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The Gray Ship's Captain

By Howard Fast

The following is the fourth and last of a series of sketches written by Mr. Fast on a voyage to India just before V-J Day. The first three have appeared in the preceding issues of NM.

   The captain of the gray ship had learned with sail, which means that his seamed face had seen half a century of seafaring and more; actually, he had first shipped out on the square-rigger in which, at a later date, Joseph Conrad had cruised around the world; and so small a world is this, with all its millions, that three generations later the captain sat in a German concentration camp with Conrad's brother.
   You can't speak of the captain without speaking of the German concentration camp and the two years he spent there. Two wars with Germany had burned into him a fierce hatred of the enemy; two years in the concentration camp had given him the wherewithal to understand them--and you can't hate the enemy properly without understanding him properly.
   The captain was a master, and therein a fine distinction must be drawn; there are captains who are captains, because they hold the papers; there are captains who are masters, because the crew are their children, the ship their home, and the waters the part of the land God truly made, when he abandoned the hard and unfeeling earth. There are captains who fight the sea, fight it for a decade, a generation and two generations; and because nothing human could win such a fight, the sea destroys them, twists them out of all shape and goodness; but there are other captains who make their peace with the sea, then a compact, and then the sea respects them, and they in turn come to love the sea. That was the path this captain took. He was sixty-four years old, but sound as a dry nut with juicy meat inside. He had been born in Denmark, spent his childhood there, and from there he had gone to sea. His eyes were small and blue, and they had seen every port and every body of water. They had seen the white sails billowing, and then the reciprocating engines, and then the turbines and diesels.
   Early in the war, the captain was called out of retirement, at a time when our merchant marine was expanding hugely, and we were so desperately in need of masters. He accepted willingly enough; he didn't like fascism; he didn't like Nazis, and he didn't like small peoples, such as those in his own native land, to be pushed around. A seafaring man has his own proper idea of freedom, and he's generally not the last to do something about his ideas. So the captain went back on the bridge of a cargo ship, and he was there when a German torpedo ripped out its guts.
   The Germans fished him out of the water and took him on board the sub. From there to a concentration camp, and in a concentration camp twenty-four agonizing months had to pass by. It's not easy for a man in his middle sixties, however hard he is, to give away twenty-four months of his life; it wasn't easy for the captain, and he was far from soft. He played cards; he kept a journal; he took his exercises as if he were on his own quarter-deck, and through it all he had a dream. I think in the long run it was the dream that sustained him.
   He had a dream of his own ship, his own bridge, his own crew, and his own cargo of war supplies to push through enemy waters. He had a dream of his inevitability; the Nazis had come and they would go, and as before them so after them free men would drive their vessels through the oceans. Nothing had ever stopped the ships of free men, and nothing would. And eventually, after the two years had passed, the captain stood on his bridge again.
   That is why there was a little more zest in everything he did. When he took the eight paces on his quarter-deck, four port, four starboard, he took them like a young man.
   When he raised his quadrant to the heavens, it was as if he had never seen the sun-drenched sky before; when he drove his gray ship through four days of bitter monsoon, it was with the satisfaction that would have welcomed a typhoon. After he was repatriated, he had only ten days at home, but there was a valid question as to whether this wasn't his real home, start to finish. He hated the enemy, but that alone wasn't enough to drive him clear around the world after what he had been through. His contribution to the war was not a stinting one, a son in the tank corps losing a leg in the Battle of the Bulge, a daughter in the Red Cross in the Philippines--yet he hardly spoke of them, as if the very mention of them would lessen his own desire to be back in the fight.
   On one of the gray ships, the captain is the master, in every sense of the word. If power, pure and simple, be spoken of, the power of an absolute ruler, the power of life and death over men, then surely there is no clearer manifestation of it today than the captain of an ocean-going ship. He bows to no one; in the case of any infraction of law, he is both the judge and jury. It is true that once he has returned to port, he may be brought to an accounting, but so long as he is on the deck of his own ship, he is both the law and the judgment. Yet, for all I have seen, from all I have heard, there is no one more humble in the use of his power, more carefully exacting in the definition of it than a sea master.

   The captain of the Gray Victory was a hard man; you don't go through what he went through unless you are as hard as nails--yet in all the time I was with him, I never saw him overstep the use of his power. In giving an order, he never raised his voice, and he always left you with the impression that he was asking rather than demanding; nor have I ever seen orders better obeyed, more quickly executed. Indeed, the discipline on a gray ship is something to marvel at, the more so since it never appears to be forced; I find I can't recall any case of an order, given by any ship's officer, resulting in even a degree of hesitation. One of the reasons, perhaps, is that orders are not given simply for the sake of ordering.
   The captain was old and punctilious in the tradition of the sea. Though this voyage of the Gray Victory lasted almost ninety days, and though in that time the captain came to know the name of almost every man on board, he never used a given or family name, except occasionally in the case of the first officer. The second officer was "second," the third, "third." The chief engineer was "chief," and the steward, with whom he played bridge for months, remained "steward" to the last day of the voyage. The messman who served him was "mess," and so on, down through the officers and crew. In all this delivery, there was an antique, formal dignity, something that spoke of Conrad and Melville, of times that would never be again--the old time when, as the story had it, ships were wood and men were iron.
   The duties of a captain are both more and less than most folk imagine. First and foremost, he is the master, which makes him directly responsible for the ship, its passage and its fate. There is no evasion of this responsibility; it is not a light one in peacetime; in time of war, it is a heavy one indeed. Even when the ship is entering or leaving a harbor and the navigation is given over to a pilot, the responsibility is still the captain's, and if the pilot hangs her up on a bar or a reef, the captain is called to accounting. In convoy, though there is a CO for the entire movement, each individual captain still bears his individually complete burden.
   The responsibility goes even deeper; the captain bears the care of illness and injury; a broken leg or a strep throat are part of his worries. Though many ships carry a pharmacist's mate, more are without one, and medical attention comes partly out of the black book of household medicine and partly out of the master's long store of experience. On this Gray Victory, the purser took over the role of administering to the sick with the consultive aid of the captain.
   But specifically, aside from the burden of responsibility, the captain's task is to take the ship from port to port, to navigate her, to find the shortest distance across the seas, to avoid catastrophe and to make his landfall. His pride is the pride of navigation; so it has been from the time the first ancient galley pushed away from the sight of land and struck out into the unknown. Day in and day out, he takes his sights, lays out his course, and plans the run for the next twenty-four hours. The factors are not constant; the oceans are not mirrors of glassy water, whereon a ship can go as it pleases. There are shipping lanes which cross and crisscross the world; taking currents and tides into consideration, these lanes are generally the shortest distances between points; but the lanes are subject to modification. In danger zones, the subs lie in the lanes like hungry wolves; zig-zag cuts the lanes to ribbons. Raiders haunt the lanes, and airplanes hunt over them. So new and untried roads are laid out, and day and night these new roads are shifted. Along with that, there are the normal hazards ships face, typhoons in the Pacific, the monsoon roaring up from the South Pole, fog in the Atlantic, iceberg and collision. A ship in wartime cannot always drop south to avoid the ice; it can't lie in the fog and wait for it to hit; logistics tell it to move, to bring the cargo through; if ships go down, that is to be expected.
   All of these factors are a part of man's or nature's doing; but the mines which float free and aimless in the close backwash of war add an additional crazy-quilt of hazard. In an inland sea, which the war had passed by some months before, a ship struck a mine a few miles off our starboard bow; surface mines can be seen and sometimes avoided, but magnetic mines still lie on the bottom, to remind men that a war was fought there, not so long ago.
   Through this, the captain must drive his baby, his darling, his rusty iron shell. Radio silence returns him to an era which passed several generations ago; he can ask no questions, appeal to no one for help. If his engines slow or break down, he is ruthlessly cast out of the convoy and given over to the mercy of the wolf pack. If an order comes crackling over the air, telling him to reverse his course, he must obey that order; his own sending sets are sealed, and may be opened to call for aid only after the tin fish has bitten at his stomach.

   The captain doesn't carry the responsibility, however, in complete loneliness; three or four deck officers serve under him, a first mate, a second, a third, and sometimes a junior third. These are solemn-faced young men, wonderfully calm, amazingly able; they divide the watches among them, but the captain is on call for any and every watch. When sights are taken, the four take them in conjunction and then collate results. Each of the four is assigned to one of the ship's boats. If the captain should die or be killed, the first mate steps into his shoes, and then the second, and so on. The relationship they maintain to each other and to the crew is smooth and pleasant, and attached to it is the fact that they are all civilians.
   Very few seagoing men will admit that they love the sea; most of them have a surly suspicion and hatred of the waters upon which they work and live; but to this the captain of the Gray Victory was an exception. He had made his compact with the earth's waters a long, long time ago. Asked what he would do if he were young again, he replied, without hesitation, "Go to sea--there's no other life for a man." He bore a relationship to the earth's waters; it was not just green water and blue water to him--as he said once of the Mediterranean: "God made the other water for the beasts of the sea, but he made this one for the comfort and pleasure of man." Though he had sailed in and out of the Red Sea a hundred times, he never overcame his wonder and excitement as he crept through the needles of rock which make the entrance from the Gulf of Aden. He loved the weather, the smooth, glassy weather, the weather that sends the whitecaps singing over the sea's surface, the weather that raises storm and fury and waves fifty feet high. The sea had taken him gladly; he had never known seasickness, and he faced those who suffered with the calm and maddening observation that such a thing did not exist. He belittled all storm--as with most old seagoing men, the real storms were in the past, and the world of the present had become soft and effete.
   He was well read, as most seamen are, but he had a superb contempt for all those who write of the sea; for Conrad, he would say a limited good word, but for no one else.
   He loved cards, and it was only at cards that he became a tyrant, a character out of Jack London, a despot who would brook no opposition to his will. Bridge was his favorite game, and he created his own system of bidding, a variable system according to the wind, the weather, or the cards he held. To keep up with his system of bidding was not enough; you had to be one step ahead of it, or else the heavens fell on you. But the wrath the captain stoked up at cards cooled as quickly as it flared.
   In all, the master of the gray ship was what you would have desired him to be. He was a free man who liked freedom. He had gone down at sea and sat in prison for two years; and then he stood on his own bridge again--and it is doubtful where any man can gain more than that.