When U. S. Army Transport URUGUAY steamed inbound through the Golden Gate on 14 May 1942, it was the end of an unescorted seventeen-day voyage from Wellington, New Zealand. At some time during that period the odd couple became the odd triple.
I didn’t know that there were hillbillies in Maine until I met Richard Holmes. Except for his down-east accent, he seemed to be from a hollar in eastern Kentucky. Holmes was then a twenty-five year old junior engineer who thrived on mischief that bordered on mayhem. Most in URUGUAY’s black gang would say, “That’s an understatement!”
The other partner in the odd couple was Adolph Gabrunas, another junior engineer, then in his forties. He preferred being called Eddie, but Holmes always called him Rooski.
Eddie Gabrunas was born in Riga when Lativia was part of Czarist Russia. Against his wishes, his mother enrolled him in a Jesuit seminary in Moscow. He ran away in 1916, bummed his way to Vladivostok and back, and was picked up by the Czarist police in Rostov on Don for being a draft dodger. In lieu of jail, he was forced to ship out in a merchant vessel departing from Murmansk. The ship was torpedoed before it left sight of land. On the same day, he was put on another.
Eddie arrived in New York Harbor that April day in 1917 when the United States declared war on Germany. Due to revolutionary turmoil in his homeland and his independent spirit, he accepted an offer of U.S. citizenship that required him to ship out in the U.S. merchant marine. Eddie never saw any of his relatives again.
When a teenage Brooklynite, me, caused the odd couple to transform into the odd triple, Holmes and I became the Rooski’s de-facto family.
I got along with Eddie because he and I were the two most avid readers in URUGUAY. We were constantly swapping books. However, it’s still a mystery to me why he and Dick Holmes got along. The latter was always a source of frustration. Maybe it was because the Rooski depended on the Maine hillbilly for daily exercise. Eddie was very excitable, and when provoked would start arm waving and yelling in whatever of the four languages he knew that had the best adjectives for the occasion.
A typical such event occurred that first day in San Francisco after URUGUAY entered a berth south of the Ferry Building.
In port Eddie shifted to an 8-hour-on 16-hour-off watch that started at four every afternoon. Holmes and I shifted to day work. We performed maintenance and were off every evening and on weekends. Since Eddie could not go ashore with us, he insisted that Holmes and I go to Lefty O’Doul’s, a pub on Geary Street. “Mention my name and they will treat you great,” he said.
Holmes and I went ashore with that objective. We hitchhiked a ride along the waterfront in a steam-driven switch engine to the foot of Howard Street and then started walking west. Holmes insisted on stopping in the first saloon that we saw. I was a one-beer drinker then, so I stood by while Holmes downed two more. Afterwards he had to stop in the second bar on our route in order to use the head, however his code of ethics prevented him from using the facilities without buying a drink. That is the way it went in pub after pub all the way to Geary Street.
In May of 1942 Lefty’s catered to a fairly swank crowd. The manager and waiters wore tuxes and customers in formal attire were not unusual. A number of bar owners had yet to discover that more money could be had from the sailors and soldiers that were just then beginning to appear in large numbers. Lefty’s appointments were still prewar plush.
The appointments included an electric-eye door opener, something that we had not encountered before. By now slightly unsteady Holmes, eager to introduce himself as a friend of Eddie’s, stiff armed the door and fell flat on his face when it opened as if magically. There was a bit of a commotion as I tried to get him upright. The tux-clad waiters had us out before either one of us could say, “Rooski.”
The next morning when enthused Eddie wanted to know about our reception we were like a couple of oil-soaked eels slithering on banana skins while trying to evade his questions. When pinned we fibbed, “There was some sort of special event. Lefty’s was jammed. The manager didn’t have much time to talk. Oh yeah, he and the bartender remember you and they seem like nice guys.”
That afternoon Eddie visited Lefty O’Doul’s and expressed his thanks to the manager for taking care of his two shipmates. The manager made the correct association and bawled him out for the brief ruckus the two wild punks caused. Holmes and I were subjected to three days of yelling in four different languages.
About ten-years later Holmes lost his engineer’s license for striking another officer. He committed suicide. The Rooski cried as if he had lost a real son.
Adolph Gabrunas died in the mid 1970s. As I covered his casket with the Stars and Stripes the insensitive undertaker noted, “He was not a veteran.”
I replied, “You are right. He only shipped out in U.S. merchant ships that carried troops and munitions during World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and during the war in Vietnam!”
The undertaker’s assistant then quickly darted to the other end of Eddie’s casket and helped me to unfurl Old Glory. As he did so he said loud enough for his boss to hear, “This is the most beautiful casket cover in the world.”
The Rooski deserved no less!
When Eddie the Rooski Gabrunas told me that as a teenager he ran away from a Moscow monastery and hitched rides all the way across Siberia to Vladivostok and then back to Rostov on Don, I asked, “Were you the original hippie?”
He explained that Czarist Russia was then mobilized and that most of the population was illiterate. All he had to do was hang around the general-delivery window in any post office where he could always find people who had either just received letters that they could not read, or who were looking for a scribe to write something. He further explained that they included the people who processed food, clothing and whatever else he needed to subsist. He added, “Being literate at that time was the equivalent of always having money.”
Copyright © 2005 (text only) by Louis D. Chirillo