By Greg Clark, May 20, 1933
“Jimmie,” I said, “let’s just run away from it all!”
“All what?” asked Jim.
“All this trouble and work and being in debt,” said I. “Just let’s disappear.”
“How about our wives and children?” inquired Jim.
“They’d be all right,” I said. “In fact, they might be better off without us for a few years.”
“A few years?” cried Jim.
“Well, life is passing us by,” I explained. “Here we are, Jim, you and me, and except for a little war now and again, we have never been no place and we ain’t seen nothing. Look at Gordon Sinclair. Where is he now? In some incredible, land around the other side of the earth. In Zanzibar or the Heebie Jeebie Islands. He sees life. He’s living. But we will get old and die, and it will be Just the same as if we had never lived at all.”
“Life is pretty quiet for most people,” said Jim.
“Listen,” I cried. “Don’t let us be saps! We’ve done pretty well by everybody so far. We’ve been faithful husbands and model fathers. We’ll be forgiven if we just suddenly vanish.”
“Well,” admitted Jim, “they knew we were a little bit goofy all along.”
“They would say the strain told on us,” I said. “They’d be all right. Somebody would look after them.”
“Well, better people than us are on relief,” I said. “And while we are suffering on some tropical coral reef, like Sinclair is, our families will be going through a valuable and character-building experience here. What I am afraid of is, Jim, that not only are we missing life, but our families are being brought up soft.”
“H’m,” said Jim. “You should be selling stocks and bonds. You have a pious line.”
“Jimmie,” I demanded, rising, “do you plan to go on drawing Birdseye Centers till you die? Do you plan to keep adding Birdseye Centers to Birdseye Center until, added end to end, they will stretch from here to Indo-China? Why not go to Indo-China yourself?”
Jim turned pale. I had hit him where he lives. The only way he can get one Birdseye Center done is by pretending it is the last he will ever do.
Jim shoved back his chair and stood up. From his window in the tower of The Star building you can look right down on Toronto bay, and see all the docks, with the steamers and big tramp ships like toys lined up below you. The bay was shimmering blue. The ships were bright with red and white and black. I came and stood looking down on them with Jim.
Far beyond, to the blue and beckoning horizon, stretched the great lake.
Jim stood staring. As we watched in silence this gateway from the prison of life, a steamer backed slowly out from one of the wharves and turning its slim bow seaward, gathered speed and slowly, emotionally, sped away under our very noses.
“Jim,” I cried, huskily, “there she goes!”
“Day after day,” said Jim in a low voice, “the same old round. Down to the office. Sit at the desk. Wiggle the fingers. Push back the chair. Go back home. Steal a little joy with your family and kids. Then up in the morning. Back to the office. Wiggle the fingers.”
He whirled around and glared at me.
“Let’s go!” he rasped. “Let’s go, let’s start, and if we go we go! And if we don’t go, it will be a sign.”
“Wait a minute,” I cautioned him. “We ought to just straighten up our desks and settle a few –“
“No,” declared Jim, harshly, shoving his pens and paper and stuff aside and reaching for his hat. “We go right now!”
“Come on,” commanded Jim. “When we go, we go. We’ll go down there to the bay, and we’ll find the biggest tramp ship with steam up and we’ll grab jobs on her – deck hands, stewards, stokers, anything, and where she goes, we’ll go. No use dilly-dallying. When you decide to go nuts, go nuts. Come on.”
I followed him as he strode down the hall, into the elevators. My skin was prickling. You don’t just walk out of the dear old Star office just like that! There were hands I wanted to shake. Farewells to say. Grudges to forgive with a warm handclasp. Bygones to be let go by.
But Jim stood in front of me as the elevator plunged to the ground. He took my arm in the lobby and hustled me on to the street.
“Wo ought to have old clothes,” I protested as he scampered me along beside him.
“What for?” demanded Jim. “What do we want these clothes for any more?”
“I should have telephoned my house,” I said. “I’d like to hear my wife’s voice just once more. Or maybe my little girl’s. She plays in the room where the telephone is.”
That would kill it,” said Jim. “One sound and you’d change your mind. Listen, don’t even think about such things until we are outside the Gulf of St. Lawrence!”
“It’s pretty sudden,” I said weakly.
We hustled down Bay St. Along the waterfront we hastened, past all kinds of ships, passenger ships, small freighters, big freighters.
“Out here beyond the Terminal Warehouse,” said Jim, “there are some big freighters. I saw one with steam up from my window.”
We saw ahead a big black funnel sticking up above the wharf houses, and from it rose a thin stream of black smoke.
“Here we are,” said Jim tensely, “the ship of Fate.”
As we came even and started down her immense and rusty side, no one was visible. Not a living soul was to be seen. My spirits rose a little.
“Ship ahoy!” shouted Jim.
A man appeared on her deck. A huge, unshaven man in a black sweater, smoking a cigar.
“Hello,” he said.
“Are you taking any hands aboard?” asked Jim, in a strong, hearty, seafaring manner.
“What kind of hands?” asked the big man, spitting overside.
“Well, we’re a couple of landlubbers,” said Jim, “who are tired of being ashore and we want to go to sea. I’m asking you, man to man, have you got any place for a couple of men who don’t care how little money they make as long as they go to sea.”
“I might,” said the big fellow in crafty voice, “need a couple of stokers.”
A Stirring Moment
“Where are you bound?” asked Jim.
“All over the world,” said the unshaven one.
“South America?” asked Jim. “Valparaiso, Rio?”
“All over,” said the big fellow, distantly, “Suez, Port Said.”
“When do we sail?” asked Jim, advancing to the gang plank.
“Almost any time,” said the big fellow.
“Are we hired?”
“As stokers,” said the big fellow. “Git below.”
So Jim led and I followed up the gang plank, along a dusty and dirty deck and back to the rear end of the ship where there was a sort of cabin with ladder leading far down into stoke-hole in which a dim fire glowed.
“Leave your coats up here,” said the big fellow.
“Are you the captain?” I asked.
“Sure,” said the big man, tipping his soiled cap back.
As we removed our coats, a man in greasy overalls appeared out of another door.
“Whose these?” he demanded gruffly of the captain.
“A couple of new stokers,” said the captain. “Just signed on for the run to Venezuela and Valparaiso.”
The greasy man stared grimly at us and vanished.
“The chief engineer,” explained the captain.
He led us down the ladder. The place was full of soft coal, and on one side, in one of the four furnace doors, fire was glowing.
“Now,” said the captain, “I’m going to leave you birds in here all day. I’m going to close down the hatch so as not to have too much draft on that fire. But you two have got to keep that gauge there up to one hundred pounds, no more, no less.”
“Are we going to be alone at this?” asked Jim.
“The night watch is just gone off duty,” said the captain. “They will come on about six o’clock.”
“Where will we be by then?” asked Jim.
“Somewhere in the St. Lawrence,” said the captain.
“How about lunch?”
“I’ll bring it down to you myself,” said the captain.
He climbed the ladder.
“Git going,” he said to us, as he reached the top and slammed the iron doors shut.
It was romantic down in that black hold. The black coal. The red glow of fire. We took big shovels and heaved couple of scoops of coal on to the fire.
“Well,” said Jim, resting on his shovel, “we’re away.”
And at that instant we felt the throb of engines starting and the ship trembled all over.
It was stirring moment. Jim and I leaped to our shovel and heaved coal. The gauge had risen to 110.
“Easy there,” cried Jim in his new nautical manner. “Vast heaving. Hold her at a hundred, the captain said.”
So we sat down on hunks of coal and looked at each other as we felt the ship moving out from her berth. We could feel her slowly turning as she backed into Toronto Bay and swung her nose to the open world.
The engines slowly thumped and thudded, sometimes going fast, sometimes slow, and once they stopped altogether.
“Going through the eastern gap,” said Jim with a catch in his voice. “Taking it slow.”
Just a Little Homesick
Once more the engines started their steady thumping. Jim and I stood up in the dark and glowing coal hold and shook hands solemnly. We were at sea!
The gauge stood steady at 100.
Mile by mile the engines throbbed steadily. We could hear feet pounding along the decks above.
“Who says stoking coal is hard job?” Jim demanded. “Why, it’s just a lot of sailor’s bunk!”
An hour went by and all we had to shovel was about four scoops of coal each. In fact, we had to argue as to whose turn it was to shovel – we both wanted to do it.
It grew a little warm.
“I wish we could go up and get a breath of air,” said Jim.
He climbed the ladder and hammered on the iron doors with his shovel handle. The captain opened the door an inch or two and demanded what we wanted.
“There’s nothing much to do down here,” said Jim, “why can’t we go on deck turn about?”
“You’re at sea,” roared the captain. “Git below, there, you scum! You do your trick in the stoke-hole and then you’re off duty. But when you’re on, don’t come hollering out here!”
He clanged the doors. But we had caught a glimpse of the heavenly blue sky and moving clouds, and we could visualize that lovely lake slipping by, the ship with a bone in her teeth, as we sailors say, and a spanking wind on our stern.
Anyway, it was a long day. I had imagined toiling in the stoke-hole was a job for giants. But Jim and I, two softies from city jobs, held down that engine boiler at 100 pounds with the greatest ease. In fact, we had it over the 100 several times and never under.
At noon, the captain came to the door and handed down two hot dogs wrapped in paper.
“Your lunch,” he bellowed, and dropped them into our waiting hands.
Hot dogs! A funny food for sailors.
During our lunch, the engines slowed and stopped.
“Entering the Lachine Canal!” announced Jim.
“Sure,” said Jim. “This is a fast ship we are on. I can tell by the smooth, even way she has.”
“Boy, I wish we were upstairs where we could see the sights. All that lovely Quebec shore, and the locks.”
“We’ll be off at six,” said Jim. “Six bells. And then we can watch the St. Lawrence shores slipping by in the twilight.”
All afternoon, as we passed through the Lachine Canal, the engines stopped and started, and our gauge stood steady at 100 pounds without any trouble at all to us. Jim had a little sleep about 3 p.m., and I stood to the fires alone. We heard thumpings and scrapings, and feet tramping on deck, as we worked our way slowly through the canals. And then we started about five o’clock on another long, even run of engines, while I visualized the broad St. Lawrence marching by.
“We’ll soon be off duty,” said he. “Well, son, how do you feel about it all now?”
“Well, while you were asleep,” I said, “I got a little homesick, to tell you the truth. I got thinking.”
“Cut out thinking.”
It Gets Everybody
“What will our wives do to-night when we don’t come home as usual?” I asked. “They will wait and wait and about nine o’clock to-night they will start telephoning the editors.
“Wait till the editor starts worrying about next week’s Birdseye Center,” said Jim gleefully.
“And then,” I said, perhaps a little plaintively, “they will notify the police. They will sit up until morning. I can just see my wife walking from room to room.”
“Aw, lay off,” said Jim.
“Yes,” I continued. “Walking from room to room, looking at each of my little children sleeping there so serenely, and she will be wondering what is to become of them. And as the weeks go by, and the months. And perhaps the years!”
I broke down slightly.
Jim slammed shovel of coal into the fire.
“Jimmie,” I said, “let’s telephone long distance from the first place we stop!”
“Don’t be a softy!” said Jim. “You started this. Now you are all for quitting. If you are hard boiled, you can go through with it. There are some things too sacred to fool with, and human liberty is one of them.”
“All right,” I said.
“We can telephone from Quebec City, maybe,” said Jim, suddenly sitting down.
So I sat down on another hunk of coal and we were sitting with our elbows on our knees and our chins on our hands when the doors above opened and the captain shouted down:
“All hands on deck!”
We scrambled up the ladder.
To the right was the Terminal Warehouse building.
Before us spread the homely, lovely, happy, panorama of the city of Toronto. Behind us shimmered Toronto Bay in the evening light.
Men were trooping off the gangplank ashore.
Jim and I stood speechless.
“All right, boys, beat it,” said the captain.
We moved in a daze toward the cabin door where our coats hung clean on nails.
“We didn’t sail?” Jim gasped.
“We’re just overhauling engines,” said the captain.
“And I’m not the captain,” said he. “I’m the stoker. I want to thank you boys for a nice day sitting here in the sun. I got a good coat of tan. I’ll need it in another month or so when we sail.”
“Oh, mister,” I said, “thank you so much!”
“Don’t mention it,” said the stoker, who all of a sudden appeared a kind and gentle sort of man for all his unshaven chin and his black and dirty sweater.
“We really didn’t want to go to sea,” Jim explained. “We were just a little… sort of …”
“I know,” said the stoker. “Wanderlust. It gets everybody about this time of year. I usually get dozen or so like you each spring when we are overhauling engines. It gives me a nice rest and it helps the boys get over their troubles.”
We shook hands warmly and the stoker introduced us to the engineer, who thanked us and said we had kept him up a nice pressure all day while he was repairing engines.
We hustled down the gang plank and started back for the office to wash up before going home.
“We can tell our wives we were sent out on a story and we couldn’t get at a telephone,” I said as we headed for Bay St.
“Perhaps we’d better telephone from the office,” said Jim. “They don’t like to have dinner kept waiting.”
Editor’s Notes: In this early story, there is mention of Gordon Sinclair, a Toronto Star reporter who was very well known for his travels around the world in the 1930s and reporting from exotic locations.
The Lachine Canal runs through Montreal to bypass the Lachine rapids for access to the Great Lakes from the St. Lawrence River.