Scribner's Magazine, April, 1914, pages 502-511:
SPARKS OF THE WIRELESS
By Walter S. Hiatt
ILLUSTRATIONS BY L. A. SHAFER
THE youths of the world are running away to sea again.
But yesterday the sea had lost its romance, had become a place of prosaic travelling from an icy port to a hot one, with the tying up at the coal-blackened dock the most fanciful adventure of the voyage. The pirates, alas, had gone to work. There was naught left of the wondrous days of old but the yarns found in the pages of "The Pilot," "Peter Simple," "Treasure Island." The American lad had quit the sea these thirty years. It had hardly kept a place in his dreams; and the word was being passed that the white lad the world around was forgetting the sea.
Lo! a tiny dot, a dash or two, cuts through the air, over the sea, and all is changed--once more as it should be. To the sea was thus reclaimed enchanted, wandering fancy, and to-day thousands of American, English, German, French, wandering fancy, and to-day thousands of American, English, German, French, and Italian youths are again treading the heaving deck on the high sea.
The new lad aboard ship is Sparks. He may be nineteen and lay claim to one and twenty; he may have hoped to begin life as an Indian-fighter.
But Wireless has made of him a spanking ship's operator, one who dreams of ether waves and transmitters, condensers, transformers, and anchor spark gaps; an operator who can, if need there be, speak a language for any tongue, play a tune on his antenna that will ride out the most terrible of gales, bring succor to the weakest ship, snatch its prey from the wildest sea.
Sparks is not tied down in restive captivity to one port or ship. His power is only short of divine. He may leap over the sea and the mountains, where he listeth. If there are no messages to send for captain or passenger, if the steady brightness of the stars blooming above and the regular roar of the waves broken under the bow make the watch to drag, he may call up a friend hundreds of miles to leeward, ask the latest news from home, make plans to meet at port six months hence and have a jolly lark ashore, when confidences can be exchanged without every gossiper afloat and every amateur on land listening in.
A fellow doesn't mind telling the whole world about the persecutions of the skipper and the bad bunking and worse food on board--but there are some things to be kept sacred. Girls? Of course not!
If perchance Sparks is ploughing Pacific waters, say on a tramp bound around the Horn, laden deep with grain and no port to make in the ten thousand miles this side of Dunkirk, he may break the monotony of marmalade and toast, scowling skipper and raging waves, by calling up the station on the island of Juan Fernandez, off the coast of Chile, and ask after Robinson Crusoe's goats, his vine-clad fort, his boats, and all the rest so plainly set down on printed page.
Truly what a wonderful life leads Sparks and truly what a wonderful fellow he is!
A right bold sea-dog is Sparks and he leads the captain a sad life. Is it Sparks or is it the captain who commands the ship?
"Why, sir, I'm growing old before my time, what with reports and owner's complaints, cargo that shifts, logs that read awry," grumbled one Old Man. "And now I have this to look after. A fellow comes now I have this to look after. A fellow comes aboard my ship and by the swagger of him I'm but an air wave."
It is when skippers are in such frame of mind that poor Sparks learns why so many other boys quit going to sea in the good old days.
Because a fellow happens to be in a hurry, to forget that the skipper is a high and mighty person, and asks him offhand, "I say, captain, do you want to send out any dope to-night?" that is no reason to set you to pacing the deck in a disgraceful rope ring for an hour, with an added quarter each time you touch a ventilator or the rail. I should say not!
Then, there are times when no self-respecting fellow can hold his tongue. Take the case of Cameron. He showed the Old Man of the Iroquois how to respect a Wireless operator. Cameron is known from Point Barrow to the ice barriers of the Antarctic as a competent operator. The night he left that old tub in Seattle, she had taken on a whole deck-load of sheep. Sheep were even stowed about the Wireless cabin. There was a holy stench, let me tell you. Cameron wasn't to blame.
So he up and tells the Old Man that them sheep has got to come from around his cabin. Did not his contract call for a first-class berth? Well, the Iroquois was just about to cast off her lines, ready for sea. "The tide is making, sir," the first was bellowing from the fo'c's'le head when Cameron went to the bridge.
"If you're not suited aboard my ship, Mr. Cameron," says the Old Man, "why, you can take your things and go ashore and confound you!" But he was that put out, he went to Cameron's cabin and helped him get his things ashore. He afterward bragged he helped him get his things ashore. He afterward bragged he threw Cameron, "his umbrella, his valise, coats, pants, and collars, all in a heap, right over the side upon the dock." Anyway, it was not what you would call a friendly parting.
"You lack manners, sir," shouted Cameron when he got to the dock. Those were his very words. My! how mad they made that skipper!
It must be that skippers are jealous. When they are about to wreck their ships, it is always the Wireless men that save them. Then the passengers and the newspapers tell how Sparks acted like a hero. That's the way it is.
Take the eighty passengers of the Camino. They know how to appreciate fellows like Cameron. After clearing from Portland, ten miles off Astoria she ran into a stiff southerly gale which was soon banging away at the rate of eighty miles an hour, and God help the vessel in its path! Waves piled up, swept the battened decks, wrecked and carried away the winches and all the tackle forward. The passengers gathered in the saloon, praying and weeping. The steady plunging forward of the ship, lifting her heels out of water, kept the screw spinning in vacant air so viciously it finally broke short off and dropped to the bottom.
Then the despised Sparks was told to call for help, to send out the S.O.S. of distress. With the ship drifting and the waves breaking over broadside, when it was worth your life to go on deck, Sparks repaired his disabled antenna; he braved each bolt of lightning, apt to dart down his wires to the head-phones and strike him senseless at the key.
Finally, forth into the air sputtered the call that brought the Watson. The Camino was towed into San Francisco harbor, with every soul safe on board. You bet those passengers were glad. They voted Sparks the ablest seaman of the lot and his antenna wires, stretched from masthead to masthead, the handsomest part of the ship.
It's in such times as this that Sparks loves to go to sea. Even the Old Man is then his friend. Though the brave captain may be broken-hearted at the thought of losing his commission for not having done more than human could do, he is sure to speak a good word for Sparks at the company offices.
The running away of Sparks to sea, however, is not done to-day as formerly. If bred on this side of the water, he cannot jump over the back-yard fence and make for the nearest ship. He must quiet the fever in his veins, still the quick heart-beat that brings the sparkle to the eye and the bloom to the cheek, until he has passed certain school examinations. But such a school!
The uninitiated peeping in would mistake the scholars for apprentice divers, arrayed as they are with helmet-like headpieces. A glimpse reveals the yearning of these youth to become operators. The generators and dynamos, booming and cracking as they feed the wires with the electric currents that pass into the ether as pebbles in electric currents that pass into the ether as pebbles in a pool, would alone capture the youthful imagination.
Then, there are other bewildering pieces of apparatus--telegraph-keys, switches, tuners, automatic message-stampers, circuit diagrams--on the walls maps of the world splashed with red dots of wireless stations, charts to show the position of all ships at sea.
Since the passage of laws by nations requiring two operators aboard passenger-ships, to take watch and watch about, a dozen schools have been established to train operators. These schools are in Germany, in France, in England. In the United States there are no less than half a dozen. Some of these schools are maintained by the commercial companies supplying ships with equipment and men. The United States Navy maintains one at Brooklyn, another at San Francisco, and in both government licenses are granted to any amateur or professional operator, after a rigid examination.
Wireless is a veritable disease with the American student. Some of them, long before entering these schools, work at all sorts of jobs, whitewashing neighbors' fences, carrying coals, running errands, to get money to build their own amateur stations. In cities, where landlords are captious and refuse to let antenna wires mingle with clothes-lines on the roofs, the boys not infrequently use brass bedsteads in the attics as antennae.
So going to a wireless school is dearer than play to them. Mother may have intended Sparks for a minister, father for a drug clerk, and uncle for a grocery man; but no bond can bind such a heart's desire. It is students of such fervor that are sought to enlist in the navy or sign contracts with the commercial companies.
At the school there is constant practice in distress signalling. The ship in distress is by rule entirely in charge of the situation and must not be interfered with, not spoken to unless in reply to messages. Thus, the Sparks in distress sends out: "S.O.S., K.P.N.," the last three letters being his ship letter. He collects his answers, selects the ship nearest, tells others to stand by and others to proceed. This team work is exacting, sometimes exciting to distraction.
One day a new Sparks related this awful tale of woe: "We have sunk by the head. All on board lost."
"Send us a letter about it, then," answered a facetious operator.
After two or three months at the school, attending lectures on electromagnetism, wireless engineering, learning the Continental code, the repair of equipment under difficulties, Sparks goes up for his license. The examination is in deadly earnest, too. He must know as much about Wireless as captains and pilots of ship navigation. A not unimportant requirement of the license is secrecy in respect to all messages. Once the license is granted, if he elects the merchant-ship trade, he signs on with a commercial company at a beginner's salary of thirty dollars a month and all found.
Then it's ho! and away for the wide ports of romance. He goes as assistant to a chief Sparks, to be sure, but he goes. He explores all the mysteries of the ship, of the seas, and the islands and lands bordering thereupon. The sea becomes his home, with the land as an excuse for stopping now and again. He learns how to walk with a tremendous roll, to speak lightly of mountain waves, to smoke black cigars of Havana, the lighter ones of Sumatra, to drink Madeira wines, to eat green cocoanuts and bananas and yet live; he learns to forget, too, the dusty front of Marseilles, the lonely, dreary weeks around the Cape. War, famine, luxury, shipwreck, are all taken in good part.
There was the investigating Sparks who went ashore to see the sights at Tampico. The "static" of the atmosphere was such that he could not talk with friends at sea, the ship was no place to stop, what with the heat, the mess made by the loading of sugar, the noise of the winches, and the bustle of getting her ready for sea. Going ashore, Sparks met a mate who told him he should ride up-country to visit the grave of a dead patriot and buried hero.
Sparks went to a livery man. Did he have a nice mount? Did he? He had the swiftest, the gentlest, the most docile donkey ever bred outside of Spain. So Sparks mounted and plunged inland, until he reached the graveside, hidden by coarse grass, overrun with ants and scorpions and beetles. He reverently began to copy the inscription in his note-book: "QUE SEA SU JUEZ DIOS" (Let God be his judge).
While Sparks was stooping, better to read the rest, the swiftest, gentlest donkey, possibly being of a different political faith from the patriot, gayly kicked up his heels, tossed poor Sparks to earth, and bent his way homeward. Sparks, failing of finding another mount, reached the city next morning, footsore and worn, to find that his ship had sailed without him. Did he rail at the heartless skipper? Not he. "Let God be his judge," he declared sententiously and set about seeking, without too much concern, a berth on a ship bound for New York, there to report for another ship at the home office.
The spirit of voyages never-ending, of adventures impossible, hovers about the traffic-manager's office, whence operators meet and are assigned to ships. "Hello! Jenkins. So you're the man I've been talking to these three years and never yet set eyes upon. That's a great yarn you told me down in the Caribbean about the Kingston negro who got a shock walking under the antenna with a "steel cane. . . ."
"Well! well! well! And this is the sport I landed in the business. I hear you handed it to the Old Man when he asked you to call up the Don Juan de Austria and beg the loan of the key to the keelson. What was your answer? I remember now. You told him you were busy frying flying-fish on your antenna for supper, and when you got that little job finished, you intended to find out what became of the waste shed, you intended to find out what became of the waste ether dots. I guess he found you weren't so green, at that. . . ."
"Boys! look at the bulletin-board! 'The next operator reported at this office for swearing anywhere within three hundred miles of the port of New York will be severely dealt with. All improper conversation among operators must cease.' Listen to this: 'Please note that the s/s Kiruna, call letters S.F.N., of the Rederiaktiebolaget Lulea-Ofoten, has been equipped with wireless apparatus, to be operated by the Société Anonyme Internationale de Télégraphie Sans Fil.' Here's more of the same: 'Please note that the call letter of the s/s Bahía Castillo of the Hamburg sud-Amerikanische Dampschiffahrts Gesellschaft is D.B.K.' They hand us stuff like this to remember and then they wonder why fellows get mad and let off steam. . . ."
"When I was at Calcutta, I did a good turn for an old fakir and he took a shine to me. He said he'd let me know when he died. That was three years ago and, will you believe me, this voyage home, a thousand miles at sea, he rung a bell--the astral bell!--right in my cabin, and told me he was dying. He knew the code all right. . . . Well, if you fellows won't believe me. . . . It's true. No ghost story at all. . . ."
"Yes, the lad at Fame Point died. They said he had heart trouble. I believe it was pure homesickness, that's what I believe. . . ."
"He was always a queer sort. When he got the message of his mother's death, he wrote it right out and started to deliver it to a passenger. He didn't know it was for him, couldn't believe it. You see, his mother had just been planning to have him stop ashore at home with her for a spell around Christmas-time. He had not been home for a year and more. . . ."
While the chatter is running along in this wise, a lad comes tramping in, the fresh mists of the sea still clinging about his face. His ship, the Santa Rosalia, has come to port, via Seattle, the Straits of Magellan, Buenos Ayres, Bordeaux, and Liverpool. She is going into dry dock for two or three weeks. So he is packed off to take a passenger-ship to Bermuda. "Glory be!" he shouts, in full joy. This is the first time he has had a passenger- ship for a year. He makes for his cabin on the freighter, expresses some French laces and curio to mother and sister, packs up, and goes to his new ship)--is off for flirtations on the sly, to answer foolish questions in pretty mouths about Wireless.
A strapping man comes in from the navy-yard. He is almost nineteen, has just passed his license examination, and is yearning for a ship. He can speak French, so he is assigned to the Themistocles, sailing on the morrow for Grecian ports, to carry volunteers to the war. He rushes home to pack.
"To the war, mother! Think of the fun I'll have!" What mother thinks is something quite different. But these mothers are brave. She slips, unawares, a little book of prayers among his things, sees that he has plenty of clean clothes, kisses her boy, and makes him promise to be good. "And do write me often, son," she begs on the door-step. What letters they are that these mothers get! How their hearts tremble at the reading---
"Well, we got there and put guns on our ship and they made me a naval operator. We had a fight and they run us ashore but I sent a wireless and one of our ships came and chased them away. Another time the Turks got us and put irons on me and I thought they were going to shoot us but they didn't because we got exchanged and now I am back on another ship. So everything is all right. You needn't worry about me though I do wish I had some more clean clothes. . . ."
It's only when you go to war that a fellow takes a chance. Of course. The sea is safe if you are in a safe ship. All the Sparkses afloat write this assurance home to mother from every port. They leave untold the stories of the brawlers who lie in wait at dark corners, in the foul alleyways, who strip men of the ship and throw their bodies into the quiet river. They forget about the collision, the blow amidships some foggy night, when a ship goes to the bottom like a rock.
Take the case of the steamer Narrung. Sparks had to leave mother the very day before Christmas. It was the fault of the Old Man, who hurried the longshoremen in loading her. But he got paid back for it. After she left Tilbury dock, bound for the Cape and Australia, she had head winds in the Channel and worse ones outside. In the Bay of Biscay the green seas began sweeping the ship from stem to stern. Twenty miles off Ushant, all hands thought she would founder, surely.
It was a time to pick your own burying-ground, with a shroud of brine. Her iron decks forward ripped up and crumpled back before the force of those waves like so much tinfoil. Truly an honest man's weather. There was no turning her about in the teeth of that gale. The Old Man told Sparks to send out his S.O.S. It was freezing cold, so cold that he had to hold one hand to steady the other. The ship was pitching so that his wave metres varied every thirty seconds. But he got his auxiliary set working and shoved out that message just the same. The Bavaria and the Negada answered and this gave the Old Fussy his nerve back. He'd rather drown and go to the bottom than pay salvage. So he began turning that ship about. Before that gale and those waves breaking over, the Narrung reeled so the lookout came just short of dropping from the crow's-nest. There was an hour and twenty minutes of this work and she was got about at last. She proceeded to Gravesend harbor.
Sparks had been on duty and without sleep for fifty hours or such matter, but he rolled over the side and went home to spend New Year's with mother--which was almost as good as Christmas, being unexpected. He told mother the captain caught cold, or forgot his watch, or gave some other good reason for putting back. Why worry dear mother?
The iron, never-say-die spirit of the Seven Seas perforce creeps into the blood of Sparks. It is a world of give and take, oftener taking than giving, and one must learn its ways. Thus, when the operators on Sable Island saw the fine ship Eric cast ashore by a wild March tempest, one of their number beat through the breakers aboard of her with a small wireless outfit--she having none--to transmit the messages that might yet save her.
He braved the waves breaking over her, worked like a fury, clambered to the masts, strung his antenna, and began sending the messages to the strung his antenna, and began sending the messages to the Aberdeen, the Bridgwater, and the Seal, which came and stood by, waiting a chance to salvage the ship, or at least save her three thousand nine hundred tons of pretty Argentine maize. A night and a day this Sparks worked, until the pounding broke the Eric in twain and he had to make a rare race back to shore.
Upon the straightaway dangers of the sea are often piled the devious ones of man. Sparks may be set aboard a ship to help save her, in time of distress, because, being old and leaky and unseaworthy, with a weak hull or a too heavy engine in her, her owners are ashamed to even ask for insurance. Such vessels are often used in trading, about which no questions should, in all fairness, be asked. It may be to the slave coasts or again in sly filibustering expeditions, when arms are needed by one band of patriots to quell the ardor of another such band. In this latter fall, Sparks is useful in transmitting code messages to a friendly Sparks ashore.
A certain Sparks wears a sparkling diamond as a souvenir of a certain voyage in a certain wooden tub, full of leaks and daylight. She left New York to carry vegetables to the starving city of Brunswick, Ga. The vegetables were done up in coffin-like cases, safely stowed away in the hold from the observation of a Spanish crew that came aboard at the hour of sailing. It was a long voyage down the coast and so confusing that the captain brought up in the islands near Progresso.
Sparks was awakened from the fitful slumber of a seething tropic night and asked to get in touch with the Sparks ashore. This he did. At dawn a swarthy band of little soldiers and politicians swarmed aboard. Some of them came and smoked cigarettes with Sparks and examined "this thing wire." El general bustled into the wireless cabin, while hatches were being broken open below and arms distributed. He wanted a message sent. The fate of a nation hung by it. Sparks could not get his instrument to work.
El general danced up and down. "Carrambos! Thees messaage, it is expect!" Sparks located the trouble. The tiny carbon silicon detector had been broken by the curious visitors. As he started to explain this to el general, he noted that the little brown man wore a huge flat diamond in his cravat. Sparks demanded it. The diamond was carbon too. El general gave up the diamond and Sparks was able to send and receive in good order. "You one great mans! I you have saved!" cried the general. Sparks also saved the diamond. Later he asked the operator on shore when the general would return for his jewelry. "Keep it," was the answer. "His soul is at rest. He will never claim it."
The other Sparkses wink slyly when this yarn is told. Can it be possible that the ancient and honored fibbing habit of Jack Tar is inevitably connected with the sea?
Odd are the tales cast up by the ether sea. A laborer on Swan Island in the Gulf of Mexico, one of the banana chain to the tropics, had his foot crushed in a tram-car accident. A surgical operation was necessary, but surgeon there was none. The Sparks of the island wireless station had an idea. He sent out a distress call, far and wide, which was answered by the Ward Line steamer Esperanza, four hundred and twenty miles away.
He explained his case. Could the ship's doctor help! The captain and the ship's doctor held a consultation. It would be a pity for the ship to turn from her course and lose thousands of dollars by the delay. The losing of a man's life would also be a pity. "Let me handle the case by wireless," volunteered the doctor. So he sat himself down in the wireless cabin and sent a call for all details of the case. Then, message by message, he directed the way to deaden the pain, the amputation of the foot, each stroke of the knife, the binding of the arteries to prevent loss of blood, the washing of the wound with antiseptics. When the operation was over, he kept in touch, by wireless relay from ship to ship, with his patient until the danger of blood-poisoning was by.
The Crusoe-like life of Sparks ashore in those out-of-the-way corners of the world lacks the changing joys and vicissitudes of Ralph Rover afloat. A daily diet of flaming sunsets and sunrises, of blue seas and resplendent luxuriance of vegetation, has not the compensations of even famine and shipwreck. In the sombre northern stations the life of Sparks is dreary to a detail. Sometimes restlessness gets a strangle-hold.
It was under such urgence that a message of distress was sent out by a Sparks from the station at Estevan Point, British Columbia. To a vessel answering, he stated that his wife and children were down with the fever and that he needed quinine. When the vessel came off shore and sent out a boat, Sparks kept the crew overtime--just talking. As he could not produce the sick family, the wrothy captain reported the matter and Sparks lost his job. But what cared he? A wanderer born, he wandered to the Fiji Island station, then to New Zealand, and finally back to the Pacific coast.
The operator at Katella, Fox Island, Alaska, it is related, rather than face a winter alone, contrived to keep sixty men marooned on the island for a spell. The men were there working for a contemplated railroad when the winter fell too soon, so they could not leave overland. Sparks was glad of their company, so glad that he did not send out a distress message to bring help for them until famine threatened the party. His reluctant S.O.S. brought the old steamer Portland.
Then Sparks wrote in his log, "Left alone for the winter," an act which required as much grim courage as that of the captain who seals his log with the loss of his ship as the last entry.
Sparks meets with real adventures now and then, just like those of the fellows on a lively shore, in this wandering about the world: adventures of the heart, adventures that lead somewhere, that are not at once swallowed up in unfathomable air or trackless waste of water. If you are the Sparks of a tramp ship, you visit Oporto, Barcelona, Palermo, Antwerp, Callao, Montreal, Galveston--all the queer names in the geography are down as your ports of call.
Always curious maidens of wondrous beauty come aboard to see the wireless wonder. You let one such put on your earphones, you guide her hand at the sending key. How good and sweet she seems, how her presence adorns and purifies that staid, dingy old craft! You are invited ashore to church, to dinner. There are songs at the piano, the air is all sentiment. She seems yet more good and sweet. You tell her so--and there you are!
Such matters fall out even more frequently at sea aboard the passenger-ships. Mothers and giggling daughters come trooping merrily along the boat-deck, or the wider, roomier sun-deck. "Oh! here's the wireless room. Simply wonderful, isn't it? May we come in? Thanks. What a lot of wire you need to send a wireless message! How far are we from land? Two miles straight down--isn't that a good joke! So that line aft really doesn't steady the ship? How curious! Just a fishing-line, and the fish are not biting to-day, because it's Friday."
While they race along in this vein, you note the quiet, brown-eyed one by the door who doesn't ask a single question. She's the kind of a girl that makes your heart jump. When the others leave, you manage to ask her if she really would not like to stay and watch the wireless work. You exchange names, you write each other after the voyage is over. Finally, you decide to give up this wandering over the seas like a sodden derelict. You get a job ashore and settle down and live like other fellows.
Sometimes Sparks quits going to sea for another reason yet. These commonplace happenings at sea, called adventures by landsmen, take a more serious turn at times, have an import altogether uncalculated. A ship grounds in a thick fog on some desolate rock, as in the case of the Ohio in Finlayson Channel.
You keep the antenna cracking out your S.O.S. till the deck is awash, till help comes. Then, in the confusion of oaths and cries, of rushing to and fro, of frantic, animal-like struggles for safety, as you are about to take the last boat, you see a helpless mother or a dazed man.
You stay to lend a hand, there is a slight, staggering, pitching motion of a ship in her last agonies; waves leap and dance about you; then a dull, sucking roar. . . .
Later mother and sweetheart come to bury you, so they say--as Eccles of the Ohio at Altamente, or Phillips of the Titanic at Godalming--where the water flows and the grass is green; perchance a fountained monument is raised in some Battery Park to your undying fame.
You are then gone--as say mother and sweetheart--free to wander at large, further, in the more mysterious ports of the ether ocean.