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Memoir

My Most Reckless, Daring Moment

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    My Most Reckless, Daring Moment

    By J.D.Cummins

    I was chief electrician on the American Mail Lines steamship, SS American, and we had just arrived in the Indian port of Bhavnagar, a small port on the west coast of India, near the desert called the "Ran of Kutch". There was nothing at the port itself, except the docks and a salt evaporating plant. The tides were so large here it was easy to flood the salt flats at high tide, so it had been a center of salt production for hundreds of years.

    There were enormous sand dunes in the distance, and I was surprised to see a camel train crossing the dunes, just like I had seen in the desert movies. The camels were the large two-humped Bactrian camel of Asia, not the smaller single-humped Dromedaries seen in Egypt. They were still used to carry salt from here to other parts of India; crossing the desert as they must have done for centuries.

    The longshoremen came aboard and started working in the hot sun, but soon they were building shelters from cardboard and coarse twine, scrounged up from around the ship, or from the dock. The shelters were flimsy, but gave effective shade to the men who were operating the winches. It was my cargo watch, so I observed the operations until it was clear everything was running smoothly, then retired to the cool mess room to drink coffee.

    When it was time for lunch the longshoremen stopped work for an hour, but then one of the longshoremen came to me and told me there was a problem with the winches at number six hatch. I went to look, and the control handles for the aft end of that hatch were missing. These handles were made of solid brass, and cylindrical knobs on the ends of the handles were usually polished to a beautiful luster by the hands of the longshoremen. I had heard of the destruction of property by people of primitive cultures, who prized copper or brass for working into ornaments, and I supposed that is what had happened here.

    I went below to the shop, and found two grungy-looking handles that I could use. There were no more spares after these two were used, so I was concerned that other handles would also disappear, and I wouldn't be able to keep the winches running without control handles. I went back to number six hatch, and installed the two handles. There were many longshoremen sitting around the decks, eating their lunch, and they watched me work with apparent unconcern and disinterest.

    Something had to be done, and I was really angry at these people, who were causing me so much anxiety. I walked up to the winch controls at the forward end of number one hatch, took out his electrician's knife, and slashed the twine that held up the cardboard shelter. I then walked down the deck, slashing the twine at each control station, until I reached the aft end of number seven hatch, and all the longshoremen's shelters lay useless on the deck. Many of the longshoremen had seen me doing this but there was no apparent reaction.

    I went up onto the next deck, and stood watching the men coming back to work down on the maindeck. They placidly went to their stations and resumed work, paying no attention to the ruins of their shelters. One of the longshore lead men came up to me carrying the missing handles. "One of the men took the handles with him when he went to lunch. He was afraid someone would take them while he was away."

    I graciously accepted the handles, thanked the man, and carried the shiny handles back to the shop, where I had no further use for them in that port.