The Last Shipmate
by James Dona
Chuck came on the ship in New Orleans. He was from my home town of Eastshore, Alabama, so he wasn't a stranger. "You have the top bunk," I said, and he had to agree to that. I had made several trips on The S.S. Hawaii Tradewind, so the lower bunk was mine by seniority.
After the ship sailed for Tampa, Chuck came to me and said, "I'd like to get in the poker game in the mess-hall, but I don't have a stake. If you loan me a couple of hundred, I'll pay you back as soon as I win a few pots."
That's a gambler for you. They always see the winnings and not the losses. Chuck had a reputation as a gambler, and I wasn't about to part with my hard-earned money. Later I walked down to the mess-hall, and sure enough there was a crowd around the game. The play was fast and heavy. Some had a big pay-off, and others were trying hard to take it from them. Chuck sat at the table, drinking a cup of coffee and watching the game with a practiced eye.
It took a while, but Chuck talked me into loaning him a couple of hundred so he could get in the game. I went to bed early, and Chuck was still down in the mess hall poker game when I went to sleep. Well, he'd pay me the money at his next payoff, but that was the last time I would ever loan money to a gambler. Suppose something happened to him, and he couldn't pay off. Some people just jumped ship when they were in too deep.
The next morning Chuck pulled out a roll of bills and peeled off the amount he had borrowed. "I'm going to like it on this ship," he said. "When it comes to playing poker, these guys can't find their fanny with both hands."
Well, we were shipmates for quite a while, and Chuck never asked to borrow any more money. Gambling did cause a little trouble on the ship though. Chuck continued to do well, until a fight broke out at the poker table one night. I heard about the fight and went down to see what was going on. There was Chuck, with a couple of other gamblers, trying to sort out the money that had been scattered by the fight. Chuck wasn't involved, but that fight put a damper on the game for a while.
Later, a new chief cook came on the ship. He was a poor cook but an even worse poker player. He was from Bombay, India, and insisted on cooking everything with curry powder and other heavy spices. This may have tasted good to an Indian, but the rest of the crew complained constantly. He was told many times that he shouldn't use so much spice, but he just increased the spices.
The situation was complicated by the fact that he was in debt to most of the poker players, including the Boson, a big Hawaiian who didn't mind the highly spiced food as much as he minded losing the money the cook owed him. The situation came to a head in Baltimore one rainy morning when the ship was about to sail for Honolulu. The engine room crew decided to go out to eat breakfast, leaving only the watch on board, so the sailing was delayed.
I was left on the ship because I was on watch until the ship sailed, so I saw what happened on board. The boson and the carpenter almost came to blows over whether to call for the deck department patrolman to help oust the chief cook. Someone must have called the Stewards Union, because their patrolman came down and brought a replacement for the chief cook. After the Indian was forced off the ship, the engine department crew came back and we sailed for Honolulu.
The new chief cook was much better, but he stayed out of the poker game, and the boson didn't get his gambling winnings that time. I don't know if he caught up with the Indian cook later or not.
Chuck and I went ashore in Hilo, and rented a car to drive up to the Halemaumau volcano. I had been there with friends a few trips earlier, and had looked down into that deep pit with glowing lava showing through cracks in the bottom. This time it was filled to the brim with black lava, and Chuck was not impressed.
We drove to the famous lava tube nearby. I had been through this natural tunnel before, and some of the men with me had brought flashlights, because they knew the tunnel wasn't lighted. This time I had forgotten to bring a flashlight. After walking a few feet from the entrance it was pitch dark. "I've been through here before," I said. "If you keep your head down I can just hold up my hands to feel the low ceiling and walk straight ahead. Hold onto my belt and I'll tell you when the ceiling is too low."
Chuck was game for the adventure, and we walked through the tunnel in the blackness. We came out in the beautiful fern-lined canyon at the other end, and climbed the steps to a trail leading back to the road. As we got in the car to drive back to Hilo, I thought, Chuck must really be brave to walk through that dark tunnel he had never seen before. He really is a gambler. But maybe we were both just stupid. Suppose there was an obstacle that wasn't there before, or the barrier that kept people from falling into a pit on one side had been removed.
That trip was the last time I sailed with Chuck, but we both continued going to sea. I heard Chuck made a trip to Australia, where he met a girl working in a bar and married her. Later I met his former watch-partner on another ship, who told me the girl Chuck married was just out for the money, and wasn't the kind of girl you would take home to your family. At the time I was mystified.
Later I learned more of the story. Chuck went home to Eastshore and started working as a maintenance mechanic at a nearby resort hotel. The Australian girl kept sending him letters, asking for money so she could come to the States. Chuck proceeded to file for a divorce, which was noted in the local paper, much to the chagrin of his mother.
Now I began to understand the strange game Chuck was playing. I knew he had a girlfriend in Eastshore, who was a good friend of his mother's. The girlfriend had been married and divorced, and felt it would upset Chuck's mother if Chuck married a divorced woman. Now that Chuck was also divorced, there could be no objection. Chuck married his girlfriend and they had a happy marriage that lasted for life. Chuck's gamble paid off, and he never went to sea again. They lived near my parents, so I always went to see them when I made a trip down there.
I also went ashore after graduating from college and getting married to a girl I met there. I was able to work ashore and never went to sea again. I had another friend and former shipmate named Ryan, who lived in San Francisco. After I finished college and started working around San Francisco Bay, I kept in touch with Ryan. Ryan and Chuck were the only shipmates I did still see; many others having died, gone to jail, or otherwise disappeared from the scene.
After Ryan died, Chuck was the only shipmate I still saw occasionally. He really was my last shipmate. I continued visiting my mother and always spent time with Chuck, who had by this time retired so he was always home. He was still busy, running a shrimp boat on Mobile bay and tending beehives he kept on a small patch of wooded land some distance from his home.
When Chuck died, we flew to Alabama for his funeral. He was more than my last shipmate. He was my older brother.