A Casual Of The Sea by Christopher Morley

Story type: Essay

He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea.


Books sometimes make surprising connections with life. Fifteen-year-old Tommy Jonkers, shipping as O.S. (ordinary seaman) on the S.S. Fernfield in Glasgow in 1911, could hardly have suspected that the second engineer would write a novel and put him in it; or that that same novel would one day lift him out of focsle and galley and set him working for a publishing house on far-away Long Island. Is it not one more proof of the surprising power of the written word?

For Tommy is not one of those who expect to find their names in print. The mere sight of his name on a newspaper page, in an article I wrote about him, brought (so he naively told me) tears to his eyes. Excellent, simple-hearted Tommy! How little did you think, when you signed on to help the Fernfield carry coal from Glasgow to Alexandria, that the long arm of the Miehle press was already waiting for you; that thousands of good people reading a certain novel would be familiar with your “round rosy face and clear sea-blue eyes.”

“Tommy” (whose real name is Drevis) was born in Amsterdam in 1896. His father was a fireman at sea, and contributed next to nothing to the support of Tommy and his pretty little sister Greta. They lived with their grandmother, near the quays in Amsterdam, where the masts of ships and the smell of tar interfered with their lessons. Bread and treacle for breakfast, black beans for lunch, a fine thick stew and plenty more bread for supper–that and the Dutch school where he stood near the top of his class are what Tommy remembers best of his boyhood. His grandmother took in washing, and had a hard time keeping the little family going. She was a fine, brusque old lady and as Tommy went off to school in the mornings she used to frown at him from the upstairs window because his hands were in his pockets. For as everybody knows, only slouchy good-for-nothings walk to school with pocketed hands.

Tommy did so well in his lessons that he was one of the star pupils given the privilege of learning an extra language in the evenings. He chose English because most of the sailors he met talked English, and his great ambition was to be a seaman. His uncle was a quartermaster in the Dutch navy, and his father was at sea; and Tommy’s chance soon came.

After school hours he used to sell postcards, cologne, soap, chocolates, and other knicknacks to the sailors, to earn a little cash to help his grandmother. One afternoon in the spring of 1909 he was down on the docks with his little packet of wares, when a school friend came running to him.

“Drevis, Drevis!” he shouted, “they want a mess-room boy on the Queen Eleanor!”

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It didn’t take Drevis long to get aboard the Queen Eleanor, a British tramp out of Glasgow, bound for Hamburg and Vladivostok. He accosted the chief engineer, his blue eyes shining eagerly.

“Yes,” says the chief, “I need a mess-room steward right away–we sail at four o’clock.”

“Try me!” pipes Drevis. (Bless us, the boy was barely thirteen!)

The chief roars with laughter.

“Too small!” he says.

Drevis insisted that he was just the boy for mess-room steward.

“Well,” says the chief, “go home and put on a pair of long pants and come back again. Then we’ll see how you look!”

Tommy ran home rejoicing. His Uncle Hendrick was a small man, and Tommy grabbed a pair of his trousers. Thus fortified, he hastened back to the Queen Eleanor. The chief cackled, but he took him on at two pounds five a month.

Tommy didn’t last long as mess-room boy. He broke so many cups the engineers had to drink out of dippers, and they degraded him to cabin boy at a pound a month. Even as cabin boy he was no instant success. He used to forget to empty the chief’s slop-pail, and the water would overflow the cabin. He felt the force of a stout sea boot not a few times in learning the golden rubric of the tramp steamer’s cabin boy.

“Drevis” was a strange name to the English seamen, and they christened him “Tommy,” and that handle turns him still.

Tommy’s blue eyes and honest Netherland grin and easy temper kept him friendly with all the world. The winds of chance sent him scudding about the globe, a true casual of the seas. His first voyage as A.B. was on the Fernfield in 1911, and there he met a certain Scotch engineer. This engineer had a habit of being interested in human problems, and Tommy’s guileless phiz attracted him. Under his tutelage Tommy acquired a thirst for promotion, and soon climbed to the rank of quartermaster.

One thing that always struck Tommy was the number of books the engineer had in his cabin. A volume of Nat Gould, Ouida or “The Duchess” would be the largest library Tommy would have found in the other bunks; but here, before his wondering gaze, were Macaulay, Gibbon, Gorki, Conrad, Dickens, Zola, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Chaucer, Shaw, and what not. And what would Master Tommy have said had he known that his friend, even then, was working on a novel in which he, Tommy, would play an important role!

The years went by. On sailing ships, on steam tramps, on private yachts, as seaman, as quartermaster, as cook’s helper, Tommy drifted about the world. One day when he was twenty years old he was rambling about New York just before sailing for Liverpool on the steam yacht Alvina. He was one of a strictly neutral crew (the United States was still neutral in those days) signed on to take a millionaire’s pet plaything across the wintry ocean. She had been sold to the Russian Government (there still was one then!)

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Tommy was passing through the arcade of the Pennsylvania Station when his eye fell upon the book shop there. He was startled to see in the window a picture of the Scotch engineer–his best friend, the only man in the world who had ever been like a father to him. He knew that the engineer was far away in the Mediterranean, working on an English transport. He scanned the poster with amazement.

Apparently his friend had written a book. Tommy, like a practical seaman, went to the heart of the matter. He went into the shop and bought the book. He fell into talk with the bookseller, who had read the book. He told the bookseller that he had known the author, and that for years they had served together on the same vessels at sea. He told how the writer, who was the former second engineer of the Fernfield, had done many things for the little Dutch lad whose own father had died at sea. Then came another surprise.

“I believe you’re one of the characters in the story,” said the bookseller.

It was so. The book was “Casuals of the Sea,” the author, William McFee, who had been a steamship engineer for a dozen years; and Drevis Jonkers found himself described in full in the novel as “Drevis Noordhof,” and playing a leading part in the story. Can you imagine the simple sailor’s surprise and delight? Pleased beyond measure, in his soft Dutch accent liberally flavoured with cockney he told the bookseller how Mr. McFee had befriended him, had urged him to go on studying navigation so that he might become an officer; and that though they had not met for several years he still receives letters from his friend, full of good advice about saving his money, where to get cheap lodgings in Brooklyn, and not to fall into the common error of sailors in thinking that Hoboken and Passyunk Avenue are all America. And Tommy went back to his yacht chuckling with delight, with a copy of “Casuals of the Sea” under his arm.

Here my share in the adventure begins. The bookseller, knowing my interest in the book, hastened to tell me the next time I saw him that one of the characters in the story was in New York. I wrote to Tommy asking him to come to see me. He wrote that the Alvina was to sail the next day, and he could not get away. I supposed the incident was closed.

Then I saw in the papers that the Alvina had been halted in the Narrows by a United States destroyer, the Government having suspected that her errand was not wholly neutral. Rumour had it that she was on her way to the Azores, there to take on armament for the house of Romanoff. She was halted at the Quarantine Station at Staten Island, pending an investigation.

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Then enters the elbow of coincidence. Looking over some books in the very same bookshop where Tommy had bought his friend’s novel, I overheard another member of the Alvina’s crew asking about “Casuals of the Sea.” His chum Tommy had told him about his adventure, and he, too, was there to buy one. (Not every day does one meet one’s friends walking in a 500-page novel!) By the never-to-be-sufficiently-admired hand of chance I was standing at Joe Hogan’s very elbow when he began explaining to the book clerk that he was a friend of the Dutch sailor who had been there a few days before.

So a few days later, behold me on the Staten Island ferry, on my way to see Tommy and the Alvina.

I’m afraid I would always desert the office if there’s a plausible excuse to bum about the waterfront. Is there any passion in the breast of mankind more absorbing than the love of ships? A tall Cunarder putting out to sea gives me a keener thrill than anything the Polo Grounds or the Metropolitan Opera can show. Of what avail a meeting of the Authors’ League when one can know the sights, sounds, and smells of West or South Street? I used to lug volumes of Joseph Conrad down to the West-Street piers to give them to captains and first mates of liners, and get them to talk about the ways of the sea. That was how I met Captain Claret of the Minnehaha, that prince of seamen; and Mr. Pape of the Orduna, Mr. Jones of the Lusitania and many another. They knew all about Conrad, too. There were five volumes of Conrad in the officers’ cabins on the Lusitania when she went down, God rest her. I know, because I put them there.

* * * * *

And the Staten Island ferry is a voyage on the Seven Seas for the landlubber, After months of office work, how one’s heart leaps to greet our old mother the sea! How drab, flat, and humdrum seem the ways of earth in comparison to the hardy and austere life of ships! There on every hand go the gallant shapes of vessels–the James L. Morgan, dour little tug, shoving two barges; Themistocles, at anchor, with the blue and white Greek colours painted on her rusty flank; the Comanche outward bound for Galveston (I think); the Ascalon, full-rigged ship, with blue-jerseyed sailormen out on her bowsprit snugging the canvas. And who is so true a lover of the sea as one who can suffer the ultimate indignities–and love her still! I am queasy as soon as I sight Sandy Hook….

At the quarantine station I had a surprise. The Alvina was not there. One old roustabout told me he thought she had gone to sea. I was duly taken aback. Had I made the two-hour trip for nothing? Then another came to my aid. “There she is, up in the bight,” he said. I followed his gesture, and saw her–a long, slim white hull, a cream-coloured funnel with a graceful rake; the Stars and Stripes fresh painted in two places on her shining side. I hailed a motor boat to take me out. The boatman wanted three dollars, and I offered one. He protested that the yacht was interned and he had no right to take visitors out anyway. He’d get into trouble with “39”–“39” being a United States destroyer lying in the Narrows a few hundred yards away. After some bickering we compromised on a dollar and a quarter.

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That was a startling adventure for the humble publisher’s reader! Wallowing in an ice-glazed motor boat, in the lumpy water of a “bight”–surrounded by ships and the men who sail them–I might almost have been a hardy newspaper man! But Long Island commuters are nurtured to a tough and perilous his, and I clambered the Alvina’s side without dropping hat, stick, or any of my pocketful of manuscripts.

Joe Hogan, the steward, was there in his white jacket. He introduced me to the cook, the bosun, the “chief,” the wireless, and the “second.” The first officer was too heavy with liquor to notice the arrival of a stranger. Messrs. Haig and Haig, those Dioscuri of seamen, had been at work. The skipper was ashore. He owns a saloon.

The Alvina is a lovely little vessel, 215 feet long, they told me, and about 525 tons. She is fitted with mahogany throughout; the staterooms all have brass double beds and private bathrooms attached; she has her own wireless telegraph and telephone, refrigerating apparatus, and everything to make the owner and his guests comfortable. But her beautiful furnishings were tumbled this way and that in preparation for the sterner duties that lay before her. The lower deck was cumbered with sacks of coal lashed down. A transatlantic voyage in January is likely to be a lively one for a yacht of 500 tons.

I found Tommy below in his bunk, cleaning up. He is a typical Dutch lad–round, open face, fair hair, and guileless blue eyes. He showed me all his treasures–his certificates of good conduct from all the ships (both sail and steam) on which he has served; a picture of his mother, who died when he was six; and of his sister Greta–a very pretty girl–who is also mentioned in Casuals of the Sea. The drunken fireman in the story who dies after a debauch was Tommy’s father who died in the same way. And with these other treasures Tommy showed me a packet of letters from Mr. McFee.

I do not want to offend Mr. McFee by describing his letters to this Dutch sailor-boy as “sensible,” but that is just what they were. Tommy is one of his own “casuals”–

–those frail craft upon the restless Sea
Of Human Life, who strike the rocks uncharted,
Who loom, sad phantoms, near us, drearily,
Storm-driven, rudderless, with timbers started–

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and these sailormen who drift from port to port on the winds of chance are most in need of sound Ben Franklin advice. Save your money; put it in the bank; read books; go to see the museums, libraries, and art galleries; get to know something about this great America if you intend to settle down there–that is the kind of word Tommy gets from his friend.

Gradually, as I talked with him, I began to see into the laboratory of life where “Casuals of the Sea” originated. This book is valuable because it is a triumphant expression of the haphazard, strangely woven chances that govern the lives of the humble. In Tommy’s honest, gentle face, and in the talk of his shipmates when we sat down to dinner together, I saw a microcosm of the strange barren life of the sea where men float about for years like driftwood. And out of all this ebbing tide of aimless, happy-go-lucky humanity McFee had chanced upon this boy from Amsterdam and had tried to pound into him some good sound common sense.

When I left her that afternoon, the Alvina was getting up steam, and she sailed within a few hours. I had eaten and talked with her crew, and for a short space had a glimpse of the lives and thoughts of the simple, childlike men who live on ships. I realized for the first time the truth of that background of aimless hazard that makes “Casuals of the Sea” a book of more than passing merit.

As for Tommy, the printed word had him in thrall though he knew it not. When he got back from Liverpool, two months later, I found him a job in the engine room of a big printing press. He was set to work oiling the dynamos, and at ten dollars a week he had a fine chance to work his way up. Indeed, he enrolled in a Scranton correspondence course on steam engineering and enchanted his Hempstead landlady by his simple ways. That lasted just two weeks. The level ground made Tommy’s feet uneasy. The last I heard he was on a steam yacht on Long Island Sound.

But wherever steam and tide may carry him, Tommy cherishes in his heart his own private badge of honour: his friend the engineer has put him in a book! And there, in one of the noblest and most honest novels of our day, you will find him–a casual of the sea!

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