June 10, 1997
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column concludes a series about a Merchant Marine voyage the author made at age 17.
Since this is the final issue before the Harbinger takes a summer recess, I will bring this tale of my 1969 Vietnam voyage home. It's been a long story. Had I known it would take some 22 installments and over a year to complete, I'm not sure I would have begun re-living it in print. I would like to thank the readers who have more or less loyally followed this particular instance of a classic story - the voyage-tale, the Bildungsroman, a story of growing-up and now, of returning home.
We left Okinawa on August 31st, 1969. As I put it in my teenaged longhand: "We left at 2:20 PM today for Oakland! Hooray! Huzzah! Yahoo! (and others)"
I'd spent the final days in Okinawa buying presents for friends and for myself a fancy Panasonic 8-track player (it was portable - later I would use it to blast my room and then plug it into its case in my Mom's gold '68 Cutlass. I remember the guy at Electronics World, where I bought tons of 8-track tapes with the traveler's checks I got at pay-off in San Francisco. He would see me come in the door and say, "Here comes moneybags.").
Alert readers (to borrow Brother Dave's term) will remember PeeWee and Vince, the hapless New Orleans Mafiosi on the lam, who kept on missing the ship in hopes of never returning to the States. True to form, on this final departure from Okinawa: "PeeWee and Vince again. They were trying to get on another ship bound for Saigon, but they couldn't cut it and made it back to the Del Valle just as the gangway was being lifted up. Now I guess they'll face whatever it is they were trying to get away from."
"We pulled away from Okinawa. The island became a green bump on the horizon and the Jets game on the messhall TV faded out as we chugged out to sea. The sun set in the big Pacific sky, splashing reds and purples - now in our wake, since we're going east. Toward home at last, homeward! So ends my 90th day aboard the SS Del Valle."
A few more samples of the return trip from the log I kept:
Tuesday 2 September: "According to my calculations, the 1969-70 school year started in Mobile today at 5:55 PM my time. At least I'm missing something I don't particularly enjoy. I will enjoy it a lot less when I get back in the middle of September and have 16 days of piled up schoolwork to do, not to mention six weeks of football practice. We advanced clocks today, another Time Zone closer to home. Seven or eight more of these and we'll be in San Francisco. Everybody's ready to get off this tub. The old-timers call it 'channel fever.' If you want to see someone with channel fever, all you have to do is go into the messhall late at night and there'll be nine or ten guys sitting in there because they can't sleep for the excitement over coming home. Like the guys in Nam used to say, we're "short"!
"The drunks are having a tough time again. Kitchens, the third cook, borrowed Tree's aftershave and when Tree went to get it back, Kitchens was sitting on the deck drinking from the bottle. Ech."
The trip across the northern Pacific from Okinawa to Oakland took 16 days. They passed with a little less monotony than the 30-day voyage across the southern Pacific, I suppose, because this time our end was not Vietnam, but home and payday. Even PeeWee and Vince began to relax. They would make me bring my 8- tracks to the messhall and with some soul-brothers from the Engine Department, they would bang tables, beat cans, and dance weirdly during the night watches.
Pushed by guilt and fear, I tried to get in shape for football by jumping rope and running up and down the decks and stairs till I puked. This routine was interrupted when we hit 15 foot seas on September 5th. It was a slightly calmer re-play of Typhoon Cora, except that the rough weather lasted for three days. My log entries detailed more mess in the messhall (which I figured was a good name for a dining room aboard a ship during rough weather), but now the tone was joking and carefree.
A couple of days later, I spent the afternoon on the bow watching whales. "After being so hip on whales when I was a little kid," I recorded in my log, "it's nice to see them for real. From their spouts, I think they are gray whales."
Monday 8 September: "We've speeded up - almost 16 knots for the old Del Valle - hope she doesn't fall apart! It's getting chilly as we churn further northwest. Guys who once slept in cots out on the deck are now asking the Steward for extra blankets. Tomorrow, another Monday morning - we'll pass the Date Line again. Two Monday mornings, blah!"
Wednesday, 10 September: "You ought to see these albatrosses that are trailing the ship. Big ain't the word - they're like pterodactyls! They skim back and forth across the wake about one inch above the surface of the waves. Amazing, how they do that. But they're not too bright, tho. I threw whole loaves of stale bread out for them and they just kept on skimming along. Hm. Maybe they just don't go for bread?"
Thursday, 11 September: "Had an eclipse today. At first I didn't believe it because the Chief Electrician (who looks just like Pat Paulson) had told us, and he is a known liar (he'd told us we were going to be pulled off the ship at Cam Ranh by the Marines and drafted right then and there, for example). But it was so: the moon did in fact take a little bite out of the sun around 9:45 AM, and if I remember right, this is supposed to be a total eclipse for Mobile."
By September 12th the log entries began to focus on the upcoming payoff - how much OT I expected to get, slop chest bills, War Zone pay, and other details I heard argued daily by the "sea lawyers" in the messhall. The union I had to join, Seaman's International Union (SIU), seemed to have reams of arcane rules and nobody could agree on just what they were. Some guys were vehemently pro- union; others dismissed SIU as a gang of crooks who robbed us workingmen. There seemed no middle ground on this issue. I decided to wait and see for myself.
The final days were spent working overtime and the nights, after we got our final draw for San Francisco, playing poker. I stayed up till 2:00 AM my final night on the Dell Valle and awoke two hours later. It was Monday, September 15th:
"Boy, was it cold! I closed the porthole and sat in bed with the blanket wrapped around me like a Comanche. Jerry was up, and we kept guessing when we would first see California. It was still dark, but the first clue of the United States was the radio stations coming in loud and clear on Jerry's radio.
"Later, after breakfast, we went out on deck to look. We could see white seagulls now - shorebirds, not the oceanic albatross. Then we saw a fishing boat far away, and closer, two submarines (the submarines didn't seem to fit the homecoming images, but that's what we saw). Finally, we passed south of a small, rocky island that I took a snapshot of, but which won't come out since it was just a dot on the horizon. But for my home-starved eyes, it was like Shangrila!
"I had to go in and serve supper, but everybody was out on the deck so I came back out, too. Through the fog, I began to make out the gray-green coast of California. Yes sir, there it was! It was pretty, and from the sea it looked just like Vietnam. I still couldn't see the one silhouette that for me represented the end of the voyage. Then Jerry pointed it out. At first it was just a faint line in the fog, but as we got nearer it took the swooping shape I'd imagined for some two months - the Golden Gate Bridge! I thought, "It is really real!" As we went under it, I saw it was more red than gold. I tried to finish my duties as we steamed past Alcatraz to port and the stacked hills of San Francisco to starboard. It was too gorgeous for words. Then we sailed under the huge silver, double-deck Oakland Bay Bridge, which dived through a tunnel on Treasure Island. This whole place looks like a dream of Walt Disney!"
"We got docked and cleared by Customs. I went down the gangplank and found a phone to call home. Mom started crying. Found out they'd arranged to get me back into Murphy -"
And here, the Log ends. The last sections were written on simple tablet sheets, which somebody had stapled together in a folder over the years, and if I wrote anything further, it's long gone now.
Still, I recall clearly the payoff, how we were taken up to the officer's mess, and filed along a table filling out forms and signing papers till we came to a man who forked over to each sailor a bundle of dollar bills from his high security suitcase. Then it was over to the next table where the SIU men handed us more papers to sign and took a big cut from each guy's pay. I protested when I saw that I had to "contribute" $80 to pay back the cost of a strike that occurred in 1947. I was told if I didn't like it, they would dispute my overtime and I wouldn't get anything. This was when I joined the camp of those who saw SIU as a cartel of crooks and mobsters skimming millions from workers' paychecks. "You guys are paying off 10 to 20 ships a day in San Francisco alone, and still get money from each guy to cover this 1947 strike?" The Union guy, who I am afraid I must describe as beefy, simply shifted the toothpick in his mouth and smiled. "Yeah," he said, "nice, ain't it?"
The next day Jerry, Louis the Ordinary, and I took a taxi for the San Francisco airport. I was amazed to see that many of the Union sailors coming on board to replace us had hair that was down to their shoulders - this was my first glimpse of real live hippies. We took snapshots of the orange and green stacks of the old Del Valle as they disappeared into the Oakland skyline, and asked the cabbie to take us to Haight-Ashbury.
I am sorry that I recall little about the Haight in 1969. We felt pretty much like aliens anyway, and after returning from Vietnam, the Haight was just too weird for three already confused Southern teenagers to take in. We mostly just walked around and gawked at hippie girls and felt very unhip. Then it was back into the cab, to the airport, and onto the plane.
Jerry and Louis left at New Orleans. We didn't do much of a good bye - their families were all over them. Louis, luckily, lost no one in Camille. My own turn came later when the plane touched down at Bates Field. Mom and Dad swooped me up. It's all a blur (I need the log here) but I recall everyone feeling very wary - they had no idea what kind of son was returning, nor did I for that matter.
It seems I was taken directly to Murphy. Just one year before I had been class president, now a coach was grabbing my hair (which was not nearly as long as real hippies' hair) and ordering me to get a haircut that very day after practice, Mister.
The next day in Mrs. Lillich's American government class, I was asked to tell everyone about Vietnam. I muttered a few things, and tried to answer the halting questions that followed. The next night I found myself trying to run patterns in a game against Vigor at Ladd Stadium and after that, I went to a fraternity party. This was even more strange than Haight-Ashbury. I simply went through the motions of playing the role of a normal high school senior.
But already it was obvious that everything was changed. I didn't know how I was different, but I knew that I was. It was the end of my youth, the end of a tidy Mobile worldview, a future characterized by Mardi Gras balls, dove hunts, buttondown shirts.
I had returned home, but it was not home. Nor was it the same "I" who returned. I didn't know it, but I had already begun another journey, a journey that would take eleven years to come full circle.
So let this one end. Now let us enjoy this new summer, but not forget the summers of our lives, each of which could be given a title, if we were to count our lives in summers. Such was the story of one guy's summer, the Merchant Marine Summer of 1969.