Huh?

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Utah, United States
One night while tucking Abby into bed she sweetly chimed, "good night! Sleep tight! Don't let the bed bites bug you!" I like her thinking. Sometimes life bites. The trick is to not let it bug you.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happy Father's Day!

In 1994 I did a little biography of my father for a history class I was taking. Most of it consists of an interview I did with him, and I thought it would be fun to post a portion of it for Father's Day. 
The full story is fascinating, but long. If you just want to read a blurb, read the paragraph titled Eureka and see why my dad was so drawn to So Cal life and immigrated soon after.
I think most people who know my dad have no idea how adventurous his early life was. Here is a glimpse, in his own words. (Apologies for poor editing. In the interest of getting this post done, I have typed up a storm and will edit as time permits.)

Al Nicol, 1957
1953, Greenock, Scotland
Being the romantic that I was, read a lot of stuff by Scottish writers: Stevenson, Scott, real romantics, I always really wanted to go to sea. I had worked in the shipyard, seen them built, and had crawled through them while they were being built. I had a real understanding of how a ship was put together and how it was launched and how it was sailed, and I had seen them come into our hometown with cargoes and this kind of thing. 

The British Sailors Society, I think that's what it's called, a philanthropic organization, was looking for candidates that they would sponsor to the naval school in England. I had heard through the minister of our church that this was available, and I said "sure! I'd like to try for it." I was involved in what was called the Boys Brigade, the Scottish equivalent to the Boy Scouts; a little more para-military than the Scouts. [Out of our Boys Brigade group] ...one kid that was a year older than myself and I took the test. For the west coast of Scotland, big area, he won first place for the Senior boys and I won first place for the Junior boys, both of us coming from the same little group. 

Naval Academy
When I went down to England, I went up to Glasgow on the train, traveled with the other boy I met there, and only two of us were going down to London. When we got to London, we met a naval officer in his uniform. The qualifications for getting into this place were you had to be 5'3 1/2", and 15 and 8 months was the minimum age. On the day I got there I was exactly 15 and 8 months old, and 5'3 1/2" and stretching. 

While at that school we learned navigation, international codes, and it was quite competitive amongst the boys because they would pay us extra allowance as we got [special naval ratings used within the school]. I remember these officers were all ex-Royal Navy officers. The captain of the school was an actual captain; he had four bars on his arm. We had to stand watch as quartermasters in the front of the school lobby, where we kept our log, and you recorded everything that went on: who visited the school, who came in and who went out, and you polished the brass while you were on that duty. We scrubbed floors, did a lot of physical exercises, we learned knots how to go up ship masts on bosun's chairs, and how to tie ourselves so that we wouldn't hang ourselves. Many of us were afraid of heights, and one had to overcome those things. We also had a yacht we'd take out into the Dover Harbor, which is an enormous harbor that led out into the Channel. We would take that thing out under full sail and [virtually] capsize it. We'd learn how to right it again by crawling around to the other side and pulling it back up. And we used to run around just with shorts on and naked. We were tough as nails. We would read these great stories about Hercules and all that as a kid, and we were becoming that. We could walk through walls.

Me: Even at 5' 3 1/2"? 

Even at 5' 3 1/2".

When we were ready to leave, myself and another fellow were chosen to be photographed, and that became the national poster for a fund raiser in Britain for the British Society with the caption "Off to Join Their First Ship," or something of that nature.
Actual caption: "A Good Send-Off For Their First Ship". Dad is center left, holding bags.


 
The Orcades
Orcades
I left school with this fellow, took a train up to London again, and went down to an area called Tilbury Docks on the Thames. There was our ship, the Orcades. It was on the Orient Line. The Orient Line became the P & O Line; the P & O Line is the owner of the Princess Cruises. Magnificent ships. To me they were at that time, anyway. We sailed from Tilbury. On three occasions we did cruises in the Mediterranean, just like ships do cruises to Alaska and around the Caribbean, etc. At that time we did Mediterranean. Again, this was just a thing that was opening up after the war. People were becoming wealthy, where they could enjoy this kind of thing. These ships were used for taking people to Australia and New Zealand as immigrants, and in the summer they were being used as cruise ships. We were all over the Mediterranean. Gibraltar, the French Riviera, the Italian Riviera, Majorca, Naples, Sardinia, Greece, Rhodes, Turkey, Lebanon. Lebanon was the most beautiful place I have ever seen. Beirut was unimaginable. It was something like out of Hollywood movies. It was technicolor. the place was just ajam. We'd be anchored off shore and looking at it, and people would be flying by in speedboats; those old, wooden, mahogany, highly polished speedboats, and tanned men and women. It was just opulent. For a kid, it was just overwhelming. It was opening up Pandora's box to what the world was. We went down to Egypt, all across North Africa, and saw life in the raw as well as the opulent aspects of it.
Orcades, random spectators.

Me: What was your job on the ship?

I was assistant to the chief officer. What did I do? I cleaned brass, handrails, was responsible for the flag bin and pennants, and when we were coming into a country of port it was my responsibility to hoist the proper ensign to the yard-arm, acknowledging the country we were coming into, and request doctors or a pilot. These are all different international codes that one uses. On really windy, stormy days, I'd get the doggone thing trapped around the lanyards, and in the old ships blowing the horn meant something. I'd be out there and these pennants wrapped around one of these guys going into the horn, and I'd pull and pull and pull and eventually the old horn would take off. The skipper would run out from the wing of the bridge and scream at me, and all the rest of the officers would come out and look at me like I was some kind of fool, but it was a maturing process.


World Cruise
We left there and went on a world cruise. On the world cruise we first sailed to Trinidad, and then through the Panama Canal. As we approached the Panama Canal, you literally could see the same evidences Columbus had seen: flowers, scents. In the Caribbean, you couldn't see land, but you saw all this flotsam of flowers and vegetation. It was exciting. The history books just began to open up for you. When we got into the Canal, I remember being up at about 5 in the morning. When I was actually working doing all of this flag stuff, that was generally when we were out, away from the coast. Once we got into the coast, my position was up at the bow of the ship, FO'C'S'LE  [abbreviation for forecastle] we called it, the front of the ship. I didn't eat that day. 5 in the morning, and I was there until about 10 that night until we got through to the other side. It was the most fascinating thing I had ever experienced. At the time we were going through, we were the first major ship to have used the canal, of the size we were. Halfway through the canal at that time, they had problems with a mountain that threatened to fall into the canal. So, they decided to just remove the mountain. I saw trucks that I had no idea existed. These were trucks where men literally climbed up ladders to get into the driver's seat! They had like 12 foot wheels, and they were removing a mountain. Well, today that mountain's gone, and I saw that process. The older fellows would tell me about all the cottonmouths, and different snakes that were in the area, and it was all just very interesting.


Eureka
We came up the Pacific coast to Los Angeles, and on the way up we passed big turtles swimming in the ocean. There was a lot of different wildlife, but the turtles just amazed me. You could just look down and there they were- huge things. As we came up to Los Angeles, the thing that struck me was seeing the beaches, I guess from Huntington Beach up through Long Beach, just this white strand. The harbor itself was unimpressive. I remember we had opened up this route. We were the first ship to do this tourist cruising, and as we came into Los Angeles, the sheriff posse was there. I thought, this is Hollywood. Just glamour personified. And all these two-toned cars, the 54 and 55 DeSotos, and Chryslers and Pontiacs. And it smelled different. That's one of the things that impressed me about America. The smell. For some people it's visual, but for me, it was the smell. America smelled different.


Me: What did it smell like?

Oh, onions and hamburgers and cigar smoke and gasoline. It was just different. It was fabulous and exciting. 

Me: What does Britain smell like?

I don't know. Old. 

Then we moved from Los Angeles up into San Francisco. Oh my goodness, that was exciting! I remember coming in under the Golden Gate Bridge. We came into the harbor, the docks where the clock tower is, and right in front of us was the Union 76 oil symbol- big, orange. That's when the smells really got to me, in San Francisco. Well, I was on watch until 8 that night. A couple of us got off, and we walked from the ship, all the way up Market Street to Powell. That was 5 miles! And along the way were these hamburger stands, hot dog stands, ice cream, popcorn, cigars, cabs, people dressed the way they were dressed, the smells were overwhelming.  Coca Cola soft drinks- things we had never been exposed to! When we got up there we thought, "Gee! we're going to have to get back! We're going to get shot for being out!" We were kids, but we were living a man's life, really. We had a man's responsibility. We had a job to do, and we were expected to do it, even though we reported to supervisors who were somewhat concerned about us. But there weren't too many 16 year-olds that I could see running around Market Street at midnight that night as we started walking back to the ship!



Dad is second from left, with the tell-tale toothy grin (doesn't he look just like Valerie?).
From there we went to Vancouver, then left Vancouver and went to Hawaii. We went up to the USO club in Hawaii and saw military guys swimming with scuba gear. I had never seen scuba gear before, and I wondered what it was. It was incredible. The Aloha Tower was right next to it, and from that point on we'd see movies with Burt Lancaster and Sinatra and "From Here to Eternity" and whatever, and bullets flying into Aloha Tower. The kids, as we sailed into the harbor, swam out to meet the ship, and they would lie on their backs and put their feet on the bow of the ship and let the ship push them into the harbor. Now, we weren't going that fast at that time, we were just maybe coming into position, but I marveled at the ability of these kids to swim the way they could swim. They literally were like fish. People were tossing them money off the ship and they were diving for it, and it was fascinating.

We left Hawaii and went to Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, went back up again and came back down again. Now, the last time we came into Hawaii, we were off Diamond Head at about 4 or 5 in the morning. I was standing with the chief, and he was smoking his pipe, and a DC7 flew overhead. This was about September 1955. He said, "That plane left Los Angeles last night." It took us 4 days! He said, "that's the future." I don't think I was very astute at the time to recognize what he was saying, but I remember thinking at the time, "I want to be an airline pilot!" (Not necessarily a ship captain.) That's when I made up my mind, I was coming to America. I had the offer to come to America at this time and I thought, "I'm really going to go for this."

Storms at Sea
Anyway, back down the Pacific again to Australia, around the Bight of Australia, where I encountered the worst storm I ever experienced in my life; and I had experienced a number of hurricanes on the ship. On the bridge of the ship there is a gauge that registers the roll of the ship, and if you get into a situation where you are rolling dangerously, you can capsize. We were rolling quite badly, but the sea was becoming mountainous. The distinction between storms is that you can have storms flying at you; rough, choppy, or you can have seas that just grow up to be mountains. They are enormous. We were starting to dive like you've seen the destroyers in war shows. Now, this was a big ship. This was no destroyer. We could get a half dozen destroyers on our side. At one point I was on the bridge and I could see this thing coming toward us. You get into rhythms with waves, and we were out of synch with this particular wave. It was just a mountain. Just a mountain of water coming towards us, and just higher than my level of vision was, and I thought, "we're in trouble." The ship went down, and this thing just flowed right over the bow of the ship. Now, the bow of the ship to the water line of the ship I was on was about 45 or 50 feet, and all of that is submerged, the water is raging down over the top of that, hitting the bulwark, which is the bridge superstructure, and I honestly thought I was dead. And the ship began to shudder as it came up, and the water is pouring off of it, but it came up, and we got through. There were other large waves, but nothing of the magnitude of that particular wave. We had just gone right into it- a mountain of water. And I had been in the North Atlantic where we had to stop for 3 1/2 days it was so rough, because the captain was afraid we'd bend the prop shafts. So, I think I know what some rough water is.

Pic found online- I'd love to get my hands on one of these!
We went up to India, into Colombo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The Indians came down to unload the ship; we had taken a lot of canned fruit from Australia. Their unions controlled the cranes on the ships; we couldn't use them ourselves, we had to allow them to do that. They were swinging this stuff back and it's hitting the side of the ship and busting cases of fruit and it's all over the place, and they're running around in pants and a singlet (a t-shirt without sleeves), it was blazing hot. You could fry eggs on the deck of the ship! and they worked that way from 7 in the morning until 5 at night. Then this person came up with buckets of tea, a milky tea, a big bunch of green bananas, and (I forget what the Indian name is), but pancakes basically, flapjacks, and they would roll the banana in those, eat those and drink the tea. After having worked all day! So we stacked up all the cans that had bust loose, and our lockers were just filled up with cans of fruit! I'm beginning to grow by now. I'm eating like a horse on this ship.

We left Ceylon and went over to Aden (Yemen), and started to breeze up through the Red Sea and into the Suez Canal. As we were going through there, there was a Russian oil tanker in front of us in battleship gray, with a big 105mm gun mounted on the stern on the poop deck. It was just ominous. This was the time of the cold war and everything else. I really wasn't a political person, and I really didn't know much about it, but this thing was just ominous, and we were sailing in after that.

And as we were sailing up through the canal, we'd see an orange float by, and you wouldn't see anything else. The canal was built up along the sides so you couldn't look over to see the rest of the landscape. By the time we got up into Alexandria, I remember it was late at night and all these fellows came out in little boats, little skiffs, and they surrounded our ship and were selling their goods to the passengers and crew. By this time I knew for sure that I wasn't coming back. I don't think I had told anyone. But I wanted one of these beautiful carved leather travel bags that I had seen other fellows in the crew with, and I knew they had bought them in Egypt. So I got a pair of old jeans and a couple of woolen sweaters and shirts, and I haggled with these guys for oh, hours. Eventually I lowered my stuff down the side to them, and they gave me one of those leather bags, a little carpet effect that one normally puts on the back of a couch, which was an Arabic scene with a camel and some pyramids (you know, a cheap thing, but in a kid's eyes I thought it was something), and a half tea set that was made in Japan! It had dragons on the cups and things in gold and green, and you would turn them up and they were translucent and they had the face of a Geisha. I just thought these were wonderful, and I took them home to my mother. Along the way I picked up elephants that had been carved, and boxes of coral and shells from Fiji, a koala bear from Australia and boomerangs from Australia. I was carrying a ton of junk with me.

1955
We sailed up to Naples, and went from Naples to Marseilles. As we came into Marseilles, the minstrel winds were blowing down through the Rhone Valley, and if you study geography you'll know that in the fall these winds come flying down out of the Central Plains. They had a troop ship that at the time had the largest funnel of any ship afloat. It was called the Louis Pasteur. They were loading up this troop ship with Foreign Legion people going to Algeria to fight in the war that was going on there. We had a terrible time getting in. We were firing lines ashore attached to our cables so we could crank ourselves into the pier. It took a long time to do it, but eventually we got in. That was the experience I had in Marseilles. And you could smell it. Marseilles stank. Oh! America was one smell, but Marseilles was a sewer.

Fair-haired and fresh complected, with documentation to prove it.
I didn't mention the fact that I stopped in Portugal and Spain on a number of occasions. I was in Portugal when we were berthed next to the Andrea Doria. The Andrea Doria was the Italian liner of the day. It was everything. It sank when it hit the Stockholm just off New York harbor in 1957 or 58. I mean, I saw it, I was acquainted with it, I knew what it was like, and to think of that ship drowning, in a sense, was sad.

Returning home, a changed man
We got into London, our home port of Tilbury Docks, the fog was tremendously thick, and it was swirling. The chief said to me, and he was stoned (everybody was stoned, I think, drunk. It was cold, freezing cold. We had been up all day, and I was running around delivering bottles to these guys), he said, "if we don't get in this time, we're going to be here until after Christmas." This was about the 22nd of December, 1955. As it swirled, it opened up and the pilot said "let's go for it." We went up and got in through the locks and to the pier. Every other ship that was behind us that night didn't get in until after New Year's Day! It was midnight by the time we got in. I went up to London the next day with a couple of fellows, old men (they were in their thirties), who had taken me under their wing. They were Scots fellows also. We went to the Odeon theater in Leicester Square. Magnificent place. Plush carpet about 2 inches deep. We took out a roll of bills. Money was no object! And here am I sitting up in the balcony of this plush, plush place (I don't remember what I was watching, one of the "Doctor At Sea" type movies, British movie), and I just thought, "I am king!"

My dad followed his dream to California the following year, settling in Glendale and then Pasadena, where he still reigns as "king." I love you, Dad! Happy Father's Day.

4 comments:

apple slice said...

ok, have scanned shamelessly and will read in full soon. love the smell of america! it is soooo true. today in rs, a lady said one of her favorite memories in the sweaty smell of her father coming home after work (on the farm).

Brent said...

Great dad; great friend.

Karen said...

How nice of you to comment, Brent! I'll always remember my dad saying (when you became bishop), "I've known many fine men, but none finer than Brent Riggs." :)

Karen, it always kills me to read (or hear on tape)the part when I asked him how Britain smelled, and he tells me (in almost a hurried, disgusted tone) I dunno... old. I snort every time.

I happen to like the smell of Britain, for the record.

The Bunker Family said...

Great post, Karen! We still have our copy of Dad's interview that you gave us and we love to read it. I never thought that I looked like Dad until we went to Aunt Jean's and saw her photo albums.