The amazing story of how an American navigator piloted a ship in the Suez Canal — just months after the 1957 Suez Crisis.
I’ve never been to Israel. You know why? When I was on ships, we would transit the Suez Canal to go from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.
We don’t load fuel and water to go around the world, we stop at various ports. We stop at Gibraltar, we stop at Saudi Arabia, we stop anywhere we can get fuel and water, we do it in leaps and bounds.
The Arabs said — We cannot stop you from transiting because you’re an American ship. However, we’re going to look in your logbooks, and if you’ve been to Israel, we will not give you food or water. You will transit the canal but you cannot get any courtesy.
The ship can’t run without fuel or water, so the ships I would run always avoided Israel for that very reason.
So I’m the first officer on a ship going through the Suez Canal. The Egyptians come aboard and they want to see the crew list. I said:
—We want to know if there are any Jews on the ship.
—Look, we’re all American, we sign on people, we don’t ask people their nationality, or their origins, or whatever. They’re all American.
—But they could be Jewish. They could be Israelis, or they could be closet Hebrews, they could be Zionists in their heads. They could drop a bomb in the water, they could block the passage of ships, they could disrupt the whole transit system, they could destroy the Suez Canal. We have to protect the Suez Canal.
—If there were any Jewish seamen, what would you do?
—We would put them in their cabin, and an armed guard would stand outside their room, and they would not be allowed to leave the cabin until you transited the Suez Canal. They’d be served food inside and accompanied to the toilet.
They’re going to put me in a cabin and lock me in with a guard outside the door? No way. Nobody’s locking any of our crew members up with an Arab standing by with a gun.
— No, no, there’s no Jews on the ship.
There happened to be three. Now, I never ran around with a Star of David on my neck yelling — I’m a Jew! I’m a Jew! But this is the only time I said — No, I’m not Jewish.
My name’s the first on the list.
The second guy was Rudinoff, an ordinary seaman, a lousy one at that.
Steinberg was the messman. You know I got a weird sense of humor.
—What is he?
Now we’re transiting the Suez Canal, and time is money with this ship. It costs thousands of dollars to keep a ship running. The faster you can get there, unload, and get back, the more money the company’s making.
The pilot in the Suez Canal comes up and says to me — I have to drop anchor.
—I have stomach distress, and I have to go to the bathroom, it’s serious.
—No, no, do not, drop no anchors here. We cannot wait an hour, that’s an hour that’ll cost the company twenty-five hundred dollars. I’ll take over.
—You’ll do it?
—Yes, goodbye, I take responsibility.
—You’re on your own.
I navigated the Suez Canal for 30 minutes while he took a crap. Steady as you go. Back and forth, there are buoys and I’ve got a chart and I know how to navigate. I know starboard, port, red lights, green lights. I see a camel, steady up on the camel’s ass. The pilot comes back, everything’s fine. So I’m a part-time Suez Canal navigator.
I was in Egypt and said to one of the Egyptians:
— It’s very hot here.
I got out a ChapStick and rubbed it on my lips.
—It’s an oil product, we take the oil that comes out of the ground, we take it home, we make it into a product and we put it on our lips.
—We don’t have such sophistication here. This is Egypt.
—What do you do?
He goes up to a camel, puts his finger in the camel’s ass and rotates his finger. He takes his finger out and rubs it on his lips.
—Does that keep your lips from getting chapped?
—No, it just keeps you from licking them.
End of story.
I tried Camels for years. I still prefer my wife.
Excerpt from LEON: A LIFE (Old Convincer Publishing, 2019).