Sailor Jack Goes to Shanghai

6 Dec

Sailor Jack – Bound for Shanghai


How Jack Harris left Stanford, then found himself

on a slow boat to Shanghai

Stanford, California – April 3, 1938

Jack Harris stood in the hallway outside the Provost’s office, wondering again about how he’d gotten into Stanford despite never finishing high school. He remembered opening the letter, reading that he’d been admitted as a freshman to the Class of 1941. Then, a little stunned, looking at his mother – his poor dead mother, sick with the tuberculosis that would kill her. Jack trying to make sense of the look on his mother’s face – innocent confusion, changing to a mysterious satisfied smile. Like she had wanted something to happen, and now it had.

It was warm in the hallway. Jack’s blazer felt hot, and his tie felt too tight.

“Please come in, Mr. Harris.”

The Provost’s office was cool, a fan turning slowly above the oak desk. Provost Terman, an elderly man in a tweed suit, sat in a high-backed chair. The black leather upholstery reminded Jack of a few courtrooms he had seen.

The Provost looked briefly into Jack’s eyes. Then down at the papers spread across his desk blotter.

“Sit down, Mr. Harris.”

Jack sat down, leaning forward.

The Provost looked at Jack again.

“Mr. Harris, do you know why you are here in my office?”

“No, Provost. I do not.”

“You know a female student named Agatha Sprechmont?”

“Aggie? Sure, I know Aggie. We went out a few times, early in this term.”

“You went out. So there was a romantic relationship?”

“I wouldn’t say that, sir. I mean, she’s a great girl, but…..”

“Do you know anything about Miss Spreckmont’s family?”

“Uhh, no. Should I?”

“Only if you buy sugar, Mr. Harris. Her family owns the largest sugar cane company west of the Mississippi.”


“So would you say your relationship with Miss Spreckmont is over, Mr. Harris?”

“Well, we haven’t seen each other for a few weeks.”

“Your relationship with Miss Spreckmont is over, Mr. Harris.”

“Why would you say that, sir?”

“Because, Mr. Harris, your relationship with Stanford University is over.”

“What? Excuse me, but …..”

“I’ve signed the expulsion order, Mr. Harris. Stanford is not for everybody, Mr. Harris.”

“But what – what happened?”

“”Miss Sprechmont is pregnant, Mr. Harris. She says you are the father. If you doubt paternity, you can pursue the matter in court. I would strongly question the advisability of that. I have known Miss Spreckmont since she was a little girl, Mr. Harris. She was quite positive you are the responsible party.”

“But –“

“The steward will accompany you to your dormitory, where you will pack your things. You will be driven to the train station. Now, if you please. This interview is over. I have several other pressing matters to attend to.”

The Provost closed Jack’s file and set it in the “out” bucket.

Jack didn’t have much to pack. Within an hour, he stood with his battered trunk on the northbound platform, with a one-way ticket to San Francisco.

Looking out the train window, Jack thought back. He could never figure how he’d gotten into Stanford in the first place. He hadn’t applied. He quit high school after getting into a fist fight with one of the younger male teachers. He had been living at home with his mother, in the apartment on Shipley Street near China Basin. The only place he’d ever lived. He had done some street fighting, much to his mother’s distress. When he came home from a fight, sweaty and bruised, she would say it again. “You are the son of a great man, Jack. You can’t behave this way.”

She would never say anything else about Jack’s father.

Jack had watched his mother see men off and on. Never for more than a few weeks. She worked as a waitress, until she got too sick. She had taken Jack to the local branch library every Saturday from the time he had learned to read. Jack loved books, especially stories about the South Pacific. He wanted to go there. He would entertain his mother when she was sick with stories about South Sea islands, exotic ports, beautiful girls, sandy beaches, crazy adventures.

Jack assumed his mother knew his father’s identity. But Jack never asked who it was.

When the Stanford letter arrived, his mother said “We need to talk.”


“Your father is a great, powerful man, Jack. A United States Senator.”

“So what? I don’t see him around here helping you raise me.”

“No. He and I agreed, after I found out I was expecting you, that he would pay the expenses of your birth, send me a little money each month to help with expenses, and make sure you got an education.”

“You never told me anything about that, Ma.”

“No. He and I agreed you would not be told until it was necessary. Now you need to know why Stanford is offering you admission.”


“Because a man like your father expects his sons – even the ones that don’t bear his last name – to have an education.”

“So who is this bastard? Maybe I should hop a freight back East and teach him a lesson in manners—“

“No, Jack, that must never happen. He and I agreed you would never see him.”

“Mother, that doesn’t make any sense.”

“Jack, he is married and has a family. If your existence became public, it would ruin his political career.”

“I don’t give a damn about his political career, Ma.”

Jack remembered how his mother started to cry. The tears ran silently down her cheeks for a moment. When she spoke, her voice was thick.

“Jack, I have tuberculosis. I’ll be dead in a few weeks. Nobody can do anything about it.”

“Oh, Ma, I know you’re sick. But why say stuff like that?”

“Because it’s true. I’ve never told you how sick I really was. So now you need to go to Stanford, study and succeed. Without me, Jack. I’ve done all I can for you.”

Then she fell back into the threadbare sofa in a coughing fit. Eventually the blood came up. Jack said nothing, horrified. After a moment, he slipped on his old leather jacket and left for a long walk.

Two days later, Jack caught the southbound train for Palo Alto. He hadn’t been back. He read about his mother’s death in the newspaper death notices two months later. He had no money for a funeral, or even cash to take the train up from school to see her. Jack didn’t even know where his mother was buried.

And now he was expelled from Stanford, penniless, with nowhere to go but the old apartment. Would his key still fit the door?

Jack looked out the window. The train slowed as it entered the station.

When the train stopped, the conductor blew his whistle, then announced “Fourth and Townsend, San Francisco. End of the line.”

Jack got off the train, dragging his trunk. Then he wrestled the trunk onto a streetcar. In a few minutes, he got off at his old corner.

Shipley Street. Where the houses were slowly sinking into the Bay.

Jack paused at the front door. Holding his breath, he turned the key. Miraculously, the door opened to his mother’s neat apartment.

Jack walked into the sitting room, then the kitchen. There was a note in his mother’s handwriting, sitting open and unfolded next to the sink.

Dear Jack –

The ambulance is coming for me now, and soon I will be in the hospital. I do not expect I will be able to return to this place, so this is my only way to say goodbye.

I am terribly ill, and will die soon. You know this.

Your father has paid the rent on this apartment for many years, and the rent will continue to be paid by a bank in Chicago until your father finds out I am dead. I cannot say how long that might take.

There is a bank account at Wells Fargo Bank at Third and Mission in our joint names.

Please never try to find your father, Jack.

I love you,


Jack read the letter over and over, tears flowing. He sat at the kitchen table and looked out the window for a long time. Eventually, noticing it was dark outside, he got up, donned his leather jacket and left. Jack was angry. It was time to get drunk.

The boys at the Irish bar on Brannan Street all knew Jack. The kid had been coming in for pub grub since he could walk.

Barkeep Digger O’Shaughnessy broke away from refereeing a darts match, slapping Jack on the back when Jack dropped his elbows on the bar.

“So Jackie, we all heard about your dear departed mother.”

“Digger, I couldn’t even come up for the viewing, or pay for a wake.”

“We took care of that for you, son. We knew you was off to college, and couldn’t scratch together two nickels. It wasn’t likely the lads would have let a local lass go uncelebrated. She left us too bloody soon, mate.”

“Thank you, Digger.” Despite his best efforts, Jack’s eyes filled with tears.

“There’s no shame in tears shed for the memory of a fine woman like your mother, Jackie.”

Jack stayed silent for a moment, choked up. Then, “Can you bring me a bottle of something Irish, Digger?”

Digger nodded, reached below the bar, and an unopened bottle of Jameson’s Irish whiskey appeared in front of Jack.

Digger poured a shot for Jack, and one for himself.

“First things first. To Margaret Harris, gentlewoman. May she find grace with the saints in Heaven.”

Jack. “To Margaret. My dear departed mother.”

“Amen to that, Jackie. Now drink.”

They drank. Digger poured another round. They stood there in silence for a while.

“While you’re catching up with the lads, Jackie, are you home for a school holiday?”

“Digger, they tossed me out.”

“Hell you say. What did you do, Jackie?”

“Knocked up a rich girl, Digger. I didn’t even know, until they tossed me.”

“Jackie, you’re not the first fellow to join that sorry club.”


“We all wondered how long you’d last with the swells, Jackie. I think O’Brien wins the pool we had, for when you’d be back.”

Jack laughed in spite of himself.

“There’s my boy, Jackie. I’ve got matters to attend to. But you just sit here and tell Mr. Jameson about your troubles. I’ll be back.”

Digger shuffled off to break up a fight that had started over the darts.

Eight shots later (or was it nine?), Jack was singing another filthy sea chantey with the regular lads, when he finally noticed a man in a suit, sitting at a table near the bar. The guy looked like a stockbroker. A blonde sat with the guy, smoking.

“And what’s a suit like you doing in our pub, mate?” Jack’s speech was slurred and angry.

“Excuse me? Do I know you?”

“Jack Harris, Stanford Class of 1941.”

“Oh? I’m class of –”

The guy didn’t get to finish the sentence before Jack’s right fist caught him square in the jaw. Stanford collapsed like he’d been hit by a truck.

The blonde screamed. Digger dashed over from behind the bar, to catch Jack lunging forward.

Where did those two cops come from? Jack asked himself, before something hard hit the back of his head, and everything went black.

Several hours later, Jack woke up to a splitting headache, the smell of his own vomit on his shirt, and a stiff neck from sleeping on the floor of Digger’s back room. After a moment of pained consciousness, he lunged for the toilet again.

A few minutes later, while Jack was pulling his jacket onto his shivering frame, Digger O’Shaughnessy appeared at the door.

“So, Jackie, you had a bit of a time last night. How ya feeling, lad?”

“Like bird crap, but okay, I guess.”

“I talked to the coppers. Kearny Street boys they were. We agreed in view of the mitigating factors of your new fatherhood and your mother’s death, justice would best be served if you spent the night in my back room. You’re a lucky boy, Jackie.”

“Thanks, Digger. Jesus, what ran me over?”

“Ha! You’re none too worse for wear, Jackie boy. That’s good, because I’ve got a proposition for you good and proper. But first you’ll need something for that hangover.”

Digger held out a drink in a tall glass. It was yellow, with a layer of fizz on the top and an egg yolk floating around in it.

“Drink this, Jackie. Don’t smell it or breathe in.”

Jack looked at the drink, then looked at Digger. Closing his eyes, muttering something and holding his breath, he drank it down all at once.

“Holy Mother of God, what the hell is that?”

“Best you not know, Jackie. Something for me best customers when they wake up here in the store room.”

Jack grinned, then laughed when he realized his stomach actually felt better.

“Okay, Boss. What’s the play? I’ve nothing to go home to here.”

“I called Mick Kelly down at the Sailors Union of the Pacific.”


“Jackie, you always talked about seeing the South Seas. Since you were a little one cadging drinks from the lads here at the bar. All we ever heard from you was sandy beaches, beautiful girls, skimpy outfits, breezes in the palm trees.”

“Yeah. So what?”

“So you’ve got no college to run off to. You’ve lost your mother, God rest her soul. You’ve got the craving for the sea – no need to deny it, I can see it and the lads have been talking about it since your early bedtime last night.”

“But –“

“Jackie, boy, you’ve got to ship out. Everybody here who cares about you thinks it’s the best thing. You’re mostly a man now, but you’ve still got some filling out to do, and some rough edges to smooth out. The sea’s the best place for it.”

“Oh, hell, Digger.”

“But me no buts, Jackie. Ye’ve got an appointment with Mick at the SUP hall at 10:00 o’clock. Just enough time to wash up and grab a clean shirt from home. You can take a cab both places, it’s just down Harrison Street at the top of the hill.”

“Gee, Digger, I don’t know….”

“Stow it, swabbie. It’s the best thing all around. There’s a hack waiting for you at the front door.”

Jack looked around the bar. The smell of the place made him want to throw up again.

What the hell. Why not?

The cab, the apartment, the clean shirt, the cab again, and then the SUP hiring hall all passed like a blur.

At four that afternoon, in bright windy sunshine, the SS Carlsbad weighed anchor, with 5,000 tons of displacement, a rusty hull needing paint, and her holds full of redwood lumber. And with a new cabin boy named Jack, his duffel bag and leather jacket bundled on a bunk near the engine room.

As the Carlsbad spewed black diesel smoke into the clean marine air, passing below the newly-finished Golden Gate Bridge, Jack stopped mopping the floor for a moment to look back at the city of his birth.

Jack was bound for Shanghai. And after that, who knew?



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