He Slipped the Captain A Golden Butterscotch

I TURNED that long ship that had screws as big as a building and watched the bubbles behind it on the North Atlantic to the horizon turn into a sweeping curve. I had learned the earth was round, and the captain let a 9-year-old boy navigate. I believe he let me because I told him the HMS Queen Mary was better than her sister Elizabeth because we had three orange smokestacks to her two. I also gave him a piece of butterscotch to prove my heart was where my mouth was. I had been learning the new language aboard the common transportation between New York and Southampton, and I could read all the notices: Besides First Class, Second Class, and Tourist Deck, there were such wonders for a boy as Promenade, Purser, and Danger.

I had discussions with my older brother about what all these things meant as the great engines under us churned and the sea foamed elegantly past the porthole of the cabin we shared.

It was the second day after leaving New York pier where cabbies had called to me, ``Hey, Bub. Don't forget your package, Mac,'' a toy boat an aunt had given, assuring me there was an indoor pool on board. I was getting used to the white-coated prim stewards in our passage of cabins nodding at me, with ``Good day, sir,'' or ``What can I do for you, Master S.?''

But the big deal was that I had memorized our deck number and cabin, and I believed I could venture aloft alone and puzzle my way back through the labyrinth of doors. ``A boy's will is the wind's will,'' so I set out to discover this place for myself.

It was at the purser's office that I was most curious. The radio telegrapher next door most fascinated me, but I never saw anyone go in or out of that room, though I waited; nor could glimpse what I imagined massive paraphernalia of condensers, dials, sets with orange-beaming tubes, all at the ready to send out SOS the moment we hit an iceberg, and the lifeboats which I had inspected, but seemed rather stuck with fresh layers of paint on their cables, would drop down to the sea and I would wave goodbye to my sisters and mother.

I had to content myself with the talisman wires and insulators draped among our three sweetly smoking funnels. Sometimes among the cries of seagulls I imagined I heard Morse beeps going out, stating our position to some other vessel beyond the round horizon. Above the purser's cage was a map that showed day and hour where we were, a clock of tides and speed with two model ships, ours and the New-York-bound Queen Elizabeth, moving closer.

It often looked as if we were moving faster than she was - of course we had three funnels - up past Newfoundland, then across to England, where my family was to live for several years. Why we had to go so far north, when it seemed we could go straight over, bothered me.

I had questions that went unanswered until I discovered the sweet spot of the crew and the England they came from: shillings and butterscotch. I should say, shillings turned butterscotch. For I performed this feat in a very great way, one that I knew would greatly dismay my mother, if she had known I spent my holiday money so extravagantly pound for pound.

Once I learned the purser was there to change bills into the British coinage of the ship, I forked over my boy's dollars - earned by raking leaves for our neighbors - ``for money to spend on the Queen Mary.'' One old lady with misty eyes - she had come from Ireland years ago gave me five whole dollars for carrying her deceased husband's books up to her bedroom, and called me ``Hallert'' and prayed over me. I was to send her a postcard when we docked in Dublin, which I learned was our first port of call. We were going First Class with my father's company, but she said I'd need the money for my family's ``new start in a strange country.''

As soon as I changed the money, I took care of her postcard, never intending to give it another thought, as the purser said it would be mailed from Ireland. The English money felt much heavier in my purse, a coin purse my mother said I had to keep, than the American dimes and quarters. I examined the hexagonal thrup'pence, shillings, half crowns, and marveled at the name of a farthing.

I set out for all the ship's stores, far more carefully than an adult, looking for a likely purchase: something that might delight my heart as much as the new gold in my purse. I passed by a stuffed parrot on a swing for a guinea, even a scarf for the old Irish lady I'd raked leaves for, but in the sweet shop my avarice went wild. I found a tin of butterscotches weighing three pounds for only l.12s.6d. A good deal, I thought. I bought it.

I snuck it back to my room and hid it in a bedside cabinet behind the ship's King James. From there I feasted, pocket loaded a few at a time of silver-wrapped golden butterscotches. I didn't dare share my sugary secret with my brother, who would have been good about it, till at least he needed a bribe on me.

I got halfway through it before I calculated I couldn't finish it by final docking; and everyone was so nice to me, I began to feel like a cad for having done all that myself, alone. So I began handing them out, piece by piece, surreptitiously to my new friends, the steward, the waiter who brought us tea up on deck. The purser accepted a piece: It was he who told me then - in our candy conspiracy - about Mercator's projection, and why the ship was going in a straight line but it didn't look it on a flat map.

One day I was at the railing watching for our rival of two smokestacks on the horizon. A man in uniform came up and said, ``May I look?''

I handed him my father's binoculars.

``These are very good,'' he said. ``Where did you get them?''

``My father fought in the war. He got them from the Germans.''

``Oh, he fought the Germans, did he? You know this ship did battle, too. Carried troops. Dodged torpedoes.''

I asked him if he'd like some of my booty.

``Why, yes,'' he said. ``Rather good stuff, isn't it.'' And he went off on his walk around the decks.

That night a steward brought me an engraved invitation to visit the bridge the next day - it was from the captain. When escorted up to the bridge, I told him I understood all about Mercator and why the ship had to go north, but not really.

``Well, would you like to do a course correction for us? I'll just ring down.... Mr. Hallett is on the bridge, filling in for the captain.... Please take orders from him.'' And he showed me how to call down the new azimuth on the levered compass, then repeat the numbers to the engine room to verify it. ``Aye, aye, captain's assistant - new correction taken at 14 knots...'' came back the voice. ``Well done.''

``You don't turn the wheel?'' I looked longingly at the brass ship's wheels. ``That's for ports. Now watch.'' As the long sleek bow, breaking the dashing waves and spray flew over the deck, I looked aft of the bridge as the huge ship rolling slightly in its powerful paces curved off its line back to the morning's horizon, and turned longingly and evenly, heading up now to Dublin....

The whole tin was gone, and my folly admitted to my mother and repented of after she said, ``Oh, how could you... '' but gifts had been verified by my loyal friends.

It was gone by the night I asked my parents to wake me at 3 a.m. when we came into Dublin harbor. I stood at the rail in the fog and the bumping of the dock and winches of ropes and people below running and yelling and calling to each other in the same strange lilting of old Mrs. What's-her-name I had raked leaves for. These were her people and I felt sad she wasn't standing at the rail with me. This had been her home far, far across the ocean. And she was still in America.

She had been right when she said, ``You'll need a bit extra starting out in a new country.'' And I felt her money so far had gone to good use. Sleepy boy at the rail in the cold fog and smell of harbor, I resolved to go down and buy her that scarf I passed by. She'd get two things from me, a card from a ship with three smokestacks on it that I'd guided for one brief moment, and a scarf mailed from - I wasn't sure where my family and I were going either - but somewhere in England.

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