaks. Of course she didn't understand.

I could look ahead and see myself becoming an old sea dog, but I wanted a little more out of life. I decided my third trip down there would be my last, giving me time to enroll in the Sept semester at Duke (in 1947).

Two dramatic events punctuated our last trip to South America. First we went aground near the mouth of the Amazon with a local river pilot in control. He pled temporary insanity. We spent a month on a sand bar there. A Merritt-Chapman tug came down from Baltimore to conduct salvage operations. We had to unload a good part of our cargo before we could get afloat again. The Brazilians stole us blind; everything cost twice as much as it should have. Finally we got on into Belem for our regular call.

We got word that we might not go to Santos this trip, so I jumped on a plane in Rio, down to Sao Paulo and met Maria Teresa there at the home of a friend. It wasn't a very pleasant event; I was not very much at ease there. I went back after a day or two, not knowing when the ship would depart. 

Flying down to Rio was quite a sensation. It was socked in with clouds; radar was fairly primitive in those days, but they must have had a good system there. The first land I saw was above us, the peak of Sugar Loaf. We landed right where we were supposed to. My ears hurt badly from the descent.
The Captain was quite upset that I had been unaccounted for for a couple of days. There may have been some question of sailing, and of course they couldn't sail without the radio operator. He gave me some hard words, but nothing came of it.

The most dramatic event occured near the end of the trip. We were steaming north with New Orleans our next port of call, some 5,000 miles away. Some messboys got in a fight, a plate was thrown, and one of them began to bleed from the head. The purser was unable to do anything. No help for it, but we had to put in, at Fortaleza, a port I had never seen before, so a doctor could come aboard and fix up his head. I doubt that the company made much money on that trip.

This was the summer of 1947; I was 21. I left the sea and re-enrolled at Duke.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Civilian at Last

In 1952 the cutoff age to be called into active duty was 26.  I had been called a few months before I reached it. Now, after about two years I was able to get out.

As the mustering procedure unfolded, we had a 'dream of a recruiter' trying to induce us to sign up again.  If we wanted station keeper in Kopeka  (or anywhere we named) he could do it for us.  Most of us (many vets of the two wars) just laughed; we had had enough of that kind of malarkey.

The magic day came; I became my own person. It was in December 1953.  I had been spending much of my liberty time in Tiajuana, and I like the Mexicans.  I decided to spend my mustering out pay on a trip to Mexico.

I stayed with a family in Guadalajara; we went to Mexico City, and a few other places.  I had already resolved to live the civilian life in San Diego; it was obviously more civil to civilians than to the military.

But with Christmas rapidly approaching I decided to spend it at home (N.O.) I went home and somehow never back to the West Coast (until long afterward).