My Ship of Fools

Charlie and Scott came up from the engine room shining their flashlights, faces mottled with grease. "No need to call the Coast Guard," Scott told the captain. "We just taking a little rest." Rongo and I yanked a garish, orchid-spackled sofa out of the deck cargo and hoisted it up to the bridge to provide a comfortable smoking seat for the engineers. "Couldn't call them if we wanted to," Captain Joe said evenly, tapping a citizen's band radio mounted on the ceiling. "This piece of shit hasn't worked in weeks."

"I was a steward then. Instead of getting groceries, I'd get whiskey and sell it to the crew. That would more than pay for the groceries. I was making good money on that ship. Everybody had a scam going. We was working out of Port Suez, running to Saudi Arabia through the Persian Gulf. Nice run, boy. I remember we would catch thousands of goggle-eyes - that's something like a jack. I've never seen a place that had so many goggle-eyes in my life. Anyway, there were these two brothers from the Cayman Islands. Hard men they were. They decided they was going to take control of all the scams on the ship. They would go breaking into the crew cabins, beat up the crew, and take their money. Everybody was scared of these brothers.

"But the way they screw up is they didn't bargain on Captain Funk. Captain Funk, he was from Baltimore. One day he caught them breaking into the cabins with a fire ax, and he say, `Enough! You and you go up on deck, and we going to forget I'm the captain of this ship. This just between us.' The whole crew come up on the deck, and so did the Cayman Island brothers. One of 'em had the fire ax, and the other had the fire extinguisher. I was just a little boy then, sixteen or seventeen. I couldn't believe what was happening. Captain Funk, he come up and say, `Boys, I want to tell you something. I'm from Baltimore, but I ain't from the nice part of town. There's some bad streets in Baltimore, and I live on the worst one there is. The farther down it you go, the worse it gets. And my house is the very last house on that street.' Boy, let me tell you, they went at it. And when they got done, wasn't no fire ax, wasn't no fire extinguisher. Them Cayman Island brothers was lying down like they were dead. He beat 'em like dogs, he did. Captain Funk. That old man must be dead by now, but I can see him like it was yesterday."

Johannis Connors

Something was very wrong with the magnetic compass, and no one onboard the Helena Sea had anything more than a vague idea where we were. But the ship was moving again. We had left the Gulf Stream behind three days ago, after successfully pumping the starboard fuel tank. The engine was running smoothly at its top speed of seven knots, and now we were cruising down that giant submerged sandbar called the Great Bahama Bank.

In Miami the ship's owner, Donald Gilles, had yanked the satellite navigation system from the pilothouse and stored it for weeks in a damp closet to guard against thieves. The back-up batteries had run dry, and the tiny navigation computer, now utterly useless, had lost its memory. Captain Joe, clutching the instruction manual, swung between fits of hapless tinkering and stomping rages in which he threatened to toss the machine over the side. The radar worked sporadically, but there was no land for it to pick up. There was no second compass. There was no sextant, and no one knew how to navigate by the stars.

In fact, though we were steering directly into Orion and the Little Dipper by night, three of the crew had never heard about constellations. My faulty description of what they were set off a violent, 40-minute argument that woke up the cook and the chief engineer and nearly ended in bloodshed. Oily smoke was gusting out the door of the toilet, and the ship was listing ten degrees to starboard. The beer had finally run out, and the captain's hands were shaking badly. The second of two barracudas we caught trolling off the stern bit Spuds on the nose at dawn the second day out, and now the little thick-necked beast lay on the newly painted floor of the wheel house, one paw over his snout, sliding slowly and smoothly from one side of the room to the other like a shuffleboard puck. The whole ship was filled with the sweet stench of vanilla, from a half-gallon bottle that broke days ago in rough seas.

Gentle reader, it was at this time it occurred to me that I was going to starve or drown with six dangerous dingbats and an injured dog on a smoking ship lost at sea and loaded with one dump truck, six hearses, 100 bundles of secondhand clothing, several stacks of clay tile, 60 burlap sacks filled with empty beer bottles, three broken refrigerators, a mountain of strung-together plastic buckets and Mazola bottles, four brand-new four-wheel-drive Isuzu jeeps, one diesel van with a bent chassis, six sets of automobile leaf springs, a Honda motorcycle, five dozen bicycles, and a mound of stained mattresses, coffee tables, cracked television sets, and hideous parlor furniture.

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