Thursday, August 13, 2009

First Chapter - Gemstone by Jim Woods


A Novel of South Africa

by Jim Woods


The Liverpool-registered freighter Frances Newton was outfitted with eight passenger cabins on the second deck, one level safely removed from the sometimes-perilous cargo handling operations topside. Never in the ship’s thirty-two year years of service had it sailed with all cabins occupied. When the ship was commissioned the owners had visions of adventurous travelers willing to pay lucrative fees for leisurely passage to distant, obscure, exotic and sometimes surprise-scheduled destinations. They miscalculated; the bare-and-spare Newton just could not compete with the cruise liners that offered dance floors, intimate cocktail lounges and midnight buffets.

Passenger amenities on board the Newton were limited to eating at officer’s mess, a library of well-used paperback books, several decks of equally well-thumbed playing cards, a checker board, a chess set and ample opportunities for carnal encounters with the mostly-Irish boiler tenders and British deckhands. Captain Perkins had observed over the past seventeen years--he was only the second skipper of the Newton since it first was launched--that the worst offenders of the latter were married women traveling with their husbands, older women traveling with like companions, and young men traveling alone. The occasional younger single women, or married women who booked single-cabin passage, seemed to gravitate to officers. The American, Jim Stone, was neither passenger nor crew nor officer of the Frances Newton, yet he was all three.

Chapter 1

“This is the Captain. All hands stand-to for docking. Attention, all passengers and crew. We have stopped just outside of Table Bay. The South African customs inspector and the Cape Town harbor pilot will come on board shortly; their boat is coming alongside just now. All crew not assigned to deck operations, and all passengers, make ready for customs inspection. Luggage, trunks and other personal gear intended to be put ashore must be tagged by customs. Passengers disembarking at Port Elizabeth and the Port of Durban will have their bags checked by customs here at Cape Town, our initial port of entry to South Africa. Passengers disembarking in Cape Town will place their luggage on the main deck, starboard; Port Elizabeth passengers and those disembarking in Durban, will place theirs on the main deck, portside. This will allow passengers disembarking here to have their customs inspections first so that they may leave the ship as quickly as possible. Passports and customs declaration forms must be ready for the inspector. Thank you for your cooperation. We will get underway shortly after the pilot is aboard and should tie up starboard-side-to at Duncan Dock, Berth B, in less than an hour.”

The squawk box in the forward cabin passageway blared out the instructions resonantly, Jim Stone noted with satisfaction. The shipboard loudspeaker network was one of the electronic systems he had overhauled on the voyage from Long Beach. Forty-seven days, the old bucket, the Frances Newton, had been at sea, counting a few hours ashore at Acapulco to take on Mexican fuel oil that was cheaper than that available in Long Beach; a two-day layover at Callao near Lima; one day at Valpariso; then around Cape Horn and nearly two days at Stanley on East Falkland Island; then the almost five thousand-mile stretch of open sea to Cape Town.

With mixed emotions, Jim Stone gathered up his possessions, a Navy-issue olive-green duffel bag that held his clothes and personal effects, the bag cinched closed via a doubled-wire loop protruding from the canvas-bag opening at one edge and over which three grommets equally spaced around the opening of the bag were threaded, the wire loop then secured with the clip at the end of the shoulder strap; a newly sewn bleached-white canvas, draw-string-top duffel that contained his bedroll; and a scuffed leather rifle case that protected the Springfield.

Jim Stone was pleased that the voyage was over and at the same time saddened to accept that it had ended. He recalled how he had been relieved and exhilarated when the tedious sixty-six days at sea aboard U.S.S. Harry E. Hubbard finally ended in port; on that leg of the destroyer cruise there had been no stops at all. At three hundred-and-ten feet long, the Newton didn’t compare in length to the Hubbard, and with a beam of sixty-two feet, none of the destroyer’s sleekness. Worse, though, was that the Newton did not glide through the water. Even when the weather was rough, when the Hubbard’s foredeck and the fantail were alternately awash with raging seas, it still made good headway; the freighter Newton simply wallowed. On the voyage from Long Beach, the Newton squatted low in the water with her weather deck crammed with the huge crates of iron slag from Ohio, and in the holds, a fleet of previously-owned automobiles, and the printing press that when re-assembled would fill a sizable warehouse. The monstrous press had been outgrown by a newspaper in Omaha and was consigned to a publisher in Lima where it would print papers for another two or three decades even though the Omaha publisher considered it worn out.

“The Old Bucket” as the Newton unofficially was referred to by captain and crew alike, rode sluggishly. After the printing press was off-loaded in Peru and the automobiles in Chile, the Newton would have ridden higher in the water and a lot less comfortably. The crates of slag, though, were removed from the deck to the hold in order to better ballast the hull. For reasons known only to the Captain, probably as the crew members sagely argued, to avoid Chilean passage fees at Punta Arenas, he eschewed the calm transition from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Straits of Magellan, and rounded storm-ravaged Cape Horn where the high waves tossed the ship about like it was empty. The situation was pretty dicey for passengers and crew at one time, not to mention The Old Bucket itself, when several of the husky crates of slag broke loose and skittered across the hold, pounding the ship’s sidewalls. Finally the errant crates were secured at the cost of several severe injuries among the crew, but luckily no deaths, and were off-loaded in the Falklands where their contents would be mixed with the concrete of the breakwater under construction. To replace that ballast for the trans-Atlantic excursion, the holds fore and aft were crammed with pallets of bagged penguin guano, claimed to be the most concentrated fertilizer in the world. It would add much-needed enrichment to the desert-encroached and nutrient-depleted farm soils of Botswana, South Africa and Zimbabwe, but from that point on in the voyage, the Newton was re-christened “The Old Bucket of Birdshit.”

The Newton carried shipments that the larger carriers didn’t find profitable because of the frequent time-consuming stopovers required for their delivery, and couldn’t carry economically because the consignments at any one port often were small. Ports-of-call on the Newton’s route generally were too shallow for the large freighters and the dock facilities usually too poorly equipped. Thus, the Newton filled an important niche in the shipping trade and always was welcomed at the ports where it and the other shuttle freighters put in with their commerce-bolstering, and often life-sustaining payloads. The Frances Newton was a flagship of the international rusty merchant navy, not at all like the sleek, always painted and polished, U.S.S. Harry E. Hubbard of the real Navy, so assessed former First Class Petty Officer James Stone, late of that by-God real fighting ship.

Jim Stone later would regret having denigrated the Newton as something other than heroic, and regretted even more that, by association, he had lumped the Old Bucket’s crew with the same undeserved representation. Around the wardroom and the decks of the Newton, Jim was treated, bit-by-bit, to the ship’s history. It had been commissioned in England several years following The Great War before world wars required numbers to differentiate one from another. It was launched in a period of post-war innocence and prosperity that preceded the calamitous worldwide financial ruin of the late 1920s but was transferred to a South African-based shipper in a payoff of debt associated with that Depression. The new owners were Britons whose family had immigrated to South Africa a hundred years past. The British captain of the Newton chose to stay on as skipper under the new flag. For almost a decade, the Newton plied the shipping routes around sub-Saharan Africa with only an occasional voyage to England. With the advent of England’s declaration of war with Germany in 1939, the Newton was ordered home, but first its holds were crammed with Rhodesian chromium vitally needed for war preparations.

The mission was completed routinely and the ship was pressed into service around the Bristol Isles rather than run the risk of German interception on the long voyage back to South Africa. The Newton took part in the rescue at Dunkirk in 1940, and on its second trip back to England during that adventure, its decks and cabin spaces packed with more than three hundred British soldiers, a Messerschmitt singled it out for attack. A large number of the evacuees on deck were killed and wounded on the plane’s first pass, but the telling moment was when everyone on the bridge, including the captain, was killed in a fiery barrage of shellfire when the plane doubled back for another strafing attack. The second officer, now Captain Perkins, was below decks attending to his human cargo when the attack occurred, but made his way topside through the wreckage and assumed command of the injured vessel, returning it safely home. He was rewarded with his captaincy following the incident, and remained in that position until now when the aging Frances Newton had fallen on hard times.

The other ship in Jim Stone’s life and career, the U.S.S. Harry E. Hubbard, had docked at U.S. Naval Station, Long Beach, after a six-month cruise that started from the Philippines, and included the stretch of sixty-six days at sea, then stopovers at Okinawa, Darwin and Queenstown in Australia, Western Samoa, Hawaii and finally home. The destroyer was scheduled for major and lengthy refitting in dry dock and most of the crew had been reassigned. Jim Stone’s enlistment was up in twenty-one days so he was assigned to a transit barracks along with other short-timers, for processing out. Because he was a senior petty officer he had no daily work assignments, and once the morning muster was over, he was on liberty until the following morning’s roll call. He returned to the base for his evening meal and to sleep, and seldom went off base in the evenings when seemingly all the rest of the Long Beach-based sailors were competing for the waterfront district’s bar stools and bar girls. On his thirteenth day in the city, in a coffee shop, he met up with his destiny.

~ * ~

“I beg your pardon, but I noticed your insignia. Your specialty is electronics, is that correct?”

“Yes, my rate is Electronics Technician First Class. From your accent, I’d guess you’re Brit. I don’t recognize your bars though, so I assume you’re not Navy. Can I do something for you?”

“I hope so. My name is Brill, Nathan Brill, and I’m South African, actually. I’m Second Officer on a British freighter though, the Frances Newton.”

“Sorry, I don’t recognize your ship either. Should I?”

“No reason for you to. It’s a grubby little tub. I’m the navigation officer. Know anything about loran?”

“As a matter of fact I do. I was the loran specialist at Ship Repair on Guam for a year and a half. What kind of trouble do you have with yours? What brand of equipment?”

“The make is Alliance . . . Swedish. Does that make a difference?”

“Not a lot. The receivers all work pretty much the same. What are the symptoms?”

“It died.”

“That should make it easy. It almost has to be a power-supply tube.”

“That’s what I thought too, but when I replaced the high-voltage rectifier that tested bad, it blew right out again. Besides, it was sick before it died.”

“Don’t you have a radio-tech aboard?”

“Ag, he went ashore four days ago and we haven’t heard from him since. Cap’n figures he jumped ship. We notified the port authorities but the bleddy oke is Canadian. We figure he has just headed home, didn’t want to go to South Africa. He has his passport and it’s easy enough for a Canadian to cross the border.”

“If you’d like, I’ll take a look. Do you have spares?”

“We’re equipped . . . just nobody who knows how to use them. When could you come aboard?”

“As soon as I finish this beer and cheeseburger. I really don’t mind lending a hand, but the Naval Ship Repair Facility here works on commercial boats too. You could get qualified help just for the asking.”

“And for the paying. Captain Perkins claims to have no funds or authority from the home office for unnecessary repairs, and with our radar, they don’t see the need for loran. We’re running up anchorage charges by the day that has the home office fretting already.”

“What’s your departure schedule?”

“We should have left two days ago but some of the cargo we have contracted for is on its way by rail, and it obviously has run into trouble. Could you come take a look at my loran? I have a car.”

~ * ~

“We are indebted to you Mister Stone. Second Officer Brill tells me you are quite talented. You have impressed him with your skills. He is very dependent on the loran. Edward,” his command directed to a Negro messman, “another cup of tea for Mister Stone.”

“Thank you Captain Perkins. I was glad to be able to help. Will you be signing-on another radio technician before you leave Long Beach?”

“Not likely. That’s a Third Officer’s berth. It would be difficult if not impossible to find a qualified man in the short time we have left here . . . knock wood that we will be departing shortly. I did check with the registry, but there is no radio technician just sitting around the hall waiting for a berth, or at least one who would accept a berth on The Old Bucket. We’ll sail short-handed and bring our complement up to standard once we are back in Southampton. Or perhaps I’ll find one in Cape Town who wishes to return to England.”

“What about me for that job . . . until you reach South Africa?”

“Are you thinking of deserting the U.S. Navy, Mister Stone? And do you have maritime papers? You can’t just sign on as a crew member these days without papers, especially to fill an officer’s billet . . . not like it was when I first went to sea.”

“I’m not thinking of deserting sir, but I’m scheduled to be discharged in eight days . . . and basically I have no place to go, and nobody who particularly cares where I wind up. South Africa sounds like a good spot for me to look over.”

“What about a passport?

“That would be a problem. I don’t have one; never needed one before, but there is an immigration office in Los Angeles. I could try. . . .”

“There’s still the problem of officer’s papers that you would need. No one sails without papers.”

“I won’t spend the time and energy trying to get a passport on short schedule if you can’t get me on board as crew. What do you say?”

“Mister Stone,” Captain Perkins asserted after a lengthy and contemplative silence, “you get your passport and I’ll get you on board as a passenger. I’ll trade you passage to Cape Town for your skills in electronics repair, and I promise you, you’ll earn your keep. There’re a lot of tired electrical systems on this tired old bucket.”

“What about your sailing date?”

“We have missed it already and our manifest is still not complete. I’ll give you your eight days. Get yourself a passport and I’ll find a berth for you. You may require a visa to enter South Africa as well. Let me pull a string or two in that regard. I’ll call in a favor.”

~ * ~

Jim Stone cajoled the sympathetic manager in the passport office to give his application priority, and his passport had come through in ten days, four days after he had become a civilian once again, his four-year enlistment having been shortened by two days in a burst of efficiency by the Navy personnel office. With his final regular pay and the mustering-out bonus, he felt rich with four hundred and twenty dollars-and-change in his pockets. He was relieved that the Springfield was still in the gun shop. He coveted it from the first time he had examined it, but with not enough money at the time, and no immediate need for the rifle, and no place to keep it even if he had the money and the need--barracks personnel couldn’t keep private firearms on base--he had been certain that someone else, better heeled, would have snatched the prize from him.

The rifle was a Springfield National Match on a 1922 M1 pistol-grip stock with a molded buttplate. The wood was still adorned with sling swivels and even the bayonet lug ahead of the long forearm. The bolt and trigger had been worked over and were butter-smooth, but the most intriguing niceties were the hinged floorplate and the Lyman peepsight. Because the stock had not been reshaped and slimmed as was the usual modification when sporterizing a Springfield, the rifle weighed just a shade under nine pounds. The new leather sling that he had to buy separately increased the weight to a bit more than nine, a heavy rifle by any standards. Jim did not agree that since a rifle was carried more than it was shot, that the weight should be drastically lessened to ease the burden. Rather, he knew that the main purpose of the rifle, shooting, would be better served with its steadier-holding, heavier weight. He completed his hundred-dollar purchase with forty rounds of full-jacketed military .30 caliber ammunition, passing up the more expensive commercial .30-06 cartridges. He declined the shop-owner’s offer that he could exchange the rifle for another if it didn’t prove as functional and accurate as it was touted. When Jim told him that he was taking the rifle to Africa, the gunsmith threw in a worn-leather, zippered rifle case at no cost.

Upon Jim’s discharge, Captain Perkins allowed him to move on board the Newton, brushing aside Jim’s thanks with the observation that another passenger-diner would make no difference in their cruise budget that was already destroyed by the wait for the long overdue cargo. “And besides, if you come aboard now and look over the equipment I will expect you to fix, you’ll have time to procure needed parts that we might not have in stores. Consider yourself under contract as of this moment. As a matter of fact, should anyone query you about what you are doing on board, let’s make it official that you are indeed a private contractor. That way, I will not have to answer to the maritime union about hiring a seaman without papers, and my officers will not have reason to report that I carried more passengers than I collected passage monies for.”

During the voyage, Jim corrected troubles in the Newton’s electronic and electrical equipment, even finding time to tinker with and restore operation to the wardroom movie projector that had not worked for almost a year. He was approached by crew members with private radios and record players, some of which he was able to restore to operation, and had repaired an electric curling iron for a lady passenger, Jim being tipped in cash for his work by the lady’s husband and in repeated services by the lady herself.

Hardly any appliance on the ship escaped his ministrations including one of the two main generators that he overhauled completely, and the radar that was Captain Perkins’ pride. Jim had found a new cathode-ray tube in stores that apparently hadn’t showed up on inventory in years, and replaced the screen in the radar repeater on the bridge. When Captain Perkins ascended to the bridge to take the helm, he first checked the radar as was his custom, and was surprised and delighted at the brightness of the display and the absence of the burned spots in the phosphor. When Jim tutored him that the scope intensity need not be turned up to maximum in order to view the display, and explained that the tube should last for years under his guidelines, the appreciative Captain Perkins offered to sponsor Jim’s enrollment in the Royal Maritime Academy, and was hurt when the offer was refused.

Jim made use of the machine shop, although the engineering officer in charge of the workspace was the only person on board who refused to have his equipment tended by anyone other than himself, and indeed Jim had found all the tools to be in well-maintained order. Jim disassembled the rifle bolt, soaked the pieces in solvent and lubricated them, and then he and the engineering officer joined in test firing the re-assembled rifle off the fantail. Jim was a bit disturbed that the two of them together had expended eight of his precious cartridges. At the officer’s suggestion, Jim used the high-speed grinder in the shop to precisely blunt the nose of each of his remaining cartridges, barely exposing and flattening the lead bullet covered by the copper jacket to ensure expansion upon its entry to the target animal.

~ * ~

Jim Stone checked over his belongings once again, not anxious to leave the ship and crew that in these few weeks had become home and family. He had boasted to Captain Perkins that he had no place to go nor anyone to care. Now, he admitted to himself that he had spoken the bitter truth. For the past five years he had been running away from anyone who might have cared where he wound up; running away from home where he felt he did not belong, running toward a life anywhere he could belong.

. . . TK

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful first chapter, the writing cascades from one word to the next pulling you along, and before you know it, you're at the end and yearning for more. Great job!