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nonFICTION: Barnacles and Bedlam, Part 46

The Captain and I were reviewing some reports in his cabin when a middle-aged man entered, blind in one eye, dressed in shorts and shoes, his nude, suntanned, spindly legs, and stocky upper body still oozing with perspiration. He shivered in the sudden exposure to our air-conditioning system.

Hansen got up from his desk, beaming, his eyes wide open. "Welcome to Massawa, Tom." Bill's broad smile emphasized the wrinkles under his eyes.

He grabbed the outstretched hand of the visitor.

"Bill," he said in an animated voice. "Say, it's good to see you. Sit down. And Bill, this is my purser."

What you've missed: During World War II, I, Paul, whose limited business experience is strictly land-based, sign on as third officer of a salvage vessel, manned by a similarly motley crew, sent to North Africa, on a priority mission, to clear a port of vessels sunk by the retreating Italian navy.

If Ellsberg was replaced, and Reed and Hansen resigned, what would become of me?

Then turning to me, he explained, "Paul, you're looking at one of the great deep-sea divers of our time, Bill Reed. He's Captain Ellsberg's right-hand man. Say, how are things shaping up, Bill?"

I'm ready to resign." Reed wiped his brow. "Captain Ellsberg is in Cairo to consult with General Maxwell. You know he's the American commanding general of the Middle-East area, and that includes this salvage project. Yesterday, while he was away, the Johnson, Drake & Piper gang in Asmara issued a bulletin putting Brown in charge of our salvage operation, replacing Ellsberg. This is the second time they've done this."

Captain Edison Brown had been processed in the San Diego office of JD&:P, and then, together with a crew, had been flown to Port Arthur, Texas. From there they sailed the Tug Intent, to Massawa, arriving two and a half months before us. Brown's crew had already salvaged two German freighters. He had more than twenty-five years of salvage experience and had also played the part of a skipper in the Hollywood productions of Mutiny on the Bounty and Captain Courageous.

Hansen exploded. "But I thought the army engineers put Ellsberg in charge."

"Well he's not under JD&P control, and I don't think they can fire him. He's got no cooperation from those blockheads in Asmara, and he had to fight to get money to pay the salvage crew. That took weeks. If Brown is in charge, I'm through."

"I won't take any orders from Brown, either," Hansen threatened, knocking the ashes out of his pipe. "I had my problems with him on West Coast salvage jobs:'

What a reception to Massawa! A feud between Ellsberg, a navy man, and Johnson, Drake and Piper, the civilian contractor. If Ellsberg was replaced, and Reed and Hansen resigned, what would become of me? I did have a year's contract and decided to hold JD&P to its terms, whatever decisions others might make.

This meeting was interrupted by a perspiring young man in long trousers and a white shirt open at the neck. He was obviously out of place in the ship environment.

"Captain Hansen?" he inquired, peering at the skipper. "I've got a letter for you from Mister Patterson in Asmara." He handed it to the captain and promptly left.

Upon reading it, Hansen turned to Reed. "Looks like JD&P's business manager wants me to come to Asmara tomorrow." Then he gave me an order to get all the crew's personnel records ready. As an afterthought, he added, "Better type up my resignation, too."

Bracing myself for the blast of heat, I pushed open the cabin door and stepped onto the oven-hot deck, leaving Tom Hansen and Bill Reed to reminisce about old times. Grinding sounds of winches filled the air as booms lifted cases of foodstuffs out of the bowels of our ship.

Back in my quarters, I took several salt tablets and then composed the captain's resignation, giving as the reason that he had come to Massawa with the understanding he would be working for Captain Ellsberg.

I started to cover up my typewriter when the door opened. In walked Chief Culpepper, exclaiming, "Say, Paul, I just heard that they fired Ellsberg. Well, I won't work for Brown. No way! Type up a resignation for me and get it ashore."

He stood over me as I typed his notice, then signed it and stomped out.

by Paul B. Behm
Part 46

Chapter 16
Massawa Intrigue
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