CHARLIE

Charlie was in some respects, my mentor. I learned more from him about being a ship's officer than I did in my four years at the academy in Kings Point. Charlie was the Chief Mate on the Alamo Victory when I reported aboard for my first trip as a Third Mate. I sailed with him on the Alamo Victory, and later on the American Hawk, a total of about two years at sea. Charlie was a large man, with the build of an ex-football lineman. His face was wrinkled, and he had many scars from waterfront brawls. He had never gone to college, he had come up "through the hawspipe", but respected a college education. He was from Mobile, Alabama. He had sailed most of his career with Waterman Steamship Company, which he called "work or walk Waterman". Charlie was a hard drinking, fast talking scoundrel, but knew ships, and more importantly, knew people.

When I first met Charlie, I was joining the Alamo Victory at Port Chicago, California. It is a Naval Ammunition Depot north of Concord, in the headwaters of San Francisco Bay. It was 1965, and the United States was mobilizing for the Viet Nam war. They had just pulled the Alamo Victory out of mothballs, and were loading her with bombs for the U.S. Air Force in Thailand and Viet Nam. I had made a number of voyages as a cadet, and one as a Junior Officer on a troop ship, but this was my first "real" job where I would be in charge of a watch at sea. Charlie greeted me at the top of the gangway with an arm wrenching hand shake. He invited me to his cabin/office where he filled out personnel forms about me. While there he offered me a "heave-a-head" as he called them. It was a glass of bourbon on the rocks. Since it was about 10 A.M. I declined, but was impressed with his competence on the job. He seemed to take everything in stride, enjoy his work, and get things done in spite of the booze. As a cadet I had seen alcoholism, and how it had ruined many competent seamen. One of the chief mates I had sailed with assigned me to guard his door to warn of the approach of the captain. He spent the morning shooting craps with the steward on his cabin floor, and drank scotch and milk. He explained that if caught, the captain would think he was drinking milk. Sooner or later, that sort of conduct catches up with you.

He took care of the sick and wounded. He learned to give penicillin shots to those who would line up at his door every morning suffering with gonorrhea. He learned to suture wounds after the crew got in fights, and even when the first asst. engineer got a nasty wound from an unguarded circular saw, it cut into his thigh, ran up to jam on some keys in his pocket. We were weeks away from a doctor, but he came through it OK. It was his handling of people that was most controversial. It went against everything I was taught, but he had the respect of the captain and crew. He was a racial bigot, and was proud of it. Nevertheless, he respected the crew, and had their admiration because he was direct, and said what he thought. He definitely was not what is called today "politically correct".

On my second voyage with Charlie we were once again loading at Port Chicago. As usual, there was about a 30% turnover in crew, and often a new man would report to Charlie's "office" in order to fill out personnel forms. Charlie wore half-glasses when doing paperwork, the bottom part of the bifocals for reading. When he looked out at you over the glasses, you knew something was going to happen. A new able seaman reported aboard, a husky black man. Charlie looked at him, and didn't like him. It wasn't so much racial, but more the man's laid back West Coast dress and attitude. Charlie said "You're a nigger!" I was sitting across from Charlie and involved in a chess game with him at a small coffee table. I wanted to excuse myself immediately, but felt drawn in. Charlie repeated "You're a California nigger, you ain't no damn good! You know why?" I would have expected the man to punch Charlie at any moment, but he didn't. He said in a husky voice "No, why?" Charlie uttered an explicative, and continued, "If you don't like the way I run things around here, you've gotta whoop my ass, but before you whoop my ass, you've gotta whoop the Boatswain's ass." After that, things seemed to calm down a bit, and Charlie finished the paperwork. After the seaman left his office, Charlie smiled and winked at me and said, "Don't worry, if he whoops the boatswain's ass, I'll make him the Boatswain." As far as Charlie was concerned, it was all an act!

I never approved of that way of talking to people, but at least he was "up front" with his feelings, bad as they were. I guess the black men in the crew felt that his conduct was preferable to those who pretended to be unbiased, yet practice their racial prejudice behind everyone's back.

The last day I sailed with Charlie was a sad one for me. We had just arrived in the port of Long Beach, California, the day before Thanksgiving. Charlie always prided himself in being a con artist, but I respected him and expected him to pay me back at the pay-off. Seamen are paid off after every voyage, and often it creates cash-flow problems with a pay-day every 3 or 4 months. During the trip I had loaned Charlie $700 so that his daughter could pay her tuition for the fall semester at college. He gave me an I.O.U. for that amount. Since our arrival in Long Beach meant the end of the voyage, we scheduled payoff for Thanksgiving morning. When we docked the evening before, Charlie and the other deck officers went ashore to celebrate the holiday. I was left on watch. I was supposed to be relieved at midnight, but nobody returned to the ship until 8 the next morning. We were to payoff at 10, and since I'd been up all night, I told Charlie I'd take a nap, and to call me for payoff.

Were all finished paying off, except for me. Nobody had called me! I got my pay, and discovered that Charlie had quit, left the ship, and had not paid me the money he owed me. I was really disappointed, and remembered Polunius's advice to his son, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be." I felt betrayed by a friend.

I told the Port Captain what happened. About 9 months later he called me at home, and told me that Charlie was on another ship of the company's, and would be paying off in Norfolk the following day. I met the ship for payoff, and Charlie was surprised to see me, but made good on the loan, and repaid me the $700. Since then I have never loaned any large amount to a friend.