A True SailorOn a blustery, cold winter day we departed out of San Francisco Bay in the late afternoon with a brisk, damp wind coming directly at us from the ocean under a thick and darkening sky from the west.
Our ship (not boat) pushed away from the dock with a very loud and shrilling blast of its horn. As we slowly plowed through the dirty-white capped Bay towards the Gate, we passed under the Golden Gate Bridge; the same bridge I had crossed over on foot just a few hours ago, peering down into the waters. Now I was looking up from this massive ship, my eyes taking in the bridge from down below, staring at the memory of my former self.
The cold, salty air filled my nostrils and gave me the shivers. The wind pushed me in gusts, desperately doing its best to rip me away from the ship's railing to which I clung. The open body of water ahead of us seemed to have no end; dark and foreboding with no visible horizon or any sign of life. A new world was straight ahead, out there somewhere.
All of this filled my senses and washed over me. Unforgotten memories forever engrained.
I was traveling to Hawaii with my mother, my 13-year-old sister, Bobbie Jean, and Grandmother Palmer on the USS Barrett, a Navy transport ship for military families. My father was already in Hawaii at his new job with the Corps of Army Engineers in Honolulu and we were on our way to join him. My 17-year-old sister, Pat, stayed behind to graduate from High School. I was already missing her.
Hawaii, "an exotic island paradise", awaited us. I consumed every picture and every word about Hawaii in our Encyclopedia Britannica. It teased me with hula girls and pineapples, fragrant flowers and tall waterfalls, smoking red hot lava flows and a warm blue ocean with waves to play in. All under a perfect, blue sky.
Before clearing the last channel buoys, our ship began to pitch and roll with the winter ocean swells despite the ship promising to rely on its stabilizers for smooth sailing.
We didn't know it at the time, but we were heading into a winter storm the Captain would later say was the worst he'd seen in twenty-five years.
At the beginning of this journey, every passage to the outside decks had been secured with rope and signs posted 'OFF-LIMITS'. Families were now confined to the lobby; a big open room as wide as the ship. It was on the main level deck and was lined with chrome framed couches and chairs. The brown, vinyl-covered cushions squeaked when you sat on them.
It started to rain. The rain came in torrents and was pelting the windows.
The rolling of the ship now took its toll on my entire family; sea sickness getting the best of them. In fact, the entire ship would be tested on this journey by the swelling rolls of the waves. Little did I know that I'd be the last one standing.
The next morning, I awoke and rolled over on my side in my upper bunk above Bobbie Jean. I looked across our stateroom into the bathroom where the light was on. I saw my mother on the floor holding onto the toilet for dear life. Bobbie Jean was also awake and sitting up in her bed just below mine. She held a trash can firmly between her legs. Grandmother Palmer was moaning.
He then turned and looked at me.
"Are you hungry, little man?"
"Yes, sir," I replied.
"Come on, let's get you some food."
We walked, hand in hand, all the way down the hall to the dining room. The ship was really rolling now. It was raining something fierce and you could hear the water pelting exposed windows and doors, still secured with their "off-limits" signs.
We opened one of the two big metal doors into the dining room. This same room that had been filled with people for dinner the evening before was now nearly empty.
As we came to a table where the Captain sat, the porter introduced me. He told the Captain about the condition of my sister, mother and grandmother. I put my hands on the table and was surprised to realize it was soaking wet. The Captain noticed my confused look and explained that wet tablecloths prevent the dishes from sliding off the table. Then he offered me something I couldn't refuse.
"How would you like to go up to the bridge and learn something about being a sailor?" he asked.
"Wow, really? I would like that very much!" I replied.
We walked along and up the stairs of the ship and entered a very bright room. An officer called out loudly, 'Attention! Captain on the Deck!'. The Captain was quick to respond, 'At ease, men'.
"This sailor here is Robert," the Captain pointed out. "He'll be learning the skills of navigation from you. It appears he is the only one with sea legs on our ship."
As I stood there, someone lifted me up and set me on a big, high chair on a pedestal. From my perch atop the Captain's chair, I saw sailors at their work: one was steering the ship, another was standing at the engine controls. There was an officer and two other sailors on watch, looking through the windows. And me. In the middle of the room with all these men in dark blue uniforms while the Captain taught me new nautical terms.
As I looked around, the ship creaked while slowly leaning one way and then the other. Back and forth. Looking at the expansive view from the bridge, I could see the front bow of the ship sometimes. I also saw a valley of water so big the whole ship fit in it. Then, we would roll up and out of this deep, wide trench and everything would go white with torrential rain and the spray of an angry ocean spitting us right in the eye.
And I was having the time of my life.
I got to steer the ship. I learned about radar, maps, nautical speeds, bearings, port and starboard, bow and aft, bulkhead, bowline knots and how you never call a ship a boat.
I was a sailor.
From that day on, I ate my meals at the Captain's table: French toast with butter and powdered sugar, orange juice, sandwiches made with potato chips, steak, mashed potatoes, and of course, ice cream. I was always up on the bridge assisting the Captain and his crew after breakfast and lunch.
Meanwhile, my family spent the entire voyage just lying on their beds. All day. All night. Sometimes moaning and sometimes throwing up. Our trip to Hawaii was only supposed to take five days, but it took us nine.
On the ninth day, the porter came to our cabin early in the morning to deliver a message. We were going to arrive at Honolulu today. I got dressed and ran all the way to the bridge.
As I shared the view with my fellow sailors, I noticed the ocean had changed. It was now quiet and I could spot the silhouette of a massive mountain sitting on the horizon, still some distance away.
I ran back to our stateroom as fast as my legs could carry me and told my mother, sister and grandmother what I had seen.
"It was Hawaii!" I told them. "A big, giant mountain sitting on the ocean! You gotta' see it!"
We walked out onto the starboard deck and there ahead of us was Hawaii sitting atop the ocean. We watched our new home come into view alongside the sunrise. It looked absolutely beautiful. A layer of clouds lay like the rim of a hat around her mountain tops.
We traveled along the Lee side of the island chain coming in under the Big Isle, then Maui Koolawe, Lana'i and Moloka'i and across the Moloka'i channel where the ship started rocking once again.
We docked into Honolulu Harbor where Dad met us, waving and carrying a big smile. He had flower and Li Hing Mui leis which he hung around our necks (and more than enough hugs, I thought, but Mom thought differently I guess).
I thought about how much I missed my sister, Pat. Not even the roses in our garden back home were any match for the white Plumeria or delicate Pikaki flowers we wore around our necks.
As we were welcomed off the ship, there was a band playing Hawaiian music as Hula girls danced. News reporters took pictures of me and the Captain and asked about our trip. My picture with the Captain ran on the front page of the Honolulu Advertiser.
I didn't know this, but a navy plane had been sent out daily to track us just to make sure we were okay. As it turned out, the ship's radio antenna had broken off in the storm and the crew had fashioned a make-shift one which only had limited range.
In the newspaper article, the Captain said this voyage was his worst in over twenty-five years. Anywhere.
Now sitting poolside on a patio with my family, I sipped from a bright red drink and stared out across the beach, while parrots landed in the overhanging trees.
I thought of the Hawaii my encyclopedia back home had promised me and I was thankful it hadn't lied. Hawaii was paradise.
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