It was a time of great danger. The Merchant Marine in World War II was responsible for transporting supplies and personnel to Allied forces around the world. The Merchant Marine had the highest casualty rate of any service. Set against this looming reality are five coming-of-age stories as author, artist and designer Gene Tepper recalls his days as a young Merchant Marine Cadet and Deck Officer. They include evocative tales of the art world in New York and New Orleans, wartime in Italy and the Middle East. First hand descriptions of life at sea: Training on an old-line sailing vessel, a grim departure among massed convoys in New York Harbor, unexpected fun on a Suez canal passage and at war’s end his ship’s exuberant arrival in San Francisco.
In “Manhattan Walkabout,” the piece that gave its name to the book, the author takes a break from the ever-present war and retraces his steps through favorite haunts as a student in New York. “Moving Day” recalls Pearl Harbor and Tepper’s personal decision – more a foregone conclusion – and his cross-country journey to rejoin the armed forces he had left just months before.
“Viva Enrique” and “A Big Night for Mr. Morris” tell of two men the author admired greatly. Enrique Alferez, the larger-than-life artist and sculptor, was a lifelong friend later linked to Tepper’s childhood hero, Pancho Villa. James Morris, First Mate on a tanker making its run from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, was the author’s mentor, teacher of maritime skills and the “fine art of command” for a briefer yet meaningful time.
The final story, “Happenstance,” shows a more complicated interplay as Tepper finally solves a puzzle both personal and historical. He faces up to the war as a bureaucratic mess, at times a source of awful malfeasance and staggeringly unnecessary loss of life. Yet there’s always the bigger picture.
As the author says, “We were the good guys and we knew what we were fighting for.”
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About the Author
Returning to New York after the war, Tepper was intrigued by San Francisco, having spent time there in his travels. He moved there with his family and soon opened an industrial design office, combining, he explains, “an artist’s touch and an overwhelming curiousity about how things work.” He served as a design consultant for nearly 50 years, painting and writing in his spare time until he died in 2013.