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! 🙂