II: Big Sea

Winter Seas in Rotterdam

The next job I got was on a vile-looking tub, running from Hoboken to the West Indies, with a bunch of cutthroats in the crew. I think the boat must have been a rum-runner. They had only one cook, and one mess boy—me. And part of my job was to get up at four-thirty and start the fires going in the galley for the cook. The cook was a vicious old Negro from Barbados, with a scar across his face, six inches long. He informed me early that he was the boss and that I not only had to act as general mess boy, but also peel potatoes, knead the bread, scrub the galley, wash the pots, empty the ashes, shine the brass—and wake him up in the morning as well, with a cup of coffee in hand. I quit.

Then I got a job going to Holland on a big, clean-looking freighter, on a regular run between Rotterdam and New York. The first December snow was falling as we passed the Statue of Liberty. Off Sandy Hook, the sea rolled in mountains. The wind blew keen. We had a twenty-day crossing, in a terrific storm all the way.

We got to Rotterdam, Christmas Eve, 1923, and stayed until New Year’s. The town was covered with snow and the canals were frozen. But the cozy water-front taverns were warm and the stone jugs of gin good to the belly. There were hot rum punches at the café concerts, and wonderful food served by the ton in the restaurants. Rotterdam’s Chinatown and the famous Schiedamschedyk of the sailors were full of excitement. The canals, and the kids in wooden shoes, and the low, quaint houses of the town were picturesque and beautiful. The Dutch people seemed friendly and kind. The old watchman on the dock took all the Negro boys on our boat to his home to taste his wife’s holiday cakes. There I met his daughter, who was married to a French lad. And I began to talk to the Frenchman about Paris, using my high school French. The more I talked to him about Paris, the more I wanted to go there—and not just go, but stay long enough really to know the city. I felt sure I would fall in love with Paris, once I saw it.

The day we sailed for New York, another fellow and I drank a whole jug of Hulskamps gin ourselves, in a tavern near the wharf while we were waiting for the ship’s whistle to blow. When we hit the English Channel that night, choppy and wind-blown as it was, I began to be seasick for the first and only time in my life. But I thought I was going to die. I rocked! And the sea rocked! And the boat rocked! And the world went round and round! When we got out of the Channel, we ran into one of those North Atlantic gales that lasted half-way to New York. And for over a week, every time the boat would sway, my stomach would sway, too. That cured me of ever again drinking too much gin.

Back in New York, I decided to stay on the ship for another trip, maybe several. The steward was a good guy, the Captain pleasant, and the crew lively. One of our sailors from a well-to-do family in Washington told me his sister was married to Francis Carco, the French writer, and he invited the whole crew to run down to Paris and visit them.

Our second trip across was as bad as the first, so far as weather went. And worse in other respects. Several very unfortunate things happened aboard. Three days out of New York harbor, on a bitter-cold, windy day, our Chief Engineer died. Double pneumonia, and we had no doctor aboard. I saw my first funeral at sea. They sewed his body in a canvas shroud, laid him on a cooling board, covered the board with an American flag, and pushed it up to the edge of the boat. The engines stopped. The crew gathered around and the Captain read a few words out of the Bible. Then the assistant engineers lifted up one end of the board, and the Chief’s body slid off into the tossing sea. But they held on to the flag and put it away for the next funeral.

The rough weather continued. We had to tie our suitcases beneath our bunks to keep them from wearing out sliding across the floor. In fact, on the previous trip, what the wear and tear of a rocking boat can do was pretty well impressed on me by what happened to a fellow-messman’s suit, which he had bought in Harlem just before we sailed. It was a brand-new, pinch-back suit, tailored in the style of the times. The saloon mess boy, my cabinmate, was very pleased with it. He took it and hung it neatly on a hanger as we passed Sandy Hook. Then very carefully, he draped a sheet around it to keep off the dust. Then he hung the hanger on a peg against the wall. Every time the boat rocked, naturally the suit would swing. For twenty days that suit swung there against the rough wall, back and forth in a wide arc, following the rocking of the boat. When we got to Rotterdam and the mess boy took his suit down to go ashore, the whole back of the suit was worn out, just from swinging against the wall. Right through the sheet and all across the shoulders, completely worn out!

The second trip for this mess boy, Eddie, was even more disastrous. This time he didn’t lose a suit, but he had a very painful accident. The cook set a steaming pot of boiling cabbage down on the galley deck one noon, just before meal time. The boat lurched and the pot slid over the tile floor, stopping only when it reached the water bank at the door. Just then Eddie came rushing through the door and stepped straight into the uncovered pot of boiling cabbage.

His foot and ankle were so badly scalded that he could not work for the rest of the trip, and I was changed from the P.O. mess to the officers’ saloon, taking over his job—which meant I had to get up an hour earlier every morning to take the Captain’s coffee to him on the bridge at five, struggling in oilskins through the howling storm, since on a freight boat there are very few protected passageways or staircases. Almost everything is wide open to the wind and wave, and all cabin doors give directly on the elements. You must have oilskins and boots to work on the Western Ocean in the winter time, and you can’t be seasick, and you can’t be scared. If you were scared, you’d never get across the deck when the big waves come over, roaring like thunder and dangerous as hundred-ton mountains falling.

Sometimes waves would hit our boat with such violence that she would shake and rattle as though she were going to splinter into a million pieces—but she didn’t break. She always went on. Sometimes she’d be down in a trough of water twice as tall as the masts. Then the water would lift her up again, so high in the air you could see miles of rolling ocean around her, restless and angry. But she always went on. The strength of a ship and the strength of water, and the strength of a handful of men going on through the storm, against distance and wind and waves until they get where they are going is thrilling—still thrilling—even if ships are run by steam now and sails no longer blow white before the masts.

But, to cap the climax of misfortunes, in mid-ocean, this trip, our wireless operator went crazy. Sparks, as sailors call him, went to pieces and imagined he had killed the Chief Engineer. He refused to leave his cabin. He brooded and talked out of his head. He wouldn’t eat. He couldn’t work. So we had no use of the wireless in mid-Atlantic in one of the worst storms in years. But we went on, ploughing through the waves. Finally, we reached the Channel.

When we got to Rotterdam, however, I thought maybe there might be a jinx on our ship, so I got off. I had twenty-five dollars coming. I drew it, packed my bags, and caught the night train for Paris. Good-bye, old freight boat!

I will never forget the thrill of La Frontière. In the middle of the night the French customs inspectors came through, throwing open all the many doors of our third-class coach, and letting in the snow and the cold night wind that swirled about the little station. I was in France.

La Frontière!

La France!

The train to Paris. A dream come true.


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