Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1120
It is a few years after World War I when experienced American sailor Gerard Gales sails as a deck hand aboard the cargo ship Tuscaloosa from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Western Europe. In Antwerp, Belgium, Gales leaves the ship for a night on the town. After carousing, he returns to the docks to find that the Tuscaloosa had left on its return voyage earlier than scheduled. He is stranded penniless in the foreign port. Worse, he had left his seaman’s card and other proof of identity aboard the ship. Picked up by local police, he is brought before a magistrate, who orders Gales to be deported under penalty of life imprisonment. In the dead of night, he is escorted to the border with the Netherlands, given food, and told to cross the border.
In Rotterdam, Gales approaches the American consul for assistance. However, without proper documentation—such as a passport, birth certificate, or sailor’s identification—he cannot prove he is a U.S. citizen, thus the counsel cannot do anything except provide Gales food and lodging for a few days. Once again, local police become aware of his presence. Threatened with imprisonment at hard labor for vagrancy, he is given enough food and money to return to Antwerp. Unwilling to do so, Gales hitchhikes around the Netherlands, surviving on the generosity of strangers.
When his money runs out, Gales begs passage on a British ship, which carries him as far as Boulogne, France. Traveling to Paris via train, he is discovered without a ticket and sentenced to ten days in prison. Upon his release, he is given fifteen days to leave the country, or suffer a long term behind bars. Gales again sees the American consul, who can do nothing for the sailor without documentation. Caught in Toulouse, Gales on a lark claims to be German rather than an American. He is imprisoned for a short time and again ordered to leave France. He drifts south toward Spain, sleeping in barns and living on handouts from peasants. Stumbling upon a French fortress, he is suspected of being a German spy; he is to be shot at sunrise. However, the French relent, and he will be pardoned if he goes to Spain.
In his guise as a German, Gales is welcomed to Spain. He is fed and clothed, and the authorities, indifferent to such things as formal identification, allow him to travel the country freely. He journeys from Seville to Cadiz to Barcelona, living by begging, and is accepted as one more among the rootless millions unable to find work in the global recession following the Great War. One day, fishing off a pier and feeling purposeless, he is offered work on an ancient, decaying freighter called the Yorrike. Gales accepts the job, although he realizes the vessel is a death ship: overinsured, flagless, near-derelict, and staffed by men like himself, who are without documentation. The ship limps aimlessly from port to port carrying random cargo, including smuggled munitions to war-torn nations, until the owners decide when it is most profitable to sink it.
Aboard the Yorrike, Gales—hiding his identity by calling himself Pippip and claiming to be Egyptian—is made drag man, the worst job on a ship of horrors. He is required to shovel tons of coal for the ship’s voracious, temperamental boilers and perform other dangerous tasks that burn and scar his body. Working conditions are deplorable. Passageways are unlighted and hazardous. Lifejackets are absent, and lifeboats are riddled with holes. There are no mattresses or blankets for the narrow bunks, and food is monotonously awful. No soap is provided to wash off coal residue. Petty officers are martinets who throw troublemakers into a hold to be devoured by rats. Pay is at best uncertain.
Gales soon becomes friends with a Polish sailor, Stanislav Koslovski, who helps him learn the ropes and teaches him how to survive day-to-day. Despite...
(The entire section contains 1120 words.)
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