Ocean Echoes - The Lime-juicer
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE pierhead sailor's boarding-house, known as Kelley's, on Pike Street, was always open for hard-up sailors. There I went, and they took me to board with the stipulation that I would ship on anything that carried sail, at a moment's notice. Like all the others, it was a starvation house; but should Mrs. Kelley like you she would always give you a cup of tea in the afternoon. With meals it was first come first served, as long as the spuds held out.
The sailors who stopped there were a miserable-looking bunch of men, starved-looking, with their clothes in tatters. It was only by the merest chance that the master or mate of a ship would take any of them. Consequently, being a place of last resort, Kelley's came to be known as the "Pierhead Jump House." When a ship sailed that was, or was likely to be, short-handed, Kelley had his men lined up ready on the wharf, and the mate, not daring to sail short-handed, would hastily pick and take what he was short of.
I was one week at the boarding-house when my turn came for the pierhead jump. I had been hoping to get away, for I did not have the courage to write to my mother on account of my father's taunt; yet it was hard to stay on so near home. The sea held no terrors for me now, and I loved it more than ever.
A Dundee ship, one of the Lock Line, was sailing that morning for San Francisco. Kelley, as usual, had his bunch lined up. The mate, a wiry, cunning Scotchman, jumped ashore and looked them over. He was short one man. There were fifteen of us.
"Are you a sailor?" he asked me.
"Yes, sir," I answered, eagerly.
"Have you any discharges?"
"I have one, sir."
"This is from Quebec to Liverpool. That doesn't show that you are a sailor."
My heart sank. Nevertheless he finally chose me, probably because I was the youngest and would be the easier to train. Kelley waved me goodby. He had two months in wages in advance, and I had three shillings.
We warped the ship out of the dock. Then the tugboat took us down the Mersey, and we were out and away to sea on one of the longest voyages I ever made. The ship was three-masted and square-rigged, with a steel hull. She carried twenty-two men before the mast the carpenter, sailmaker, three mates, a darkey steward, and an English cook.
She was a real lime-juicer. Everything we had to eat was weighed out, and our water was measured. The captain was fat and religious. He sang hymns and played on the small organ in his cabin most of the time. The crew represented practically every nation on earth.
I learned to fight on board that ship, for there were some tough men in the forecastle a Dago, whose chief desire when he got mad was to throw a knife at you; a whale of a Hollander who thought he could whip anyone; a Dane who claimed that he had made John L. Sullivan take water. I must not forget the Greek, who believed in being forearmed, and carried a sharp-pointed marlin-spike slung around his neck.
After the tugboat and pilot had left us we struck a blow. It was fair wind out of the English Channel. Although under upper topsails she soon cleared the land, and ripped away southard into fine weather, where I felt my first breath of the trade winds. If there is one place in the world for Romance, it is under tropical skies in a sailing-ship. That's the sailor's Paradise. There he builds his castles, and echoes from the past mingle with his thoughts of some pretty girl in a faraway seaport. Sailors get sentimental when the trade winds blow. They are more cleanly in their habits there than in the northern and southern latitudes. It is in the night watches, when the moon shines full and balmy winds fan the sails, that they spin their best yarns of shipwrecks, and sweethearts and hard-shelled mates. They are Neptune's children, as harmless as their boasts, and as flighty as the flying-fish that skim the dark waters.
The Channel winds blew us into the northeast trades; then, with every sail set that could catch the breeze, we sailed on south, and away for Cape Horn. The sea-biscuits weren't bad, but we always looked forward to Thursday and Sunday when we got a pound loaf of flour bread. The salt horse and lime-juice were sparingly served, but we were all forced to drink the juice to avoid getting scurvy.
The big Hollander bossed the fo'c'sle. How I longed for Liverpool Jack to trim him, and how often I wondered whether I should ever see my friend again ! I had been away from home now six months, and in that time I had learned more about human nature than I could have had I lived twenty years in Ireland. I felt responsibility, and had confidence in what I knew about a ship; but I had much yet to learn of the waves and the winds, and of the minds of deep-water sailors.
One night as we were nearing the Equator the middle watch from twelve to two was my wheel. The Dutchman claimed that I ate one of his sea-biscuits before going to relieve the helmsman. This particular piece of hardtack he was saving to make cracker hash on the following morning.
I stoutly denied it, and just to show his brutal authority, he knocked me down with a swing of his powerful fist. I got up hurt and revengeful.
On my way aft to the wheel the third mate noticed the blood dripping from my mouth, and wanted to know who had caused it.
"I don't like that brute," he whispered, "and I'll show you how you can whip him. I'll train you, and by the time we're off Cape Horn you'll be ready."
I hurried off to the wheel, happy in the thought that I had found another champion. The third mate had boxing gloves, which he knew how to handle. He taught me how to box, how to swing for the Dutchman with a knockout, as well as uppercuts, right and left hooks, and a powerful swing from the hip, which he thought necessary to bring the Dutchman to the deck.
In the meantime the Dane and the Dutchman came together. That was one Sunday afternoon when we were sailing south of the Equator. The fight started over the Dane's washing his clothes in the Dutchman's whack of fresh water. Fresh water was a luxury to drink, let alone washing dirty clothes in it. The fat and religious captain was as usual singing, and playing his Sunday hymns; the sailors were lying around the deck, and the southeast trades were cooing in the rigging. The gentle roll of the ship was ideal for the occasion. I was particularly interested in this fight, and was hoping that the Dane would give the Dutchman the licking of his life the Dutchman for some reason, perhaps because he had injured me, hated me, and made my life in the forecastle as miserable as he could.
They stripped to the waist. What hairy creatures they were ! More like animals than men. They fought like two massive bears, hugging and trying to squeeze the life out of each other. They knew nothing about boxing or real fighting. I could see as the fight went on that the Dane was beginning to show yellow. He missed a few of his awkward swings, then fell to the deck, exhausted. The Hollander came out victorious, but neither was hurt very badly. The third mate was not supposed to see the fight his duty should have been to stop it but he managed to be near, and took it all in, carefully noting, for my future benefit, the Dutchman's weaknesses, and assuring me that when I had learned the pivot-wallop I should be able to conquer my enemy. This was good news indeed, and I set about my further training with zest.