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nonFICTION: Barnacles and Bedlam, Part 36

I was on my way to the radio shack in search of the misplaced book when one of the crew grabbed me by the arm.

"Hey, Purse," he said. "What about getting me a carton of cigarettes out of the slop chest?"

"I'm in a rush." I exclaimed, trying to break away.

"I'm looking for something for the skipper and he's in a huff."

"It'll only take a minute." was his pleading response. "And I'm desperate."

I decided to humor him and opened the door to the slop chest. But before I could get away, five of the men blocked the entrance, all wanting cigarettes.

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.

The wildcat, spotted like a leopard and no larger than an alley cat, was a hopeful contender for the honor of disposing of the parakeets.
I knew that if I served them all, the captain would blow his stack, so I slammed the door, mumbling, "Gotta do an errand for the skipper."

My explanation did not satisfy Tom Moyer. Having spent the previous night in the Belem jail, he was disgruntled.

"Getting a big head around here!" he barked. "Can't you give us a civil answer?" .

His right fist connected with my jaw. I retaliated with a feeble right to his chest and was thankful when the gang restrained him.

I quickly smoothed my hair, retrieved my cap, and hurried to the captain's quarters. He had located the missing book on the bridge.

The doctor's two parakeets continued to chatter incessantly from their cage outside the sick bay. In Belem, four more passengers joined our menagerie--three monkeys and an Amazonian wildcat.

The wildcat, spotted like a leopard and no larger than an alley cat, was a hopeful contender for the honor of disposing of the parakeets. It was a gift from John, our Belem agent. Caught in the jungle as a kitten, it had been tamed, became a family pet, and was very protective of John's children.

However, it had also acquired a reputation as a hunter in his neighborhood. Every week or so it disappeared for a short time. Following its return, a neighbor would present a bill of indemnity for a chicken, or a turkey, or a goose. When the captain heard John's story, he agreed to take the cat off his hands.

Carlyle enthused, "Just maybe the parakeets have had their day."

Carlyle appropriately named the monkey he had acquired ashore "Flanagan" in memory of the man who had expedited our vessel in San Diego. From then on any complainers aboard the ship--about the food, the contract, no overtime pay on Sundays, the miserly ten-dollar pay advance at each port of call, the condition of the ship--were told, "See Flanagan." Whereupon Flanagan just shook his head, rolled his eyes, and looked on with an all knowing expression.

Ever since boarding, Flanagan invited trouble. Frequently he sneaked into my cabin while I dozed and scampered off with some of my desk supplies. At other times I caught him with my sun glasses, poker chips, pictures, papers, and even a mirror.

After chewing up two of Jaeger's pipes and scattering papers over his cabin, the skipper decreed that Flanagan must be kept on a tether.

As we sailed south of Belem, the weather became colder,and Carlyle, feeling sorry for Flanagan, sewed a coat for him.

Then there was Ugly, a monkey with long spiderlike arms, a pot belly, and a long prehensile tail. He had the disposition of a saint. Nothing offended him. When someone scolded Ugly, he scampered off to the nearest seaman and begged for sympathy. He was a homely specimen and constantly scratched himself. He loved to cuddle in the arms of anyone who picked him up, but it soon became obvious that his weak bladder could make quite a mess.

Consuelo never got over losing Ernie at St. Lucia, and he now became very fond of Ugly. When he took the trouble to clean Ugly's fur and brush him, Ugly's eyes lit up as he caressed Consuelo's arms.

The third monkey, a wild marmoset that looked like a rat, remained in hiding most of the time.

When I reported to the captain that four of the crew were missing, he responded, "We'll sail without 'em." But just as the pilot stepped aboard, Cahill, Wilson, Foreman and Hughes appeared on the dock and dashed on deck over the rising gangplank.

While the pilot guided the Chamberlain past the sandbars down the Para River en route to the Atlantic, the captain asked me to write a letter to John. He had left his spare glasses somewhere in Belem and wanted our agent to try to locate them, perhaps by contacting the taxicab company, or the night club, or, to my surprise, a certain brothel. If found, he was to mail them to Massawa. He and John had gone out on the town, so John could retrace their steps. Apparently, the captain had followed his wife's advice: if he desired female companionship, he should pay for it instead of getting emotionally involved. I scrambled to get the letter ready for the pilot before he left the ship.

The military authorities in Panama had requested that the Chamberlain refuel at Recife, on the bulge of Brazil, and then sail on the long journey across the South Atlantic to Cape Town in South Africa. But the skipper, upon calculating the distance from Recife to Cape Town and taking into consideration the ocean current, the prevailing winds, the fuel consumption rate, and our fuel capacity, determined that we would run out of fuel oil long before our arrival there.

Our leaking forepeak fuel tank was causing serious problems, so the Captain decided to proceed to Rio de Janeiro to refuel and for repairs. He had performed an amazing job at each port of call to expedite the ship on its way despite all the obstacles imposed by the shore authorities. The sea route from Rio de Janeiro to Cape Town was much shorter than from Recife; the prevailing winds were favorable; and there would be adequate fuel for the Chamberlain's long journey, its maiden voyage into a vast ocean--a far cry from its coastal lumber hauling days.

When Hansen received his sailing orders, the naval attache asked him whether he wanted a naval escort out of Belem.

He responded, "We've come alone this far. We'll make it the rest of the way, too."

I hoped he was right!

by Paul B. Behm
Part 36

Chapter 11
Belem Fever
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