|Tales of a Fledgling
My Life in the Merchant Marines
2007 by Richard Conley
This story evolved from the interplay of two dynamic forces realized in my life; six years in the merchant marines traveling around the world, and eventually becoming a public school educator, both administrator and teacher. The irony is that the seeds sown during the merchant marine years bore fruit thirty years later in the classroom, unbeknownst to me at the time. The kids responded to the anecdotes and tales enthusiastically and exhorted me to put the tales down on paper. The accompanying tales are an introduction, an overview to what was a fascinating and unique period in my life development.
The Education Begins
For those who journey to distant lands, the impact of such a journey is in proportion to the reason for embarking on such a voyage in the first place. If you go to Greece for solely recreational purposes, basking under the sun on an Aegean beach, sipping Retsin wine in an outdoor café in Mykonos or yachting from Lesbos to Samos, then your remembrance of such a trip will filter through a recreational “lens.” As people eager to learn about your experiences in Greece ask you questions, your responses will revolve around weather, wine, and yachts. But if you travel to Greece with recreation as only one reason, you begin to open personal channels of interest that broaden your perspective with results in a deeper insight to culture. Art, history, religion, and social customs converge to come to life, a sleeping culture now awakes. Suddenly, every statue, every monument, every article of clothing, every food instantly heightens the mind’s curious nature. If you travel to Greece unvoluntarily, as I did in the merchant marines to deliver cargo, your lens is filtered by time restraints, lack of knowledge of the area, and youth with its unlimited litany of immediate desires.
Yet there is another element, an unknown laying in the shadows----spontaneity. To prepare a vaction to Greece can be an immensely rewarding and stimulating task, for whatever reason. Yet often prolonged anticipation heightens our expectations which occasionally are met with disappointment once the trip is taken. The ruins that you envision are not as majestic as you imagined; the port of your dreams is full of litter; the museum that you wanted to visit is closed for renovation and the rain is coming down in torrents, forcing you to seek an indoor retreat.
To be a merchant marine is to live with spontaneity. A ship destined for Nigeria from the Persian Gulf receives new orders from the parent company which now orders a new destination, Athens, Greece. Suddenly the dormant seed of personal knowledge of Athens and Greece beckons stimulating nourishment; images of whitewashed homes on Greek islands and ancient ruins slowly excite your need to know.
I spent six years in the United States Merchant Marines during my 20s. The one question that others consistently asked me was, “What is a merchant marine?” Whether I was in Japan, Saudi Arabia, France, or the U.S. Virgin Islands, the curiosity to explore the identity of a merchant marine never abated. Of course, it was the same curiosity that aroused me as a 21 year old when I was applying for the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point, Maryland. Nothing of significance was happening in my life at the time so the ground was fertile for exploring options. A friend of mine had an uncle who had spent his life sailing in the merchant marines so this friend became the first of a small group of neighborhood buddies to “chance” what was perceived by some as nothing less than flotillas of modern-day pirates, some on parole for homicide and other unsavory acts against mankind. In fact, although I knew intuitively that I was going to brave whatever risks were involved, I certainly couldn’t disprove any negative claims by those even less sure than myself.
In retrospect, the decision to join the merchant marines and the resulting experiences proved to be monumental in the sense that my life and perception of it changed drastically. No classroom had ever prepared me for the sights, sounds, feelings, and drama of life that brought me to five continents, more than fifty nations and more than a quarter million miles at sea during the next six years. The highs were ethereal and the lows, abysmal. I am here to share some of those with you, to impart experiences quite different than those customarily shared by many of us caught up in the drone of everyday sedentary existence. I wish every reader had been with me that night on the bridge of the tanker in the South Atlantic when we came down off a large wave and dove under the ocean. I wish every reader had been with me during the hurricane off the coat of Cape Hatteras in North Carolina when we lost our steering and found ourselves floundering in waves as high as the portholes in the messhall. And yes, I wish every reader had been with me when, for my first trip overseas, I woke up on a quiet April dawn to visually savor the cherry blossoms unveiled before the unfolding green terraces of Sasebo, Japan. My reflections are the isolated thoughts of one person in time, my own personal drama, yet I am sure that that which we all share as human beings, that commonality to seek, explore, imbibe knowledge, and learn new concepts about this mysterious world, creates a bond between he who has seen and he who has not. Who could ever imagine that the rich experiences encountered by me would somehow lead to the public school classroom as a language teacher? We don’t envision the significant import of an experience when it’s happening unless it is crisis-oriented. Seeing the world in my 20s opened up a unique panorama for me as an educator years later. Allow me to take you on a journey that proved truly to be a trip of a lifetime and helped sow the seeds of my personal growth, my life as a fledgling unborn educator.
The Arrival of Wonder
So often we dream of severing all ties and nagging responsibilities in pursuit of an independent beckoning. Our quest for happiness seeks the outer expanse of freedom with all its liberating euphoria. Minds of all ages become afflicted with this innate need to confront the challenge of novelty. Not every being embarks on the journey for if we all did, our society would be comprised of fleeting ideals and itinerants with nothing to anchor our hopes and insatiable thirst for life’s betterment. Those who do embark on life’s journey are no more sure of possessing concrete answers to life’s myriad mysteries yet are willing to step out, to transcend the constraints of security and narrow insight. Thus it was, finding myself at sea with others but really alone on my youthful quest.
First stop….Sasebo, Japan
Who would have thought that one’s dream of catching a first ship as a merchant marine would be dashed by one fatal moment on a Japanese airline jet flying over the East China Sea? The end of an enervating 24 hour flight from San Francisco was so near yet so elusive. Who does not intuitively sense, at least once in a lifetime of air travel, that a beckoning fate awaits? Surely the Japanese flight attendants, on the surface, seemed paler than usual; men of experience grew agitated; the jumbo jet endured a buffeting that terrified me at every sudden drop of elevation. Time dilated, blood pressure rose; only an eerie silence punctuated by the steady drone of the plane’s engines prevailed. Why me? Why now? Over the damn East China Sea? God! Why hadn’t I drowned those endless times in the Hudson River as a youngster? Challenging whirlpools, bashing waves, and sharp rocks? Was this my fate? So close to the mystery of being a U.S. Merchant Marine and then abruptly finding my very being extinguished in an unknown land on a dark, cloudy spring evening---the only testimony, a short article on the 18th page of a stateside paper destined for the trash can less than twenty four hours after reading.
And then a light! Several lights ahead in the distance, shining between fleeting clouds. Seventeen years later, in retrospect, those lights remain as vivid and fixed in my mind, evoking a momentary sense of apprehension, an undying apprehension diminished only in intensity.
Sasebo, Japan…exotic, green, terraced hills, adorned with pink cherry blossoms. The arrival…a particularly special moment, the culmination of much eagerness to lessen the distance between thought and reality.
The Beauty of Touch and Wonder
Greece! The ancient seat of democracy. At last an opportunity to explore the ruins of antiquity, to enliven classroom images, to finally meet history on a personal basis, not via an overcrowded lecture hall.
Touching that marble with my own hands, running my fingers over a stone etching on the Acropolis shortly before sunset that summer afternoon filled me with an excitement rarely found in life. It was as if a magic spell had formed a union between myself and an anonymous Greek craftsman whose claim to glory more than 2,000 years ago was to create an enduring work of art in honor of Athena, the deity and benefactress of Athens, the guiding light of democracy.
Who was this craftsman? What was his name? What was passing through his mind as he slowly witnessed the construction of a creative genius so prevalent in 5th century Periclean Athens? Did his vision at that moment of creation allow him to project his legacy some 2,400 years ahead only to find a twenty-five year old waiting to receive it so warmly in a spirit of mankind? In fact, what role would I have played had fate found me in 450 B.C.E. Greece? Would I have been a craftsman much like our unknown sculptor? Or perhaps a young man working the silver mines or even a young student excited by the bold, innovative philosophy of “reason” espoused by Socrates, Hippocrates, or Axaganaras?
All my free time at sea forced me to ponder and reflect on the meaning of life and its multitude of mysteries yet it all seemed, in retrospect, a preliminary exercise for the gripping apprehension of reality and its spellbinding wonder as I felt the coolness of the white stone on that late summer afternoon on the Acropolis.
The Musings of the Physical
On board ship it’s a strange feeling to live a life of constant movement in both a physical and social sense. As long as the anchor is up (“weighing anchor”), the vessel is moving at all times. If the sea is calm then you walk rather effortlessly, with legs further apart than usual to provide you with better balance at all times. I’m sure the stereotyped bow-legged seaman’s origins can be traced to this simple physical posture. But when the sea is a bit rough and even slight waves or swells are present, you try to never stray too far from a guiding rail. Almost everything on a ship is hard. Therefore when you lose your balance (which happens frequently), knees, elbows, shins, and forehead often take the brunt of the collision. My first ship became my personal nemesis in this respect.
I remembered how in previous college years during my first jaunt into the Sonora Desert outside of Tucson, Arizona, how I commented how everything in the desert was sharp and brittle. Now, on board a 250,000 ton tanker, pipes, masts, cleats, chocks, bits, stairwells, and rails waited for my first misstep, my first oversight and then wham! You do not run on a vessel unless an emergency arises.
I remember a young third mate (deck officer) one time determined to stay in shape by jogging daily on board. He would start back aft, run forward to the bow, high-stepping and hurdling all sorts of equipment and return back down the other side. Some of the young guys thought it was not a very bright idea with all the obstacles. Sure enough, one day this mate tripped over a line and twisted his ankle. His running career, at least on that ship, came to an abrupt halt.
Some of us learned to bide our available time at sea by reading once work was completed for the day. While sitting in a lounge chair back aft we would pore over books painting a portrait of the waiting world. Dolphins by the dozens followed us, playfully leaping through the whitecaps, oblivious to a written text yet seemingly content to do what dolphins do. Who was to say whose world was better or more meaningful? Tales of the Veterans
The older crewmen on board would occasionally lure us into tales of wondrous living on ship during the 50s and 60s. Port-time of more than a month in Sadahip, Thailand, beautiful women in Rio de Janeiro and Recife, Brazil, cheap prices on goods, a glimpse of a bygone era never to return. Those who related their anecdotes would often laugh softly or inversely become quite serious if the story involved danger yet the look was invariably forlorn upon completion. Of course, it was our job as the younger, more inexperienced seamen to sort out the credibility of each tale according to each different personality engaged in it. Herman Melvilles, we were not. We were simply living on the ocean, waking up to a new sunrise some 350 miles away from the previous day, working seven days a week in every kind of weather in the midst of our own floating enclave. Our lives resuscitated a lost sense of an earlier more primitive maritime life embellished with modern technology. The duality of existence confronted us daily. Isolation allowed us this indulgence. Next stop, Port Said, Egypt, entrance to the renowned and controversial Suez Canal. I passed through the canal eight times during my six years as a merchant marine, each time progressively more impactful in either a clear positive or negative manner. The transit was never uneventful.
The Wonder of Novelty and the History behind the Obvious
The name Suez Canal is no longer a hollow noun, a blurred vison of a body of water somewhere in the Middle East, a name heard in a junior high school social studies class, devoid of any excitement. After eight passages through the canal, my recollection takes on life, all forms of vibrant life, highs and lows, smells and sounds.
My initial call to traverse the canal came at the age of twenty-three. Suddenly, history and its nostalgic lure beckoned me. Egypt! An opportunity to witness firsthand the majesty and elegance of the land of the pharaohs, a rare occasion for a twenty-three year old. Somehow my expectation never wavered; my excitement never abated, my curiosity to “see” never greater. My mind, in retrospect, has compiled a collage of significant events that now assume a “new” perception and image of this fabled land.
What alerts you to the approach of the entrance to the Suez Canal and its port city, Port Said, is the dramatic sense of a musty smell emanating from the city, the smell of earth, cooked nuts, dung, all united to greet the anonymous traveler. Unless your ship arrives at a most opportune time, you must wait a few miles offshore anchored. The wait takes place as recently arrived vessels begin to join the convoy. The canal only permits passage to vessels going in one direction at a time. I remember my first moment clearly, spending some time during the evening hours on deck, soothed by a cool wind that served as a relief to the heat of the day off the coast of north Africa.
Egypt…the Suez Canal…Cheops…Nile River…Cairo…a short film featuring images of past knowledge, all stored in my mind. A present witness to a brilliant legacy inherited from ancient times. What were my thoughts? The questions asked by my curious mind? Were dates and well-known facts of interest to me? Did it matter that the Suez Canal was completed in 1869 at a considerable financial cost? That a waterway finally connected the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea? How might I, a young American merchant marine, enamored by good literature and travel, find a connection between that drama of life’s heritage that had produced the present moment?
Was history not an account of all events that took place at a past juncture of life? Did it truly matter that the pyramid at Khorfu was built by laborers in 3000 B.C.E. when the possession of that bit of knowledge, that unprocessed fact lost its greater meaning based on far more interesting information such as who these laborers were, their background. What did they wear? What did they eat? How many hours a day did they work? What were their thoughts, their dreams? Was this not history? As a subsequent student of life, I learned the answers to several of the above questions and found myself very excited, akin to discovering unpublished documents, the lure of a treasure of knowledge now liven life, zest, and meaning. The history of a people that is the history of us all.
Popular history, history as related to us from school texts, particularly through the academic years of adolescence, give us an event and a date; i.e. the Suez Canal is a man-made waterway linking the Mediterranean Sea with the Red Sea, and was built in 1869; period. Yet delving further beyond this lifeless fact, we, who crave the life force of history, the vitality of past events, search for more. And this is what we find:
The present Suez Canal, built in 1869, was not the original. Around 1800 B.C.E., the Egyptians began building this “original Suez Canal”, almost 3,800 years ago. The work was not finished by them but rather by the Romans. After a period of neglect, the Arabs dredged it to use in the 7th century C.E. In 775 the Ottomans filled the canal in for military purposes. From this date, no waterway served as a bridge between the Mediterranean and Red Sea until 1869 which gave birth to the present canal, the same canal inviting me to join its history. Time to enter the canal.
What are all these launches below us, surrounding our ship? There must be a dozen small outboards strewn with oil-soaked rags, fishnets, and cheap goods piled on top of one another. The realization that these merchants will be boarding our ship in order to sell us junk awakens me from my historical reverie.
We are weighing anchor. The convoy is ready to move. The twinkling lights of Port Said on our starboard (right) side are visible; the earthlike aroma engulfing us slowly as we begin our sixteen hour journey through the famous Suez Canal. Since my first trip took place at night, it was difficult to form a proper image of the town but subsequent voyages left no doubt as to the enormous architectural and social differences that existed between Egyptian civilization and European civilization. A cursory look at the surrounding mosques and veiled women introduced me to a world previously unknown. What a strange sensation to witness the dramatic cultural contrast of an oil-carrying tanker looming ponderously over a veiled woman, totally dressed in black, leading a water buffalo by tether down to the canal’s bank.
Steering a tanker through the canal was often wrought with anxiety, particularly when the ship was empty, and en route from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf to pick up crude oil. Because the vessel was so light and high in the water, the handling of the wheel required a dexterity to keep the ship straight. At times the bow would veer from side to side, and because the canal is very narrow at intervals (until Bitter Lake at the halfway point), the chance of running aground or colliding with something was great. The secret of being a good helmsman or able-bodied seaman (those who are certified to steer a vessel) is not only abundant experience with various ships, cargos, and varying weather conditions, but also a keen reliance on the man whom you replace at the wheel. It is he who should inform you of not only what course to maintain, but also what distinct features to look out for; whether the ship is swinging right or left; extent of visibility-----what to look out for. A miscalculation can exact a costly price, particularly on a 200,000 ton ship carrying a $20 million cargo and a 25 man crew down below.
Reflections of a former merchant marine
Thirty years have gone by and my time at sea in my 20s hovers above me as the faithful albatross accompanying sailors each morning. What was the significance of six years of my life wandering the globe, observing multiple cultures, and making money? What was my learning curve, the clear results of how those experiences transformed me? Were they measurable? I stand in front of high school students now and ask myself those questions, sharing those former moments with them in the form of stories or tales. The telltale signs of interest and piqued curiosity to know the world and its vastness is discernible on some faces. Others aren’t ready yet. Maybe they will never be ready. It’s not my call. I cast the seeds and know not how they will disperse nor whom they will touch in any inspiring manner. Those we think we’ll touch move fleetingly along without the expected effect. Those we intuit are not ready for such grandness or larger than life stuff unpredictably show up to surprise us and resonate with our message. One thing I do know, though, is that no one leaves the classroom totally untouched. That is what sustains the passionate educators of the world. The legacy continues………
Rich Conley is a public school educator in Napa, California, a New York City boy, born and raised in Manhattan. He spent six years in the merchant marines traveling around the world and learning several languages. His experiences growing up in New York City, combined with his sea tales, and penchant for dramatic storytelling, make him popular in today’s classroom with the high school students. He studied Spanish in the University of Valencia, Spain, has taken many personal trips around the world, and loves to cook and read philosophy.
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Another Story By Richard