“The Big Adios” by George Eyre Masters
Akashic Books introduces a new flash fiction series, Wilderness Wednesdays. Inspired by Nina Revoyr’s brilliant and chilling new novel, Lost Canyon, which is set in the Sierra Nevada and could be categorized as “wilderness noir,” this series will showcase hard-boiled short stories of men and women in perilous encounters with the natural world. But if you think surviving an encounter with a black bear, a 10,000-foot elevation, or a cell phone dead zone sounds difficult, try describing the experience in 750 words or less. Pretty wild.
This week, George Eyre Masters battles the ruthless winter ocean.
During the night the winter storm veered north and it changed everything. The winds in the Gulf of Alaska dropped from 72 to 23 knots and the battering ninety foot seas began to settle into marbled hills of white, green and grey. A couple hours after dawn, the sun peeked out and it began to snow. The American flag snapping in the wind, our ship shouldered her way into an arctic high pressure system the combined size of California, Nevada and Utah.
Bound for Yokohama, the container ship President Adams accelerates to 18 knots.
Officers and crew not on watch may sleep without fear of being thrown from their bunks. The cooks go back to cooking and the men who feel like eating can do so.
After breakfast, it’s heavy coats, boots, and double mittens as Jim Wilkerson and I walk like gorillas down the icy catwalks, checking the containers above deck for storm damage.
Crusted snow and ice lay underfoot as gusts of snow dance and swirl off the tops of containers.
Jim and I come to a ladder, and Jim goes up first. Arms and legs in practiced rhythm, each move deliberate, Jim climbs through the opening. Standing on the catwalk above me, he holds on to the railing and leans with the roll of the ship. I go next.
Our faces are cold boiled and lobster red, the wind flattens our eyes. Iced eyebrows and beards give us the look of snow monkeys.
Jim shouts, “Where’s the beach and the girls?”
I point south and Jim nods. Maybe he’s smiling; hard to tell with all that weather in his face.
With Jim in the lead, we inspect the containers, the lashing cables and turnbuckles. I shake a loose cable, use my steel bar to knock the ice off the turnbuckle and tighten it.
Up and down ladders and along the catwalks we hang on to our 900-foot steel mountain gone adrift, each step and hand hold calculated to keep us alive.
The ship climbs a long watery hill. At the top, the ship’s propeller, thirty feet in diameter, comes out of the water and the ship shakes herself like a wet dog.
The wind has a punch like Rocky Marciano. Climbing a ladder, I get hit in the chest and my boots slip off an iced rung. Mitts locking on the hand rails, I regain my footing. Heart thumping, I pray and curse in a single breath and don’t look down.
Better to land on deck and break every bone than fall overboard. A cut of wind or a rogue wave snap rolls the ship and I miss the deck, it’s the big adios. I wouldn’t stand a chance, not in that ocean. No ship and no captain and crew could save me. To plunge into the boiling cauldron would be the salt-burning, eye-popping, breath-sucking end.
I reach the top of the ladder and Rocky punches me in the nose. Swatting away the icicle forming under my nostrils, I watch Jim climb and wait for him. And though we’re thousands of miles at sea, I feel it clearly, the Orient, the domain of the dragon. As our ship nears Asia, a strange yet familiar tune begins to vibrate up through my boots, an ancient song played on crude stringed instruments.
For a moment the memory of Vietnam flares my nostrils. Despite the temperature and wind, I catch the tropical drift of rain, tall grass, and bamboo. Smelling mud, canvas, and helicopter exhaust, I look up at a frozen sky that tilts with the roll of the ship.
Beyond time and the grey horizon I see a red dirt hill. Surrounded by rice paddies, the hill is peopled with Marines, howitzers, tanks, and tents.
I see jungle blackened by napalm. I taste the copper penny tang of bleeding gums and the flirting sweetness of canned peaches. In a ditch soaked in fear, fury, and urine, the ground is littered with brass shell casings. A ripped sandal made from a truck tire hangs in a tree limb.
Under the dark jungle canopy, the sun appears like the occasional wink from a distant star. Bomb craters the size of swimming pools are filled with rain, the green slimed water dimpled by swimming, flying bugs.
Aboard ship, Jim Wilkerson steps off the ladder on to the catwalk. The freezing wind blows the war away, I’m losing the feeling in my nose and hands and we’re back to work.
GEORGE EYRE MASTERS was raised in Lima, Peru, served with the U. S. Marine Corps in Vietnam and later attended Georgetown University. Commercial fisherman, construction worker, sea cook, bartender and teacher, he did a stunt in the film “Alligator” and was consumed by the beast. His writing has appeared in a number of magazines and newspapers including the Boston Globe, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle. He has recently completed the crime novel “Trouble Breathing” and the baseball screenplay “A Wink of Glory”.
Posted: Oct 20, 2015
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