Saturday, July 21, 2012

Esprit de Corps or The New Kid

July 19, 2012 – Esprit de Corps/The New Kid

“The new passenger is getting on in Philadelphia,” the third officer tells me somewhere between Wilmington and Pennsylvania. “Usually I get papers with information from the captain, but I haven’t received anything yet. All I know is he’s young, maybe twenty-six or twenty-seven, and American.”

Young my foot, I think at the third officer, you’re not more than twenty-six or twenty-seven yourself. But I don’t call him out on it. After all, the new passenger isn’t a third officer. Not that I know anyway.

I’m the only one at breakfast the second morning we’re in Philly. “Good morning, Joe!” I call into the kitchen.

“Good morning, ma’am,” he says. He comes out. “You want eggs?”

“Sure. Thanks. Hey, have you seen the new passenger yet?” I want the 411.

Joe misunderstands my question, but soon we get it ironed out enough for me to find out the new guy’s onboard since yesterday, but hasn’t appeared at meals yet.

So much for the gossip.

I spend my day outside with Jo Ann and Donald, and when I come back I go up on the pilot deck and call my sister. From here, I can watch the last minute loading and see who’s coming back from a walk into town, from Target. The captain and the chief engineer come back together, with bags of stuff. The captain sees me, smiles, and raises an arm to wave. I grin and wave back, wave at Josko. He waves too. Right behind them is the third officer and the cadet.

They’re dressed up nice. I almost don’t recognize Nadia in the dress she’s wearing. I didn’t look that good when I went out. The sprig of jealousy wilts when I laugh at myself. You’re silly, I think. They look good walking together like that. Picture perfect. Too bad I left my camera in my room. I admire them from my perch. We all wave at each other. They come up the gangplank and disappear from my sight.

Awhile later, the AB (able bodied seaman) working the crane, sounds a short horn and I look up. He waves energetically at me. I can see the gleam of his toothy grin through the glass. I wave back. I’m stuffed full of friendliness. I feel like I belong. I feel a part of this. I find myself becoming territorial. This is my ship. My captain. My officers. My crew. My cadet. My deck. My port. I don’t want to share with some nitwit, some new goofy passenger. I hope he’s nice.

I’d better start being nice.

I’m telling my sister Michaela some story while all this is all going on. “Then my mom said,” I say. I laugh. Stop mid story. Catch myself.

“Your mom?” she questions.

“Yeah, I meant our mom.” We’re both laughing. I start from where I left off, “Then mom said,” I amend. I finish the anecdote then confess my territorialism to her.

“You sound like, what was it, the seagulls? In Finding Nemo?
‘Mine, mine, mine, mine,” she says.

“That’s kind of how I feel,” I tell her.

When I get off the phone I go grab my camera and go down to get some pictures of the DALIAN from the outside. I’d sent some earlier by text to my dad, but hadn’t gotten the full ship view because I wasn’t brave enough to walk through and around the workers and trucks and forklifts to get to a better vantage point. He’d texted me: Great pics. Can you get a pic like the last one but with the whole ship in view? It would be a good one to upload to Marine Traffic.

I’d told him no. I was going to try to get to the front of the ship to take a full view shot but there were too many trucks and forklifts so I came back on ship. Being back on ship seemed so final, so unchangeable. Once up the gangplank, that’s it, there’s no more going outside. But that’s just me being silly again and I don’t like to disappoint, especially not my dad. The dock has cleared off now and it doesn’t seem as likely that I’ll get run over if I walk to the front of the ship.

Jake is at the top of the gangplank, standing duty there.

“I’m going down to take some pictures of the ship,” I say. “I’ll be back in like ten minutes.”

“You want me to take your picture?” he asks.

“No, it’s okay,” I tell him.

But Jake never listens. He turns and gets the attention of Domin, the 2nd officer who is up a level, supervising the last of the work.

[His name is Dominador which is probably the best name in the world next to Optimus Prime.

“What do I call you?” I asked him one day when I came up on the bridge during his watch. “Sir? Second? Second Officer?”

“Call me my name,” he’d said. “Call me Domin and I’ll call you Amanda. Like brother and sister.”]

“I go to take picture,” Jake calls up. 

A little bit of hand miming, a show of my camera and we’re off.

He takes my picture. “Now this way,” he says. “Now that way. With the name of the ship? Okay. One more.” Then I’m done modeling. So I thank him and he goes back. I get some more photos with my phone and my camera. The phone ones I text to my dad. Sorry about the lighting. I tell him. I was shooting into the sun. I walk aft and get more pictures. Send them too.

Much better lighting. Dad texts, Aft? Sailor words!

I finish up as a photographer and head back to my cabin. I get another message from my dad: Btw.
Did another passenger come on board?

Yes. He did. I respond. Or so I heard from the steward and the third mate. I have yet to meet him face to face. He wasn’t at the breakfast table. Perhaps he will be there for dinner!

Dad sends back: A mysterious passenger on a cargo ship. Sounds like a character from an Agatha Christie book.

Oh no, I think. That sounds scary. I hope the title of this book doesn’t include murder! I don’t want to be the victim. That’s for sure. I don’t want any victims actually.

Dad makes it more my style: Unless it’s just that he butchers the Queen’s English. “His murderous tongue incessantly twisted good words into incomprehensible mangles of meaningless sound.”

Ha, I reply.

I’m the only one there at the table for dinner. At first. And then! The new passenger arrives. He steps over the threshold. He’s lanky. Long haired. Wrinkle shirted. He doesn’t know the meal time greeting is, “Good appetite.”

“Good appetite,” I tell him.

“Hi,” he says. Quiet. Kind of shy. He takes his seat. Joe must have shown him his place when he first came on ship. He’s got the spot to the right of the captain.

“I’m Amanda,” I say. “The other passenger.”

“I’m Josh.”

And that’s that.

Joe brings us our plates and we fork our food around for a bit. It’s quiet.

“So,” I say, going for information the old fashioned way (I’m having to resort to asking directly since my gossip sources have been crap so far). “How far are you going?”

“To Antwerp.”

I can see this is going to be a lively conversation.

“And what are you doing there?”

“I’m going to a conference in Portugal.”

“Really? Portugal. What kind of a conference?”

“It’s a conference for earthworm scientists.”

I almost drop my silverware. “I LOVE EARTHWORMS!” I exclaim in audible all caps. And suddenly I’m extremely glad we’re the only two at the table. I usually try not to let my strange obsessions come to light right away, but when it comes to earthworms I just can’t help myself. “You’re an earthworm scientist?!”

Turns out he just completed a Master’s Program Research project on the effects of an evasive plant
on the earthworm population. I’ve never been more thrilled in my life (I’m only slightly exaggerating).

“So,” I continue on, enthralled. “I can’t imagine that the earthworm scientist population is very large. How many earthworm scientists are there?”

Josh thinks for a beat. “Maybe about a hundred,” he says.

“I think I missed my calling,” I tell him. How did I not know!? “I had no idea there was such a thing.”

My mind is reeling. I’m filled with a kindred spirit enthusiasm. I can probably talk with this guy about how much I love my little composting earthworms that my dad is keeping for me until I have a stable home life again without appearing like an absolute loon. He’ll understand how the thought of them makes me smile. How I talked to them. How much I really love them.

I tell Josh that my dad gave me earthworms one year and it was one of the best gifts I ever got. My new passenger fears are vanquished, sure I can share with this guy, my “mine” syndrome disappears and I think, This is going to be a great nine or ten days across the Atlantic. If I can manage to eke out more than one word or two from him, I can imagine us sitting up on the pilot deck, staring out at the sea talking earthworms. I’m going to learn so much.

We sit at the dinner table for a few more sentence long exchanges. Then I say, “Good evening,” and run upstairs to call my dad.

The phone rings and I wait impatiently, hoping he answers and the call doesn’t go to voicemail. Just at the last second, my dad’s voice comes through softly, “Hello?”

“DAD!” I say. I hardly let him acknowledge me. I jump right in. “You’ll never guess what the new passenger is!”
Dad’s still at work (I’ve completely lost my sense of time or place) so he talks in a low voice, almost a whisper. “What is he?”

I’m not at work and I’m still speaking in all caps. “HE”S AN EARTHWORM SCIENTIST!”

Dad gives just the perfect response, something between a laugh and a hint of the excitement I’m feeling. We talk earthworms for a while. He lets me off the phone with the task of talking with the worm scientist about blue and red night crawlers. There’s something special or new about them. I’m too high too really hear what the blue and red hoopla is about, but I scribble Blue and red night crawlers in my notebook and say goodbye.

I have enough time to call my mom and grandmother (who were also curious about what the new passenger would be like) before I head up to the bridge to meet the newest pilot and watch us maneuver out of Philadelphia.

While we’re getting underway, I text my older sister Jesse: You will never guess what the new passenger is!

Then without giving her time to guess, I send the second text: HE’S AN EARTHWORM RESEARCHER!!! My life is better than fiction.


With that question, the world stands still, starts spinning faster—I’m not exactly sure which. I hadn’t even considered that possibility. Oh lord. Worms! On the ship! My heart speeds up to a dangerous level. My palms probably get sweaty.

The captain walks by me. He stops and turns. He gives me a look then he says, “Something’s changed with you. You look different.”

I’m glowing. Flushed.

“It might be this shirt?” I say. It’s one I haven’t worn before. It’s a blue that I think might bring out the color of my eyes.

“No,” he says. “Something else.”

How can I tell him that I’m glowing with earthworm love?

[“I had an earthworm glow about me,” I tell my sister-in-law later on that night by phone. “A glowworm!”

“I know that kind of humor,” she says wryly.

“Yeah,” I laugh. “It seems to run in the family.”]

How can I explain to the captain that I’m living such a life as I am? The kind of life that’s even better than what I could make up?

At least you now know what the title of your memoir’s going to be, Jesse texts me, Better than Fiction. Or: Earthworms and Me at Sea.

Now that’s a life!

Welcome on board, Josh!


  1. I cannot believe it!!!!! Earthworms! What are the odds?

  2. What're the odds? Wow. That's just amazing!