Aboard American Enterprise in the Summer of 1982
Then the last of the former US Lines freighters still operating, now in the hands of a dubious Greek "enterprise" thinly connected with Aristotle Onassis, whose yacht Christina featured barstools made from the foreskins of whales.
We had neither barstools nor bars, and I being "before the mast," I wouldn't have been allowed to frequent them in any case. Our itinerary was from Southampton to Suez, but a meandering path it was, and the captain never explained why so. The cargo taken off in the various places was in crates well suited to ammo, but they also could have been full of lace undies for all I knew or even cared.
The Bay of Biscay only a few days in lived up to its fearsome reputation. A wicked gale and a lee shore pinned us off of La Rochelle, that ancient French naval station, for three days. " I never get sick," I always said, but I got mighty sick. One cup of noodle soup was all in those three days, plus lots of water. But I kept up my duties for what you might call "cultural" reasons. Which is to say that my shipmates would have called me a candy ass if I hadn't.
On a midnight to four watch during those three days I had to go up on the foredeck to tie down a fluttering tarp covering one of our lifeboats, assisted in the task by my friend Jerome. Later that same evening, in the tweendecks, a big pipe wrench, not well secured, dropped about six feet onto his right foot, breaking some bones and also some skin. A couple days later it turned gangrenous. Our medic, hardly a doctor even in his own mind, had to cut it all off, both rotten and potentially so, and Jerome's "forefoot," as we say of some of the headsails, went overboard with the inedible chef's scraps left over from that evening's dinner. After that, in bars in Barcelona and elsewhere, Jerome, who was only five foot eight on a good day, and I being quite tall, would tell the girls that I had "half a foot on him" ha ha.
The morning of the fourth day dawned mostly clear with some scudding clouds, still a heavy swell and a west wind down to about 20 knots. We steered 260 degs magnetic and made about six knots when in normal conditions we might have made ten.
I could not fail to be impressed by the Rock when we got there two days later, but when we got past it, still, initially, with a heavy following swell, I thought about physics experiments explained to me by Mr. Forrestal in my junior year, which is to say four years before -- you know, the ones that prove that light is a wave as well as a particle. The wave passes through a narrow aperture and then "diffuses" into pretty and complex patterns. So it seemed to be with us even though the aperture in question -- the Strait of Gibraltar -- was eight miles wide. Things thereafter were confused but much calmer. I myself was confused but much calmer.
From west to east in the Med that summer was like a journey passing backwards through time. Barcelona, Marseilles, Algiers, Malta, Genoa, Athens, Beirut, Alexandria and Suez.
When in port, I tried to defy the stereotype of the "tar." Girls yes; whores no. Booze yes; throwing up in the streets no. No belligerence for the sake of belligerence. Lots of museums and solo architectural walking tours, about which no shanties have yet been sung as far as I know.
In Suez I collected my pay and caught a bus to Port Said and thence a ferry to Athens. After a few days there it was beyond by ferry to Hydra, where there was a girl and coincidentally a place where one could, in general, live forever without regret. I made my living there for five wonderful years by the good graces of her family. She died in 1987 at age 26, in the sea. Perhaps my fault but I don't think so. After that I could no longer live there without regret. In part out of nostalgia I took passage back to New York in early 1988 as a passenger on a bulk carrier from Algiers.
In many respects everything else in my life has been an afterthought.