Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Short Stories: The Storm

As the young helmsman struggled to keep DDR 880 headed into the waves, he braced himself firmly - feet wide apart - against the ship’s wheel to keep from slipping or falling. In the chaos of the storm, it was sometimes difficult to tell from which direction the waves were coming, but the helmsman knew the ship could not withstand a broadside attack. He, a new Midshipman, had been pressed into service when the experienced Bosun’s Mates and Quartermasters usually assigned the special Sea & Anchor detail were so depleted they could not function. 

The vessel, designed to withstand rolls up to 57 degrees before ‘turning turtle’ or capsizing, was already reaching 45 degrees - port and starboard - in addition to pitching violently. More troubling, DDR 880 carried heavy topside electronic gear necessary to perform her duty as Radar Picket, providing early warning alerts to the Task Force or Fleet she was assigned. The steady onslaught of 45-foot waves - equivalent to 5-story buildings from trough to crest - was sorely testing her endurance, as well as that of the crew, over half of which were incapacitated from severe seasickness, vertigo, exhaustion, or injury sustained during the storm. Below decks, floor surfaces sloshed with vomit so often that keeping the mops busy and toilets flushing almost continuously was necessary. Long before, cooks in the galley had given up trying to prepare regular food requiring trays and utensils, instead turning out sandwiches, soda crackers and coffee. 

No one ventured out on the main deck without an emergency mission, lifejacket, a rope to belay themselves, and a buddy, because danger of being washed overboard was almost certain. Besides, all water-tight doors and hatches were dogged and secure. In time, these precautions might be relaxed, but now they were strictly enforced for ship integrity and crew safety. Indeed, it was difficult to even traverse interior passages without walking on one bulkhead or the other in between steps on the deck. Crew members trying to rest had to strap themselves into their bunks to prevent rolling onto a deck or bulkhead. 

At the height of the 3-day storm, waves raked the ship with such force that plexiglass windows on the bridge were shattered, soaking those inside with cold seawater, plus the knowledge that the storm could get worse before it got better. Worse, DDR 880 now needed fuel, as much for ballast as for propulsion, and normally was never more than 2 or 3 days from replenishment. Empty fuel tanks were not helping to control the heavy rolling, just the opposite. Just before the storm peaked, the ship actually took ‘green water’ down the forward stack, quenching its number one boiler; definitely not a recommended event!

Gradually, as the storm subsided, shipboard routines began their return to normal and the crew readied itself for their next challenge; that of approaching, then steaming alongside a large auxiliary ship - an Oiler - to refill its fuel bunkers. While two ships thus travel close together, the seas always run rough and turbulent between them, even in calm conditions. With the storm not yet over, steadily navigating side-by-side this close to another vessel was tricky enough by itself, without the necessary complication of hooking up to an overhead hose system that allowed fuel to be pumped across the span of 200 to 300 feet of turbulent water running wildly past. But, with this needed task at hand, crew members carefully prepared to venture onto the main deck and man the ropes to pull the fuel hoses over from the Oiler, then hook them up and begin to receive the heavy residual oil - called ‘Bunker C’ - into DDR 880’s tanks. 

The first monkey-fist weighted leader line was twirled and thrown over from the Oiler and caught, then hauled in by the crew, allowing a larger line -tied to the leader- to follow. This larger line was for actually hauling over the fuel hoses, a task that proved overly difficult, forcing the crew to either let it go, or risk being pulled overboard. Again, the Oiler’s monkey fist flew, bringing the leader line over to DDR 880, and again the attempt failed. By this time the crew, being thoroughly wet, knew the drill and the new danger hauling the refueling hoses over entailed. Again and again, the monkey fist made a brief visit to the vessel, failing four more times to bring over the hoses. Finally, the seventh attempt succeeded, allowing sufficient fuel to be pumped into the thirsty vessel to sustain it for a few days, until it made port in the Bay of Biscay.

Relief came at last for the tired crew and damaged equipment aboard, as the storm’s fury finally blew itself out. Later, in swapping sea stories, we learned that other ships had also dealt with traumatic conditions that threatened damage almost as severe as DDR 880. In fact, two newer vessels with experimental aluminum superstructures, suffered structural failure and personnel casualties, requiring their being towed into Portsmouth, England for extensive repairs. 

What the young helmsman learned was that the sea was a mighty force that could not be tamed, especially in a storm, but could be carefully coaxed into allowing ships and men to live for another voyage, if one had the necessary skills and experience. From the moment his ship made port, he committed those lessons to indelible memory, to be used again whenever ocean conditions might threaten.

The remainder of DDR 880’s cruise was relatively uneventful as far as excitement is concerned. Nevertheless, both helmsman and crew seemed to approach each day with newfound awareness of what could happen and how best to deal with it. This is the essence of training, including development of teamwork and safety consciousness. Respect for the sea is a tradition with mariners, particularly those who survive for long. Poseidon does rule the waves, but also all things nautical; this is not just mysticism, but eternal reality! Davy Jones awaits those incautious enough to dare him.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Short Stories: The Sentinel

The Sentinel

The observer remained motionless in the dark, his black cloak masking every feature except for his own faint silhouette whenever the clouds thinned. He was naturally well-suited to this job as a trusted sentinel, having spent several years training his keen night vision, hearing and sense of smell into a formidable ability to immediately detect the slightest movement or change in his surroundings, whether due to the wind or other causes. He also had the remarkable ability to keep stealthily alert for long periods and still remain poised without discomfort; traits easily noticed and admired by those who knew him. It was a lonely job, but an important one, and this sentinel actually enjoyed the silence, independence and personal satisfaction it provided. But, he also knew -with certainty- that he would be handsomely rewarded after each such successful vigil.
Every night, as his wards slept soundly, the sentinel would leave his post just before dawn and carefully patrol the perimeter until he was satisfied that all was well. Then, he would quietly make his way back to his next assigned position, recalling as he went what he had seen, heard and sensed during this latest watch. He did this instinctively, summoning all his training, innate cunning and the genetically inherited characteristics of his unique breeding.

Off-duty, the sentinel assumed a different personality, enjoying activities with those he liked, regularly visiting favorite haunts, napping often and eating well. Yet, he maintained his fitness and health easily and without much effort at all. A remarkable physical specimen with a pleasing personality, he was widely admired and liked. But, this he seemed to take in stride as simply befitting his nature. He did dislike loud noise, confinement, traveling in vehicles not under his control, and being bothered or threatened by unwelcome visitors. And, occasionally, he liked to chase and kill. Gideon was his given name, although he rarely answered to it. He preferred certain other nicknames instead, but communicated vocally only as it suited him, and in a style all his own. No one took exception to these peculiarities, least of all those who knew him.

This particular name - Gideon - seemed to fit him, since it conveyed the image of an Old Testament Biblical hero who was appointed by God to defeat numerous enemies of Israel, using only 300 men - an ancient equivalent of modern day special forces, or the Spartans defending Thermopylae.
That Gideon had also reconnoitered the enemy camp at night, gathered intelligence, then launched a surprise attack, using bugles and torches to frighten Israel’s greatly larger force of enemies into first attacking themselves, then retreating in a rout. The victorious Gideon then reluctantly served as Israel’s ruler and esteemed judge for 40 years thereafter, dying in old age after siring 70 sons.
Should one deduce that Gideon was not an ordinary human, they are right, although his family of friends considered him capable of human traits, motives and reactions. He inspired such comparisons because he effortlessly endeared himself to - almost - anyone he met.

The sentinel’s actual name, bestowed upon his adoption was Giddy Gato, a quasi-Italian inspired version of ‘Kitty Cat’. It was strange enough to be noticed, yet accepted by most that came to know him. Most came to call him just ‘Giddy’. He was a member of the species ‘Felis Catus', an ancient group of mammals thought to have been domesticated in the Middle East almost 10,000 years ago. He was a Bombay cat, a type of short-haired cat developed by breeding sable Burmese with black American shorthairs, thus producing a hybrid with a sleek, tight, silky, black coat, resembling a mini-panther.

Kitten Gideon first found his wards by silently moving through ferns in a forest area when only 4 months old. Immediately adopted, he lived with them almost 11 years. One day, as his wards returned home from a trip, it was apparent that something was seriously wrong with Giddy, who was normally healthy. Now, he seemed lethargic, had visibly lost weight, and didn't respond to the usual irresistible enticements for food and fun. His wards waited a week, then took him to the vet for examination, definitely not his favorite activity.

The test results weren’t exactly good, so a different diet was prescribed, along with medications. This gave the wards hope; then came results indicating troubling abnormalities. Biopsy tests showed positive, still his wards remained in denial that Giddy had a dire disease from which recovery was doubtful. The wards paid more attention to Giddy than he could fully appreciate. This worked initially, but his downward trend resumed, so after two days of not eating or drinking and barely moving, Giddy was back at the vet again for intravenous re-hydration.

This time, the vet was blunt with the diagnosis, and the wards got the full message; Giddy was dying, and it was only a matter of days or weeks before his demise.
Although the implications had been right there in front all the while, the wards had chosen to hear only those parts they wanted to hear - that Giddy would improve and optimistically, his life might extend up to a year longer - but with suffering.
Yet, again, Giddy responded well to his new regimen, rallied strongly, gained weight and acted closer to normal, although without his old strength and vitality. Then, began his final decline, culminating with a peaceful death. Giddy had sensed that his time was approaching, and like most animals, was better prepared for it than humans.

One thing will always remain; our faithful sentinel - and watchcat -still honors our home, as his ashes reside in a memorial white urn, marked ‘Giddy Gato 08-08-08’. And, of course, our memories of the little creature that had miraculously invited himself into our home; had adopted US, loved us, enriched us, entertained us, and had brought much joy to the entire neighborhood.
Now, our refrigerator door magnet proclaims 'A House Is Not A Home Without A Cat’.

Short Stories: The Nap

Ray had never been an early riser, except for a stint in the Navy and the occasional need to get up early to catch a plane or keep an important engagement.  For those times when his usual sleep was shortened he often caught a nap later to compensate.
This particular morning was different since he could identify no special reason to rise early, just a vague strange feeling of something special about to happen. Even the weather seemed to portend an oddly mysterious day ahead. 

As a child Ray had been well nurtured by his mother who wished her son to be healthy, educated and comfortable.  Indeed, both parents always encouraged him to learn, explore and seek higher goals for his life. In fact, he did succeed in a broad range of endeavors, particularly those that interested him or provided a positive challenge.  Never very ambitious for higher office, status or income, Ray nevertheless sought to achieve excellence in whatever he did or aspired to, whether jobs, education, activities, or personal relationships.

Above all, Ray wanted to better understand and seek the higher meanings of life, adopting those philosophies and practicing those skillful means necessary to attain and live an enlightened life as a human being. Whatever that meant would become not only his goal, but  a constant life-long challenge for him.

As he grew older, Ray married, became a father and by choice held a succession of diverse jobs that often required relocation as well as the usual adjustments that can strain relationships, and in his case did.  His first marriage ended despite best efforts to save it and Ray was thrust into intense strain and despair that forced him to face the unwelcome reality and seek yet another change to both distract him from this failure and provide another job to support his new financial obligations - and himself.

Although Ray had never been afraid of new challenges before, this one was unremittingly tough at a different level and he began to hate just having to deal with it at all. He tried to lessen the pain by drowning it in drink, deaden it with distractions and smother it with more sleep, none of which worked.  For the first time Ray realized that more sleep wasn’t helping because it was restless sleep, often interrupted with unsettling dreams that interfered with his ability to think positively and perform well.

Eventually, Ray was fortunate to find yet another job, that also required a major relocation, which helped break his gloom.  The new venue required an energetic focus, which also began to positively affect Ray’s lifestyle, outlook and relationships.  Ray could see now how he’d gotten stuck in habits, patterns and expectations that were root-bound from his youth and sometimes unrealistically impacted both his goals and achievements, and personal satisfaction. This was a full mid-life crisis which Ray wanted desperately to resolve in a positive way.

Always a goal-oriented ascetic with high ideals, Ray decided he needed to broaden his lifestyle to include more personal enjoyment.  He found he could now adapt his interests outside of work to achieve a better balance and more personal happiness.

With a new focus on life, Ray was open to meet, love and eventually marry a woman with whom he shared many common interests. Immediately, Ray was happier than he had ever been. But, Ray’s new satisfaction with life was now threatened by yet another job crisis; his company went bankrupt forcing him to re-examine his skills, opportunities and goals, this time under duress.  While change had always been a part of Ray’s life, the sudden necessity for wholesale soul-searching, job hunting and possible retraining for lower level jobs thrust him into another very stressful situation.  This time, Ray decided to seek professional counseling, although again, he was tempted to retreat into sleep.

But, this time Ray’s crisis served to wake him up.  He reassessed his qualifications and soon found work in a new field, related to his prior work, that did not require relocation.  This new direction proved useful for several years, until one day Ray received a call from a former colleague who offered a job similar to ones Ray previously had held.  The only catch was, it required another relocation. Fortunately, Ray’s wife agreed to go with him and they began this new adventure together.

The new adventure was a happy one that endured almost 20 years before Ray’s next big crisis, which was health-related and happened shortly after his retirement.  In prime health, Ray became  suddenly aware of a serious illness, requiring major surgery and extended, debilitating treatment against long odds to bring under control.  His recovery required much rest, serving to reintroduce Ray to a former enjoyable habit.  Under these circumstances, Ray had time for personal reflection in the absence of normal physical activity and used that time to determine how he might gracefully meet his fate without trepidation and fear. Once this was done, Ray felt relief along with a clear sense of peace and equanimity, he began to fully enjoy his sleep.  The comfort, and calm Ray felt were almost addictive, allowing the stimulation of creative thought that made his waking hours more satisfying.  He became fascinated with his own family history, and actively pursued it.

As the enhanced connection with history evoked memories that recalled his life events, Ray began to re-live his life with a new perspective and throughout these protracted recollections, he seemed to float above it all, effortlessly and without attachment.  He liked that a lot.

As the distinction between waking and sleeping hours also began to fade, Ray noticed less conflict between the two states and welcomed it.  As he strived for a seamless reality, the very afternoon of the day he had that vague, strange feeling, Ray actually achieved it; when during a nap he first visualized, then spoke to and actually hugged his mother.  

This time Ray did not wake up - or did he?