One of my many fantasies growing up in land-locked Saint Paul, Minnesota was to sail the seven seas on a tramp steamer. At the time I probably wasn’t even sure what a tramp steamer was. But the name conjured up images of beautiful brown girls, swaying palm trees and vast blue oceans. Perhaps it was some ‘50s Errol Flynn movie that warped my malleable mind into wondrous thoughts of riding the high seas.
By my mid-teens, it had become a feverish dream burning a hole in my idle hours. I began perusing magazines, novels and seafaring books for clues on how to enter that maritime world. I devoured Joshua Slocum’s ‘Sailing Alone around the world’ and ‘Moby Dick.’ Jack London’s ‘The Sea Wolf’ gripped my imagination more than Dick Tracy or Tarzan ever could.
In fall of 1961, a Life magazine article pushed me over the edge. It was entitled: ‘Before the Mast’ and subtitled: ‘A farm boy ships aboard a freighter.’ The article went on to chronical the adventures of an Iowa farm boy who was selected by the Seafarers International Union hiring hall in New Orleans to work aboard the M/V Del Monte that was sailing off to Brazil. By the end of the article the young sailor was in Rio de Janeiro and getting a tattoo. I was hooked. I sent off an introductory letter to some maritime union in Detroit seeking employment on any ship available. Their form letter response demanded an in-person interview and I didn’t have the bus fare to get there. Totally dejected, I went to college instead.
Fast forward several lifetimes and after college I went to live in Europe. I ended up working at a Danish laundry outside of Copenhagen. Weekends were spent wandering the harbor and talking to the marginal characters who inhabited that strange dockside world. After a month or so I applied for employment on a Norwegian freighter bound for who knows where. I can’t remember why I was turned down; lack of experience, my glasses or my foreign status. The only available work was as a deck hand or dish washer and I didn’t qualify for either. Go figure. A couple of rough weather weekend runs to Germany by ferry boat got that seafaring wanderlust out of my system for good. Or so I thought.
Upon my return to Minnesota I used to imagine Duluth as my gateway/getaway to the great lakes and the open seas beyond. Lake Nokomis became my Inland Ocean. My girlfriend and I used to drive up to the Twin Ports. We would find some forlorn hilltop overlooking the harbor and hunker down. We’d drink cheap wine, eat cheese and crackers, and wax philosophically about foreign lands and the exotic travels we imagined we might do some day.
Later on in life Sharon and I discovered river cruising in Europe. We found that pace much more to our liking. It was relaxed, controlled and manageable. My youthful fantasies had subsided and the thoughts of living in the same work clothes for more than twenty-four hours caused me a chill.
Recently a ten-day tour of Cuba put us on a cruise ship for the first time. The Celestyal Crystal is one of the smaller cruise ships in the cruise industry. It could hold more than one thousand passengers. Ours had only six hundred. But that was still about five hundred and fifty too many for my liking. Sadly, that ship is as close as I’m ever going to get to my tramp steamer at sea.
I’m an old man now (when I’m willing to admit it.) My imagined seafaring days never came to be and I’m OK with that. It was a fantasy born in boredom, a sense of abandonment and no inkling of the exciting years ahead.
As I matured and came to understand my own idiosyncrasies, quirks, strengthens and weak-nesses I realized it was best that I didn’t end up on some cluttered, vomit-strained deck somewhere. A deckhand’s life was not for me. Laguna Beach is a fair substitute whenever I feel the need to suck in salt air and feel sand between my toes.
My world became rich, involved, and stimulating. The women I knew and the men I befriended were all part and parcel of another world that wove a tapestry of memories as firm as any ships log possibly could. My life ended up a journey well taken with never a sea storm to swell against my ship of state. I crested life’s rolling swells of good and bad experiences always aiming for a horizon that promised only better times ahead.
It still does.