Archive for the Ships Category

History of the Universe Part I or how to chase your tail.

Posted in Autobiographical, Central College, Iowa, Ships, Simonetta, Stars on November 10, 2010 by smpiv

Just a few days ago I admitted to looking at clouds.  Now I must confess to looking at stars as well.

“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…………….”

I don’t remember the first star I saw, but I remember well the first time I noticed the heavens and the innumerable points of light that populate that inky, infinite blackness.

My mom, my brother and I were crossing the Atlantic Ocean on an Italian coal ship, the Simonetta–I was six-and-a-half years old, my brother five.  The radio operator, who had taken an interest in us (mostly in my mother I think), had taken us on deck well after dark.  I was mesmerized by the stars that touched the horizon and then rose exponentially as a dome to hold back the universe—the Milky Way bisected it all with a well defined smudge of stars, as distant galaxies and nebula bent their light through it all.

I wasn’t sure what to do with my discovery, the crick in my neck or the lovely hum of the ship moving through the water at its leisurely pace, so I went back to my early passion of drawing maps.  I was fascinated with the fractal comingling of the land and the sea, the brown and the blue, the  intermittent borders and the ancient mapmakers’ use of sea monsters to define what he couldn’t define.

I think the same can be said for our progenitors’ knack for connecting the dots in the heavens to define the indefinable.   The easy one, Ursa Major, who through the ages of a malleable sky now resembles a large pan, and Cassiopeia a large misshapen W.  Mix that with astrology and we have a fairly earthbound reading of the heavens.

I would love to say that my understanding of the science of those heavens went well beyond my forefathers and their animation of gas giants, brown dwarfs, and our local, rather mundane star, the Sun, but it doesn’t.  I stumble over the thought that the night sky I look at today is millions, if not billions of years out of date; I bumble over the thought that the universe is expanding and accelerating into a void; I wonder at the notion that all the grains of sand, on all the beaches on earth, don’t come close to the number of stars in the sky.

Yet I continue to look.

The second time I noticed the sky was on a bus going from Des Moines to Pella, Iowa.  As we quickly left Des Moines the night sky was unfettered by city lights and like an ocean horizon, this rural, mid-American horizon sat heavy with stars that then rose steadily over our heads. 

I was eighteen and headed back to school following Thanksgiving break.  My parents’ divorce had sent me here—no really.  My mother was in Thousand Oaks, California and my father was in Reston, Virginia.  I chose to split the difference in Pella—home of Pella Rollscreen Windows, Vemeer Rolling Bailers and a small Dutch Reform college, Central College.

I have an odd belief in self-determination and fate—it’s somewhat of an oil and water approach to being that if pushed any further can probably be described best as the philosophy of a dog chasing its tail.  So there I sat on the fourth floor of Hoffman Hall watching the sun set, beautifully I might add, and the stars peppering the darkness much like my ocean crossing years before.

So Fate had brought me here, but I had chosen to get on the bus.

From there it was years of the Suburban/Urban life that pays little heed to the night sky.  The moon still rises, the stars still come out, but they are masked by the human condition that has hazed the skies with breath, exhaust and ennui.   I did little to break that cycle—like most I drove a half an hour to my job five miles away and back, surrendered my thoughts to the television (Stockholm Syndrome if ever there was a case), and generally got by with very little interaction with the night sky.

“………………I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.”

What would that wish be?

The rural Vermont mantle that sheets me now is again my six year old sky; my eighteen year old sky.  The Milky Way at one end rises from the Woodstock green, arches crookedly over our house and lands solidly towards Killington.  Ursa Major almost always sets ready to empty its contents onto Mt. Tom while Cassiopeia and Orion’s Belt seem not to move far from their usual spots.

The maps I drew as a child are long gone.  My desire to touch down on and to explore those adolescent squiggles mostly fulfilled.

My subway map says “You are Here”, 3 College Hill.  This is where I want to be.

When I see that first evening star, I wish for the health and safety of my family.  That Min will fulfill his destiny—a destiny he chooses, and that Lisa will do the same.

For me?  Well, that when fate delivers me (no self determination here), my destiny complete and when I make my move into the heavens, that that journey begins here–face up and ready to go.

“Make it so, Number One.”

The History of Travel Part I or Inertia Redefined

Posted in Autobiographical, Ireland, Ships, Trains, Travel, Wales on October 2, 2009 by smpiv

civil warI

Unlike my great great grandfather I didn’t have the opportunity to fight in the Civil War for several years only to gain my citizenship several years after the war’s end.

Unlike my grandfather I didn’t have the chance to bob in the Pacific and have one kamikaze after another dive on my ship.kamikaze

Unlike my father I never flew off a carrier or splashed my multimillion dollar aircraft into the Pacific ( http://www.f-14association.com/stories-05.htm ).stories-05-01 f-14

Unlike my Uncle Joe I never flew birddog for the ARVN forces in Viet Nam.uncle joe

Unlike my brother I didn’t shadow the Achille Lauro in a nuclear attack submarine after its hijacking in the Med in 1985 or shoot a nuclear protestor off the bow of the same boat with a high pressure fire hose.admiral scotty

No, my adventure was far more pedestrian and involved a ferry and a train….a pitching ferry and a moving train.

II

It began like most adventures do, with no intention for adventure.

 It started simply enough as a four day trip to Ireland with Dublin being the extreme end of the journey. My roommate Mark and I left Carmarthen on a train that would take us to Fishguard where we would catch a ferry to Rosslare in Ireland. No problem.

The ferry ride would be a pleasant one, a bit gray as it usually was, but not particularly cold. I can’t remember how long it took to get to Rosslare, but the return trip to Fishguard would seem to take an eternity.

Like most things Mark and I did together it was done in the broadest strokes. We would leave and make our way to Dublin with return tickets in hand with nothing in between planned or accounted for–that was it. Well, we had decided that we would hitchhike from Rosslare to Dublin and then back again, so there you have our plan in whole. This would also be done on the meagerest of funds, thus the hitchhiking portion of our journey.

As for timetables, we left after classes were over and made our way to Fishguard for the evening ferry run, that would put us in Rosslare close to eleven. What we hadn’t planned for was a place to stay as no trains would be leaving out of Rosslare after we arrived until the next morning. When we did get there it was dark and very foggy.

We wandered into town to find the town closed–other than the ferry there was nothing to Rosslare. We muddled for a bit, confused and not quite sure what to do when out of the mist walked a hulking Garde. He confronted us and quickly surmised that we were homeless. We asked for the closest B&B. He chortled and said that the closest B&B was in Wexford, a stop away on the train, but that his sister occasionally took in strays.

“Hold it there. I’ll find out.”

He returned quickly to say that his sister had room and to follow him. Just as quickly we were there to find ourselves put up in his sister’s spare room with a bed that sunk in the middle like a canyon. “Put your bags away and join me in the parlor for some tele'”, she said. We obliged.

Jammed on a small couch, we three watched television for a bit. One show in particular was quite funny. It seemed like a sketch comedy, with people running about, wires running on the floor, the boom mike swinging in and out of frame, with long winded stories about missing cows. Mark and I laughed heartily. Out the corner of my eye I could see our hostess giving us a strange look. I finally asked her if there was something wrong and by the way what is this show–it’s brilliant.

“It’s the National News.”

Strike one for the ugly Americans.

hitchhikingThe next morning we pulled ourselves out of our bed and made our way for the edge of town to begin hitchhiking. We were late–another couple, a guy and a girl were hitching as well. Sadly for them our lateness had inadvertently skipped us to the head of the hitching queue and we quickly had a ride on a lorry headed halfway to Dublin. Just as quickly following that ride we were picked up by a traveling sewing machine salesman who regaled us with tale of the British “Occupation” of Ireland all the way to Dublin. A lot of smiling and nodding on our parts. We kept our ugly American mouths shut for that and kept asking questions about the sewing machines with no result.

Our time in Dublin was unexceptional. We visited Trinity College, wandered Phoenix Park, and for some reason decided taking in an Al Stewart concert would round out our time there. We also managed to find several McDonalds–we never ate there but used them as destinations on our walking tours and as landmarks. Later we would use the same strategy in Paris to different effect and stranger result.

III

The morning we were to leave I got up first as I usually did. Up to this point the weather had been spectacular. After our gloomy beginning, gray and in the fifties, the temps had risen into the eighties for our time in Dublin. So when I peeked through the hotel curtains to see several inches of snow on the ground, I was a bit shocked. Mark told me to “….shut the f**k up” when I told him, but upon my insistence he looked out the window and we both realized our hitchhike back to Rosslare was a non-starter.

I studied the train schedule and the ferry schedule. I mentally booked us on the 8:30 am train that would get us to Rosslare in time for the 11:30am ferry back to Fishguard. We packed quickly and made our way to the train station in time for our train.

Again, unexceptional, until it seemed that our train might be late for the ferry. We were just short of Wexford and I asked the conductor if he thought we would make the 11:30 ferry. He said of course, but what did we plan to do in Rosslare all day while we waited for the ferry to leave? Again I told him I thought, in fact, we were going to be late, as it was eleven and the ferry was leaving in a half hour.

“Oh” he said, adding a chortle that sounded much like the Garde. “That’s 11:30 pm not am.” Oh, I said, no chortle.

We already knew there was nothing in Rosslare and got off in Wexford. We wandered around Wexford a bit, found the local castle, walked the waterfront, and around lunch found a pub. We were there for six hours, drinking pints and watching soccer. We were bordering on being sauced as we got back on the train on our way to Rosslare–the last train, I had checked and double checked to be sure.

IV

We shortly arrived in Rosslare and made our way to the ferry. By this time the weather had gotten ugly at best. Black, black, black clouds and very windy. Our ferry sat in its protected harbor paying no mind at all to the weather, its huge hull looming over the dock, as still and solid as it could be.

When we showed our return tickets we were told that there were so few passengers that we were all to make our way for the first class section of the boat. A nice little bonus as our funds had been seriously depleted by our lack of planning and my misreading of the train and ferry schedules. We made straight for the first class lounge and quickly ordered pints of Guinness.

Mark and I were already a bit drunk from our time in Wexford and this pint, along with the several others that would follow before the ferry sailed would be the beginning of our undoing. And, oddly, at this point we only had enough money for the first pint.

As a gambler I am hopeless–lady luck turns her head when I play cards, make silly bets, or when I buy lottery tickets. On this night, however, she noticed me and decided to have a bit of sport with me.

In the lounge was a 10p slot machine. As the foam from our Guinness made its way to the bottom of our first pint I told the publican to set us up again and that I’d be right back with the money to pay for the pints. Several other passengers had been dumping change into the slot for a time with no luck. I wandered (a bit of weaving as well) over to the slot as they gave up, dropped in my 10p piece, pulled the arm, and collected my winnings. Just like that, not a pause, no rubbing of a rabbits feet, nothing.

When I returned the publican set out my pints. The other passengers went back to the slot and dumped more of their change in the machine, while Mark and I worked our way through our next pint. With my cold and bleary eye I watched them have my usual gambling luck–none. It was time for another pint and I again walked to the slot machine dropped in my 10p piece, collected my winnings and got our pints.

By this time most of the passengers sitting in the lounge were eyeing me with suspicion. The other slot players went at the slot machine again with a vengeance as I sat to enjoy my pint. And now, one more time with feeling.

 By the bottom of the second pint I was feeling quite cocky. I looked at the publican, signaled for two more pints. This time he began to pour before I made my way to the slot. There was a bit of a swagger to my weave this time as I gave a side long look and smarmy smile to the others that had not had lady luck smile on them. I dropped my 10p piece in the machine as before and out came my winnings. The moans of disgust were audible. The publican was impressed enough to give me several pints to give to these…….losers.

So how is this lady luck having fun with a drunken traveler? Where is the come-up pence to letting him win? Just wait, she did.

V

The ship’s speaker crackled to let us know that we would soon be under way and the lounge would be closing for the crossing because of the bad weather. So please drink up and find a seat.

Finally, we were on our way home. The ship left its mooring and steamed towards the open waters of St. George’s Channel at the south end of the Irish Sea on an easterly course for Fishguard. I think it might have been two feet out of the mouth of the protected harbor when the ship began to pitch, duck, bob and weave. That seemingly solid mass of steel was now pitching and heaving like a cork. The chicken lunch I had had in Wexford along with a number of pints was doing the same in my stomach.

That horrid warm tingle and cold sweat of sea sickness took hold of me like a vise. I sat stock still in my seat, staring wide eyed straight ahead, and clenching the armrest with my hands–but it was no use. I had little control and my mind raced. Where on the ship would move the least? Somewhere in my past was the vision of a pivot point mid-keel of ship that seemingly would by the least moving bit on the boat. I had to get as far down in the ship as possible, sitting in bilge water if possible to survive this horrid crossing. Made sense at the time.

I’m sure you can now hear lady luck laughing at me as I went down one set of stairs after another and then down ladders into the engine room. I was three levels into the engine room before a crewman caught me and took me back to the lowest level I was allowed to be on. He kindly deposited my in a head where I hung on for dear life to a stainless steel toilet bowl, my legs protruding beneath the stall. Every fifteen minutes or so–I guess–the crewman came by to kick me in the legs to see if I was still alive. I’m not sure what he was hoping for.

Finally with his last kick he told me the ship had docked in Fishguard and that I had to go. Until this point I hadn’t even thought of Mark and where he may have been. When I found him he was as green as I was. Where had he gone? He had gone on deck, unhooked his belt, reaffixed it around the life line and spent the crossing that way, sick the whole time.

At last, dry land and a train to take us back to Carmarthen. It was over, just the clackity-clack of a our train making its way through the dark–it was one in the morning–Welsh countryside. A quick walk through Carmarthen to Dr. Smith’s manse and we would sleep. What? What kind of adventure was that? Everybody gets sea-sick. Well as I said with lady luck, wait, the adventure has only just begun.

VI

En masse the ferry’s passengers made way for the train station. A sad parade of ship worn, sea sick people only wanting to get this last leg of their journey over with. Mark and I were no different as we scoped out a seat that faced front. We sat with a thud as our slowly recovering bodies landed with a sigh.

Like survivors of something more ominous, everyone was talking at once and it was an oddly happy din. A wispy, tiny little conductor worked his way down the aisle to pop our tickets with his hole punch. I looked up at him, when he stopped beside us, with a smile that sat atop my formerly green face I asked expectantly, “When does the train get into Carmarthen?”

“This train doesn’t stop in Carmarthen. You’ll have to go to Llanelli and then buy another ticket to get back to Carmarthen at 7:30.”

There were two problems this scenario–one, obviously, it wasn’t stopping Carmarthen and two, if you have been paying attention, we were broke. We couldn’t afford the ticket back.

“Do you mind if we jump off at Carmarthen?” I asked half-seriously.

He chortled–that damned chortle again, but he didn’t say no.

Now this story may have ended here except for something that is the undoing of many a man–women. Mark had started to chat up several girls who were seated across from us. They were Americans who were studying nursing in Leeds–no idea why.

Mark had an amazing rap and was a pathological liar. When we went to a meeting of the football club at Trinity (the Welsh version, not the Irish version) they mentioned that they had a need for goalies and Mark’s hand shot up and said that was his position back in the States. Not only had he never played goalie, but he had never played soccer either. He ended up being quite a goalie, however, because he had that innate psychotic nature that makes good goalies good.

In any case, he was working his magic on the girls. One embellishment atop another and then he said it-

“We’re going to jump off this train at Carmarthen.”

By this time he had them around his little finger and they reacted like this was the most heroic, amazingly amazing thing they had ever heard. I chortled, they squealed, but inside I was a bit worried–that psychotic part I mentioned had played itself out in a number of ways before this train ride and still had two other major moments to go before we parted the British Isles and the Continent. But for now–

The train was moving briskly for Llanelli, but I knew from having taken this ride before that the train would slow to make its way round a bend in the tracks right at Carmarthen. By this time the train had grown quiet as one passenger after another dropped off. I kept one eye open to make sure that Mark had dropped off and the other on the girls to be sure they had dropped off as well. As we came closer to the bend in the tracks I was fairly confident that all involved were asleep.

The train began to slow and one of the girls popped up to exclaim–

“Carmarthen is coming up–are you going to jump?”

To this day I wonder how an American girl studying nursing in Leeds knew that we were coming up to Carmarthen. Maybe it wasn’t her, maybe it was that bi…..lady luck.

Mark turned to me and told me to get my stuff together, we were going to jump, it was time. At this point I began my mantra, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God” over and over as I threw my backpack over my shoulder and followed him to the door. At the time, and maybe still, the release on the door was a large circular piece of metal that you pushed to open the door. And let’s not forget, the train is still moving in the twenty to thirty mph range.

I looked down in time to see Mark put his hand on the release and then all hell broke loose. Every movie you’ve ever seen with the screeching of metal on metal as these massive collections of metal and oil try to stop is true, only it has to be multiplied by a factor of ten. It is disconcerting, you are being thrown forward, people are screaming, it’s lurching. Apparently when the door is opened on a moving train it sets off the brakes and turns all the lights on.

I ran huddled over back to my seat, “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God” reverberating in my head as it rose above the other noise. Another voice began to pound in my head, “He’s gone. Your friend he’s gone.” One of the girls was screaming at me, and indeed Mark was gone.

VII

Mark later told me that he had no intention of jumping off the train and truthfully he didn’t jump, he was slung.

With the emergency brakes interlocked with the door mechanism our fate was sealed. Mark had grasped the door push and pushed. The brakes set, the door flew open toward the front of the train and Mark was slung from the train into the night.

I missed all this getting back to our seat. The noise was deafening and things were happening in seconds, but for me it had all slowed down. Not exactly slow motion, but more like an overburdened moment full of realizations and decisions that would normally take much longer. I was in my seat in an instant, in time to look at one of the girls to see her mouth move slowly and the full sentence in my head in an instant.

“He’s gone. Your friend, he’s gone.”

The next instant I’m back at the door, the train still coming to a stop. In the next instant my minimal grasp of physics came to play–I’ve got to jump at the same time swinging the door shut so they won’t know what car we were on. Plan done in a moment I jumped and attempted to close the door. The door didn’t budge and I flipped over and down, way down, onto the gravel below, fortunately on my butt. The elevated track plus the height from the door was probably over ten feet in the air. As I came to the train was still sliding past me and I had no idea where Mark was.

“Mark! Mark!” I yelled expecting to hear his voice in the distance. Instead he was about three feet in front of me running back and forth.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m zig zagging–they may shoot.”

What? Mark had been in ROTC Marine boot before coming to Wales and some of that training would come in handy it little later, but for the moment his zig-zagging wasn’t helping at all. We had to move away, far far away from that train.

We had managed to jump right at the point that the track that ran perpendicular to the track we had been on went into Carmarthen. We could see Carmarthen in the distance–a mile maybe, maybe more, but definitely not less. I grabbed Mark by the arm and started to run.

The wispy little conductor was yelling at us now–

“Come back, come back you hear?” This was all said with the beautiful Welsh accent. A sing song sort of thing that always went up at the end, never down. All the same we weren’t coming back, and I seriously hoped they didn’t have guns–this bend in my logic started to cloud my efforts, but not fully yet. I looked back to see our train stopped, the lights blazing in the inky dark, all the passengers wide awake and gawking out the windows, the little conductor silhouetted in the door we had left from.

I never looked back after that.

VIII

Ahead we could hear the sound of metal on metal mixed in with the ever fading voice of the conductor. As we neared the new sound we could see an island of light with two men working on the tracks and just as quickly we were in the halo of that light.

“And where might you be going?” said a man with a rather large sledge hammer now over his shoulder.

“To Carmarthen”, I said in my best Welsh accent as we slowed to a casual walk through their work area.

“Oh, aye,” he said as we began to run again.

This man could have been educated at Oxford for all I knew, but working on the rails at two in the morning with a fully stopped train in the distance, with a conductor you could still hear yelling for us to come back makes me think otherwise. To his credit he realized his mistake a few moments later when he too began to call for us to stop. Not a chance.

It was at this point that my brain turned to mush and my legs began to operate on the instincts our genes had learned in Savannahs’ of Africa–run or perish. Fortunately Mark stepped up and started to use the ROTC training.

“We have to run perpendicular to our target,” he said. The target being the Carmarthen train depot. Good enough, instinctive move perpendicular to target, mind still disengaged. We started to head for a truck park just outside of Carmarthen proper and by this time we could hear the police sirens–no guns, but a radio to those that did.

The sirens slowed me a bit, but not by much as I neared the road that bounded the truck park. Mark was yelling at me, but I didn’t hear a thing as I ran headlong into a wire fence and performed my second flip of the night as I toppled over top of it. Mark caught up and yelled again–gobbled-dy-gook, still on instinct I dashed across the road and began running across some scrub toward the truck park.

Then the lights went out as I dropped into a stream bed five or six feet down. In another instant I’m out and running again, Mark has caught up with me and we are making our way for a raised walk from some council housing to the main bridge into town. The sirens are getting louder now as they get nearer and as we crest the walkway at a full run we tumbled down the other side, safely hidden, just as the police pulled into the truck park.

I’m not sure how long we had been running, but it was as fast as we could for as long as we could. My lungs were burning by the time we fell to the other side of the walk and as we lay there we could hear the police radios squawking on the other side in the truck park. Couldn’t make anything out, but we were sure they were looking for us as a light danced across the path above our heads.

My head was still disconnected and my legs were shot. I wasn’t sure what to do but I soon got some clarity of purpose. Mark stood up and announced that he quit, he was giving up, he was tired of running and just didn’t care. He proceeded to walk on the raised path in full view of the police. I got behind him and began to push him toward a clump of trees. Amazingly we made it there unseen.

“So what’s your plan?” Mark queried. Well first not to get caught, and secondly I didn’t know. The clump of trees was right off the rotary. I looked intently across the rotary toward the well lit bridge into Carmarthen as I caught my breath and tried to reengage my head into the process. And there it was.

Just on the other side of the rotary was a used car lot that had an apartment above the offices. I had been to the apartment with a girl I had had a short dalliance with several months before. We would go there. Alright a thin plan, but a plan none the less.

We ran across the rotary when it seemed the sirens were a fair distance off, to the bottom of the stairs, and to the top. I raised my hand to knock and before I could rap even once the door flew open. A guy with a wild flurry of hair, darting eyes and striped pajamas looked at us and barked,

“What?”

“Is (cannot remember her name) here?”

“She doesn’t live here anymore.”

“We’re in a bit of tr……….”

“I know you jumped off a train.”

“How…..?”

“I have a police scanner. You can’t stay here, when there’s trouble this is the first place the police come.”

While this conversation proceeded I had slipped by our host into the kitchen and was literally hugging the refrigerator. We weren’t leaving. We finally convinced him of this and he agreed to let us stay until an hour before sunrise. Having settled this we heard the sirens moving closer. We looked out the kitchen window at the rotary to see two police Ford Cortinas, lights flashing, sirens blaring fly into the rotary. They were obviously unsure of their next move, because they chased each other’s tail around that rotary several times before breaking off into two different directions.

The sirens continued for another half an hour or so before quiet once again took over. We both laid fully clothed and slept fitfully until about four in the morning and then slipped out the door.

Again we ran as fast as we could across the lighted bridge and then into the back alleyways, through yards, over this and under that until we were back at Dr. Smith’s house where we lived. To add insult to injury we soon found that we had forgotten our keys and locked ourselves out of our wing and had to break in.

IX

I’m not sure how long we slept, but we both awoke in a panic. In our minds we were fugitives with a price on our heads. The local constabulary would be scouring Carmarthen for us. We would be deported to return to our families and school in disgrace. We ate every day at the same fish and chips shop in town that was frequented by a local policeman. We paid very close attention to our meals, fascinated by a calendar on the wall and ready at a moment’s notice to run out the back door when he arrived–he never paid us any mind.

I had cut my long hair much shorter, while Mark had shaved his beard off. We put the clothes we had worn that night aside for a while, but not for long because we didn’t have many clothes anyway. It soon all blew over–I think–because we were never sure if other than the police giving chase that night if they cared beyond that.

I look back on this night with a chortle–a knowing one. We got away with something that night. Lady luck had laughed at us earlier, but she stayed with us following her earlier fun and kept us from harm. Had we jumped earlier we may have gone off the bridge the train had just crossed over, we both could have gone under the train, any number of things. But, here I am to tell the tale. Thank you Madame.