ON THE BEACH: THE SEAMANS CHURCH INSTITUTE
“At the time the most important place to many seaman … was the Seaman's Church Institute, a place where one
could pick up mail, and where they had a game room, a small reading room and library, and places where one could
shower, shave and clean up generally. They also had a dormitory where clean beds were available. I've forgotten
the price, [but] I rarely had [it]…. They had three or four hundred books if I recall correctly, varied as to
quality but all interesting. Perhaps a third of them were non-fiction. Finding work was almost out of the
question with so many skilled seamen standing by and ready to work, yet occasionally there was something.“
After a time Louis and some others combined their money and rented a shack on a hillside, they collected
additional money by renting out the floor space to anyone who needed a place for the night. That shack and the
Seaman’s Institute are both locations in the story “Old Doc Yak,” the nickname Louis and his buddies gave to an odd
waterfront character they ran into occasionally. Old Doc Yak was actually a character in a newspaper comic strip
of the time.
The FIRST Old Doc Yak Comic
"The Seaman's Institute was an education in itself. Another story of mine grew out of the checker games that
were a regular feature of the place. There was an old longshoreman who came nearly every night to play. He was a
thorough student of the game and had memorized all the plays in the books. He played using bottle tops for his
'men' and disdained any but a few who had proved themselves able to give him a contest. One of these was Oriental
Slim, a particular friend of mine and another was a marine engineer. Either of these might beat him on occasion,
but the occasions were rare.
Then came Sleeth, a slim, dark man with a fantastic head for figures. I've seen him
stand beside the tracks and memorize the numbers on the box-cars as they rolled by, and be able to repeat them in
order. They always checked out. Sleeth was ignored at first when he suggested a game with the old man, but he
beat Oriental Slim and so was considered a likely candidate. What followed was cruel, although not intentionally
so. Checkers was more than a game to the old longshoreman. It was his life, his very reason for being, and he was
proud of his skill. Each move was studied with care and made only after much thought. Sleeth would carry on a
conversation with bystanders and as soon as the old man had made his move he would, with scarcely' a glance at the
board, make his move. And he would win every time. Perhaps the sudden moves shook the old man's confidence,
perhaps the conversation did. After a few such games the old man did not come back to the Seaman's Institute. Sleeth, like most of us was a bird of passage, and soon he was gone, too. . . .
“It’s Your Move” was a story about the checker tournaments with it’s final act nearly being played out in blood
during the dangerous business of loading cargo into a freighter.
The final act that the Seaman’s Institute was to
play in Louis’s life occurred very late one night when a stranger came in and began asking for directions to
Wilmington, a separate port, though connected to San Pedro. When he mentioned that he had just heard from the
Marine Service Bureau and had to catch a ship Louis offered to take him where he needed to go.
The Seaman's Church Institute Today
"I remember stumbling along a road with another seaman when we headed for the waterfront to meet the incoming
ship from the east coast which was bound out to the Far East, and the long wait on the dock in the fog, to see the
ship at last, slowly steaming up the dark channel, a blacker spot in a world of gray dampness."
Louis took what they called a “pier-head jump,” joining a ship’s crew just by showing up and hoping that
they had a job available. He said that he signed on under a bare bulb in the First Mate’s cabin about 3 a.m.
"Even now, after the years I can close my eyes and feel that old E.K. Wood Lumber dock where the steam schooners
lay in their slips, waiting to discharge their cargo of timber from Grays Harbor or somewhere to the north. I can
feel the dampness of fog on my face, see the lights of loading ships across the channel on the old Luckenbach dock,
and hear the deep-throated blast of a whistle on a steamer outward bound for the far places."
And now he too was outward bound on a voyage that would change his life …