Chapel of Optimal Life

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nonFICTION: Barnacles and Bedlam, Part 20

Fo'c'sle society note: Citizens of Beverly Hills side of the fo'c'sle are up in arms at the invasion by Pete Watson, our new baker, of their exclusive district.

A citizens' committee headed by Jim Cool has hastily been organized, but to no avail.

When asked for a statement, Watson lay back in his dirty sheets and snarled, "Them bums has got a lot of noive just cause I don't bleed blue. Anyhow, I pay me rent and dats vot counts."

The Citizens Purity League of the Beverly Hills side of the fo'c'sle are nonplussed and plan early action. Cook says, "We'll snub him, that's what we'll do." Cook says, "We'll snub him, that's what we'll do."

From the Hawse Pipe Herald, unofficial journal of the S. S. W. R. Chamberlain, Jr.

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.

Limon Bay, where I began my evening vigil, was under an absolute blackout, three enemy submarines having previously surfaced and shelled the cities.

After eight days in the repair yards of Balboa, it was our destiny to transit the Panama Isthmus via the Canal and brave the submarine-infested waters of the Caribbean, alone.

In spite of the threats by members of the black gang to quit ship, I reported to the skipper on the bridge: "All of our crew are accounted for except for the two men hospitalized at Balboa. Oh by the way, we picked up a mate for Ernie, and doc brought two screeching parakeets aboard. Now we can expect a duet two with the bagpipes."

A pilot boarded us in Balboa to take our vessel through the Panama Canal. Since the highest point across the Isthmus through which the fifty-mile canal meandered was eighty-five feet above sea level, locks were designed to raise and lower ships traveling between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. Our engines were shut down at the entrance to the first set of locks. Canal workers on both sides of the lock attached towing cables from locomotives, called mules, to our bow and stern.

Our ship was pulled into the first chamber, and the steel gates closed behind us. Water flowed into the chamber through openings in the bottom of the lock. In fifteen minutes, the rising water lifted us to the level above, which then opened its immense doors, and mules pulled the ship into that compartment. When the gates to the rear of the vessel closed, the process of lifting us to the next chamber was repeated.

While viewing the tropical paradise, memories of my prior journey through the Panama Canal in 1935 surfaced. I was then a deck passenger, in my early twenties, on a Grace Liner out of La Libertad. El Salvador, en route to Havana on my way back home to Cedarburg, Wisconsin. after searching out La Fuente de Sangre (The Fountain of Blood) during six months of adventure in the jungles of Central America with Irving Wallace and Walter Hardy.

Wallace had learned about this phenomenon of nature in his writing research. After plodding through the Honduran jungle during the dry season, we solved the mystery of the Fountain of Blood upon discovering a cave with pools of reddish water. Our guide informed us that during the rainy season a stream of blood-colored water flowed out of the cave, staining the river below for miles, As we entered the cavern, many bats fluttered about in confusion. Later, a laboratory analysis of the fluid we obtained from the cave revealed the presence of manganese, iron, and bat waste matter, kept in colloidal suspension. We had hoped for a much more dramatic explanation.

But now, my Chamberlain adventure had scarcely begun.

Leaving the Miraflores Locks, we entered Miraflores Lake, fifty-four feet above sea level. The Pedro Miguel Locks lifted our ship to eighty-five feet above sea level, and then we sailed under our own power through the narrow Gaillard Cut and into Gatun Lake. At the Gatun Locks, our ship descended eighty-five feet to the Caribbean Sea, and by nightfall we anchored in l.imon Bay, which served the cities of Cristobal and Colon.

My job as purser kept me busy while in port, but at sea my time was my own--that is, until the skipper appointed Carlyle and me blackout wardens. This duty required us to make periodic checkups from dusk to dawn, enforcing the "No Smoking" on deck rule, keeping the doors of the cabins set on blackout switches, and trying to ensure that no light showed on the vessel.

Alternating with Carlyle, I stood watch the first night from 8 PM. to 1 AM. and the next night from 1 AM. to 6 AM.

Limon Bay, where I began my evening vigil, was under an absolute blackout, three enemy submarines having previously surfaced and shelled the cities.

About midnight while gazing at silhouettes of the Colon buildings framed against a starry sky, I heard footsteps, then a rasping voice, "Hey Paul, why are you prowling the deck this time of night?"

Recognizing that it was the chief engineer, I turned around and replied, "The Old Man put me on blackout watch, Chief."

"Blackout watch? Jumping Jehoshaphat, what they really need is some son of a bitch who can keep our smokestacks from shooting sparks at night and belching smoke in the day time."

"I thought they fixed that at Balboa."

"Balboa, ha! All those bums did was look at our forepeak tank and say it was okay. Then they fiddled around a little with our condenser."

"Didn't they repair that?"

"Heck no. Our main condenser is leaking as bad as ever."

by Paul B. Behm
Part 20
Chapter 3

Beginning of a Feud

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