Our Borders: The Last Voyage (1993)

“Let’s go look for them right now,” Radu said.

“No,” the officer said, “you stay here. We’ll look for them. We know how to look for people like you.”

OOCL Challenge, the transatlantic ship Radu Codrescu, 30, was on board of in January 1993, was heading into a storm, and Radu’s friends, Paul and Claudiu, might have also been on board, hiding inside a container and unaware that a storm could kill them.

The crew was busy securing everything that could move once the storm began: they folded tables and chairs and stowed them inside closets, locked closet doors, packed small items in boxes, taped boxes, shut windows and locked doors, but most of all, checked the wire ropes that kept the cargo in place. The containers were the first to experience the wrath of the storm, and their heft was going to work against them.

Now the crew had a couple of Romanians to worry about too.

A group of sailors went below the deck and called Paul and Claudiu by name. They checked around the containers, banged on them, called those names. They came back after a while.

“We didn’t find them. We didn’t find anybody.”

“I spent six more days on the ship,” Radu Codrescu said. “People would come to talk to me every day. We had beer, we watched TV while the storm was going on outside for three full days. We sailed in the North Atlantic at winter time. The water was furious and big blocks of ice banged into the ship, leaning it sideways, left and right. The shocks were heavy and a huge cargo ship, which usually sails undisturbed, like a city building, was being hit and thrown in all directions like a nut shell. The containers that broke loose were on top of the cargo.”

During the storm, OOCL Challenge lost six containers. The ropes snapped and the containers fell into the ocean. If people had been in those containers, they would have drowned inside in a matter of minutes.

“After three days of storm, all the sailors gathered together and stood in silence. They knew that the storm was approaching its end, but, before that, there was going to be one more inrush of waves and winds.”

“What’s going on?” Radu said.

“You’ll see,” they said.

“They weren’t doing anything, they weren’t making any noises, they weren’t eating or drinking. Then the ship started shaking, worse than in an earthquake, in an extraordinary energetic development. To see that huge ship, on six levels, with hundreds of containers, weighing tons and tons, shaking like a shell was really scary—a very scary experience. They knew, or at least hoped, that it will be over soon. I didn’t know anything and I was terrified. It all lasted for one minute. Such a ship would not sink, but it would break into pieces if the shock is too big.”

When the quake stopped, the sailors cheers and popped open their beers. Radu was still stunned by the experience, but a good beer and the men’s enthusiasm around him reassured him that everything would be ok.

“The news doesn’t cover such events in the same manner as they cover airplane crashes. Usually a big ship like ours just “disappears” and it is really hard to find it and investigate the causes. Not a lot to report on, nothing to see and get on the tape, and so, those type of accidents don’t spend a lot of time in the spotlight. But they do happen.”

Radu Codrescu arrived in the port of Montréal, Canada on January 27, 1993. He had no identification documents with him because he had forgotten them in his car, which was still parked in the port of Antwerp, in Belgium. The immigration officer in Montréal, working through a Romanian translator, took Radu’s statement and handed him his arrival documents, the interview transcript, and a pass for shelter at YMCA in the city. In the commotion of that busy place, with busy people speaking a version of French he could barely understand, Radu didn’t notice that the stated arrival date on his entry documents had been marked as January 25, instead of the 27th. He signed and went out into the white cold night.

The average January temperature for Montréal is 16ºF (-9ºC) and the weather forecast usually mentions the wind chill factor (what it feels like to the unprotected skin due to the cold wind) and how many minutes it is safe to be outside before unprotected skin starts freezing. Temperatures drop even more at night, as on that night when Radu left the port of Montréal and headed, on foot, to YMCA on Rue Stanley, four kilometers away.

“When I got off the ship I was dressed like a ninja. I had a black suit, no money and no papers. It was snowing and the frosty wind was cutting through my thin layer of clothes.”

Radu didn’t know that it was a matter of minutes before he would start to freeze. As he walked out of the port gates, a minivan caught up with him.

“You’re that guy who came with the ship?” the driver said.

“Yes,” Radu said.

“And where are you going now?”

“To YMCA,” Radu said.

“Oh, my, you have no idea… Get in the car. I’ll give you a ride before you freeze to death.”

The minivan driver was a chatty fellow who first stopped by a barn in the harbor at 1:00 am to show Radu his new Harley-Davidson. Radu admired his bike, and arrived safely at the YMCA in the early hours of January 28, 1993.

On February 4, 1993, during its voyage back from Montréal to UK and Europe, OOCL Challenge struck a growler (a small iceberg or a floating mass of ice large enough to cause damage to a ship) at a speed of 18.5 knots. The damage was extensive, including cracking in the ballast tanks and a 30-foot gash in the bow. The ship didn’t sink, but it was beyond repair, and was retired upon its arrival in Europe. Radu’s ride to Canada had been OOCL Challenge’s last transatlantic voyage.

It took two months to sort through Radu’s immigration case before it could proceed normally. The wrong entry date on his arrival papers made him a suspect to the authorities. His lack of proper documentation added to the problem (even though his wife sent his passport in the mail after Paul retrieved it from Radu’s Mercedes back in Antwerp). To make things worse, Radu’s application got lost in the immigration system and in March he received a departure order.

“When I got that notice in the mail I almost fainted. I risked everything to get there, my life and my family, and then some bureaucrat misplaced my papers and sealed my destiny. I couldn’t let that happen. That’s when I got a lawyer, and my lawyer went to the immigration office with me and argued my case. He showed them the appointment for an audience I had with the Office for Political Refugees.”

The Human Rights Organization in Germany had decided in 1992 that Radu Codrescu had not been politically persecuted and therefore not entitled to political asylum. The Canadian branch of the same organization decided in 1993 that Radu was a refugee under the terms stipulated by the Geneva Convention and granted him political asylum.

Everything else followed from there: Radu’s right to work in Canada, his welfare check, his first rented room, his first job as a wall painter, paying his immigration lawyer’s bills, a blackjack dealership course, a few days of work at a casino, and then the clothes ironing job, Radu’s first steady income.

While waiting for his family’s permanent residence status to be approved, Radu began studying Computer Science at the University of Montréal.

“I was working the iron from 5:30 in the morning until 9:30, I was going to university from 10:00 to 6:00, and afterward, I was going back to the ironing board until midnight. I did that for a year and a half and it was a very hard time for me.”

At the university, Radu met other Romanians, and, as things happen among immigrants from the same country, they became friends, carrying packages for each other whenever somebody went back to Romania for a visit. One of the Romanians Radu met there was Alexandru (name changed for privacy reasons), a handsome, affable and polite young man. They became good friends.

University of Montréal, Computer Science Class of 1997. Radu is the last on the right, on the top row

University of Montréal, Computer Science Class of 1997. Radu is the last on the right, on the top row

One day, Radu told Alexandru the story of how he and his friends got arrested at Deta in 1984.

“I did my military service at Deta,” Alexandru told Radu. “And I was on duty that night in June of 1984 when we caught three people, two from Bucharest and one from Timişoara.”

“I couldn’t remember him from back then, when I was all covered in blood and more dead than alive, but he did. He remembered me. Imagine, after twelve years, I met one of the people who might have beaten me to pieces back then. I don’t know if he did or not…”

Graduation, 1997

Graduation, 1997

The following year, Radu’s mother legally immigrated to Canada and moved in with him in his small apartment. She cooked for him, and brought back the tastes and flavors of childhood and, with them, a sense of comfort and normalcy. The next year, Radu was hired at the university as a Teaching Assistant, his family’s visas came through, and Laura and their daughter joined Radu in a bigger apartment that they could now afford from his salary. At the beginning of his last year of university, Radu was hired as a teacher in the Computer Science department. He graduated in 1997 and began his Master’s degree program at the University of Montréal while also teaching there.

In 1999, Radu Codrescu took a job at Microsoft and he and his family moved to the United States.

Next: The Fork in the Road (1980 CE)

Previous: A Lucky Break (1993 CE)

Note: I met Radu Codrescu (name changed for privacy reasons) in 2001 in Redmond, Washington. In 2002, we sat down for a series of interviews about his past, and we continued our conversations in 2006 and in 2013. The series Our Borders is based on those interviews and on my own experience of growing up in Romania during the ’80s and the ’90s.

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