My father has been to 55 countries; partly due to his time in the merchant marines and partly due to being an American Airlines employee. Recently, I recorded a list of the countries he’s been to but I never knew specific details about his job duties until I interviewed him. Wisdom and resilience are two nouns that come to mind when people think of him. He has zillions of proverbs and inspirational quotes. He defines swagger and his story is as humorous as he is.
Why did you join the Merchant Marines?
I was 19 years old and it was a good opportunity. I had to help support my family back home in Greece because my father died at 57 years old.
Did you have to take a test? Were there any requirements?
I needed a Seaman’s Passport or Seaman’s papers. I saw a job in the newspaper in the village square….an ad asking for people to work on ships. I worked in the Navy as an employee on the Hephaestus ship. That ship had 200-300 employees and we serviced other ships; their motors, pumps, pipes,….I spent three years like that. We picked up old WWII airplanes that had sunk in the ocean.
I departed from Piraeus to go to Alexandria, Egypt then onto France because we were on a French ship. My duties were as an assistant electrician on the ship Meditteranea where I learned the skills on the job. On one ship we went to Istanbul, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Tunis which is next to Libya. We took an airplane from Athens to Cairo and Suez, Egypt and from there took a ship to England transporting the oil. Then onto Venezuela and Argentina and back and forth to Venezuela before going onto San Francisco.
I was on the Meditteranae for 6 months, then went to Egypt by airplane. I worked for three years for the Royal Navy before this. After San Francisco, Curacao, New York and back and forth there, I went to Aruba, Cartagena, Columbia and loaded up to go to England. Back and forth. Then, onto Morocco. We spent a few days there and went onto Jamaica and Baton Rouge. Back and forth.
There was something that happened that was very significant. On a ship going to Jamaica, there was seaweed that made a big clump that floated close to the ship. If the ship got too close, the pump sucked it in and stopped up the pipes. Then we’d have no electricity and we’d be in emergency mode. We couldn’t start the engines with no electricity. Everyone was desperate and confused. I had a thought that if I unplugged the weeds from one pipe, then, the water would go the other direction where the pipe was clean. It could’ve flooded the ship.
When I cleaned that area, it was 140 degrees in the engine room and I was down there by myself. I started that generator back up and it fired the boilers and started the pump from the bottom of the ship and pushed the water out. The lights and fan came on, the ship cooled down and started running again. When I looked up, everyone came down to the boiler room cheering for me! The cook, the captain, the whole crew was surprised to find me there. They thanked me and the cook brought me a case of sodas as a gift. We started the engines and went to Jamaica. It was a controversial situation. If I failed, I might have flooded the ship. I was 23 years old at the time. They were supposed to give me a medal by the company who owned the ship….a badge of honor because we almost lost the ship. The whole crew was responsible. I never received the medal because I didn’t stay on.
I jumped ship in Baton Rouge and took a Greyhound Bus to Tulsa. I went there to visit relatives, met your mother and the rest was history. It was like I woke up and found myself with a baby and then two babies. (Another guy also jumped the ship and went to New York and found a job there.)
What happened leading up to this was that your mother’s cousin- in- law came to Tulsa (from Greece) . He was engaged to your mother’s cousin. Your mom introduced him to me. He brought a bottle of wine for your mom from the doctor suitor who was intending to marry your mom. The doctor suitor was still back in Greece. I drank his wine with your mom’s cousin in law. (He said this chuckling). So, he was never able to give her the bottle of wine from her suitor.
You drank his wine and you took his girl?!
Yes. And your mom’s cousin in law told her that I was the better deal and that she’d be better off with me. The doctor suitor back in Greece wanted a dowry anyway. Your grandpa was confused about all this. He wanted the other man to marry your mother.
Writer’s side note: (my dad and mom’s cousin in law became dear friends and relatives. Their fathers-in-law were business partners and brothers-in-law. Their children were not just cousins but best buddies and now their grandchildren are cousins and best buddies.
After a short courtship, we married. She arranged for me to get a lawyer so that we could handle the situation of me jumping ship. We went to the police station and the lawyer told them that I was confused and was supposed to go to New York but ended up in Tulsa. They fingerprinted me and told me I had 20 days to leave the U.S. My father in law was exhausted from worry about all this. (I stayed in the U.S.) We considered going to Mexico if we needed to but a few months after all this, I went to Canada on a Greyhound Bus alone and entered the states legally in order to stay married. Back to the Merchant Marines job, did you encounter any other danger on your voyages ?
Yes, hurricanes! And icebergs. We never knew they were coming because there was no communication. …only the wind. There were icebergs in the North Atlantic but we never saw them in the nighttime. We just watched the temperature of the water and if it dropped fast, we stopped because it meant the iceberg was coming. We’d turn and go the other way. I was caught in many hurricanes. We went against the waves of the ship, otherwise the ship would tilt.
Stories like this can be found in the book, A Magic Carpet Ride.
Link to order below. Proceeds from this book go to various charities.