Great Jobs: Chapter 9-I Lost That 4F Card In The Bottom Of The Deep Blue, Caribbean Sea
After the winter of ’42 to ’43, and breaking ice on the upper Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, I had some time off that spring of ’43, spent Easter at home, but it wasn’t long before mom began to wonder what I was getting into next.
Well, I had asked for a trip to New Orleans, so I went back to the National Maritime Union to get the job I had been promised.
“OK, I’m ready.” I said to the Port Agent as I walked into the Union Hall.
“Hey, is your card up on the board”? asked the agent.
“Sure is, been there since we tied up the Helena at the shipyards about the middle of March. Now I want my trip to New Orleans.”
“Hold up, brother, let’s see what we got here.”
Well we went through the posted jobs and sure enough there was a job on the Jayne Rhea. A little old converted 350hp diesel port boat; she was going to push two gasoline barges from Wood River, Illinois, on down to New Orleans.
“Jeez, I wondered, Is that all”? I had to think about that one. Could get out today or hang around the Union Hall and get on a nice towboat. The Jayne Rhea had a crew of 5, two pilots, a cook, and two engine men. Didn’t need a deck crew, no locks and dams on the Mississippi below Saint Louis, and on down to New Orleans. But, more 6 on and 6 off working days; however that would be less than a week as going down river in the spring was pretty fast. Could be in New Orleans in about 4 days. And I knew what I wanted when I got there. My mind was made up. I’m shedding this 4F draft card as fast as I can. Even if most of the guys were gone, it still was a put-off when it came to girls.
“Hey fellow, how come you are home?”
That was getting to be a stock answer, but then a few girls around town did know me and the word was getting around. Some of the girls I knew in grade school had already been putting out the word.
“Oh I just ain’t been picked yet.”
“What, a big healthy guy like you, ain’t in the Army or Marines or out to sea?”
“Hey, did you know, ‘Francis the Sissy’ is 4F?”
I won’t mention what my thoughts were about those ‘sweet things’, but they were not nice. I knew all the grade school boys that called me by that name, but they only did it once and got the message pretty quick that I was no sissy. The girls just taunted and knew they would get by with it. So far my ‘family values’ didn’t allow me to knock little girls on their tail ends.
Well, my mind was getting made up fast. “Tell the Jayne Rhea, I’ll be over in Wood River in about an hour.”
I picked up a couple of pairs of skivvies, a tooth brush, a razor, and a comb, and I was gone, hopped a port boat across the Mississippi toward Wood River and got aboard the Jayne Rhea. And, within an hour I was headed down river.
New Orleans, here I come.
Down in New Orleans, I checked with the Union Hall to find out what I needed to get out to sea. Well, first off was my birth certificate, which I had with me. But that was a slight problem because I had not really looked at or read it. I just got it before leaving Saint Louis and stuck it in my wallet with other ID.
Next was to get over to the Coast Guard and pass some basic engine room tests. That was the easy part; I got endorsements as Fireman, Oiler, Watertender, Engine Room safety endorsements, and was given my seaman’s papers.
But now, a slight delay,
“Hey, what’s your name kid”?
“Well, my mother always called me Francis. She had me baptized Francis Xavier Helmer”.
“OK, so who is Leo Curry Helmer”?
“Well, I suppose that is me too. Seems to be what they put on my birth certificate, but nobody ever called me that, I was registered in school and everywhere else as Francis Helmer”.
“Gonna’ have to check that out,” said an officer, “Where were you born and where were you baptized”?
“I was born in Saint Louis, MO, at 1540 Mississippi Ave. and I was baptized at Saint Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church at 39th Street and Flad Avenue”.
“Well, birth certificate says as much, but what about the Francis bit?”
“Really don’t know why my mother insisted on ‘Francis’ except that my dad’s mom gave my name on the birth certificate. She evidently liked my dad’s name ‘Leo’ and she knew nobody in the family wanted a Junior. Since my dad’s name was Leo B. Helmer she said my name was Leo C. Helmer. The ‘C’ was for Curry, her maiden name. But, mom and grandma didn’t always see eye to eye, so when I was baptized mom gave me the name of Francis Xavier, an Irish name of sorts to ‘get along’ with grandma I guess”.
“OK, we can check that out pretty quick”.
So, the next day I went back to the Coast Guard Office and everything was ‘updated’ and in order.
“You are Leo C. Helmer,” said the officer, “and don’t forget that. Here are your Seaman’s Papers; everything on them says you are Leo C. Helmer, so forget Francis Xavier”.
“You bet I will, and you just became my greatest benefactor”.
“Get out of here, Leo, and go find a ship”.
And, I did. Went back to the Union Hall and signed on the first ship they called, as an oiler on a diesel electric tanker that was headed for Cuba to bring fuel to Guantanamo Bay.
And was I happy. NO LONGER WAS I ‘FRANCIS’. From then on I was called by my true name LEO
And no longer did anybody say I was 4F. I pitched the draft card over the side in the deep blue Caribbean Sea. After all I was now Leo C. (That’s Me) Helmer a merchant seaman with all the identification I would ever need or want.
But mom never quit calling me Francis. Neither did her mom or dad or a few uncles and cousins. Dad’s brothers knew I wasn’t their brother Leo B, but his son, Leo C. Bob Green finally got the hint and shortened Francis to Fran, and he had made patrolman on the Saint Louis Police Department by the next time I saw him.
Late in 1945, when I returned from the South Pacific, I visited my High School, Chaminade, to check on some of my Marine classmates, and I think my prodding of Father Canning and Father Jergens, moved them to update my class of ’41 picture and put a ‘Leo’ in front of my name. It ended up Leo Francis Helmer as the name under my picture.
And that was much better.
Watch for Helmer's next chapter on Great Jobs in the September issue.
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