She gave me a hug and then tried to hand me $100 in small bills—to give to her son, or to buy him a drink, or to use myself for whatever I needed to make the trip, she said. But I knew that the second I took that money, I would be in for it. In the cold, sober light of day, I was having second thoughts. What the hell had I agreed to the night before? I declined, as much as I could have used that $100, because I didn't want to be obligated and then get killed trying to find Tommy Collins in Vietnam.
"Mrs. Collins," I said, "let me know Tommy's unit. I'll find him. And if I do, I'll tell him how much you love him."
The Colonel yelled, "Don't worry, Mrs. Collins! Chickie'll take care of it! He's gonna do this! Let's raise a glass to Chickie!"
"To Chickie!" the crowd cheered, though I could see some skeptical faces.
The Colonel poured me another beer, and I drank as I compiled a list, with Tommy Collins at the top. Some sidled up and told me what they knew of soldiers' whereabouts. Pally McFadden gave me his brother Joey's coordinates with the army. A brother of Rich Reynolds, a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, gave me his last known location. Ed O'Halloran knew where Kevin McLoone was. Kevin and I used to rent Winnebagos with a couple of other guys and go from Chambers Bar in Inwood to New York Giants football games—at home then in Yankee Stadium and sometimes hundreds of miles away. Kevin had already served in the marines in Vietnam; now he had gone back as a civilian to help outfit helicopters with new radio technology that would help prevent so many of them from getting shot down.
"Rick Duggan! You gotta find Rick!" someone shouted. "He's been all over the front lines!" Nobody knew what front line Rick was on at the moment, so I determined to go ask his parents. Rick had grown up in the same building as I had on the dead end of Seaman Avenue. His father was the only Republican in the neighborhood—and my aunt ran the Democratic club—but they joked about it. Rick and I were close; like Tommy, he was one of the younger, more fearless kids we let tag along with us when we dove off tall cliffs into the murky waters of the Spuyten Duyvil or generally caroused. Rick was with the First Air Cavalry Division and had joined at the age of nineteen. I planned to visit his parents the next day and ask for his location. I knew his grandmother had sent him a bottle of whiskey hidden—and cushioned—in a loaf of Wonder bread.
Of course, I would try to find my good buddy Bobby Pappas, with whom I had gotten into a shenanigan or two. His father tended bar down the block, so I'd ask him if he had any information. Bobby was in his midtwenties, married with a baby, and he had already served in the US Army Corps of Engineers, but he got drafted anyway, because LBJ had ended President Kennedy's mandate not to draft married fathers. I didn't think that was fair.
I took one last sip and headed out the door. The Colonel refused my money and shouted, "God bless Chickie, and God bless America!" and some guys yelled, "Yeah!" and "Go, Chick!" It was as if the Colonel had given me my orders, and off I was to go on my mission. There was only one problem:
I still had my doubts that I could pull it off.
The next day, I went down to the National Maritime Union Hall at Seventh Avenue and Thirteenth Street. This great union was started in 1936 by a brave boatswain—a deck boss—named Joseph "Big Joe" Curran. He was charged with mutiny by President Franklin Roosevelt's secretary of commerce after exhorting seamen on the SS California to refuse to cast off the lines until monthly wages were raised by $5. Seamen up and down the Eastern Seaboard went on strike, and Curran became president of the union. In addition to winning the forty-hour workweek and benefits, Big Joe built the hiring halls specifically to end corruption in filling jobs and to keep the workforce integrated. The NMU (now the Seafarers International Union of North America) has been very, very good to me and a lot of other mariners.
The union had built three modern buildings in the Chelsea neighborhood, on Manhattan's West Side, including the shiplike headquarters I was in, and a seamen's residence down the block with a hundred giant porthole windows, a pool, a gym, and classrooms. It's now the Maritime Hotel.
New York was still a thriving shipping port in the 1960s. At the hiring hall, they had a board listing which ships were in port and what positions were open: fireman, oiler, boatswain, deckhand, mechanic, and the like. If you were on the beach, and you were ready to go back out to sea, you would come down and sit in the auditorium with the other seamen, and the union port delegate would call out the names of the ships and their destinations. Like this: "The SS Manhattan!! Going to the Gulf!!!" That was one of Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos's oil tankers, headed back to the Persian Gulf for a fill-up. Or "The MS Alameda!!! Going coastwise!!!"—a merchant ship stopping at ports all along the US East Coast. They wouldn't give you a big description. In those days, the newspapers listed which ships were in port. If they called out Moore-McCormack Lines, or Mooremac, as we referred to it, chances were pretty good the ship was heading to South America from the Twenty-Third Street Pier in Brooklyn.