August 30 to September 17, 1944
Wednesday, August 30, 1944
Another day and a cool one for a change. Maybe my genius will be in better working condition.
I just finished reading A Crystal Age by W.H. Hudson, the author of Green Mansions. It’s a Utopia sort of book, and I’ve read better. But it got me thinking a bit about Utopia in general. I’ve read quite a few such books, and none of them have appealed to me (I mean none of the Utopias—some of the books have been interesting.) All of them seem so dull. They demand a human being comparatively devoid of desire. And I don’t want to be devoid of desire. Descriptions of a personal heaven have always left me cold for the same reason.
Another objection I’ve had to all of them is their form of government. Perhaps by very definition a Utopia must be perfect—and being perfect requires no legislative procedure but namely a single omnipotent person to interpret laws. (I’m sorry—Thomas More’s original Utopia did have a form of democratic government, but it’s the only one I can recollect.) But I don’t like it.
Thoughts like this made me ask—what kind of a Utopia do I want? I think the answer is, I don’t want any. Perfection is something to aim for, but not to achieve. For perfection once achieved is static and I demand a dynamic life. One of the distinguishing features of man is his ability to solve problems—and if there are no problems to be solved, what use Man? As I say, I do not now want a Utopia. Perhaps the day will come when as man approaches perfection the desire for desire will gradually leave him. It is not mine to judge the future that distantly. I can merely say that I would rather live in the world of today than in any Utopia I have ever read of or imagined.
By that I do not mean I am satisfied with the world as it is. Not by far. But even if I had the absolute power to do anything, my changes would be relatively minor. Another generation would doubtless change further—but taking my background as it is (and I can do, nor imagine, naught else) I like life too much to change it beyond recognition. And that is what Utopia’s do. Hudson is more realistic than some in this respect. At least he describes his vision through the eyes of one of this world—one who never quite becomes reconciled to the change. But even the extent to which he does become reconciled is mere words to me—I cannot comprehend it.
No—the only major change I would make would be to introduce tolerance. Not that tolerance is a new thing—if it were I could neither comprehend nor desire it. But I would greatly extend it. I would have everyone tolerant of all things strange and unknown. And by tolerant I mean that he should have no feeling about them save as they affect him personally—and there he should receive them with an open mind and neither condemn nor commend them until he has tested them by his own (real or vicarious) experience. “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is to me a better golden rule than a literal interpretation of “Do unto others…”
There are doubtless changes in government and social institutions which would be desirable, but give me that one change in human nature and I’d leave those to work themselves out. Incidentally, tolerance is not one of the virtues of A Crystal Age. They are so convinced of their own perfection that the stranger from this world must absolutely conform to them and they don’t even want to hear about any other system.
Of course, that change is Utopian in a way. That is, that is my dream of the future which will probably never be attained—with no stipulations as to how it may come about. The achievement of it is another and more difficult task. In general terms it can be approached only by a long process of education. No more than any other change in human nature can it be achieved by legislative action. But I shall not now go into details on that subject.
There is a wonderful quote from The Way of All Flesh which comes to my mind: “…good, sensible fellows who detested theory of any kind, whose ideal was the maintenance of the status quo…tolerators, if not lovers of all that was familiar, haters of all that was unfamiliar; they would have been equally horrified at hearing the Christian religion doubted, and at seeing it practiced.”
I shall probably pester you with quotes from that delightful book for some time to come. Here is a descriptive definition of love: “If a young man is in a small boat on a choppy sea, along with his affianced bride and both are sea sick, and if the swain can forget his own anguish in the happiness of holding the fair one’s head when she is at her worst—then he is in love.” I am sure my feeling for you, Thea, would pass even that stringent test, but I hope it never has to!
Have you ever been out of doors at night in a semi-nude condition? It is really a most exhilarating sensation. Several nights recently it has been so warm that I have stood my wheel and lookout watches without a shirt. In the day time I never don a shirt, except for meals, and think nothing of it one way or another. But as the sun sets and the darkness is broken only by pale moonlight, a tremendous feeling of freedom seems to come over me. There is something exciting, even a little indecent, about it. The breeze flowing gently and unhindered under my arms seems like a stolen moment of illicit happiness. I remember going for a walk in the Glen one warm night and feeling the same way. And sometimes on a hot night we would take a midnight swim in the lake, which was even more so. It’s a feeling which can’t be put into words. There is something close to a conquering of nature and at the same time a submission to her charms. It is entirely different—and yet in some ways it is like love.
My abilities with a needle and thread are becoming tremendous. In the past week I have mended another tear and a pocket on my shorts (I feel almost as if I had made them, by now) and have repaired my alpergatoes and my wrist watch strap. But I’m sure you’d laugh to see the look on my face as I seriously consider each painful stitch!
One reason for all the activity has been the bosun. Naturally he likes company so I spend some of my spare time visiting him. Being (as you know!) a naturally industrious creature, I occupy my hands usefully at the same time.
We are once more at a port in north Africa. I anxiously await our next mail call. It’s been a long time since last I heard from you. I am still in perfect health—my only injury being a small blister on the left hand which I got from being a filly loo bird on a rope.
Whoa—I’m happy. “But A is happy, oh so happy, laughing ha ha, chaffing ha ha—nectar graffing, ha ha ha. Ever joyous ever gay—happy undeserving A.” That’s my, my sweet, “The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la…”
“Going home, going home, far across the sea…” Of course we don’t know for a fact, but I think so, I think so. Mr. Purser came round and said, “Have the boys turn in all their foreign money—lire and francs.” And since we’re anchored right in the French port of Oran where we could use our francs if we went ashore it would imply that we’re heading home empty. Tomorrow, I hope. The sooner the better. For love’s not complete when it comes in a letter. Whaddya know—poetry!
Do I sound incoherent? Do my words seem to race madly about with little or no meaning? So what? Who cares? For in spring a young man’s fancy turns but now ’tis fall and my fancy has its direction set on home. Home with a wife. Oh, what a life.
Home. How often do I think of it. How often have I thought of it as the past or the undefined future. But now it’s coming—and soon. Three weeks—a month? Who knows. I said by October 3, but I hope sooner. But sooner or later our ship’s noble bow will be heading west. Go west young man, let he who will be clever! Or am I getting my quotations mixed? Don’t cross your bridges before they’re hatched. A bird in the hand saves nine. Blood is think, but you can’t make him drink. I’m as bad as Sancho Panza. Filly looooooo.
Should I be analytical? Should I stop and probe my subconscious mind to determine the change in electrical circuits in my cranium that causes this feeling of exultation? But why? The explanation is so simple. I’m in love. In love, do you understand? Do you know what love is, my wife? When the heat makes you shiver and cold breezes bring sweat? Yes, sweat—not perspiration. For mine is an animal love. A complete and overwhelming love such as those intellectual personages can never conceive of. An animal love—but what an animal. The tenderness of a fawn with the ferocity of a tiger. The subtlety of a cat with the force of a charging rhinoceros. The fidelity of a dog with the freedom of a sea gull. The longevity of an elephant with the crescendo of a moth in a flame. And so on. Etc. Take of every animal its most favorable trait, mix them together and add infinities of indefinable indefinites and stir well—and my love for you “is the res-id-u-um.”
No, I’m not drunk. But I’m intoxicated. With your presence. What is the time—the distance before I actually see you again. A mere nothing. A hair on the mole on the eye on the flea on the bird on the branch on the limb on the tree and the green grass grew all around, all around. The direction is what counts. When every day brings me nearer, nearer, nearer, my God! To thee. My Goddess—My Thea.
What is so rare as a day in June (A day in September, April and November) but of the days in June only 5 are of our life. But October. Oh, beautiful October. And perhaps the last days of September. Oh wonderful October and September. Now in the future I’ll remember. (More poetry—would you like me to put it on separate lines so you’ll be able to identify it? Only I don’t know ahead of time when I’m going to wax poetical. No, my pet, you shall have to figure it out for yourself!)
Where was I? Oh yes. “Silver waves that beat on some undiscovered shore.” I don’t know where I am. I’m in a plane high over the world, looking down—or better yet a rocket ship and the world is diminishing and diminishing and diminishing until it’s but a speck. I’m down at the bottom of the sea looking up. I’m…
But I don’t need to go into fantasy. Hear what’s going on in our focsle. The old egg trick. Did you know that if you put an ordinary egg between your palms and squeeze evenly end to end you can’t break it. Honestly. Try it if you don’t believe me. Well, anyhow, we were trying it here in the focsle. And then one boy put it in sideways. Oh what a mess. Some yolk, huh?
And I’ve just finished reading “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Oh, but we should have seen it afore it closed. I guffawed all the way through it, much to the discomfiture of Les.
I shall close now, and read a bit, then sleep. If sleep can come to me in my exalted condition. Oh, how I’m in love with you, Thea!
Friday, September 1, 1944
Another month. And the month I shall see you, Thea. For we are really on our way home. My exuberance has subsided so I can perhaps write more intelligibly, but there remains an inner peace and happiness. For knowing that our ship is westward bound at long last I miss you no longer with an aching void, but with a keen sense of anticipation.
So to review the events of the last few days a bit more clearly. Wednesday afternoon we dropped the hook (anchor, to you) in Oran harbour. We just piddled around the ship all afternoon—everybody with his own rumour. Then the purser collected all foreign money and it seemed pretty sure. So, with a song in my heart, I showered and sang and dined and laughed and wrote and smoked a seegar and in general celebrated. Thursday morning the captain and various lesser dignitaries went ashore to deliver and collect mail and to attend the convoy conference. We spent the morning securing for sea and when they came back early in the afternoon the bad news that there was no mail was scarcely noticed along with the good news that we were heading home at 3 AM.
I celebrated by smoking a cigar after dinner and supper both. In the afternoon we worked hard cradling the booms and as a result I slept most of the evening until watch time. Part of the watch Bill, Les, and I spent sitting on the bridge. It was a beautiful evening. A cool breeze coming in from the sea so we wore sweaters. And an almost full moon beaming down from overhead. We discussed various matters of religion and similar topics. Les told us how he had been baptized (as a Baptist) and made it very funny. And, having stumbled inadvertently onto humor, we continued. Remind me to tell you the story of the red sweater and the one of the window shade. I strung the pool table yarn out for 15 minutes (Les timed it) and they nearly threw me off the bridge. They’re both good company, and next best to being with you, it was an enjoyable way to spend an evening.
We rose as usual today to find grey skies and a stiff wind, for the first time in many weeks. But we were actually steaming towards U.S. so a snow storm would have seemed beautiful. Really, though it was an ideal day for working which was just as well, for work we did. There’s plenty to do when a ship sets out across the ocean. But another 2 or 3 days should see it done, and then we’ll probably loaf. We should paint the deck, but there’s not much paint around.
I am becoming more and more like a vegetable in my contentment. When I finish dinner I immediately strip and clamber into my bunk and lie there and doze until we’re called back to work at one. And my usual after supper procedure is to light a cigar (you’ve no idea of the pleasure that innocuous vice gives me aboard ship) and maybe read a chapter or two or maybe just lie in my bunk and smoke. And about the time I finish said weed I drop off to sleep until time to go on watch.
I’m writing this on my standby, but at the present rate I won’t get much writing done as long as we work afternoons. However, I should return to your arms in a very rested condition ready for anything the world may bring.
Saturday, September 2, 1944
The time of free afternoons was nearer than I thought. There will be little, if any, overtime now until we again draw nigh the states. However, having better than $200 worth so far I do not object. It gives me that many more free hours a day in which I can think of you.
Today is a beautiful day. It is exhilarating as only a fall day can be. In the wind (as one definitely is when on the bridge or lookout) it is cold and brisk. But then one can sit on the after hatch in the sun where it is warm. But perhaps the greatest of today’s merits is that the focsle is comfortable. For the first time since we entered the Med, over 2 months ago, we can turn our fan off and still exist. I love the hot days when I can sit almost naked atop the crows nest and glory as the hot sun changes my skin to a yet darker brown. But all change is refreshing and this change particularly so. My only complaint with fall is that too soon it ushers in the cold winter—but in itself it is one of the nicest of seasons.
“Nice”—that word and its equally pedestrian antonym, “naughty” have peculiar connotations to me. I never see the first without remembering old Mrs. Carter’s definition in Miss Buncle’s Book—“neat and fastidious.” How often do I use the word in a situation where it would be ludicrous with that interpretation. And I shall never forget your own particular use of the other word, my sweet.
We have just passed the Rock. On our starboard beam one can see the coast of Spain, while on the port are the hills of Morocco. But we are in the Atlantic. Soon will these foreign shores fade from view to be followed by day upon day of “water, water, everywhere.” But those days will pass swiftly and at the end of them is home. Could any man be ought but happy?
It is time to gather up loose ends. To do all that I have left undone in the past 3 months. To start with, let me introduce you to the other noteworthy characters aboard ship. First a brief diagram of a Liberty’s crew:
|Deck Dept||Engine Dept||Master Steward Dept||Radio Dept||Purser||Armed Guard||Quartermaster|
|3 mates||1 Chief Engineer||1 Chief Steward||1 Merchant Marine Operator||1 Chief Purser||2 Officers||1 Army Officer|
|6 AB’s||3 Ass’t Engineers||1 Chief Cook||1 Navy Operator||7 Petty Officers|
|3 OS’s||3 Oilers||2 Ass’t Cooks||27 Seamen 1st class|
|1 Bosun||3 Firemen||1 Baker|
|1 Carpenter||3 Wipers||3 Messmen|
|1 Deck Engineer||3 Utility|
Many of the men I do not know well enough to mention. There is very little contact between the different branches of the crew, or between the crew and the armed guard. There’s no feeling of rivalry or bitterness—just little contact in the ordinary run of events. But I shall go down the list and give you my impression of those who made any impression.
Starting then, with Captain Tully—also known as “master,” “skipper,” “old man,” etc. He is short, moderately tough looking, middle-aged man. He has only been going to sea since the war started, but (obviously!) has worked up very rapidly. This is his second trip as captain. He sailed one trip each as third, second, and chief mate. Those who know say he is quite a whiz in regards to navigation. He’s worked out several short cuts of his own. He and I have little tugs of war as to how the bosun should be taught. He, naturally, wants to teach the bosun what he knows, while I feel the bosun had better spend his time on straight math, since his math background is very weak and he’s going to get plenty of navigation at the school anyhow. When he’s sober he fulfills the position of ship’s master very well. He never forgets that he is responsible for the ship and its crew and cargo, but he knows all the crew by name and always notices even the lowly os’s. Perhaps he’s somewhat too autocratic in some of his decisions with the crew, but on the whole I’d say he errs more on the side of leniency. To my knowledge he hasn’t logged anyone yet on the trip. I said, “When he’s sober.” His chief drawback is that frequently in port he gets drunk and then parades about the ship with his gun out making a fool of himself. However, I will say to his credit that he is never the least bit under the influence when at sea.
About the first and second mates there is little I can say. They both seem to do their jobs well and I have never seen either of them drunk. I see no reason why they shouldn’t make excellent masters in time. Mr. Lewis, the Chief Mate is Canadian, and Mr. Cubitt-Smith (called Mr. Smith to his face and Cupid behind his back) is definitely English.
The third mate, Mr. Reynolds, is on our watch, so I know him a little better. I’d say he was in his late 20s, although I’m no judge at all of ages. This is his first trip as a mate and combined with high blood pressure makes him quite jumpy whenever anything goes wrong—which is frequently. He’s been to sea all his life, and has most of a seaman’s views. I asked him once what he was going to do with all his money when he got back, and he replied in no uncertain terms, “Get drunk and stay drunk until it runs out.” He was happily married for a year, stayed married for 2 more, and was finally divorced. I don’t know which is cause and effect of the drinking and divorce. He doesn’t strike me as a happy man, and yet I wouldn’t say he was actively unhappy. And he fulfills his job adequately which is as much as one asks of any man aboard ship. On the whole I like him and feel sorry for him—but I wouldn’t want to invite him home.
I’ve already covered all of the deck department personnel, so I won’t repeat it here.
The chief engineer is about 50 and rather plump. I don’t know him to say what his virtues are, but he seems to have all the vices of the captain only more so. The first assistant is thin, old, and grouchy. I understand he’s overly conscientious about his work, and he has far more overtime than any of the other officers. I don’t think he’ll ever make a good Chief—most of his men don’t like him very much but he fraternizes too much with a few of them. The second assistant I don’t know, except by sight.
I am better acquainted with Mr. Metzger, the third assistant. His intellectual tastes are similar to those of Bill, Les, and myself—and we wandered about together quite a bit in foreign ports. He looks younger than he can possibly be, since he’s made several trips as an officer. He’s single, with no idea of marriage in the near future. If he were one of the crew, I’d probably know him quite well.
Few of the engine department are capable of development by my pen. Poncho, one of the firemen and Chico, the deck engineer, I have already referred to. They are by no means typical of the black gang, however. Most of them are older men who have followed the sea and learned the value of inconspicuousness when confined to the narrow limitations of a ship for a period of several months. Thus, since I do not share their watches or focsles and sit at a different table at meal times, I can say that I know them by sight or by name, but that is all. And I will dispose of the stewards department with the same lack of comment, although I know a few of them a little better.
The chief steward is worth a couple of lines however. When I first saw him I thought that ere we had reached a foreign shore he would have been delivered of his 14th child, but three months have gone by and his figure remains unchanged so my first impression was false. His manner is as unsavory as his appearance and if I had much contact with him I should doubtless conceive an active dislike. As it is he is merely the butt of numerous infantile jokes.
I can think of but one way of making the purser appear attractive. And that is to place him next to the steward. I have referred elsewhere to my opinion of his ethics (if the censor permitted my description to sully the mails). In his general attitude towards the crew and his duties to them he leaves much to be desired. He spends his 2 hours a week in the slop chest grudgingly and snaps ferociously if one has the temerity to ask for something he doesn’t have—or worse yet for something he has in his store room and must make an extra trip for. But I must in all fairness admit that I personally have no complaint to make with him or his work. He growls at me, but he eventually gives me whatever service I require.
I will describe more of the gun crew later. At present let me just say that Adam is definitely not typical. In fact, I could safely say he is unique on this ship, if not in the whole Merchant Marine.
Monday, September 4, 1944
I told you, I believe that I was reading The Way of All Flesh? I haven’t finished it yet (it is not a book to race through) but I want to praise it some more. It is an excellent book on 3 counts. In the first place the story is engrossing, and it is with a conscious effort that I slow down my pace of reading. But slow it I must to reap the other benefits. One of them is the delicate humor and satire that I have referred to before. And in addition, the book contains much food for real thought. There are several times I have put the book down to pursue further a train of speculation.
At several places Butler makes a plea for the virtue of inconsistency. He claims that any principle followed out to its ultimate conclusion leads to a fanatic and impractical result. I agree with him wholeheartedly in practice, but in principle I am sometimes hard put to justify it. So I argued back to him, “That’s a very comfortable belief for the well-to-do. But cannot the destitute argue legitimately against it?”
I argue not so much against Butler as against myself. For I have always found difficulty in reconciling by professed desire to do good for humanity with my more temporal desire to live comfortable myself. I can rationalize that my meager riches wouldn’t go far, or that I can do more good by developing myself and being of greater service in the future. But I must honestly confess that that is pure rationalization.
Thinking it over recently I have derived another means of approach, which while it may be rationalization is at least a more subtle variety. Taking as an unproved premise that the eventual purpose of existence is the further development of the individual (which I realize is worth a long argument in itself, but I can find no better premise, so pragmatically I shall assume it true) I argue as follows:
Individuals can be divided into 3 categories: Myself, my friends, and all other people. Now, when looked at that way, can there by any question that the one individual I am most qualified to develop is myself? I know myself better than anyone else. And more important, I have within me a “me” feeling, which is unique. No one else in the past, present, or future has that same “me” feeling. I’m not expressing this too well, but I think I really have hit upon a justification of self-interest.
Now this justification is one which can be, and frequently is, misused. But remembering its antecedents I must immediately add that while my first duty is to myself, it does not end there. If I lived alone on an otherwise uninhabited island, I would have only myself to consider. If there were a sufficient number of islands to accommodate each of the earth’s individuals in solitary grandeur, there would be room for debate on the desirability of such a procedure. But as it is, I must accept the fact that there are numerous other individuals with whom I must have contact. And recognizing their existence, it is within my jurisdiction to aid in their development also. I implied before that I was an important person. I am—to myself. In fact I am, and should be, the most important person (I am leaving you, Thea, out of this discussion. The close relationship and interdependence of husband and wife is beyond such analysis. Perhaps in many of the places where I say “I” the word should be “We.”). But in the objective universe I count for just about as much as any other individual. And my basic assumption is that the sum total of these individuals is our raison d’etre. My first duty is to myself, not because I am any more worthy, but because I can help myself best. In-so-far as I can be of genuine help to other individuals, I owe it to them no less than to myself.
I have made a separate category of “friends” because helping them to fulfill themselves serves two purposes. Not only is it aid given to another individual, but their further development adds to my own.
There can be no hard and fast line drawn as to where duty to others surpasses duty to myself. As a rough guide I would say that duty lies where an identical amount of effort will produce the greater amount of value. Secondly I should say that one should give to those who are less well off—financially, spiritually, physically, or whatever. On such a basis there is no one who cannot give to someone else—and no who cannot receive.
Tuesday, September 5, 1944
I seem to be losing my power of expression. I really thought out the above better than I wrote it down. Let us try again to sum it up.
- The ultimate purpose of life is the development of the individual.
This is proposed as a general principle and justified pragmatically. I believe it is a better one than the mediocre uniformity aimed for in “the greatest good to the greatest number.” The society of the ants or bees are the ultimate there and I believe mankind is capable of something better. The term “development” is not further defined as I don’t want to limit my present argument unnecessarily.
- The individual whom I am most able to develop is myself.
This is based on my “me” feeling. The more I think about it the more it seems to refute materialist arguments. Also it strikes me as one of the most salient differences between man and animals, and should be further developed.
- My first duty is to myself. But my duty is next to those closest to me, and extends in lesser degree to every individual.
I shall define “duty” at the obligation to live according to the primary principle set forth above. My duty is greater to those closer to me because I appreciate them more as individuals and because a development in them often reflects in further development of myself.
I have two more books to report upon. First is Rudyard Kipling’s KIM which I read years ago but have just finished reading. As an adventure story it is quite good. A trifle slow, but humor and excellent characterization make up for that. As a description of India I should characterize its viewpoint as “white man’s burden” at its best. I don’t mean this sarcastically. I mean that the natives are portrayed sympathetically and white men are occasionally ridiculed, but there is an underlying assumption so deep that it is scarcely noticeable that the white man is superior by virtue of race. Kim, the hero, although born of Irish parents, has been brought up almost entirely as an Indian. And yet there is no question in the minds of his more intelligent Indian friends that he must eventually be given a white man’s schooling and take command over them.
It reminds me of a story reputed to Viscount Halifax. He is supposed to have told President Roosevelt that he thought all of India would have understood him overnight if he had put on a sheet and sat on the floor with Gandhi; and when the president asked him why he didn’t, he replied sadly, “India would have understood, but Britain, nevah.”
But anyhow, Kim is a good yarn and the social undercurrent is sufficiently submerged not to offend me as I read it.
Not so, however, Typee by Herman Melville. From the blurb on the jacket to the very end that book rubbed me the wrong way. I think my chief objection was that it tried to describe something new and at the same time tell me what to think about it. In the first place the blurb tells about an entirely different story: “Tom stays on mainly because of Fayaway, a spiritual ancestress of Dorothy Lamour.” Actually Tom stays because he has a swollen leg and can’t move—and Fayaway bears more relation to the Virgin Mary than to our appetizing Dottie. “Never does the pace of this great adventure story lag.” Never except the 75% of the book that is taken up with description which may be interesting but would require lingual acrobatics to call it adventure. “…except when it tarries for a love scene and there it mounts to a sultry intensity.” “Sultry intensity” …phooey. They don’t even hold hands.
I don’t object to descriptions as such. If Ruth Benedict or Margaret Mead had written about the valley of the Typees, I would doubtless study it with interest. But Melville approaches it from exactly the wrong angle. In the first place I don’t know how much is fact and how much is fiction—and as fiction I’ve read too much similar stuff to be interested. Secondly, he looks at everything through a sort of Victorian morality which is ludicrously out of place. Never once, for instance, does he use the word “breast” or any of its synonyms. But in describing the dress of the young girls he must say frequently that they clothe themselves only from the waist down, if at all. But more objectionable is their way almost every custom must be labelled good or bad (or rather “excellent” or “horrible”) in accordance with Occidental standards. In fact, all in all, he would only have to go a little bit further to have a clever satire on South Sea books. But since it was one of the first such books it can hardly be intended as such. My disappointment was the keener since I had read and thoroughly enjoyed Moby Dick.
There is a certain perverseness in the operations of time. When I was sailing away from you time kept ahead where I would have it linger, and soon there were six hours which had been ruthlessly passed over. But now when I am coming home to you I begrudge every minute that keeps me from you. We must dawdle through those six hours twice over. There ain’t no justice.
As you know, my watch is a creature of temperament and one of the many things it objects to is being set backwards. It probably figures it was slow enough anyhow and once it’s managed to crawl through an hour in 61 minutes it doesn’t want to do it over again. Whatever the reasoning, when I set it back it stops and only the most severe threats and beatings can persuade it to resume its forward progress. The only solution therefore, is to set it ahead 11 hours and 40 minutes instead of setting it back 20 (Clocks at sea are moved 20 minutes on each of 3 successive watches so that the gain or loss is shared equally). But to do this a total of 18 times or 210 hours would involve quite an expenditure of effort. I have finally solved the problem by setting my watch to New York time and making mental calculations to determine the local hour.
Thursday, September 7, 1944
As usual when I have too much free time, I am misusing it. My only worthwhile achievements this week have been a thorough laundry and a remodeling job on my alpergatos. Aside from that I’ve just read and not even done enough sleeping. End of confession.
The navy boys also stand watches aboard ship (in fact they do nothing but) and I’ve gotten to know the boys on the 8–12 bow watch. Only two men are there at a time, but the 3 of them rotate around so sometimes one pair, sometimes another, share my nightly lookout.
First of all meet Clalhan (I only know them by one name—first or last). He comes from Boston, of Irish descent, and is just about as bigoted on big issues as it’s possible to be. For instance—Americans are the most wonderful people on earth and they’re fighting the war almost single handed and what little the other countries are doing they’re doing with American equipment. And when I mentioned that some of Japan’s fighting equipment came from American scrap iron, he blamed that all on the Jews. I gave up.
However, on smaller issues he’s a good talker and the time passes quickly. He’s been around, though but a lad of 19, but he’s engaged to a girl in New Jersey (and I can’t think of a better state as far as wives go!) and talks as though he’ll settle down and be as good a husband as most sailors. Not that he intends to stay a sailor. He wants the life of the big city where there are lots of ways to spend money.
Next I shall mention George, who is a pest. The small cocky type who must make up in noise what they lack in size. But when he and Calaham get going together it’s amusing, though a bit wearing.
Finally comes the most interesting—Flack. A boy from Bucks county, Pennsylvania. Left school his second year to join the merchant marine—switched over to the navy and is thinking of going back to the merchant marine after the war. Either that or becoming a farmer. He’s one of the few men aboard ship who seem to have any intelligent thoughts or ideas. Though handicapped by his education, he’s done a lot of serious reading and, I understand, some writing. One night when George was sick he stood watch alone and I had a lot of fun drawing him out—with the other boys he seems reticent. In which he shows more sense than your husband.
It’s great sport to hear him and Clalhan arguing the relative merits of farm and city. To Flack Bucks county is the only habitable place on the earth’s surface—and Calahan once spent a week on a farm and was bored stiff. Flack usually gets out-talked, but never convinced. I remember one night though when he was getting the best of it. Calahan turned for support to the boys from the next watch when they were relieved, but they both came from the country. So in desperation he asked me and his spirits brightened when I said, “Yes, I come from the city”—but he felt like violence when I added, “And I mean to stay from it.”
That’s my usual function in their discussions. I disagree with anything just to get them worked up. Me and Chatterjee!
I’ve just finished racing through Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry. It’s quite a book, though I wouldn’t recommend it to a Sunday School class. There’s no question but that Lewis is a good writer. He makes his people, both the good and the bad, seem alive. And I think that’s my chief criterion of a novel. I’ll forgive almost any kind of plot if the characters are good—and a plot must be very superior to overcome poor characterization. But Elmer Gantry seems to have both.
In a way it’s a discouraging book. The forces of evil invariably succeed over those of good. Gantry is an almost thoroughly bad person—and yet he is so cleverly drawn that you are almost glad of his successes. In a way it’s a subtle argument against free will, because he makes Gantry seem a product of his environment. And yet it’s not totally discouraging. For there are “good” people in the book as well. Usually they are thwarted in their goals, but you feel that a few of them, at least, lead happy lives—and Gantry’s life is rarely happy.
Every day as we get nearer home I think of some additional reason why I am glad. Some little event of past happiness—and anticipation of some future one. When I read about Elmer Gantry’s wedding night I was so thankful for our own. When I stand at the wheel with nothing to do I think how nice it will be to talk to you again. When I hear a good story I think of how I shall retell it to you. I look at my watch and visualize what you are doing. I look at the calendar and remember the happy times we had two years ago. I think of how surprised you’ll be when I come home with some clean underwear—and how you’ll like my new uniform. And how I will show off my efforts with a needle and thread. And when I spend my time diligently I do it for you—and when I waste it your face reproaches me. And when I stand lookout and sing love songs to the night air, or watch the boom burst over the horizon, I think of you. And all with a growing intensity—a crescendo—as each day, as each hour, brings me nearer to your arms.
Friday, September 8, 1944
I don’t believe I’ve ever described our focsle to you. Technically a “Focsle” is the place in the fore part of the ship where the crew used to live—deck gang all in one room and the black gang all in another. But the term is still used to describe the comparatively luxurious of quarters of a liberty ship. In size it is about 12 feet deep, 10 feet wide, and 7 feet high. A diagram would look something like this:
As you can see, there’s not any great excess of space! The bunks are double, although there are only 3 men to a focsle. Some of the boys take the extra bunk out, but we use ours as a general catch-all for life preservers, extra blankets, etc. I have an upper bunk—Les and Tex both lower ones. There is a small wall-desk behind the bunk, but it’s not very usable, being too high and too small and usually submerged by clothes hanging on the wall. On the whole, though, our foclse is pretty neat. We have a wire strung over the edge of our bunk on which to hang towels, underwear, etc. They can all be pushed down to one end out of the way, or strung out to act as a curtain. By far the most valuable article of furniture is the fan, on the wall next to the port hole. It’s a good fan—swings back and forth and has 3 speeds. We usually have it going 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s especially necessary at night to circulate what little air manages to sneak past the blackout screen. It’s a small room, but a cozy one. I doubt if I’ve ever spent so much time in an area of 15 square feet as I have in my bunk. Sleeping, reading, writing, and bull sessions, are my chief occupations—and they are all usually carried on from that throne.
A description of the crew would be incomplete without a mention of Kansas, one of the utility men. His job is to take care of the store and supply rooms, and to clean the officers’ quarters. He’s the most extreme example of an inferiority complex I’ve ever seen. He got married just before this trip. And actually says his chief reason was to satisfy himself sexually—he didn’t have the nerve to do it outside of marriage, although he wanted to. And he’s afraid he’s undersexed because on his honeymoon he only made love 2 to 4 times a night!
(Yes, dear, people really talk about their wives that way. It really disgusts me, too. I’ve gotten pretty used to the most detailed accounts of houses, pick-ups, etc.—but to hear a man speak of his wife in the same terms—ugh. But they do—and I’m trying to give you a true account of my voyage.)
Kansas is a prolific reader—even worse than I am in quantity—and much worse in quality. I thought his tastes might be worthwhile when he said he liked Grapes of Wrath—but he only liked it because of its spicy moments. I never recommend a book for his enjoyment unless it takes place in America (he wants nothing to do with a foreign country) and “had lots of fuckin’ in it.”
And yet he’s not the least bit like Steve or Duke. He’s quite shy and very few people on the ship know anything about him. I mentioned his reading tastes to Bill just last week and he said, “No, not Kansas?” as though he could believe it of anyone else on the ship.
I often wonder what these people’s child life was like. I should imagine Kansas was a late and not entirely welcome addition to a large, poor family. Not too strong he turned to reading and there was able to compensate for lack of attention and excitement. That’s just my guess. But the sea certainly attracts some strange characters.
I worked this afternoon, for a change. It seems we did have enough paint for the decks, so our ship will arrive looking clean and sparkling. I wielded a brush for 4 hours and got surprisingly little paint on myself. I feel better for a good day’s work, too.
Sunday, September 10, 1944
Dick Eastman asked me long ago what I thought of a peace-time draft. At the time it was being agitated in Congress. I don’t know its present status as there has been no mention of it in the radio news reports, or in the few copies of Stars and Stripes we have seen in port.
The first impulse of even a lukewarm pacifist would be to cry “horrors” at the very thought of such a measure. And the fact that I do not have any such immediate reaction is, I believe, further proof that I am not really a pacifist. I’m an idealist, yes—and as such look forward to the day when there shall be no more war. And I have a personal aversion to death—I don’t want to commit it or see it or have any part of it. And I think there is a possibility that strong-willed, self-sacrificing people could use a rigid policy of non-violent resistance to stop the depredations of Nazi-ism—but I would need to know more about Japanese culture before I would make a similar statement in regards to them. But all that doesn’t total up to pacifism, although it’s taken me several years to gradually realize that.
There are two possible methods of realizing eventual peace. One is by a confederation of great powers who are evenly enough balanced to realize the folly and wastefulness of a war within the group and strong enough to prevent a rival confederation from seriously threatening their position. The other is to establish a brotherhood of man on earth where each person will use the preaching of Christ (which are essentially the same as the other great prophets) in his dealings with his neighbor next door and with his neighbors across the sea. The first method has worked for short periods of time and for less than worldwide groups. Its net result has probably been to make wars fewer and bloodier. The second method has never had a big opportunity, but has never, to my knowledge, worked on even a small scale. (Despite the way I used to talk about India—India still isn’t free. And communities such as New Harmony have never lasted more than a couple of generations.) The pacifists argue that the first method never has worked in 5,000 years of human civilization and that their ideal has never been tried. And the other side argues that they get closer each time (which I don’t believe can be proved either way) and that they can promise more immediate relief without drastically changing our present life. Yer pays yer money and takes yer cherces!
Taking the pacifist side first, there are two general methods of approach. They can construct every military action or they can try to increase a brotherhood of man feeling. In either case their action is limited, but it can show up more in the first method, as there are always people ready to join them for shortsighted or selfish reasons. But it is a method which promises nothing. Even my most rabid pacifist friends would admit that the brotherhood of man is a long way off. And while by obstructing war you might make it less bloody or less frequent, the chances are that you will make it more inevitable. A spontaneous, unorganized peace will never be obtained until there’s a helluva lot more brotherly love around than there is today.
Personally, I believe that both approaches are necessary. I’m not at all sure I want to live a life according to Christ. Like all Utopias it sounds a trifle dull. In fact, I’ll hold to my former premise that tolerance is the missing ingredient in present day civilization. And I think it’s an easier attribute to inculcate than love. And in-so-far as my pacifist friends work positively towards an increase of love and tolerance—in-so-far as they work with individuals and count every small victory as a further good gained; then I will join their ranks and be a pacifist.
But the country, the world, are not pacifist. Many good-intentioned men are trying to work out a world system of peace from above. Other men (on both sides) are trying to stop them. When a pacifist exerts his energy against things military he is, willingly or unwillingly, aiding the other side. He is working against peace. Whereas when he works positively for his own method of peace he has no influence on the other struggle—one way or the other—but he’s working for peace.
Without mentioning peace-time conscription I think I have made my position clear. I am not for it or against it, because that is not the field on which I try to make my life effective. (Let me remark, parenthetically that I do not believe it is democratically sound to pass a permanent peace-time conscription during a time of war-hysteria when many of our citizens are unable to express their opinions.) With the introduction of a specific measure the endless (and often meaningless) argument over ends and means arises. Will not a year in the army affect the lives of our impressionable young boys (listen to grand-pa!) and make brotherly love further away? Very true. But let’s fight it direct. Don’t fight the whole conscription bill—I doubt if we’re strong enough to anyhow. Rather fight for a conscription bill that will include as many good provisions as possible. It is probably too big a fight to make the army more democratic, but it might be done. Try to include the learning of some craft or working on a farm or in a forest in the year’s servitude. No man is a less likely convert to love and tolerance than the man whose livelihood depends entirely on the vagaries of the economic structure. Try and tack on educational provisions. I would try to broaden the base of conscription so that everyone put in a year of national service—4–Fs, women COs. You can’t give them all just military training so the way is open to give them training in the very things we want. Tolerance, self-reliance, service to a cause. The more I think about it, the more possible good I can see in peace-time conscription. And those of us who think about such things have far more chance of modifying it for the good than we have of stopping it. And as I argued above, I don’t think we should stop it, even if we could.
Only among truly great intellects are problems even really thought out. Personal problems, anyhow. My usual method is to think about a problem until I get tired of it, worrying back and forth the different solutions and not being able to make up my mind. Then I let it go and don’t think of it at all for a few weeks. And suddenly up pops the answer.
A religious person would probably attribute this to divine guidance. But I am not religious in that sense of the word. Others would say that it is an innate common sense coming to the fore. But have you read William James’ description of common sense? Actually I think it is mostly a path of least resistance. While the problem is being debated all the long-term pros and cons are visible. But when it is shoved back into the subconscious the solution which causes the least jar to past and present habits tends to emerge victorious. Therefore I am always somewhat distrustful of a conclusion arrived at in that way. However, it does have the advantage of being a conclusion of a problem where none was arrived at before. And usually in the past it has worked out fairly well.
The particular problem in question is the future. Our future, that is. And the solution is that I’ll go ahead with my math. I admit that I still don’t relish the idea of cramming my head full of a lot of theoretical stuff. But that’s just the means to an end. And on the whole the end is good. We have already gone over the advantages of a college life. The comparative freedom of time and the good companionship. I think I appreciate the latter more now than I had. And from the viewpoint of an effective life a college is about the best place for me. I admit that the need is not as great there. But the need is there—and with my background I can hope to be much more effective there.
Since it’s a subconscious decision I can’t go over all the reasons leading up to it. I discussed the whole problem a while back—suffice it to say that I’ve now made a decision. Always assuming, of course, that it’s what you want.
For the first time I am permitting myself to be hopeful about the war. It seems within the realm of possibility that I would be able to start school in the fall of ’45—a year from now. And I want to start as soon as I can. Remember we talked about working on a farm for a year. I don’t want to take that year. I’ll be 25 and you 23 next fall—and it will take at least a year—maybe two before I have my masters and can start to earn a living. And we want a family.
I think it makes more sense to study full time and get my degree in a year, rather than take 2 on a Fellowship. Of course financially it may not be the best—but we’ll have more than enough saved and I want to get started. I will try to get one correspondence course done aboard ship, if I can. That should leave some free time.
The problem, of course, is where. I think I still have that file of correspondence with grad schools. Brown and NYU were the most encouraging then. Brown has a very high reputation which would help in getting a job. NYU would have a big advantage if you hadn’t finished Hunter. On the other hand there’s much to be said for a western college, since we’re thinking of living there. I’m still not fully sold on Colorado over the corn belt—Ohio through Iowa. Perhaps we should spend the year in one place or the other to help make up our minds. Oh well, that’s something to think about but not decide as yet.
Did I ever tell you I loved you, Thea? I do.
Further reports from the literary department. The Clansman by Thomas Dixon is an example of a bad advocate in a cause that needs a good one. The story of the reconstruction is a blot on the history of the nation—particularly I believe of the north. But a biased story such as The Clansman merely convinced a southerner (such as Tex) that he’s 100 percent in the right, of which fact he was already convinced; while to a thinking person is it full of noble sentiments and so empty of facts that if I based my decision on its testimony alone I would doubt that the south had any case at all. And the fact that it’s not worth 2 cents as literature. For a really good analysis of the same period I highly recommend Claude Bowers’ The Tragic Era.
My Friend Flicka by Mary O’Hara is a beautiful book about which I can say nothing which has not already been said. Read it by all means.
I have added another to my list of mystery writers. Carter Dickinson—and his detective Sir Henry Merrivale. Their chief appeal is in an ingenious plot. The problem always seems to be more how than who. The Punch and Judy Murders was my favorite out of three, as having the fastest action. H.M. (as he’s called) is a satisfactory sleuth—a little like Nero Wolfe, but not as good.
I read another Charlie Chan and I’ve read enough. I like him in a way, but the plot and solution stunk. The Black Camel was the name.
I’m having a delightful time with the Autocrat. He’s ideal pick-up reading. I alternate it with the Bible and a book of Alexander Woollcotts. I haven’t gotten anywhere with Whitman. I can’t seem to get my teeth in the best of poetry. I’m having a good time with the Bible though. But I’d like to get hold of a good life of Jesus to reaffirm my faith when I’m through. I can see why some churches discourage promiscuous reading of it.
Tuesday, September 11, 1944 (probably Tuesday, September 12 – ed.)
Six more days—142 more hours. I’m figuring on making land by noon Monday. I’m getting all fixed up, so I’ll be ready. I’ll leave the actual packing until after the customs inspection. But I’m really going to amaze you by the state of my clothing. All I’ve got left is a small white wash and one set of work clothes which I’ll probably do on Friday. Everything else is clean already. I washed the rest of my work clothes (including my shorts which I’ll bring home as a souvenir) today as well as my sea bag. Tex did a big washing this noon too, and since the weather is unsettled our focsle looks like it had a lot of washing in it. It has.
Got my hair cut yesterday. I’ll be all set to race ashore the minute that gangway goes down.
We’re just missing a hurricane, I understand. There’s one off Bermuda now and we’re just a couple of days from there. We’re sort of dodging in and out of weather. Sometimes calm and clear—the next minute pouring rain and wind. The rain squalls aren’t bad in the crows nest. We just stuff the rim up with life preservers and keep cozy and dry. Of course we can’t see anything, but nobody expects anything from the lookout here anyhow.
I believe I mentioned before how I occasionally enjoy moments of exquisite luxury. This is one now. I have just showered and shaved and shampooed and I’m lying on my bunk smoking a pipe and talking to the girl I love. That is luxury, pure and simple. And there is yet another factor: all around me work is going on. Men are sweating in the engine room and shivering on the wheel and slaving in the galley. And I’m lying here and profiting from their labors. The enjoyment of a luxury is still further enhanced by a realization of its rarity. Of course tonight as you are sitting down to dinner the table will be turned and I’ll be working while they loaf. But I don’t think of that now.
When I lived near the sea and went swimming in the summer, I practically memorized the tide tables. The idea of the ocean and the tide were inescapably intertwined. But now that I’ve been at sea for 6 months without once spending a night ashore, I’ve almost forgotten about tides. Here on the ocean who is to notice a rise of 6 or 8 feet when there is nothing to compare it to? Who cares whether the land is 2 miles below or 2 miles 6 feet? And in the Med, there is no tide to speak of. I doubt if it rises as much as 6 inches.
Les and I had a long talk about honesty last night. He made about a hundred dollars smuggling and selling sheets in Oran, and swiped a good bit of army clothes and stuff to bring home. But he sort of wishes he hadn’t. We talked about it for quite a while. He put forth his best arguments to defend his actions, but I think I answered them all. He was already half convinced to start with, and think now he’s all set to turn over a new leaf.
I must ask your indulgence with me in more of the Autocrat. He has a power with words which is amazing. I find it hard to slow down and savor each phrase as it should be savored. Such books are the proper introduction to poetry. Too much of my reading is of the light, fast moving type whose descriptions are prosaic, and the wise reader races through picking out the salient points at a glance. At such reading I am proficient. I can read a detective story in half the time of Les—and get as much from it. But at reading things like this I am more of a novice. I must curb my eyes and linger a while as I pass. Listen to what he says about promiscuous slang phrases:
“They are the blank checks of intellectual bankruptcy;—you may fill them with what you like; it makes no difference for there are no funds in the treasury upon which they are drawn…it is no better than a toadstool, odious to the sense and poisonous to the intellect when it spawns itself all over the talk of men…” He goes on to defend the correct and sparing use of such phrases.
In my present environment it is not just slang, but the even more objectionable use of obscenity and profanity which richly deserves his opprobrium. With obscenities I have little use. Correctly used they do have one value. The tendency of the generation to see humorous connotations in the application of sex and more infantile urges needs a vocabulary of its own. The acts which in their marital execution are so tender and satisfying are something entirely different when referred to in the smoking room. To use the same words in each situation would be to cheapen the one and embarrass the sensibilities in the other.
There are times when the actions of men and fate seem to conspire against us and an internal pressure is built up which must be relieved by strong words or actions. But strong actions are often impossible in a civilized world, and there are no strong words left. That is my chief objection to such widespread use of profanity (and obscenity has come into the same category by popular consent). A word retains its strength in inverse proportion to the frequency with which it is called upon. A devout minister who has just mistaken his thumbnail for the long, thin piece of metal of the same name, for the third successive stroke of a hammer can restore his internal equilibrium more satisfactorily with a timid, half-whispered, “damn” than a sailor could by tracing the ancestry of the hammer back unto the fifth generation!
Listen to what he says about the sea and the mountains: “The sea remembers nothing. It is feline. It licks your feet,—its huge planks purr very pleasantly for you; but it will crush your bones and eat you, for all that, and wipe the crimsoned foam from its jaws as though nothing had happened. The mountains give their lost children berries and water; the sea mocks their thirst and lets them die. The mountains have a grand, stupid, lovable tranquility; the sea has a fascinating, treacherous intelligence…The sea smoothes its silver scales until you cannot see their joints,—but their shining is that of a snake’s belly, after all—The sea drowns out humanity and time; it has no sympathy with either: for it belongs to eternity and of that sings its monotonous song forever and ever.”
Friday, September 16, 1944 (probably Friday, September 15 – ed.)
All sorts of things have been happening. The hurricane mentioned above hung around longer than expected and we almost ran into it. Yesterday we changed our course for a while, and storm warnings were out all day. We spent the afternoon battening things down and making the ship as secure as possible.
It’s interesting to think that with all man has done he is still ever and anon at the mercy of nature. And that these ships—which sailed into the jaws of an invasion—within sound of the artillery and easy range of the aircraft—must alter their course when nature goes on a rampage. Hurricane—Even to a landsman, like myself—even to a person who has never seen one or felt its effects, like myself—it has an awe inspiring sound. Hurricane. Warnings. Ships in distress. S.O.S. Feverish activity getting ready for the worst. …—… A sudden rain squall—heavy but brief. Rising wind and rising swell. Dropping barometer and anxious looks. Radio reports. Hurricane. Hurricane.
The time is 8:30 PM Thursday. I am on standby on the bridge. The rain has passed and there are but a few scudding clouds to dim the light of the stars above. Suddenly the quartermaster calls out: “The wheel isn’t responding!” The mate says, “Call the captain!” and rings “slow ahead” on the engine room telegraph. The captain says, “Tell the chief engineer!” and races for the bridge. Two red lights are snapped on indicating “vessel not under command.” The ship slowly and helplessly drifts. The wind and swell are still light, but always there is that threat of—Hurricane. A minute passes, and then another. Slowly. Anxiously. The ship behind us has now pulled ahead. The convoy is passing on. Suspense. Then the chief engineer calls from below, “Try the wheel now.” The quartermaster tries it. Slowly but surely the ship swings around. The mate calls for more speed. The convoy is still in sight. He calls for “full speed ahead” and we slowly regain our place. In an hour we are back. All is well.
Morning comes. The swell is a little higher but the wind is light, the sky is clear. We are back on our true course to Baltimore. The hurricane is past. (I’m writing in the crows nest now, so if my writings are even more illegible than usual blame it on the vibrations.)
Our ship is looking almost resplendent in a new coat of paint. The deck and boat deck have both been done and we’re now working on the bulwarks. Too bad you can’t see it in all its glory.
The more I think about it the more I’m against the idea of the Merchant Marine Cadet School. Separate training for officers and men may be all right for the army and navy (I don’t like the army and navy anyhow!) but they’re not part of the Merchant Marine.
What brought the subject up was last night. Usually the standby can stay in his focsle in the mess hall, but last night, because of the threatened storm they wanted him on the bridge. So I was on the bridge (after the steering engine was all fixed) and I made myself comfortable stretching out on a bench. Mr. Reynolds made some remark to me and I sprang up, but he said “That’s all right—make yourself comfortable.”
My point is this. I was performing my job perfectly lying down. I was out of the way but I could hear any call and be on my feet immediately. So there was absolutely no practical reason why I should not have stretched out. And Mr. Reynolds knew that. And he came up from the foclse and remembered when he was a seaman he liked to take it easy whenever possible. So he let me stay there.
But can you imagine an army or navy officer? A man who’s been through 4 years of standing at attention and still salutes and yessir and nosir? Can you imagine such a man taking the practical point of view? His reasoning is more likely to be “Here I am, an officer, compelled to stand by nature of my duty. Why should this mere ordinary seaman be allowed to lie down?”
(An amusing sidelight. Shortly after Mr. Reynolds had given me the O.K. the navy lieutenant passed by and peered at me very closely. In the dark he couldn’t tell if I were navy or merchant marine. Finally he passed on, but I can just imagine his reaction if I’d been one of his men.)
Of course one incident doesn’t prove anything. But the subject is important. The present relation between officers and men is a good one. The men respect the officers because they’ve risen from the ranks. They’ve proved they can hold a job as a seaman and have something more besides. And the officers have a better understanding of the men’s viewpoint. When an order is given it is obeyed. There is no question of lack of discipline. But if the men feel the order was not right—that they were asked to do something they shouldn’t, they’ll gripe about it afterwards. They’ll take their gripe to the captain and if they’re still not satisfied they’ll make a note of it and take it up with the union when they get back. And if the men are right and the officer wrong, they’ll get satisfaction.
But if you have officers who are used to no argument—now or later; officers who place an emphasis on such externals as sirs and salutes (not but that the men usually do “sir” the mates. But if a mate ever made an issue of it I doubt if anyone would). Then you’ll have a helluva lot of conflict. There’s only one logical conclusion, and that is to militarize the entire merchant marine—officers and men. And companies. You can put up an argument for government ownership of the merchant marine, but it should be put up as such.
Our excitement is still not at an end. It seems there were numerous mines torn loose from the Bermudas by the hurricane. So we have again changed our course—this time to the north—to try and avoid being blown up. I hope we succeed!
Bill, Les, and myself had another long argument over negroes, etc. Bill objected to them being made an issue. He’s not sure whether to join this union or the NMU. He doesn’t like the discrimination policy of the SIU but he doesn’t like the open acceptance in the NMU. Not that he objects to negroes as such. His point is that in an organization such as the NMU which supports them in opposition to the other union, the negro has better than an even break. That is, in either union the individually undesirable white person can be kicked off a ship or out of a union. But if an unpleasant negro is asked to resign from the CIO union champions of race equality will immediately raise a howl.
Which I must admit is a valid argument. It is one of the prices society must pay for the policy of discrimination in the first place. But the answer to it is in less, not more, discrimination. Also it is an argument against groups, white or negro, which automatically champion the underdog without inquiring into the individual merits of the case. Such groups really do more against toleration than for it.
But the real center of our discussion was the relative importance of the individual and the mass. Bill claims that the responsibility for raising the negroes for making them worthy of equality rests with the negroes, themselves. He supports his contentions with the situation of foreign minority groups a generation ago. And he speaks from experience there as he was brought up in Little Italy in Philadelphia. These groups were persecuted then much as the negro is now. Not as much, but in the same ways. They weren’t given an equal break because they were different and because they didn’t mix well right away. However, within a generation the Italians have raised themselves above that. Bill was actually stoned as a boy. He need have no similar fears for his own children. And for the most part they (the Italians) did it themselves. When individuals were successful they used their success to raise the community. Bill also claims that that was good for them. The Italians proved themselves the hard way and Bill feels they’re better citizens for it. The negroes have yet to prove themselves.
That’s a pretty powerful set of arguments. On the surface there’s little in it to object to. My objection lies deeper. It lies in the classification as Italian, Negro, Chinese, or what-have-you. It lies in the judging a man before you see him. I’ve no objection to the words themselves. I object to the following train of subconscious thought:
- John Brown is a negro—an indisputable physical fact
- Most negroes are uneducated, dirty, unpleasant, etc.—which is probably comparatively true in the U.S.
- Therefore, John Brown is uneducated, dirty, unpleasant, etc.—(!)
The whole basis of my philosophy is the importance of the individual. The right, nay, the duty, of the individual to develop himself. And any system of society which classifies a man merely by his color—or his language—or his parents—or his hair-do—is hampering individual development. My objection isn’t with Bill’s reasoning that proving themselves has made the Italians better—it’s that the Italians had to prove themselves as such instead of proving themselves as individuals. I don’t maintain that John Brown shouldn’t prove himself—but he shouldn’t have to reform all the thousands of undesirable blacks to do it. Or, if stoning is actually good for a man, it isn’t right that John Brown should have it and I shouldn’t.
I haven’t talked more about getting home, Thea, because I can’t put it down on paper. But I spend my wheel watches planning each more exactly and foreseeing possible contingencies so that we may be together again as soon as possible. And I glance at my watch 50 times a day and figure how many hours to Monday noon. Although I fear with all these course changes it may be later. I hope not, I hope not. 60 hours to go. I love you, Thea.
Sunday, August 17, 1944 (September – ed.)
Tomorrow we arrive although I’m afraid not until after noon. But tomorrow sometime for sure. I can’t see land yet, but we’ve left the convoy—us 5 ships going to Norfolk or Baltimore. Before dark we should be in Chesapeake Bay and pick up our pilot. The life-boats are in, the mooring lines are up, the decks are painted and clean. Tomorrow morning we top booms. Tomorrow afternoon we let down the gangplank.
There’s one hitch. As you know, it is forbidden to carry firearms aboard. But lots of the boys picked up German or Italian guns for souvenirs. The trouble is they’ve been so open about it that the captain can’t pretend not to know there are guns aboard. So to protect himself he posted a notice reminding the crew that it’s specifically against the law, that he knows that despite this there are guns aboard, and that unless the guns are turned in to him to be handed over to the customs no one will be given liberty until the ship has been thoroughly searched by the customs. Of course every ship is searched by the customs, but usually they just spend an hour or two at it. This way they have the authority to search until they’ve found a few guns, and considering the variety of hiding places aboard ship that may take days. So, if you hear an explosion in Baltimore the latter part of this week you’ll know it’ll be your husband blowing up over being so near and yet so far.
I have packed my sea bag and put the first 49 pages of this manuscript at the very bottom of it. Ordinarily that would be a plenty safe place. But with this gun thing I’m pretty sure the customs will want to look through it, so tomorrow morning I’ll unpack it all and find a more secure location. I think probably somewhere in the lower forepeak. A diary’s illegal also, but I’ll sure be disappointed if they find mine. I’ve put a lot of time and thought into this little epic, Thea, and I want you to read it. So keep your fingers crossed for me.
I think for my first meal ashore I shall order a large lettuce and tomato salad and a quart of milk. And corn on the cob should be in season now. I feel I’d starve to death if this trip lasted much longer. The food grows worse, the supplies less, the cooking even more careless, and our comparisons of it with home-cooked fresh food more acute. I consider myself fortunate if I can find two things on the menu which even sound edible, if not palatable. If it weren’t for my big bowl of cereal every night, I’d probably have wasted away already.
The other day when we were afraid of mines, the second mate called Axel in the crows nest with the ensuing dialogue:
Mate: Keep a sharp lookout for floating mines.
Axel: I can keep a sharp lookout now, but vat about tonight?
Mate: We’ll just have to trust in the Lord at night.
Axel: Vot’s the matter. Don’t you trust him in the daytime?
It’s no use, Thea. I can’t keep my mind on my writing. It keeps thinking how soon we’ll be together again. I love you, Thea. Soon I can tell you in person.
Your devoted husband,