Writing, whimsy and the world

Memories Part 5

Some more about crooks: In San Pedro I quit a ship. Let me explain my role in the Merchant Marines. It was not so much the love of the sea as it was a means to make some money, so I could go ashore again and have some fun. This seemed to be the general attitude of most sailors. Therefore it was fairly easy to get a ship out when needed, after going broke.

When I left the sea I had been on 32 sea going vessels, one barge and one tug boat. Meanwhile back in San Pedro I quit a ship. I proceeded to rent my room for two weeks, I bought two five dollar meal tickets. So I am all set for two weeks. I also sent $20 to mom.

A couple of days later I ran into two guys that left the ship when I did. They wanted to have a crap game. I loved to gamble in those days. So we went to my room. They suggested that we roll the dice on the bed on the blanket so it wouldn’t make a lot of noise bumping against the wall. They cleaned me out completely. This was more education for me. I learned later that on a blanket an expert controls the game. He can roll any number he likes at any time. At the time I just didn’t know.

Captain Quick: On one of my ships had a captain named Quick, a sort of screwball. He was always saying “Quick by name, Quick by nature”. He was always trying to sing. I remember a couple of his songs. They go like this;

Oh, she jumped in the bed
and she covered up her head
She swore I couldn’t find her
I knew damn well, she lied like hell
So I jumped right in behind her.

Another of the songs goes like this;

The father sang, the mother sang
the sister sang as well
The brother sang the whole shebang
Oh, Christ how they did yell

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This is one of my own favorite jokes:

A little mouse fell into the toilet bowl and later was telling his friend about the experience. He said “there I was swimming around. It was kinda nice. It wasn’t bad at all. When all of a sudden it got real dark. Thunder was roaring. The rain came down in torrents and so help I believe I would have drowned if someone hadn’t thrown me a log.”

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One more of my favorite stories, then I won’t bore you anymore:

This ole country boy was harelipped and therefore couldn’t talk very plain. He went squirrel hunting one day. He got a couple of squirrels and also a large chicken hawk and took it home also. The next day he went into town. While there he noticed a taxidermy shop. So he got the idea to have the hawk stuffed to keep it. With his speech impediment the conversation went like this:

Hunter: Do you thnuff birds?
Store Keeper: What did you say?
Hunter: Do you thnuff birds? (spoken a little louder)
Store Keeper: I can’t understand you.
The hunter was very angry now and he repeats the question.
Hunter: DO YOU THNUFF BIRDS?
Whereupon the store keeper says “Go on get out of here. I can’t understand a damn thing that your saying”.
The hunter leaves, but he is very upset and very mad, and it was after a rain. He spots a dead bird in the gutter. Now he has a bright idea. Going back to the mean store keeper, he holds the bird out and says, “Do you thnuff birds”.
Store Keeper: Oh! Now I understand you. Sure I stuff birds.
Hunter: Okay. Then thnuff this one up your damn ass.

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Another favorite of mine is the Chinese Factory Worker. It goes like this:

Everyday after work, this guy here in the U.S. would go to a nearby tavern across the street with a couple of his fellow workers. They would order a beer. Not being able to pronounce the “R” it sounded like “one beel”.

The big Irish bartender would respond by saying “Okay, fly lice”. Always the same. One day a fellow worker said to him. You don’t have to take that crap. You can learn to say one beer if you try real hard. So the poor guy practiced long and hard and finally came up with the corrected order, and he very proudly said to the Irish bartender “One Beer”. The bartender said as usual “okay fly lice” and he shoves him a beer. The Chinese man looked him in the eye and said, “Not ‘fly lice’ – it’s ‘fried rice’, you mick plick!”

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Mutt was a very funny and amusing guy (my brother Mutt, that is). I had a lot of fun with him until a few years before he got killed in a head on crash on his motorcycle, at age 62. I never knew if he was drinking too much when he got killed, but couldn’t imagine otherwise, since every time I saw him over the last few years, he was drinking.

He would come to my house, and a few minutes later would say, “you got anything to drink?” Not wanting to drink with him, I would say no. But I always had a supply of drinks on hand. He would respond by saying, “That’s okay, I have some”.

He would go back to his Winnebago and return with a full bottle of Canadian Club and would not leave until it was empty. I was amazed that he never got caught driving under the influence. Either he could hold his liquor very well or he was very lucky. I think it was both. But other than these times he was a loveable guy. We had some good times together. I played many jokes on him.

snook_swimming

When we first came to Florida we fished a lot. Once we were near Juno Beach, snook fishing. There were flats then, very clear shallow water. Now it’s deep, dredged and channels. We were wading across the flats; we had seen some action on the other shore. A little more than knee deep the water was, and many stingrays were laying in the sandy bottom with only their eyes showing.

Their total bodies were submerged in the sand. Now a stingray can inflict a nasty wound with his tail that he flips rapidly from side to side when he is disturbed, then takes off. We saw a few of them while we were wading over the flats fishing. We prodded them with a fishing rod to watch them get out of our way. On the way back, Mutt was in front of me and the tide was coming in a bit. Mostly the water was above the knees, just barely above the knees.

Mutt was very scared and very cautious watching for the stingrays. This inspired me to trick him by sticking my fishing rod between his legs and rapidly snapping it from side to side against his legs. I guess this is about as nearest as man has come to walking on water for a long time. I must add that these stingrays were about the size of a dinner plate, with the stinger tail about two or three feet long.

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While in the Merchant Marines I learned about the Seaman Church Institute. They seem to be in every port in the USA. It was a place where a sailor could get a nice clean bed for the night for 35 cents. My first experience with this was at 25 South Street, New York. My family or anyone could send mail to me, at that address. If I was gone for a long time, it would be kept for me. In one case it was 2 1/2 years while I was on the West Coast. I still had my mail there.

Another unusual one was in Charlestown, Massachusetts. There you must attend the preaching before bedtime and be there before 8PM. In the morning we were awakened by a bugle call. Then someone would yell out “Does anyone want hot rolls?” A newcomer might yell out “I do”, where upon a roll of toilet paper would come zooming at you. It was good clean fun. These times were during prohibition and were supposed to be no alcohol available anywhere. But it was everywhere in every city or port I visited.

In New York, around the area of Battery Park, you could walk through swinging doors to a bar and get a shot of whiskey for a dime. There was a free lunch on the bar with chunks of ham, crackers, cheese and peanuts. Once I was in such a place in New York and a policeman walked in. I was very scared. But he walked up to the bar and was given a glass of beer. He walks over to the free lunch and indulged. I was the only one in the place that seemed concerned.

One port of call was Providence, Rhode Island. We made several trips to there. I discovered a nice speakeasy early on. It was upstairs, run by an Italian. He served good beer and the best spaghetti I have ever tasted. I would go there every time we were in port.

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One of these visits, there was an unruly loud mouth drinking beer at the table. I was sitting on a trunk turned diagonal in the corner. Eventually the loud mouth went to the bathroom. While he was gone the host took away his beer glass which was about half empty. This was designed to get rid of the bad guy. He comes out of the bathroom and demands his beer and glass be put back on the table.

Trying to calm him down the host brought out a new full glass of beer. The bad guy insisted that he get his glass and his beer back and would not have the new one. He gets pretty nasty. The host gets him by the arm to evict him down these stairs. He took a couple of steps down and whips out a revolver and starts shooting. I was ten or twelve feet away and fell backwards behind the trunk. He shot four times not hitting anyone then left. Besides myself there were seven other adults. I couldn’t understand how he missed all of us unless he deliberately missed just to scare everyone. He succeeded in my case.

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Boston. As I said before, I considered Boston my home port. There I met a nice couple. Not married, but we called it in those days “light housekeeping”. This was Charlie McCarthy and Rose Matigan. There were no children. Rose seemed to be very much in love with Charlie. I spent a lot of time with them. She was very true to Charlie but when he shipped out she lavished all of her attention on me. I left Boston shortly thereafter on the British ship Bradfyne, as I mentioned elsewhere. While in Boston I enjoyed it very much. The old Howard Theater, Scolly’s Square, fried clams, it was a wonderful place to be.

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My last voyage was with the good ship Dirigo. It was owned by Texaco. We sailed from Boston to dry dock for 6 weeks in Mobile, Alabama. We got our regular pay there and worked the ship, painting and chipping rust above deck. Each Saturday at noon we received a $10 draw and were free until Monday morning. It was a wonderful six weeks for me. At noon after our $10 draw there would be a crap game on the poop deck. And so help me, I won every week. I didn’t try and break the game at first, just win $15 to $30 then quit.

I had two good buddies, Joe Creeden and Friday (so called because he was a cook). Neither one gambled. Off we would go and rent a car, there were no drivers licenses in those days. But to rent a car I must have papers proving that I was a sailor and leave a $10 deposit. We would tour the area, picnicking overlooking Mobile Bay and drinking at the classiest speakeasies in town. We indulged in some other sports that I will not mention here.

We finally sailed for Port Arthur, Texas. We took on a cargo of oil. Then we headed for Malmo, Sweden which was 31 days away. My luck held out and I won all of the loose money on the ship playing blackjack. We moved from Malmo to Stockholm for a four day stay. From there my buddies and I took a ferry to Copenhagen 25 miles away.

It was 27 degrees below the whole time we were there. I never got warm. We were rushed to set sail because we were about to be frozen in for the winter. Texaco wanted no part of that. Two weeks out at sea it was Christmas 1932. 31 days later we arrived in Texas. I bid farewell to the sea and never went back.

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Ramp Festival: After the Merchant Marines, I was back living in West Virginia. I had much fun, and life was enjoyable for the most part. Especially after I quit the coal mine and lived in Charleston West Virginia. One fond memory is a Ramp Festival.

If you have never heard of ramps, let me elaborate. They are described as a cross between an onion and garlic, only crosser. They grow wild in the woods in West Virginia, and are ready to harvest as soon as the snow is gone, when they peek through the ground in the deep woods – usually late February or early March. You fry them up along with some bacon fat, and after eating them the odor clings to your breath and clothing for about two weeks. I say odor because it certainly is not an aroma. Everyone had outside toilets then; if you walked by within a hundred yards, the smell would really get to you.

Richwood, West Virginia, a long time ago, had a clothes pin factory. It folded a long time ago leaving Richwood with no claim to fame. So some enterprising people developed the Ramp Festival, and people came from local and far off states to be part of it. I recall one newspaper had a line reading “Ill wind blows no good”.

One spring fishing trip, I was trout fishing and cooked and ate lots of ramps. I also brought a large box of them home. I tried to give them away but could find no takers. I was a beer salesman at the time. My boss G.G. Smith told me after a meeting and him smelling my breath, “Bob, take a couple days off. In fact, take a week off and clear your breath.” Before going out to meet customers, I took his suggestion.

While working for G.G. and Schlitz, we would receive a beautiful cheese gift package from the brewery in Milwaukee. We were of course urged to write a thank you note to them. Someone said they needed help with the message. G.G. said “Oh just write and thank them and say ‘bindingly yours'”.

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During 1926, Grandpa Meade was making barrel staves. In the early 30’s the depression was on in a big way. I spent a summer with my grandpa. He, his son Homer Meade, Ollie Meade and myself made barrel staves. To do this he would first scour the countryside to find a very large white oak tree. It must be five or more feet in diameter.

He would buy the tree as it stood from the owner, usually a poor farmer of little means. Then he must contract for a box car to be set on a side track at the nearest possible sight. This was usually 20 miles or more away. None of our group owned a car or truck. So we would room and board at the tree site with the owner of the tree. We would hire someone to take us home on Saturday nights.

The tree would be felled and sawed to proper length for staves; they must be free of knots and finished to a specific size like 1\4 inches thick by 5 inches wide and two feet long. I am not sure of this length, but it seemed to be about two feet. These staves were split to a rough size, allowing room to be addressed to size with a drawing knife. This process went on for about a month. And then the staves were all hauled and loaded into the box car, and we got paid. Granddad did this on a regular basis. It was a way to make a living.

On one of these projects we boarded with the family of John Sam Day. He was the brother of the infamous Mack Day, the prohibition officer that killed 42 moonshiners as mentioned. Now Mack Day had been killed a few years earlier by a black moonshiner who also died in the shoot-out.

This is the story told to us by his brother John Sam Day. His words were. “I was making a little moonshine and still do as you know. One night Mack came to my house alone. He sat at one end of this big table, laid his gun in front of him on the table and said ‘I came to kill you’. I had considered I was safe because he was my brother. He said ‘No, I am going to kill you’. He had a half gallon fruit jar of booze in front of him and took a swig every now and then. Several times he aimed and cocked the gun at me. We sat like this for many hours until daylight. Abruptly he up and left.”

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Fred Tolliver. I came home from the sea to visit for a month or so in 1927 or maybe it was 1928. I am not sure. My folks lived on Bud Mountain. We had a neighbor named Fred Tolliver. He and I became good friends. He took me down through the mountain side and into a little flat area, where a nice cool spring appears at one end of the flat area, and disappears at the other, end about 100-150 feet away. This made it ideal for a moonshiner, and that’s what Fred was. He had a still and mash working there. I stayed with him while he ran off a batch. I must say, it was first class mountain dew.

Revenuers or prohibition officers always hunted moonshiners by traveling up the mountain by a creek bed or small stream. It was necessary to have water to make moonshine. One night Fred and I were walking along the mountain road where cars and wagons traveled. He said; “Why don’t we have a drink?” I said; “Okay.” It was dark. Then he said, “Walk into the woods there, and take 12 steps”. I did, and said, “I bumped into a big tree”. He said, “right, now take 8 steps to your right”. I did, and said, “okay, now what?” He said, “reach down into the leaves in front of you, and pick up the half gallon fruit jar”. I did exactly that and, mind you now, it was dark, with no moon, but the stars were out.

The still had not been moved for 17 years. He was always stocked. He had his moonshine in jars, hidden all over in the bushes. Like a squirrel he could go back and pick them up anytime he wanted to.

While there I met and dated my brother’s teacher. She was nice. We corresponded when I went back to sea, but I never got to Bud Mountain again.

Prohibition was repealed. I was in New York on the day that Prohibition was repealed. Bars or tables were set up the full length of the block. A mug of beer was 5 cents, pretzels were free. It was quite a celebration. My time ashore in New York between ships, I would take a job as a dish washer for a short while. Coffee and donuts were 10 cents. Two pork chops with two eggs were 35 cents.

One trip, on the beach in New York, I had no food or drink other than water for three whole days. I went to meet a ship, The Leviathan because my friend George Kokako was on the ships crew. I couldn’t go aboard, but he came ashore and gave me $10. We call it “piece you off”. We would do this for one another.

A lot of sailors did this if they knew you. I went to a restaurant and ordered bacon and eggs and could not eat it. I became very sick in my stomach. I left there real worried about my situation. I finally decided I had to eat something, and remembered my mom’s home remedy about broth. I had a bowl of clear soup in a restaurant, then was fine. The next day I got a job as a dishwasher and plenty of food. About one week later I got a ship out.

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Easter Parade. It was Easter Sunday in 1928. I was all decked out in a new suit and straw hat with my shirt collar buttoned on (by collar buttons of course). Collars were separate in those days. I also had on a new straw hat. They were called sailor hats. I don’t know why. Now, no well dressed man would be without one. Also I had white shoes. I was quite proud of myself. A country boy all decked out. It was the first time I was really dressed up, I guess.

I was strolling along, and passed a fenced in yard where four or five teenage girls were playing. One says, “Hi good looking”. I smiled. Another one said, “Not you, pie face”. It was quite a deflation to my ego. I might add that this was in Boston.

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In 1933, I owned a 1929 Buick Sedan and headed for a visit with my uncle Kilgore Colley and Aunt Maggie Colley in Clintwood, Virginia. They lived right in town and had a small dry cleaning business in back of their house. We decided to expand the business by adding a pick up and delivery service (that was me). I designed a four and aft rod in the back of my Buick, and bingo – a delivery service. We did very well.

Uncle Kilgore had lost his leg in a coal mine accident. He had an artificial leg. I don’t know why but it was called a “corkleg”. He stayed in back and ran the operation, in back was the furnace which was run by coal. Also out back was a large vegetable basket filled with worn out shoes. This is important to my story.

Kilgore liked his wine and that was fine with me. So when I was making a delivery sometimes He would say “Bring us a back a bottle of Tokay, King”. My middle name was King. The family and everyone called me that until I grew up and left home. Kids made fun of it and I hated it. Okay, back to the story.

Now, Aunt Maggie didn’t approve of this. So when I returned and Aunt Maggie happened to be out back in the shop with him, he would see me coming around the house knowing I had the Tokay. He would yell out “Give me a little more steam, King” and that was the signal “don’t bring that bottle in here or there will be big trouble”.

I would proceed directly out back and hide the bottle in the old shoes, make a noise in the furnace, then come in looking very innocent. Aunt Maggie gave birth to a son while I was there. I am not sure if it was Lewis, Wayne, Lindsey or Carl.

I never saw any of the family after that except for briefly when I visited with Lewis in 1954. Then again in 1984, when he and his wife Edna came to West Palm Beach to the funeral of Joyce (Dukie) Howington (my brother Mutt’s wife).

She died during surgery. This hit me very hard because she had called me aside before the operation that was scheduled. She asked me my advice on whether to proceed or not. My advice to her was that it was just fine, and she had nothing to fear. As a result, I felt a terrible guilt as though it was my fault.

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On to Part 6