It seemed like a dream job, but quickly turned into a nightmare. I had signed up as a crew member aboard the cargo ship “Newcastle” sailing out of Boston bound for Thailand and back. I was really looking forward to the adventure that the exotic Orient offered. Since I had worked in a diner before and had no sailing experience, I was assigned as ship’s cook. That became an unfortunate turn of events. Half the time I was seasick. Even when I did manage to whip up a decent meal, the crew still complained. In addition, the captain told me that it was traditional for the cook to also serve as the pharmacist’s mate, which is sort of like the ship’s doctor. When I informed him that I knew nothing about medicine, he left the galley and came back with a stack of medical books and told me I would have plenty of time to learn.
After a few days I found my sea legs and started to feel a little better. I also found that the cook’s life wasn’t so bad. Compared to my shipmates, my duties were rather light. Between cooking and dishes, I had plenty of time to look over the books I had been given. My bunk was in a storage room that was next to the galley and dining area, so there some privacy to read.
After about two weeks, the Newcastle steamed into the Bangkok harbour. From the ship’s deck one could see the little craft that serve as houseboats for many Thai families. Little children were playing in the water while wizened grandparents kept a watchful eye. I could even make out some of the wats, or decorated temples, in the city that I had dreamed about visiting. After all, the reason why I had signed up in the first place was to see some of the wonderful sights and sounds that the Far East offered.
It was after dinner that afternoon that the captain announced that all those aboard would be allowed shore leave the next day except for the newest crew member, who would stand watch. I was thinking about what bad luck that poor chap had when I noticed the other guys around the dining table were staring at me. It dawned on me that I was that poor chap! Despite all I had been through, I still was not going to visit my beloved Bangkok!
It took all the next day for the cargo, which was fine batik cloth, to be loaded. We then immediately set sail, my dream deferred. We were going full steam across the South China Sea, heading back to the States. I was in my little cabin, reading, when I heard the engines stop. Going on deck I asked a fellow crew member what was happening. He pointed over the side to one of the strangest sights I had ever seen. Out in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight, was a tiny boat, no more than nine foot long, that had seven women in it. They were waving frantically, trying to get our attention. The seas was calm and the captain directed for a lifeboat to be let down and soon they were brought aboard.
Six of the ladies looked in their late teens or early twenties and one looked about forty. They were speaking a language that I had never heard before. The captain looked perplexed and all his attempts at communication were met with failure. I had a hunch and asked the captain if I might try. I reasoned that they may be Vietnamese who may speak French since it was a former colony of France. Using my halting college French I was able to communicate with one of them. Slowly, I found out their story and passed it on to the captain. The young ladies were college students and the older one was their teacher. They had given money to a ship’s owner to take them to the Philippines for a study abroad program. When they got out to sea the sailors took their remaining cash and other valuables and forced onto the small boat and caste them adrift. The French-speaking girl, whose name I found out to be Tam, further elaborated that they had been floating for two days when we picked them up. She asked if we would take them on to Manila. Through my interpretation, the captain replied that that was impossible and that we were headed back to the U.S. When Tam told the girls this, some of them began crying.
The captain informed me that I was to take them below and examine them to make sure they were physically fit, with no typhus or smallpox. I told him as he walked away that I would have no idea what I was looking for. He looked back over his shoulder and said to do the best that I could. I saw my shipmates looking on with envy as I led the seven ladies below deck.
I brought them into the dining room and decided to use that as a waiting room and the storage room as the examination area. I locked the door and explained to Tam what was going on. While she passed the message on to the other women, I went into the storage room to straighten it up. When I came out I was surprised to find all the girls and their teacher lined up in a row completely naked! Each giggled nervously as they clutched their clothes to their chests. Tam announced that they were ready for their examinations. I asked Tam to interpret and serve as my nurse. I gestured to the first girl in line and the three of us went into the “examination room.”
I tried to act professional as I asked the first girl if she had any problems. She replied in Vietnamese:
“No sir, I am very healthy. And if you are asking if I have any other problems, I would have to say no.”
Tam translated my request, “Please lay back on the bunk while I check you over”
I looked over her magnificent young body carefully. She was about 5’7″ tall with a slim body and rather small, though well-shaped, breasts. Her pulse seemed fine, a little fast. She started giggling when I asked her to spread her legs. Using a small flashlight, I examined her vagina, which appeared nice and healthy. I asked her to roll over and bend down on her knees and I examined her anus. It also looked healthy. As I did this I noticed the young girl was scratching her head of long black hair almost non-stop. I told her to go outside and call the next woman in. I performed the same examination on her. After about an hour I had finished with six of the girls and the teacher. They all seemed healthy except that they were constantly scratching their heads.
While I examined Tam, I asked:
“Do you have any idea why the girls were scratching all the time?”
“No I don’t, but I am having the same problem,” as she reached up and started scratching her scalp between her waist-length hair.
I picked up my magnifying glass and looked at her scalp closely. That is when I discovered it. She and the other women had head lice. It was as clear as day.
While the girls waited in the dining room, I called the captain on the intercom and gave him my report that the girls were extremely healthy except for the lice. The captain replied that he did not need an outbreak of head lice on his ship and that I was to do whatever I needed to do to get rid of the infestation or he would put them back into the boat.
I opened one of my medical books and read:
Head lice – formerly treated by completely shaving the patient’s head, the current preferred treatment is the use of medicated shampoo.
The problem was that I had no medicated shampoo. I would have to shave those poor girls’ heads. I told this to Tam and she became distressed and replied:
“Isn’t there any other way? The girls need husbands and they will not be very attractive bald-headed!”
“Don’t worry about it, by the time we get to the States and they have gone through Customs their hair will have grown out.”
This was stretching the truth since we would be back in a week, but I wanted Tam to feel comfortable about what we were going to do.
She translated the news about the haircuts to the other girls and they started crying immediately. I went to my cabin and brought back some scissors, clippers and razors and cream. When I returned the girls appeared resigned to their fate.
I put my equipment on the dining table and asked for a volunteer to be first. Nobody spoke, but then Tam quickly sat down and spoke:
“I may as well set an example, after all, it is only hair!”
I replied, “But what beautiful hair.” And it was, jet black and flowing down her back in a long braid.
I grabbed the braid and held the end up in the air. Then, while the girls gasped, I used the scissors to cut it off. I laid it the table and Tam picked it and held it in her lap. The other girls began talking excitedly. I grasped the clippers in one hand and held her forehead back with the other and slowly shaved a white path down the middle of her head. The room became quiet as I shaved another row of hair off. Soon, Tam’s head was almost bare with just a hint of stubble. I squirted some shaving cream into my hand and began rubbing it all over her head. Then, without pausing, I started scraping the stubble off with the razor, revealing the white skin underneath. After a few minutes, Tam’s head was totally bare. She slowly reached up and touched her shiny head and spoke.
“It feels so smooth, kind of like my butt.”
I knew the joke was an attempt to be brave. The other girls ran up and hugged her while rubbing their hands on her bald head.
One by one the still naked girls took a turn in the chair and were clean shaven. Only the teacher was left. She was a slightly overweight woman with rather large breasts. When it became apparent to her that it was her turn she began shouting that she would not cut her hair. I explained that she needed to get her head shaved like the girls had. The woman jumped up and ran to the locked door. After trying it, she turned and shouted that she had never cut her hair before and she wouldn’t now. I informed her that the captain said he would put them back out to sea if they did not get rid of the lice infestation. Hearing that, the girls rushed their teacher and dragged her, kicking and screaming, to the chair.
While the girls held the woman, Tam took the clippers from my hand and began shearing the hair from her teacher’s head. Soon, there was only a small hank of hair left in the back with the rest white scalp. The older woman managed to free one hand from the girl’s clutches. When the teacher touched her almost completely bare head, she let out a scream and pushed the girls off her. The unclothed teacher raced to the door, but before she could reach it, one of the girls put out her foot and tripped her. As the women crawled toward the door on her hands and knees Tam ran and jumped on her back. The naked girl grabbed the older woman’s remaining hank of hair and, with her other hand, started slapping the teacher’s bare bottom.
The other students howled with laughter. I could not suppress a smile at the sight of the two bald-headed women with one riding naked on top of the other. The other girls helped Tam hold the teacher down while her head was clippered the rest of the way. Tam then spread cream on the older woman’s head and she was shaved completely clean with the razor.
After their efforts, the bald ladies sat down and rested. Perspiration streamed down their nude bodies. One by one, they started to stare at me. I soon became aware of the reason why. Without noticing it, I was scratching my head.
“Wait a minute, you have got the wrong idea,” I said. “I couldn’t have gotten lice this quickly.”
Tam replied, “You Americans have a saying: ‘What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.'”
The girls rushed up to me and grabbed my arms and legs. While I was struggling to free myself, one of them must have bent down behind me for I felt myself trip backwards onto the floor. I probably would have been able to throw the petite women off me and make an escape except for what happened next. The teacher jumped onto me, doing a belly flop onto my chest. With her breasts in my face I wasn’t able to see anything, but I could hear the clippers come on and then felt them make contact with my head. It didn’t take long for Tam to shave away my hair. The girls were laughing as they let me up and I couldn’t help joining in. I sat in a chair while Tam put cream on my scalp and shaved me the rest of the way.
I suggested that the girls clean the hair off the floor of the dining hall and put their clothes into the washing machine. As they performed these tasks I called the captain and reported that the mission was accomplished. He replied that he had changed his mind and was going to take the girls to Manila. In the meantime, he wanted them confined to the dining area to avoid temptation for the crew. A few minutes later a crewman brought a bolt of the batik cloth from the cargo area and the girls made wraps to cover their nude bodies.
The crew was not happy that they wouldn’t be able to eat in the dining area anymore. However, their discontent was quickly resolved when the girls showed me how to prepare some wonderful Vietnamese and French dishes. It was a joy working in the galley with the beautiful, bald women.
Before the ladies departed in Manila, Tam and I promised to stay in touch. As the Newcastle sailed away I knew the rest of the voyage couldn’t possibly match my glorious adventure in head shaving.