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< Echoes of Memory

The S.S. Zion

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BY ALFRED TRAUM

So this was it! I was finally on the way to realizing my dream. It had been six long years—army, merchant navy, college, assignments at sea, and more schooling—and all the time working toward a single goal. Those were the thoughts that echoed through my mind as we drove to the Manchester Airport. My whole family came to see me off—my sister, her husband, and the two boys all excited and wishing me well— as I embarked on my new adventure. It wasn’t a sad farewell. We all knew that we would see each other fairly soon.

Manchester to Hamburg, generally a short, uneventful two-hour flight, proved to be very different on that particular occasion. The aircraft’s heating system malfunctioned, and we all suffered two hours in a frigid aircraft watching small clouds of vapor being released from the lips of the passengers and crew. Flight attendants handed out all the available blankets. Passengers grabbed as many as they could and wrapped themselves from head to toe while huddled in their seats. It helped a little, but not enough to ward off the outside cold at an altitude of 30,000 feet.

After a little while, the captain’s voice came crackling over the intercom. He was deeply apologetic for the inconvenience caused by the lack of heating. However, the flight wasn’t long enough for him to return to Manchester. Instead he offered free drinks to those who could use some inner warmth. For most of the passengers, coffee and tea just didn’t do the trick, and they enthusiastically reached for the free liquor bottles as the flight attendants passed by. 

I downed my two miniature bottles of Johnny Walker and immediately felt the warmth spread throughout my body and thaw out the extremities down to my toes. There was magic in those bottles. That double Scotch did the trick for me. Several passengers that needed additional defrosting disembarked from the plane in a slightly inebriated state with an unsteady gait, but a seemingly happy state of mind. It was in that manner that we entered the arrivals lounge to the awaiting crowd that had assembled there, and some viewed our entrance with astonishment. 

A young man, tall with closely cropped blond hair, held a sign that bore my name. Just a glance was all I needed, and I had him pegged. I could picture him in his younger years strutting around in his Hitler Youth uniform giving the Nazi salute. He just looked typical, and I could pick them a mile off! Those were my thoughts as I walked toward him. When he caught sight of me approaching, I was easy to detect as the only one getting off the plane in a merchant navy uniform. He lowered the sign, and his face cracked into a broad grin as he extended his hand to clasp mine. “Shalom, nice to meet you. Hope you had a good flight. I’m Buxi,” he said.

You could have floored me. And I had thought that with the two years I had spent in the army in Germany, I was all-knowing. From that moment on, I made a vow to myself that I would never again prejudge people. Naturally, I never kept that promise entirely, but it was a lesson well learned. 

So that’s my new boss, I mused to myself. He looked about my own age. That would be unheard of in the British Merchant Navy. There, by the time someone reached that position, he was generally a crusty old man, whose single enjoyment in life seemed to be derived from making life miserable for his junior subordinates.

Responding to Buxi’s comment about my flight, I explained the lack of heating and the unlimited supply of hard liquor and resultant intoxication—and wondered if he noticed it as we came through the gate.

“No, can’t say I did,” he replied. “I was too busy looking out for you.”

Although Buxi’s English was fluent, he possessed a marked accent, one that I couldn’t place at the time; later, I learned it was Hungarian. He hailed a cab, and in clear and precise German, he gave directions to the driver to our berth at the Deutsche Werft, the shipyard where the Zion was docked. The airport was a considerable distance from the Hamburg docks. The long ride gave us an ideal opportunity to chat in a relaxed manner and get to know one another.

Buxi had been with Zim Lines for several years and for the past year had served as second radio officer aboard the S.S. Israel. That proved to be a good learning experience for him, as he was undoubtedly being groomed for promotion to this new assignment. Like me, he was excited about his new role. Buxi told me there would be three radio officers to provide round-the-clock coverage. The third one had yet to arrive.

Eventually, we neared our destination. The taxi entered a narrow, long, and dimly lit tunnel. Darkbrown glazed bricks lined the walls. Water trickled down the surfaces, entering through countless cracks in the walls and also dripping from the curved ceiling, splashing onto the windshield of our taxi. I was keenly aware that we were under the harbor and didn’t much care for those leaking walls, which looked as though they were about to cave in at any moment. It was a welcome sight when daylight pierced through the end of the tunnel. 

A few more detailed instructions to the driver, and we entered the shipyard. Suddenly, lo and behold, there she was, majestically sitting high in the water, freshly painted in gleaming white, with contrasting blue stripes on the funnel marking. Those sky-blue stripes had seven gold stars evenly arranged between them, the stars representing the seven seas. The ship’s railings and doors were all of highly varnished mahogany, a nice contrast against the white. The shining brass of the rectangular window frames glistened, and it reminded me of how much work someone had to do to maintain it in that condition. I thanked my lucky stars it wasn’t me.

The ship was an expression of elegance and streamlining. Its masts and forward superstructure— all the way up to and including the bridge—all tilted slightly backward several degrees, giving the illusion that the ship was in motion. Gazing at that beautiful ship, which was to be my home for at least a short while, was a thrilling and electrifying moment for me. I would have been quite content to tarry a while longer on the dock and just take in the sight, but Buxi raced up the companion ladder and motioned for me to follow.

“Why don’t we drop off your bags in your cabin, then we can go up to the mess and have something to eat,” he said. “There are bound to be others there. I’ll introduce you around.”

I followed like an obedient puppy as Buxi led the way, turning this way and that down several long corridors and stairways, and finally arriving at the officers’ mess. I hoped I would be able to find my own way back to the cabin. As predicted, several fellows were seated, eating and engaged in deep discussions. The conversation came to an abrupt halt as Buxi introduced me.

Kletzky, the lanky third engineer, as I soon learned, had served in the Royal Navy during the latter part of the war. In his best-accentuated phony English accent, he welcomed me to the Zion. “So tell me,” he said. “How are things in old Blighty? The queen is well, I trust?”

Answering in kind, I said, “Oh, yes, super. In fact, she made me promise to give you her regards. Consider them delivered.”

Even though I was hired on as an Israeli, I was the only one there from England, and I could see that I was going to get some ribbing, especially from Kletzky and others like him who had served in the British armed forces. But it was all good clean fun, and I could handle it. Seated across from Kletzky was Max, the second mate, with a more serious demeanor, but equally friendly. The steward wanted to know what he could bring me. 

Kletzky chirped up, “Oh, bring him some fish and chips. Make him feel at home, and don’t forget the vinegar!” The mess steward, ignoring Kletzky’s remarks, in quick order brought us a most satisfying meal. Neither fish and chips nor bangers and mash were served, but a menu fit for most passenger liners. It was the first of many such meals aboard my new ship. I took that as a good omen. 

The conversation flowed easily and frequently flitted back and forth between Hebrew and English. I had already heard Buxi speak German to the taxi driver, and on the way to the mess he conversed briefly with one of the cabin stewards in his native Hungarian. Because I spoke a passable German, I was considered somewhat of a linguist within my tank squadron while stationed in Germany. But I was just kidding myself. Far from being a linguist, I was more like a one-eyed man among the blind, for none of my army mates could muster more than a word or two of German. Buxi, however, was a true linguist. Later on, I discovered that he had three more languages tucked away under his belt that emerged only when the occasion warranted it.

© 2016 Alfred Traum. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   alfred traumechoes of memory, volume 9

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