Advancement Hinged on a Hand Sign
August 23, 2010
by Roger Barbour
(Third in Series: "Freemasonry in My Life")
In the spring of 1973, I traveled to
New York and registered for work at the maritime union hall. As the Vietnam War wound down, work had declined along with my bank balance.
Each successive job-call presented another disappointment and talk among
the members turned toward alternative means of employment.
During one such discussion,
I learned that the government was hiring engineers to man their civilian
auxiliary fleet. Rumor had it the ships were floating death traps with
low pay scales and manned by misfits. The upside was the union had a reciprocal agreement with the government
allowing the membership to work without penalties while accruing time
A subway ride topped off with a short
walk found me inside the dingy confines of the government's personnel
office filling out reams of application forms. I turned them over to
a lackluster clerk who summarily dismissed me by saying that I would
be contacted if my paperwork checked out.
Within two weeks, I received a call.
The emotionless voice introduced itself as "Mr. D", head of
personnel and directed me to report for processing,
a physical and assignment to a ship.
At 0800 the next day, I entered another
dingy office and met with the expressionless "Mr. D". After
briefly taking my measure, the barest hint of a smile touched the corners
of his mouth and he shot out his hand in greeting. Without thinking,
I returned the gesture and quickly realized my error.
His small hand latched on to mine with
his fingers applying pressure at my wrist. I immediately recognized
it as the "Strong Grip of a Master Mason", also called a "Lion's
Paw" but at this juncture, it was too late to adlib.
The smile quickly evaporated as he withdrew
his hand and wordlessly returned to his desk. Head down, pen in hand,
he silently worked over a stack of forms. A few minutes later, he handed
them to me without looking up and gave me some terse instructions.
That afternoon I walked up the gangway
of "The Ship from Hell" that sat forlornly alongside a repair
dock in Norfolk, VA. Upon meeting my fellow engineers, none of whom
were Masons, I quickly learned that the ship was a lot worse than
it looked. The food was inedible, the pay lousy, living quarters overcrowded,
and the engine room tantamount to playing Russian roulette.
With the engineers billeted two to a
room and two rooms sharing a head, we had many opportunities to compare
notes. During these "bull sessions", I found out that the
fleet consisted mainly of old junk piles like this but there were
several others that were relatively new with excellent pay scales. These seemed reserved for people with political influence or some
other kind of "connections".
Three months of misery passed as we fought
to keep the old rust bucket running. My shipmates were the greatest
and it was a sad day when I left the ship with an acute case of food
poisoning requiring four months of recuperation.
After recuperating, I phoned the personnel
office and told them I was ready to return to work. To my surprise,
"Mr. D" had died and been replaced by "Mr. R." with
whom I had to clear my return to work. In the course of our conversation
I mentioned that I really wanted to be assigned to one of the newer,
higher paying ships and he warily said, "I'll see what's available.
Report to the office Monday."
Monday found me entering the same dingy
office fully prepared to meet its new occupant. As I approached, the
cherubic figure behind the desk peered expectantly at me through a thick
pair of glasses. When I introduced myself, he stood, came around the
desk and approached me with his hand extended like the bowsprit of a
clipper ship. Clasping his hand in the "Lion's Paw" grip, I
mumbled the words "Ma-Ha-Bone" and his porcine face suddenly
lit up displaying a warm and welcoming smile.
He quickly returned to his desk and amid
a profusion of friendly small talk, rummaged though his papers, jotted
a few notes and handed me my travel forms while exclaiming, "You
wanted it, you got it kid!" By evening, I was headed for
the Philippines aboard a 747 to catch the newest and highest paying
ship in the fleet.
My methods may appear to have been somewhat
questionable here but in the final analysis, the end justifies the means.
You sometimes have to fight fire with fire and that was one of those
times. Years later, I would eventually leave the sea and venture into
the rough and tumble world of private business. In that dog-eat-dog
venue, I would find myself using every bit of my previous experience
with the Masons just to survive.