I: Twenty-One

Haunted Ship

After two or three weeks of walking up and down South Street and West Street, haunting the docks and shipping offices, at last I found a job. I was in the office of the United States Shipping Board one morning, when a big stout man, behind a long, shabby desk, called out a job for one mess boy. There were very few fellows there at the time, so I beat all of them to the desk and got the job. I passed the doctor, took my slip of paper, and rushed home to Harlem to pack. I was so excited, I had forgotten to ask the man at the desk where the boat was going.

With my two suitcases, I rushed down to the pier indicated, got into a motor launch, and went out into New York harbor, past the Statue of Liberty and on toward Staten Island. We drew up alongside a rusty old freighter, standing at anchor. I climbed aboard. The first thing I said to a sailor standing near the gangplank was: “Where are we going?”

The sailor looked at me a long time. Finally he said: “Nowhere.”

I couldn’t believe my ears.

“This boat ain’t going nowhere,” he repeated. “What’s the matter with you?”

I felt sick.

“Nowhere?” I said.

“Don’t you know we gonna be tied up?” he asked.

“Then why are they hiring people?”

“Because this tub here is gonna be a mother ship,” he said, and walked away.

I found the steward, a tall, lanky, white fellow with red hair and freckles, slightly drunk, but very cordial. He was glad to have me, he said, and he hoped I would stay, because, so far, he couldn’t keep any mess boys on a ship like this, going nowhere.

From him I learned that the boat was one of the hundreds built for the government during the First World War, many of them built very badly—so badly that they were now unseaworthy and had to be laid up. (Some shipping contractors must have made a lot of money on them in the rush of war-time building.) This rusty tub was towed up the Hudson to Jones Point a few days after I boarded her and put at anchor with eighty or more other dead ships of a similar nature, and there we stayed all winter.

Every twentieth ship or so in the line was a mother ship, housing a skeleton crew to keep the machinery oiled in the other boats and the cables in place so that none of them floated away. We were the last mother ship in the fleet. To reach us from Jones Point, you came out in a rowboat, boarded the first ship in the fleet, at the head of a long line of boats anchored in the river, then walked the whole length of the entire fleet, sometimes across planks connecting boats with no sign of a railing or rope, and finally you reached our mother ship at the far end.

We were good and isolated, all right, way out in a wide bend of the Hudson. When the river froze but the ice was unsure for walking, sometimes for days you could not get ashore. And there was nothing ashore but a way station for the trains, anyway. Newburgh was the nearest town. All winter long, I went ashore but twice, so I had plenty of time to write, since the work was very easy.

I was the only Negro in the whole fleet. The others were mostly Swedes and Spaniards. Paydays there were big poker and blackjack games. The rest of the time, the fellows just slept.

There was one college boy on our boat, a boy named Keys, intending to be a ship’s engineer. He had an aunt who sang at the Metropolitan. And he had read lots of books, so we used to talk about books. But mostly I was interested in talking with sailors, who had been everywhere and had marvellous tales to tell about far-off parts of the world, strange boats they had worked on, women they had loved, and fights they had had.

There was a Spanish sailor from Seville named Pedro, who told me about Triana and the gypsies. This Spaniard and a short, stocky, albino Scot were my best pals. The Scot was seventeen or eighteen and spoke with the thickest of brogues. I never got tired of hearing the amusing way he talked. No other brogue intrigued me quite as much except that of the British West Indians I met later.

When spring came, Scotty and I used to spend our Sundays hiking to Bear Mountain, and he would talk most of the way up and back. Sometimes I would have to stop dead to puzzle out what he was saying.

That winter I wrote a poem called “The Weary Blues,” about a piano player I heard in Harlem, but I didn’t send it anywhere because I wasn’t satisfied with it. Every so often I would take it out of the suitcase and do something about the ending. I could not achieve an ending I liked, although I worked and worked on it—something that seldom happens to any of my poems.

Meanwhile, there came to me at the fleet, a letter from a gentleman in Washington named Alain Locke. Written in a very small hand, it commented upon what he felt to be the merits of my poems he had seen in the Crisis, and he asked if he might come to Jones Point to see me—evidently thinking I lived in the village. I couldn’t picture a distinguished professor from Howard, a Ph.D. at that, clambering over the hundred-odd freight boats that made up our fleet, slipping on the wet decks and balancing himself over precarious runways between rocking old vessels. So I wrote back “No.”

I didn’t want to see him, anyway, being afraid of learned people in those days. I had seen the Crisis editors but once or twice during my previous winter at Columbia. And then I had had no intention of seeing them—but when I changed the subscription of my magazine from Toluca to Hartley Hall, the editorial department learned of it and tracked me down. Jessie Fauset, the managing editor, invited me to luncheon at the Civic Club. I was panic-stricken. I pictured the entire staff of the Crisis as very learned Negroes and very rich, in nose glasses and big cars. I had a tremendous admiration for Dr. W. E. B. DuBois, whose Souls of Black Folk had stirred my youth, but I was flabbergasted at the thought of meeting him. What would I say? What should I do? How could I act—not to appear as dumb as I felt myself to be? So I didn’t go near the Crisis until Jessie Fauset sent for me. Then I asked if I might bring my mother, for I knew she would do the talking, since my mother loved to talk and meet people.

I remember we had filet de sole for luncheon, and it was the first time I had ever eaten filet de sole. I think I met Martha Gruening, too. The Civic Club was one of the few clubs in New York admitting both Negro and white members, and the leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the organization that published the Crisis, belonged. The club being near their office, they usually lunched there.

I found Jessie Fauset charming—a gracious, tan-brown lady, a little plump, with a fine smile and gentle eyes. I was thrilled when she told me that readers of the Crisis had written in to say they liked my poems. I was interested, too, to hear that she was also writing poems and planning a novel. From that moment on I was deceived in writers, because I thought they would all be good-looking and gracious like Miss Fauset—especially those whose books I liked or whose poems were beautiful.

Jessie Fauset introduced me to Mr. Dill, the business manager of the Crisis, a short, voluble man of middle-age who, besides running the magazine, was a fine musician on the pipe organ and the piano forte (as he always said) as well. He attended the Community Church, where John Haynes Holmes preached, and sometimes played the organ for services there. He told them of my poetry, and that church was, I believe, the first church in which I was invited to read my poems, through the good offices of Augustus Granville Dill, of Harvard and the Crisis.

The Crisis people, I am sure, did everything they could to put me at ease; still I was afraid to see any more like them. So when Alain Locke wrote me, I was glad the Hudson and a hundred freighters stood between us and the likelihood of meeting. A seaman had already been drowned crossing those narrow planks from one boat to another, so it would be pretty risky for a professional landlubber, even if he should ever reach Jones Point, several hours up the river from New York.

So there were no visitors and I almost never went ashore. Those long winter nights with snow swirling down the Hudson, and the old ships rocking and creaking in the wind, and the ice scraping and crunching against their sides, and the steam hissing in the radiators were ideal for reading. I read all the ship’s library. I found there Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and d’Annunzio’s The Flame of Life.

The work was pleasant, the men I served good-natured, and I was mostly my own boss because our red-headed steward stayed drunk almost all the time. That was why he couldn’t keep a job on an ocean-going steamer. But he would always know in advance when he was going to be drunk, so he would give me his keys to the refrigerator room and all the supplies, and ask me to look out for things. Then he would go into his cabin and sometimes not come out for three or four days. I do not know how he could stay drunk so long. He was a very good fellow, though, and everybody liked him, so he didn’t get fired.

Among the empty boats of this dead fleet, there was a haunted ship, aboard which, during the war, there had been a mutiny somewhere at sea, when a pitched battle between the officers and the crew took place. There were bullet holes in the steel plates of the bridge. The Captain had been killed there. And one of the mates, they said, had tumbled down the forward steps, mortally wounded. It was a sinister-looking boat, shabby from lack of paint and filled with dust and cobwebs. And it had a bad record. At night, almost everyone agreed, ghosts walked.

One pay day, Sully, an Irish fireman, offered to bet that nobody would spend a night alone on that haunted boat. I said I didn’t believe in ghosts and that I would. The Irishman said I was lying, but if I did stay there all night, ten dollars would be mine.

I said. “O.K. Tomorrow.” And I meant it. I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t scared. And if there were ghosts, I wanted to see one. Besides, I could use ten dollars.

That same night, however, Sully, the fireman, lost all his money in a poker game. But the next day I declared I would sleep there anyway, even if the bet was off, just to prove him wrong about ghosts. So in the afternoon I moved my bedding over to the haunted ship, took along a couple of candles, and picked out a cabin—one with a good lock on the door—so if there were ghosts, they would have to enter through the keyhole in a ghostly fashion. The sailors arranged for the night watchman to come by every so often in the night and see if I was still there. To frighten me, all day they kept on repeating the mutiny story with gruesome variations. They declared I had picked out the very cabin of the slain mate. They said I would turn white by morning from pure fear. They said I had better leave the door unlocked so I could run.

They had all seen Negroes in the motion pictures portrayed so often as superstitious and frightened, that I guess that was another reason for my going. I wanted to prove to them Negroes are no more afraid of ghosts than other people. So about ten o’clock, I went over to the haunted ship, accompanied by Sully, Scotty, and the watchman. They sat around with me for a while, pretending every creak of the cables was the whine of a ghost, and every knock of the wind the footsteps of a dead man.

But when they left, I blew out my candles and went to bed. (Since it was a dead ship, there was no heat, or electric current.) It was pretty windy that night, and the boats rolled and creaked a-plenty. The gale roared in the mastheads. But beyond that, I heard nothing strange. And, having always been a sleepy-head, I soon went to sleep. I remember once, Pug, the watchman, knocked on the door. I woke up enough to yell: “Beat it, Pug, and lemme alone! You’re no ghost.” And the next thing I heard was the alarm clock at six in the morning. Thus passed my night on the “haunted” ship.

That day I bet Sully, the Irishman, ten dollars he wouldn’t do the same thing.

He wouldn’t.


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This work (The Big Sea by Langston Hughes) is free of known copyright restrictions.