“Goodbye!” I called. “Goodbye-eye!”
I stood at the rail of the SS Oriana, waving goodbye to America.
It was 1967, and I was fourteen-years-old.
My family and I were emigrating to New Zealand.
I kept waving as I idly scanned the crowd gathered on the pier. I didn’t expect to see anyone I knew. The people who had come to see us off had left long ago.
The giant ship would be departing soon. Departing Long Beach bound for Hawaii, Fiji, Tonga, New Zealand. The names both allured and frightened me. I confess I was a little resentful about leaving America, and frightened by the idea of living in a strange land on the other side of the world.
“All ashore that’s going ashore!”
I heard the singsong command and turned from the ship’s rail to see a sailor in a white uniform ringing a brass bell the size of a pineapple, announcing the last call for going ashore.
“All ashore that’s going ashore!” he repeated.
I recall him vividly because as he approached me shaking and clanging his bell, I chanced to hear between clangs the stiff, starched legs of his spotless sailor pants brush against each other with a dull, clapping sound. Clap, clap, clap. A clap with each step he took. It was a small thing that probably nobody else would even notice, but I found it delightfully amusing. Clap, clap, clap went his pants, and I was enchanted. I looked up from the sailor’s musical trousers and into his face.
I wanted to share my delight in his pants by offering him a big, bright smile.
To my complete astonishment, he gave me a look of reproach and hatred.
It was a look that said, “What are you grinning at, you stupid boy?”
My eyes fell from his face to the ship’s deck. The decking looked like planks of gold in the California sunlight.
I was afraid to look up into the sailor’s face. And for this I hated him, for we hate the things we fear. I let my mind wander down a gruesome vein, drawing on scenes from my beloved books and movies to invent magnificent comeuppance for the sailor.
Yes, I thought, he would issue that look to the wrong boy one day. Then he’d be sorry! He’d wake up dead in an Opium den down by the docks with a dozen stab wounds in his starchy body. A dozen stab wounds made from a dozen different all-seeing knives! To fall clutching his murderers, not like noble Caesar clutching Brutus in the Senate described by Shakespeare, but like Janet Leigh in the Bates Motel clutching the shower curtain in the movie Psycho envisioned by Hitchcock. A horrible, surprising, lonely death! Ha! Ha! His pants would clap, clap, clap as he twitched in agony! Then to be buried in a nameless pauper’s grave in a cemetery outside the ancient, crumbling city walls. It would be raining dismally, the Monsoon season having begun that day but it wouldn’t matter because no one would come. No one to mourn him, the infidel foreigner in a foreign port. His aged mother back home, alone and forlorn in her rocking chair by the fire, forever haunted by her son’s unknown fate…
Clap, clap, clap. The sailor’s pants were getting closer!
Clang! Clang! I heard the bell ring out!
“ALL ASHORE THAT’S GOING ASHORE!” came the lusty cry!
Gathering my strength I looked up from the deck of golden planks. I wanted him to see that I wasn’t afraid. I didn’t want to be the little boy he had scared shitless with his sneer. I wanted to meet his eyes head-on!
Too late, for he had passed.
Passed without a backwards glance. It was as if he didn't even know I was there.
With growing relief I watched the sailor march away, the clapping of his pants growing fainter with each step.
“All ashore that’s going ashore!”