II: Big Sea
The squall that turned over the monkeys’ cage was only a prelude to much heavier ones we were to experience as we passed mid-ocean, heading toward America. One night a terrific wind came up, that sent enormous waves crashing over the deck, and made our boat lean until it seemed that it would lie flat on its side in the water. Suitcases beneath bunks went scooting across the floor, back and forth. Everything movable had to be tied down, and the monkeys put in the lamp room. Every few moments, a new mountain of water hit the deck and thunder seemed to strike the S.S. Malone. Tons of falling water washed up and over and down upon us with a deafening noise, wave after wave, like one long and consecutive crash of doom, while the wind howled like a thousand furies.
In the morning, when I got up to go forward to the galley, ship-tall sheaves of green water were still breaking over the open deck with such rapidity that I was afraid to cross. I cracked the iron door, and looked out, wondering how I could make it to the galley without being swept into the sea. Just then Ernesto, the Puerto Rican sailor, came out of the sailors’ quarters in oilskins, ready to go on watch at four bells. He took my arm and showed me how to run crouching across the open deck between waves, as the ship dived toward the lee side and the swirling rapids swept off the deck into the boiling sea just before another wave broke from the windward.
Ernesto said: “Grab for the railing if the water hits you.”
But we made it safely, clambering up the midships steps as a hundred-ton wave thundered across the deck, drenching us both in spray.
That day two of our lifeboats were smashed by the pounding water. The wind blew so strong that it was as dangerous as the waves. No work was done on deck, for the wind could pick a man up and lift him off his feet. The Third Mate said it was a tropical hurricane, and one of the worst, for he had been through many in sailing vessels out of Boston. Twenty-nine times, he had made the African voyage, he told us, and always with a crew of Negro seamen. He said Negroes were splendid sailors, and that it was too bad modern steamers did not, as a rule, employ them. He was a fine old New Englander of abolitionist stock, this Third Mate, who had many thrilling stories to tell of windjammer days and the kind of ships now rapidly disappearing from the Western Ocean.
During the entire storm, next to the cabin where George and I and Puerto Rico slept, in the hospital room the Irish kid and the sick Portuguese rolled and tossed and moaned. The Portuguese often went out of his head, and had to be tied in his bunk. The Irish kid said he didn’t have any pain, but he was just weak. And the idea of getting back home to Brooklyn and his people with this strange yellow sickness and dry skin he had made him look as if he wanted to cry.
We put the dying Portuguese off on a stretcher in the Virgin Islands to be rushed to a hospital, because we had no doctor aboard. The Captain also put the Panamanian Indian ashore there. Those of us who had any money made up a collection to give the Indian, who had stowed away with nothing and had no idea now how he would ever get back home to Panama.
The storm had delayed us several days, forcing us off our course. About a week before we got to the Virgin Islands, the food began to run low. This shortage, of course, affected the ordinary members of the crew first. Hardtack appeared aft instead of bread. The sailors’ stew had one cube of meat to a quart of watery gravy. There was no more fruit, fresh or canned. Then no more condensed milk for coffee. Finally, no more coffee.
The petty officers’ mess felt the shortage shortly after the sailors and the firemen. All the men began to crumble. They cussed the Chinese cook, the Filipino steward, and the Old Man himself for letting things come to such a pass. They accused the steamship company of stinting on rations. The sailors and firemen threw so many of their big tin food containers full of watery stew into the sea (now that the monkeys were out of sight) that the containers ran out, and Puerto Rico, their mess boy, had nothing in which to carry food to them.
The steward began to scrape the bottom of barrels and boxes. For breakfast we had musty oatmeal, full of little worms, hundreds of them, too many to pick out, so we ate them. The sailors went to mob the steward one morning, and chased him from the galley with knives. For once, the Captain sided with the men, and gave the steward an awful bawling out in front of the crew. For by that time the food shortage had reached the saloon where the Captain and the passengers ate, so the Captain was mad himself. The day we pulled into port in the Virgin Islands, all that the passengers had had for dinner the night before was canned sardines.
I felt sorry for Manuel, the Filipino boy from Mindanao, who served the passengers. He had worked hard the whole trip waiting on them, keeping their rooms spotlessly clean, preparing their baths, and even going to prayer meetings to sing hymns with the missionaries, because he was hoping they would tip him well when the boat got to New York. Manuel wanted to marry a Mexican girl in Fourteenth Street, and put a big payment down on new furniture for their flat. Now, the passengers were in an ungrateful mood, angrily pushing their plates away, and calling down the wrath of God on the owners of any steamship line that would send out a boat with such a crew and such a larder, blaming everybody from the mess boy to the Captain for it all. Sardines for dinner! Bah! They were certainly in no mood for tipping generously.
George, who worked in the pantry and who would eat half the passengers’ scanty food before it reached the table, said the Captain’s face was so red at mealtime he thought the Old Man was burning up. And the night the sardines appeared, George swore the missionaries forgot to bless the table.
That night in the petty officers’ mess we had a stew made out of all the scraps of garbage left over from the days that had gone before, and for dessert a tasteless hardtack pudding the second cook had concocted. It was a good thing we sighted the Virgin Islands shortly or there might have been a riot aboard.
We reached New York on an autumn day as beautiful and bright as if all storms had forever passed. We docked at noon. As soon as the gangplank was down, the passengers departed in high dudgeon, giving the Captain and all the officials of the line a large and fluent piece of their mind.
As we tied up at dock, there had been much loud talking in the Captain’s quarters. The Chief Engineer, he of the overflowing oil, already had his bags packed. When the paymaster arrived, we were—each and every one of the crew of forty-two—given our walking papers. That was the only job from which I have ever been fired.
This time, there was no chance to quit first.