Photo Taken February 25, 1971/ Ahmednagar, India On The Occasion Of Baba’s Birthday. I’m The One With The Scraggly Looking Beard
Shortly after Baba’s passing (Jan of ’69), I was plunged into a state of enormous confusion. How to bridge the gap? He used to be in India and there was every expectation of seeing Him. In fairness, the relationship was still in its infancy. I was admittedly just a neophyte in Baba’s fold at the time, not fully cognizant of the incalculable subtleties and inimitable ways of the Beloved. Nevertheless, I and many others before me were confronting an entirely different set of conditions now. How to establish contact with the seemingly intangible. He was just beyond our grasp or so it seemed.
Leisurely walking down the corridor of the law firm I was employed with at the time. I was suddenly entranced by the sound of a soft inner voice. For the life of me, I can’t recall the words. It was a rather lengthy message. But one phrase did stand out above all the rest and stays with me to this day: “YOU HAVE TO DIE TO YOURSELF”. That seems apt enough. How else to see Him unless and until He becomes predominant and our small ego-centric self is relegated to the background. For as He has said in various ways, where you are – I am not (or words to that effect).
As a young man I was a bit of a misfit, a rebel of sorts. I was not alone in this experience. Millions of young Americans felt equally alienated; caught up in the experimental period of the ’60’s phenomenon known as the counter-culture movement. It was exploding and palpable. It was the sign of the times. In my mid to late teens we lived in Greenwich Village in NYC from ’65 to ’69. I was right at the epicenter of it all. Luckily, the strong directive from Meher Baba to abstain from hallucinogenic drugs had a wholesome influence that safely guided me away from the perils of artificial stimulus that was rampant and freely available.
I was determined to find solidness within myself. Love and inspiration seemed elusive. In retrospect, I was awkwardly going about it the wrong way. I was on fire, extremely restless. I looked upon all complacency with disdain. The thought of being held captive to a monotonous routine felt repulsive (boy did I have a lot of growing up to do in learning the virtues of acceptance and humility). So much so, that after Baba’s passing in January ’69 and returning from the pre-arranged mass gathering in Pune India in May of ’69 that Baba had arranged the previous year (via chartered flight), I quit my job with Kramer, Lowenstein, Nessan & Kamin (I was a law librarian) and ventured out into the great unknown. With a friend, we drove out to California (the promised land) and explored the possibilities. First with friends in the San Francisco area and then Los Angeles. Eventually running out of funds, I returned to the east coast.
Resuming my life in NYC was not easy. I was marinating in a sea of discontent. After a few months of this arduous effort to integrate back into the mainstream. the compulsion to take off again got the better of me. In January of 1970, I threw all caution to the wind, purchased the cheapest one way ticket to Europe I could find (Icelandic Airlines to Luxembourg) and proceeded to hitch-hike across Europe. The goal was to make my way to India and live there for god knows how long (time is irrelevant when you’re young and foolish i.e. willing to take risks and possessing no thoughts for tomorrow). I met some young men on the flight over. They recognized the Baba button I was wearing and had expressed an interest. I ran into them once again at the Frankfurt Germany train station. They invited me to join them for the drive up to a quaint little picturesque Northern German village called Fulda. The fact was, I was dithering. I was aware of the geographical distance needed to be covered. Like a child first learning how to walk, I was apprehensive and faltering. With only $100.- in my pocket and it being mid winter (extremely cold – not ideal for traveling) the journey appeared daunting.
After a pleasant week in Fulda, it became obvious, my friendly hosts were involved in some questionable business practices. The long distance car deliveries turned out to be hashish and other related drug runs. I was a bit surprised to be frank. They seemed so nonchalant about it. It’s not something you’d expect, you know, the stereotyped images one associates with that kind of activity. They seemed so genuine and likeable. In any case, it was just enough incentive to get me off my haunches and push on to my next destination. They were kind enough to pay for my train ticket to Munich. From there, on to the autobahn, relying on my extended thumb and the generosity of German hospitality for a ride. Perpetual snowfall and ice conditions made it increasingly difficult. I hadn’t anticipated that. Arriving at the Austrian/Yugoslavian border, with virtually little sleep and food, I had to make a sobering realistic re-assessment. I decided to retreat and re-trace my steps. I knew someone in Zurich. Perhaps I can take temporary refuge there? I treated myself to another train journey from Salzburg, Austria to Zurich, Switzerland. A quick phone call upon arrival and much to my astonishment I was chastised for calling so late (9 pm). Oops. That didn’t go down very well. Re-evaluating my options. I knew a number of people in the London area. Once there, maybe I could re-group and figure out a better strategy. Perhaps work on a ship to India? I arrived in Calais France. From there I boarded the ferry to Dover. Being naive, the immigration form I was required to fill out had that one innocuous question – the purpose of my visit to England. Unthinkingly I jotted down – to seek employment. In retrospect, that answer would be ill-advised but I was tired and not at all my usual self. Needless to say, I was denied entry at Dover. They sent me back on the same ferry to Calais. I was told Le Havre (France) had a fairly large shipping port. Surely I can find work there that would offer this sea-faring wannabe a boat ride to India? In a subsequent conversation, I learned I might have better prospects in Rotterdam, Holland. It was by far the largest shipping port in Europe at the time.
So, with no time to lose, I managed to hitch-hike my way up to Rotterdam. Finding the nearest police station I inquired as to how to apply for seamanship papers. I was interested in working on a ship, at least that’s what I told them.. Up to this point I was operating solely on instinct. Not a clue in the world as to how to navigate my way through the usual proper channels or being practical for that matter. Anyway, to make a long story short, the Dutch authorities discovered how much money I had. They impounded my passport, placed me in a low budget but pleasant hotel room (at my expense) and judiciously handed me over to the jurisdiction of the American consulate. The consulate’s responsibility was to repatriate me back to the US. It was clear, for better or worse, the universe (or Baba) was letting me know my vagabond days were coming to a close. Five days passed in the hotel interspersed with occasional sight-seeing, the consulate finally found a Scandinavian ship for me. Unfortunately to my dismay, the destination point was not India. The ship was bound for New York. Nonetheless they were considerate enough to arrange that I work my passage back to the US. There were no monetary obligations involved.
A two week voyage at sea and I was back in New York once again. Eventually I wound my way back to California. Once there, within a matter of a week, I landed a job at a Naval base on San Clemente Island washing dishes/ pots and pans. A menial, but respectable job . The schedule was simple enough. Eight hours a day for ten days straight and then two days off . They provided free room and board on the island. They would then fly you back to the mainland – Long Beach for a two day respite. I stayed with a friend in the Los Angeles area on my days off.
A small digression. I befriended a lovely lady in New York. She, her small 5 year old son and I were staying at a mutual friends in lower Manhattan. While out in California I discovered that I lost my passport. I couldn’t figure out where I had left it. I happened to run into this woman at a Los Angeles Baba meeting (in Pasadena) a couple of months later. I had forgotten about her. I assumed she was still in New York. She had my passport. Our belongings must have inadvertently gotten mixed up. How amazing is that!! A clear signature of Baba’s unique way of working. Baba’s timing. Three months on, I earned a sufficient savings to be able to join a caravan of cars driving cross country to the Meher Baba center in Myrtle Beach SC. One week pilgrimage at the Center and then back up to NYC. Got all the required vaccinations and appropriate visas and then flew the same Icelandic Airlines back to Luxembourg. It was July, a more agreeable time of year for traveling. It took about three weeks. Journeying on trains and buses across Europe, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan and then down into India.
What is largely missing in this narrative are the impressions and rich experiences of my seven month stay at Meherabad. It was a unique period. The opportunity to spend quality time with Baba’s close mandali was truly precious. There were so few visitors at the time, not unlike the period immediately following the death of Jesus. Everything was so fresh and poignant.
The dutiful need to leave India after my visa had expired had finally arrived. Took the train and ferry to Colombo Ceylon (Sri Lanka). A few days after my arrival in Colombo, be it a strange twist of circumstances or grim tidings; take your pick, the entire country was plunged into a civil war. The shipping lanes slowed to a crawl. I was stuck. No available exit except perhaps to seek refuge at one of the local Buddhist monasteries 15 miles outside of Colombo and wait out the hostilities.
The day before my planned trip to the monastery, I happened to run into an American couple I knew who were with the peace corp. I had shared a bungalow with them in India. How interesting. They were flying back into South India the next day. They assured me I would be able to secure a 15 day transit visa upon re-entry at the Indian airport. That’s exactly what happened. We flew into Tirichinapali and made our way back up to Maharashtra by train. About a 20 hour journey. I stayed at Meherabad for a few days and then took the overnight train to Bombay.
AND that is where the real story begins. It’s bewildering to describe it. but the following events were fraught with many twists and turns. Suffice to say, finding a ship to work on (back to the US) was not an easy task especially in the time limit allotted. And, even if there was an opening, because I was not bonded and had no prior experience (except for that one jaunt over the Atlantc Ocean) there is an insurance risk few shipping agencies would be willing to take on. The odds seemed very slim. Over the next couple of weeks, visiting the various shipping agencies, boarding ships in dock in Bombay harbor; it began to dawn on me that I may be in legal jeopardy of overstaying my visa with unknown consequences. The thought of being thrown into an Indian jail cell and/or being deported was too horrible to contemplate. On one of the ships I had boarded, one of the employees, a pleasant engaging fellow, suggested that I look into a certain Norwegian freighter attached to the same Condordia line. He personally knew the captain. He felt the captain might be sympathetic to my plight. For some unexplained reason, I took the advice to heart. Intuitively I was placing my expectations on a rather flimsy, vague notion that the ship described might be “The One”. Its ultimate destination once it left Bombay harbor was unclear.
My exhaustive searches proved fruitless. Critical days were passing by. It was a race against time. Finally, one promising prospect emerged. An English vessel were looking for two crew members. Their proposed next docking point was Tokyo Japan. It would take 9 months before they arrived at San Francisco harbor. They were departing in a few days time from Kandla; a shipping port located 500 miles north of Mumbai. The only reasonable means to get up there was to fly. In the rush to apply, I was told I had to get my visa papers in order. By that point the critical day of my visa expiration had passed (irony of all ironies. It happened to be my birthday). Two days elapsed, no confirmation from Kandla. The added stress of having to take the matter of visa overstay with immigration was an additional concern.. In the mean time, the bloody ship I had cast my hopes on kept getting delayed out at sea due to heavy, rough, stormy weather. The visit to the immigration office was disconcerting. They decided to prosecute. I was given a court date. That seemed to pre-empt any hopes of getting on that ship in Kandla. So, the court date arrives. I appear before the magistrate. The attorney representing me (appointed by the court) gives a speech in animated,but totally unintelligible English (I could only discern a few words). It seemed so odd and funny. Very theatrical. The judge asked how did I plead. I answered guilty. I was fined 100 rupees (approx. $10) and one day in jail, which luckily turned out to be one short afternoon in the office. Also during this period I had contacted the Air India office. I had them telex my mother with the request that she purchase a one way Bombay-New York ticket for me. Numerous telexes were sent over a period of days, but no response. To complicate matters, the immigration office stamped my passport with a visa expiration date the day the ship was to depart from Kandla. They assumed I was boarding the ship, the rest was formality. My visit to the American consulate was no less reassuring. The vice counsel there, an American black woman stated in no uncertain terms that she hoped they would throw the book at me. I can only imagine she was stressed out and fed up with all these hippie types overstaying their visas and their welcome.
After the fifth delay at sea, the much awaited ship finally arrived in dock. I boarded the ship and asked to speak to the captain. After a few formalities, I explained my predicament. The captain was quite taken aback. Sheer coincidence. It just so happened one of his crew members had abruptly left, leaving very little time for a replacement through the usual hiring channels. IN FACT the ship was on schedule to sail directly to New York City. The routing was circuitous. The Suez Canal was closed due to the recent Israeli Arab war and therefore it would navigate its way around the southern tip of Africa and then northwards directly up to New York. The journey would take about a month. He hired me on the spot without seeing any of my credentials. It was based on trust. I explained to him the visa situation. He arranged an assistant to see to the details. There was an urgency for the ship to reload and take off as soon as possible due to the many delays. They were way behind schedule. I would miss the opportunity of boarding the ship if they adhered to the revised time table. One can only do ones best and then leave the rest in Gods hands. The periodic rain came to my rescue (it was monsoon season). Some of the cargo was sensitive. Cashews , spices and other perishables. Every time it would rain, they would have to close down the hatches. Holding my breath we went into high gear taxiing from one government office to another. Alas, some unexpected complication. We were not receiving the required approval. One office after another kept declining. I was bewildered. They were not allowing me to board the ship and refused to furnish any sound reason for their refusal. Whoaaaa!! What was this about? Were they indirectly suggesting a bribe was needed? Come to find out that wasn’t it at all. Through much cajoling and wrangling, we finally reached the top officer in charge. He calmly explained they were declining my request due to the fact that I arrived in India on a tourist visa. Under current regulations and law, I had to leave the country as a tourist. They would not budge on that technicality. The rushing from one government office to another took the better part of a day. We consulted with the captain and explained the dilemma. Some deliberation took place. After an hour or so the captain got back to me. He and his colleagues devised an innovative, unique solution. I was to board the ship as a tourist. On the next docking point after we left India’s shores was Cochin in South India. He would then re-instate me on his roster as a crew member. Everything started falling into place from that point on. We rushed to the airlines office to cancel my request. Strangely enough, the air ticket was purchased that very morning. I was embarrassed. After all, I had been pestering their office for the past five days. They were non-plussed and truly annoyed . And the assistant was equally perplexed. Why would you cancel the ticket that is being offered? He felt he had unnecessarily went to such great trouble because he felt I was in dire need. In hindsight, all of it was true. I had to reassure him that I felt it was divine providence. Boarding the ship was the right thing to do. I offered my deepest apology and profusely thanked him for his efforts. He was pacified. I was still on tenterhooks however. Would the ship leave without me if it left on schedule. My very dear friend Jal Dastoor, a long time devotee of Baba’s met me at the loading dock. I handed him the one hundred rupees to be returned to Mani; Baba’s sister. She had given it to me a couple of months earlier as a safety measure in case of emergency. Jal and I said our goodbyes. The agent showed up a few minutes later. I handed him my last five rupees. I then triumphantly walked up the plank and entered the ship. How extraordinary. All money accounted for – down to the last rupee. The sheer exactness of it all blew me away leaving me speechless. The ship left its harbor just a scant few hours later. I made it just in time.
I left the US with a thousand dollars in pocket the previous year. After our port of call in Cochin, Madagascar, and Capetown South Africa, we arrived in New York harbor one month later passing directly in front of the Statue of Liberty (how is that for an entrance). With $350.- in pocket as salary we docked just a mile from my mothers apartment in Jersey City. She picked me up at the loading dock. That day happened to be July 10th 1971 – It was Silence Day. Quite auspicious. Forty-five visits to India later. I am now a full time resident here.
PS In case the reader is curious, my duties as crew member on the ship were as follows: It consisted of two – four hour shifts per day. 8 to 12 in the morning………. Painting and washing certain designated areas of the ship. 8 to 12 in the evening……… Steering the ship one hour. No kidding. It was a huge freighter. And then alternating with another person to look out on the starboard for lights of oncoming ships. The rotation occurred every hour on the hour until our shift was completed.
I am enclosing a scanned copy of two letters of correspondence below this video to convey the excitement and feeling of the time. . . .
Though much larger in scale than the one I worked on. Here’s an inside view of one of these gigantic freighters. The sheer magnitude of it is breathtaking…….
How it looks inside Container Ship
A Letter From My Mom
A Letter To My Mom
A Song By Audrey Assad
Lyrics to Teresa