Sailors

Working on boats, you hear the best stories.

I have been working on the San Francisco Bay ferries for over 20 years. One of the perks of working the ferries is the ever-changing beauty of the view. Another is the stories. Sailors have a great stockpile of stories. Short or long, chances are you will be told a good story at some juncture of the day. There is a wide range of subjects: accidents, vessel breakdown, feuding crew-mates (we all have those stories), or humorous incidents. And sometimes, swearing.

Seagulls flying behind the ferry, San Francisco waterfront in the background.

I first discovered swearing at age 11, in the back of my friend’s family station wagon. Before that, the most ribald language I heard was Mom saying ‘Mercy Maude!’ in that tone of voice that said, “I’m at the end of my rope, and you better stop exasperating me this instant!”

My fancy was not sparked by ‘Mercy Maude.’ However,in the back of that station wagon, the intoxicating nature of prohibited word use was revealed. As we fooled around, my friend said, “Holy Moses.” The words I knew, but together they sounded intentionally naughty. We both glanced forward. No response from her mom. The car rolled on down the road. We proceeded to toss this fun new phrase around. Finally, her mother called back to us, “Enough, girls. I don’t want to hear that anymore.”

Why were two words, words heard in church, not to be uttered together? It was a mystery. Now that it was proscribed, ‘Holy Moses’ became more fun. I was thrilled. In addition, when I tried the phrase out in the hearing of my mother, I got censured immediately. Even better, she couldn’t explain why I shouldn’t say it.

I loved Holy Moses.

“Wow,” I thought, as I repeated the phrase silently to myself, “There must be others, equally fun.”

As I grew older and moved away, I found out I was right. Each new swear word I heard got tucked away for future use. In public, I held the juicy words back. Among my friends, we spiced up our conversations with abandon.

At work one day on the ferry, our crew was finishing up lunch, the Lead Deckhand, who had worked the ferries for forty years, chuckled. We looked at him, waiting.

“Have you heard of that time Carolyn came down to our boat to tell us we had to watch our language?”

Not swear? We all joined in his laughter.

“Yeah,” he continued. “We’re on break. We see Carolyn hustling down here from her office. She come aboard, says hello, and proceeds to tell us that she has gotten complaints, a number of complaints mind you, about our language. Apparently, someone wrote to the company, objecting to the “language” they overheard during a voyage.”

He smiled. None of us say anything. She stands there, looking around at us. When no one says anything, she asks, “What should we do about it?”

One of the guys speaks up. “That’s easy! There’s just one answer.”

She looks at him optimistically. “And what is that?”

With a straight face, he declares, “Stop hiring sailors!”