The Times They Were A’Changin’ part 3

The Times They Were A’Changin’ part 3

While my fellow high school graduates spent the summer of 1965 preparing for college life, I went to sea as a messboy on a Norwegian tanker.  It was called the Torvanger and it took me far away from the country I knew for the best part of two months.  

   Ironically another young man from Tam, Kent Baldwin, was also aboard working as a wiper in the engine room.  Kent and I shared a foc’sle (sailor speak for living quarters).

   The Torvanger was scheduled to hit four ports in Japan, Kaoshung in Formosa and another four ports in the Philippines.  After returning to San Francisco it would go down to Long Beach before sailing south through the Panama Canal, up into the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans before continuing onto New Jersey.  

   As I wasn’t enrolled in college I could stay on board and continue onto the east coast.  New York was the place of my birth.  As our trip to the far east would take two months, I had time to think about this possibility which, quite frankly, appealed to me.  I had vivid childhood memories of Manhattan and the lure of returning to ride the subway, see the tall buildings and visit relatives I’d never met was strong indeed.

   Going to sea was a wild and exciting experience and shook me dramatically out of the snug environment I was used to as a teenage boy from Mill Valley.  My father Blackie had been a seaman by trade before he was blacklisted and that reality seemed to form his world view.  He had certainly seen more famous cities than most people and spoke knowledgeably about exotic locations in faraway lands.

   This job came about through a friend of my parents named George Kiskadden who ran a company which did all of their business with Scandinavian shipping lines.

   I had been away from home before but somehow this experience had a life changing dimension to it.  My parents drove me over to Oakland where the tanker was berthed and I spent my first night aboard before sailing the next day.  I wasn’t really prepared for the emotions which would consume me as we left San Francisco.

   When the Torvanger steamed out under the Golden Gate Bridge the next day in the late afternoon I stood all alone on the bow at the front of the ship where I was suddenly overcome by grief.  As the massive tanker pushed under the bridge and out into the vast Pacific, I burst into tears and sobbed uncontrollably for a long time.

   Crying was not something I would ever let anyone else see me doing.  I guess I’d been conditioned to think of it as unmanly.  But there on the Torvanger’s bow with no witnesses I wept like a baby, probably releasing more emotion than I realised was in me. 

   One of the first things you get used to on a ship is the constant movement from side to side.  I did experience a bit of nausea at first but that passed and I simply adjusted to the reality of your world rocking back and forth.

   Kent Baldwin was a few years below me at Tam and we seemed to get on well enough. 

   Kent was a nice lad who lived over in Strawberry but the truth of the matter was that we had little in common.   We were both setting off on a big adventure but mine was never going to be the same as Kent’s.  He was a bit more clean living than myself.

   Kent was a wiper and worked down in the massive engine room of the ship while I was in charge of the officers’ mess.  I served all three mates, the three engineers, the electrician and the radio operator.  They all sat around a long table at their assigned places.

   I answered to two bosses: the steward and the chief cook.  The cook I took to straight away as he seemed to have a friendly philosophical outlook on life and didn’t take himself too seriously.  He was a big man who wore all white with an apron and had a gentle nature.  The steward I didn’t take to that quickly but in time he proved to be a good friend to me.  Almost all of the crew spoke pretty good English and I made friends quickly.  

   At this time I wore a ‘Beethoven’ sweat shirt, a peculiar fashion of the mid 1960s, this sweatshirt had a famous illustration of the composer’s face on it and my nickname quickly became ‘Beethoven.’

   The hierarchy of a ship is like a mini-society.  I don’t believe I ever saw the captain up close until the day I signed off.  Unlike a cargo vessel which has a mid-ship area where most of the officers reside, a tanker has everything concentrated into the after end.

   The Torvanger was a parcel tanker meaning that it carried several different liquids in the various tanks.  The engine crew would be paid overtime to clean the tanks out once they’d been emptied, an arduous and exhausting job which, once done, was inspected by someone wearing bright white clothing. 

   Our trip across the Pacific took us 17 days and on a long voyage like this you’d notice that the treats like fresh fruit would gradually run out.  Every few days the Steward would open the ‘slopchest’ and the crew could purchase cigarettes and bars of the most delicious chocolate I’d ever tasted.  Once a week they would show a movie in the main mess hall.  

   Each crew member had their watch, four hours each: 12 to 4am, 4am to 8am and so on.  There would be three seaman to a watch and they would do their shift in the AM and in the PM because a ship does not shut down at night.  It keeps sailing.  The same regime applied to the engine room.  The engineers all slept in the foc’sles across the corridor from the officers’ mess and part of my job was cleaning their rooms.  They too had four hour shifts in which they would supervise their workforce.  But whereas the Captain presided over the mates, the men working down below had the Chief Engineer to answer to. 

   The Chief Engineer on the Torvanger resided with his wife and young child in a spacious cabin above the Officers’ Mess.  He was a tall blond fellow who was friendly enough to me but I soon learned that he had thrown one of the engine workers down the stairs from his quarters and that this sailor was planning to complain to the Norwegian Consulate when we returned to San Francisco.

   I got into trouble with the Chief Engineer one day because his wife used to come down to the Officers’ Mess to borrow things and the steward told me that she was not allowed to do this as they had their meals at the Captain’s Mess.  So I told her what the steward had said to me and before I knew it, I was angrily summoned up to the Chief Engineer’s quarters where he bellowed at me not to speak to his wife in that manner and to know my place while she glowered angrily in the corner.  At least he didn’t throw me down the stairs.

   At sea you do get used to being surrounded by an infinite ocean and when the ship finally starts approaching land it’s a very exciting experience.  We arrived at Yokohama in the night and I was up there on the bow to see every light and sign of life there was.  One thing I noticed was that the movement of the waves conjured up images of dragons to me.  

   So when the sun came up the world was no longer rocking back and forth and we were berthed in Yokohama.

   One of the great novelties of visiting these countries at age 18 was that I was able to walk into a bar and order a drink.  The sign which hung over the entrance to every bar in Mill Valley read: No Persons Under 21 Allowed.  Many a lazy afternoon I would spend gazing up at that sign above the entrance to the 2am Club and smelling the sickly sweet aroma of cocktails coming from the dark and mysterious interior of this forbidden place and wishing I could go inside. 

   So now was my chance to drink like a grown-up and boy did I dive in head first.  My first night in Yokohama I got so drunk that when I returned to the ship with my Norwegian friends, they had to put a rope around my body to haul me up onto the deck.  As it’s a small world on a ship the news of my big night had spread to all of my officers as I served them breakfast with a throbbing headache.

   In 1965 popular music didn’t travel as rapidly around the world as it does today.  When we left San Francisco the hit parade had Satisfaction by the Stones, Wooly Bully by Sam The Sham, I Can’t Help Myself  by The Four Tops,  Help Me Rhonda by The Beach Boys and For Your Love by the Yardbirds.  

   Now every bar that I visited had a juke box but the songs were all about three months behind what was popular back in the USA.  This didn’t stop me enjoying myself but what I was not aware of was just what a cultural corner was being turned in the popular music back home.  The cross fertilization of musical sounds, including the prominent vocal influence of Bob Dylan was, during this time, changing everything.

   So there I was sitting in a bar in Yokohama, drinking beer like an adult with my Norwegian shipmates and being hustled by a beautiful young prostitute while the jukebox throbbed with the over amplified sound of Bobby Bare singing his 1963 hit Detroit City.  

   The record began with a slightly out of tune electric guitar riff and finally built to the highly emotional refrain of : “I want to go home, I want to go home, Oh how I want to go home.”  This song had the bar room full of drunken sailors from all over the world singing along to every word and meaning each one.

   The juke box in any bar was the centre piece of the drunken experience.  The song Detroit City was already two years old and, from a young American perspective, was pre-Beatles which made it seem ancient.  It did, however, have pride of place in every bar my shipmates and I got inebriated in during our stops in several far eastern ports.  It was a big hit with homesick sailors. 

   The discs which were most popular on the juke boxes were those with slightly maudlin subject matter.  A broken heart was always a winner with these guys.  You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’ by the Righteous Brothers was played a lot as was Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By.

   The excitement of going ashore in a port in early evening was palpable.  Men who had spent all the days at sea wearing grubby work clothes suddenly hit the shower and emerged in the mess hall wearing ironed shirts and shined shoes.  They’d be clean shaven and fresh looking. For the night was young and full of promise.  

To be continued:  Back home Dylan’s influence conquers all…

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Author: milleravenuemusings

I am a semi-retired actor, singer and graphic designer who once designed posters for Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in the late 1960s.

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