- Associated Press - Saturday, March 8, 2014

NATCHEZ, Miss. (AP) - As a member of the commercial sea force known as the merchant marine, Alton Hickman Sr. has spent a lot of time on the water.

But now he’s making plans to spend a lot more time on solid ground.

Hickman says he is ready to turn in his notice of retirement after 42 years on the high seas. While his time as a mariner has been good, it’s time to retire, he said.

It all started in 1972, when Hickman decided to join up with the fleet that in peacetime carries goods and in times of war can serve as a naval auxiliary. “My best friend started going to sea, and I saw the money he was making,” he said. “I had a sixth grade education and two children at the time, and the money looked right.”

Hickman worked as a junior engineer on different ships, sometimes working on plumbing and electrical systems but also helping transport $60 million worth of oil from Alaska to a refinery. But his time on the ocean turned out to be about more than money. It became an opportunity for him to go places he never would have gotten to otherwise.

“I was interested in getting paid to see the world,” he said. “You eat free, you don’t pay for your room and board, and I got to see Russia, China, Ethiopia, and I was able to be baptized in the Jordan River. I’ve been all the way around the world three times.”

Those trips weren’t always easy or safe. Hickman has ridden out some tough storms where waves washed over the whole of the ship. He even has a picture of a storm that took a man overboard crashing over the boat. “Nobody had any business being out there during that storm, but he was out there and I was, taking this picture,” he said. “In some storms, I’ve had water get into my room up around my ankles.”

Even recently, Hickman said he lost a friend to the frigid seas off the coast of Japan. But while the ocean can be a tough mistress, it can offer a lot of good memories. Whenever a new crewmember would cross the equator for the first time, the mariners had a ritual that involved blindfolding the crew members and dousing them with water, while one of the more experienced seamen would dress up as Neptune as part of the initiation ceremony.

Hickman’s son, Alton Jr., sailed with the merchant marine for a time, and once he was able to convince his captain to let his wife, Althalia, to sail with them. “The rest of the (crew’s) wives would come down to where we were, but they had to leave,” Althalia Hickman said. “I was the only one who could take a trip. They let (Alton Sr.) do what he wanted just because he was a good worker.”

And while she was glad to be able to sail with her husband, there was one thing about the experience that left Althalia under-whelmed. “The cook there made the worst food I ever had,” she said. “But it was nice being there.”

After decades of seeing the world and getting paid to do it, Hickman said he’s ready to leave the sea behind, but not without gratitude. It gave him the chance to own nice properties, put his children through college and now retire in comfort, he said.

“The sea has been good to me,” Hickman said. “It has blessed me, and everything I owe to it, I owe to God. “If I had to do it all again, I’d do it all.”


Information from: The Natchez Democrat, https://www.natchezdemocrat.com/

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