Warm Nights In Port

by Mike Hemming
 
 

One of the sweet times in a smokeboat sailor’s memory banks, is a warm night in port. The day is done, the movie sucks and a crowd gathers topside. Coffee, iced tea and Coke are the beverages imbibed; sometimes some gilly or a case of beer arrives, if in a foreign land. The booze isn't important, though sometimes, it makes the new stories funnier and the old ones not so stale.

Men that live together under difficult conditions, whom you would think couldn’t stand each other by now, spend some more time together. Drawing reinforcement from each other, knowing that they understand the life they live like no one else ever can. Talking, joking, lying followed by the long silences that are a form of communication among men that share something.

Harbors the world over are not silent. Homeports are active, men on the tender move around, doing whatever they do. Cars, taxis and buses deliver drunks in singles, doubles and by the load to the nearby piers. Some quiet, some loud and obnoxious but all are delivered to their respective quarterdecks to drop below for sleep. Silence or the stories return, it does not matter, men listen to the music of a Fairbanks Morse in the after nest on the finishing rate. Memories return and are spoken out loud, the words agreed with or dismissed with,

"Choo Choo, you are so full of shit your eyes are brown."

Again it does not matter, a Zippo snaps open flaring the end of another sea store, a finished butt sails in a dim fiery arch to hiss unheard into another greasy harbor. One man walks to the forward capstan sits and smokes a cigarette far from home missing those he loves, staring out over the water and lonely to him, land. If anyone comes near they are silent too. Allowing the man his privacy in public the only kind you get in this strange sardine can existence.

After a bit, he goes below for sleep. Others come and go too, to get some fresh air, to think, to not think. A long involved story holds their attention to be laughed at, then quickly topped by another. Who knows or cares if any of it is true. The stories will last longer than the steel hulls of their ships or their lives.

The duty chief comes up for one last turn before sacking out, seeing the men there he speaks to some, some to him. He does not join the men, some of his memories from a war long ago, include men like these and he doesn’t want the pain of those memories right now. Dropping down the hatch, he takes his young men's ghosts with him, hoping they will let him sleep soundly.

But the young men see ghosts too, 129 men recently rest in the cold, deep waters off the New England coast. The spirits they see are faceless; They knew them not, but are brothers to them. But with the resiliency of the young, their thoughts soon turn to the things that surround them. Jokes and stories return, the men are made of the steel and rubber of youth. By ones and twos they drift below until only 2 are talking quietly smoking and drinking cold coffee. As the Fairbanks in the after nest finishes its charge and is shut down, they too give up and go below for sleep.

The magic of a warm night in port broken at last, they all will sleep with their dreams and memories as we do now in our later years.

 

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