In my grandfather’s wake
Sometimes, you travel to meet people. Even people who died before you were born.
I never met my grandfather. My mother told me he was a merchant seaman who called New Orleans home. The cold eyes and unsmiling face in an old color photograph told me he’d seen his share of hard times.
In the early days of World War 2, well before Pearl Harbor, he sailed on oil tankers bound for Britain. A hundred miles downriver to the Gulf of Mexico, then past the Florida Keys into the Atlantic. About three weeks later, you were in England. Simple.
All you had to do was run the gauntlet of German U-boats waiting for you almost at the mouth of the Mississippi.
The German submariners were almost tragically young, but they knew their deadly business. They turned the gulf into a shooting gallery, and the ships my grandfather sailed on were sitting ducks.
It was easy.
They knew you’d be sailing alone. They knew the antisubmarine patrols were a joke. They knew all the coastal towns would be lit up at night, leaving your unprotected vessel in perfect silhouette, a perfect target.
They had only to wait until you had left the Mississippi for open water. It was then that they would blow your ship apart with torpedoes and leave it to burn in the middle of the night. Somewhere between the mouth of the Mississippi and a British port, this is what happened to my grandfather.
He survived five of those six attacks, but soon enough, the fatal odds caught up to him, as they did to so many others.
History calls this the Battle of the Atlantic. A lot of the tankers that left New Orleans never got that far. By war’s end, many of the civilians in the merchant marine had left to enlist in the military.
It was safer.
A little more than 60 years later, my wife and I boarded Royal Caribbean’s Grandeur of the Seas in New Orleans for a week-long Caribbean cruise.
HIS WAR, HIS RIVER
New Orleans is a great cruise port. The dock is close to the Riverwalk and the French Quarter, so lots of passengers were filled with the holiday “spirit” even before they boarded the ship. They posed for pictures along the rail with the New Orleans skyline in the background, laughing and giggling, ice-cold beers and Bahama Mamas in hand.
Not me. I was on family business. My grandfather’s business.
I went as far forward as passengers were allowed, atop the bridge, overlooking the bow. We were sailing down the Mississippi River, my grandfather’s river, and I wanted to see what he saw.
I saw flat, green fields, the farmhouses that popped up here and the shrimp boats docked over there. I saw the oil refineries, with their lighted towers and snaking pipes that made them look like some madman’s amusement park.
I saw long rows of barges pushed by towboats,* angling around the Mississippi’s hairpin turns. (*NOTE: They’re called “towboats,” but they don’t actually tow ANYTHING. Don’t ask…)
A RIVER OF SHIPS
I saw ship after ship, some riding at anchor, others passing close by. Freighters, bulk carriers and tankers of every size and description, flying the flags of a dozen nations. A river at rush hour.
Then there was the river itself, weaving and coiling like a serpent — so much so that, an hour after having left New Orleans, the city skyline was actually growing closer instead fading.
My grandfather’s tankers had plied these same nut-brown waters. Now, standing aboard this gleaming white pleasure ship, the rushing wind and the churning wake seemed to be whispering: “This is how it looked. This is how it was.”
What must he have been thinking at a moment like this? Did he replay in his mind the blast and violent shaking of the last torpedo hit he’d lived through? Did he think about lost friends and shipmates, wondering why Fate had spared him and not them? Was he wondering if this would be the voyage when his luck ran out?
Or did he just do his job as he’d always done it?
Did he even get to see this view that I was seeing now, or was he working somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship, waiting for the next shift change, the next mess call…the next torpedo?
It was nearly midnight when I left the bridge. I left without answers, but that didn’t matter. For a few precious hours, I had seen this river through my grandfather’s eyes, communing with a legacy that still lives in my veins.
Ahead lay sunny days at sea, fun visits to Cozumel and Key West. But for me, this had already been the trip of a lifetime.
Just found out there are two memorials to America’s World War 2 merchant seamen — one in San Pedro, CA near the combined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the other, shown here, at the tip of Battery Park in New York City. They were created several years apart, but both depict basically the same thing, seamen trying to save themselves from a sinking ship.
Neither could be called well-known, but at least it gives me my choice of sites where I can leave some flowers for my grandfather. And one day, God willing, I will do that.