JUNKS ON THE HORIZON
. . . . .
In less than a minute I was numb with cold, so cold I couldn’t breathe. My lungs refused to function. I desperately beat on my chest with both my fists, and once I started breathing again, while still gasping for air, I swam as hard and as furiously as I could toward the junks. I had to keep my blood pumping. There was no turning back now. In the water, I could not see the junks and had no way of telling if they lost their wind. What if they had wind? They would be gone by the time I got there. I could only continue, swimming with all I had, hoping for the best. It was all or nothing.
The will to survive is incredible. I had but one thought, and that was that I had to make it. I knew that once I let the thought of failure take over, my body would quit. I thought of myself as the weightlifter, standing before a bar with more weight than I had ever lifted before. I had to psych myself into it. I had to tell myself, over and over, that I could do it. Once I picked up that bar, it was my mind that took command. I had to listen to my mind and not my body.
I could see the high rise of the peninsula in the distance, and I knew I had to swim to the right of that. I kept going, swimming frantically toward an unseen object. I had my dungaree coat and trousers rolled up and strapped across my back, and I was about to discard them when I looked up and only a hundred yards ahead were the three junks, without wind, gliding slowly southward. I could see seamen along the gunwales working long oars. I swam harder. The first junk was beyond my reach. I struck out for the second one in line.
The man at the oar on the second junk saw me, and in seconds, dozens of Chinese appeared at the railing, all shouting and waving. They could see that I wasn’t going to make it and pointed to the third and last junk. I was back at the gym, my hands on the bar, and in one mighty grunt I lifted with all my worth, the bar came up, and in my last surge of strength I had to press the weight above my head. I could do it, I told myself. My hands reached out and touched the side of the junk. The hull was all black, coated with tar and pitch, and at the waterline and below was a sheath of barnacles. There was nothing to grab on to. I could hear voices shouting to me from above, but they spoke in a strange Chinese dialect. They dropped a rope over the side, and I reached for it, and missed it. I was near the stem now, and the junk kept slipping by. I made another lunge for the rope but again I couldn’t reach it. The junk slipped by and I was now looking up at the high stem silhouetted against the sky. The junk was leaving me! It couldn’t stop, nor could it tum around. Like me, it was at the mercy of wind and the sea. I dropped the weight and it came crashing to the floor.
Something hit me square in the back of my head with a thud. It was the bow of a sampan. I hadn’t noticed but the junk was towing a sampan on a long tether. The sampan was low to the water and in a half daze I was able to reach up and grab hold of the starboard gunwale, and there I clung. The crew pulled the sampan up alongside the junk and two men jumped aboard, and I was aware of hands reaching down and taking hold of me. I could feel them holding my arms above the elbows and pulling me out of the water. A dozen more hands hoisted me from the sampan to the deck of the junk. Everything was hazy before my eyes. Faces in a blur were looking down at me. I could feel that I was being wrapped in blankets, and someone was forcing warm tea into my mouth.
I coughed and struggled but they kept pouring. I felt warmness closing in around me and sleep overtaking me. I didn’t have to struggle any more.
I lay there for the longest time, not wanting to move. It was daylight, the next morning. Luck had been with me again. But my rejoicing was only a fleeting moment. Now that I was free, my thoughts centered on how I could get back to my outfit? I surmised that during the night we had passed beyond Tsingtao and were still sailing southward, most likely to Shanghai. I continued to lie there, thinking of my predicament. My eyes took in everything around me.
A junk, what a noble, time-defying vessel! In Tsingtao I climbed aboard a few junks, all moored in the harbor, and I wondered how it would be sailing aboard them. Now I was finding out. Like most other Westerners, I questioned their seaworthiness, especially after seeing all those wrecked junks littering the China Sea on our voyage from Guam to Tsingtao. But maybe I wasn’t giving them the credit due, for that was after the typhoon had nearly wrecked the US Navy as well. I also remembered reading Richard Halliburton, the adventurer who went around the world doing crazy things, like swimming the Bosporus and climbing the Matterhorn, and writing about them. They were great, exciting books, especially for a farm kid to read. But it was a junk, Halliburton’s last adventure that finally did him in. In Hong Kong he outfitted a junk and set sail in 193 8 across the Pacific bound for the World Exhibition in Seattle, but he never made it. He, his junk and his crew, were lost at sea, never to be seen or heard from again. Junks after that got a bad name.
The junk that was carrying me to freedom was named Hai Lang, meaning “Sea Wolf,” a fitting name right out of a Jack London novel. I wondered why London never wrote anything about the Far East, and yet in his youth he had served aboard a sealer in the seas around Japan.
Hai Lang must have been around since Kublai Khan’s day. It was ancient, and it was a miracle it was still afloat. As I was soon to find out, the crew had to man the bilge pumps hourly to keep the vessel afloat. I didn’t know this, of course, as I lay there on deck, amidship, between two stacks of charcoal that were bundled and tied with hemp rope. When I first opened my eyes, I was uncertain where I was. I could see the masts towering above me. The heavy, cumbersome lateen sails strained at their halyards. After my eyes focused in, I became conscious of sounds: the sea lapping against the hull and the creaking of the masts and rigging. No, it was more than creaking; it was groaning. The entire ship was groaning, straining to keep moving and alive. And then came the smells, a hodgepodge of everything: burnt charcoal, fish, hemp rope, tar, the salt air. Mingling with all these smells was the aroma of food being cooked somewhere forward.
Gradually I sat up, and then very unsteadily I rose to my feet. I hadn’t noticed but several young children had been watching over me, and now they ran off toward the stern shouting in Chinese. I recognized the dialect. It was Cantonese, much different than Mandarin. Cantonese is guttural, harsh, and unpleasant to foreign ears. Mandarin is soft sounding in comparison. The two are as opposite as French and Italian, although their writing is the same.
Near to where I was bedded down, I noticed a six-foot length of heavy chain. At the time I thought nothing about it, but I later learned it had been dragged there for a purpose. If a communist patrol boat had approached, and I was discovered aboard, it would have been curtains for the junk and all those aboard. The patrol boat would have sunk the vessel on the spot without hesitation. The remedy was to tie me to the chain and push me overboard, a simple solution for the junkmen, but not for me.
The children had hardly gone when a horde of Chinese appeared, and at once I could see they were all from the same family clan. Young children scrambled between the legs of their elders. There were old men, stooped and bent, and old women with tiny feet. They all wore loose fitting clothing, dark blue, with wrap-around belts and sashes. The younger men, obviously the working crew, wore turbans and bandanas wrapped around their heads. Without exception, they were all barefoot, even the old women. When they saw me, and smiled, I had never seen so much gold in any one place except perhaps at a gold shop in Peking. Their gold teeth had to be their biggest investments.
The junks were up from the southern provinces, and were carrying home cargoes of charcoal for cooking and heating fires and dried fish for the market. The cargo of fish was stored below deck. After our initial meeting and introductions, I was at liberty to look about the ship. She was divided into compartments, five or maybe six, each one sealed off from the other. If they touched upon a point or rock and got holed, only one part of the vessel would fill and the others would remain dry. If I ever were to build a boat, I thought, that was the way I’d do it.
A loft poop made for comfortable quarters. The junk was obviously overcrowded, old men, young men, women and children, all jumbled together, eating and drinking, playing, smoking and of course gambling, in its nooks on deck or in its depths far below deck. This is the way they live, for months and years, at sea, in ports, in typhoons, in calms; they live quite happily, knowing no other life.
I soon marveled bow at ease everyone aboard was. The youngest toddlers were tethered to the ship, with only enough line to reach the rails. How the lifestyle of these simple sea people differed from those farmer people I had seen living ashore. They are born on junks, grow up, live and die on junks. During this process from birth to death there is nothing they have not learned about the vessel or the sea.