Where is My Bag?
When bad fortunes turn out to be good fortunes
By Peter Victor
Peter was tired and lonely. He was a long way from his home in beloved New England. He had flown to Houston, Texas to seek work as a Merchant Marine. He was young, new to shipping, and a little scared. He came from a big, loving family, and was not used to the cold impassionate faces that surrounded him. Nobody in the union hall would acknowledge his presence, and he wished very much that he were not alone. Peter looked at the shipping board, and felt a cold and electric tension as the dispatcher began putting up jobs. One ship caught his eye—the SS Poet. Attached to this ship was one job for an officer’s messman. This was a person that picked up the dishes after the officer’s ate their meals. In days of old, this person was called a cabin boy. Peter slowly and tentatively weaved his way through the older men and threw his shipping card on the table. “You want this job son?” the dispatcher looked at the card and then looked at Peter.
“Yes sir.” Peter’s voice sounded small.
“Then you have it. Make sure you get to Galveston on time. I will have your paperwork in a minute.” Minutes later Peter stepped out into bright, dry sunlight and began walking towards the bus terminal.
The heat seeped into the bus station. Peter could feel his shirt beginning to stick to his back. He held a five-dollar bill in his hand. He was almost out of money. Peter calculated that after lunch and after the bus ride to Galveston, he would have about three dollars left. This was fine as long as he could get onboard the ship.
“Where to?” The bus station attendant asked.
“Galveston.” Peter’s voice again sounded small. The attendant did not answer, and Peter wondered if he had heard him. He was preparing to repeat himself when the attendant’s hand appeared before his face.
“That will be three dollars and seventy-five cents; the bus leaves at two thirty. Be here 10 minutes early,” he said.
“Yes sir, can I check my bag? I want to get something to eat before I leave.” The hand was extended again. After a brief moment of confusion, he handed over his bag, and turned to leave.
“You’re going to need this baggage claim son.” Peter turned and took the stub of paper, crossed the floor of brown dirty tile, and stepped out in front of a row of busses.
Heat rose in waves from the shimmering metal, and the headlights seemed to hold Peter in cold contemplation. The tires pounded the dry scarred concrete making a dull moan that provided the backdrop to Peter’s thoughts. He was slumped in his seat facing the window. A young woman sat in the front seat beside the driver. She gently consoled a small child. Across the aisle, sat an elderly man with a dirty white sailor’s hat and a scraggly beard; his head was turned towards the opposite window. A young man with greasy hair and bloodshot eyes nervously paced up and down the aisle occasionally shooting a glance at one of the passengers. The driver watched him in his mirror. All were quiet. The bus moved down the highway towards Galveston, Texas. The brakes made a large squeal, and the doors of the bus slammed open. The woman in front scooped up her child, picked up her bag, and exited the bus. Slowly and in single file, the rest of the passengers followed her. Peter stepped out and the wind ruffled his hair. The oppressive heat of Houston had been replaced by a soft breezes tinged with salt.
Peter had always loved the ocean and was glad to be near it now. The driver slowly lifted the baggage compartment door. One by one, he threw the bags on the ground beside the bus. A small cloud of dust rose as the last bag fell. Peter looked at the empty compartment and then at the driver. “Where is my bag?” he asked.
“I don’t know son. If you have a baggage claim, see the guy inside. I don’t know why your bag was not put on the bus, but we’ll get it here.” Peter was filled with anxiety. He was supposed to be on the ship, but he could not go without his bag. To depart on a sea voyage without gear was unthinkable.
Two hours had passed since he had arrived in Galveston. Several phone calls had been placed to the Houston terminal. They had assured Peter that they had his bag, and that it would arrive on the next bus. Yet three more buses had arrived without Peter’s gear. “Can you call them again?” Peter asked the terminal agent.
“I have called them several times son—your bag is coming.” Another two and one-half hours passed, and it was dark outside. By this time, Peter was nearly five hours late for his job.
A driver entered the terminal carrying Peter’s bag. Peter grabbed it from his hand, and was through the door. Ten minutes later, he was walking up the gangway to the ship. He saw the Captain watching him approach. Seconds later he stood in front of the captain. The captain held his hands open, “I am sorry, but we have a guy here. I don’t know how it happened, but I cannot pay two people. I am sorry son. You’ll have to leave.” The captain walked away, and Peter turned to go down the gangway.
“Hey, come here a second,” A voice said. Peter had been halfway down the gangway when he heard the hailing. He turned and saw a crewmember beckon him. “You don’t want to be walking around down there at night with a bag on your shoulders. My partner has gone home for the night, so you can sleep on his rack. Tomorrow morning after breakfast, we’ll pass the hat, so you’ll have money to return to Houston.”
Peter recalled this kind gesture. He recalled the strange circumstances surrounding his lost bag and the person that had been sent to fill a job that he had taken. During the next fifteen years, he had never seen that happen again. He recalled the crewmembers going into their pockets at the breakfast table and handing him money. He recalled his trip back to Houston and how he had uneventfully joined a ship called the Overseas Valdez. He will always remember sitting at the breakfast table of the Valdez, months later at sea. The captain had walked in and put up a notice, “SS Poet, RIP.” Peter had turned to the crewmember next to him and asked, “What’s RIP mean?” The sailor stared at him quizzically.
“Rest in peace,” said the sailor.
Peter remembered how the SS Poet became a mystery. It had vanished without a trace. There had never been a distress call, and one of the largest air and sea searches failed to uncover a trace of the ship, crew, or cargo.
Twenty-four years have passed since the SS Poet was lost. Peter’s young son Eliott charges Peter and throws his arms around him. Peter remembers the phone call from his sister years earlier. “Whether you know it or not, that was divine intervention,” she said. Peter wonders about his mission and why he did not sail with the SS Poet that day. He thinks of the kindness of the crew.
“Papa can you play for a while?” Peter’s ten-year-old son Luc asks. Peter had ceased shipping when Luc was born.
“Only for a little while, Luc and then I have to go inside and write a bit.” Peter’s eyes are moist with recollection. He gently picks up Eliott and walks towards Luc. Peter does not know what is expected of him. But he does know that he owes what he was given—love and kindness—every day to every person. From this strong foundation, he strives to build “good” days. He hands the glove to Eliott, and throws the ball to Luc while smiling. The sun is warm and pleasant, and the beautiful day is truly a gift.
The above events occurred as written. Peter J. Victor shipped with the United States Merchant Marine from 1980 to 1994. He was shipped to the SS Poet in Galveston on March 18, 1980, and shipped on the Valdez the following day. He now lives in Ellsworth, Maine with his wife and two sons. No trace of the Poet was ever found.