Sunday, May 25, 2008

No Romance In It



Bitter Disappointment Followed an Investigation — Sailors Who Work, Eat and Sleep and Are Devoid of All Ambition. A Hard and Hopeless Life.

My earliest and strongest impressions of seafaring life were gained by watching the evolutions of her majesty's ship Pinafore while she lay in the dry dock in Philadelphia, and although my ideals have been somewhat shaken by seeing the deck-hands of the transatlantic steamers I retained the notion that the counterpart of my old friends would be found aboard sailing vessels. But that dream is over. The first shock came soon after leaving port, when I told the captain that he was to teach me how to dance the hornpipe. He said that he didn't know how, and, moreover, had never seen any one who did. I replied that I was not from the country, but he solemnly assured me that he was telling the truth and called upon the second mate to bear him witness. The latter, after much reflection, recollected that he had once known a sailor who could dance a hornpipe, but couldn't remember whether it was on a voyage to the East Indies or while he was "in steam" on the Mississippi. Further inquiry proved that no one else had over witnessed such a performance.

This was not the most bitter disappointment, however. I am not a great lover of music, but it seemed to me to be a necessary part of a sailor's existence that he should scamper merrily about and pour forth the gladness of his heart in song. To be sure, they do make a noise when they pull on the ropes and occasionally burst into a dirge while at pumps, but to both of these performances the cry of the penguin is cheerful by comparison.

Indeed I have come to the melancholy conclusion that the flavor of romance evaporated with the first generation of seamen. There is none of that picturesque idleness which I was led to believe was as essential as the song and dance. Were one of them to write his daily life it would be expressive of more energy than Mark Twain's famous diary, but would partake of the same simplicity. It would read, "Worked, ate and slept." Work begins when they are driven aboard by their respective keepers and ceases when the vessel arrives at her destination, so that the time occupied in eating and sleeping is their only respite. In heavy and squally weather there is also constant pulling of sails. It is then that their abilities in that monkeylike accomplishment of climbing the riggings are tested. As you stand on deck in a heavy gale and watch all hands upon one of the yardarms furling a sail you begin to put some faith in Darwin's theory concerning the origin of mankind. In fine weather their duties are of a different sort. They then turn painters, carpenters and jacks of all trades. "Holy stoning," scraping, painting and varnishing go on until the ship looks as if she were just off the drydock.

Sometimes in an idle moment or in a fit of temporary insanity a sailor decides to wash a shirt or a red bandanna. One day during a heavy rain this madness became epidemic, and after closing the "scuppers" all hands got upon the deck and proceeded to wash their clothes with a small piece of soap with a large question mark.

Were they as well treated on all vessels as they were on The Standard they might possibly learn to take care of themselves when ashore. It is indeed a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, for when they escape from the rule of more or less severe shipmasters they have not the sense to keep out of the way of boarding house runners and the like. If they would only keep their wits about them and make up their minds to defend themselves in an honest way, they could not fail to better their condition. They sometimes entertain themselves by shirking work at the latter part of the passage and by damaging the rigging just before saying farewell.

They never lose the sheeplike appearance with which they come aboard, going about in a flock at the beck and call of the officers. The watch may be forward pulling at some ropes when they hear, "Come aft, two o' yer!" and immediately replying, "Come aft, two o' yer!" they shuffle in a body in that direction. In nothing are sailors more obliging than in regard to their names. It matters not what they are called — Tom, Dick, Harry — all are the same to them as long as each has a separate one. When two happen to claim the same name on their arrival, each trios to outdo the other in nobly sacrificing it to his companion. Truly they are believers in the poetical theory concerning the rose and can see nothing in a name.

Bringing up the rear in the ship's company came the animals. Besides a pig we left port with an army of chickens, cats and rats, of which the latter were by far the most numerous. The chickens went all too soon, the cats departed save two, but the rats remained faithful to us. The surviving cats were natives of Boston and showed a great fondness for baked beans and brown bread. It was just as well that their comrades did not live, for they were all possessed with hearty appetites and doubtless would have proved a very severe tax upon our supply of provisions. When the bell sounded, these creatures appeared from their various nooks and corners to demand a meal in as many different keys. — Edward Porter in Philadelphia Times.

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