After I left art school, I went down to pier 28 in Brooklyn and signed on a Danish tramp steamer.
It was going to South America, and the guys I got on best with on board were the Brazilians.
Like me, they were just deckhands, the bottom of the pecking order.
I liked them because they were more fun.
Whenever the ship docked, the Scandinavians would just head to the nearest bar and get drunk and moan.
But the Brazilians would want to party, laugh, dance, drink and find women.
So I hung out with those guys.
In charge of us was a Norwegian bosun, the equivalent of a sergeant-major.
He was a tough, hard, experienced seaman.
But he was also the meanest, nastiest, angriest man on the ship.
He made our lives pretty miserable.
One night in the Gulf of Mexico, I was sitting on deck drinking beers with a few of the Brazilians.
One of them said it was time to do something about the bosun.
They all nodded.
I asked him what he meant.
He said “There are four of us here, that’s enough.
We go to the bosun’s cabin and we take him out of his bunk. Then we take him to the side of the ship and throw him over.
In the morning we turn up for up for work as usual.
After awhile, the First Mate asks where the bosun is.
We say “Isn’t he in his cabin?”
And he shrugged innocently.
And I thought, Nah – they don’t mean it, they wouldn’t really kill the guy.
And then I thought, hang on, these guys are sailors, they’ve spent their lives at sea.
This is how it works.
It’s a different world out here.
And I said “Nah guys, count me out. I’m not up for that.”
And they shrugged and we changed the subject.
A month or so later the ship docked in New York again.
The captain was drunk and passed out, and couldn’t sign me off.
So I jumped ship.
The ship left Brooklyn and headed up the St Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes.
Some time later, I heard it was back in Brooklyn.
So I went to see if I could find any of the guys in one of the bars near the docks.
I found an old Italian deckhand I’d worked with, and asked him how things were on board.
He said “No problem.”
I asked him what happened about the bosun.
Again he just said “No problem.”
I said, how come?
He said the Brazilians had paid some New York longshoremen to wait until the bosun was drunk in one of the bars.
Then the longshoremen beat him up.
Then they broke his arms and legs and threw him in the dock.
Obviously the bosun couldn’t swim like that, the plan was that he’d drown.
But he didn’t drown.
Eventually he was fished out, and he was almost dead.
So he was sent to hospital and the ship left port and carried on without him.
As the Italian said “No problem.”
For me it was an insight into a different world.
The problems were exactly the same as in my world.
The same as we all deal with in doing our job every day.
What Bernbach called ‘simple, timeless human truths’.
But the solutions were different.