China Boat

Chapter 3


Declares That There Is Nothing More Important for Britain Than to Shun Virus of Either


Referring For First Time to Plan to Retire, He Asserts Burden is Too Heavy

Wireless to the New York Times

LONDON, April 10th.-Announcing his coming retirement to his own constituents in Bewdly, Worcester, today, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin warned the nation of "strange creeds which today are rushing around the world". He declared:

"Whatever fascism and communism may produce for Russia, Italy and Germany, I want to warn you that they can never do anything to help Britain solve her constitutional problems.

"They are exotic and alien to this country. You cannot graft them on to our system any more than you can graft a Siberian crabapple to an oak.

"I don't think there is any single thing more important for our people, for those who frame public opinion and for those who lead public opinion, than to keep our people immune from the virus of either communism or fascism."

Mr. Baldwin told how the continued burden of his office at almost threescore and ten was a very heavy one.

He will be 70 years old Aug. 3 and is expected to surrender the Prime Ministership to Neville Chamberlain, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, immediately after the coronation festivities … 

* * *

Saturday, April 10th, 1937
7:30 a.m.
The Hotel St. Francis
San Francisco, California

"Here you are, sir, step right in!" The cheerful limousine-driver held the door open for Father.

"Thank you — what?" Father looked back at me.

The front door of the Hotel St. Francis, again; Saturday morning. The scene was even more crowded and confused, than it had been, the previous day.

"I'm sorry, sir; I forgot to return the guidebooks to the front desk." I held them up in my hand, as evidence.

"Oh. Well, hurry please; we're blocking traffic."

"Yes, sir."

I made my way back inside, under the black marble columns, under the gilded mezzanine-railings.

Just moments before, I'd stood stoically by as Father had retrieved his mail at the front desk; another telegram, and a letter addressed in a flowing, feminine hand that I recognized. I was glad, for his sake, when I saw it — but I'd ached to collect my own mail.

I reached the front desk, in a rush. "Do you — " I started to ask; then I saw that the desk-clerk — a completely new one; I didn't recognize him — was already holding out a letter for me; expecting me.

I exchanged the guidebooks for Jack's latest letter; shaking my head, and smiling, in admiration.

Another five dollar bill accompanied the guidebooks. It was the least I could do.

"Thank you," I said; pausing, a moment, to look at him directly. "Thank you, very much."

"Our pleasure, sir."

I had the impression, that the pleasure was not entirely, or even very much, due to the money.


The morning was cool and gray, and dim with fog; it matched my mood.

And, possibly, Father's, as well; he said little as we glided along the Embarcadero, the broad street which fronts the shipping piers; and his face, when I glanced at it, seemed — set. Remote, even.

It was unlike him. Father lives for his work; setting out on an important business trip is a thing that usually fills him with energy, and good spirits. Perhaps, I thought, it was due to his cold.


I looked away, out my side window.


As I'd written Jack, the San Francisco waterfront is an industrial landscape; of the sort that might be photographed by a Margaret Bourke-White, or a Dorothea Lange, and published in 'Life' Magazine.

Angular warehouses, of grimy brick or even tin, lined the way; our street was criss-crossed by railway sidings embedded in the asphalt. More sidings snaked off through the blank buildings, disappearing into narrow, curving alley-ways, hemmed in by high, blank walls. Smoke was in the air.

Twice, we were forced to stop as switching locomotives crossed slowly in front of us, belching smoke and steam, pulling boxcars; their headlamps grimy-yellow in the morning light. It was an unnerving experience; I was more used to trains which run on separate tracks, than trains which seemed to share the street with cars and pedestrians.

Our driver was cheerfully philosophical about the delays. He'd tried to engage us, as we waited.

"See that building over there, sir? Sirs?" He'd pointed to his right, to one of the larger red-brick complexes we'd passed. "That's the Hills Brothers Coffee plant. And a little farther along, we'll pass Maxwell House."

"Yes?" I'd offered, when Father remained silent.

The switching-engine chuffed deliberately by, in an explosion of noise and steam; I could feel the vibrations of its passage, even through the limousine's soft suspension.

"If you drink coffee in the United States, chances are it came through here. Coffee beans," he went on, cheerfully, "are shipped up here from Central America; then they're toasted in one of those plants, and then sent out all over the country. They say if you stand downwind of Hills Brothers when they're roasting, the smell alone is like getting a cup of Joe for free."

Another glance at Father; he seemed sunk in his own thoughts.

"Oh," I said, at last; a little awkwardly. "That's — interesting … "

Jack would have engaged the driver in eager conversation; he would have been fascinated by everything the driver said, he would have drawn out story after story, and laughed at all the right times — 

We are a team. And I missed him, acutely.


We glided on South, along the waterfront; passing under the new Bay Bridge — 'Life' Magazine had, indeed, run photos of it; but it was far larger, and more impressive, in person — until, finally, we turned left, and entered through the massive doors into Pier Forty-Two.

It was a cavernous, dim space; lit by clerestory windows, with criss-cross timber bracing supporting the roof and walls. As we glided slowly forward, I could see a mass of piled-up luggage, and people in ordinary dress, milling around, attended by uniformed stewards with clipboards — 

And my heart gave an unexpected lurch. The scene triggered old memories.

"Here, sir?" from the driver. It was a reasonable question; a covered gangway led up to a door in the black-painted side of the ship, visible through a large opening in the side of the pier shed. The canvas siding of the gangway was labelled 'DOLLAR LINE', in large letters.

"No," Father said; looking ahead, intently. "No, drive up to the next gangway, up ahead, please."

The next gangway was smaller, and not so grandly marked. But it was attended by two uniformed figures, who were waiting for us.

"Mister Williamson?" asked the taller figure, coming forward as we exited the limousine.

"Yes." Father turned back, a moment, looking towards the car. "Thank you, driver. You may go." He turned back to the officer.

"Welcome to the President Hoover, Mister Williamson. This is Chief Officer Voigt; my name is Bennett, and I am the Purser."

Mister Bennett was tall, slender, and intelligent-looking; he was also surprisingly old. He peered at us, shrewdly, from underneath white eyebrows; his mouth seemed on the verge of quirking up in humor.

"Piers Williamson, of the M______ Bank," said Father; shaking hands with each man, in turn. "And this is my son and assistant, Rhys."

"Pleased to meet you, sir. Sir," from me. More hand-shaking all around, as I tried not to wince at my new title.

"You'll be glad to know," began Mister Bennett, "that your luggage arrived ahead of you, and it has already been taken below, and your steamer-trunks have been taken to your suite. As soon as we have your cargo safely stowed, I'll be happy to show you to your accommodations, myself."

"Thank you, very much; but I'm sure you'll be much too busy, on sailing day — ?" Father made it a question.

"Not at all, sir; in fact, we are fairly empty, this trip. As you may have heard, our sister-ship, the President Coolidge, was delayed here in San Francisco, while she was under repair. She finally sailed on the 25th; express to Yokohama. Many of our passengers decided to leave early, in her. You will find that you have plenty of elbow room, on this voyage." He said this, a little dryly.

We all knew, of course, that the President Coolidge had been under repair, because she had rammed and sunk a tanker, in thick fog outside the Golden Gate. It had been in all the newspapers, even back home. As was the fact that all souls on the tanker had been saved, including the ship's dog.

"I'm sure we'll have interesting company, regardless," Father said, politely.

"Oh, yes!" from Mister Bennett; and his eyes seemed to twinkle. "In fact, we — but, wait." His face turned towards the massive pier doors, bright to us in the inside dimness. "I think your cargo has arrived."

We all turned to look.

Trundling through the doorway was a large shape, which turned out to be an armored-car; gray, massive, and business-like. Uniformed guards perched on the running-boards, on either side. Behind the armored-car, came a large, open touring-car; and as the whole party came closer, I could see the car was filled with yet more guards, six of them, and that they were openly carrying shotguns. I blinked at the sight.

The convoy drew ponderously closer, skirting the piled-up luggage, and the other passengers, just as our own limousine had. Mister Voigt — rather severely blond, and taciturn — stepped aside to direct the armored-car to a stop. The touring-car stopped as well, and the guards disembarked, and lined up by the armored-car.

"Gold bullion, I believe — ?" asked Mister Bennett; mildly, but I could sense the shift to business, underneath.

"Yes," from Father. "In ingot form; ninety-nine percent pure. Each bar weighs almost seven pounds; they are packed in small cases, four ingots to a case. We have forty-eight cases."

"We can accommodate that well enough," said Mister Bennett. "Our vault — we call it our specie-tank — is quite large. Have you been informed of the arrangements — ?"

"Not in detail, no."

"There are two locks on the specie-tank. One is a very strong padlock, and Mister Voigt has the only key on board. The other is a combination-lock; and I am the only one with the combination." Mister Bennett watched the armed guards form up, with a hint of amusement in his expression. "Yours is the last cargo we'll be stowing away in the tank, on this trip. The rest of the contents are, shall we say, somewhat less valuable."

The armored-car doors opened, and one of the the guards approached Father with a clipboard. "Mister Williamson?"

"Here," said Father; accepting the clipboard from the man, beginning to read the contents. "This is quite a turnout, isn't it?" he asked the guard, casually, as he flipped a page on the clipboard.

"If you'll just sign here, sir," the guard — I saw 'Pinkerton' on his uniform — replied, pointing to a place on the clipboard; "and, here … yes, sir, we take precautions whenever we come to the waterfront. It can be a rough place, these last few years."

I was listening, while doing sums in my head.

Forty-eight cases — and the guards were beginning to unload them now, laying them out neatly on the pier decking — with four bars of almost pure gold, apiece — ? And each bar weighing seven pounds — ? Forty-eight times twenty-eight — ?

It worked out to one thousand, three hundred forty-four pounds of gold; more than a half a ton of it.

I'd known, vaguely, what it was for; an inter-bank transfer, Father's bank — or an associated bank — paying off debts to a Shanghai counterpart. Physical money, in this case, moving around; rather than just the promise of payment.

Chinese banks, Father had said, are particularly fond of silver; but gold, pound for pound, is much more valuable, and hence easier to move; gold was becoming the precious metal of choice. Given the Japanese military presence in the country, and the resulting insecurity, it was understandable.

I hadn't realized there'd be quite so much gold involved, however.

And I was to be, in very small part, responsible for it; I had to co-sign receipts for the shipment, along with Father.

Which he set me to doing, right away.

"Each of us," he said to me, without preamble, "needs to inspect each case, carefully. I will check off the serial numbers of the cases; then, when I'm done, you will double-check my tally. In the meantime, please examine each case for any sign of breakage or tampering. Pay particular attention to the seals; they are in lead, and they are embossed."

And with that, he moved to one end of the first row of cases, took out his reading-glasses, bent down, and peered at the first case.

I stood there, just a moment; then I shrugged, and moved to the opposite end of the second row; and I started work as Father's assistant.


The task did not take long.

The cases were all examined — they were crates, really, just smaller, sturdier, and more nicely-finished — and then the receipts were all properly signed, and then the armored car trundled away, out the pier door. A working-group of crewmen had appeared, with hand-trucks; and, escorted closely by the Pinkerton guards, the cases of bullion began disappearing up the gangway, into the ship.

Father, a little ways apart from me, was deep in conversation with Mister Bennett, a conversation punctuated with more applications of his handkerchief to his nose.

At last, the final six cases ascended the gangway, on the hand-trucks of the last two crewmen; the last Pinkerton guard followed them, closely. Mister Bennett, with a bow of his head, and a sweeping arm gesture, clearly invited Father to board the ship; and they both mounted the gangway.

I started to follow them, automatically; then I looked down; and I stopped.


It was just a step; a single step.


On one side, was the pier decking, asphalt laid over wood; on the other side, the slope of the gangway. A metal plate at the end of the gangway moved, slightly, against the asphalt, with the motion of the ship.

When I took that step, I'd be leaving American soil — and my whole world, my life, and the one I loved more than my life — for how long — ? Months, certainly. But, perhaps, years — ?

I looked down at the end of the gangway; blinking.

And all at once, I had a sudden, wild urge, to bolt; to just bolt, towards the pier doors, and the outside-light, and freedom.

No one could stop me; I was a good runner, and the Pinkertons were all in the ship. I could run, and dodge, and lose myself in the city — 

The impulse was so, so strong. It was all but overwhelming.

"Rhys — ?!"

Father's voice, coming from above; impatient, imperative.

I glanced at the open pier doorway; then, back down at the metal plate, at the end of the gangway, sliding gently on the asphalt.

I took a deep breath; without moving. And then, one more. I felt my heart thudding in my chest, for second, after second, after second.

I'll be back soon, I promised myself.

I'll be back soon; one way or another. I will do whatever it takes. I will be back. Soon.

Still looking down, I lifted my foot; and with a hollow feeling, I stepped onto the gangway.

* * *

Father retired to his stateroom, to work, he said; although I knew it was really to nurse his cold. He was clearly miserable.

So, I arranged with Mister Spivney, the gentleman who introduced himself as our cabin steward, for Father to get a pot of tea, with plenty of lemon and extra hot water — 

Father and I always take care of each other, when we travel. Once, in Vienna, I'd had a horrible sore throat; Father had delayed our travel plans for three whole days, and he'd seen to it that I'd had the best ice cream in the city, to ease the pain; and he'd done it with love. It is something I've never forgotten — 

We'd been on rather better terms with each other, then.

Anyway. I arranged for Father to get his tea and lemon; and then, still feeling hollow and unsure, I began to roam around the ship, my Leica on its strap around my neck.


The sky had brightened, by the time I came up on deck. Blue sky showed, directly overhead, and I could feel the warmth of the morning sun; although a wall of smoky fog still loomed to the West. As I looked aft, at the Bay, the enormous bulk of the gray-painted Bay Bridge dominated the view; a little further on, a paddle-wheel ferry, small by comparison, thrashed along under a cloud of its own smoke. Masts, derricks and superstructures sprouted up from behind the pier buildings, to either side of us.

I looked around myself, more closely.

It was — a ship; a liner. And so, even though I'd never been on this particular ship, it was familiar enough to me.

I'd crossed the Atlantic twice; the last time, on our return from Europe, less than three years ago.

It hadn't been a pleasant time. It wasn't a fond memory.

My surroundings brought back the memories, sharply. The riveted steel, covered with amazingly thick coats of paint; the teak decks, washed to gray smoothness. The metal ladders leading up and down, so many of them chained off, hung with signs saying, 'Crew Only'. The smell of the harbor, and of the smokestacks … 

I wandered higher-up in the ship; which was my usual instinct.

Father and I had connecting staterooms — a suite, technically — on 'A' deck; on the port side, forward. The deck above that was the Promenade Deck; the deck, as the name suggested, given over for walking the circuit around the ship, or as much of it as wasn't off-limits to passengers.

I looked down the length of the deck, for a moment; it seemed smaller than I remembered, from my last ship, and it was festooned with deck-chairs. It was also mostly-enclosed; glassed-in, and roofed over. I hoped I wouldn't have to do my running, here … 

Up another stairway, to the Boat Deck; out in the sunlight and air, but of course, intended purely for the business of accessing the lifeboats, hanging there on huge davits.

I thought, initially, that I might do some running, here; but forward of the foremost lifeboat was another chain, and another 'Crew Only' sign. Running laps here, then, was clearly out of the question.

I found what I wanted after taking the last stairway upwards.

It was marked 'Sun Deck', and the name seemed appropriate. It was the highest deck; the two smokestacks towered above us, and the views in all directions were superb. But best of all, to my mind, was that the deck seemed designed for recreation; there were painted outlines for some sort of ball-court-and-net game, and a basketball hoop, and — wonderfully — what was clearly a painted-on running track, circling the whole perimeter of the deck space.

Running is important to me; for my body, of course, but also for my mind. Running for a few miles will clear my mind, will bring my mind and body together, will bring things into perspective; running will quiet my fears and anxieties. I'd missed running, badly, these last few days.

I took a few breaths — I was alone on the deck, insofar as I could tell, and I was glad of the solitude — and I wandered along the railing, looking out, thinking about photos I could take, to send to Jack; thinking about describing all this, the ship, the experience, to Jack.

I touched my breast pocket. I now had two of Jack's letters, next to my heart; I hadn't been able to bring myself to destroy his first letter, yet.

I had not yet read his second letter, either, beyond the briefest skimming, to see that he was all right — it seemed that he was, except for low spirits, to match my own. But, in fact, I was saving a real reading of his letter for that night; I would read it, when I needed his words, the most … 




"Just one more, Dear … yes, that's right. Now, pull yourself up, just a little — "

I turned to the stairway.

An elderly couple was ascending, slowly; the wife dressed in a bright, floral-print dress and a cloth hat with feathers; the husband, panting, clinging to her arm, in a light-gray suit, a string tie, and a Stetson hat. His hat was enormous; it had a high, pointed crown, like the ones Tom Mix wears in the movies.

The man stopped to rest, a moment, on the next-to-last step; I watched, discreetly, ready to offer my help, but not wanting to intrude.

"Ready — ?" from the woman.

The elderly man grinned an open-mouthed, wide grin; and, holding on to the railing, and his wife's arm, pulled himself up the last step.

"There — !" he said, between pants. "There; I told you I could do it — !" He looked around, in pleasure; he was obviously in excellent spirits. He unhooked a cane, from where it had dangled on his arm, and bent over a little, leaning on it; still holding onto his wife. His sharp gaze wandered, and met mine. "Hello there, young fellow!"

"Good morning, sir. Ma'am," I offered. I touched the brim of my cap, politely.

"Fine day for sailing — !" he continued, looking happily out at the Bay, and then the city-scape, before us.

More voices, from behind.

"No, Claire, this way — this way!" Three young women — girls, really, not that much older than me — ran to the railings on the starboard side, forward; laughing, and excited. They were bareheaded, oddly enough. "See — ? Can't you see them? No, there — !"

"I — Oh, yes, I see them now! Mother — ! Fath — "

'HMMMMMMMMMMMMMM' — from the ship's whistle; a deep, low, all-pervading tone, that went on for second after second. I jumped, as it sounded; and I looked up to the forward smokestack, seeing the white steam from the whistle, against the darker funnel smoke — 

And I kept looking, for another moment; until I uncapped the lens of my Leica, smiling to myself a little, as I lined up the photo.

Our ship was the S.S. President Hoover; and the steamship-line was the Dollar Line, or more accurately, the Robert Dollar Line, named after the founder. The line's insignia was the U.S. dollar symbol; and it was painted, large, on the ship's funnels. The bitter irony of the combination, in this Depression year of 1937, would make for a wonderful photo … 

More voices, as more people drifted up to our deck, in twos and threes.

"All ashore who are going ashore," came a voice from a deck below ours; "Third call. All ashore who are going ashore … " and it was followed by a ringing sound, three rising xylophone-notes, 'ding, ding, DING!' Then the calm voice repeated itself, moving forward. "All ashore who are going ashore; third call … "

The murmur of voices drifted forward, towards the section where people were already lining the rail, looking downwards at the pier side; many of them had rolled up streamers in their hands, ready for the undocking. I drifted further aft, where it was quieter.

'HMMMMMMMMMMMMMM — !' from the ship's whistle, again, long and loud — 

And in the comparative silence that followed, I heard a kind of rumbling, or maybe a kind of buzzing. I realized I'd been hearing it for some minutes, now; I'd assumed it was tugboat-engines, or perhaps motorboat-engines, on the opposite side of the ship from me — 

The rumbling paused, or lowered, for just a moment; and then, all of a sudden, it increased tenfold or more, and then more, after that. It was a deep, bass kind of roar, now, echoing off of the buildings and bulkheads around me; I could feel the vibrations of it, against my skin.

A group of three men, businessmen, by the look of them, had drifted aft with me. There were gazing across the bay.

"Look," said one of them; pointing. "See? There she goes." His accent was thick, and I couldn't place it.

"Manila in five days," said a second man; and he sounded American. "And then, on to Hong Kong."

I finally saw what they were pointing at; and we all watched, without speaking.

It was hard to make out at first, a line of white foam in the water, and a gleam of aluminum; but it moved fast, extremely fast, as it turned out, and it was coming closer. I gaped at it; and I uncapped my Leica, again.

It was a flying-boat; an incredibly massive, four-engined flying-boat, by far the largest airplane I'd ever seen, and it was on a take-off run, right in front of my eyes — 

It was the famous China Clipper, of course; or one of them, there were several ships, flying from San Francisco Bay to Manila in the Philippines, for Pan American Airways — 

And I had to capture the sight; for Jack. I just had to.

"Oh, Horace!" came a woman's voice, behind me. "Look at that! Look, in the water — ?"

I lined up the framing, as best I could, with the airplane skimming along on the water, so fast; and I pressed the shutter-button, and then I was frantically twisting the knob, to advance the film — 

The roar of the engines was much, much louder, now.

"Manila in five days, if the weather cooperates," said the businessman with the accent. "And if they don't hit something in the water, at one of their stops, along the way … One of my colleagues, Van Hertzen, of Chemo-Dyne, he was telling me — "

I stepped a little to one side, and braced my arms on the railing, and pressed the shutter-button again. Through the viewfinder, I could actually see daylight underneath the airplane's hull; it had taken off, amazingly enough — 

I so hoped it came out in the photo; for Jack's sake.

Jack is air-mad; Jack is just obsessed, with flying, with anything and everything having to do with airplanes. I knew for a certainty, he could — and would — tell me everything about the great airplane I was photographing now; its range, altitude, cruising-speed, right down to the number of cylinders in each engine — 

Jack's even been up in an airplane, once; although only his brother Elliott and I know about it. He'd secretly taken a ride with a willing aviator, at a local airfield, last summer; against his parents' sternly-expressed orders.

I'd resigned myself to going up with him, sometime; it seemed unavoidable. I hoped it would be in a ship as big as the one I was watching, now, though.

"Oh, I don't know," the American-voiced businessman was saying, off to one side. "I haven't heard of any accidents; I daresay they know what they're doing. But I have heard that the food served on board, and the food in the hotels where they stop off overnight, is excellent."

This brought a laugh from the accented businessman; all three of them, were rather — large. Then, one of them started to say something — 

The roar of the aircraft-engines drowned him out.

The Clipper was lifting, now, gaining altitude, and it was close, amazingly close; I gaped up at it from below, capturing the details in my mind's eye. The glint of the sun, on the bare aluminum; the registration number, painted in huge letters and numerals, on the underside of the wing — I memorized it; I would include it in my next letter to Jack, and he would know which of the ships it was — the cascade of water droplets falling away from the hull, glittering like jewels in the morning sun — 

I took one last, poorly-composed photo of the Clipper, just past overhead; and then I stood there, watching it climb, and fly on, and climb, and fly on, almost directly over San Francisco — 

And I made a vow, to myself. The second one, of the day; and a much happier one.

I promised myself, that sometime, somehow, Jack and I would be on that flight, together. That flight, or one like it; maybe the Clipper to Europe, that Jack said was coming soon … 


Someday, I vowed, Jack and I would be on a plane like that, together. Going someplace far away; going someplace we wanted to go. Together.

The idea comforted me, and warmed me, considerably.

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