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Sailor Stories, Sailor Songs

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Booty the Cat: A Sea Story

Dominic James “Jimmy” Gavin, recorded by folklorist Tom Walker in 1989.

USS Reuben James sinking, October 31, 1941.Jimmy Gavin, a founding member of the NMU, in New York City, 1986. Photo from Archives of Irish America, Tamiment Library, New York University.
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Listen to Jimmy Gavin

I’m on a ship called the Lena Luckenback as a merchant seaman, Able Seaman. My shipmate and watch partner and I went ashore in San Francisco. The ship was laid up there for a week. However, we went up Market Street to a Chinese gambling house. And lost every nickel we had…

Broke, after coming back from the Chinese gambling house, I see a cat running under an automobile. There were cars parked along near the waterfront. A big black cat with white spots. And I remarked, “That’s a fine looking cat, he’d make a good shipmate.”

I got down on my knees and called the cat. When you call a cat, If you make the sound, “Booty,” he’ll answer, because it has a ring to the animal. It’s a soothing call. I called, “Booty, Booty.” And the cat came out from under the car to me. I took the cat, petted him, put him on my shoulder and continued on walking toward the ship…

On board the ship I took him around and showed him the whole ship, then took him in the messroom, and I got something, some food out of the Frigidaire and gave him a feed… And then I put him in my bunk and said, That’s where you sleep now. And I went back in the messroom, where we generally sat around—shooting the breeze with the other shipmates—and the cat comes back and sits alongside on the bench. I said, “Very good, Booty.” I called [the cat] Booty.

At that time we got a half a gallon of fresh water a day. And after supper each evening we’d assemble at No. 3 hatch, and bring our galvanized buckets with us, and one of the seamen was assigned to dish out the water, he’d shout: “Draw your water.”

And we’d come with our buckets and we got our half a gallon of water a day.

Now that half gallon was supposed to be used for drinking, for bathing, and for washing our clothes. And it’s organized in such a way, it’s called “a bath in a bucket.” You can actually take a bath in a quart of water. You heated the water first in the bucket. There was a steam hose that you turned on, put the knob in the bucket. Then you got—there were several sauce pans in the bathroom, and a bench. And they were chained onto the bench. Ten saucepans you took a saucepan of water then you wet yourself down. And then you soaped yourself down, and then with another sauce pan of water you rinsed yourself off. And then you could stand underneath the saltwater shower. That was the custom.

Very good You got on to it. You managed it. You kept clean. And everybody in the crew did it in the same fashion.

However, one evening, one of the sailors said, “We should give Booty a bath.” I thought, “Well, that’s a good idea.”

I used my bucket. I got a towel then I got a bar of soap. Then when I got everything ready, I grabbed Booty. I washed behind his ears, and washed him on the paws and then dipped him in the bucket. He didn’t seem to fight or scratch. [And then with the soap I washed behind his ears.] Washed everywhere and then took him out and dried him with the towel. He seemed very pleased, put up no argument about it.

And Booty did look much better. The white looked brighter. And he had one ear was white, and big white mark on the side of the head, white paws, and white tip on his tail.

Well, the next evening, we’re sitting around chatting. Everybody had got their half bucket of water. And next a guy screamed. He said, “Look at that goddamned cat in my bucket.” Booty would jump in the man’s bucket, taking his bath himself.

Well we roared. I said, “Don’t worry, I’ll give you my water.” And after that, you have to stand with your hand over your bucket, or otherwise Booty would go be in it to take his bath. Once a week.

So I got Booty to take a bath. I got Booty to take a bath in my bucket and he loved it.

[However nobody ever found where Booty went to the toilet. The cleanest cat! And, oh year,] Every morning the bosun and I would be called at 6 o’clock to have our coffee. And we’d sit in the messroom, and Booty was always with us. We’d give Booty half a saucer of coffee and a half a saucer of milk. Oh and he liked that he got his coffee.

Booty got so he was there every morning for his coffee. We cut down on the milk business, and he was drinking regular coffee. Sometimes we’d forget to fill his saucer and he’d let out so many screams, you’d think he was being murdered. Oh we had to give him his coffee. Very good. Very good.

Now this Saturday, the captain comes aft. I had learned how to knit. And I taught the whole crew, including the captain to knit sweaters, scarves, hats, and socks. [And it was quite a full…] We’d buy the rolls of yarn, then roll it into a ball, and sit on the hatch, and [after] your watch below, your time off, and knit.

And even the captain admired [some of the—admired] a ski sweater that I had made. And he says, “Teach me how to do that.”

So the captain bought his yarn and rolled it into a ball. And coming down from San Pedro to the Canal, the Pacific is beautiful when it is calm weather, but there’s a little roll, and the ball of yarn sometimes would roll over to the scupper, the edge. And his little dog would bring it back—to him, so he didn’t have to get up off the seat and go after it.

However, Booty admiring the seamen knitting, sitting with the crew, as always. Booty would bring it back, but he’d never bring it back to the right guy. But that didn’t matter—Booty was retrieving also. The guys would pet him and tell him what a great cat he was when he’d bring back the ball of yarn.

Very good. Now Booty I was teaching him the commands, and he could listen. You had to tell him something twice and he’d remember it. And he’d talk back but I never did learn what he was saying. But it didn’t matter. I sort of understood his wails and his conversations.

However, this Saturday, when [the captain] come back [with his little, when he come back] with the bull terrier, the cat resented it—because he was coming in the crew’s quarters. Originally he’d never leave the boat deck. (That was the officer’s deck, one flight above the main deck.) And they’d have a fight, the cat and the dog.

However, this Saturday it seemed the dog got the best of him, and he took off [otherwise the dog beat it. But] the little terrier gave him a bad battle. Now, he disappeared of course, he went off, let the dog take over—and hid somewhere.

But . . . that night, in order to get revenge, he goes up to . . . the captain’s cabin. And the captain had a mat outside the door. And he crapped on the captain’s mat.

The captain, usually, would come out naked and had to go next door to take a shower. And, of course, he stepped on the cat’s droppings—and was very upset about it.

[And] he said to the chief mate, Andy Linguist, he says, “Throw that cat overboard.”

And Andy said, “I will, but not until we get into land—we’re coming into the locks… [In Panama] going into the first lock on the Pacific side [Andy] threw the cat overboard. [He threw him overboard] at the first lock, and the ship sails on through.

Very good. It takes seven hours to go through the Canal, the locks, and Lake Gatain, till we get on the Atlantic side.

And I’m on the bow, standing by the anchor as we’re leaving the last lock on the Atlantic side. And a cat, full covered, a black cat jumps aboard.

Of course he was covered with mud and dirt. And I thought, “Hell, now we’ve got two cats. However, you can’t very well have cats because the oldest one aboard will fight to his death to get the other one off. They only want one cat as a shipmate. However, I thought, “There’ll be quite a fight when Booty sees this other cat.” [I went back, forgot about it.]

Of course, the cat that jumped aboard disappeared right away, somewhere through the ship—back aft, under the hatch combings or somewheres, or under the winches.

The next morning we’re in the messroom having our coffee, six o’clock. The bo’s’n, the carpenter, and I—and a couple of other A.B.s. And Booty comes in and jumps up on the table for his coffee.

And the mate says, “Holy Jesus,” he says. “I threw that cat overboard on the Pacific side. I threw that cat overboard.

Of course, I gave him quite an argument. And he told me the story about crapping on the captain’s mat. The captain ordering him to throw the cat. I says, “My cat you threw overboard.] I run up to the captain and balled the— I says, “How’d you like me to throw your dog overboard?” He apologized.

However, whenever we came into port, Booty hid, couldn’t be found—if we stayed in port for a week. Booty could not be found anywhere. But as soon as we left out again Booty was in the messroom screaming for his coffee and hungry, of course.

It’s hard to believe, but I believe it’s recorded in the log of the Lena Luckenback.

The cat that swam the Panama Canal.

It’s 70 miles, I believe, circling the lake (Lake Gatain) and the rivers. And what he had to go through, the mud, the swamps, the pythons, the snakes, and all of this. He made it. He watched the ship. (Of course, he could see it, I presume, from the circle he was making.) But I sailed that route several times afterwards and thought what a feat that cat made. To circle that whole thing. And he became the talk of many sailors and many ships.

However, after a year or so on that ship I got off I wanted to see some other parts of the world, and got on other ships. I never went back to that ship again. However the crew of that ship joined another Luckenback ship and took Booty with them. This happened in ‘34 or ‘32 or ‘33 or ’34.

Now in ’42, ten years later, Booty’s on another Luckenback ship, with the crew that liked him and made the run to Murmansk in a convoy. The crew took him ashore and they were teaching him how to drink beer. And Booty, of course, got to like beer. He’d go ashore when they’d go ashore. Come back stoned. And I wasn’t with him on that voyage. But I met sailors that told me about it later on.

Now all of the seamen on that ship were from the NMU, which meant, irrespective of race, creed, or color, according to your skill—and your rotation—you shipped. And it was what you’d call “a checkerboard crew.” There were Chinese, Negroes, West Indians, and Indians, and Irishmen, even. [However, three or four of them.]

They came back from Murmansk and the ship went into Galveston, Texas, for another load, or discharge, or ballast. Three of the crew, of course, headed for the nearest gin mill. And the three of the crew of them were in this gin mill sipping their beer, among other customers—and Booty with them, sitting up on the end of the bar, sipping beer out of a saucer—when two of the crew, Negroes, happened to be passing by. And one of the shipmates shouted, “Hey, come on in, fellas. Join us in a drink. And so the two Negroes, Able-Seamen, come into the bar.

And the bartender said, “I ain’t serving no niggers.”

“You’re what?,” said one of the A.B.s.

And he repeated. Well, the A.B. reached across the bar and pulled this fella, out on the floor and proceeded to educate him by way of changing his features—forcibly. And some of the other customers protested. And pretty soon all of the customers in the bar were tangling—man for man and belting the hell out of each other for no specified reason.

And somebody called the cops and the cops were all busy somewhere else. And two state troopers came. And one of them being a greenhorn. (The fight was going on something terrific.) And in order to call the mob to attention he pulled his gun and fired a shot.

And there was silence, dead silence immediately. Only except, a saucer dropped on the floor and broke. And next Booty falls off the bar, shot through the head. So ended the cat that swam the Panama Canal.