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Triumphs and Tragedies
Twenty-five aspects of the life of a Liverpool Sailor.
By Peter Wright
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2009 Peter Wright
All rights reserved.
"Forgive things darker than Death of Night"
When I was ten, my father drowned in the cold grey waters of the North Sea. His death bankrupted the family and left me, the third-born, feebly struggling in an attempt to establish my identity, and some kind of selfvalue. During the next forty years, I occasionally allowed my spirit to travel eastward to his murky burial place ninety feet beneath the surface. And there I lingered, deliberating death's mute cloak that blocks out all reason, invites recrimination, and often cruelly foils closure. I asked his spirit, not why he had ignored me, but rather, what had I done to deserve his disdain. Ever desirous to please him during the short life span I had known him, so that he might take my hand and hold me close, he had ever turned away from me, and had now abandoned me forever. To whom will I now turn? Who will tell me what I lack? Who will be my man?
* * *
Bristol, England. April 28 1937. My mother, usually buoyant and full of chatter, seemed ill at ease when I got home from school. After a silent meal she told me to get my homework done and to get ready to accompany her down to the Bristol City Docks to see my father off to sea. Delighted but curious, for we had never done this before, I was wise enough not to ask her why, fearing she would change her mind. My eight- year old sister Pauline, two years my junior, was left with our landlady.
Alecto, a small coastal vessel with a tall, skinny funnel from which dense smoke constantly poured, and of which my father was second engineer, lay quietly alongside the wharf waiting for the tide, her pale lights yellow in the evening mist. From the bell tower of nearby Saint Mary Redcliffe Church, the changes were being rung, a melodious cascade of pealing tones filling the evening air, soothing, inspiring.
I guided my mother's feet as she climbed the gangway, and clutched her hand as we struggled crabwise along the narrow alleyway that led to the engine room entry. My ever-present anxiety was allayed when the ship's cook surprised us at the galley door.
"Oi 'ope you'm don't mind, Ma'm, but Oi got a piece of duff for young Master Peter 'ere. Oi specs 'e's 'ungry." He smiled at me over the top half of the galley door. Turning to my mother he said, "Mr. Wright be still below, M'am, but I specs 'e'll be up shortly."
"Thank you, Mr. Wiggins. You're very kind." My mother looked meaningfully at me. I thanked the cook, and for a moment enjoyed the delights of raisins in sugared dough without the stress I usually experienced when my father was around.
My father's tiny cabin lay at deck level at the after end of the engine room. It contained a six-foot bunk under which six drawers were fitted: an oil cloth covered settee lay across the after bulkhead below an eight-inch porthole, and a water compendium, a simple contraption that incorporated a wash-hand basin, mirror and soap dish, under which was located a bucket to catch the waste water.
My mother told me I could go outside but had to stay on the engine room upper grating. She looked drawn and sad sitting on the settee with one hand clasped in the other. I echoed my thoughts and asked her what was wrong. She simply shook her head and looked away.
With my elbows on the polished steel rail, I peered down into the steamy depths of the engine room, wondering precisely what my father did when the ship was at sea. He was an officer so I expected him to stand-by giving orders and making sure things went right. I had to admit, however, that I'd never seen him in a uniform. As I stood there, I saw shiny bodies climbing about on top of the cylinder heads oiling parts of the pumps, and almost directly below me, a naked man bathed himself from a bucket on the engine room floor plates. All I could see was the broad of his back and the shape of his buttocks. Startled at the lack of privacy and this man's lack of modesty (I would never bathe naked in public), I became fixated. A passing greaser noticed me staring down and told the naked man. He looked up ... it was my father.
Fear, shame, guilt, but mostly fear, gripped me as I jerked back hoping he had not seen me. The enormity of my sin, for to see one's parent naked must surely be the most mortal of all mortal sins, cloaked me in a hot blast from hell.
He said nothing to me when he came into his cabin dressed in a clean boiler suit, but fixed me with a glare and merely nodded his head toward the door. I left them alone and took my sin back to the engine room grating where I gazed morosely at the scene of my crime, a wet patch on the steel plates. Should I tell the priest next Saturday? My mother, perhaps? Unthinkable! There was no escape, no reprieve. It, like many other incidents in the barren territory that existed between my father and me, would simply become part of my life's baggage, to be carried around forever.
My mother and I did not wait until the ship sailed, but trudged the weary mile back to our apartment in silence. As we turned on the swing bridge that led away from the dock, I saw my father waving from the engine room entrance. I never saw him again.
Returning from mass the following Sunday, May 2, our journey took us down King Street and past the pub where my mother and father would have the occasional nip. I felt my hand being squeezed as we turned onto the street where we lived.
"Sweet Jesus," I heard my mother gasp, "it's him ... it's him ... he's gone." She had seen a group of people gathered outside the house in which we lived. They carried notebooks. Some of them had cameras.
"How long have you been married, Mrs. W?" "How many children do you have?" As my tormented mother feebly fended off the verbal, almost physical, assault with a gloved hand clutching a missal, my distressed sister and I started to cry. I was not quite sure what had happened, but I gathered that my father been killed. Later, I realized that my mother's strange behavior for the past several days indicated that she knew it was coming.
At four-thirty that Sunday morning, Alecto had collided with another ship off the coast of Holland. Of the crew of fourteen, four had been saved; ten, including my father, were missing, presumed drowned.
I vividly remember my distraught mother praying to the Virgin Mary and several saints for some kind of relief. I did not pray for anything; I was too numbed by the disappearance of the one person in the family whom I had never known, and whom I would never now know.
* * *
My earliest memories are those of familial strife and conflict. Not just the occasional spat, but continual barracking and recriminations. My father, the youngest of four, born into servitude on the estate of a wealthy Liverpool ship owner, had been abandoned at the age of ten by his father, a butler in charge of a large staff. His mother, the laundress on the estate, brought him up in an industrial city on the banks of the River Mersey near Liverpool, where he finished his education at a Church of England parochial school. Like many boys of his age brought up in poor but "genteel" families, he became an apprenticed engineer to a shipbuilding company.
He met my mother by chance after his first voyage to sea as a junior engineer. She, fifth in line of a family of thirteen staunch Irish Catholics recently arrived on Merseyside, fell madly in love with him. After a year of pleading, threatening, agreeing, disagreeing and compromising, they were married in the Roman Catholic Church. Among the many regrets my father must have had during his early years, was having converted to the new faith.
I arrived during the eleventh year of their marriage. It didn't take me long to realize that all was not well in the tiny house in which we lived in dignified poverty. My mother's family, ruled by a prideful matriarch married to an alcoholic sea captain, considered us socially inferior because their oldest daughter had married below her station. My father, an English convert, son of a servant and an engineer, was treated like a peasant.
I grew up in this acrimonious atmosphere, listening to racial, religious and social slurs, hiding from physical conflict and watching my father get drunk in his attempts to escape. To add to the general misery, my father lost his job during the great post-World War I depression. My mother took a post as nanny to a French family in Paris. My father must have been mortified. Newly pregnant she took me along for company for nine months.
In 1935, when I was nine, my father was offered a job as a junior engineer on a ship sailing out of Bristol, a southern English port. Fortuitously he took the job to escape the outpouring of Irish malevolence from his in-laws. It was less than a year after our family moved south, that he drowned.
In spite of my mother's protection, my father's moods dominated my life. I spent my young years silently pleading with him to take notice of me, to hold my hand, to hug me. He never did. I feared him, but an innate part of me wanted him, needed him.
* * *
After his death I was sent to a Dominican boarding school where my mother prayed I would join the priesthood. As an unstable "mother's boy" filled with fear, I fared badly for three years. Unable to withstand the "ragging" (hazing) I developed two nervous complaints, alopecia and shingles, and spent one whole term successfully recovering from the signs – but not the symptoms. Upon my return to school I isolated and built a wall around my space wherein I felt safe.
All I sought in a father figure, I found in one of the teachers at school. He became my hero, my mentor – and he sexually molested me. Added to my inner turmoil, this most awful of sins lay cheek-by-jowl with the certain knowledge that my father also hated me.
In 1943, much to the disappointment of my mother, I became apprenticed to a Liverpool steamship company and spent the next twenty-three years sailing the oceans of the world. Even though I was barely equipped to face the onset of manhood, my days at sea were rewarding. I passed all the examinations for mate and master and eventually became captain of a merchant ship. However, long before I got command, I found alcohol, that sweet, poisonous antidote to all sorrows, which relieved my tortured mind.
I drank for twenty years, and have now been sober for the same length of time. During the dark years, I sired a large family which I, too, virtually abandoned. Eventually my antidote no longer worked for me, and the abysmal world in which I had come to live, became filled with ghastly paranoia.
Finally sober for a number of years, I found that the image of my father had softened. I could still see him starkly staring at me with those forbidding eyes, but my sense of him had changed. I started to write down my thoughts and feelings, and pretty soon my mind took me to places I had previously dared not go.
One afternoon I sat down with a trusted friend and talked of my father's life and his inability to communicate with me. It came to me that my father's life and mine bore an uncanny similarity, and I came to accept him as he was -- a man afflicted.
My father had embraced the Roman Catholic faith in order to win the love of his life, and had accepted the rules. My arrival was a fortuity of transit, an encumbrance in a life already beset with impossible hurdles. He found some solace in alcohol, and all too soon eternal rest at the bottom of the ocean. I reprimand him for not fulfilling his duties to his children, me in particular, just as I reproach myself for the same omission. But I have forgiven him.
In my twilight years I can give thanks to a man who ignored me all his life, I can say with gratitude that in some abstruse way, I have been gifted with a certain humility from his neglect.
Because of my father, I have learned to avoid judging other people before gaining the full knowledge of their circumstances.
The simple words of a great Scottish poet come to mind.
"O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us To see oursels as others see us. ("To A Louse" - by Robert Burns).CHAPTER 2
The Loss of Alecto
May 2, 1937. My father dies at Sea
S.S. Alecto, a 1,000 ton coastal steamer, lay starboard-side to-berth G, Swansea docks loading tinplate in bundles for Rotterdam, Holland. Loading would be complete in an hour, at about 17:30. The second mate Mr. Ellis, a Swansea man, had attended to the loading so far, and was anxiously waiting for the captain, the first mate, the chief and second engineers to arrive from Bristol. The train had left Temple Meads station on time but had been held up somewhere and was now due in Swansea at 16:30.
At 16:45, the Bristol portion of the crew arrived, much to the relief of Ellis, who could shed the burden of responsibility onto the shoulders of William May, first mate.
"Let me know when you have everything secure for sea, Billy. I'd like to get out of here before this fog sets in," Captain William Austin mentioned to the mate
"Aye, Cap'n. Shouldn't be too long after the last load goes in," he replied. Purchased from Coast Lines Limited eighteen months ago for £5000, Alecto became a valuable addition to the new owner's fleet of small coastal traders. Each with a carrying capacity of about twelve hundred tons, this fleet of coasters kept up a regular trade between the Bristol Channel ports and those on the Dutch, Belgian and French/ English Channel and North Sea ports. Two hundred feet in length with a three cylinder triple expansion steam engine situated aft, capable of propelling her in smooth water at 7 knots, a single cargo hold was fed by two hatches and six, five ton derricks. When painted up these little steamers looked smart enough, but were always referred to by the larger ocean going ships, as "scruffy little coasters."
Captain William Austin, a Bristolian, had spent his entire life at sea. Now forty-seven, he had sailed deep water as deck boy, A.B. and bosun. A quiet man who seldom drank liquor, the crews under his command liked him. They liked the 1st mate too, they felt safer still with the pair of them on board.
William May, first mate lived in Bristol, not far from Fred Wright, (my father) second engineer in the district of Bedminster. Both May and Ellis, the Swansea man, had wives and two children each, Fred Wright had four; my sister, Pauline aged eight and me, aged ten, lived at home with our mother, while Margaret, a nurse, and Tom, an apprentice at sea, lived by themselves.
Hazy conditions prevailed from Swansea Bay to Lands End allowing two miles visibility with the promise of deteriorating visibility over the next twenty-four hours.
Without sighting a ship or land, but hearing the mournful tones of the foghorns of Pendeen, The Longships Lighthouse and Lizard Point, Captain Austin, a cautious and experienced coastal mariner, saw his ship safely around perhaps one of the deadliest points of land in the world, Lands End. With a weight off his mind Captain Austin set course toward the Dover Strait, unhappily realizing that that visibility was likely to get worse by the time he arrived at the busy cross traffic from Dover to Calais. Oh well, that is twelve hours away, he reflected; time for some shut-eye.
Ships in a hurry to get to port in busy seaways can be downright menacing especially during poor visibility, and even more so while making it through the Dover Strait. Fast ferry boats on the lucrative cross-channel ferry service, appeared to be unaware of any other vessels that were trying to proceed eastward across their path. With their loud Klaxon horns blaring, they streaked across the bow or stern of not only coasting steamers, but also of large freighters inbound or outbound to or from the east coast of Britain. "Damned ferryboats, why the hell don't they reduce speed?" could be heard from the bridge of every ship in the vicinity.
Excerpted from Triumphs and Tragedies by Peter Wright. Copyright © 2009 Peter Wright. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc..
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