“Wait here,” said Wesley, shuffling off toward the partitioned office across the broad plank floor. “I'll be right back.” Everhart sat on the suitcase, peering.
“Hey Martin!” howled a greeting voice from the folding chairs. “Martin you old crum!” A seaman was running across the hall toward Wesley, whooping with delight in his discovery. The echoing cries failed to disturb the peace of the other seamen, though, indeed; they glanced briefly and curiously toward the noisy reunion.
Wesley was astounded.
“Jesus!” he cried. “Nick Meade!”
Meade fairly collapsed into Wesley, almost knocking him over in his zeal to come to grips in a playful, bearish embrace; they pounded each other enthusiastically, and at one point Meade went so far as to push Wesley's chin gently with his fist, calling him as he did so every conceivable name he could think of; Wesley, for his part, manifested his delight by punching his comrade squarely in the stomach and howling a vile epithet as he did so. They whooped it up raucously for at least a half a minute while Everhart grinned appreciatively from his suitcase.
Then Meade asked a question in a low tone, hand on Wesley's shoulder; the latter answered confidentially, to which Meade roared once more and began anew to pummel Wesley, who turned away, his thin frame shaking with soundless laughter. Presently, they made their way toward the office, exchanging news with the breathless rapidity of good friends who meet after a separation of years.
“Shipping out?” raced Meade.
“Let's see Harry about a double berth.”
“Make it three, I've got a mate with me.”
“Come on! The
's in port; she's taking on'most a full crew.”
“You old son of a bitch!” cried Meade, unable to control his joy at the chance meeting. “I haven't seen you since forty,” kicking Wesley in the pants, “when we got canned in Trinidad!”
“For startin' that riot!” remembered Wesley, kicking back playfully while Meade dodged aside. “You friggin' communist, don't start. Kickin' me again . . . I remember the time you got drunk aboard ship and went around kickin' everybody till that big Bosun1 pinned your ears back!”
They howled their way into the inner office where a sour faced Union man looked up blandly from his papers.
“Act like seamen, will you?” he growled.
“Hangover Harry,” informed Meade. “He uses up all the dues money to get drunk. Look at that face will you?”
“All right Meade,” admonished Harry. “What are you looking for, I'm busy . . .”
They made arrangements to be on hand and near the office door that afternoon when the official ship calls from the
would be posted, although Harry warned them those first come would be first served. “Two-thirty sharp,” he grunted. “If you're not here, you don't get the jobs.”
Wesley introduced Meade to Everhart and they all went around the corner for a quick beer. Meade was a
talkative, intelligent young man in his late twenties who stroked an exquisite brown moustache with voluptuous afterthought as he rambled on, a faint twinkle in the bland blue eyes, walking in a quickstepping glide that wove between pedestrians as though they were not there. On the way to the bar on Hanover Street, he shouted at least three insults to various passersby who amused his carefree fancy.
At the bar, he and Wesley reminisced noisily over their past experiences together, all of which Everhart drank in with polite interest. Some other seamen hailed them from a corner booth, so they all carried their beers over, and an uproar of reunion ensued. Wesley seemed to know them all.
But a half hour later, Wesley rose and told Meade to meet him in the Union Hall at two thirty; and with this, he and Everhart left the bar and turned their steps toward Atlantic Avenue.
“Now for your seaman's paper,” he said to Bill.
Atlantic Avenue was almost impossible to cross, so heavy was the rush of traffic, but once they had regained the other side and stood near a pier, Bill's breast pounded as he saw, docked not a hundred feet away, a great gray freighter, its slanting hull striped with rust, a thin stream of water arching from its scuppers, and the mighty bow standing high above the roof of the wharf shed.
“Is that it?” he cried.
“No, she's at Pier Six.”
They walked toward the Maritime Commission, the air heavy with the rotting stench of stockpiles, oily-waters, fish, and hemp. Dreary marine equipment stores faced the street, show windows cluttered with blue peacoats, dungarees, naval officers' uniforms, small compasses, knives, oilers' caps, seamen's wallets, and all manner of paraphernalia for the men of the sea.
The Maritime Commission occupied one floor of a large building that faced the harbor. While a pipe-smoking old man was busy preparing his papers, Everhart could see beyond the nearby wharves and railroad yards, a bilious stretch of sea spanning toward the narrows, where two lighthouses stood like gate posts to a dim Atlantic. A seagull swerved past the window.
An energetic little man fingerprinted him in the next room, cigarette in mouth almost suffocating him as he pressed Bill's inky fingers on the papers and on a duplicate.
“Now go down to the Post Office building,” panted the little man when he had finished, “and get your passport certificate. Then you'll be all set.”
Wesley was leaning against the wall smoking when Bill left the fingerprinting room with papers all intact.
“Passport certificate next I guess,” Bill told Wesley, nodding toward the room.
They went to the Post Office building on Milk Street where Bill filled out an application for his passport and was handed a certificate for his first foreign voyage; Wesley, who had borrowed five dollars from Nick Meade, paid Bill's fee.
“Now I'm finished I hope?” laughed Bill when they were back in the street.
“Next thing is to get our berths on the
. Am I correct?”
“Well,” smiled Bill, slapping his papers, “I'm in the merchant marine.”
At two-thirty that afternoon, Wesley, Bill, Nick Meade and seven other seamen landed jobs on the S.S. Westminster. They walked from the Union Hall down to Pier Six in high spirits, passing through the torturous weave of Boston's waterfront streets, crossing Atlantic Avenue and the Mystic river drawbridge, and finally coming to a halt along the Great Northern Avenue docks. Silently they gazed at the S.S. Westminster, looming on their left,
her monstrous gray mass squatting broadly in the slip, very much, to Everhart's astonished eyes, like an old bathtub.
“She's what we call a medium sized transport-cargo ship,” a seaman had told Everhart as they all marched down the huge shed toward the gang plank, waving greetings to the longshoremen who were busy hauling the cargo aboard, rolling oil barrels down the hold, swinging great loads of lumber below decks with the massive arm of a boom. “She does fifteen knots full steam, cruises at twelve. Not much speedâbut she can weather plenty.”
And when they had shown their job slips to the guard at the gang plank and begun to mount the sagging boards, Bill had felt a strange stirring in the pit of his gutsâhe was boarding a ship for the first time in his life! A ship, a great proud bark back from homeless seas and bound for others perhaps stranger and darker than any it had ever wandered to . . . and he was going along!
Bill was lying in his bunk, remembering these strange sensations he had felt in the afternoon. It was now evening.
From his position in an upper berth, he could see the dark wall of the dock shed through an open porthole. It was a hot breathless night. The focastle he had been assigned to was partitioned off from another by a plate of white painted, riveted steel, aft to port. Two brilliant light bulbs illuminated the small room from a steel overhead. There were two double berths, upper and lower, and a small sink; four lockers, two battered folding chairs, and a three-legged stool completed the furnishings of this bare steel chamber.
Bill glanced over at the other seaman who had been assigned to the same quarters. He was sleeping, his puckish young features calm in slumber. He couldn't be over eighteen years old, Bill reflected. Probably had been going to sea for years despite everything.
Bill pulled the job slip from his wallet and mulled over the writing: “William Everhart, ordinary seaman,
, deck crew mess boy.” Messboy! . . . William Everhart, A.B., M.A., assistant professor of English and American Literature at Columbia University . . . a mess boy! Surely, this would be a lesson in humility, he chuckled, even though he had never gone through life under the pretext that he was anything but humble, at least, a humble young pedant.
He lay back on the pillow and realized these were his first moments of solitary deliberation since making his rash
decision to get away from the thoughtless futility of his past life. It had been a good life, he ruminated, a life possessing at least a minimum of service and security. But he wasn't sorry he had made this decision; it would be a change, as he'd so often repeated to Wesley, a change regardless of everything. And the money was good in the merchant marine, the companies were not reluctant to reward the seamen for their labor and courage; money of that amount would certainly be welcomed at home, especially now with the old man's need for medical care. It would be a relief to pay for his operation and perhaps soften his rancor against a household that had certainly done him little justice. In his absorption for his work and the insistent demands of a highly paced social life, Bill admitted to himself, as he had often done, he had not proved an attentive son; there were such distances between a father and his son, a whole generation of differences in temperament, tastes, views, habits: yet the old man, sitting in that old chair with his pipe, listening to an ancestral radio while the new one boomed its sleek, modern power from the living room, was he not fundamentally the very meaning and core of Bill Everhart, the creator of all that Bill Everhart had been given to work with? And what right, Bill now demanded angrily, had his sister and brother-in-law to neglect him so spiritually? What if he were a lamenting old man?
Slowly, now, Everhart began to realize why life had seemed so senseless, so fraught with fully lack of real purpose in New York, in the haste and oration of his teaching daysâhe had never paused to take hold of anything, let alone the lonely heart of an old father, not even the idealisms with which he had begun life as a seventeen-year-old spokesman for the working class movement on Columbus Circle Saturday afternoons. All these he had lost, by virtue of a sensitivity too fragile for everyday disillusionment . . . his father's complaints, the jeers of the Red baiters and the living, breathing social apathy that supported their jeers in phlegmatic silence. A few shocks from the erratic fuse box of life, and Everhart had thrown up his hands and turned to a life of academic isolation. Yet, in the realms of this academic isolation, wasn't there sufficient indication that all things pass and turn to dust? What was that sonnet where Shakespeare spoke sonorously of time “rooting out the work of masonry?”1 Is a man to be timeless and patient, or is he to be a pawn of time? What did it avail a man to plant roots deep into a society by all means foolish and Protean?
Yet, Bill now admitted with reluctance, even Wesley Martin had set himself a purpose, and this purpose was the ideal of lifeâlife at seaâa Thoreau before the mast.
Conviction had lead Wesley to the sea; confusion had lead Everhart to the sea.
A confused intellectual, Everhart, the oldest weed in society; beyond that, an intelligent modern minus the social conscience of that class. Further, a son without a conscienceâa lover without a wife! A prophet without confidence, a teacher of men without wisdom, a sorry mess of man thereat!
Well, things would be different from now on . . . a change of life might give him the proper perspective. Surely, it had not been folly to take a vacation from his bookish, bearish life, as another side of his nature might deny! What wrong was there in treating his own life, within the bounds of moral conscience, as he chose and as he freely wished? Youth was still his, the world might yet open its portals as it had done that night at Carnegie Hall in 1927 when he first heard the opening bars of Brahms' first symphony! Yes! As it opened its doors for him so many times in his teens and closed them firmly, as though a stern and hostile master were its doorman, during his enraged twenties.
Now he was thirty-two years old and it suddenly occurred to him that he had been a fool, yes, even though a lovable fool, the notorious “short pants” with the erudite theories and the pasty pallor of a teacher of life . . . and
not a liver of life. Wasn't it Thomas Wolfe who had struck a brief spark in him at twenty-six and filled him with new love for life until it slowly dawned on him that Tom Wolfeâas his colleagues agreed in delighted unisonâwas a hopeless romanticist? What of it? What if triumph were Wolfe's only purpose? . . . if life was essentially a struggle, then why not struggle toward triumph, why not, in that case, achieve triumph! Wolfe had failed to add to whom triumph was liege . . . and that, problem though it was, could surely be solved, solved in the very spirit of his cry for triumph. Wolfe had sounded the old cry of a new world. Wars come, wars go! Elated Bill to himself, this cry is an insurgence against the forces of evil, which creeps in the shape of submission to evil, this cry is a denial of the not-good and a plea for the good. Would he, then, William Everhart plunge his whole being into a new world? Would he love? Would he labor? Would he, by God, fight?