Advancement Hinged on a Hand Sign

Roger Barbour – for Henry August 22, 2010

(Third in Series: “Freemasonry in My Life”)

In the spring of 1973, I travelled 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 for seniority.

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.