Freeing the voices in my head

Archive for the ‘Merchant Marines’ Category

A Sailor’s Wife Is Me, Yo-Ho!

When my love graduated from Maritime College, we set a date to be married in October of 1979.  It was my favorite month: my birthday month, crisp Autumn days, and Halloween — my favorite holiday, so it seemed fitting to add a wedding in there.  Since he graduated in May and was immediately headed to a ship on the Great Lakes, it was left to me to do all the stuff involving the wedding.  He would be home in September, in time to help with final details and bring a good amount of money to pay the bills.

I was working at the local mall and used my laughable paycheck for small items.  We weren’t planning a big wedding; just a few friends and family members.  Our guest list was about 25 people long.  I went to a local stationary slash art supply store and discovered I had to order at least 100 invitations.  Plain, cream-colored with pretty calligraphy and no extra fancy stuff; okay, fine, order ’em so they’ll get here in time to be given out or mailed out.

A small bridal shop just down the road was next.  Nothing fancy, the owner was the only employee, and I was left to browse the racks of dresses on my own.  I fell in love with the first one in my size that I tried on.  It was soft, flowing, with no itchy lace and, best of all, was only $250 dollars!  I put down a deposit and happily went off to work.

July rolled around and nothing else was done because of busy days at work and, well, I had lots of time still for flowers, a restaurant, a cake, finding a church or maybe just a justice of the peace…then, my mother and sisters hit town.  “Do you have the rings yet?”  Um, no, I don’t have that kind of money, but Randy will and we’ll go pick something out when he gets home.  “What church are you using?”  No idea, we aren’t into religion, and neither are you, Mom!  “Where’s the reception going to be?”  Um…and the questions kept coming.  But what sent Mom and older sister into tizzies was The Dress.

“You already got The Dress?  The FIRST Dress you tried on?  Did you try on any others?  Oh, no, this won’t do.  We have to go, now!”

Sigh…

We descended on the little shop and my domineering mother took over.  While I rolled my eyes and mouthed apologies to the shop owner, Mom and Big Sis attacked the dress racks.  The first ten gowns were piled into my arms and I was shoved into the fitting room.  Gack, lace, ruffles, bustles, a gazillion pearl buttons no bigger than a pinhead, mile long trains — they apparently forgot how clumsy I am — and prices I expected to see on new cars, not a dress I was only gonna wear once!  Thank god we were the only customers but I still refused to leave the dressing room in those “things.”  I let the enemy peek in, gratified to see their faces scrunch up in dismay at the sight of me in their choices.

I didn’t even try on the next ten dresses.  The owner, bless her, had taken pity on me and brought me MY Dress.  I slipped it on, she zipped it up, and pulled aside the curtain with a smile.  It fit perfectly, it flowed, it soothed my crumpled ego…and it made Big Sis smile while bringing Mom to tears.  Hey, I know what looks good on me!  Mom paid  it off and got me a pair of matching shoes and a veil.  Whew, done and no one got pissed off!

Smooth sailing for three more months?  Nope.  Randy came home, early, really early, in July, with only one paycheck and a tale that should have sent me running far away.  He was off watch, sleeping in his rack (bed) one night as the Captain navigated the ship across Lake Superior.  He woke up when his rack tilted 180 degrees and dumped him on the floor.  Yeah, the ship was tilting that far because the Captain had run it aground.  Brand new Third Mate Eldred made it to the bridge and was the one who finally got the ship free.  Then he packed his duffel and quit, unwilling to work on a vessel where he had more experience navigating the ship than the Captain did!

Well, he returned home to wedding chaos.  The guest list had jumped to 125 people, thanks, Mom, not.  I bought a generic package of somewhat sorta matching invitations at the local mall.  My soon-to-be mother-in-law offered to bake the wedding cake.  Randy and I picked out our rings; just two plain wedding bands but mine had to be sized down and would be ready in a week or so.  My bridesmaid and maid of honor had two dresses that matched my wedding gown in style, so no one had to buy a dress they’d never wear again.  Randy’s littlest sister was our flower girl and his mom sewed her a pretty little dress that matched.  (That lady had seven kids and little money; baking from scratch and sewing clothes was second nature to her!  Besides, she wanted to help and my mother wasn’t giving an inch!)

Progress was being made, so, of course, we had to have another crisis.  From the moment he got home, Randy was calling around to shipping companies, calling the job list offered by the college, calling, calling everyone he knew to get a new job.  And, yes!  A company wanted him!  But, no!  They wanted him for a four month cruise and he had to be on board the ship by the end of AUGUST!  Well, shit!  We had to make a choice: postpone the wedding until December or January (ugh, my two least favorite months, along with February) or move the wedding up to early August.

We set the date: August 3rd.  Bless our families and friends; they rallied forth, they called in favors, they helped us make it happen.  My parents reserved the banquet room of a lovely Italian restaurant.  They were friends with the owners and got a good discount.  Getting my bouquet and the other flowers is a blur — my mom took me somewhere and the florist came up with the design.  All I was asked to do was pick my favorite flowers and colors: irises and roses, purple, blue, and green.

As for the church… We drove by a little church a lot.  It was one of the oldest churches in town, barely more than a chapel, but it was cute and although we’d never gone to a service there, we liked it.  With time restraints pushing us, we stopped in and convinced the pastor to marry us there.  Randy’s sister was hoping to pursue a career in photography and we contracted her to take photos of our day.  The only tux we needed was Randy’s; the other guys all had gray suits in the same style.

On the morning of our afternoon wedding, Big Sis woke up with an abscessed tooth.  It was a Friday and Mom called her dentist friend from when we were kids and our family lived three houses down from him (his office was in his home).  He would see her, if we could get her there immediately.  Panic, though, because who could take M.L. to the dentist?  Everyone was busy, busy, busy!  Except for…the bride.

Yeah, well, I had nothing to do until a half hour before the wedding.  My dress was simple, my hair would just be loose and flowing, the way I liked it, I was showered, shaved, and bored with sitting in a corner watching my drama queen family freak out over tiny details.  So I took Big Sis to the dentist.  I sat in the waiting room with my book, perfectly calm and content, and laughed out loud when I overheard this:

Dr. Glenn: “Well, what a way to start your big day, eh?  Don’t worry, we’ll get you fixed up in no time and you’ll be a smiling bride.”

Grunts from Big Sis.

Dr. Glenn: “Oh, you aren’t the bride?”

More grunts.

“Really?”  And sweet ol’ Dr. Glenn actually stepped into the waiting room and stared at me.  I smiled and waved.  “Well, aren’t you nervous at all?”

Me:  “Nope.  I’m just happy this day is here.”

In fact, I didn’t get nervous until everyone had dashed off to the church and I put on The Dress.  My dad was the only one left at the apartment — he was the manager of a car dealership and was driving me to the church in a dealer’s demo car, a brand new Lincoln!

After all the agonizing over music, and the lovely gift of our talented friend Holly playing the organ and singing, I don’t remember any of the music.  Randy says all he remembers is his knees shaking and his dad holding him up (or keeping him from running away).

It was a wonderful day, pulled together in a few wild weeks because of so many people.  And it set the course for much of our life together — adventures done on the fly, on impulse, with pieces of what was needed appearing at the last minute.   There have been storms and calm waters, floods (for real!) and dry stretches, but we keep going, sailing along and hoping we won’t sink.

We just celebrated our 33rd anniversary.  If I had known a sailor’s wife must brave Life’s storms alone for months, would I have married my Merchant Marine?  I like to think so, because, yes, when he gets home, everything is worth it.  🙂

Loving A Man In Uniform

I married a Merchant Marine.  They are the sailors on merchant vessels  – tankers, freighters, dredges, cruise ships (not the “public crew,” the real crew; yeah, cruise ships have two crews – they’re nothing like the “Love Boat” TV show.), fishing vessels – they aren’t military, but they do go through basic training and such.  They are also the unsung heroes in wartime.  A lot of merchant marines died in WWII, but not many people know that.

And, yes, some of them wear uniforms, not too fancy or distinguished, just enough to help the public understand these men (and some women) have a specific job or career.  Hubby had to wear uniforms at SUNY Maritime College and for some of the shipping companies he worked for.  Mmm, dress whites – definitely sexy, so fitted, so neat, so authoritative (is that even a word?).  In the early years, he wore khakis (blah) or blacks (yum).  No insignia or badges, but just enough of a “look” to give people pause.

When he’d step off a plane, heading for baggage claim, and walk toward me, I could see people moving aside for him.  Of course, part of that is his walk; he walks with presence, like a leader.  He’s an officer, worked his way up from Third Mate to Master (Captain for landlubbers).  Many merchant sailors have that presence; one of my favorite memories is going to a game at Shea Stadium surrounded by six buff cadets, all on the soccer team, solid, strong, handsome, dressed in everyday clothing, but no one – and this is the heart of New York City (ok, sorta south of it, but still…), no one messed with us.

Hubby’s graduating class got to have their Winter Ball on the top floor of the World Trade Center.  The restaurant would be opening soon (this was 1978) and the guys from Maritime were a dry run for the staff.  It was gorgeous, fun, amazing – we could look out over the whole city…We had a blast.

When the planes hit those Towers, we were heartbroken and so furious.  Not only for all those murdered people, but for the destruction of a place that had given us a beautiful memory.  In the days that followed 9/11, we felt helpless, too.  Our oldest son was in Army boot camp at Fort Knox, under lockdown, possibly being primed to finish his tank training and go to war or strike back or whatever the President decided to do.  We didn’t know, parents received no info.  God, that was frightening, not knowing what was going to happen to our son.

My husband was on his three months off.  Merchant schedules can be weird.  His was three months on ship, one to three months home (the home part changed on the whim of the shipping industry).  He got on the phone to his company, requesting to be sent on whatever mission the tankers were doing regarding the disaster.  Understand this: merchant vessels, for the most part, are unarmed.  If there’s a weapon onboard, it is locked in the Captain’s safe and only the Captain has access or training to use it.

His company ran tankers: oil, crude, and dry cargo, too, of grain, wheat, etc.  The Middle East was and is NOT a safe place to visit for any reason, and hubby’s company was having trouble finding volunteers to crew the ships heading into that region.  They were part of the President’s Humanitarian mission: sending grain tankers to Afghanistan, Pakistan, those areas.  (We later found out that air-dropped food from the USA was left to rot because it was from us infidels.  sigh…but they apparently didn’t turn up their noses at grain brought by sea.)

So, off hubby goes to take a grain tanker to Afghanistan.  I got to stay home and worry about TWO of my menfolk.  Oh, joy…NOT!  But you man up and smile through the tears and insist you are proud of them and, and well, yeah, out in public, I was fine.  In the dark, alone, ah, well, they finally came home safe, thank god.

It’s what you do when you love a person in the military or the merchant marines.  You buck up, you present calm and hope and love, and you rarely ever indulge in any negative emotion, because what your loved one is going through is worse.  You quietly ignore rages and silences, offer hugs or private space, you dance around certain topics, and never ask “How was your day at the office, dear?” because that’s such a ridiculous question for these particular people.

They are different, changed.  Our normal everyday woes and lives are so meaningless compared to what they are doing.  Come on, really, is your day at an office so bad compared to someone who is facing Death every minute?  In our marriage, the main problem for me is that hubby IS a Master, a Captain, has been since he was thirty.  And he forgets that I am NOT a deckie or swabbie.  He’s used to giving orders without explanation and expects to be obeyed without question.  There’s a rough edge to him, and I have to grit my teeth and try to remember for both of us that I’m his wife, not his crew.  Chin up, mouth shut, smile, woman, smile!

This is long (for a blog, I guess), but I want to leave you with a funny story.  When Hubby took that tanker to Afghanistan, he was told (and told me to reassure me) that he would have a military escort of two or three destroyers.  What he didn’t tell me, until after he was home, was that the destroyers were needed elsewhere.  That’s right, dangerous waters, dangerous political climate, danger all around, and no escort.

Tankers are way too big to go into port or dock.  They sit at anchor a few miles out and other boats come to them to offload cargo.  Want a point of reference?  Rent the movie “Periscope Down” (I think that’s the title) with Kelsey Grammar as a submarine captain.  At one point in the movie, they hide the sub under a super-tanker.  The tanker in the movie was the sister ship of my hubby’s tanker.  Yep, big, REALLY BIG!  I think the call sign was BFV Alaska.  I don’t know what the letters really stand for; the guys translate the letters as “Big Fucking Vessel.”

So, no escort, but the Afghanis did send hubby some soldiers to guard his ship.  Six big brawny soldiers in uniform with rifles to guard the hatches because the crews on the small boats that were offloading the grain were not to enter the tanker for any reason, not even to use the head.  They could sit on deck for breaks and meals, but not enter the interior of the tanker.  Capt’n Eldred greeted them, but wasn’t very reassured when he discovered that, yes, the soldiers had rifles, however, they only had ONE BULLET.  Oy.

The laborers from the small boats did, indeed, have lunch on the deck of the tanker.  They built a bonfire, hauled some goats up, and proceeded to butcher and cook their lunch.  (Eww!)  Now, oops, they needed salt.  Capt’n Eldred said nope, none to spare, but, ah, maybe one of the other ships had some.  You see, we Americans weren’t the only ones trying to help.  Other countries were in on the Humanitarian effort.  The laborers putted over to a Greek vessel to ask for salt.  Unfortunately, no on spoke Greek and the Greeks didn’t speak, um, whatever.  And none of the Afghani laborers spoke English.

Via hand signals and nods, they finally received a bag of white grainy stuff from the Greeks.  They ate.  Shortly after that, they groaned and moaned, and since they couldn’t use the heads (bathrooms) on the tanker, they pooped on the deck or over the side (dangerous, easier to just poop on the deck.).

During the messy chaos, Capt’n Eldred finally got them off his ship, job finished, cargo gone, and his unhappy crew scrubbed the deck.  Hubby radioed the Greek ship.  He asked the Captain what happened.  Turns out, the Greek cook thought the laborers wanted laundry detergent and gave them a sack of powdered detergent.  Not salt, and no one thought to check if it was salt.

Yes, it’s funny, it’s also sad.  The language barrier made things crazy.  We think we’ve advanced so far, but we haven’t.  We’re still killing each other for stupid reasons.  We’re still putting our loved ones in danger.  Hug each other now, because the world is not a safe place.  Never has been, never will be, and if you believe differently, I hope you’re right and weird shit never happens to you and yours.

Ah, but we work through it, right?  Chin up, friends, and SMILE!  Because, hell, if we can’t laugh, then we really ARE in trouble!  🙂