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My Last Shipmate

My Last Shipmate

by Jim Cummins

Chuck came on the ship in New Orleans that trip.
No stranger was he, so I greeted him with a grip.
I had seen him around the union hall,
and he was always ready to have a ball.
"You have the top bunk," I said, and he readily agreed.
He knew the lower bunk was mine, by seniority indeed.

After the ship sailed for Tampa, Chuck came to me and said,
"Loan me a couple hundred, and I'll pay it back when I'm ahead.
There's a game in the mess-hall, and if I only had a stake,
I'll know just when to call, and that game I'll surely break.
I'll pay you back as soon as I win a few pots," he declared.
But I had no faith in gamblers, so I just sat and stared.

That's a gambler for you. They only remember their wins.
Remind them of their losses, and see their sickly grins.
I knew Chuck was a gambler, and always needed money.
I was saving my hard-earned cash for a pretty honey.

Down at the mess-hall, sure enough there was a crowd.
The play was fast and heavy. The music it was loud.
Some were there with a big pay-off to bet,
others hungry their shipmates cash to get.
Chuck sat watching the game with a practiced eye,
glumly drinking coffee, wishing for a stake to buy.

It took a while, but Chuck finally talked me into loaning
him a couple of hundred, but not without a lot of groaning.
I went to bed early, while Chuck was still down in the mess below.
He in the game and I couldn't sleep. Worried about money you know.

Even though he'd pay back the money at his next payoff, for sure.
For me, loaning money to a gambler was too painful to endure.
Suppose something happened to him, his promise he couldn't keep.
Some people were known to jump ship when they were in too deep.

Then the very next morning Chuck pulled out a roll of bills,
peeled off the amount he had borrowed. It sure cured my ills.
"I'm going to like it on this ship," he said.
"These guys play poker, but not with their head.
All it takes is to make them mad,
then their judgment is very bad."

Well, we were shipmates for quite a while,
and Chuck kept winning…he made some pile.
Chuck continued to do well…he was rolling in dough.
Gambling caused a little trouble, on the ship though.

Soon a fight broke out at the poker table one night.
Chuck wasn't involved, but may have caused that fight.
The fight put a damper on the game for a while.
But Chuck didn't care, he had made his pile.

Later, a new chief cook came on the ship, to our sorrow.
He was a poor cook, but at poker he soon had to borrow.
He was from Bombay, and cooked everything with spices and curry
This may have tasted good to an Indian, but the crew was in a fury.
He was asked many times not to use so much spice.
Few in the crew could eat his hot curry and rice.

The crew tried to get him off the ship for good reason.
His cooking was so bad with his excessive curry season.
The situation was complicated by the fact that he owed
to some of the poker players, including the Bosn, a load.
That big Hawaiian would rather suffer the terrible food
than to see the money the cook owed him be gone for good.

The situation finally came to a head in Baltimore one rainy morning,
when the ship was about to sail for Honolulu with an hour's warning.
The engine room crew went ashore…to eat breakfast they declared.
Leaving only the watch on board, so the sailing was not prepared.
The bosn and the carpenter almost came to blows,
over whether to insist that the chief cook goes.

A patrolman for the Stewards Union came down and brought a new cook,
told the old chief cook to give up the job or he would lose his book.
All the arguments and screaming of the old chief cook were to no avail.
The happy engine department crew came back to the ship so it could sail.
The new chief cook used no curry, but maybe a little thyme,
so the bosn didn't get his gambling winnings, at that time.

Chuck and I went ashore in Hilo, and drove to Halemaumau.
The volcano was quiet, not any sign that it would start a row.
I had been there before and seen that deep fiery pit all aglow,
and was surprised to find it filled with lava, the fire now low.

We then drove to the famous lava tube nearby.
We entered this dark tunnel under a blue sky.
No light in the tunnel, it was totally dark.
No electricity to spoil this primeval park.
I had been through this natural tunnel on an earlier trip,
but we had had flashlights at that time so we didn't trip.

I had forgotten to bring a flashlight, this was only a lark.
After walking a few feet from the entrance it was pitch dark.
Chuck hesitated. "But I've been through here before," I said.
"While some places the ceiling is low, you may hit your head.
The floor is fairly even and the path fairly straight,
I'd like a flashlight, but for that it's now too late.
I can just hold up my hands to feel the low ceiling.
Walk straight ahead, it's as easy as poker dealing.

Hold onto my belt and I'll lead you through.
Walk through the tunnel we might as well do."
Chuck was game for the adventure, I told when to bend.
We came out in the beautiful canyon at the other end.

As we got in the car to drive back to Hilo, I thought,
"Chuck must really be brave, my stupid idea he bought.
to walk through that dark tunnel he had never seen.
He really is a gambler. Of brave men he's the Dean.
We really were just stupid. We might have stumbled
over some obstacle, at that thought I was humbled."

That was the last trip that I sailed with Chuck.
Having him for a shipmate was a stroke of luck.
I continued going to sea, some years after that,
but Chuck would soon hang up his seaman's hat.
After a few more trips, then good-bye to his peers.
He married a girl he had known for many years.

He gave up the sea and worked ashore,
because going to sea had become such a bore.
He lived near my parents, so I saw him and his wife
when I visited them, as long as they still had life.
Chuck was the only shipmate I still would see.
Some years after Chuck did, I also left the sea.

Chuck really was my very last shipmate.
Of all my shipmates he was first rate.
Most were soon gone, to that other shore.
Those others who survived were just a bore.

I continued visiting my mother, and always spent time with Chuck.
By this time he was retired so he was always at home…what luck.
He still kept busy, running a shrimp boat on Mobile bay,
and tending the honeybees he kept on a small field of hay.

When Chuck died, we flew home for that final good-bye.
His family never called him Chuck, and neither did I.
That name hung on him by one of his shipmates.
Some seamen go by nicknames, others by rates.
To us he was Charles Junior, or Charlie to his mother.
He was more than a shipmate…he was my older brother.