Panama Ch. 01: The First Stopbymikey2much©
Welcome to Panama, a place where a young man's dreams are about to come true and a whore's hopes are about to be restored.
The oily slick surface of the water stretched to a point where it became low lying clouds far out beyond the ship, it's reflection of the gray overcast sky, smooth and tranquil. As the boy walked aft, that quite and peaceful feeling changed, the sounds of the engines became a constant background to the sound of squawking gulls and the strong breeze that hit him as he passed the corner of the aft locker. In the pale morning light he could see the lights of ships far into the haze of the horizon. Like stars at twilight, they twinkled, filling the bay with their green, red and white lights. The boy turned his eyes to the southeast where there was a necklace-like string of lights that formed the coast, which lay about three or four miles south of their anchorage. They had arrived late last night and this was the first sight of their surroundings for the boy.
This was but one of the many first the boy had experienced since the ship had left New Orleans those five long days ago. It was his first time away from home, the first time out of his home state of Mississippi, and now his first foreign land. Scotty stopped to take it all in. The panoramic view of the flat still surface of the bay reflecting, the sky without benefit of waves to break the illusion so that both sky and water were the same color. The horizon was lost in a shimmering haze so you couldn't tell where the sky stopped and the sea began. A couple of dozen squawking gulls seemed to hover or swoop around the ships fantail. Drawn by the stench of the garbage that was filling two of the six fifty-five gallon drums that were lashed to the ships railing.
The ship was The Cosmos Trader, it was an old passenger ship converted to serve out its last years as a freighter. She stood tall above the water, her once beautiful red paint now a dull and faded patchwork of primer and rust spots. Instead of carrying the people with important business or young newlyweds with important pleasure to conduct, she was burdened with thirty thousand gallons of dry cleaning fluid and other assorted cargo headed to the hard fighting troops in Vietnam. It was the first day of September, nineteen hundred and sixty eight, the fifth day of the journey, and, of Scotty Jackson's maritime career.
As the boy of eighteen stood looking at the world, that he had been lucky enough to be able to enter, he thought about his friends back home. The ones that were so inclined would be getting ready to head to college, the others would be working in cafes or running chain saws cutting pulpwood for the paper mill. Scotty was so thankful that he was here with the wild wind from strange lands blowing on him, the smell of adventure in the air. He was on the first part of a trip that would take him halfway around the world. He found himself helpless to stop a big smile from spreading across his face as he thought of what lay ahead for him. He loved being part of the scene, part of the system of trade that sent these ships sailing from all over the world, to come to this stopping place to sway at their anchors waiting for their turn to go through the Panama Canal.
The boy's bright blue eyes peered out from under his 'Beatle' haircut as he tried to count the flags flying from the other ships. After reaching twenty he gave it up. The ships were scattered across several miles of the large bay. Scotty wondered if it was to give them more room to maneuver if bad weather should hit them. This was smack in the middle of hurricane season and those monster storms could blow in on a group of ships like this and really raise hell. It represented quite a gamble for the owners of those ships, and their insurers. They were betting that they could sit here waiting for their turn to go through and not get caught by one of the killer storms that so frequently threatened these waters.
Sometimes, the boatswain had told him, it might take several days before your turn rolled around. That was not the case for them this trip; they were carrying war materials, they would be given precedence. The Pilot would be brought onboard tomorrow and the ship would enter the canal at or about ten thirty am. Since they had to wait over night the boatswain had asked for and gotten permission from the captain to take a boat ashore for the men who had off time. Scotty so wanted to be one of those men.
"It's really nice when you have one of those moments ain't it." The voice startled the boy just as the hand settled onto his shoulder.
He turned to see Goat, an old ABS (able bodied seaman) that Scotty had come to think of as a friend. Nobody short of the captain knew his real name. Everybody just called him goat and that seemed to be OK with him. He was a cheerful old guy late fifties or early sixties with a warm smile. His eyes held a fire, there was a sureness in his manner, something that made you want to listen when he spoke. Scotty had already heard so many tales of how different shipmates in different ports had found goat drunk and helped him back to the ship, but when he was onboard he did his job and did it well.
The old sailor continued, "Every now and again you will get to enjoy a sight or a feeling that stays with you for the rest of your life. It looked to me like you was having one of those moments, and I hated to break it up, but Cookie is looking for you and you don't want to start off the day getting on his bad side."
Scotty knew that was right, he didn't want the second cook pissed, today of all days. It was up to the second cook to decide if he could go ashore or not this afternoon with the deck crew.
"Thanks, Goat and you're right, I was having one of those moments. But it was about over anyway. See you later."
The young man took up his heavy trash can and walked to the fantail of the ship, ignoring the cries of the gulls he dumped the trash into one of the large drums beyond the rail and hurried back to the galley before the second cook got pissed.
The bright sunlight outside gave way to the shadowy cool darkness of the passageway where he met Gus the ships steward, the only black man aboard. Scotty had been surprised to see a black man since he was shipping out in the Seafarer's International Union or the S.I.U. There was another union called the National Maritime Union or M.N.U. there was a running joke that it really stood for Niggers, Mexicans and Undesirables. But Gus seemed to fit in and was well liked by everyone it seemed.
"Mr. Jackson, Cookie, I mean the second cook is looking for you." Gus spoke with a very refined accent, not like any Negro Scotty had ever heard.
"Thanks, Gus. And Gus from now on just call me Scotty, OK?" Scotty was rewarded by Gus's face splitting into a huge white smile that made the dark mans eyes shine as white as his teeth in the semi darkness of the passageway.
"You had best hurry, Scotty, Cookie is in one of his moods". His hand found Scotty's shoulder as he passed, like a pat, and he was off to his washing machines and driers, and all the dirty linens and towels that the ship produced. Scotty watched him for a moment as he walked away down the narrow hall, wondering what a story that man's life must be.
Scotty entered the officer's dinning room crossing through the room with it's dark wood paneled walls with the fine leather covered armchairs and dark wooden table. It all looked like it was from another time, almost like what he had pictured a gentleman's club might be like in the Sherlock Holmes books he had read. The boy hurried through the ritzy room and entered the kitchen, or rather the galley, which he passed through to emerge into the crews dinning room, a much larger room with several stainless steel tables and metal benches bolted to the floor. That's where he found the second cook, rushing around with his hands in the air like he was a doctor about to operate on somebody.
"Where have you been? I have been waiting for you so long that I finally left and went to play with my girl's sweet pussy."
There was nothing about the second cook that would make you think that he was a sailor. He was a short fat balding man who still sported a ring of snow-white hair that wrapped around his head like those leaves that the roman emperors wore. His skin was as pale as his hair, everything about the man looked soft and white.
"You don't believe me do you? You don't believe that I got girl on board this ship for me to fuck when I please...you don't believe me do you?" The little man had approached very close to Scotty who was confused about what the man was saying. The boy wasn't used to the German accent and had trouble understanding the words the man was using.
Suddenly the cook shoved his hands under the boy's nose and exclaimed.
"Smell that, does that not stink like pussy? See, I tell you. I fuck this girl when I want."
Scotty was sure that the man's hands stunk because of something in the kitchen, hell he had only been gone for a few minutes. But he did not want to spoil the joke, so he played along.
"That sure smells like pussy OK." The boy agreed.
"That the pussy, you be right there, that be the pussy that I am going to let you play with now." The clean looking little man in his white coat was grinning, pleased with his joke, as he took out a big stainless steel bowl which was covered with a towel, he then reached back into the fridge and came out with a large tube of liverwurst, he turned to the boy.
"I want that you should make sandwiches for the crew, maybe two dozen of the sandwiches. I want that they should be made with sliced thin onion, liverwurst, and this Limburger cheese that stinks like pussy."
Cookie set down the meat and cheese and pointed to a bag of onions on the floor.
"Do sandwiches first then do the floor in the officers dinning room. When you are done then you are off until ten thirty. At ten thirty you be here, you be ready to work."
The boy nodded his head to show that he had heard, but his mind was racing. Should he ask now or wait until after the lunch clean up? He decided to go for it now.
"How long do I need to stay on board after lunch?" Scotty asked.
Cookie had turned his head to face the boy as he spoke, but said nothing.
Scotty hurriedly rushed on. "The boatswain said that I could ride in on the shore boat with the off duty men if it is OK with you." The boy waited, his spirits sinking with each passing second.
After a long period of disapproving silence, the second cook turned so that he stood squared off in front of the boy. His arms reached out to place his hands on each of Scotty's shoulders; his eyes seemed to be trying to reach inside of the boy as if to talk to his heart not his face.
"Scotty, you want that your dick should stink and rot and fall off?" The cook tightened his grip as he continued, "every sickness in the world is here. These woman that you think are so beautiful they are poison. They are like snake that look very pretty but kill you with a bite."
Scotty braced himself for a long story. He had heard the cook tell of his last visit here while he was serving supper the first night out of New Orleans, as well as every night since then. That first night he had been talking to the boatswain, a big guy from Alabama who was like the foreman of the deck crew. He was also like a sergeant in the army, a go-between for the officers and the crew.
Scotty gathered from snatches of the conversations that he overheard during this last week that the little guy had seen a woman who was so perfect, so much what he wanted a woman to be, that he had fallen for her. Since he had to leave with the ship the next day, he expressed his love by giving her everything that he had in his pockets as he left. She in return had given him something too, but he didn't find out until he went to the doc with the burning piss of a case of the clap three days later. That had all happened some three months ago and he was still fretting over it.
In the end both men had agreed that women were so much of a mystery that they would never understand them, so they could never trust them. Neither seemed to think it had anything to do with the sort of women they were seeking out in the first place.
His attention was jerked back to the second cook by fingers digging into his shoulders as the man finished his tale.
"She was so nice to look at, her long hair down to her ass, her body so perfect, like God wanted woman to be." The sad little guy was still hurting from the betrayal of his vision of perfection; he searched for the right words but couldn't find them. Finally in a gesture of futility, he dropped his hands and turned and walked away. "You get lunch cleaned up and then you do what you want. I see you tomorrow here, six hundred hours."
He walked out of the room his permission tossed behind him like something that he didn't want anymore.
Herr Ernst Obst ex officer of the German navy headed down the passageway to his cabin, to have a mid morning snort and to ponder the follies of young men. He had the bottle of Schnapps in his hand before the door snapped shut behind him. Herr Obst poured a generous inch and a half of the amber colored liquid into the squat little water glass and tossed it back in a single brisk movement. As he let the heat of that first drink mellow in his system he poured a second, which he took to his bunk. He had been wandering the world for the last twenty-two years looking for a home, but it seemed he hadn't felt lost until the last few months. He pondered what that might mean as he sipped his drink He lay back and closed his eyes, her long black shiny hair was all that he saw. He kept his eyes closed as he sipped and remembered, eyes closed and he was smiling.
Scotty was so glad to hear the words that he paid the speaker little mind as the little German guy marched off down the passageway. Instead he busied himself with the peeling and slicing of a dozen smallish onions, he mind churning with the details he had to deal with before he could go ashore. It was quite a list, he had to go up to the captain's cabin and get a draw, an advance on his pay when they finished the trip. Normally the Captain will have what is called 'A Captains Draw' before every port of call. This serves two purposes, one it lets the seaman enjoy each port with cash in his pocket. Two, it ensures that most of the men will be broke by the time they get back home, giving them an extra incentive to sign back on for another trip.
Finished with the onions he had almost absent-mindedly laid out the slices of bread on the clean tabletop and started to assemble the sandwiches. A lighting quick hand from behind him immediately scooped up the first one completed. He turned to find Frenchy, laughing with his face wrapped around what was left of the sandwich.
Frenchy, had been an ABS but this trip he had been promoted to 'Dayman', which was like a maintenance man. When he wasn't busy fixing or inspecting he taught the OS's or Ordinary Seaman, things like how to splice wire rope and tie knots. He was a notch above everyone else in the deck department with the exception of the boatswain, but you would never know that from the way he acted. Though he was pushing fifty he was as full of energy as any teenager. Having torn the sandwich in half and swallowed the first half in a single gulp he screwed up his face and tried to sound like the Captain as he said. "If you wanted to make a draw you best get you ass up there right damn now." Without waiting to be asked, Frenchy, took the knife from Scotty's hand and told him to get the fuck out of there and get his money. As the boy darted out the door and up the stairs, Frenchy ate another sandwich and got a cup of coffee.
Ten minutes later Scotty came down those same stairs with more money then he had ever held in his hand before, two hundred dollars, it was a small fortune. The Captain had insisted that he take that much instead of the fifty he had asked for. The older man had smiled as he told Scotty that if he didn't need it tonight that he would put it back in the ship's safe tomorrow, but if he did need it he would have it. Grown men worked for sixty-five dollars a week in Mississippi, and here he was with two hundred to spend in one night if he so chose. It gave him a sense of power that felt uneasy on him, almost like it might be some sort of test, to see if he was grown up enough to handle it wisely.
The lunch rush never happened. It seemed that everybody was going ashore and the only ones left on board was content to eat the cold cuts and sandwiches. The boatswain being a take-charge sort of guy saw his opportunity and had the deck hands lower the gangplank and lower the shore boat into the water. Since this was as close to a lifeboat drill as they would ever have, the boatswain talked everybody through what was going on and how they should behave if they ever had to put out the lifeboats for real.
Scotty thought that he should find the second cook and ask if he could leave early. Goat and Frenchy both thought that was a dumb thing to do when he could just drop down into the boat and be gone. Any disagreements that might come up would be after the trip to shore so there fore meaningless. After all the cook had said that he could go after clean up. Since they never messed up the galley for lunch there was no clean up.
With both of his older and more knowledgeable friends to advise him, Scotty agreed to leave with the deck crew. He climbed down into the boat like a man might leave the scene of a crime. One eye was always peeled for the cook who he thought might come running out at any minute to stop his escape.
The boy sat in the back of the boat, away from the spray that blew in over the front, as the small boat seemed to slice through the water on it's way to the town of Punta Toro. He was trying to conceal himself from the cook's eyes until after they were out of shouting distance. Suddenly the boat started to buck and bounce spraying water over everybody as it left the leeside of the ship and met the ocean waves head on.
The bay had been smooth as glass this morning when he had first seen it but now it had become choppy with rolling waves that lifted the boat high enough that you could see ships in the distance, only to drop it down into a deep trough where water ran on both sides higher then a mans head above the boat. The stormy waters tossing the large open boat about as if it were a toy even though it was a beautiful sunny day.
The other sailors didn't seem to pay any mind to the boat as it slid off one wave and then rose to meet yet another but somehow always getting closer to the dock which now was within sight. Instead they were kept busy remembering their last trip into this famous port. All the sailors, to a man, thought this was the best port for a one-night shore leave this side of Saigon. Everybody on board seemed to have a favorite bar or club where the girls were the best.
While the stories were exciting and the men told them with such flair, the trip in the little boat through those towering swells kept stealing the boy's attention. To Scotty, who before this trip had never rode in any boats over open water, it was a desperate situation but since nobody else was worried about it, he tried to ignore his own feelings of approaching disaster and act as unconcerned as the rest of the men.
In an effort to distract his mind from his uneasy stomach and the rolling waves ahead Scotty turned back to look behind them at the bay with all its ships. When the boat would top a wave he could see maybe a dozen ships but knew that there were more hidden in the haze at the horizon. The thought crossed his mind that the sailors were like a herd of sheep being brought to the place where they would be shorn. The men in the boat were the mother lode for the bars and bordellos that lined the streets of Punta Toro. The whores were the instruments used to separate the sailor from his money. It was a system that he could hardly wait to become a part of.