Chapter 6: An Encounter with the Venetian Police

THE next three years in my memory flicker by with the speed of the early cinema. It was a constantly changing picture, and I added more than a hundred thousand miles to my record. In 1912 the “rolling stone” or the “driftwood”-choose the figure of speech you prefer-wandered into five oceans and five continents by sail and steam. The lust for new horizons lured me with the expectancy of youth that will never come again. But if geography bores me a little now, politics and people change; and there is always something to make life fascinating.

After leaving the Brookshire I went to the Coolgardie goldfields, but quickly tired of that drab, arid country, returning to Perth after two months’ practical vagrancy.

I shipped out of Fremantle on the Port Jackson, a London cadet ship owned by Devitte and Moore. It was a pleasant voyage to Falmouth, under a gentlemanly skipper and humane officers. What a contrast to the Pilgrim! The Port Jackson was a four-masted bark and well equipped for her purpose. The crowd of boys we carried were getting their first taste of salt. They studied the rudiments of seamanship, and were apt students. I enjoyed the pleasant interlude-for that was all it amounted to-and left the Port Jackson with a high regard for the ruling class of Britain.

Leaving Ireland after a holiday, I returned to sea, but this time on tramp steamers. We traded from one port to another, wandering through the Levantine ports of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, South and West Africa, the West Indies, Central America, Mexico, Brazil, China, Japan, and Siberia-the kind of seafaring thousands of sailors are doing daily. It was hard work on slender rations, with many a close call in port adventures, but I was lucky enough to survive really troublesome episodes in these voyages. Beyond a few scars, nothing remains now but vague memories.

Arriving in Montreal in 1913, 1 left my ship and decided to explore Canada by rail and hoof. I picked up with a suave gentleman of the road named Ryan, who hailed from Philadelphia. He was a hobo, gifted with an amazing insight into human nature and able to maintain a conversation with a college professor or a prize-fighter. He was deft in toying with the emotions of people, and could squeeze a meal out of the canniest Scotch emigrant in Ontario. It was a pity that a man of his talent made no profitable use of it.

In the small towns where we were operating-Port Hope, Coburg, Kingston-he initiated me in the dubious art of panhandling. He taught me how to approach a priest or minister, but I never had the nerve to follow his formula. Without recourse to Ryan’s dubious sales methods my youthful countenance and Irish accent helped me with the clergy. I was also a favorite with motherly old women, who harkened to my tale of distress. My ears still bum with the shame of that expedition, which from a hobo’s viewpoint was highly successful. Never were we hungry, and sometimes, through Ryan’s art, we became affluent.

My partner would approach a well-dressed business man and give him a tale of economic distress in a manner of speech that was so very credible that sometimes he would be offered a job. Ryan would have starved sooner than punch a time-clock! Usually he spent a few seconds sizing up his quarry before determining on the method of attack. He knew when to apply flattery and when to stick to a direct verbal assault. Many a gullible man he accosted, identifying him as a famous doctor or professor. If a man had the physique to warrant the compliment, Ryan would “recognize” Stanley Ketchel, the current fight hero, or Billy Papke. Following his apology for mistaken identity, the happy victim would be in a most receptive mood for a story of adversity and a “touch.”

I admired this phase of Ryan’s art, but could not stomach his base tactics in obtaining milk and wearing apparel. In the cities he listened for the sound of the milkman’s wagon. Following the trail, he collected milk, cream, and sometimes bread and rolls. Ryan not only used the milk for beverage, but also bathing, maintaining that milk is food for the skin.

Audacity and mendacity were his two black virtues – you could scarcely term them vices in a hobo. He would skulk along the fences, reconnoitring wash-lines, and when he observed male garments of the approximate size of his bullish. neck, he stripped off his own dirty attire and tried on the garments. Woe unto the suit that hung out for an airing in the dusk. To add insult to injury, Ryan always left his own filthy garments pinned to the clothes-line, sometimes with a note of thanks or apology, such as a foraging army officer might leave in a chivalrous moment.

On my last ride with the villain we were perched on a box car observing Canadian scenery at thirty-five to forty miles an hour. Ryan and I were discussing the idea of joining a circus band, when he jumped to his feet and startled me with his gymnastic talent. He flipped his agile body in the air, turned cartwheels, stood on his hands, and dared Providence with complete immunity. He found the top of a box car as natural as the clown finds the tan-bark.

I left Mr. Ryan in Toronto, and took a job on a lake steamer. These steel ships, with all the holds forward and the engines and bridge aft, are efficient freight carriers, but what atrocious craft they are to behold! The four-masted sailing-ship is beautiful with her wings billowing, and a tramp with her stack amidships is at least symmetrical; but what mother could love such a freak as a lake steamer.

My next stop was Montreal. Here I joined the Canadian Militia for a brief while. The militia was a hybrid collection. Do not confuse it with the “movie” conception of the Canadian Royal Mounted. Let me tell you how we selected uniforms. In the drill hall, on Smith Street, there were three pyramids reaching ten feet high. The first pile was made up of tunics, the second of trousers, and the third of caps. We charged the piles at the double, scooped up the first thing we touched. I got a pair of pants eighteen inches too long, a tunic that wouldn’t fit a midget, and a cap that fell over my ears. It was an opera bouffe army that should win any war by doubling up the enemy with laughter.

The first night was the scene of much bartering. I rolled up the trousers until it seemed that I was concealing lifebuoys on my ankles. I traded the tunic with a skinny recruit and found a cap that I managed to squeeze down as far as my ears. The local recruiting office planned for a flashy parade in the streets of Montreal. We were well advertised and the populace turned out in a patriotic mood-not with the frenzy of war, but with a sense of pride in local achievement.

When the colonel beheld us-Company C of the 75th Canadian Light Infantry-he almost swooned. Upon recovering, he bellowed: “Don’t let those bums out of the drill hall, and shoot the first hobo that tries to escape! ” We were actually prisoners until we left for the railway station!

There was a tailors’ strike at the time, and most of the Jewish tailors of Montreal joined up for sixty cents a day and free board. It was a scurvy crowd with a large proportion of hoboes who joined for a three weeks’ vacation at camp.

The affair was a burlesque from beginning to end. At maneuvers we were assigned a key position on a high ridge that was deemed impregnable, as the enemy might be observed from all sides. Sensing our security, the tired guardsmen nestled in the sweet-smelling grass, and piled up some tardy hours at sleeping. The whole company was captured, snoring like sawmills, but no one took his shame seriously. Conceding that we were captured, the troopers gave up the war-game and went back to sleep. Not even the blank-cartridge serenade disturbed the slumber of men used to snoring above the jarring and clanging of box cars and gondolas on the fast freight trains of the Canadian plains. …

Leaving Canada with an honorable discharge from the Canadian Militia, I shipped as bos’n on a steamer bound for Capetown, South Africa, with a cargo of very much alive stock. The Transvaal, and all the States now making up the Union of South Africa, are excellent customers for American mules.

And what a temperamental cargo a tribe of Missouri mules can be! Our ship had a steel hull, and that was all that saved us from foundering. The intractable beasts ate their stalls, bit each other, kicked their chambermaids, and were guilty of various degrees of mayhem. It has been my lot to face the enemy under trying conditions, but I would rather charge a machine-gun nest than try to currycomb one of these mongrel quadrupeds. They have the vices of both the donkey and the horse, and their souls were made by Satan.

I shall never forget the problem we had in getting the mules off the ship without injury to themselves and the crew. Thirty days of inactivity made them as restive as steel coils, and at the first taste of freedom they jumped, kicked, and hee-hawed like a pinto full of loco weed. Several sprang over the gangway and splashed into the water, and were rescued with the utmost difficulty. Others snapped their halters and disappeared in the general direction of the Equator. That voyage was a nightmare, and for months afterwards I dreamed of flying heels and huge white teeth.

Venice is for me a city of fond memories. Our ship was lying in port for several days, and I made extended tours of this picturesque amphibian city. Along with a shipmate, I cruised through the canals, with frequent excursions to wine-shops. By this time I had long abandoned my youthful pledge to “Father Mathew.”

He was the founder of the Irish Total Abstinence Society that functioned long before Carrie Nation was smashing saloon windows in the U. S. A.: and he had about as much success.

Grappa is a powerful Italian liquor with the jolt of nitroglycerine or Russian vodka. It is an alcoholic concentrate of grape seeds, with more horse-power per drop than any booze whatever. It is even more vicious than the poteen brewed in the ravines of Donegal in my native country.

With my shipmate, Hubert Green, I was returning to the boat in a convivial mood when two carabineros stopped us and snatched a bottle of grappa from under my arm. The Italian police are an august body. In ethical importance, dignity surpasses even integrity.

Here I committed an offence against the majesty of the Venetian police that nearly ended my career. I swung a right on the carabinero’s jaw, and he went down for five minutes. My bottle dropped and smashed beside his head, but failed to revive him. The other carabinero jumped for me, but stepped into a wide swing that tumbled him into the canal. I jumped off the bank, landing with both feet on his shoulders. When he came up I ducked him again and again.

The carabinero, was saved from drowning by the timely arrival of the reserves. My companion plunged into the midst of them, bowling several over, but had to retreat when they beat him with their sword scabbards. I was rudely pulled out of the canal, wet and dirty, and treated to an even more severe lambasting.

We were escorted to several prisons, but our crime was of such a major classification that we were passed through lesser citadels until we were finally locked up in the stronghold of St. Mark’s. With ten or more criminals we were, escorted into a huge gondola, securely bound and strung along on two chains. This prevented any individual attempt for escape or rescue.

In San Marco prison we were jailed, without trial, with forty cut-throats who were serving long stretches for various kinds of manslaughter. It was a cruel old dungeon, which, except in the peak of the arched ceiling, did not permit us to stand upright. The Italian prisoners deemed it a happy privilege to have our company, and tried to make us feel at ease. The jail fare was one meal a day, served at 11 A.M. If you did not save supper out of what you got, you went to sleep hungry. The food consisted of a stew of beans, or lentils, some macaroni, and a chunk of bread.

Someone got word to the British Consul, and he came to visit us in prison. He was a decent fellow and promised to get us some aid.

One morning an alienist, sent by the British Consul, called and examined us for hours.

At last the day of trial came. The carabineros testified against us. Then came an old doctor. “They were insane,” he testified; “the poisonous drink affected their minds enough to incite a murderous impulse.” He had a lot of papers which impressed the judge, and a chart with all the shapes of craniums, that might have been stolen from the walls of some phrenologist.

The judge grew a little weary of the proceedings and called a halt. He summarily dismissed the charges, to the chagrin of the police, but we had to pay a ‘couple of hundred lire for court costs and new uniforms.

Inquiring about our ship, we heard that it had sailed for Constantinople, and Hubert and I, with the assistance of the British Consul, headed for that port on an Italian passenger steamer as deck passengers. We missed her at the Turkish port, but caught her up at Sulina, in Rumania. Bad luck pursued us, however, and that night we were again in the toils of the law.

To celebrate our return, we borrowed ten lei from our shipmates, which we invested in beer at Peter the Greek’s estaminet, a popular dive in Sulina, when a rowdy bunch of Norwegians and some countrymen of mine got into a row. Soon the place was in an uproar; furniture crashed on skulls, and mirrors splintered in a shower of glass. Hubert and I were only guests at the spectacle, but the police grabbed us. We were marched to a calaboose, occasionally spurred on from behind with a bayonet.

We spent the night in the jail, and I used an effective brand of oratory on the desk officer in the morning. He released us with a grunt and a wave of the hand, glad to be rid of a liability on the Sulina taxpayers.

Things began to happen daily. It was the early summer of 19114, and the political barometer was dropping in the face of the deadly calm. Everywhere one sensed the feeling of the storm to come.

We steamed up the Danube to Galatz and Ibraila. While lying at Ibraila the Austrian Archduke was assassinated at Sarajevo, in the neighboring country of Serbia. War was inevitable. We hurried home via Hamburg.

On August 2nd I arrived back in Ireland. Two days later England declared war. Our ship was among the last British vessels to leave Hamburg, and we were lucky to get out of Germany before the notice of hostilities. I had no special affection for Germany, but I recognized an opportunity now for Ireland to break her shackles from Imperialism.

In a public square in Derry I harangued a crowd, urging immediate action. “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity!” The young men were with me in sympathy, but there were no active leaders. Politicians had just achieved the so-called victory of “Home Rule,” and the people were wondering what it was all about. The Ulster Volunteers, under Carson’s leadership, had organized to resist the inauguration of Home Rule in the Unionist counties of Ulster. The National Volunteers, under Redmond and Devlin, were drilling to defend their measure of Home Rule.

And here is the joke. The Ulster and the National Volunteers were handed over in complete units to the harassed British in Belgium, and were decimated by German shells and machine-guns. It was a frightful slaughter of Irishmen, whose internal enmity reacted to the Briton’s welfare: just another sample of British luck in her handling of Irish politics, which, by the present trend of events, will happen again.

Failing to focus attention on a concerted effort in Derry, I joined the British Navy on August 5th, 1914 – I presume that my action was a typical sample of Irish inconsistency. The whole world seemed full of paradox. A British warship steamed into action to the tune of the “Minstrel Boy,” an Irish revolutionary song which is a stirring march. It is a curious fact that His Majesty’s Naval Barracks at Chatham were commanded by Admiral O’Callaghan, one of the most competent officers in the Navy. I thought the war would be over by Christmas, and I was mighty anxious to see some real action before it finished.

As were millions of others at that time, I was sadly lacking in military foresight.

Leave a Reply