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Tramp Steamers

Discussion in 'The Golden Era' started by Tiki Tom, May 10, 2016.

  1. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom Practically Family

    Tramp steamers. I’m talking the fantasy, not the reality. I'll get to the contest in a moment.

    Based on various reasons, I’ve always romanticized the Tramp Steamer. I dream about what it must have been like to travel the world in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, under a flag of convenience, making exotic ports of call, mixing with a multi-national crew speaking a strange patois of languages. The creative writer in me fancies running guns to the loyalists in Spain and to Ethiopia, transporting wicker-wrapped jugs of wine from the canary islands, going up the Amazon to pick up a load of rubber in Manaus, threading through the Solomon Islands; keeping planters supplied with necessities and picking up their loads of copra and pearls.

    Nonsense, really. The stuff of cheap pulp fiction of the period. Cue Errol Flynn. Yet the dream of tramp steamers lingers. It’s a part of the mythology of the Golden Era.

    Here's the contest (for the fun of it): Back in the era, what exotic port would you like to make call in? When? Where? Why?

    I’ve always fancied making port in Bangkok in late 1941, just as the Japanese are about to invade, and patching together an impromptu evacuation and then slipping out under the noses of the imperial navy. Colourful characters include Jim, the Swahili first mate who can bend steel pipes with his bare hands and Mandy, the eye-patch wearing saloon keeper with a parrot on her shoulder.

    Hey, a man has got to fantasize about something while listening to the Chief Financial Officer drone on and on and on about spreadsheets and efficiency gains and reorganization schemes! (Sigh.)

    Prize for the best one paragraph (or less!) story: Satisfaction in the knowledge that you helped prevent a mid-level cog from jumping off the top of his building. Just kidding, of course. Barely. :confused:

  2. Inkstainedwretch

    Inkstainedwretch Practically Family

    Shanghai, 1925: The air stinks of violence as the tramp Sweet Lily cruises past the Bund, heading for her anchorage in Hangchow Bay. The rumors are ominous. Sun-Yat-Sen is dead. The government in Peiping has been overthrown buy the warlord Zang-Zou-Lin, who may be in bed with the Japanese. The upstart Chiang-Kai-Shek, protoge of the gang boss Big Ear Tung and rumored to have Russian partners, has seized power in the South. Shanghai is the prize all the warlords, the KMT and the communists want. The Lily is here to pick up cotton from the Number Eight cotton Mill, now rocked by labor and police violence, but something more than cotton is at stake. There's the Englishman aboard, Clive Fallow, storied throughout the East for his gold-smuggling activities. Shanghai is the banking center for all of China, and many rich men are desperate to move their wealth to a safer place. There's the merchant from French Indo-China, Tranh Van Hung, whose luggage reeks of opium, and the silent American, Briggs, who has just come on deck with a massive revolver holstered on his belt. Everyone leans on the rail and they all gaze at the Bund and the only thing they smell is money.
  3. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom Practically Family

    Inkstainedwretch, you really are the cat’s pajamas. How is anyone expected to compete after that exposition on how the thing is done?
    Nonetheless, the fact that you are a published writer aside, I appreciate your spot-on feel for the appropriate blend of film noir and exotica elements.

    "Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." – Rick Blaine.

    Contest is still open, lurkers! If you think you can out do the master.
  4. On board Trap Steamer Shangri-La, out of Hong Kong bound for Shanghai with a load of Opium, Rice, Linen goods, Side Arms and Ammunitions.
    I have business meetings with several War Lord types regards Arms / Ammo and Misc Enhancing Medications.
    All types on board with nefarious looking styles, mostly middle aged men wearing beat up Panamas and Straws with food stained jackets and slacks to add to the look and color.
    One older looking black fellow in a short sleeved white shirt (showing massively muscled arms), Light brown Military slacks, military shoes and soiled off white Panama.
    After a short intro and conservation it seems he is a recently retired USMC Gunny looking for some Mercenary work in Eastern China, goes by the name of Rufus from Detroit.
    Couple of good lookin women on board, light summer dress's, wide brimmed Panama styled hats, white low healed shoes and looking for conversation oriented acquaintances.
    I drift on down to the small Bar/Dining room to get a Rum drink or two, 2 person tables, wicker backed chairs, couple of slow turning large ceiling fans moving the damp air around.
    Crusty lookin kitchen mate comes over and ask's what he can do for me...I tell him Rum on ice straight up and a small tray or plate of crackers., he indicates No Problem, on the way.
    In wanders Rufus from Detroit with 2 ladies on his arms, he seats the ladies then sits down, back to wall and facing directly at me, giving me a knowing look.
    Also a couple of uniformed military Chinese types sitting at a nearby table...
    More later........if interested.
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  5. RedDoll46

    RedDoll46 New in Town

    Alright - Inkstainedwretch & Bolero: both of you need to write more. I would collect the 'chapters', put them together in a book & read it until the pages were dog-eared & falling apart.
    Tiki Tom and Zombie_61 like this.
  6. Inkstainedwretch

    Inkstainedwretch Practically Family

    A couple of tips on how this is done (always presuming that you have a working knowledge of the adventure pulps of the 20s-40s and their tropes). I read Tiki Tom's challenge and it sounded like fun. I had a slight knowledge of China in that time period mainly because my late father-in-law, John Paul Vanover, served with the 15th Infantry in Tientsin (now Tianjin) in the late 20s-early 30s . He had some stories straight out of Indiana Jones. So I picked a year that I knew was very active, went to Google and typed in "Shanghai 1925." The Wikipedia article gave a quick overall summary of events in China that year, with incidents in Shanghai such as the labor violence at the Number Eight Cotton Mill. I typed the same into Google images for some good, atmospheric visuals and called up Shanghai maps to see the harbor layout and where the most likely anchorage was. After that, nothing left but to pulp it up. And I tried to remember the old spellings of the peoples'and places' names. The maps, for instance indicated Guangzhou Harbor, but I remembered that used to be Hangchow. The whole process took maybe 10-15 minutes. This is really a lot of fun.
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  7. Now that you mention it, I think this subject would make for a good collection of short stories. I don't know how much of an audience a book like that would have, but I'd sure buy a copy.
    Tiki Tom likes this.
  8. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom Practically Family

    I agree. I think a collection of stories would make a great book. I'm impressed with the quality of the story-teasers submitted so far. Bolero's and Inkstained's submissions both exhibit a keen knowledge of the genre. (Oh, no! Now I'm starting to think about writing a full blown story myself! Aargh.) Ah, but aren't the times ripe to revive the old school of tramp freighter adventures?





    Any others?

    (And welcome to town, RedDoll46.)
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  9. Inkstainedwretch

    Inkstainedwretch Practically Family

    I also recommend Louis LÁmour's book "Yondering," a collection short stories set in the early 20th century interspersed with tales about his adventures as a merchant seaman knocking about the world of that time.
    Blackthorn likes this.
  10. BlueTrain

    BlueTrain Call Me a Cab

    Oh, I think I'd want to go to Puerto Barrios in Guatemala and from there go up perhaps as far Chichicastenango, by riverboat, of course, in search of lost Mayan cities and the secrets they contain, with my friend and guide Ashton Dearholt. I've never taken a sea cruise before (and it's almost too late) but I've spent a lot of time on stern-wheelers. In fact, I even have a photo hanging on the wall at home of a small stern-wheeler, probably on the Amazon River. That's where I'd go on vacation, spending the treasure I was looking for, which probably wouldn't be that much once I get through paying everyone off.

    Probably my favorite place to visit at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., is the Amazonia exhibit, which embodies all the romantic adventure I'm describing, only there is no riverboat, just a couple of half-sunken dugout canoes in one of the tanks.
  11. Shanghai in the 1920s is an excellent setting for cheap, gritty pulp-fiction stuff happening on or near a tramp steamer. :)
  12. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec Practically Family

    Howard Pease, the author of The Tattooed Man mentioned above, wrote DOZENS of works of "Tramp Freighter" fiction in his time. The stuff can get a bit repetitive and is aimed at a 1930s-1940s youth audience but he was a ship's officer and the details are fantastically accurate.

    The best place to go to find to get all of the Louis L'Amour material on this subject matter in one place is The Collected Short Stories of Louis L'Amour Volume Six: The Adventure Stories. The Louis L'Amour Great Adventure website is constructed as a giant "bonus feature" add-on to that volume.

    In addition, in the Fall of 2017 there will be a new(old) Louis L'Amour novel titled No Traveler Returns which is about the crew of a tanker in the late 1930s. It is more of a literary effort that fits into the series of the L'Amour Yondering stories than the pulp adventure style you see in his Jim Mayo series. This was Louis' first novel. It was unfinished but wildly ambitious and pretty sophisticated.

    These are some really fun "elevator pitches" you-all should see what you can do to expand them into finished work!
  13. Inkstainedwretch

    Inkstainedwretch Practically Family

    On this subject, many of the sci-fi authors of the 40s-70s used the tramp steamer setting for their interplanetary stories. Andre Norton's "Solar Queen" books took place on such a vessel. In E.C. Tubb's "Dumarest of Terra" saga the titular hero knocked about the galaxy in unreliable tramps (called "gaussjammers") to find adventure in exotic ports of call.
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  14. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec Practically Family

    I loved Andre Norton when I was a kid. It was the first SF I had read where there was a sense of an alien past and of mysteries that were too big to ever be resolved. Very intriguing!
  15. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom Practically Family

    Now that you mention it, when I did that earlier Google search for tramp steamer/tramp freighter titles, an awful lot of Science Fiction links came up.

    ...And, of course, Star Wars picked up on that tradition. The Millennium Falcon is an intergalactic tramp freighter, I believe, and Han Solo is a prototypical rogue/smuggler/tramp freighter captain.
    Last edited: May 27, 2016
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  16. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec Practically Family

    The problem with many movies is they can never seem to take the blue collar work of transport seriously or deal with the size of the sort of cargoes that actually pay for ships (or would pay for starships) voyages. It's not that I don't enjoy Star Wars but ...

    The nice thing about the Howard Pease novels is that, even if they are a bit "Hardy Boys" they take the business of shipping very seriously. Real cargoes, real places, the real business of taking stuff from one place to another and the work of the men who do it. The characters are sometimes a bit goofy but you'd find sillier stuff in much of the adult oriented pulp stories of the era. Where else are you going to learn that the crew dries their clothes on a line strung across the "fireroom fiddley," the big open void above the ship's boilers, or how to change out a bunker fuel burner in a firebox! The romantic chore are covered by other writers again and again but not this stuff.
  17. In a slightly different vein, but well worth your reading is 'Towards Tahiti' by W.I.B. Crealock (1954). Sailing the Pacific in a converted Brixham trawler. A good read.
  18. Tiki Tom

    Tiki Tom Practically Family

    I agree with MikeKardec that the foundation of any tramp freighter story should be the freighter's need to pay the bills by hauling X tons of X to working port Y or Z. The workaday life of merchant crews and longshoremen should provide the background and mood for any such tale. Only when you have those basics down can you start adding plotlines about smugglers and spies, political intrigue, mysterious strangers, romance, lost treasures, exploding volcanoes, headhunters and witchdoctors, and whatnot.

    Talbot, thanks for the title. I am a bit crazy about travel books, especially those set in the South Seas. I'll look for it!

    Fast forwarding to the here-and-now: I recently stumbled across this and it has got me day-dreaming...


    Maybe when I retire (a few years yet) and can afford to disappear for two months at a stretch I'll hop a tramp headed for Vanuatu and Bougainville. It's pretty to think about.
  19. Inkstainedwretch

    Inkstainedwretch Practically Family

    While not about tramp steamers, Richard McKenna's "The Sand Pebbles" (1962) is about sailors on a small craft on the Yangtze in 1926, at the height of the Warlord years. They're Navy, not merchant sailors, but they're the guys who made it safe (sort of) for the foreign devils to bring their vessels to Chinese waters. The clash of cultures and the close, intimate relationships of the crew are central, and like the Pease stories MK has mentioned, the first-hand knowledge of the time and the ships is crucial. The POV character, Jake Holman, is the newly arrived Engineer, a man who has an almost mystical feel for the boat's engines and drive gear. One reviewer described it as a book about "the poetry of machinery." Everyone should read it.
  20. MikeKardec

    MikeKardec Practically Family

    I've never read it and will put it on my list. I've seen the movie dozens of times and it's one of my favorites. As a youngster I even knew some of the people who worked on it. I was actually just down in San Pedro a few weeks ago staring at the engines they used for the San Pablo which are on display in the hold of the Victory ship they have on display there. I always think that films directed by ex-editors like Robert Wise (and David Lean) are very elegant in their construction.

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