The Times They Were A’Changin’ part 4
When the Torvanger finally got to the far east, going ashore in Japan, Formosa and the Phillipines was an exciting adventure. One thing I noticed in Yokohama was that most of the people were smaller than me which was saying something as I had always been the smallest kid in school.
There were about five of the sailors who I regularly went ashore with and it was necessary to be careful with your money. One of the deck hands who was about ten years my senior borrowed some money from me and kept promising to pay it back on the next pay day. He never did until the day I signed off the ship and only then because the steward stood over him and made sure he paid up.
There was one young Norwegian deckhand who used to call me ‘Yankee.’ This fellow was about my age and had one tattoo on his arm. We talked about it and he knew that I was keen to get a tattoo.
Now it is important to make a distinction about the attitudes to tattooing now and then. Today it is totally acceptable for middle class people to have tattoos but at that time there were only a few types of person who decorated their flesh in this way: sailors, soldiers and hard guys seemed to be the sum total. My father Blackie had two tattoos which was modest compared to many of the sailors I’d met.
Somehow the act of going to sea, in my mind, entitled me to get one, but I hesitated in Yokohama. My hesitation continued in the three other Japanese ports we visited as well as in Kaoshung. By the time we arrived in Manila in the Phillipines I was coming around to the idea. Our next port was Cebu and my Norwegian friend was encouraging me to join him.
“Come Yankee,” he’d say, “We take tattoo in Cebu.”
However at this time in Cebu, tattoos were illegal. In every other port you’d see brightly lit tattoo parlours where drunken sailors and soldiers would sit while pictures of hearts with daggers piercing them and other exotic images were spliced into their skin.
So I now felt ready and after a few drinks in a bar my friend and I took a taxi ride. The driver took us to a pretty run down part of town with tall tenement buildings. We were met by this short man carrying a bag. Out of the bag he took a clutch of plastic templates, each with a different design made up of tiny holes in the plastic. He also removed a small ink pen like the kind I used to draw with at home and a bottle of black India ink. My eyes went wide. My friend picked a template that he liked. So horrified was I by this dangerous looking operation that I got in the taxi and went back to the ship.
The next day my friend’s tattoo had risen on his arm and stayed that way for a few days. Then it settled down and began to heal.
There was a Swedish sailor who worked in the engine room and he had tattoos on every part of his body except his face. He was a very gruff sort of guy and I remember feeling a bit intimidated by him at first but for some reason he and I became good friends by the time the Torvanger was on its way back to California. I couldn’t begin to guess how many tattoos he had and he told me he got them all ‘dead drunk.’ He also regretted each one of them and wished he could afford to have them removed.
So my desire for a tattoo calmed down somewhat and I carried on doing my daily job, which I actually enjoyed. The nights ashore continued to be exciting. The young Norwegian sailors all had a joke which they repeated over and over. If something was funny they would say: “God Jul” which was ‘Merry Christmas’ in Norwegian. Being something of a mimic I too would say it.
Kent did not join us in the bars and went his own way in each port as he was having a different, possibly more sensible experience in these far-off lands. He would set off in each port and go sight seeing on his own.
I found myself in a spot of bother in a bar in Zamboanga where I was given a bill for things I didn’t order. I complained and the lady got angry and called a police officer who listened to me explain my situation but as my voice rose he too became angry. I was sober enough to recognize a potentially dangerous situation and wound up going with the officer to another bar where our steward was drinking. He paid the bill for me which brought the incident to a happy conclusion.
The last place we visited in the Phillipines was Legazpi and there wasn’t really a port, just a long beach with the volcanic Mount Mayon rising up above the jungle. Our ship threw a line from the stern to a bamboo dock and winched itself closer so that pipes could unload our liquid cargo.
Legazpi was a very primitive place. Kent told me that he went walking up the beach and followed a stream into the jungle. He encountered women and children washing clothes in the stream along with water buffalo. When he got back to the ship he was told by one of the crew that the place was riddled with cobras. In retrospect, he was glad he hadn’t known that.
I went with a few friends into town and, seeing a movie theatre, decided to go to the pictures. There was a big sign at the box office reading: ‘THIS THEATRE IS INSECT FREE! Should you sight any insects while watching the film please report them to the management.’ This gave us a moment’s pause but did not deter us. I have no memory of the movie we watched but after a few minutes became aware of something about the size of a baby’s hand zooming across the floor. Then there was another and another. They were huge cockroaches and when one actually zoomed up my leg and over my head I decided enough was enough and got up to leave.
We were away in the Orient for two months and it was late August when the Torvanger returned from the far east. As we approached the Pacific west coast I began to pick up radio signals and while clearing up in the officer’s mess one morning I put the radio on and for the first time in ages I got a pop music station from California.
I heard five recordings that I loved instantly. I only recognised one of the five as the Rolling Stones performing That’s How Strong My Love Is. That is I recognised Mick Jagger’s voice. But the other songs were a total mystery to me: Do You Believe in Magic was like nothing I had ever heard. The three other records had singers who all sounded like Bob Dylan: I Got You Babe, Like A Rolling Stone and You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. It did not occur to me that Like A Rolling Stone actually was Bob Dylan performing it until the disc jockey said so and I was equally flabbergasted that it was John Lennon and the Beatles performing You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away.
I had not heard of Sonny and Cher before but Sonny Bono sang exactly like Dylan and as for Like A Rolling Stone it had all the musical magic of a malevolent carnival. Dylan’s vocal was angry and the words seemed to be directed at a young woman who had fallen on hard times from a great height socially.
Do You Believe in Magic was a completely new sound altogether and I loved it. John Sebastian’s Lovin’ Spoonful was terrific. That’s How Strong My Love Is by the Stones was the most soulful I had ever heard Mick Jagger and these new records all excited me.
Because the Torvanger was continuing onto New Jersey via the Panama Canal and New Orleans I decided to stay aboard. Manhattan was where I was born and I had sharp and distinct memories of that place and wanted to see it again as an eighteen year old.
So as I said goodbye to Kent, I went home to spend a night in my own bed on Catalpa Street. I soon learned that my sister Nell, who had gone to London earlier in the year, was in love with an Englishman named Trevor. I stayed up talking with my brother Jim and was back on board in time for our departure down the California coast.
We spent a few days tied up at Long Beach then headed further south towards Panama.
Going through the Panama Canal was a big adventure. Before we entered the canal zone on the Pacific side we passed an island which all the sailors told me was inhabited only by wild creatures with no humans.
As we went into the first lock, a group of men in boiler suits came on board. These were referred to by our crew as the ‘businessmen,’ as they had everything from dirty postcards to souvenirs for sale. They did however have a function to perform. As the Torvanger entered into the various locks these men had to connect the ship to the electronic ‘Mules’ which guided the vessel through the locks safely.
The locks were like a set of steps which took us up and across the land mass of Panama. We entered the first lock at the sea level of the Pacific Ocean. Then the huge gates closed behind us and water began pouring in causing the ship to rise to the next level. For much of the operation I was on deck to experience the drama of it all. Once we reached the level of the artificial lake in the middle we began our descent with water being drained out rather than pumped in. This, through another set of locks took us down to the level of the Caribbean Sea. The whole operation took about eight hours and the Torvanger then made its way north up into the Gulf of Mexico.
When a ship approaches a destination, that port’s pilot comes on board to help navigate its waters. We were approaching New Orleans just after it had been struck by Hurricane Betsy and we received not one pilot but eight on board so that they could re-chart the Mississippi after the damage wrought by the hurricane.
The destruction was severe with lamp posts and parking meters bent to the ground. As we would be there for at least a full day and as New Orleans, like New York allowed young people to drink alcohol at 18 rather than 21, I was able to visit one of the big bars on Canal Street with my Norwegian shipmates where, in addition to the numerous fights we witnessed as we got drunk, we also heard new music on the juke box: Hang On Sloopy by the McCoys was great as was Houston by Dean Martin.
Our next stop was a two day layover in Jacksonville, Florida before heading onto New Jersey where I signed off the ship and took a bus to Manhattan. The sight of that distinctive skyline as we approached the city gave me a thrill. At long last I was visiting the place where I was born.
To be continued: Staying at the YMCA, meeting my relatives and returning to a very different Mill Valley…