14-28 August: The Sea (Part I)
When I immigrated to Canada, it was done the old-fashioned way: by sea. To preempt the typical sarky comments from my alleged friends, no this is not a nostalgia piece harking back to the Golden Age of Sail and yes, commercial aviation had made some advances beyond dirigible balloons. Furthermore, I was only a toddler so I actually have no recollection of the weeklong voyage. By all accounts though, it redefined the concept of a “rough crossing”.
Only at sea about half an hour after weighing anchor in England, the ship was shaken bow-to-stern by a grinding crash. It hadn’t run aground but, convinced a collision with something had occurred, the crew about-faced the ship and beelined back to port. Hours later, an inspection concluded that no collision had occurred and the ship was perfectly seaworthy. Off we went again, passengers and crew alike suppressing nagging doubts: something had traumatized this ship… we heard it… we felt it…
Three days later, the black waves of the mid-Atlantic, large and angry by nature, were lashed into erratic towering walls of spume-streaked water under a howling gale. Lacerated by lightning, the even blacker sky vomited rain on our ship, now an insignificant white fleck bobbing in the boundless churning darkness. Almost unbroken thunder boomed through the chaotic violence like a commander’s voice through the fog of war.
It was only in this aquatic hellscape the crew finally ascertained the cause of the mysterious crash three days prior: the ship’s stabilizers had broken. This meant that the ship not only lurched up and down the mountainous crests and troughs of the waves, it also simultaneously rolled back-and-forth sideways. The combination of stomach-draining seasickness and abject terror led to 90% of the passengers and crew gratefully dropping their pants, bending over, and getting a needle in the ass that knocked them out cold for the next 48 hours.
I wasn’t one of them though. Apparently, I spent the entire duration of the storm obnoxiously scampering around and shrieking with delight every time the bow pitched so insanely downwards and to the side, it seemed certain to everyone (except me) it would finally descend into the deep and Davy Jones’s Locker* for good.
Despite the fact that today I get motion sickness just from walking down the street, I wonder if this is where my enduring love for the sea was born. As a young boy, I devoured every Adventure of Tintin I could get my hands on. Not because I cared less about that sanctimonious asexual boy-scout Tintin himself, with his insufferable cowlick and kickable white mutt, but because I adored crusty old sea dog Captain Haddock, irredeemably drunken and foul-mouthed and only remotely happy when at sea. I also read C.S. Forester’s 12-book Horatio Hornblower** series about twelve times, each volume a bible codifying the rum, sodomy, and the lash traditions of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. I dug up everything I could read about the Titanic disaster and repeatedly watched the brilliant and terrifying film Das Boot. All things nautical all the time!
MY MOTHER: What are you reading about now?
ME: Cannibalism on the high seas.
MY MOTHER: What?
ME: Great stuff. Sailors lost at sea and starving to death. Had to draw straws to decide which one would get killed and eaten.
MY MOTHER: How nice. You know, most boys your age are reading the Hardy Boys.
ME: They ate everything. Skin, organs… genitals…
MY MOTHER [slapping her sides]: I’m going shopping now. I may never come back.
ME: They cracked open the bones and sucked out the marrow… Raw bone marrow!
MY MOTHER [halfway out the door]: Bye!
ME [talking to myself]: And when they finally got rescued, they got charged with murder. Not fair really. What choice did they have…?
My boyhood years were also punctuated by summer trips to England which, not surprising given it is impossible to be more than 70 miles from the coast, cemented my obsession. Clambering along the jagged lichen-encrusted shoreline of East Anglia**, the steady crashing of surf over dangerous rocks and nostalgic wail of gulls under clouds pregnant with rain was like siren song to me, as mesmerizing as the ghostly merchant vessels off in the distance silently tilling the cold gray waves of the North Sea.
“What’s going on up there?” asked my aunt tapping my temple with her forefinger. “You look bewitched.”
“I was wondering how deep it is. How many shipwrecks are on the bottom? How much treasure? How many skeletons? How many people get sucked out in riptides each year? Do they get eaten? I wonder if there are killer whales out there. Or great white sharks? Or giant octopus? I wonder how many unexploded mines there still are. Do they ever sink any of those ships out there? I– ”
“Thank you for that,” said my aunt curtly and, impersonating my mother, turned on her heel and marched off through the wind-battered scrub grass.
“What?” I called after her through cupped hands, mystified. After all, back in those days there was no Google or Wiki in your pocket (in fact the Internet was an embryonic mystery known only to the U.S. Department of Defense and God) so I was forever asking myself questions only trips to brick-and-mortar libraries might answer.
“Now… never… swim… sea… no… again!” she called back over her shoulder, half her words scattered by a stiffening breeze.
Some years later, not far into my twenties, I was fecklessly bumming around Europe after graduating from university. One day, in the early evening, I found myself in a tiny Portuguese fishing village sitting on a rock sipping beer, smoking a cigarette, and staring out over the Atlantic. Although a powerful storm earlier in the day had left the shoreline looking like something ransacked, the water was now calm, it’s gently rippled surface glittering fuzzily under a yolky sun which was flattening out steadily behind a thin bank of white cloud deep in the west.
Studying the turbulent little eddies lapping around the foot of my rock, I was distracted by a small group of women of varying dimensions and ages emerging from the lengthening shadows in the village. Gypsy-like in their colorful bandanas and floor-length skirts, they trundled towards the creaking wooden dock chattering quietly. As I watched them, one broke off and approached me with a wave.
“American?” she asked gesturing at my New York Yankees cap.
“Sure,” I said with a shrug, once again too apathetic to explain to strangers my England/Canada dissociative identity disorder.
“Cigarette?” she asked making her index and middle fingers a V in front of her brightly lipsticked mouth. She was probably still in her thirties, but the sun and wind had so prematurely seamed her face it reminded me of an old baseball glove.
“Sure,” I said handing her one with a sigh. I fumbled for my Zippo but stopped when I saw her quickly squirrel away the cigarette into one of the many folds of her skirt.
“Is okay… is for the… the man,” she said haltingly.
“The man man. The… how you say… husband man.”
“Ah yes, your husband. Of course. Where is he?”
“Out there,” she said turning her head, worried eyes blinking into the sun, now a defiant orange fireball drowning fast on the empty horizon. “He a…. a fishes man.”
“Right. A fisherman. Got it.”
“He come… now… he come soon… home…”
“Very nice. Lots of fish, huh? Suppertime?” I asked making eating gestures and rubbing my stomach.
“No… no fishes… no good today… not so much fishes.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it.
The sun perished and the lantern room of a crumbling stone lighthouse perched at the end of a nearby spit of land flickered to life. Under the winking yellow eye of its revolving lamp the silhouettes of three rickety dinghies, their outboard motors coughing and sputtering, were approaching the harbor. “Oh! Oh!” squeaked the woman lightly bobbing on the balls of her feet. “He come! He come!”
Without another word she scurried off, clutching at her skirt as she danced around the beach debris, to join the others huddled at the end of the dock. Buzzing in anticipation, they swung bat-length torches through the gathering darkness. In a hail of shouted greetings, the dinghies cut their engines and their rusted hulls scraped noisily against the barnacle blistered stilts of the dock. Beneath their woolen beanies, the faces of the men were downcast, strained with fatigue and resignation as a few small silvery shapes flipped around in the mostly empty nets tangled around their feet. They clambered out into the extended arms of the women who, eyes pinched closed in gratitude, bearhugged them and pecked at their bearded faces with kisses.
The reunited pack trudged back up the dock arm-in-arm, my woman’s “man man” sucking thirstily on my cigarette. By the time it occurred to me to go down and offer the group the spare packet I had in my backpack, they had disappeared into the obscurity of the village’s narrow alleys, residual voices and laughter quickly dissipating until the only sound left was the hushed lullaby of the surf, it’s soft notes my only company.
I cursed myself for wholly selfish reasons: perhaps in return for the cigarettes they would have offered me to join them in their unvarnished camaraderie which in that moment, despite their obvious poverty, I felt a tugging urge to be a part of. I had been traveling alone for some time and when I turned back and looked out over the ocean, I felt lonelier than the isolated lighthouse, it’s metronomic beam vainly sweeping an empty dial of restive blackness, vast watery cemetery interring centuries of shipwrecked hopes and dreams.
A gull cried plaintively as it wheeled overhead against the bright smear of the Milky Way. I closed my eyes and, like a marooned Odysseus yearning for Ithaca, I yearned for Montreal thousands of miles away across the deep dark sea…
To be continued…
* Davy Jones’s Locker: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Jones%27_Locker
** East Anglia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Anglia