Panama Love a short story.
The Panama canal is about 51 miles long. Constructed to save the hazardous and longer trip around the infamous Cape Horn. Its an engineering wonder! Made by man to connect the Atlantic sea with the Pacific Ocean it was started by the French in the eighteen hundreds who gave up because of the death rate among workers, it was finished by the Americans in the early twentieth century. 51 miles steeped in blood, surrounded by dense jungle and with islands of humanity where canal workers are habited. It takes about twelve hours to navigate. The jungle is dense and forbidding, occasionally American soldiers can be seen battling through the foliage as they do their jungle training there. Panama city at one end and St Cristobal at the other provides breaks steeped in sleaze and corruption for anyone who has an interest. Which of course we did. The country was at this time run by the dictator Manuel Noriega.
We’d arrived in Panama the day before, needing passage and repairs.
The ship romantically named ACT 4, which stood for “Associated Container Transport”. We all worked for Blue Star Line which carried a kudos in British circles and of which we held a certain pride. She… for all ships are “she” was a large powerful container ship driven by steam. Water turned to steam, turned to mechanical energy by pressured steam driving huge turbines which turned the propellors with awesome power. Almost incomprehensible in its mechanical conception.
The heat was oppressive. Everything was sweaty haze and murk and brown dirty water, you wouldn’t swim in it. Although dolphins in the surrounding water provided brief hope. The sharks less so. The passage of the canal was for tomorrow. The boilers had needed urgent repairs. A soot blower, which forced high pressure steam through a nozzle onto the fire box of the boiler which had become stuck and the heat.. 620 degrees Centigrade had caused it to bend and become unextractable. The soot blower inserted into the boiler, rotated and withdrew after injecting steam into the boiler, a mechanical phallus.
So we had spent half a night and the morning removing and replacing the soot blower. Dirty, stinking, sweaty work. Salt tablets popped regularly as the sweat became saline free to the taste, as our faces melted into our mouths. Water by the bucket… the junior engineer became anxious and dizzy and feinted, to be taken up top to recover, twat, we were now short handed and still had hours of work to go.
Fucking girl… feinting!
Ships in those times were macho affairs. Women on board known to bring bad luck. Unless you were fucking them. That was good luck of a temporary nature.
Engine rooms smell of oil and steam and sweat. The noise is both oppressive and constant. No ear protectors in those days of self appointed hard men. Full of piss and youth. We were man boys. I was twenty-two. The heat beating us down. 45 degrees Centigrade common. The lighting, fluorescent and inadequate left one with the feeling of a subterranean world of semi reality, alien to the world outside or at home. Not for the feint hearted. And always the noise and heat. Relentless. Hiss of steam. Roar of engines, whirl of pumps.
Our hammers and spanners hot to the touch, slippery in sweat soaked hands. Hard hard work.
But also a solid humour and camaraderie. We loved one another as men with a powerful respect that transcended mere friendship.
The Barbadian Engine room lads, the crew, were our life savers, especially Zanda who had been a Mr Barbados and provided two mens muscle when it was needed, Zanda was a walking half ton lifting device, a chain block on legs. And when we hit port in Australia and New Zealand his other role of fantasy fuck came into its own.
He was a beautiful deep black and actually had the socially implied huge dick! Which he was happy to flaunt whenever the opportunity arose.
The girls fought for his attention and he was well known to enjoy it and availed himself at every opportunity for “Raas man white pussy is good, but I tell you man, Barbados girls black pussies burn with desire”. “Can’t beat black pussy man”.
The only thing we had going for us as pallid white men, apparently, was oral sex which the Barbadians we’re notorious for their dislike and reluctance to commit to!
The Barbadian crew had a constant battle with oil and soot keeping the Engine Room clean. Thankless back breaking work. Always something was being painted, washed or polished.
James, not so much “Mr Barbados”, a sensitive sort of guy but a lovely lovely man, full on Rasta, ate his nuts and got on with it, and when he’d done he’d be on the forecastle with a eight inch spliff paying homage to his religion. But he was a grafter when he had to be. He and I bonded over reggae and weed. A frowned upon relationship, Officers and crew don’t mix outside toil.
Which summed us all up… Graft when we had to, and it was honest graft. Work hard, play hard the team saying.
The relationship between officers and crew was a constant source of angst, friendships between classes, for that was the perception was frowned upon even derided and in the extreme hated. An issue I could never resolve satisfactorily and which often brought me into internal conflict. Sometimes the abuse was racist and the conflict became more external.
Boiler suits were soaked. Wet, could be wrung out, they just provided protection form sharp edges and hot pipes. Although we all sported burns of varying degrees. It could be dangerous and we carried no doctor. The second officer, Tim, Hackneyed face and narrowing shoulders. Having attended a course could inject an orange and apply bandages! No one trusted him to do either successfully. He was a foppish product of the boarding school system and was an aloof character with pretensions of early captaincy. He never achieved it, getting married soon after and leaving the life.
In clear areas we worked in shorts only. The dirt, soot, oil, general grime would permeate everything anyway. We were all young, the Chief Engineer of course seemed ancient, at forty, to us. The second engeer was about thirty and the rest of us were between eighteen and twenty-five, we were all fit and tanned. Eight of us made up the engine room officers compliment.
Within our close bond and physical fitness we would have made a pretty, homo erotic fantasy together, or in the days before the banality of boy bands we may have looked good on the walls of the secretaries secret corners.
The work finished without anymore feinting. The boiler was warmed and fired up… the new soot blower tested. As we sat about in puddles of sweat and hoped for all being well. It was known that shutting down a boiler, these “Foster Wheeler ESD threes” to name them, was a dodgy thing.. Sometimes things didn't start again!
“Fucking stroll on. Alls well. Alls going…”
“Say fuck all.. Yer gonna jinx us you cunt!”
Chief is smiling, “get yourselves up top lads there’s beer for you”. The Chief, George was a legend, a Geordie who was as well known for his fighting as his drinking, until the failure of a kidney turned him into the temperance worlds dodgiest fan boy. And temperance does seem to attract a fair percentage of hypocrites. If there was an argument George would generally tip in with “tak im behind the boiler and punch fuck out of im”. Leadership qualities long gone. Face flushed and ruddy nosed he stalked his engine room looking for malingerers and problems we hadn’t spotted. His face was lived in, craggy and attractive in a strange way. His own description being “you don’t get a face like this eating ice cream”!
George however was not a hypocrite. He was a sober and committed none drinker until two Sundays in every six to nine month trip we did. These days were not written or didn’t seem to meet any criteria we could ascertain. He just awoke, and thought, “fuck it lets get pissed”.
His rum consumption then rolled along linear to his argumentative, truculent manner. If you’d pissed George off during the voyage, you’d better hide, in fact if you hadn’t pissed off George you’d better hide.
Suddenly we went from the biggest bunch of Saturday afternoon “we demand a half day” shirkers to weekend work enthusiasts, in one casually tipped lunch time spirit glass he changed. But generally there was no escape as he’d come looking for “my lads”. I was a favourite as I also had rough workman like background.. Trawlers and ship repair were almost as working class as the coal mine he served his time in, so we got along ok. I also was sadly able to throw a punch in those days with accuracy and will.
I believe he also enjoyed my existential view of the absurd. The pointlessness of loving a machine and the lack of commitment to the norms of life aboard when they challenged my personal beliefs. I could argue with him and often did despite others revering him as the god of the Engine Room. He loved the mechanical with almost autistic causality. I think my beloved Camus whispered in my ear.
I used to call him Effe, which was what Castro enjoyed being called by his men, meaning “Chief” in Spanish, and I also jokingly called him a lackey of the imperialist neo fascist system, which he enjoyed for its irony, he had taken the promotion and big bucks.
So come drink day I was sought out as a companero. And to be fair I could hold my own in the bar, although he exerted his right by seniority to choose the music… Cassettes in those days… I used to get lairy when he played his bloody Neil Diamond… I was a Clash and Sex Pistols guy. An unrepentant punk rocker.
I was also infinitely more preferable for George to the new breed of young engineers. The five “O” levels minimum, must include English, maths and a science subject, which he saw as sucking the life out of engineering. He was right in so many ways too. These young lads didn’t like the grime, the work. They wanted clip boards and linear graphs. Gleaming white work clothes.
He preferred lads with a basic love of the mechanical. Maybe they had stripped down their fathers Honda fifty and discovered a affixation with the smell of oil and turn of spanner.
Finally as the ships Chief Electrical Officer in all my grandiosity, which included a sub electrical officer whom I was supposed to train up, I intimidated George. He was the master of all things engineering, except the mysterious world of electrics… electronics he was especially wary of, viewing it as a particular type of magic that only the Japanese or Germans could master.
I was pretty good, so I had him really.
“Jeez.. Don’t fuckin touch that Chief!”
At which point I would mime a minor nuclear explosion and he would become very interested in the latest fuel figures, which was, Colin’s, the Third Engineers problem. The cost of fuel, heavy oil the death knell of these ships eventually. But that was to come.
Colin was your arch-typical scouser and a close friend. I’d stayed with him when an indiscretion with a girl whose fiancé was a Royal Marine Commando, led to a minor legendary local man hunt with me as the hunted. So I beat feet for Merseyside to stay with Colin and put myself a few miles between a beating and the need to defend my honour. Which I spectacularly lacked.
So there we were, Panama, at anchor, boiler repaired, and George decided to fall, no, to throw himself off the wagon!
“Hey.. Are ya there ya electrical twat… gan doon here an ave a wee dram, ye nah, ya alreet, aye champion! Teenah fuckin Turnah.”
And we are off!
Come two in the afternoon a bum boat with skinny local sailor lads came alongside. Tanned and smiling, keen for U.S. Dollars. A shore run was in the offing. That meant rum and girls in any particular order. Preferably for some both together. After haggling a price we were all happy with we clambered down the swaying gangway into the bum boat.
A wooden affair, certainly seen better days, not inspiring in its sea worthy aspect, we didn’t care. Its engine growling we navigated Panama harbour, stopping at other ships along the way to collect brethren from other vessels anchored in the harbour.
Slowly the boat filled with seafarers from around the world. Brits, Indians, Lascars, Pakistanis, Russians, Scandinavians, Malay and Poles, all thrown together in a melange of excited child like commonality. At one stage the most beautiful girl in the world arrived.
Blond haired blue eyed and a smile that illuminated the firmament. Off a Russian cargo boat, I headed over to introduce myself and found my way immediately blocked by two huge Russian sailors, unsmiling and unappeasable. The girl and I shared a smile but it went no further. It was only later I discovered the Russians and Poles, products of the great proletarian experiment were only allowed ashore in tightly corralled groups supervised by a political officer… lest they be polluted by the very thing I had in mind. U.S. Dollars and a free will being the unstated enemy.
Never the less we slowly plodded our way around the harbour smothered by diesel fumes and increasing concern as the boat became heavily loaded by its mass of seagoing humanity, we eventually found ourselves at a rustic wooden pier. And so discharged to the delights of Panama itself! Never saw the blond beauty again.
Panama in the seventies and eighties was a place where anything went. It was awash with marijuana and cocaine with a huge red light district and a lot of slums. There was great wealth staring great poverty in the face and ignoring it!
Most of us were drawn to the sleazy side of the city. A real mix of the worlds detritus. Bars run by ex seamen from all over the world, we were pulled to the “Blue Star” bar run by an ex seaman from our company who made us very welcome.
The red light district was a run down barrio of bar after bar with broken streets that it was easy to crash and burn on. It covered maybe a square mile and was heaven and hell depending upon state of mind and willingness to embrace.
No one went anywhere alone if they could help it as muggings were common even with machine gun toting fedaralistes wandering the streets.
The bar was a shambling mix of the overly gaudy and the downright run down. Girls were employed to work as whores in the back rooms and draw custom into the bar. Scantily clad and wearing the worn look of someone who’s seen a bit to much of life and use/abuse. Some were from Columbia were it was practice for the girls from poor families to go abroad and work the bars to earn enough to make a dowery before marriage. Thus increasing their prospects of snaring a better husband at home.
I have always been drawn by the outside of society, its underbelly, and felt very at home. Casual relationships made real by the shortness of time. Lost loves disappearing in a heartbeat of a mindless carefree staring of semi drink blind eyes and shortness of breath.
The bar smelled of smoke, staleness and dry, worn, untreated wood, from which it was mostly constructed. I loved it for its reality and poverty and fight. The wooden floor bore scars of years of abuse, knots standing proud of carelessly tampered planks with nails bent and crookedly placed as temporary repairs revealed the paucity of the bars existence. The implication of sex was overwhelming as was the need to drink, to be a part of its beauty and ugliness. I gave myself willingly to all of it. Music came from a beat up cassette player behind the bar and played all types of music, some Spanish some modern, whatever was at hand. Sometimes returning punters brought music and left it as favour to the owner a classic scouser called “fast Eddie”. Sometimes we danced and pranced to god knows what. Sometimes with the girls who ground their bodies against us in parody of sexual acts.
The girls circulated offering fornication and blow jobs, drinks and marijuana, cocaine and kisses. Panama was awash with coke from the Colombian cartels in those days, my drug of choice. Marijuana was too obvious and the risk of stigma from straight backed hypocritical ship mates too easy. Neither did I want my senses dulled by the herb.
Plus I could take coke feel good and still drink. The girls provided all, perching on our laps and whispering their wares into our ears like sirens of the underworld. Each one exciting like a new first date. Lots of peroxide blonds, tight shorts and short skirts. Breasts pushed up and out. Or sometimes just out. A tempting caress. “You wanna go fuck”? “Twenty dollars and I’ll give you a good suck”.
I enjoyed the attention but never went “out back”. Happy to pay for drinks and drugs and feel the closeness of the company on my lap, I liked to talk… hear their stories until they became bored or had to circulate to a new pair of knees to perch on and whisper words of love and desperation. .
They after all had a living to make.
If you moved a girl on yourself without good reason to allow another to assume her place the girls joined both hands and mimed flapping motions whilst saying “you butterfly”. This wasn’t a good thing and represented bad form. So obviously it was important to make that first choice wisely. Some of the girls aged between eighteen and thirty were girlish in presentation, giggly and some very beautiful
I watched as men/boys went into small, smelly back rooms containing a mattress and a chair. No showers here and transactions were mean and ultimately desperate. I had no need here. I couldn’t conceive of any beauty in the mechanics of the sexual acts without love to bind. At least a temporary love would have made me see some worth. But I could see none. Watching the return of the girls, all smiles at the U.S. Dollar transactions I could only see and sense false satisfaction upon the visage of recent visitors. Almost an embarrassment. I was happy with cocaine and rum alongside my voyeuristic interest in shattered hopes. Some attacked calling me gay and a coward, but I laughed these muggings off with ease and confidence. Strangely I felt no shame or guilt, no sense of exploitation. The girls looked and acted happy. Was I naive? They were also steeped in god, all wore crucifix and often crossed themselves, an act incongruous? Or did it ward off evil spirits of men who saw only meat? I had and have no god, but saw the devotion in others and sometimes envied it.
There were two drinks, beer and rum. Occasionally whisky, labeled Johnny Walker but in reality rebottled cheap shit from some back street booze entrepreneur. I stuck to white rum. The front of the bar had holes kicked into it by anger or revery or both. Everywhere swathed in smoke of all kinds. The air conditioner was broken. So still we sweated in the humid closeness of the bar.
As Blue Star officers in “The Blue Star Bar” we received preferential treatment from Fast Eddie, a fifty something ex steward who had married a local whore and settled down into the business with ease. He was both happy and sad, alternating between laughter and shared reminiscence and the struggle of life, inevitable to his chosen trade.
In a corner were British seamen from other ships. They angered me singing sea shanties romanticising the reality of our hard sometimes dirty trade. I approached and told them to shut the fuck up such was my grasp of the existentialist absurdity of our chosen existence. Drunken, high, bravado but heartily and freely given sentiment. I really didn’t care.
Take yer shanties and shove em.
Take yer white foam flying.
Take yer fair winds blowing.
Take yer furrows following fucking freely.
And shove em.
Yer songs about masts and sails
and rolling, rollicking singing and fun in gail’s.
Phoney fallacious frigging fantasy folklore.
Unreal figures dancing and prancing.
The truth is filth and fury
lacking in glory longest days worked,
alcohol, drugs and syphilis.
And loveless connotation,
So take your romantic notions
and fuck em.
Ive lost more shipmates to alcohol
then to vagaries of romance.
Ive seen more marriages broken
kids from families merely token.
So take your ideas and shove em.
Ive been in hurricanes and ferocious seas
and people spew and break their bones.
Others drown there aint no Davey Jones.
There aint no dancing and tunes on the fiddle
Young lad can’t abide
so lonely commits suicide.
Men going to war for broken means
getting killed for monies dreams.
Your romancing bollox is just a disease.
Ships owned by uncaring twats.
And when your castaway….
it aint on a pacific island
with a new chum called Friday,
its being put on the dole to rot without pay.
So take your unrealities and shove em.
Ive sailed every sea and ocean
And I’ve never seen the emotion
of jolly shanties and rolling breakers.
Ive seen wales and albatross
and freezing icebergs.
But none of that is worth a lump
When yer mates arms ripped off in a pump.
Ive worked in engine rooms
Where great machines trade.
At 45 degrees of the Centigrade.
And boilers with steam
Where I heard my mates scream
as burns covered their bodies.
So take yer weird notions noddy.
Sleepless nights in heavy weather
working hard to keep it together.
Exhausts lagged with asbestosis
Cleaning chemicals to cause sarcomas
and cheap booze to bring cirrhosis.
With isolation to promote psychosis
Ive seen all that and you can
shanty for shit and shove it.
I received a torrent of abuse back and named killjoy yet I refuse intimidation. My own shipmates bring me away, George telling me to sit down and lighten up. I was already light and perfectly happy, comfortable with my statement. But I did return to my own shipmates, with no guilt or apology. The party went on.
People came and went. U.S. Soldiers stationed in Panama occasionally stopping by, the girls loved this as they shamelessly doubled their prices for the dollar rich Americans. Leaping off cheap British laps and heading for the pot of gold. So the drinking carried on. Lots of laughter, and some introspection. Seafarers on long trips are often subject to introspection. Tinged with sadness and a sense of loss. We were going away for up-to nine months in those days. Which leaves lots of time to think and doesn’t suit everyone. Many of the men visiting the back rooms with the girls had relationships at home which surprised but didn’t distress me. Their choice, right or wrong.
The drinking was steady and relentless. No one was spared and people fell by the wayside vomiting or falling asleep only to awake and continue with the revery. George sat and oversaw the goings on, both paternal and friendly but careful not to overstep an undrawn line between him as ships Engine Room overload and comrade. No matter how much he drank he was able to do this. Partly I expect because of our inherent respect for the man. He had innate stature.
Six hours was all we had, and it passed too quickly. Later to seem a blur. Planned shopping left undone for the sake of drink and licentious company. Yet really company was us, we, the lads. I don’t know if we’d escaped at all the confines of the ship. We’d just been transported to a different setting.
The leaving took ten minutes of handshakes, hugs and last minute gropes. The girls trying to squeeze that last dollar from our pockets before we left. The owner shaking hands and throwing arms around soon to be comrades. I thought I detected a wishfulness in his demeanour, they say the sea never really leaves you. Perhaps he pondered his days of docking and camaraderie wistful and tinged with sadness.
Walking the broken streets was a messy business. My arm around the junior engineers arm to steady him or me we dodged holes and peered into bars we had missed. They all looked the same yet were different. The same girls, scars and antipathy.
Somehow I never know how, we returned to the jetty and waited for the boat to leave. We sat quietly waiting, slowly sobering, always saddened by the end of a rare run ashore. Slowly the boat amassed passengers, I looked for my blue eyed blond and saw no sign. Foolish.
We cast off as a Scandinavian seaman vomited over the side. There were some barely able to walk, others showing little sign of drink. Some had obviously been shopping and not visited the delights of the barrio, the slum area as we had. One sporting a Panama hat! I wandered how he’d look back in his German homeland wearing it?
We sat together, never leaving a shipmate alone was the rule and we slowly lightened up, laughter at our antics slowly regaining prominence in our minds. Stories already begin to interweave tall tails with the reality. Exploits to recall over and over across the bar at sea.
The stories we would tell already awash in our psyche.
All were all now exhausted. The work and drink finally taking its toll. And breathing the exhaust fumes again we wound our way back “home” for thats what it was to us and would remain so for the next six months. These stories would sustain us in the isolation of long trips and more alcohol.