My Ship of Fools

The truth was, though, that we were all in a good mood. The crew ate big portions of oatmeal, cow's belly, and plantains, and cracked hilarious jokes that sent them reeling out on deck to hee-haw at the sky. We were burning up eighteen gallons of fuel every hour, sailing into oblivion, and no one seemed to care if we got there or not. We told tall tales all night and all day in the wheel house, sometimes everyone jabbering at once. Cops, wives, boredom, and empty pockets had driven these misfits out to sea, but once at sea, in their element, they didn't seem like misfits. Their pasts were perilous, complicated, and unapologetic, and their futures were absolutely unpredictable. Most of them had made this crossing dozens of times, under worse conditions and in smaller boats, for less pay. (These days Captain Joe and Scott the chief engineer were pulling down $1800 per month; the cook, Rongo the second mate, and Jamaican-born chief mate Clifton Albert Easy, known as Rasta, earned $500 per month; Charlie, who signed on to take a break from his job as a night watchman at Cheatham's shipyard, was getting $100 for the round-trip voyage.) These were men knowledgeable enough to rebuild a four-cylinder Bronse turbine at midnight in a mean sea, yet saw nothing unsound in their theory that the 82-foot Freedom vanished on its way to Haiti two years ago because of a giant whirlpool. They laughed at maritime disasters that would make a landsman weep, but chickened out on their alimony payments. They argued for hours about the limits and language of the United States Constitution, but sincerely believed a man could be turned into a cow.

"Lobos! Lobos! Lobos!" Rasta was hollering from the bow, pointing frantically toward the horizon. He had been taking a bath, and now came running back to the wheel house latherd with soap and laughing hugely. We looked and saw nothing. But by-and-by, a speck appeared. It was the lighthouse at Key Lobos, the marker for the Old Bahama Channel. Somehow we had gotten turned around and were approaching Key Lobos from the wrong direction, but no matter. By evening we saw the mountains of Cuba, and that night and the next day we chugged east down her coast. The emerald green of the Bahama Bank dropped away, and the water turned dark blue. A pair of Soviet container ships crossed our bow, and the lights of Cabo Lucretia twinkled brightly. If we didn't stray inside the twelve-mile limit and get shot by gunboats, we might make it yet. The captain's hands had quit shaking, and everyone was sobering up.

I was asleep on the cushioned banquette at the captain's table, and then all at once I was on the floor, awake. The wind was howling. An extremely skinny rat was staring at me from across the room. The rat scurried up the companionway and I followed after him. There was no one at the wheel in the pilothouse. A breaking swell slammed into the side of the ship, and I grabbed the wheel. I heard a loud creaking and booming, and an even louder metallic banging. The ship was pitching from side to side in a sea of whitecaps. Out on deck, through a curtain of rain, I could see two dim lights bobbing wildly. A moment later Rongo appeared.

"Captain lost his mind completely," he announced. "He going to fuck around and drop overboard." An hour earlier Rongo and Captain Joe had idly aimed their flashlights out the window of the wheel house and seen the refrigerator van rolling loose, back and forth across the deck. "We almost get run over when we fix the chains back, and they still not fix very good," Rongo said. "Now he out there trying to smash the back of the truck open. He say it fulled up with TV, and he want to dump 'em overboard."

Sure enough, when I looked out to the end of Rongo's flashlight beam, Captain Joe was clutching the rear of the truck with one hand and bashing away with a small sledgehammer. He was bellowing incoherently between licks, his hair slicked back in the rain. I guessed we were about in the middle of the turbulent Windward Passage and it was about four in the morning.

"Well," I said. "I'm going back to sleep. Do you have any more Marlboros?"


"It was after the Six Day War. We were tied up in Cairo and the whole ship stank of camel fat. At that time you had to have three Egyptians for every American crew. It came Thanksgiving Day. We all sat down in the galley for our meal, and here came the turkey. It was beautiful brown, the best-looking turkey I ever seen. I'm telling you, it was gorgeous. We had cranberry sauce and everything. So we start in eating, and I notice there's fat through the meat, and I know in a turkey it's separate - you've got your light meat and dark. I say to the cook, this big Egyptian guy, `You got any more of these turkeys?' He says, `Yeah.' So I make him take me and show me. We get in the galley and go to the freezer. He pulls open the door and I reach in my hand. There's a whole stack of 'em there on pans with the heads still on. I pull up one of the heads and take a good look at it. `You son of a bitch,' I say to the cook. `You think I'm too stupid to know what I'm eating? You been feeding us Cape Buzzard for Thanksgiving supper.'"

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