I can’t believe it’s been forty-five years since Cathy’s first birthday.
It may surprise you to learn that the Cathy you know and love today came to be in thedamp confines of an anchor locker on the tramp steamer “Prost” out of Peenemunde Seaport, bound for Tacoma.
Cathy’s parent’s were Bavarian Beatniks fleeing prosecution for attempting to sneak into East Germany and had boarded the steamer when she was tied alongside the Southern shore of the River Peene. They had stowed away in the anchor locker for the seven day cruise.
I was a young cabin-boy and had been ordered below by the drunken boatswain Olaf, to retrieve yet another cask of his prized Doppelbock.
It was my first time at sea as I, only a week before, had fled a bar along the docks after being lost by my benefactor to a Turkish saffron merchant in a drunken poker game. The boatswain took mercy on me and hired me on as crew.
Olaf would hide his biers from other crew, stem to stern like a drunken seagoing East German Bunny and it was my duty to find them.
Any cries of childbirth would have been muted from the crew above by the wheezing of the asthmatic three cylinder diesel engine just aft of us, as the steamer plunged dutifully ahead through the gunmetal seas.
When I first heard the shrieks I assumed the rats had caught another albatross and had dragged it below for a snack. I spun on the Jacob’s ladder and my oil lantern cast its rays on the source of the screams. The spread legs of a barrel chested dwarf in woolen trousers were draped across a mound of rope and chains, writhing in pain.
It made no sense. Using the cuff of my Breton shirt I wiped the lens of the lantern and lowered myself down the rope ladder…
Never trust women in seaport bars nor shadows while at sea. What I had thought were woolen trousers on a barrel chested dwarf were the unshaven legs of a small stout Bavarian woman who was lamenting her discomfort while simultaneously berating a small Toulousian man and smoking a cheroot.
The man was using waxed matches for light and Olaf’s brew as anesthesia for himself and his hirsute woman. As a pair they realized they weren’t alone as I released the rope and gained purchase on the heaving oily deck. The man looked over his shoulder and motioned me closer.
I’m not sure who looked worse. I, green from the sea and the oil and the cigar smoke, or she from the labor of birth and the beer.
The husband, whose name I have long forgotten, motioned me closer as he coveted the lamp to relieve his sulphur stained fingers. I opened the aperture as much as I dared.
To a boy, she appeared a blonde angel in a bilge of chum. Somehow the newborn shed the filth and the damp, her visage illuminating the locker in a warm golden glow. I swiftly removed my Breton shirt as a wrap for the infant, recovered the remains of Olaf’s beer and made haste to return to the engine room before I was missed.
The small man grabbed my shoulder as I began my ascent. With a nervous smile he offered me a wet clump of Deutsche Marks, a bribe for my silence. “Nein” I said with a grey smile and climbed the rope ladder. Olaf would have found the money anyway.
It was midnight when we made port. I had night watch until the cargo of anchovies was off loaded and I could draw my wages and go ashore. Olaf and the others had gone and I was alone.
I had rigged a messenger basket and lowered it into the anchor locker. The mother, now modestly covered, carefully placed the baby into the basket along with her squeeze box and his bongos. At his urging I hauled the newborn topside.
The last I saw of the family was as they passed beneath a halogen lamp, headed toward the light of the city.
The next day Olaf bade me paint the galley floor. I sat the paint pail on a newspaper that had been left on the dinette. It was open to local news.
“Birth at Sea”
“Tacoma Hospital has reported German Immigrants arrived in the early morning with an hours-old newborn girl, said to have been delivered at sea.The baby is reported in good health and is expected to be released in two to three days. The parents who’s names were not released, said the baby would be called Anna Catherine Kerouac Schimmel . They have requested asylum and said they wish to settle in San Francisco.”