Memories of a father ”The Sailor’s Sailor”
By Will Johnson
As posted on Facebook group “Of Saban Descent“
Stanley Johnson was born to Rebecca Elizabeth Vlaun and John George Johnson on Saba on February 6th, 1890. At the age of fourteen he first set sail on various local schooners, traveling through the various West Indian Islands. He sailed with local captains including Knight Simmons, Benjamin Hassell, Thomas Vanterpool and Augustine Johnson. On January 2nd, 1922 he married my Aunt Alice Eliza Simmons (19) daughter of James Horton Simmons and Agnes Johnson.
At the age of thirty-seven, Stanley sailed to the United States aboard the “SS Caracas” arriving at Ellis Island in New York on April 13th, 1927. Along with him on the steamship were six other men from Saba: Reuben Johnson (age 45), David O. Johnson (age 16), William Johnson (age 36), Moses Johnson (age 52), David Johnson (age 17) and Richard Johnson (age 45). The official Ellis Island Ship’s Manifest indicates that all seven men listed their destination as 27 South Street, in lower Manhattan. This was the address of the Sabans godfather for fifty years Mr. Hyman Kalisky a Jewish merchant who was of Eastern European origin. He and his wife operated a boarding house and clothing store which was primarily used by sailors from Saba during their stays in New York. People on Saba even name their children Kalisky back then. Mr. Kalisky served the sailors well, assisting them with employment on ships, collecting their pay and sending mail and money back home to the families the men had to leave on Saba. The Kalisky family embraced Stanley as if he were a member of the family.
After arriving in New York in 1927, Stanley was not to return to Saba until 1936. During those nine years he sailed for four years on the four-masted schooner the “Albert F. Paul”, with Captain Southard and his wife Ruby, who were like family to him. The “Albert F. Paul” sailed from Nova Scotia and the New England fishing grounds to the Gold Coast of Africa. The other schooners upon which Stanley sailed carried various goods and products as diverse as corned codfish from New Bedford, Massachusetts and potatoes from Long Island, to salted cowhides from Brazil. He traveled around the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa and the Horn of Africa while sailing for Moore-McCormack Lines and Kerr McGee. During these years he also sailed the inland waterways, particularly the Hudson, from the St. Lawrence Seaway to New York harbour. He sailed on the Georgia, the Tennessee and the Mohawk, carrying timer down the Hudson. After sailing inland for several years he returned to the sea, sailing out of Mobile, Alabama and New Orleans, Louisiana for the Waterman Steamship Company of Boston, Massachusetts.
During this nine year period sailing out of New York, he, like many other Saba men, decided to become an American citizen. On March 17, 1932, while still listing his residence as 27 South Street in New York he was sworn in as a United States citizen. His decision was based in large part because of the opportunities the United States had provided to him.
In 1936, he returned to Saba and sailed again on local schooners. He remained on Saba until shortly after the death of his beloved mother Rebecca, in 1938. He never had the opportunity to see his homeland again.
Not long after his return to the United States, World War II began. He sailed with the Seafarer’s International Union as a Merchant Marine. As such he sailed on unarmed cargo ships in convoys to Europe and Russia, bringing aid and much needed supplies. I stayed at his home in Richmond Hill for two months in the winter of 1967 and I remember him telling me stories about how cold it was in Murmansk, Russia. If you made the mistake and held on to the rail your hand would stick to it.
During the war he frequently sailed on the Robin Tuxford under Captain Kenneth Chamberlain. Along with him on the Robin Tuxford was Stanley’s first cousin, Edward Johnson, who served as Chief Engineer. The Robin Tuxford made numerous trips to Murmansk, Russia, one of the most northerly open water ports in Russia. Stanley also sailed on the ‘SS Graylock’, which was sunk off the coast of Murmansk in 1943. He and his shipmates were rescued by a British Corvette and brought to Glasgow, Scotland, where they remained for some months recovering from pneumonia. Stanley also had the unfortunate luck of having another ship torpedoed by a German U-boat off the New England Coast.
As a result of his service to the United States, Stanley was awarded four service medals, including two medals for service for service in the Atlantic War zone. The United States did not, however, issue these medals until decades after his service, because Merchant Marines were not traditionally recognized for their war time service, since they were considered civilian. This oversight was corrected by the U.S. Government in the 1980’s and these brave men received the honors they deserved.
Stanley Johnson also received a medal of honor from the Russian government for his service in the convoys which brought life saving necessities to the ports of Murmansk and Arch Angel during the war. He was honorably discharged from the United States Maritime Service on August 15, 1945.
During his fifty plus years at sea, Stanley sailed to the ports of Africa, Asia, Europe, South America and North America and was devoted to the sea. Upon his final retirement from the sea he lived out his remaining years in Richmond Hill, New York with his wife Alice, his children Bessie, Carl Lester and Arlene and his beloved grandchildren. He died peacefully at the age of 98 on April 7, 1988.
Before he died in 2008, his son Lester wrote about his memories of his father the sailor. What he describes is the way most children saw their father’s lives on Saba when the island had more than 700 men out of a population of 2400 who listed their profession as seamen.
“The unusual thing about memory the older we are the shorter our memory becomes. However, the greatest values in the lives of humankind are the ability to remember, to change and to forgive. These three qualities hold us together as a people like the arms of a loving mother. As our ability to store new knowledge declines old age takes us back to the beginning memories of our childhood. My childhood memories of my father did not start until I was twelve. The greatest weakness of the human mind is the inability to distinguish between good and evil without experience of the senses.
We can remember what we see, what we hear, what we smell, what we taste, and what we touch. However, without involving our five senses, we cannot remember anything that was real. For the women who married our Saba men and bore them children none of the senses played a part in their lives of loneliness and longing for many years at a time. Life was no different for the children who came from these marriages. However, our continued existence as a people is testimony to the goodness, the will to survive and the self-sufficiency of the lives on the Auld Rock in the old days. We gave a good account of ourselves no matter where we went.
My father loved the sea. The wooden ship with iron men sailed into the hopes and dreams of my childhood and stayed there with the passion of a love affair. I wanted to be a sailor like my father was. However, when my time came to plant the tree of life the sea was not important because my mother’s life and that of my sisters and it caused me to choose the land. I have no regrets because being on land allowed me to have the kind of life, I wanted. That also included my parents after World War II.
The early letters came from Kalisky’s Boarding House and Restaurant at 27 South Street, New York City. There were many months between letters. My father sailed the world. Once around Cape Horn and through the straits of Magellan to the West Coast where my father was gone for a year and everyone thought he had been lost. He returned from Chile very much alive with stories. Even in the face of what other people would call abandonment most Saba women stayed true to their husbands.
When steam replaced sailed for commerce on the high seas, my father shifted to inland waters where he worked for some years. These inland ships also served as homes to many Saba men. Those were the days when their seamanship, honesty and reliability served them well. It helped them to survive the Great Depression that was still going on when World War II started.
Sabans in those days mostly put their roots down in New England and New York especially. Their family names march on into the future all over the United States.
My father saw me for the first time when I was two years old. I did not see him again until 1938 when I was thirteen. He was home with his family for almost two years. Suddenly he was alive, a husband, a father and a friend to all who knew him and those who came to know him as a friend and loved him for he was a good kind man. He saw everyone as equals. What stays with me in my old age was my father’s way when he saw someone approaching. He would wet his under lip with his tongue. He always began with a compliment and finished with a story or a joke.
When my father arrived home, it was one of the most joyful days of my life and the saddest day was the day he left in 1940 to return to the United States. The world was on the verge of World War II. I had gone to the Fort Bay to see him off and I was sitting on a rock. I could smell my father’s pipe a mile away and then his arm was around me and we were both shedding tears of goodbye, because they were part of the life of every family on Saba at one time or another. I cried for days for my father. I loved him with my entire being. He told me that day when your time comes to go to the United States you must go because that is your country. That time came at the heights of World War II and I was able to see my father sooner than I hoped. However, when we parted then I did not see him again until I came home from the Army and he quit sailing. From then until he died about fifty years later we were father and son who never exchanged a hard word in anger.
The next fifty years of my life, I devoted to my parents and my own family. However, time stops for everyone and I will never forget the morning that I received a phone call that my father had gone from the nursing home to the Hospital. He told me that morning, “Son your auld father will never leave here alive.” When I went back in the afternoon, the nurse asked me:” When did your father stop speaking?” I went in to see him and his eyes filled with tears. I placed my two fingers in his hand and said, “Pappy if you can hear me squeeze my fingers,”. As I spoke he squeezed them several times, for as hard as life can be no human being should die alone. My words of love, comfort and gratitude were those I felt in my heart for him because he had been the best father a man could be under the circumstances of our lives and time we were together.”
I too went to see Stanley at the nursing home and I remember that his nurse was a lady from French Quarter. His granddaughter Anne Richter is a partner in a law firm on Wall Street and has restored her grandfather’s house at Zion’s Hill on Saba and is a frequent visitor to Saba. She did the research on his life for me. I interviewed him in 1967 when Richmond Hill, where he lived, had as many Sabans living there as on Saba. I remember watching the first flakes of snow coming down together with him. He was pleased that he could share that moment with me as that was the first time I had ever seen snow.
As a final note, my aunt Alice Eliza Simmons also lived to be close to 100 years, so they both could tell me many stories of the Saba long before my time and which I can now pass on to another generation. Uncle Stanley was 22 when my great grandmother Alice Eliza Horton died, and he could bring her back alive for me with his stories of her life and times. He told me that she would send fried fish in an iron pot to her uncle in St. Eustatius with a schooner and that he would write to her and tell her they were still warm on arrival. Recordar es Vivir.