I am almost 80 now. I went to sea in the U.S. Merchant Marine as a 17 year old, in the last years of the 1950's. I remember my first job as a wiper on a Liberty Ship. I knew nothing about mechanics or tools, had to learn everything. My first day at sea as wiper, ( had a few voyages as o.s. before ) the First Asst. who came on watch at 1600 sent me up to bring down the Engine Room Log Book from the Chief Engineer's quarters. I remember he asked me if I knew how to get there. I told him I didn't. On a piece of paper at the log desk, he drew me a map of how to get to the Chief's room.
I went up to the Chief's Room using the map the First Asst. provided. Wow, I remember how surprised I was to see the Chief Engineers quarters. He had two rooms, all to himself, plenty of space, I thought at the time. Not only that but his bed was made up by a steward. What a difference from my shared tiny cramped room as a wiper. The Chief had me take out about 20 whiskey bottles he had laying around his office and bedroom and throw them over the side for him. He then gave me the Engine Room Log Book to take down to the First Asst. He had one leg, by the way. I heard he had lost his leg during a strafing attack during the war. I also heard he lost it falling down the Engine Room ladder when he was dead drunk. I don't know which story was true, but I preferred the first story, about the strafing. Still do.
Anyway when I got back down the Engine Room and gave the Log Book to the First, he asked me if I had any problem in finding the Chief's quarters. I told him, "No" his map was perfect. I then couldn't help myself from saying, Wow, the Chief has great quarters, how does one get to be Chief. The First Asst, then to my eternal gratitude, took a piece of paper, and at the Log Desk showed me exactly how it's done. 3 years as a crew member, 6 months of which can be as wiper then exam for 3rd. Asst. then 1 year sea time as 3rd, then exam for 2nd. Asst. then 1st. Asst. then exam for Chief Engineer.. I made some quick calculation and asked him if it could be done in 10 years. He said theoretically it probably could, but he never heard of it being done that quick. I remember telling him square out, "I'll do it, ten years from today, I'll be a Chief Engineer. The First Asst. shook my hand and said "Good Luck, But right now, You Blow Tubes" I beat my 10 year goal by 6 months. I received my Chief's License at age 27 and soon was Chief Engineer of a C-2. This wasn't because of any great reputation I had, but because I also could bring a First Asst. along with me. (It was the time that Viet Nam was going great guns). By the time I retired 25 years ago, I believe I had the oldest Chief's License going.
Was it a Good Life ? NO!
Was it a Happy Life ? NO!
But I was a Damn Good Chief Engineer. I was a Well Respected Chief Engineer. When I was Chief Engineer, the Captains thought they were in command of the ship, I wanted them to think so. But I was really in command. The Engine Room was mine. Many, many was the time, if I felt the ship was pounding too badly, I simply slowed her down. I never got an argument. If I felt the ship should not leave port. The ship didn't leave port, until I said so. In short, my primary purpose was to get home to my wife and children and see that all on board for whom I felt responsible did the same.
How many times a Company would tell me, "Don't worry Chief, the repair you need will be taken care of next trip." I'd just laugh. The repair was taken care of before the ship left port.
I well remember, what I consider the Best Compliment I ever received. I had been Chief Engineer of this 25,000 ton rebuilt T-2 tanker for several years when I had occasion to visit the MEBA Hall in Galveston, from where I would get my engineers. The secretary, a woman whom I think of as being there forever, when she saw my name when I wanted to pay Union Dues said, "Oh Chief, I've been wanting to meet you for the longest time. I said, 'Why?" and she said, "Whenever your ship comes into port and for as long as it stays, you are all that anyone talks about, there are actual fights about you, half the men hate your guts, the other half love you and back you, and the thing is, we (meaning the Union Officials) know who the good engineers are, and they are the ones who always back you all the way."
More to follow if anyone interested.