S. J. Perelman
By a stroke of good fortune, the passenger scheduled to bunk with us had dropped dead the day before, leaving us in comparative comfort. Most of the other passengers were lodged three in a cabin with splendid disregard for their background and personalities.

The room next to ours, for example, was shared by a sluggish cotton converter from Philadelphia, a gaunt Jesuit missionary, and a small, fibrous mining engineer. The cotton man turned a beautiful shade of hunter's green directly he boarded the boat and retired groaning to his pillow. The missionary and the engineer, fellow-alumni of the Chapei prison camp, engaged from the outset in a heated and interminable argument about their experiences, each plainly inferring the other was a liar.

The trio in the other cabin was no less diverse. Tooker, a toothless leprechaun who represented an American canned-goods firm in Shanghai, devoted himself largely to special research involving bourbon, rarely emerging even for meals. Linklater and Cropsey, his cabin mates, were also collector's items. The former, a fattish, corpse-like citizen with the benign twinkle of a water moccasin, quickly put every man's hand against him by revealing that he was the ranking mortician of Hong Kong. Cropsey, whose protuberant frog eyes hinted at an obscure thyroid maladjustment deep in his blubber, was a minor insurance official somewhere east of Suez. He spoke with the measured profundity of the true bureaucrat; his most casual opinion was deeply pondered and deliberate, a weighty pronouncement handed down from Sinai. These, together with a Madame Chat, wife of an official in the Chinese Nationalist Government, and her eleven-year-old son, comprised our brave little company outward bound for Chinwangtao, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

The first couple of days out of the Golden Gate were uneventful. I spent them stretched out in the lower tier of my double berth, gritting my teeth to prevent my tongue from escaping and making a minute study of the plywood ceiling above me. Approximately every fifteen seconds, the Marine Flier rose with the speed of express elevator, shivered deliciously, and lurched steeply forward into the trough. As it reached the bottom of the curve, all the bureau drawers flew out, the locker doors opened, suitcases slid halfway out of the top bunk, and our toilet articles teetered toward the washbowl. The moment the ship began its ascent, the process reversed; with a salvo like the bombardment of Port Arthur, drawers and doors banged shut, suitcases smashed into the wall, and bottles splintered the shaving mirror.

It was pikestaff-plain and Doomsday-certain to me, a deep-water sailor since boyhood, that the Marine Flier was little more than a cheesebox on a raft and would momentarily founder with all hands. Even the veriest landlubber could perceive that the man whose duty it was to drive the ship --- the chauffeur or the motorman or whatever you call him --- was behaving with the grossest sort of negligence; more than likely he was asleep at the tiller or tickling the waitress, abandoning the craft to any, caprice of wind or wave. But Hirschfeld, who had an answer to everything, irritatingly persisted in minimizing the gravity of our plight.

"It's only the Japan Current," he said perfunctorily. "Every ship to the Orient has to pass through the Japan Current." Japan Current indeed; as if dereliction of duty deserving of a court-martial, aboard a mere cockleshell with one measly funnel, in the worst typhoon in the history of navigation, could be fobbed off with a few glib words about a current. The man's fatuity made my blood boil.

During this trying period, when my every faculty was needed to worry about the proper conduct of the ship, I ate frugally if at all, contenting myself with a cup of thin broth or soda cracker taken betimes; whereas Hirschfeld, with the stolidity of the true peasant, outdid himself in gluttony. Bread by the bushel basket, whole beeves, firkins of butter, and hogsheads of jam vanished down his maw; his arrival at table spread consternation in the galley. He lived only for the ship's bell summoning us to meals; twice he deliberately tripped up Jeffrey Chai, the little Chinese boy, to get the first helping.

At last a deputation of our fellow-passengers, hardly more than skin and bones, waited on me and begged my intercession. They pointed out what was long since apparent, that if Hirschfeld prolonged his outrageous behavior, the larder would be clean long before we crossed the International Date Line.

The crisis was partially solved by chaining Hirschfeld's leg to his bunk every other meal. The resulting howls and execrations penetrated to the bowels of the vessel: so much so that a deputation of sailors waited on me and begged me to use any means, short of slitting my friend's gullet, to still his dreadful clamor. In the end, I drew on my fairly extensive pre-medical experience and introduced 2.75 gr. of cyclopropane into his matutinal oatmeal, an expedient which kept him in a drowsy, half-animal state most of the day and allowed the rest of us to latch on to a few groceries.

--- © 1998, Burford Books

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