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Debt of Service: Personal Finance in the Military

Tales of Service: Chris Farrell, Merchant Marine

Chris Farrell Feb 20, 2009


“Damn the submarine. We’re the men of the Merchant Marine!” That phrase woke me up for seven months on my first ship, the SS San Francisco. Originally a tanker built for the U.S. Navy in 1941 (called the Chicopee back then), it had ended up in the Pacific theater supplying fuel for the fleet in various operations, including Iwo Jima. Sealand, the giant U.S. shipping company, transformed it after the war into a container ship two decades later. I boarded it in 1976, and we steamed between Europe and the Persian Gulf for seven months, including the broiling hot summer. My job was engine room wiper, the lowest rung among seaman working below deck. It’s an accurate description, too, since you wipe up the engine room and clean the bathrooms. I loved it.

I had grown up in a military family, moving every couple of years, from Washington, D.C., during the Korean War to California to Guam to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. We kept moving when my Dad left the Navy, joined the officer reserves and worked in the shipping industry. My older brother went through college on a NROTC scholarship, and served for several years. I went the civilian route, though, getting my Coast Guard papers and membership in the Seafarers International Union. For four years, I worked in the engine rooms of merchant ships, going through the Suez and Panama canals, steaming past the Rock of Gibraltar under a full moon at midnight, stopping in ports like Athens, Dubai, Subic Bay and Yokosuka. Most of the seaman I worked with were veterans.

Now, as a merchant seaman you work seven days a week with an eight-hour shift plus four hours overtime Monday through Friday. The weekends are all overtime. The money in the late 1970s wasn’t great on an hourly basis, but there wasn’t much to spend it on, either. Beer, cigarettes and snacks from the ship’s store, and more beer, more cigarettes and more snacks when in port. And since time is money in the modern Merchant Marine we never stayed long in any one port. I saved almost everything I earned at sea.

What money lessons did I learn before the mast? First, never play poker with grizzled veterans to pass the time drinking and talking night after night. It’s an easy way to work everyday for much of the year, and walk off down the gangway with empty pockets. Second, planning really does pay off. A number of seamen walked off ships with little to show for it year after year. But many had plans for their money, buying a business for their spouse to run while they were at sea, investing the proceeds in homes to remodel with sweat equity between voyages, retiring to their home village in the Philippines or Yemen with a flush bank account, moving parents away from a crime-ridden neighborhood in Brooklyn to far safer streets several blocks away. Somehow, someway, with work, with hustle, with a goal, some savings and a bet here and there, they hoped tomorrow would be better than today.

I also learned to beware of the unknown or, perhaps more accurately, embrace a margin of safety. After four years of working on and off ships, I took my savings and headed off to the London School of Economics to get a master’s degree. I had plenty of money for most of the year: more than enough to pay tuition, live a good life in London and still have enough left over to pay for a job hunt back in the States. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The numbers worked on paper. But Jimmy Carter was president, America’s inflation rate skyrocketed into double digit territory, and the dollar plummeted against the British pound. The change in exchange rates vaporized four years of hard labor and savings. Toward the end of my stay I was on a tight Ramen-noodle budget and I returned to the States during the worst recession since the Great Depression nearly (but not quite) broke.

And I’d do it all over again. Thanks to several years working at sea, I got my degree and I got to live in London. And I came home with no debt. Well worth it.

Chris Farrell
Marketplace Economics Editor

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