Chapter VIII: Wagons West
One morning I opened the office, collected the mail, and found a letter from headquarters telling me that in two weeks nominations would be open in all branches for officials for the coming year. I had been on the job for a year. With all the excitement and long hours and responsibilities, it felt like only six months. There were times when the job was exhausting me. The best break I had during the year was a week's vacation on Fire Island, and even that, while restful, was not too satisfying. I could use a month's vacation, but wars aren't won by taking long vacations. I consulted a few Party people about the coming nominations. "Yes, by all means, run for another term," they advised. With a bit of reluctance on my part, I was nominated for the same job. A couple of weeks later the race was on. While I had opposition for the job, it was an easy victory. So I continued right on doing the same things I had done yesterday and the days before that--keeping the ships moving with the hope that what we were all doing was quickening the pace that would bring the defeat of Hitlerism and the end of fascism.
As weeks became months I began to realize that many an old buddy would never return from his trip. Word often reached my office that an attack had been made on a convoy, along with a list of some of the vessels that went down. Sometimes the names of the men missing were given. After hearing this news I would feel remorseful and somewhat guilty. Here I was in a safe job that required getting up in the morning, dashing off to the union hall, and ascertaining the number of men that were needed that day to fill in with replacements and new ships. I might be settling a few minor beefs on some of the ships, but I never was in any danger unless I was hit by a taxicab while crossing the street. I began to feel more and more that everybody was making sacrifices in the war except me. I should be out there, too, dodging torpedoes and delivering the goods instead of going through the war safe and sound ashore. I began to yearn more and more for the confines of the engine room. Anyone could sit behind a desk and do what I was doing, I figured.
As an anti-fascist, an 18-month veteran of the Spanish Civil War and a Communist, how the hell could I tell anyone that I sat on my ass in a safe office while encouraging others to go out there and give their all to destroy Hitler and his master-race ideology? No, I couldn't handle it anymore. I found it hard saying goodbye to some of the younger kids I was shipping out. I began to look at them as if it were the last time I would see them.
A small notice in one of the newspapers helped to push me along on the idea of shoving off. It was an ad asking for someone willing to drive a car to the West Coast. They would be given sufficient gas ration stamps to get them there. After making an inquiry, I discovered the "Smiling Irishman" did have good reliable cars for reliable people to drive to Los Angeles. So I did two things: filed an application with the Maritime Commission to attend their engineering school in Alameda and proved my reliability to the "Smiling Irishman" for a car to drive West.
I found two seamen with homes on the West Coast, one from the National Maritime Union and the other a Marine Fireman, who wanted to share the ride with me to Los Angeles. I sent word to headquarters in San Francisco that I was resigning my port agent position. There was no problem with that since the New York branch had a dispatcher and a business agent who were capable of filling any gap I might leave. Some government maritime officials had heard that I was resigning. I got two phone calls from Washington telling me how important I was to the general overall effort to win the war and urging me to stay on the job and keep the ships moving. I ignored both calls.
The trip west held no great adventures for any of us, outside of a few flat tires. Gas seemed to be plentiful just as long as we had an ample supply of ration stamps. Getting a driver was the way one dealer got his stock moving from one used car lot on the East Coast over to a used car dealer on the West Coast where the sale of the car would bring double the price. The dealer paid nothing to the driver. He just loaned the car to the "reputable" driver, gave him a delivery address, a book of gas ration stamps, a handshake and a road map. The rest was up to the driver to read his map properly.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three