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Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Cartoon illustration of a man in a canoe with a tattered white flag reading "HELP" as the waves churn around him. Sketch by Earle Levenstein.

I don’t think I’ve ever shared—I’m trying to update my vocabulary—with you my near-death experience in mid-Atlantic on a very old—trust me; I don’t know ships but I know old—merchant vessel converted into a troop ship—I’d say hurriedly but I don’t want to be hypercritical—and packed to the gills with a load of us on our way to France.

Korea was in the other direction, but we—the U.S. of A.—still had major interests in some European airfields and anyway, France was where we were headed and I thought we’d really lucked out; that was until we were a couple of days out at sea and I seriously changed my mind.

The sleeping quarters were way downstairs—I mean, below—a few levels below the mess hall which, while initially packed with hungry guys filling up on the usual substantial three meals a day of eggs of all kinds and bacon and sausages and meat and whipped potatoes and gravy and vegetables and the usual military fare, began to shrink in attendance as we made our way further and further out to sea and the winds and waves picked up and as you can imagine there was a lot of swaying and lifting and precipitously dropping like a stone and then rising and—well, you get the picture.

The lavatories were a deck below the mess hall and the showers and sinks and toilets were grouped in different areas with the showers lined up on facing walls awaiting the expected parade of troops which, like the mess hall, welcomed fewer and fewer soldiers as we plowed deeper and deeper into the wildly turbulent sea.

The sleeping quarters, as I said, were way down; below the lavatories and the mess hall and the bunks were stacked three high. Now you can imagine—I won’t go further—when your stomach is lurching around, it requires major skill to leap out of bed and race up the gangway to the lavatories above and so let's just say there were challenges that had to be addressed and leave it at that.

As for me, I was beyond queasy; transfixed by the mountainous waves; watching through a passageway as the sea rose out of sight, the ship hung there, shuddered, then reappeared as it swooped in the opposite direction; shudders and occasional bumping and banging about were followed by crew racing up and down gangways; and of course, I was absolutely certain lifeboats were breaking loose and didn't even want to speculate about how many might be left.

So, we chugged on and on and the mess hall mob shrank to a raggedy few sad-looking guys toying with food and me, frozen in my spot at the passageway and I don't remember if I slept or ate at all. In a rather passive, resigned way, I was reasonably sure the end was near and really between my solitary showers and nearly solitary meals and my station marveling at the ocean, I pretty much didn't care one way or another.

Staring and showers were my life in a nutshell.

Gradually, after about eleven or twelve days—forever— the ocean calmed somewhat and then calmed some more and finally, in the distance, land appeared and men who hadn't left their bunks or even cared about living or dying, began creeping out onto the deck; and as we drew nearer some began to cry; happy to be alive.

As for me, the year-and-a-half I spent in France was worth the voyage and as luck would have it, when my time ran out—I didn't have the courage I needed to sign up for another stretch—I was not unhappy to skip a ship and be flown home with a gang from Frankfurt for my discharge.

Haven't been on a boat of any size since then.

I mean, where's the fun in that?

Cruise? Fageddaboutit.

Not on your life.

Or rather, on my life. (P.S. Just between us; I have to acknowledge a certain amount of exaggeration in my narrative. Truth is in there for sure; maybe buried a little; but I have to say, you'd be amazed at how much of it is on the money. Take my word for it; that was one helluva trip.)

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