A friend and I were idly discussing the one happening in our lives which truly stands out and sticks in our memories. For him, it was watching his son being born; for me, as I was far too chicken to even contemplate viewing any of my own children arriving in this world, it was an episode from my sea-going days.
Our ship was a general cargo jobbie, running out of Liverpool, through the Med., to Greece, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and then back home to Liverpool. The scene was the Mediterranean on a Saturday morning, after a cold breakfast, which was the starting point for what became known as “The Galley Stove clean-up”. Our galley-boy, a Barnardo’s orphan, had signed on with our ship as his first trip to sea, and he was always getting into scrapes; not, I would think, intentionally; everything just turned to crap in his fingers! If there was something to be spilled over the food, or kicked off balance, he would do it, he was a natural disaster area! Canny enough lad, not an ounce of harm in his make-up, you just had to watch him like a hawk when he was in the vicinity! He had persuaded firstly the chief cook, then the chief steward and lastly the chief engineer, who really should have known better, that the exhaust pipe leading away from the oil-fired galley range was choked with soot, thus reducing the draught available to let the range get hot, and he was the person to arrange a thorough cleaning of the afore-mentioned stack-pipe!
His preparations were thorough, with all food placed in freezers and fridges, lots of old sheeting placed strategically over flat cooking surfaces to avoid contamination, and in general following the plan agreed between the chief cook and chief steward. Now his plan was truly simple, in that there was to be a hose-pipe connected to the compressed air cylinder in the engine room, the other end of the pipe would be shoved up through the range and into the base of the stack, the air would be turned on and the air would evacuate the choked-up soot from the pipe. In theory, nothing could go wrong, but we, the engineer officers, reckoned we knew better and prepared for some gentle humour! The final phase of the genius’ planning was to unroll the rubber pipe, have it taken along and dropped through the engine room access. The junior engineer on watch was waved across, and the galley boy uttered the immortal words, “The chief engineer says you have to connect this to the compressed air connection.” Now the words which our hero was supposed to have told the junior were ‘Connect to the LP compressed air connection!’ To the uninitiated and non-engineers among my readers, an LP or Low Pressure connection ranged from 14 pounds per square inch (atmospheric pressure) to forty p.s.i., which is a little above the pressure held in a car tyre! The junior attached it rather firmly to the HP or High Pressure connection, rated at 600 p.s.i. which is what we used to start the engine with! Nothing of course is turned on, as yet!
Back at the galley entrance, our hero gets the hosepipe set firmly into the base of the galley stack, the chief and second cooks are standing back towards the rear of the space, and the rest of us are grouped further back on deck, ready to watch the fun! Two deck-hands were positioned at the doorway of the deck and the engine-room access, and at the signal, the call went out, “Open the valve” Now a small engineering lesson is due, in that compressed air valves, by the very nature of what they are holding back, are rather tightly closed, and when the air is required, a pipe-spanner is placed on the wheel rim, and the full weight of the operating engineer swings the valve open, thus ensuring a full blow of, in this case, compressed air at six hundred p.s.i. The junior, who was the only person not in the know about what was happening on deck, duly swung the valve wide open, the air comes blasting along, and the whole of the galley disappeared in an impenetrable black cloud. As we fell about in hysterics, this totally black vision, which turned out to be the chief cook, stumbled out of the galley, swearing vengeance on the galley boy. Behind him came the second cook, who had had the foresight to turn away and close his eyes, which were the only white things on him, and last but definitely not least, the galley boy, also like ‘the Black and White gang’ crawled out on his hands and knees. No-one present would ever forget the immortal words of the second cook, a ‘Scouser’ or native son of Liverpool, spoken five minutes after the disaster after most of us had stopped laughing, when he said, “I’ve been many things in my time, but it’s the first time I’ve ever been second man on a bag of soot!”