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!”
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.