Out of the Fog — a Seagoing Cowboy Tale for Our Time

Ever feel like your life is in a heavy fog? Personally? Collectively? Can’t see where you’re headed individually? Where we’re headed as a country? As a world? As I reread this recollection of seagoing cowboy Les Messamer, it came across to me as an allegory for our times.

Messamer served on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory delivering heifers to China for UNRRA and the Heifer Project. In early 1947, after the heifers were unloaded in Shanghai, UNRRA sent the ship on down to New Zealand to pick up a load of sheep for China. Messamer remembers that part of the voyage well:

“It is doubtful if there is a more melancholy sound in the world than that of the fog horn of a ship sounding at regular intervals day and night. If memory is accurate, the fog horn was heard every eight minutes. It was a low, non-melodious toot that lasted for several seconds. For more than three days that sound was part of the S. S. Lindenwood Victory ship as it was approaching New Zealand. . . .

“Heavy fog on the ocean provides no sights to be seen. The gray stuff envelopes everything and everyone and becomes increasingly oppressive. The sound of the fog horn is necessary (or was at that time) to warn other ships of one’s location. That did not keep it from adding to the dismal situation. The fog horn is necessarily loud and interrupted naps and sleep time. It interrupted thoughts. It was always there – predictably and regularly – always.

“Other factors helped to make the time less than desirable. The cattle and feed had been unloaded in Shanghai and the work of cleaning the stalls to be ready for the next load was complete. There was nothing to do. The changes in the time of day were barely noticeable as there was no visible sunshine but instead there was the continuous gray – and the fog horn. Counting the number of times the fog horn sounded was one way to determine how many minutes had elapsed. Chess and checkers helped to while away the time. A trapeze built in one of the holds provided some exercise option, but that did not take up too many minutes out of a day. Everyone actually did a good job of handling the situation, but it was still obviously a depressive time for all.

“A difference in the feel of the waves signaled that we were approaching land, as the return of the waves, called land swells, rolled under the vessel. The captain sent word that we were approaching New Zealand, and many of us (seagoing cowboys and ‘regular’ sailors) lined the rail hoping for a glimpse of land. There was little conversation. There was nothing to see except fog. There were no flying fish, no whales, no dolphins, no turtles, no clouds, no sun, not even waves were visible. Not a thing was happening, except the normal rolling of the ship. The fog – and the fog horn – always the fog horn – continued.

“Then it happened! A portion of the sky cleared and in the clearing was the upper thousand feet of the snow capped mountain named after the explorer who is credited with first visiting the islands. It was bathed in sunshine and was instantly recognized as a sign from the Creator that all was well. No one spoke as each individual felt the reverence of the moment. The sight of Mt. Cook in the sunshine above the fog was instantly etched into the minds of those of us fortunate enough to be there.”

May the fog in your/our life/lives dissipate as we enter 2019.

Photo from publicdomainpictures.net.

Blessings to all of my readers for a bright and shiny New Year.

Peggy

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UNNRA’s and Heifer Project’s first shipment of cattle to China – Part V

A bonus for the seagoing cowboys of the S. S. Lindenwood Victory was an UNRRA side trip to New Zealand to pick up another 406 head of cattle and 1026 sheep for China. This route required crossing the Equator, which resulted in an initiation for those crossing it for the first time, promoting them from the status of “pollywog” to “shellback.”

Equator initiation on the S. S. Lindenwood Victory, February 1947. Photo courtesy of Donn Kesler.

King Neptune initiates a “pollywog.” Photo courtesy of Donn Kesler.

“We were brought out onto the deck blindfolded one at a time for our initiation,” recalls Richard Reiste. “First we were asked how we liked the steward’s chow. If we said ‘good’ someone said here is some more for you to enjoy – or if we said ‘not so good’ they said ‘Here try this!’ Either way we got a mouthful of sawdust soaked in diesel fuel mixed with a generous amount of Cayenne pepper.”

Becoming a “shellback.” Photo courtesy of Donn Kesler.

In addition, as Harold Hersch recorded in his diary, “[we were] made to crawl through cornmeal and tar, paddled thoroughly all the while, made to kiss the King’s (King Neptune, portrayed by the steward) buttox [sic] which was made quite tasty by a tar painting.

A “shocking” initiation experience . Photo courtesy of Donn Kesler.

Finally, we were set down in a chair charged with 225 volts which provided quite a thrill. (I omitted the hair cutting.) All our hair was cut off even to the skull.”

Richard Reiste still has his stamped document of initiation which reads:

DOMAIN OF NEPTUNE REX

TO ALL SAILORS WHEREVER YE MAY BE: and to all Mermaids, Whales, Sea Serpents, Porpoises, Sharks, Dolphins, Eels, Skates, Suckers, Crabs, Lobsters, and all other Living Things of the Sea; GREETINGS:

KNOW YE: That on this 3rd day of February 1947, in Latitude 0000 and Longitude 148°15’E, there appeared within our Royal Domain the good ship SS LINDENWOOD VICTORY crossing the Equator and bound for the South Pacific and New Zealand.

BE IT REMEMBERED

THAT the said Vessel and Officers and Crew thereof have been inspected and passed on by Ourself and Our Royal Staff
AND BE IT KNOWN: By all ye Sailors, Marines, Landlubbers and others who may be honored by his presence that

RICHARD H. REISTE

Having been found worthy to [be] numbered as one of our Trusty Shellbacks, has been duly initiated into the

SOLEMN MYSTERIES OF THE ANCIENT ORDER OF THE DEEP

BE IT FURTHER UNDERSTOOD: That by Virtue of the power invested in me, I do hereby command all my subjects to show due honor and respect to him wherever he may be.

DISOBEY THIS ORDER UNDER PENALTY OF OUR ROYAL DISPLEASURE!

Given under Our Hand and Seal this 3rd day of February 1947.

His Majesty’s Scribe                       Ruler of the Raging Main

By his Servant:
(Signed by ship’s officer — name unintelligible)

The payoff for enduring this excruciating event was the warm welcome of New Zealanders for the seagoing cowboys. Americans were held in high esteem because of their assistance in World War II. Anywhere the cowboys went, they were invited into people’s homes for a meal. They enjoyed shows, movies, dances, and museums. Some were taken rabbit hunting and deer hunting. The National Fair was in progress, and Les Messamer notes, “I enjoyed looking at the prime livestock that were there to be judged. I saw many of those same animals later among those loaded on our ship to go to China.”

Unloading New Zealand sheep in China. Photo credit: George Weybright.

The Lindenwood Victory returned to Shanghai through a severe storm that nearly sent one cowboy into the ocean. While checking on cattle on the bow of the ship, he slid overboard, catching hold of a post and chain to which he hung on for dear life until his partner found him and pulled him back on deck.

The Brethren Service Committee received a letter of commendation for the work of the cattlemen on the Lindenwood Victory from UNRRA’s Agricultural Rehabilitation Officer for New Zealand in Shanghai. “No one could wish to meet a finer set of gentlemen who so conscientiously and diligently carried out the work assigned to them,” Bill Huse wrote. “I feel sure you must feel proud of these boys who have earned the respect and admiration of all the New Zealand people with whom they come in contact.”

Also appreciative of the cowboys’ work and the live gifts they delivered were the orphanages, hospitals, blind schools, leprosariums, etc. who received the heifers sent by the Heifer Project. UNRRA’s Regional Agricultural Rehabilitation Officer in Hangchow, China, summarized the sentiments of these institutions in an April 1947 letter to the Church of the Brethren: “Be assured that these far-off friends of yours are deeply and daily grateful to you for your good deeds in their behalf.”

Children of the Southern Baptist Mission orphanage. Photo credit: George Weybright.