The S. S. Lindenwood Victory crew got to celebrate New Year’s 1947 twice. Twenty-two days after attending the Rose Bowl Parade in California, their ship docked in China on the first day of the Chinese New Year, as recorded by Harold Hersch in his diary:
Wed Jan 22 – Land visible when we arose at 7 o’clock this morning. Water soon turned muddy brown and we headed up the Yangtze River. Shortly after we turned into the Wang Po River and headed for Shanghai. Grass and sod huts visible on the banks and river junks thick on the river.
At about 4 P.M. we tied up to another Chinese freighter. We had to do this because, being the first day of the Chinese New Year, stevedore help was unavailable. It soon became apparent that it was quite uncertain when we should be able to unload, because of the New Year, when most Chinese take 15 days’ vacation.
“No one on shore was willing to take a line from the ship to tie us to the dock,” recalls Les Messamer. “Eventually, one person did tie a small line to a post on the dock. Our own crew members then went hand over hand down that line (on ship, a rope is always called a line) and pulled heavier lines to shore to secure our own vessel.”
Once on shore, the cowboys witnessed the traditional extended family Dragon Dances in the streets, “not as an organized parade,” says Messamer, “but each dragon was its own colorful celebration. The paper mache dragon’s head was carried by an honored member of the family, and the rice paper body of the dragon trailed behind with the rest of the members beneath. Exploding firecrackers were everywhere.”
When unloading finally began, it became quickly apparent that the Chinese dock workers were unfamiliar with cows. Messamer says,
When the first cow, which did have a calf with her, was lowered onto the dock and the door to the crate was opened, the cow and calf walked out into the open. The workers, and there were a large number of them, talked with each other as they stood in a kind of semi-circle. It was obvious they were trying to decide how to get those things from here to [the pen that had been constructed]. One of the [men] came forward and picked up the calf. That is a good way to move a calf, as any farmer knows. Then, another fellow came up and threw both arms around the cow’s neck while several others got behind and started pushing. Farmers know that is not a good way to move a cow. The cow panicked and ran, and literally ran off the dock and fell into the ocean. By using many ropes that were placed under this heifer, she was eventually lifted back onto the dock by manpower. She seemed to be none the worse for the experience.
Cowboy foreman George Weybright noted that the Chinese dock workers followed instructions as best they could, imitating every word and movement of the seagoing cowboys assisting them, as another of Les Messamer’s stories bears out:
The pen where [the cows] were to be taken was perhaps fifty yards away from the unloading point on the dock. The cows needed to be herded between the two points. Early in the process, one of the cowboys happened to be just leaving the gangplank when a loose cow was very near to him and did not know where to go. The cowboy waved both arms at the cow and said, “Go on.” The cow moved, and from that moment on, the workers waved both arms at the cows and, in what sounded like a Chinese word, yelled ‘Gwan.’ It did appear to work.
The Chinese dockworkers left a memorable impression on cowboy foreman George Weybright. He wrote in the Church of the Brethren Gospel Messenger:
Our men can testify that these longshoremen were decent, hardworking men. . . [They] were honest. One group went far out of its way to return an article of clothing belonging to their cattleman ‘masters.’ They were reasonably clean, considering their background and utter lack of education. They were pleasant, courteous, considerate and cooperative. They enjoyed good jokes. They tried to copy little tricks and gymnastics on a parallel bar that was suspended in hold number 4. Their ability to lift heavy loads (in rhythm with a chant), and run with their loads if necessary, was amazing.
Weybright concludes, “Needless to say, this was a rich experience.”
Harold Hersch diary excerpts courtesy of Heifer International; Gospel Messenger quote used by permission of Brethren Press; Les Messamer quotes from email correspondence with the author.
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