O’Henry award winning stories – Home is the Sailor by Bill Adams

[I recently read a story from Top-Notch magazine, John D. Swain’s “One head, well done”in a short story collection of O’Henry prize winning stories from 1931. I decided to take a look at all the stories i had in my collection that had won this prize.]

This story was published in Blue Book magazine, February 1928. Written by Bill Adams and illustrated by O. E. Hake, a Chicago based artist who did interior illustrations for Blue Book from 1926 to 1930. It won the O’Henry award in 1928.
Home is the Sailor written by Bill Adams, interior illustration by Otto Eugene Hake
Home is the Sailor written by Bill Adams, interior illustration by Otto Eugene Hake

Bill Adams tells us this tale in the first person, as if he were a shipmate when this happened. It’s the story of a young gentleman apprenticed as a sailor during the days of sailing ships. The boy Gillan, about seventeen years old, comes on board in full dress uniform, looking as though he has stepped out of an advertisement illustration. Adams gives us this description:
The newcomer was slight, rather tall and lanky, with dark eyes and straight black hair. His expression was very open and eager. A boy of about seventeen, he looked soft even for a first voyager. His delicate face was pink and clear, his hands white. He looked shy. One could easily see that he was a “gentle-man’s son.” The tip of a white handkerchief showed in his breast pocket. He wore a white collar, white shirt, and dark silk tie. And of course he was dressed in the customary spanking rig of an unsophisticated and unsuspecting green sea apprentice—a double-breasted blue serge suit with two rows of big bright brass buttons, an anchor on each of them. A smart new “badge cap” topped him off—a round blue cloth cap with a shiny black leather peak and gold chin-stay, the company’s house flag in the loop of the stay. I could have easily guessed what he afterward told me: he supposed this was to be the rig that he would wear at sea. “Going to sea with her?” I asked.

The workday starts at daybreak, no breakfast. By eight o’clock, the boy is hungry, fatigued and disillusioned of the romance of sailing, but the day has hardly begun. He tries to eat the sailors’ breakfast – hardtack and coffee, and throws up. By noon, he’s wet through from the rain, and hungry enough that he manages to eat lunch – fatty pork and hardtack. He eats and falls asleep, the narrator wakes him up at one o’clock. At six o’clock, he comes off duty and sleeps till eight o’clock. From midnight, he’s given the duty of striking the ships bells, once every half-hour. This means he’s not able to grab any sleep during the shift, as everyone on ship does their duty by the cadence of the bells, and will not tolerate any delays in their rota. He manages to stay awake till nine thirty. The narrator, knowing that this is likely to happen, checks on him and stays with him, kicking him awake every half hour to ring the bells. The day ends at midnight, and the next workday begins at four o’clock.
When the second mate’s watch was roused out again at four of the morning and he had to go back to the poop to keep the time till beginning of the day’s work at five o’clock, he could hardly keep his eyes open. His fingers trembled as he slowly dressed. The linings of his sea boots were sodden. He gasped as he put his bunk-warmed feet down into them.

The life at sea begins to harden the boy physically. His inexperience leads to him being taken advantage of. One of the men offers him a week’s worth of his pork ration at lunch in return for his sea boots. Being hungry and fatigued all the time, Gillan makes the trade. After this, his feet are wet all the time, as the rain returns – this leads to blisters and boils developing. The narrator looks out for Gillan, and suggests to him that he can desert if he doesn’t want to be a sailor. Gillan says nothing, but he doesn’t drop out from his work even when a couple of more experienced sailors pretend to be sick to get a break from work.
There are a few bright spots in Gillan’s life. Once, he has to climb the rigging in a storm to shorten sail, and he sees the roaring sea from above.
“How d’you like sailoring?” I shouted.

His eyes very bright, he glanced at me from amidst folds of white billowing canvas. His cap had blown away and the wind tossed his black hair about his pale forehead. He made no reply, but while I passed the gaskets and lashed down the sail he stood erect on the foot-rope and gazed up to the full round moon above us. His lips were parted. His face delighted and eager, he drank deep of the crisp wind.

When I came down into the topmast rigging he was still standing at the royal mast head, gazing now skyward, now to the glistening crested seas almost two hundred feet below.

Gillan soldiers on, doing his duties in the face of the other crew member’s contempt and the officer’s belief that he will probably desert. One day, one of the malingering sailors takes Gillan’s uniform and wears it, taunting the boy. Gillan fights, and routs the other man. The crew cheer for him, and accept him as a crew member from that time.
Things are going well for Gillan, when one day, near the end of the voyage ….
I’ll let you read the rest for yourself, as I don’t want to spoil the ending. A masterful depiction of life before the mast, the story is only eleven pages long but paints a picture of a sailor’s burden and the attraction of the sea, despite the suffering it inflicts on men.  

Out of the remaining O’Henry award winning stories, the ones with a check mark below are the ones i have access to. Which one should i do next? Leave your suggestion in the comments:

Bill Adams
Adventure, November 23, 1926
“Home is the Sailor”
Blue Book Magazine, February 1928
“The Lubber”
Adventure, April 1933
John D. Swain
“One Head Well Done”
Top-Notch, Sep 1931
Maryland Allen
“The Urge”
Everybody’s, September 1921
Harry Anable Kniffin
“The Tribute”
Brief Stories, September 1921
Edison Marshall
“The Elephant Remembers”
Everybody’ s, October 1918
“The Heart of Little Shikara”
Everybody’s, January 1921
L.H. Robbins
“Professor Todd’s Used Car”
Everybody’s, July 1920
“Mr. Downey Sits Down”
Everybody’s, January 1921
Raymond S. Spears
“A River Combine-Professional”
Argosy-Allstory, May 3, 1924
Isa Urquhart Glenn
“The Wager”
Argosy All-Story, September 18, 1923
“Old Peter Takes an Afternoon Off”
Popular, April 7, 1922
Albert Payson Terhune
“On Strike”
The Popular Magazine, October 1918
“The Writer-Upward”
Popular, May 20, 1922
Karl W. Detzer
“The Wreck Job”
Short Stories Sep 10 1926
Charles Tenney Jackson 
“The Man Who Cursed the Lillies”
Short Stories, December 10, 1921
“The Horse of Hurricane Reef”
Short Stories, September 10, 1922
James W. Bennett
“The Kiss of the Accolade”
Short Stories, October 10, 1922
Robert S. Lemmon
“The Bamboo Trap”
Short Stories, April 25, 1923
Albert Richard Wetjen
Sea Stories

1 comment

  1. Bill Adams wrote some excellent sea stories, many based on his own experiences. This story must also have autobiographical elements. I see from my note in BLUE BOOK that I read the story in 1981 and gave it a high rating. I recommend that you read JUKES next.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *