As Third Officer McDowall stood on the bridge he wondered, as so many other brave men at sea have done, just how his family had faired in his enforced absence. He knew that Roddy was appearing in pictures, the same as he had in England, but he wasn't quite prepared for the comfortable home in Beverly Hills and the success his son had attained in two short years. It seemed like a miracle.
Indeed it was a miracle, because Roddy and his mother and sister arrived in the United States with exactly forty-two dollars, the amount of money the British Government allowed to be taken from the country. Forty-two dollars is not much to go on even if you live on hamburgers. Something had to be done immediately to bolster the McDowall finances.
By a stroke of good fortune Roddy got a chance to make a test for Twentieth Century-Fox. When Darryl F. Zanuck saw the test he immediately cast the little English boy in "How Green Was My Valley." This picture established Roddy as a fine actor and won him a contract. The McDowalls' financial troubles were over. Everything was fine except for that deep longing for their loved one on the high seas. So Thomas's unexpected visit made their happiness complete.
"Those few days Dad spent with us were wonderful," Roddy said. "But I'm afraid he didn't get much rest. I just couldn't let him out of my sight. So he came to the studio with me every day. People there tried to get Dad to tell them about his adventures at sea. But he'd just shrug his shoulders and tell them the only important thing is that the Merchant Marine ships get supplies to our troops."
"Surely he must have had some interesting experiences," I persisted.
"Yes, he did," replied Roddy wistfully. "After dinner each evening he'd sit in an easy chair and light up his pipe. I'd sit at his feet and he'd tell me a sea story."
"I bet listening to his stories was more thrilling than going to the movies."
"Well, they were awfully exciting," Roddy agreed. "You know one time his ship was in the middle of the ocean. Dad was on watch. His duties are to stand watch on the bridge four hours out of every twelve. Four hours doesn't sound like a long time but when it's cold or there's a storm it seems like forever."
"It certainly would to me," I agreed.
"At this particular time they were sailing in dangerous waters. There was a good chance of a sub lurking around, waiting to torpedo them. If I had been in Dad's shoes I'd have been scared to death. But I guess he just figures it's part of his job. Anyhow, he suddenly saw something floating in the ocean. When the ship got a bit closer, he saw it was a life-boat filled with men. He immediately notified the Captain. You see it's up to the Captain to make all the decisions."
"But what decision would he have to make? Naturally he'd pick the men up," I insisted.
"It isn't as easy as that," Roddy informed me. "If he stopped the ship it would become easy prey for the enemy. After all, there was a lot at stake. But lucky for the shipwrecked men the Captain himself had once tossed about in a lifeboat. So you see he knew the almost unbearable hardships those men were going through."
"So the Captain took a chance and picked the men up."
"Yes, he did. The officers kept close watch, while the sailors rescued the men. All the time they half expected to be blown to bits."
"I imagine they gave a big sigh of relief when the men were safe on board," I interrupted.
"Anyhow I guess they were happy when the ship was on its way again," Roddy agreed. "But the amazing thing Dad told me was that as soon as the rescued men had been given dry clothes and food they began to talk about what ship they'd sign up with when they reached shore. They weren't a bit discouraged by their disaster.
"But my favorite story," continued Roddy now thoroughly warmed up to his subject, "is about the time when one of the crew was taken seriously ill. No one could tell what was wrong. He was in an awful pain and needed a doctor."
"Isn't there a doctor on the ship?" I asked in amazement.
"You'd think there would be, wouldn't you? But there isn't. The men depend upon their knowledge of first aid. If a doctor is really needed they can flag a doctor from another ship."
"And that's dangerous."
"Yes, and the sick man knowing this, begged the Captain not to get a doctor. I guess he thought he could fight it through alone. Anyhow, he kept insisting that the Captain mustn't take a chance of endangering both ships and their important cargo needed by the fighting men. Why sacrifice several lives for one?"
"He must have been a very unselfish man," I said.
"Dad said he was unselfish and brave," Roddy agreed.
"How did it all turn out?"
"Well, the Captain really didn't want to but he finally let the sick man have his way. It must have been hard for him to watch a man suffer and not be able to do anything.
"That night the crew took turns sitting at the bedside. None of them expected the sick man to live until morning. But you know, the next day he had improved. Wasn't that amazing? By the time the ship reached its destination the man was back on the job. Isn't that wonderful?"
"It certainly is," I agreed. "What do you suppose happened?"
"Dad says the sick man's strong faith was better medicine than anything a doctor could have given him."
"Your Dad must be a very fine man."
Roddy's eyes were misty as he nodded in agreement. "I miss him a lot," he said. "Whenever mother will let me I go to the movies because I might see Dad in a newsreel. It could happen, 'cause once I saw Uncle Eric. They showed a newsreel of London after a bombing and one of the air raid wardens on duty was Uncle Eric. So I might see Dad someday."
Before I could answer Mrs. McDowall came in to remind Roddy that he had an early call for the studio so there was not time for any more sea stories. But after listening to those Roddy told me, I know how proud he is when he says, "My father's an officer in the British Merchant Marine!"