Monday, April 11, 2011

Sea stories: The day I got famous

I spent seven years working for a now-defunct shipping company. My first job on a ship was spent chipping and paining in the double-bottom spaces in the bilge of a 40-year old steamship. Sounds awful, and it was, in retrospect, I guess, but I loved it. I was so damn excited to be working on a ship.

I'm not an angel- I've made plenty of mistakes. I suppose that I finally grew up on that ship. I wasn't a troublemaker or a sea-lawyer, but I had my bigmouth moments. I spent 5 years as a permanent crewman there.

I grew up in an Irish-American household. Meat and potatoes. Irish-American food is spiced with three ingredients, and three ingredients only: boiling water, butter, and salt. That's it. Having traveled some, and then marrying an exotic foreigner, I've developed a taste for adventurous dining, but given my preferences, I do revert to type, and we're talking about the days when I lived in an animal-house situation, and when the most exotic woman I had ever dated was one-quarter-English.

As a new blogger, I was enjoying myself- I've never been much of a creative writer- I can write the shit out of a technical description of the impact of chaotic turbulence on diffusion or how to make genetic supermales out of your baby fish, but describing the impact of a knock knock joke on the mood of a room is beyond me even today.
Halloween had come and gone on the ship, ignored like most every holiday. Thanksgiving was one of the two holidays that we celebrated, however, and it was coming up.

So, there's the setup: I'm blogging, and meeting the world one commenter at a time. Thanksgiving is coming. And with it, Thanksgiving dinner with Juan.
Juan was one of the stewards on our ship. Of our stewards, he was the better of the two. An Argentinian of Italian descent, he might have been destined to be a good cook from the beginning. Whatever, we were all excited for Thanksgiving dinner.
The year before, I had also been working for Thanksgiving. That year, the president of the shipping company (which had been based out of New Orleans for most of it's history) sent us a couple of Turduckens to celebrate. This went over like a fart in church for me, as a man who can appreciate a turkey dinner. Being a person of simple taste, I said no me gusto to the turducken. So, the next year I wrote that I was praying for some medicine-ball sized turkeys to come aboard for Thanksgiving, with no fancified cajun food, gracias.
Well, turns out that the president of the company wasn't too happy with the fact that I preferred to eat a $3 plate of turkey dinner as opposed to some seriously expensive gourmet cuisine and then wrote about it. In fact, I had insulted the man and he took it very personally.
One evening in mid-November, the captain called me up to his office. This was out of the ordinary, to say the least. He politely questioned me about "what the fuck I was writing to make the president of the company send a nastygram to the ship?"
I felt like an idiot ass. I now had involved the captain in my stupidity, and, as the captain, he was also wedged firmly in the middle between the office's boot and my ass. Pretty much exactly where he didn't want to be. Me and my big mouth.
Here's where it gets silly, though. Picture me, looking pale and mortified, standing in front of the captain's desk. The captain hands me a printed email where I am called ungrateful, obnoxious and loudmouthed by the man who signs my checks. The email then gets personal, where I am called a yankee and low-class, eliciting a chuckle from the captain, who did enjoy rustling feathers in the office now and again himself, with painstaking detail about the shortcomings of my northern heritage. Finally, the president suggested that if I didn't care for the much-vaunted delights of the southern table, I could eat spam and potatoes from then on like a true yankee.
Anyhow, without fussing over me too much (other than calling me a pain in his ass for calling attention to myself), the captain sent me away, laughing at my discomfort.

Fast forward another week, and it's time to take on the monthly food stores- for a ship without a stores crane, this was an all-hands affair. Everyone but the captain and the mate on watch was out on deck as part of the human chain moving our food from the deck crane midships to the stewards' stores hatch in the stern.
About an hour into the evolution, the captain appeared on deck and called for me. There was a big heavy box with "For Paul" in big letters on the top. With my knife, we slit the tape and peered inside. The captain roared out laughing, and stopped everyone in earshot dead in their tracks. It was a 50-lb box of tin cans full of Spam.
My first reaction: "What the hell do I do now?" The captain told me to take it to my room if I wanted or I could donate it to the steward. I chose the latter. We had spam and something for breakfast and a side of spam on the dinner menu for about 2 weeks.

An ambitious person just starting out in his career might not have chosen this route to distinguish himself from the other 200 afloat crew in the company's fleet. This was my way of thinking, that I had surely sandbagged my own ass.
When January rolled around and I had gone home for a few months' vacation, I got around to sending a letter of apology to the president of the company, explaining that I hadn't thought through my comments, and hadn't meant to offend, and especially hadn't meant to shoot myself in the foot career-wise. I also managed to get in that I didn't like being referred to as a yankee, yankees being of English descent. I got back a nicely worded acceptance of my apology, countered with one of his own for his own harsh words. What followed was a back-and-forth series of chain emails in which I was able to ask and receive a lot of useful information about the company and ships, and which actually very likely increased my loyalty to my employer.
There was a silver lining in that cloud, but I'll never eat spam again.


Anonymous said...

great story.

TheLordThyGod said...

Turducken is an abomination unto me, albeit a delicious one.

Anonymous said...

foot in mouth yields spam in mouth. cool story!

bigsoxfan said...

Thats a winner. and to think of the lengths to which I had to reach out to, in order to get spam in Mongolia. and turkey, forget about that. Mongolia, as far from a ship as you can get with the same level of steward service one might expect on one of the seagulls eating out of an ashtray tankers.