Ocean Echoes - Better Weather
( Originally Published 1922 )
SAILORS are simple, light-hearted souls, on whom the load of yesterday is as light as possible today. With a favoring breeze we set all sail, and the sailors chatted and laughed like children. We sang chanteys as the yards went up, and our sufferings vanished with the cold. Soon we should be in the tropics again, and then hurrah for the Golden Gate and the Sacramento River !
The cook wasn't missed much, nor his cooking either. He would have died before we made port. We rigged up a temporary galley and found an old sailor who could cook pea-soup. The darkey steward made bread, anyone could boil salt-horse. And the old sailor's cooking was never questioned.
The captain grieved over his laying hens, but he still continued singing his favorite hymn:
"Come to thy Father, O wanderer, come !
As we sailed northward into clearer skies, the winds from the palms of the South Sea Isles wove Beauty's dream of stars and moon.
Just as surely as the Indian finds the wild violet amidst the cactus-roots, so the sea never fails to communicate with the soul that loves it through some form of its ever-changing emotion, whether in its destructive combers or its golden ripples. Its magnetism sounds lullaby in the heart of its lover, and makes bold the spirit of adventure. I must beg the reader's pardon for so often dwelling upon this, but I seem perpetually to struggle with only partially effective words to explain what I know is the rock foundation of the nature of the so-called "rolling-stone," whose temperament oftentimes is far more reasonable and stable than the world in its casualness takes it to be.
So the days passed on, through glittering stars, cooing winds, and Capricorn sunsets, and after four- months and twenty-six days we dropped anchor off Goat Island in San Francisco Bay,. I was a man and a sailor now, but shifty for new adventures in a country that offered every opportunity.
While we were lying at anchor, even before the ship went to the wharf to unload, crimps came on board, unhindered, by some ancient custom, and insisted upon many of the crew leaving, offering them higher wages if they would sail aboard the American ships. We had signed articles for the round trip in England, and any money a sailor got ashore at San Francisco was optional with the captain. If the sailor were dissatisfied and left the ship at that port, he sacrificed his pay for the entire voyage.
I refused to go with any of the crimps, but remained by the ship until she docked, which pleased the third mate very much. He had, taught me all he knew about navigation, and was proud of my battling qualities as well. (By the way, the Dutchman had left the ship with the first of the boarding-house crimps.)
When the ship docked, I went aft to the captain and asked him for some money to spend. He grudgingly gave me fifty cents, told me not to spend it all in one night, and promised me another fifty cents the following Saturday. After five months in a lime-juice ship fifty cents to spend ashore in one week ! Surely one's morals were safe. Steam beer was selling two mugs for five cents on Pacific Street, and whiskey five cents a drink on the Barbary Coast. That may sound wonderful indeed to our prohibitionized ears, but the stuff was almost as dangerous then as it would be now at that price.
The captain's injustice so hurt me that I left the ship, and now for a time my tale must follow me ashore. A crimp soon had me in tow and took me to a sailor's boarding-house, where, after a few days, I shipped aboard a whaler, to be gone for three years. They pictured to me the beau-ties of the Arctic Ocean, the icebergs, the musk-ox, the gorgeous Aurora Borealis, and particularly the grand pay I should get from my share in the whale, pay which was supposed to run well up into the thousands by the end of the voyage. The same old story has lured thousands of good men into an industry where Greed makes fortunes for a few, and keeps thousands of men cold, cheerless and overworked for years, only to release them penniless in the end. I was ignorant, or I never should have signed on.
My bag was already aboard the whaler when someone behind me spoke : "Get your bag, and come back on the wharf."
Somewhere I had heard that voice before.
"Come on, now, get aboard that ship; none of your lallygagging," cried the crimp, fearing for his money.
I turned around in answer to the voice. It was Liverpool Jack. In all my seventeen years on and off the sea, he was the only sailor I ever met who knew how to trim a crimp. I dropped my bag and ran to him, shaking him warmly by the hand.
"Get aboard that ship," roared the crimp. "Put your bag in the fo'c'sle," whispered jack. "Then get back onto the wharf."
I was so happy to see him that I ignored his instructions. The result was that I was knocked down, and thrown aboard the whaler.
"There, damn you," bellowed the crimp. "Stay there, now."
I picked myself up, and jumped back onto the wharf, full of fight. Three of the boarding-house thugs rushed at me. The first I knocked down; the other two grabbed me, and were in the act of pitching me over the rail onto the hard deck when Liverpool Jack ran to my rescue. Oh, how he could fight ! He knocked them right and left, and I, being free now, the three crimps were no match for us. We fought, and fought hard on that slivery wharf. The crimps wouldn't hesitate to kill you. They had police protection, and a sailor's life wasn't worth much in the old days in San Francisco.
They shouted to the mates aboard the whaler for help. Two burly men jumped onto the bulwark rail, but before they landed on the wharf I hit one and Jack the other, and they fell in-board. A crowd of longshoremen and sailors were gathering around. The crimps were groggy. They had no endurance for further fight. Jack shouted :
"Let's run for it before it is too late !"
He headed up the wharf on a dead run, I after him; and we were soon lost in the crowded street, but dangerously close to the waterfront. "We'll have to get out of the city," panted Jack. "Our lives aren't safe now."
We boarded a Mission Street car, and rode well out into the country to the end of the line. We hunted a quiet place, and yarned till the sun set and the misty dampness of 'Frisco Bay sent a chill through us. Then we got up and walked on into the night.
It was fifty miles from San Francisco to San Josť. Our course along the country road pointed to that city. The December weather was snappy and a white frost made its appearance on the housetops and glittered like fool's gold in the rays of the half moon.
As we plodded on we talked of our experiences since we had separated at Chicoutimi. Jack arrived in Montreal a few days after he left me, and finding shipping quiet there, beat it down to Quebec and shipped on a vessel bound for Valparaiso. As usual he didn't like the ship and left her there. After living there for a month or more doing odd jobs at longshoring, he found a barque bound for San Francisco, and had been there for seven weeks when I met him. There were many opportunities to ship aboard a whaler, but Jack had a horror of whalers. It seemed to me that sometime in his younger life he probably had been shanghaied on one of them.
We were in a country now which I had been told was God's Country, where nature abounded in everything for the needy, and wages were high. Little I dreamed, as I walked along that night, that I was living in the panic of 1893, and that Hunger's skeleton grinned at me as I passed the milestones. Wages of fifteen dollars a month were not for such men as I, that year, when even sturdy, steady, domestic laborers found it hard to get work.
Jack and I, heedless of the currents and reefs that we were steering into, hiked on, and at two o'clock in the morning walked into Redwood City, tired and hungry. The town was small in those days. A few lights glimmered through the trees. A dog or two barked at our approach, and steeled the night policeman to action. To be sure he was well armed, having his night stick, and a gun strapped at his side. He headed straight for us, his club in his hand.
"Where are you hoboes going?" he shouted. "We're bound for San Diego," answered Jack.
"Well, keep &moving," he said. You ain't a-goin' to find San Diego in these parts."
We walked along a little farther, when Jack suddenly stopped short. "Listen," he whispered. Then I could hear the chug, chug of a locomotive down in the freight yard.
"Come on," said he, "we'll walk no more, we'll ride in a freight car to San Diego"
I believe that Jack knew that San Diego was in California, but in what part of California I am sure he did not know. I myself am not good at directions except at sea, and in its nearest parallel, the desert, and I have often noticed how free and easy other sailors are with distance on land. Jack knew, however, that wherever San Diego might be it was a seaport, and assured me with happy confidence that only the best ships left there !
An old nightwatchman in the freight yards told us that a freight was leaving for Fresno shortly, and that there were many empty box cars in it. We crawled into one, and hid away in a dark, smelly corner, and were off unfared passengers, cold and hungry.
We must have slept for a long time, when the door opened letting in the sun and an unwelcome brakeman.
"Where in Hell are you 'hoes going?" he roared.
"San Diego," answered Jack, rubbing his eyes. "Have you any money?"
"Not a damned cent."
"Well, get off the train before I throw you off."
"I have a dollar," said I; but Jack shook my shoulder, and announced his intention of getting off, saying airily that he needed to stretch his legs anyway. As we alighted among the vineyards for we had ridden far on that freight train the brakeman swore in disappointment that we, and not he, still had our last dollar.
There was a little town amid the vineyards, a cozy little town, with its church and blacksmith shop, looking all new and shiny in the sun; and, better for us, a Chinese restaurant. There half the dollar fed us heartily, and turned our outlook upon life into gold also, We were not far from Fresno, we were told, and there was no work to be had. The Democrats, under Cleveland, the local gossips said, had bankrupted the country, and the farmers were facing starvation. The only salvation for the country lay with the Populist Party. What a pity that the very men who need to hear reasonable discussion are the farthest removed from any opportunity to listen to it.
I began to long for the roll of a ship and the spray from the deep. I seemed to be going from bad to worse, with fifty cents in my pocket and gloom ahead. When I suggested going back, even if it involved shipping on a whaler, Jack only laughed. Going without a few meals was nothing to him, and beating his way on trains, I discovered, was actually a source of joy. Ships to him were only a means of conveyance to leave lands where adventure had become monotonous.
We learned that there would be a freight train that afternoon for the south. I left Jack, who never walked for pleasure, to take a country stroll. I walked through the vineyards and saw white men and Japanese pruning the vines. The work looked nice, and I felt that I could do it if only I had a job.
When I got back I saw that Jack had been drinking, although it was hard to tell how he could have got it; and when the train came in, and the brakeman warned us off it unless we had money to give him, Jack, more courageous after drinking than I was sober, shouted to me as the train swung past, to "catch the gunnels"; and himself suited the action to the word by swinging under and up to rest on the "gunwales" the longitudinal rods which are placed close to the ground under the cars.
While I stood passively by, unable to compass this process sufficiently quickly to follow suit, the train gathered speed, Jack waved his hand to me, and was gone. Into space for another span of years !