“Chocolate chip with cinnamon.”
Phil is lying in bed and looks noticeably thinner, his right eye is a little crooked but when he sees me he breaks into an enormous smile. He props himself up on his elbows, grimaces in pain then his smile quickly returns. Earlier that day I stopped at a traditional grocery store to pick up a few items and as I passed down the baking aisle I came upon the chocolate chip selection. I thought Phil would enjoy some cookies so I reached for a bag of Hershey’s, hefted the bag then placed it back on the shelf. What would you want your last chocolate chip cookie to taste like? I checked out then headed over to Whole Foods to find the most expensive chocolate and butter in town. When I made the cookies I melted some dark chocolate, brought it to room temperature then folded that into the batter. I made my own brown sugar by folding molasses and cane syrup into granulated sugar and used a good bit of cinnamon, all in the hope that Phil’s last cookie would have enough flavor to punch through the morphine and his failing senses.
He sits up in bed and his daughter Carolyn brings him a glass of milk. Once he’s comfortable he reaches for my hand and grins, croaks out a “thank you” then helps himself to a cookie.
“Oh that’s so good John.” A sip of milk from a straw and he’s happy.
I’m leafing through a journal of his. In 1948 Phil graduated from high school in in Hoboken, New Jersey, got his merchant marine certificate and climbed on board a 350-foot freighter bound for Shanghai. On that trip he kept a daily journal and it’s filled with keen observations, complaints, and descriptions of wonderful sights. A couple of entries just say “Seasick” in jumbo letters. I’m fascinated and jealous. When I graduated from high school in 1980 I spent the summer cooking at a tourist’s restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans before heading off to the uncharted wilds of Hammond, about two hours north of New Orleans. While leafing through his journal I find an entry marked Curacao.
“You stopped in Curacao?”
“Oh yeah, we had a problem with one of our oil bunkers and we had to pump this stuff back and forth, what a chore.”
I turn back to the journal and sure enough, his words mimic his journal entry. 62 years later and his eyes are alight as he recounts every detail.
“I was just a mess-man but when stuff like that happened everyone had to pitch in.”
“A messmen? Was that a deckhand?”
Phil laughs then points a bony finger at me.
“Mess. I was a cook’s helper, a waiter, the service staff for the entire ship.”
“You were a waiter Phil?”
“Yeah but not a very good one, when I left the ship the head cook slapped me on the back with his enormous hand, thanked me and asked if I wanted some advice so I said sure. ‘Don’t ever be a waiter.’”
We both share a laugh.
“I’ll bet they didn’t have a dining committee on that freighter, did they?”
“So that led you to the paint business?”
“No but that led me to college. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, it was an amazing journey.”
Phil drifts and his eyes wander as he tells me about Curacao, Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Chile, the south Pacific, Japan and Indonesia all while he was 18. I ask him if he’d ever been on a big ship like that prior to his journey and he grinned.
“Nope. It was something else though. When we were sailing through the Cape of Good Hope we hit this massive storm and the seas swelled to 30 feet high. Waves were crashing over the deck and at one point the props came out of the water and the whole ship shuddered, I thought we were going to tear ourselves in half.”
Without the friction of the water to keep them in check, the screws would have quickly spooled up, taking the engines with them. The resulting vibrations from the over-revving could have proven fatal to the engines. His eyes are darting about as he remembers the feeling of helplessness.
“But we saw some amazing sights. When we made port, the two cooks liked to see cultural sights so I tagged along with them, most of the crew would just park themselves at the nearest bar but we went out and explored.”
When I asked about his favorite stop; “Argentina, loved it. The food, especially the beef was wonderful, the sights of Buenos Aires, the natural scenery, and the flamenco dancing we saw, all so amazing. The ship sailed out of Argentina at four am and I got there with five minutes to spare, I wanted to take it all in. And I loved seeing the penguins in the Antarctic, what incredible birds, so cumbersome on land but so graceful in the water. And what they go through to care for their young is mind boggling. Oh and I had my first and only ride in a garbage truck on that trip, in Puerto de la Cruz Venezuela.”
I wrinkle my nose and ask him to explain.
“Well we stopped in Venezuela, most of the crew found the first bar they could, it was actually a beautiful building, open in the front and this enormous, lush courtyard in the back. And they fell in with another crew from another freighter and next thing you know this huge fight breaks out. I was just trying to protect our cook but the cops showed up and started dragging everyone out. I guess they didn’t have a paddy wagon but they had a garbage truck so they just tossed us into that.”
Phil is laughing and his right hand is fluttering so I reach out for his hand and gently squeeze it and it’s cool, nowhere near 98.6.
“The captain had to get us all out of jail. Boy was he mad. Eventually we got to China though. The communist revolution was raging in the north and ownership of the freighter changed hands so we all flew home. My first airplane ride too. A big DC4, I still have the ticket.”
He opens up the journal to the last page and an envelope plops out. It’s his Northwest Airlines ticket from Tokyo to LaGuardia.
“Holy smokes Phil! A DC4 had a top speed of maybe 200, that must have taken days.”
“Oh yeah, a couple of days to get home but air travel then was so special and such a treat after that long journey.”
He takes another bite of cookie and smiles.
“Phil do you have any regrets?”
He nibbles the cookie then wipes the crumbs off his chin. “Well, yes. I was disappointed I didn’t get into Princeton, I applied and I was sure my grades weren’t good enough but what the heck, I applied anyway. When I got back to New Jersey I went to college, eventually got my MBA and ended up with Sherwin-Williams and worked my way up the company’s ladder. I traveled all over the world and did marketing, finance, research and development. I did it all and helped the company grow and prosper. 32 years. Got married, raised a wonderful family, lived the American dream and saved for a retirement that Betty and I would share together .”
He turns to me then looks away.
“Then my Betty passed away.”