By Roberto Loiederman
April, 1968 – At sea, approaching San Francisco Bay
We’d been at sea for more than three weeks and I had a bad case of channel fever. I hadn’t seen a woman in weeks and was hungry to touch and be touched: to be held in a woman’s arms—to feel that I was safely home after a long time at sea.
What would my first night back be like? A party, welcoming me home after a seven-month absence? Drugs, sex, and loud thumping rhythms, all rolled up in an orgiastic package?
What actually happened… well, I could never have imagined it, not in a million years.
Eight months earlier – San Francisco
In September, 1967, I rented a roomy apartment together with three couples, close friends, who staked out the three bedrooms, leaving me with a small, perfect room with enough space for a floor mattress and the clothing I’d need for ship-work. The flat was on Potrero Hill, on Arkansas Street, across from a pocket park where I’d sit, looking down at the harbor.
After a month, I went to the SIU hall on Fifth and Harrison and caught a job as an ordinary seaman on the SS Del Alba. The night before I joined the ship, I took acid and climbed into a mesh hammock we had strung up in the living room. My apartment mates—Les, Choo-Choo, Paul, Cheryl, Greg, Nancy—gently tucked the wide meshes of the hammock around me so it felt as if I were wrapped in a cocoon. They called other friends who came to say farewell and bon voyage. They took turns poking me through the holes in the mesh, feeding me, tickling me, and I laughed nonstop for hours.
The only negative note of my send-off night was Frank, strange Frank, dressed as always in a dirty suit, carrying a scuffed briefcase filled to the brim with his writings and notes. Frank pleaded with me not to leave, to stay in San Francisco. Of course I ignored his pleas. I was unfettered, unattached, and I despised the idea of anyone clinging to me.
Since my share of the rent was $20 per month, I left my friends $100 to make sure my room would still be available when I got back, whenever that would be. The next day, early, sea-bag over my shoulder, I went to the union hall and a van took me to Alameda. From the dock, the Del Alba looked tidy and dignified. Fully loaded with ammo, it sat low in the water.
But once I went up the gangway and walked on deck, I saw the vessel for what it really was: a World War II rustbucket taken out of mothballs so it could service the Vietnam War. Its cables were full of rusty fish-hooks and would need to be heavily greased with industrial-strength slush to make the lines run smoothly around the winch drums and capstans; its deep layers of rust—on deck, hull, and superstructure—would have to be constantly scraped, then covered with endless coats of fresh paint, like an old whore piling on the rouge to hide her age.
The crew was the usual gallery of misfits and malcontents. There was a gay 300-pound fireman everyone called Sweet-pea. He was relieved by another 300-pound fireman and the scuttlebutt was that when they passed each other in the passageway, their bellies touched. There was a Hopi wiper everyone called Chief—he laughed it off in a self-deprecating manner. And there was Campbell, a 50-year-old ordinary, a redneck from Mobile who wore Coke-bottle glasses and had never gotten his AB ticket because he was scared to go aloft. His eyes hooded, he muttered darkly about plots against him carried out by “heathens.” There was Big Red, the crew messman, a chunky redheaded black man who swaggered and took no shit from the crackers on board, especially Campbell.
There was Vic, a half-Italian, half-Irish oiler from New York. Covering his back was a huge tattooed American eagle. In one talon it had a banner that read “Ireland”; in the other talon was a banner that said “Italy.” On Vic’s left arm was a woman with balloon-like tits; on the other arm a little boy, seen from behind so you could see his ass, urine streaming from an unseen penis. Surrounding the boy the tattooed text read: “Holding my own.”
It was with this ragtag bunch that I went to Southeast Asia. As we neared the Vietnamese coast, I was obsessed with The Egyptian Book of the Dead, which I read constantly. The messroom blackboard was normally used to convey practical messages, like time-changes or fire-and-boat drills, but on the day we arrived in the war-zone, I wrote on it: “Death is before me today, as the odor of lotus-flowers, as when one sitteth on the shore of drunkenness.”
Before going ashore, I popped into the messroom and saw that someone—probably Ed, the ex-junkie third cook—had erased most of what I’d written and left this:
“…before me today… drunkenness.”
I’ve been edited many times since, but never as well.
The Vietnam faced by merchant seamen during the height of the war was very different from the Vietnam soldiers endured. As a combat soldier, you confronted death. As a seaman, you ran the risk of incurable clap. As a soldier, it was mud and blood. As a seaman, it was saunas and whores. As a soldier, it was discipline and the chain of command. As a seaman, it was stand your watch, do your job and if the bosun gives you any shit, tell him to go screw himself.
For a seaman there was little personal risk in the Zone, and a wide range of heart-of-darkness recreations: it was a surreal, grotesque amusement park. Children surfed the contaminated shore with Styrofoam bomb protectors, and hustlers cadged money by saying “America numbah one, Russia numbah ten.” Everything was suffused with the overwhelming smell of frying fish oil, kerosene, urine, cheap perfume, tropical rain, lush vegetation, garbage.
In every port there were bombed and crumbling buildings ringed with sandbags, makeshift whorehouses made out of corrugated beer cans, whores of all ages beckoning from gutted alleyways. People on the street sold back-scratchers, stone pendants, filigreed fans, sexual potency powders, marijuana, carved tusks. Women, their mouths rouged-out from betel-nut chewing, held out scrawny, deformed children and begged for pennies.
As a deck-hand on the Del Alba I made one trip to the Zone, three and a half months, and when the ship came back to the States, it went to Seattle and I signed on for another voyage to the Zone. As the antiwar slogan of the 60s stated, war was good business: bonus pay for carting ammo, more bonus pay for being in the war-zone, plus all the overtime you wanted—after all, the ship-owners didn’t have to pay. Merchant ships to Vietnam were on charter to the military so Uncle Sugar paid for every hour of OT—as we called it, “doin’ the Oscar Tango.”
But the real reason I re-upped was that I didn’t want to go back to San Francisco. I’d seen the dark side of the Summer of Love at close range. By the end of the summer of ’67 the dream of destroying the old system and creating a new one had fallen apart, and just about all you could see on Haight was desperation. The teeny-boppers lining the street begging for spare change looked like the mischievous-children-turned-into-donkeys from Pinocchio.
No, I wasn’t ready to go back to San Francisco. Too much painful residue. Too many ghosts. So after my first trip on the Del Alba, I signed up again and went back to the Zone. More bonus pay. More opium dens, whores, and massage parlors. More Disneyland for the Weird.
April, 1968 – Approaching San Francisco Bay
So, seven months after I first joined the Del Alba, two trips back and forth to the Zone, the ship was steaming into San Francisco. The vessel was a cumbersome C2-type, a wide-bottomed work-horse that did its job inelegantly, and we’d crossed the Pacific slowly, making 13 or 14 knots, depending on the weather. During the third week, as always on a long trip at sea, the crew’s emotional and psychological mooring lines chafed, frayed, and broke loose.
Sweet-pea started making goo-goo eyes at the young blond galleyman, Tommy. He’d hang around while Tommy prepped vegetables, and when he had a cucumber in his hand, Sweet-pea would roll his tongue around suggestively and nearly swoon. It was painful to watch.
During that third week, Chief sat down in a passageway near the messroom, pulled out a switch-blade, opened and closed it, again and again. Thwack! A couple of beats, then thwack again. Finally, the Old Man came down and threatened to lock him up in “the hospital”—the small fo’c’sle kept empty as an ad hoc brig if the need arose. Chief made one demand: that he be called “Lawrence” instead of “Chief.” The old man agreed, so Lawrence snapped his switchblade back into its groove, put the knife in his pocket, and walked away.
Campbell went completely off the rails. “The Old Man’s out to get me,” he kept repeating. “Oh, he’ll find a way. He’s got his henchmen, those fuckin’ heathens, the chief mate, and bosun. They gonna figure out a way to fuck me over. You watch. They’s out to get me.”
Besotted by paranoia, Campbell made the mistake of calling Big Red “boy.”
“Boy? You call me ‘boy?!’ Let me ax you sompin, Campbell,” Big Red said, looking down at Campbell, who was sitting in the messroom. “You eveh see a boy wid a twelve-inch dick? Huh?” Big Red took off his belt and started unzipping his pants. The chief cook and third cook quickly ran in from the galley and dragged Big Red out of the messroom.
Campbell made no eye-contact with any of us and instead talked to his plate of food: “Goddamn heathen… they’s all out to get me.”
The next day, just in time, we went under the Golden Gate Bridge and into the bay.
An hour after tying up, we paid off. I didn’t call my friends ahead of time to let them know I was back: after being away for seven months, I wanted to surprise them. With a pocket full of 100-dollar bills, I took a taxi to Potrero Hill. Since I still had a key, when I got to the door, I walked in. I tossed my sea-bag into a corner and shouted: “Honey… I’m home!”
Cheryl, Paul, and their toddler Kamala yelped and ran over to hug me. Cheryl, lighter than a bird and just as beautiful, jumped into my arms and I lifted her off the ground, swinging her around. Paul, tall and saintly, laughed and whooped, kissing the top of my head. Almost immediately, the others came over: Nancy, Greg, Choo-Choo, and Les, and we all formed a tight circle, with me in the middle, trying to hug and kiss everyone at the same time.
“Why didn’t you call?” “When did you get in?” “Oh, man! How are you?” The joyful chatter of an unexpected return after long absence. There were even a few tears.
When we untangled ourselves, I said: “The little room still mine?” There was a moment of silence. I realized that something wasn’t quite right.
Cheryl said, “It’s still your room… but… someone’s been staying in there the last few days.”
“We didn’t know you were coming back,” Greg said. “You could have called.”
“I’ll go get her,” Nancy said. “She’s downstairs, at Theresa’s.” A woman? A woman staying in my room? Well, that might be interesting. Nancy came back a minute later… with Joan.
And she was pregnant. Very pregnant. About to give birth, by the look of it.
Strong, self-contained Joan, whose path had crossed mine twice in 1967, during two crucial events in both our lives. A peyote weekend in New Mexico during which I sank into deep distress and Joan helped me through it. We’d spent a couple of life-changing weeks together, but we both knew our relationship was no more than an ad hoc adventure in peyote tourism, so when we returned to San Francisco, we split up.
And then there was that dark night on Haight: Blitzed out of our minds on acid, Frank and I couldn’t do anything to stop the evil from playing out. We watched helplessly as three thugs forced Joan into a car and drove off.
In the morning I found out that Joan had been knifed and raped. Crushed with shame, I brooded for a month, then caught the job on the Del Alba. Now, many months later, here she was… and she was about to have a child.
We smiled at each other carefully, without hugs or affectionate touches, both of us uncomfortably aware of our shared history.
“So… how are you?”
She shrugged: palms up, as if to say: I’m here, so I must be okay.
“…pregnant,” she said.
“Yeah. How’re you feeling?”
“I’m okay. Anxious to have the baby already.”
“I suppose I could have had an abortion, I’ve had a couple before. But, I don’t know, I figured, why not? Why not have a baby?”
I recalled that ‘Why not?’ had been Joan’s mantra, and always in a strong-pioneer-woman monotone. Why not have dangerous sex that lands your partner in an emergency room? Why not travel with someone you just met and take peyote with him? Why not get dolled up like a whore and go out on a risky street at midnight? Why not have a sex party with three thugs?
Then I noticed scars on her cheek and throat. Souvenirs from the dark night that binds us?
“You know, working on a ship.”
“Ah, with Jeff?”
Jeff: my friend, fellow seaman, the one who’d had rough sex with Joan which sent him to the hospital. Of course, I’d had sex with Joan too, but gentle sex. So… Jeff and I are connected—through Joan. What does Leslie Fiedler call it? Homosexuality once removed.
“No, Jeff ships out with the SUP, I’m with the SIU.”
Small-talk about this and that: nothing about that night on Haight, nothing about how I hadn’t done anything to stop the violent flow of events. I could blame my inaction on LSD or self-preservation, but Frank called it devil-dust, the evil we all have inside us, and that was as good an explanation as any.
“So,” Joan said, “I guess we better decide about tonight, right?”
“Look, I’ll find some other place to stay.”
“No, no, this is your room, your apartment.”
“Please, I’d like you to stay. I’ll sleep in the living room.”
She paused a moment. “The bed’s big enough,” she said. “We can both stay.”
“Both of us? In the same bed?”
Right. Why not?
I took my sea-bag into the little room and left it in the corner. Joan followed me into the room, which was just as I’d left it months earlier: bed on the floor, a large mattress that took up much of the room. Several blankets and pillows. Yes, there’s plenty of room for both of us.
Late that night, Joan and I lay in bed, both of us on our backs, not touching one another. Joan felt no need to talk, and neither did I. But finally she spoke.
“Did you hear about Frank?”
“What about him?”
“He was in the hospital, S.F. General…”
“He flipped out. Heard voices. Said he was going to jump off Golden Gate Bridge. He disappeared, so we looked for him. We needed to find him before he harmed himself.”
“So… so you found him…?”
“Yeah,” Joan said. “In Sausalito. On a houseboat that belonged to a friend of his. Talking to the moon. We made sure he went to the psych ward before he cut his wrists or whatever.” Joan paused, then said: “Before that happened, he and I had a brief fling…”
“Who? You and Frank?”
Joan nodded. “After the…” Joan stopped and I could feel her deciding she was strong enough to use the word. “After the rape—maybe a month later. I think you’d already left town. He said he loved me, that I was the strongest woman he’d ever known…”
She has a bottomless well of forgiveness. Has she forgiven me?
“One time we went out to Sutro,” Joan said, “out there by the rocks? And we sort of jumped from rock to rock and Frank shouted: ‘Ocean…! Pacific Ocean…! Listen to me…! I love Joan! I love her…!’ But it cooled between us. And we broke up. And when they let Frank out of the psych ward—a few months later?—he was… I don’t know, he was different. As if he’d been lobotomized. Probably tons of Thorazine. I mean, his eyes had lost their luster, you know? As far as I know, he hasn’t written anything since and he’s been living off welfare. Maybe it’s karmic payback… Who knows?”
“Karmic payback… for what? That night on Haight?”
Joan took a few moments in deep thought.
“That night,” Joan said. “Look, we were in the apartment, Rose and me, it was midnight, we were stoned. Some heavy shit. You know… Smack, or, I don’t know… So Rose said, ‘Let’s dress up,’ and I figured Why Not?, so we started putting lipstick on each other, and mascara, and eye-shadow and all sorts of stuff, it got pretty wild. Like two little girls playing dress-up. And she had this outfit, I mean it didn’t fit me, but we figured it would be a kick, you know? What the hell, like Halloween. I know we must have looked like whores but we didn’t want to spend the night alone… you know? With those guys, I got a bad vibe and was looking for a way out, and you and Frank came along… but I didn’t want to hurt their feelings…”
She was concerned about not hurting their feelings, not hurting the feelings of three gangsters who later kidnapped and raped her. Her life has intersected mine at three crucial moments—if you include tonight, this coming home—and I know nothing about her.
I do know one thing, though: she’s willing to go much deeper into darkness than I am.
“Joan… listen… I’m not judging. But looking like a hooker and going out on Haight at midnight, that’s… I don’t know, that’s outside my range.”
“Well, maybe sometimes you have to go outside your range, you know?” For the first time, Joan’s voice was animated and emotional, as if she were finally giving me a glimpse of herself. “Look, I survived and came out the other side, so it’s okay. You know?”
She’s letting me get past that layer of stoic pioneer woman so I can see inside of her.
“Look, I’m tired,” she said. “I need to sleep.”
Joan yawned, stretched her arms.
“Joan… who’s the father?”
“The father… of your baby… Who is it?”
Joan took her time. When she answered, it was without emotion. She’s pulled down the curtain again. Maybe letting me see that much of her soul frightened her.
“The father? You mean, like whose sperm? I don’t know. I really don’t. Could be you… Or Frank… Or Jeff… Or maybe the guys who raped me… I guess I’ll get a feeling for it when the baby’s born.”
You mean if the baby is black…?
I saw her eyes close, and soon she was breathing heavily, regularly. Asleep.
Not me. I couldn’t sleep. My heart was racing. I don’t think I’ve ever been at such a high peak as I was that night, all night. Not on drugs, not on love, not when at sea, not in Vietnam, not on anything.
During the next few hours, every once in a while, I placed a gentle hand on Joan’s stomach and felt the baby moving. This is more outrageous than anything I could have imagined…
My mind swirled. Why not? Why not stay with Joan? Why not become the child’s father, whether or not I’m the… what? Sperm donor? Why not become a family? Why not give up my life as drifter, seaman, psychedelic explorer… Is that outside my range?
I saw myself making a life with Joan, bringing up this child, having other children, living in a commune, working hard, seeing our children grow, and then seeing those children have children themselves. I saw the years play out, the generations, a shifting tableau of my life connected to Joan’s, and then being responsible for other lives as they grew.
I put my ear to Joan’s belly. The baby moved! Life! That’s life in there. Incredible!
Life goes on. Life goes on. Life goes on. The words kept a constant loop inside my head. Life goes on.
When Joan wakes up, I’ll ask her stuff. About herself. Who she is Not just what kind of crazy sex she’s had, or her abortions, but where she grew up. Her parents. What she was like as a kid. Was she always a stoic pioneer woman?
Once more, softly, I put my ear to her belly, big and round with life… and sometime after sunrise, I must have fallen asleep in her arms.
Roberto Loiederman has been a merchant seaman, TV scriptwriter, kibbutz cook, English teacher, and journalist. He’s had more than one hundred articles published in Penthouse, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, Serving House Journal, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and other publications. He is co-author (with Richard Linnett) of The Eagle Mutiny(Naval Institute Press, 2001), a nonfiction account of the only armed shipboard mutiny on a U.S. vessel in modern times.