“Sparks” (Part 1)

by Janice C. Johnson –
This essay was my entry in the University of Texas at Arlington English Department’s 2008-2009 Undergraduate Creative Writing Contest, where it won 1st place in Creative Non-Fiction. I post the piece (in three installments), based on my dad’s stories, in his memory.

The S.S. Edward P. Costigan balanced for a moment, her bow high above one of the many swells rippling the South Pacific Ocean. As she cleared the wave, ten thousand tons of ship slammed down onto flat water with a shock that ran through the entire vessel from hull to mast. The radio went dead.

“Damn!” said Bob Caldwell. Barely twenty-one years old at the time, my father ran his fingers through his dark brown hair. A muscle in his lean jaw worked as he inspected the radio tubes, found the one with the broken filament, and yanked it out in disgust. The Costigan, empty of cargo, was steaming along toward Australia to pick up another load of supplies for Allied troops in the Philippines. World War II raged on every front. In the Pacific theater, the Allies had been island-hopping from south to north, securing important bases and drawing ever closer to striking distance of Japan. The US Maritime Commission cargo vessels known as “Liberty Ships” supplied the GIs with everything from bullets and C-rations to Jeeps and tanks so they could keep working. Their vital cargo, the danger from Japanese planes and submarines, and changing conditions at the Allied bases made communication by radio absolutely essential. And that is why Bob, a young railroad telegraph operator who had enlisted in the Merchant Marine during the war, counted his dwindling supply of spare radio tubes with some alarm and went to find the Captain.

The root of the problem was the way an empty cargo ship floated – so high in the water that the propeller rode uselessly several feet above the surface. The Costigan’s captain knew to open the cargo holds and allow seawater in to ballast the ship until the propeller was at the right level. He ballasted #5, the aft hold, until the propeller was down in the water. Once underway, though, he did not bother about opening the forward hold. The ship traveled with its hollow bow up in the air, subject to such indignities as had just happened.

“Cap’n, if we don’t ballast the #1 hold we won’t have any radio communication!” Bob told the captain when he had located him. The throb of engines from below almost drowned out the faint tinkling sound of the broken filament as he gestured with the glass tube.

“Ah, t’ank you, Sparks. I’ll look into dat,” said the Captain. None too sure that this mere railroad man knew what he was talking about, the Captain made a discreet inquiry of his Chief Mate. Chief backed up Bob’s advice, the crew opened hold #1, and the Costigan, along with Bob’s temper, leveled out.

The tall, slender small-town boy from the Great Plains was seeing the world, and the travel was worth the frustrating obstacles he sometimes encountered. Each voyage was a new adventure as the Costigan shuttled supplies from Sydney or Melbourne to wherever the Allied troops had most recently advanced. After graduating from high school in 1941 Bob had gone to work for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad, following in his father’s footsteps. Months later the newspapers and radio stations began running recruiting ads for wartime service. The ads appealed to Bob, whose telegraph experience with the railroad made him an excellent candidate for marine radio work. On enlisting with the Merchant Marine, he traveled to New York to begin six months of training. All the newly recruited seamen went through basic training at Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, near Coney Island Amusement Park. During the week they learned basic maritime routines and emergency procedures, including what to do if the ship was attacked. On weekends Bob rounded out his education by embracing danger of a different sort – he got on the giant roller coaster at Coney Island. He and his buddies rode the coaster again and again, each plunge making him feel as if the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.

After six weeks of basic came specialized training. The radio operators went to radio school on Long Island and then to Coast Guard classes on Gallops Island in Boston Harbor. Bob and his classmates graduated with FCC Radio Operator Licenses. More significantly, they joined a brotherhood. They had earned the nickname “Sparks,” recalling the old original telegraph equipment that had used an electric arc to create the signal.

During the war, ships did not use voice radio at all. Operators transmitted in International Morse Code, using a single tone to create the short and long “dots” and “dashes” that made up each character. Instead of transmitting in plain English, however, the Merchant Marine used BAMS – the British Admiralty Merchants System – a cumbersome, multi-layered code. Besides telegraph equipment, a typewriter, pencils, and lots of paper, each operator had a code book of numbers and a “dictionary” containing thousands of numbered words and names.

The sender transmitted nothing but five-digit numbers, beginning with a key that told the receiver where in the code book to start from. The receiver first typed out the numbers as transmitted, then used the book to alter each transmitted number to a different one. Finally, he looked up the new numbers in the dictionary and typed up the words indicated by each. For example, the book might tell the operator to change the number 44936 to 67553, which might represent the word “fuel” or “Paris.” The code was secure if a bit tedious. No one listening in to the transmission could possibly understand anything from it, and Bob could decipher the economically-worded news bulletins and routine orders quickly enough.

* * * * *

Paper, carbon, paper . . . if Bob pounded the keys hard, the solid metal Underwood typewriter would give him six or seven readable copies. The last couple would be pretty blurred, but the guys wouldn’t care. Out at sea for weeks at a time supporting the Allied war effort, these men were mostly isolated from news about how it was going. They would be glad to get any information, whether from the Pacific Theater or Europe. Bob finished typing and pulled out the carbons. Original to the Captain, then down to the main deck.

“Say, Sparks, what’s the latest?” Someone rushed up to get a copy, and in a moment Bob was surrounded.

“Hey, I need to see one!” “I was here first!” “Keep your shirt on, you’ll get your turn!” Bob left them wrangling over the day’s updates and went to find something to eat.


All three parts are now posted: just click on the link below right to go to “Sparks” Part 2

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This entry was posted in Everybody Has a Story, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to “Sparks” (Part 1)

  1. Star says:

    Congrats on the award…very impressive!

    Like

  2. diane says:

    Wonderful story so far – looking forward to reading the rest. It really brings home how different things were then – the mechanics of sending and receiving code, the life on board ship, the pressures of operating vital support functions in a war theater. What a blessing for you to have had your dad share these memories with you – and you with us!

    Like

  3. Jhona O. says:

    Wonderful! I can’t wait to read the next installment. Congratulations on the award. I think it’s wonderful that you were able to pen this part of your family history and am sure it is a treasure! Have a wonderful weekend!

    Like

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