When I saw that number eight in the prompt, I thought great, it’s going to allow me to recount another of my heroic adventures during World War II.
Which turned out to be more adventurous than heroic. Among other things, I loaded a tanker.
Might not sound like much, but it was an adventure, believe me.
Tankers, in those days, were often loaded with airplane fuel. Not jet fuel, because we didn’t have jets; the fuel was gasoline, juiced up into a special aviation-octane type of gas. It was one of the most volatile and hazardous substances then in existence.
Here’s the story.
Because there was a war on, people who would otherwise be college kids working as grocery clerks – like me - were cut from their monotonous, humdrum existences and thrust into the war’s maelstrom.
Ship’s personnel were desperately needed so they made me a ship’s officer. I didn’t tell anyone that my training had been mostly how to stock grocery shelves.
So I found myself in the middle of a war sailing about in a tanker.
Somewhere in a place occupied by guys with stars on their shoulders, a decision was made. A large tanker, similar to the one in the above picture, needed to be loaded, and there would have to be a tanker officer in charge.
You see where this is going?
The tanker in question was in Aruba. Today Aruba is a treasure, a beautiful vacation spot; in wartime it was a gigantic gas station, ships from all over were loading and unloading the stuff.
Since I was on someone’s list as a tanker officer, they decided to put me in charge of the loading.
But loading a tanker? With aviation-octane gas? I was as qualified for that as I was for space travel – especially since there wasn’t any then. I not only didn’t know much about it, I had never actually seen a tanker loaded, from close up. I got a number of bizarre orders during that conflict, but this one beat all.
At first, all I knew was that I should report to such and such a tanker in Aruba. I showed up, bright-tailed and bushy-eyed, and my world started falling apart.
One fact of maritime life is that the officers of any ship who’ve been at sea for a month or two will do almost anything to get ashore. If a totally-unqualified 21-year-old shows up to take over, wish him well and take off fast.
Which is what the officers of that ship did.
By the way, the gas came up from the dock in a huge pipe and once started, thousands of gallons of it kept rushing in. Scary.
My crew for this loading operation was made up of an ordinary seaman, a kid of about seventeen, and one guy who actually knew about tanker-loading.
Aboard ship, people were then often named for their jobs. A radio operator might be known as “Sparks,” a signalman as “Flags,” etc. Well, this old guy was in charge of something important on a tanker, the pumps, so he was known, inevitably, as “Pumps.”
Trouble was, Pumps was elderly; he seemed to be in his early nineties, which meant that he sat in one place and never moved. And since he was born in Germany he spoke English with an almost incomprehensible accent.
Trying to help me, he talked quite a bit about “walfs.” Since I didn't know what those were it wasn't much help. It took me a while to understand he was discussing “valves” - valves were walfs - the things you turn to direct the gas flow.
I must tell you that you don’t just pump the gas into the ship; that would be too easy. I had eight tanks to deal with, four forward and four aft. I knew that I had to load the stuff into a forward tank, then shift the stream to a tank toward the stern, feverishly turning walfs on and off all the while.
I worked out signals with the young fellow; he handled the after tanks.
At first things seemed to be going well; I thought everything was hunky-dory. Well, it was hunky, for a while, but we never got to dory. Because suddenly, to my undiluted horror, I saw a mountainous jet of the stuff shoot high into the air. I had sent this constant stream of thousands of gallons of gasoline into a tank that was already nearly full. The highly volatile, even explosive, liquid was pouring all over the deck.
I nearly collapsed. I realized I was endangering the whole port of Aruba, with the other tankers in it; it could possibly turn out to be one of the biggest conflagrations of the war. Realizing this, I sat down pretty much like Pumps, unable to move.
Previously, I hadn’t been able get help from anyone ashore; suddenly the ship was filled with twenty or so guys who appeared out of nowhere and who were pumping foam and turning walfs all over the place. Two fire-boats quickly showed up and joined in with more foam.
Well, I didn’t blow the place up. Later, they had some sort of court martial; I was relieved to learn that I wasn’t blamed. The guys who sent a grocery clerk to load a tanker, however, had a bit to answer for.
(Also submitted to Sunday Scribblings)