Saturday, May 28, 2011

Expectation - The Dawn Ritual

It was a solicitor who knocked on our door yesterday that got me to thinking. She wanted a donation for a charity to clean up a huge area of the ocean where currents have brought together tons of trash stretching for miles, floating on the surface. Plastic bags and bottles, fishing lines and hooks and fishing nets for as far as the eyes can see. As far as I'm concerned, cleaning up the mess should not depend on charity. It should depend on taxes and nations should be responsible and pay the bill and to come together and send fleets of ships to clean it up. I have reason to say that...

There was always a day at sea that occurred occasionally that I considered perfect. And, had I thought about it, I might have been able to keep a record to figure out if those days came at scheduled intervals, just in time to sooth the soul. Maybe they did. But, I didn't notice. I did, however, notice that those were special days.

On those days I awoke early, like I always did, around four-thirty, showered and dressed by four-forty-five, and made my way to the galley for coffee. On those days I could walk down the passageway without bracing for the side-to-side rolling motion. I could hardly feel the ship moving at all. It felt like walking on solid, unmoving ground. There was a slight vibration from the ship's engines. Sometimes I could feel the power of the propeller pushing against the water without the slightest hesitation or interruption or shudder, unlike other days. Just a solid, continuous, harmonious push. On those days I felt a small serge of anticipation about what I would see from the main deck. I anticipated a perfect day.

Sometimes by the time I started my walk to the mess hall, I could hear others rising for the day. They, like I, knew from an inner feeling and the absence of swaying motion that the day was special. Someone would yell out, "rise and shine!" or "What are you doing? Sleeping your life away?" The few early risers gave no quarter to those night-owls who stayed up late and wanted to sleep in for just one more hour. The reply was usually, "shut the fuck up!" I heard the curse word and would think, "not today. That word is inappropriate today."

I would arrive at the galley as the coffee was in its last few perks, the color in the sight-glass perfectly dark brown to suggest better-than-usual cup coffee. It was always good coffee, but on those days it was great coffee. The cooks were already up and preparing for breakfast. The mess hall floor was littered with empty cardboard boxes just unpacked for the morning meal. Chute would be placing food on the serving counter or stirring the shit-on-the-shingle, a creamy gravy with either chipped beef or sausage, one of my favorites, or stacking the cartons of eggs beside the grill. The grill was getting hot. Someone stacked the bread next to the toaster. I picked up a few slices as I passed by. Someone else was gathering up the cardboard boxes, folding and bundling them up for trash storage for disposal at the next port. We didn't toss them overboard.

As soon as I entered the galley I'd hear Chute yell out to another cook or some guy on mess duty, "Check the milk dispenser. Set it to thirty-six degrees. I don't want to hear Clark bitch about warm milk!" He said that every morning after we became friends, and we may have became friends because of warm milk. I can't drink warm milk. In fact, I won't drink milk unless it nearly freezes my throat as it goes down and there was a time when I told Chute every chance I got that he didn't know shit about keeping milk cold. I'm sure he got tired of hearing it. "We keep it at forty degrees," he'd say. "Shit," I'd say, "that's warm." He finally turned the thermostat down and the entire crew started drinking more milk.

Those days were the reason I used a small thermos instead of using an even smaller galley cup. I didn't want to run out of coffee. I didn't want to miss the morning by having to return to refill my cup every fifteen minutes. I filled the thermos and made my way to the main deck and to a spot about one-quarter of the way down the rail from the bow, port or starboard, whichever was facing East, if at all possible. Robby, a Gunner's Mate friend, may already be there or he may be a few minutes behind me. He knew the spot too. It could have been that I learned the spot from him or perhaps he learned it from me, but we both knew where to stand. It was quieter at that spot than anyplace else. It was a point we studied and thought about. We leaned against the rail and waited, drinking our coffee and saying nothing.

Usually it was totally dark when we got there. There was just a slight shimmer, a bright thin line, on the perfect eastern horizon that told us that the Sun was coming. There was not a single sign of phosphorous light from an ocean wave, except sometimes something shot out of the water alongside the ship and quickly dove back in, causing a phosphorescent splash. Dolphins, we knew, were tracking beside us, out-pacing the ship, playing a game with us, but we couldn't see them yet. They were perfectly camouflaged in the dark, black water. Our engines were cruising nearly noiselessly. We could hear the splash of the Dolphins. We could, on some days, hear a flutter of wings, a different kind of wings than those of feather, and we saw the white phosphorous spot where something else popped out of the water. We couldn't see where it dove back into the water. These were flying fish, we knew, that rose out of the water and flew a hundred yards ahead of us, but we couldn't see them either. At least not yet. Even our ship cutting through the water caused so little disturbance in the water as to make a sound, nor could we see any sign of phosphorescent disturbance at the waterline. In spite riding on a machine that should have been making a noise, it was eerily quiet. We almost heard the Sun rising and the ocean waiting. Usually, as we drank our coffee and waited, we wondered at the power of nature that could muffle all sound as it waited for the day.

Finally the Sun would make its appearance, the dawn began to make things visible. We could see the Dolphins playing, rising to the surface, jumping and diving, and seemingly pausing to look at us standing against the rail. The flying fish breached the surface and flew farther than they did on other days. Sometimes we saw pods of killer whales farther away jumping and diving like the Dolphins. Perhaps they were following the Dolphins. Perhaps the Dolphins were close to us because the killer whales would not come closer. We sometimes saw whales breach the water and they too seemed to look at us. Once we saw a water spout and Robby and I were surprised at that sight. "How could that happen?" one of us asked, I don't recall which, on a day when there were no clouds in the sky and no apparent wind blowing and not the slightest wave on the ocean? As far as I know, it takes the same weather disturbance to create a water spout as it does a tornado, yet they appeared on the calmest day at sea. Perhaps sometimes for reasons that are beyond my understanding water can behave like dust in a dust-devil and rise and swirl around in gusts of invisible and isolated pockets of wind. Some people prefer sunrises that reflect on clouds in radiant reds, but there is no denying the beauty of a blazing sunrise in a cloudless sky over the calmest sea. In fact, the sense of power one gets from the ocean on its quietest day is greater than when it is most turbulent.

On those days the ocean was so smooth that we couldn't see even a hint of a swell. The questions in our minds was always the same, "How can the ocean be so large and this smooth? This glassy? Not a single ripple on the surface?" The Sun's reflection off the water was just as bright and blazing as the Sun itself and we couldn't look directly at either the Sun or the reflection. We watched the Dolphins or flying fish instead. Soon, a few gulls would come to fly a few feet away, intentionally picking the spot where we stood, nearly flying in formation and keeping post with us. We broke off pieces of the bread we brought from the galley and tossed them into the air and they, with perfect precision, like a jet fighter peeling off for a dive, dove and caught the pieces in mid-air. One of us usually ask, "What are these seagulls doing way out here?" or "Where do you think they sleep?" We were frequently several thousand miles from land, yet those gulls would be there. The simpleness of our questions masked a deeper feeling of awe.

Chute, on a break, would join us at around five, also carrying a cup of coffee and a few slices of bread for the gulls. He said the same thing every time on those days, "what a nice day! This is what I wait for." It was better than nice. It was perfect. Then, the three of us would toss bread to the gulls and watch the Dolphins in silence for thirty more minutes before going below to the galley for breakfast. For unexplainable reasons, we were hungrier and the eggs tasted better and the bacon crisper and Chute was a better cook than usual on those days. Robby wondered out loud if he could find some reason, an excuse, to work outside. Maybe a gun needed painting or lubricating or perhaps brass needed shining; things that Robby didn't usually do at his rank. Chute and I, who worked below decks, would find more excuses to go outside today. In fact, I noticed that on those days, there seemed to be more of the crew outside than on other days and, if you were observant, you could catch them gazing out over the ocean in a kind of daze or dream.

Robby, Chute and I were not always on the same ship together, but I believe we always attended the dawn ritual together. They, like me, wouldn't have missed those for the world. They were enchanting and addictive.

If I thought that I could see a sunrise like that, an ocean that calm and toss bread to gulls and watch dolphins play on a day during a five-day cruise to Mexico, I would book the cruise today. Earth can put on unimaginable displays of power, beauty and mystery and sometimes we should simply stand in silent reverence. Maybe the rest of the time we should do what it expects of us - take care of it.


1 comment:

tclandis said...

Felt the sway. Heard the gulls. Saw the sky and whales. Smelled the salt water. Tasted the coffee.
LOVED it. Thank you for writing.