Yesterday’s and today’s runs have taken us well down into tropical waters. Flying fish abound, whales and porpoises have been sighted, and today I saw the famed nautilus float by – that fairy fish-boat which sails away, diaphanous and undismayed, on the ocean waters. A ship in full sail swept past in the morning sun. All is Digger.
Ploughing the briney, southwards to Panama. The boat is now heavily laden with coal which has left its gritty deposit everywhere. The breeze wafts it into your eyes as you pace the quarter, half, or whole deck, or decks (as the case may require).
We are “doing it hard” having to wrestle with our altitudinous dormitories after a brief respite in Christian beds.
Numbers of people lined up to see us pass through the town: they have done everything that could be expected for us.
Order for re-embarking. I haven’t written much of my impressions of the place and people, partly because I much doubt if it and they would typify America, and partly because I’ve not felt well. One rather amusing feature is their effect on the “Digger”. Now accustomed to fulsome females in Blighty and elsewhere, he has conceived a lively hatred of American women here, who are cool and self-possessed. He cannot get the glad eye from them (not even from the negresses).
The Dollar rules the land, and high wages are nullified by higher prices. Some of the fellows have been to dances where you pay so much for each partner. I doubt if this nation has a soul: it seems a sort of human efficiency machine, interesting to watch awhile, but tiresome to abide with.
Y.M.C.A. arranged an outing for us to Norfolk. We crossed the bay in a fast ferry, and on arrival were taken to the Y.M.C.A. and treated to a short concert and liquid refreshments. After that we were taken all over the place in motor lorries. So jolty was my motor lorry that the chair I was sitting on was smashed to pieces. We are to finish the day with a concert, and return by special boat.
We are on the tramline, and can get to town in half an hour. Even in this small town everything is very up-to-date, hustling and go-ahead. Motors swarm everywhere. The Y.M.C.A. authorities arranged a trip to Richmond and Washington, but I hadn’t enough money with me to go. Numbers were disappointed likewise.
About 3 p.m. on a sunny and cold spring day, our boat is lying at anchor off Newport News. I had often sung about “Sailing Down the Chesapeake Bay”, but never expected to do it. We were in sight of land before breakfast, a low-lying sandy coast on which we made out dark scrubby trees and sandhills, and large wooden buildings. Soon we had entered the mouth of the bay, and had taken a pilot aboard.
On the left-hand shore were a couple of curiously designed light-houses, one almost serving as a caricature of Uncle Sam, and the bay itself was thick with beacons showing the channels. The land on the Northern shore was just visible, but the bay is a large expanse of water, with long ramifications, down one of which we steamed for an hour or two before reaching our berth.
Here and there blocks of buildings, factory chimneys etc. showed where towns or settlements lay. As we drew near the port, fast launches, ferry steamers etc. began to buzz about us, aeroplanes droned overhead, and Yankeeland spoke in no uncertain tongue. I think that almost any intelligent person would have guessed this to be part of the U.S.A. from the rather gimcrack but big and business-like wharves of steel, great yellow-painted wooden stores, and huge electric appliances.
Officials commenced to come aboard, and the Yankee features and Yankee accent with them. To our surprise an order was posted to the effect that we were to be prepared to go ashore at 6 p.m. with our seakits and blankets. The boat is to take in a large cargo of coal, and the process will occupy several days: during which the skipper means to have us out of the road.
We pulled in to a monstrous steel wharf affair which must have cost millions, towering about 100 feet, with enormous coal-shutes every few yards of its quarter mile length, down which endless electrically driven wagons discharge coal.
We trooped ashore, and after a delay (unexplained) of about two hours set out on our long tramp. During the wait we poked about the wharf-side of the town, and an extraordinary jerry-built, darky-swarming place it was. Bought some fine bananas, the first for more than two years, and quizzed the cigar-chewing storekeepers and ragamuffin, grinning, showing-off blacks.
Eventually we set off, headed by a most astonishing negro band – a jazz march, at so fast a pace that our officers had at once to ask for it to be moderated, which was done, or rather over-done, so that the dreadful trombone crescendo-diminuendos sounded quite unearthy. They banged us right through the main streets of the town, petering off into an endless straight road lined with warehouses and suburban residences without fences.
The people lined the streets, clapping their hands and cheering – Y.M.C.A. men handed us chocolate, and altogether we were given a hearty welcome.
This camp knocks the stuffing out of anything I have seen in the world. The arrangement, comfort, and appointments are splendid.
[Image: Newport News Virginia, C&O Railway Co,New Coal Pier No 9, 1919 Postcard]
Passed several vessels today: a three-masted schooner scudding before the wind, an old tramp, and a large U.S. Battleship.
The educational classes have started again, but seem to be half-hearted. Many of the men have taken the basket-making class, and you come across groups of them weaving baskets all over the ship. Good in theory, the education scheme is a howling failure, and the £50,000 provided by the N.Z. public as good as thrown into the Atlantic.
Reading a historical novel by A. Balfour who, if I remember aright, wrote a rattling good novel called “By Stroke of Sword”.
Calm, and much warmer. The third Easter away from home, and the second on the sea. The vessel is now so empty that she feels the slightest swell.
Impromptu concert on deck. The Maoris were the moving spirits, and treated us to hakas and native songs, including the plaintive air which I shall always associate with the fine Maori officer who died on the journey out.
Read essays in Miss Y.M.C.A.’s book, on Thos. Hardy’s poetry, and O.Henry; and am now in the middle of another volume of the latter’s stories – “The Heart of the West”. Curious sunset tonight like a yellow rainbow stretching entirely across the Western sky.
Blowing big guns all day. The equator is a myth, and we expect to enter the Panama Canal in a snow-storm.
Reading Balzac’s “Eugenie Grandet”. Becoming quite an adept in flying about in mid-air ascending and descending my hammock. This is the only exercise I get. Physical jerks are a thing of the past: the army suffers from ennui and would rudely resent any such proposition.