Chapter 6 – The Trip – May 1944
After hanging up the phone, Ray walked to the door and opened it fully to see a slim, well-dressed, young man standing there.
“Hi. Ray?” The young man asked.
“Yes.” Was all Ray said as he eyed the young man from head to toe. The fellow was Latin looking, olive colored skin with dark hair and dark eyes, he was much shorter than Ray, about five feet six inches, and couldn’t have been more than 150 pounds soaking wet. But he had a friendly looking face that was forever smiling as if he enjoyed life to its fullest.
“Tony Lawless,” the young man said and held his hand out to shake Ray’s. “I understand I’m your ship’s mate.” Ray shook his hand and beckoned him in.
“Wow, great view, I’m looking across at another building,” Tony said as he walked towards the window. “So, what do you know?”
“Know? All I know is I’m meeting you and, in the morning, we’re being picked up by a taxi and taken to a boat where we will head to St. Louis. That’s it.” Ray said categorically.
“Sure, and the tooth-fairy is for real, right?” Tony said laughing as he made a playful punch to Ray’s arm.
“No, really, that’s all I know,” Ray said emphatically.
“But you’re the captain, the head honcho on this trip, right?” Tony asked, hunching his shoulders a little and holding his arms out to his side in that time-honored way when you’re trying to figure something out. In addition, he gave a more questioning look at Ray.
“That’s my understanding, yes, but that’s as much as I know,” Ray explained, but Tony was still looking at him as though he didn’t believe a word of it. “Look, Tony, this morning I was on a ship that had just docked in Canada and was minding my own business when I was told to report to the bridge. The next thing I know I’m here in this hotel being told I am sailing a boat to St. Louis. I’m as much in the dark here as you are.” Tony sat down on the expensive looking couch in the room and looked up at Ray.
“You’re for real, you ain’t kidding me?” Tony said looking deadly serious.
“For real, I’m not kidding you,” Ray repeated Tony’s words. Tony’s reaction was to look down and shake his head a couple of times. But then he smiled, and a light flickered in his eyes.
“But we got money, right? We can order chow, right?” Tony asked.
“Yes.” Ray simply said, wondering where this next tact was going.
“Well let’s eat, I could eat a horse.” Tony said, “why don’t you get on the blower and order us up a banquet. Yea the works.” Ray merely smiled and for the second time that evening, he picked up the phone, only this time he ordered some food.
Over a meal of prime rib, baked potato and vegetables the two men learned a little about themselves. Tony had only recently started at the Naval training school in Newport, but yesterday, before he could even pass-out of the academy he was driven here. Tony was single, didn’t have a girlfriend back home in Chicago, and wanted to join the navy because he had spent his life on the boats owned by the family business. The family had a fleet of tug-boats that transported goods up and down the Illinois Waterway to the Mississippi and sometimes beyond.
Ray warmed to Tony very quickly, there wasn’t anything not to like, he had an infectious, positive, attitude and he was funny too. But before they knew it, the time had come to hit the hay and they still had to pack their fine new clothes into the newly supplied carpet-bags. Tony agreed to come back in the morning at 7:00, with his bag all packed and ready when they would order breakfast. Once they had finished eating they would go together to meet their mysterious driver outside the hotel. With that, they bade each other good-night and Tony returned to his own room.
Next morning, as arranged, the two smartly dressed, young, fellows walked out of the hotel when immediately their driver pulled up his taxi beside them. The trunk immediately popped up and the driver was out of the taxi and grabbing their bags and placing them in the back. He then opened the back door of the taxi and ushered the two men into the back seat. Within seconds they were away and not a word was spoken until they arrived at their destination, some thirty minutes later. Their destination was a remote poorly, maintained, boathouse on a small river. The driver parked the taxi around the back of the boathouse so that it couldn’t be seen from the road. Their driver then produced a key and unlocked the sturdy padlock on the door to the boathouse and waved the two men through.
Much to the surprise of the two men, the outside décor of the building belied the sophisticated set-up that was inside and the first thing that attracted their attention was the boat moored there. Amidst all the expensive looking tools and machinery littering the walls, there sitting peacefully in the water was a 1940 Chris-Craft Double Stateroom cabin cruiser.
“Is this our baby?” Tony said, eyes wide open with wonder as he immediately went to check out the engine.
“It is,” replied their mysterious man.
“This is a diesel engine, that’s unusual in this type of boat,” Tony said, a little disappointed. “that’s going to limit our speed a bit.”
“The boat has had a few modifications, some of which is to the engine and the hull, I think you will find it can reach speeds of up to 30-35 miles an hour.” The man replied, “hop aboard, I have to show you a few things.”
One by one, all three of the men climbed aboard, Ray and Tony were running their hands over the sleek wood finish of all the surfaces, it certainly was a top of the line boat. The man pointed below, and he followed the two men down the steps to the living area.
“O.K. now listen up. I’m only going to say things once. Here are all the charts you will need to get you to St. Louis.” The man pointed to a collection of documents sitting on top of the chart table in the corner to the cabin. “You can stop wherever you like on the trip but no partying and under no circumstances EVER allow anybody on board. Your objective is to arrive at your destination as quickly as possible without jeopardizing your safety or the safety of the boat, is that clear?” The man stopped to look at the two men individually as they nodded their heads in acquiescence.
“Radios, you have two, this one,” the man said with his hand on a radio that was fixed to the bulkhead of the boat, “which is what you will be using for day-to-day uses, weather, marinas, tug-boats etc. Then there’s this one.” The man held out a small radio the likes of which neither of them had ever seen before. “When you are an hour out of Dock 13 in St. Louis, you will call me on this radio. Clearly, state the code that has been assigned, ‘Cardinals are in town’, that will be the only time you use this radio unless you have an emergency, in which case you will use the code ‘Halifax is in Canada’. If you are unable to reach anyone on this radio, then use Channel 16 on the marine radio and use the same codes. That’s it guys, oh, one more thing, there’s a safe here with some cash in it, it has two keys, one for each of you.” He dug into his pocket and pulled out two keys and handed the men one each, “the safe is fireproof and supposedly waterproof but I somehow doubt that. Any questions?” The two men looked at each other then shook their heads, then after further consideration, Ray had a sudden thought.
“The man who visited us in the hotel said we will be delivering some goods, where exactly are they?” Ray asked as he looked around for some tell-tale package.
“You don’t need to know. Now I suggest you get going.” The man replied perfunctorily, obviously trying to deflect the query before any further discussion could be had. “The key is in the ignition, start her up and I will open the boathouse doors.” The three men went top-side and while Ray started up the engines Tony untied the mooring lines while the man opened the doors.
No sooner had the man opened the doors Tony had unhooked the last of the lines and walked expertly onto the boat as Ray slid the boat out of the boathouse at just above idle speed to join the river. The man pointed in the direction of the river that Ray was supposed to go to and shouted out one last instruction.
“Follow the river to the merge, you can’t miss it and then you will have to rely on the charts,” the man said as the two men waved their acknowledgment, then under his breath the man muttered a few more words, “good luck you poor bastards, you’re going to need it.”