He was the first to greet me when I joined the ship. Slouched in the door of the quartermaster's shelter, he glared at me as I staggered under the weight of two kit bags, a guitar that I couldn't play and a bale of sensible clothing prescribed by my mother.
My head was down; I was concentrating on the swaying gangway, determined not to sprawl flat on my face in front of the men on the quarterdeck who were watching me. When I saw huge dirty boots blocking my way, I looked up into the cruelest, most hate-filled face I had ever seen.
"Ordinary S-Seaman Sweetman reporting for duty," I stammered, trying not to give way to panic. I had never seen such naked hate; he looked like he wanted to roast and eat me for lunch. 'J. RUNNING WOLF' was printed neatly in black and red ink over the left pocket of his dungaree shirt; 'WOLF' was written in red, and crowned a snarling black wolf's head which drooled bloody saliva.
There was a bray of laughter as someone reacted to my name, but he ignored it. "Don't give a fuck who ya are," he snarled. "Yer just another fuckin' white man, that's who ya fuckin' are, so get the fuck outta my sight before I rip yer white fuckin' ass off!" His words sank to a hiss as he lurched toward me, clutching the steel guardrail cable for support. When his cratered face was an inch from mine, he gave a terrible, bubbling wheeze, spraying me with rum and animosity.
I grew scarlet, then white. I was paralyzed. I closed my eyes and saw dancing red spots. When I opened them, he was still there.
A throat cleared on my left. "Better gimme some of that stuff and follow me."
Running Wolf turned and snarled at my rescuer who threw one of my kit bags over his shoulder, patted the huge stomach blocking his way, and pulled me after him toward the nearest open hatch.
"Jesus! Sweet-man! Fuckin' candy-ass!" I ducked my head in a vain attempt to escape the derisive shout which followed me into the depths of the ship. And even the clattering of my cleats on the steel ladder couldn't cover the whistles and whoops of laughter from the crowd who had been watching the show.
I found myself in the ship's cafeteria; a miasma of steam, grilled steak haze, cigarette smoke, body odour, diesel fumes and fresh paint. It pulsed with laughter and shouted conversation as men crashed through the bottleneck created by my luggage, the lineup for dinner, those returning trays and dishes to the scullery, and the general traffic into and out of the passageway leading forward.
My guide indicated the scene with a grand sweep of his arm: "This is the . . ."
"Who was that guy?" I bleated. "He's kinda drunk, isn't he? Jeez, and a Leading Seaman!" I glanced fearfully up the ladder, expecting pursuit. A Leading Seaman was supposed to be somewhere up there next to God; nothing in basic training had prepared me for this.
"Je-zus!" he howled. "Shoulda seen your face! Thought you were gonna shit yourself right there on the quarterdeck! He grabbed a passing arm: "Hey Mike, you shoulda seen Wolfman, he did it to this poor guy like I never seen before. It was the best yet!"
There was a crash as someone hurtled down the ladder. I jumped out of the way, stepping squarely onto Mike's foot. The new arrival laughed when he saw me and clapped me on the shoulder before hurrying to join the food lineup. I turned to apologize to Mike; he was staring in shock at the pale scar of cut leather on the toe of his boot.
"Jeez, I'm sorry . . ."
"Who the fuck let you in here?" he wailed. "You got cleats on! Where you from, Poland or somethin'?"
"I didn't mean . . ."
There was another crash, another flying body, another punch on the shoulder.
"I turned back to apologize again, but Mike was almost into the passageway. "Get those cleats off before you kill someone!" he yelled over the din.
"Or before you sink the ship," a voice shouted.
More crashes, more laughs and punches, and as I turned in bewilderment to follow my still anonymous guide, somebody grabbed my ass. My quivering tight little 19-year-old cherryboy ass.
One evening months later, I was in our mess-deck sitting beside Henry Charlie who slept in the bunk below me. All I knew about him was that he was from the Yukon and came from a large family; they raised horses which were almost wild, but which allowed themselves to be fed during the winter. He loved the horses; they were all I had ever heard him talk about when he talked about anything, which was seldom. He had the blackest eyes and the slowest smile of anyone I had ever known.
|STORY MENU||NEXT PAGE|