(An essay for the first semester of English, University of Louisville – Summer 1948)
The sea can appear soft and weak yet there is nothing that surpasses it for attacking things that are formidable. The sea is mysterious.
As a child the sea fascinated me. I longed to be near the water. A promise to go swimming or fishing was all that was necessary to keep me in my best behavior. It was a must for me to visit the Brooklyn Navy Yard whenever visitors were allowed. One of my favorite possessions was a large conch that would simulate the sound of a disturbed ocean when pressed against an ear. A far-off blast from a ship’s whistle would launch my imagination on a world cruise.
Instead of growing out of this childhood fascination I became more engulfed in it. Books like those by Richard Henry Dana, Herman Melville, and Jack London served to kindle my desire to become a seafarer into a flaming ambition. I wanted, if nothing else in this world, to sail the ocean in its meanest frenzy. I wanted to glide through it when tranquility reigned.
I was well advised in those days. My parents and teachers insisted that I get a good preliminary education. With a thought of appeasement and with a great deal of reluctance I entered high school for what I considered a long and unnecessary four years.
I did not wait for high-school graduation. In reaching for the very first opportunity I applied for admission to the Maritime Commission Cadet Corps and was allowed to take the entrance examination before I completed my high-school senior year. To me, the Saturday that I took the exam was a very eventful day for it marked the surmounting of my last obstacle. Little did I then imagine that the very next day, December 7, 1941, would be more eventful.
People were impressed by what they thought was a patriotic gesture; in a matter of weeks I was undergoing preliminary training at Fort Schuyler. Actually I had no intention of letting anything, even a world war, postpone my going to sea any longer. I cannot say what my actions would have been at that time of national crisis if I had not been exhorted by my lifelong ambition.
Those were days of extreme anxiety for my brave parents. Knowing that it was futile to ask me to stay home they assisted me in every way possible to accumulate the items required to complete a sea bag.
After five weeks of indoctrination, during which the Maritime Commission Cadet Corps became the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, I stowed my gear aboard my first vessel, U.S. Army Transport URUGUAY, to serve as a cadet for one year. My elation knew no bounds, but I did not let romanticism run off with my reasoning. I had elected to be a member of the black gang because I believed it to be a more practical vocation than that of a deck officer. There was more than enough romanticism amidst the throbbing heat of the engines, and by the glistening sweat made golden by the glow from boiler fires.
The sea was everything I imagined it to be. The ocean was a cast that performed a continuous play without ever repeating a scene. Sometimes its huge swells would rise and fall like the flexing muscles of a monster. With apparent ease, it would raise and lower the 20,000-ton URUGUAY as if to remind us of its power. On other days, small feathery-capped combers raced each other from horizon to horizon while filling the air with invigorating spray.
The sea had the patience to lie becalmed for days while waiting for those who did not believe the tales of its strength. On such days, I would spend hours between watches looking at the endless procession of flying fishes that skimmed across the surface as the approaching bow disturbed them. A few times a sleepy-eyed sea turtle gazed curiously as we passed. I was thrilled at the sight of a whale, a school of playing porpoise, or a leaping tarpon as it tried to elude a shark.
Bad weather, indicated by a falling barometer, would sometimes be confirmed by the sight of a waterspout stretching from the surface to the heavens. Then, we would expect the unleashed fury that only the majestic oceans can create. I appreciated the towering waves, howling winds, and the terrific tossing. Fortunately I was not susceptible to sea sickness. When storms abated we were often rewarded for our ordeal with a rainbow. Many times afterwards the crew was the audience for the greatest scene that the seas have in store, a golden sunset.
For the first time in my life I became aware that all men were not like those I knew at home. I was a member of a crew that was not yet affected by the war. Most had years of experience and had different reasons for going to sea. Some were driven to it during the depression. Others were engaged in a family tradition. Some, like me, were fascinated by it. Few had turned to the sea for the purpose of eluding the law or a deserted wife. Some were seeking solitude from life ashore where they did not agree with society. There was more than one who wanted only to be among men.
Some crewmen were sources of extraordinary wisdom. A White Russian, that is someone who opposed the Bolsheviks, was more American than those of us who were native born. Having experienced terrorism during the Russian revolution and torpedoing during World War I, he knew fear and valued freedom. He spoke almost daily and with pride of his American citizenship. He caused me to note that I had been taking mine for granted while not ever thinking to be thankful.
The foreign lands I visited will forever hold my interest. I became intrigued by the traditions in British ports. I was mesmerized by the South Sea Islands and enthralled by Scotland. I learned to appreciate the British for their fortitude and the Australians and New Zealanders for their friendliness. I learned also, that not all women were mothers and sisters. I was shocked by the German ruthlessness in indiscriminately destroying dwellings in Wales, Scotland, and England. It was there in the blitzed British Isles that I began to realize that it was a duty for me to be more directly involved in the war.
After being in Algeria during the invasion of North Africa, and upon my return to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, I began to weigh myself compared to the landlubber who went to sea the year before. My ardent desire to be near the sea remained, however I realized that I had an important obligation to fulfill. Even though I had been exposed to considerable danger I felt that I was selfishly pursuing my own happiness when people were dying for a cause.
Immediately after graduation from the Academy and just eighteen months after leaving high school, in mid 1943 I presented my diploma and engineer’s license to the Officer for Naval Officer Procurement.
I went to sea again with less freedom, for longer hours, and with less than half the pay as an ensign in the U.S. Navy. I was serving humanity. I could face those who were suffering from the war. I was at sea.
A strong nor’wester’s blowing Bill.
Hark! Don’t you hear it roar now?
Lord help them! How I pities all.
Unlucky folks on shore now.
Ditty from Mahan’s Sail to Steam
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo