In 1948, I joined the MV Yamaska Park as an EDH and, over the first few days aboard, I became friendly with Gordon Walker, an AB. We were sailing to Manati in Cuba to load sugar. On the day we arrived, a doctor was called for Gordon who had been suffering with stomach pains for a couple of days. Unsure about the nature of his illness, he was sent to the hospital straight away for an emergency operation, which turned out to be the removal of his appendix.
Later the same day, the bosun told us that somebody needed to go and sit with him through the night, giving us the impression that his condition was much worse than it was. There was no shortage of volunteers to go – perhaps because we had berthed at an isolated jetty and there was no transport into after the town after four in the afternoon. The bosun decided, however, that, as a particular friend of Gordon’s, I should go. I joined the dockers when they finished work and we boarded a tram which took us into town.
I was met at the station by a large American man who walked with me to the hospital. He guided me to a door with a sign that read ‘senoritas’ on it and, although I didn’t speak Spanish, I knew enough to understand that this was the female ward! My guide explained that there had been a case of infection in the male ward, so Gordon had been put in with the women.
The hospital belonged to the American sugar company and, after the harvest, the Americans went home and left the hospital open for the local doctor to use. However, he had only one nurse, who came in during the day. There were no overnight staff. After giving me instructions, he promptly left.
A young man named Nelson came across from one of the other beds and introduced himself. He explained that it wasn’t visiting time, as I had assumed, but rather that the people around the other beds were family members, come to nurse the sick ones, all of whom had had appendix operations. He wanted to know all about the ship and how we worked, and, during this conversation, it came out that, having left the ship at four-o-clock, I had missed my evening meal, so we set off for a local café.
The people in the café could not speak English, but when Nelson explained who I was I seemed to become an instant celebrity – even the chef came out of the kitchen to greet me. They could not do enough for me and I was soon watered, fed and back in the hospital where I got some broken sleep on a camp bed in the ward.
We were there for about a week, and Nelson came back most evenings and took me out. While the hospital was modern and on its own grounds, the surrounding area was a shantytown with wooden buildings and boardwalks. One night, we went to a bar which was just like the setting for a Hollywood movie, a hitching rail outside with a couple of horses tied to it, batwing doors and inside some of the drinkers dressed like cowboys. The only thing missing, thankfully, was guns.
In the late afternoon, two young lads, aged about eight or nine, would come in to see us. There was no restriction on people coming in or out, and the locals often used to wander in to chat with us. The two youngsters were very entertaining. They would pick up a magazine and point to a picture, telling me the name of it in Spanish and I would have to repeat it after them, my pronunciation often causing them to roll about laughing. One day, we came across a picture of a coconut and they asked if I liked them. When I said yes, one of the boys disappeared only to return a short while later carrying a machete and the three of us went into the hospital grounds where one of the boys virtually ran up one of the coconut palms growing there and tossed down a few nuts. The other boy with the machete picked one up and chopped the top off with one clean swipe, handing it to me to drink the juice. The mind boggles when I think about it now; two little boys wandering around a hospital, brandishing dangerous weapons.
A couple of days before the ship was due to sail, I was awoken at about two in the morning by the Chief Steward from the ship telling me that I had another patient. This other patient turned out to be another AB who had also had his appendix removed.