Ice!by Tristan Jones
When Tristan Jones was discharged from the Navy, and told he was physically unfit for more seagoing, he got hold of a small craft, Cresswell, which he converted to a cruising ketch and started sailing. Determined to sail further north than anyone else, Jones set out for Iceland, accompanied only by his dog, Nelson. Jones spent two winters full of continuous… See more details below
When Tristan Jones was discharged from the Navy, and told he was physically unfit for more seagoing, he got hold of a small craft, Cresswell, which he converted to a cruising ketch and started sailing. Determined to sail further north than anyone else, Jones set out for Iceland, accompanied only by his dog, Nelson. Jones spent two winters full of continuous suspense and danger in this bleak polar region.
- Sheridan House, Incorporated
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In Aden Military Hospital everything was hot, dry, and sandy: the walls, the floors, the nurses, the sheets, even me. After six weeks of lying painfully on my stomach with a badly bruised spine, I had taken the first hobbling steps over to the shady veranda and had gazed with pained eyes across the dun-colored town to the and escarpment of the Crater. Ships lay at anchor beyond the shimmering docks, waiting like mother-hens for the long, black, sinister-looking barges to be bustled alongside by tiny, tooting tugs.
The British army doctor's verdict had been quite definite -- no more heavy work; certainly no more seagoing. I would be lucky ever to be able to walk properly again. Ever again, at twenty-eight years of age! Just arrived in full manhood and condemned to idle ashore for the rest of my life -- never again to feel the lift of a ship's hull under my feet as she departed her haven and danced to the sea's welcome swell; never again to meet the first flying fish glittering in the midforenoon sunlight as the vessel drew the waiting tropics to her heaving forefoot; never again to sense the magic anticipation of a new, strange shore rising over the horizon ahead, or to hear the icebergs calving from their mother mountains in the low, long, bittersweet dawn of the Arctic; never again to know the utter comfort of a mug of cocoa more softly, gratefully sipped from a great china mug than any wine from any chalice, as the iced hull slipped through the hazy, freezing fog of the Denmark Strait.
I leaned on the balcony rail, mid-Victorian Gothic iron, beaten into shape by men in faraway England, an England pregnant with the power ofEmpire, a hundred years before, when my grandfather was a boy apprentice on a Black-ball line trooper to India; half a century and more before my father deserted sail in Capetown to join the Australian Horse and chase Christian de Wet and his Boer commandos across the Kalahari desert of South Africa.
Gazing across the shimmering midday heat to the great Crater of Aden, past the miles of mud hovels to the glistening hotels and stark minarets in the distance, I felt, for the first and only time in my life, self-pity. I grabbed the handrail tightly and looked down to the dusty courtyard below. It was crowded with the usual complement of beggars and local patients' families, some with cooking pots steaming over small fires, some just patiently waiting in the shade for the next call of the muezzin to prayer. It was a good fifty-foot drop. More than enough. It would be so easy. A painful heave over the rail when none of the eagle-eyed matrons of the Queen Alexandra's Royal Nursing Corps were around; two seconds' rush through space and it would all be over.
"Good morning, Jones. Still alive I see!"
"Good morning, Matron. Yes, but only just."
She smiled at me, her blue green Scottish eyes the color of the heather of Tiree itself.
"Och, come now," she rejoined, "a braw laddie like you talking like that; just imagine it! You've far to go yet. Let's see now, you're Welsh, are you not? And talking like that -- just think of all the folk that you'll meet when you get home."
" 'What, Matron, in Greenwich Hospital for Naval Pensioners?"
"If you go on talking like that, then that's where you'll probably end up. But I think not, Mister Jones. If I've got you reckoned up, well, you'll be back on your feet in no time at all." She smiled again. "And mark what I've said, for all my family were well noted for the second sight. Now, my lad, no more fashin' yoursel'. Off you go for your meal -- and this afternoon you can pack your kit."
"Aye, pack your kit; you're off to England on this night's flight. I'll have a nurse around at five o'clock to help you. And mind, laddie, no flirting now, or I'll have you on Captain's Report."
" 'Aye, aye, Matron!"
At dusk the Royal Air Force Transport plane took off. I remember only a few details of the flight -- that the plane crew was efficient, friendly, and kind; that we landed somewhere in Tripoli and again in Rome; and that the fields of England were startling in their greenness as we swooped down onto a base in Wiltshire. And that my mind was made up. No matter how much pain and suffering it would cost me, I would go back to sea. Somehow, only God knew how, I would find the strength and the means.
As we flew out of Aden into the lightened sky to the west, across the southern end of the Red Sea, I glimpsed for no more than a few seconds the Strait of the Bab el Mandeb, its rough white water far below looking like snow flakes in the dark sea of the narrow, rock-strewn channel. The Bab el Mandeb -- the Gate of Tears! Despite the pain from twisting my head, I stared down at it. The Gate of Tears... the Sea of Sinbad... I would go back, even if it killed me. Nothing could keep me from the wide waters of the world!
I would see the flying fish and the dolphins, the porpoise and the whales; I would see the trade wind clouds and the albatross; I would hear the call of the calving ice and the hymn of the wind over Tierra del Fuego and trace the weft of green Sargasso weed as it drifts from Bermuda to the Azores. I would creep into the womblike fiords of Greenland and whistle on the wind to the coral reefs of the Arafura Sea and hear the wailing muezzin-call of the Comoros!
"Good luck," whispered the air force nurse as I was wheeled down the ramp onto the ground of England.
"It's not luck we need, love."
"No? What is it?" She leaned closer; her femaleness even in her starched uniform disturbed me. Uncomfortable, with a cracked pelvis.
"Bastardy, sweetheart. Bastardy, and a good pint of ale."
"Well, the Royal Navy's got plenty of that," she laughed.
The ambulance wafted smoothly through the English lanes and roads for a couple of hours, finally coming to a halt before the venerable hospital of Haslar, where men had been treated after all of England's past fifty or so wars. After two months in the care of the British army and air force, I was once again in the stern arms of My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty. There would be no kidding and joshing here. Fear God, Honor the Queen! Up Spirits! Pipe Down! Everything to order, like an orchestration of clockwork precision. And yet, as with the Royal Navy rope, there was a "rogue's strand" running right through the middle of it all. A saving grace of toleration and humor which made, but only just, life bearable in the "Andrew" (the British sailor's name for the Royal Navy).
Gradually the days of English summer passed by, the trees in sweet blossom, warm worn brick, cottagelike walls, grey flagstones washed by the feet of thousands of broken men from the Nile, Copenhagen, Trafalgar, the African Coast slave-chasers, the Crimean War, Tel el Kebir, Jutland and the convoys, Gallipoli, the Falklands, North Cape and the convoys, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, the North Sea, and the Channel.
"Must have been a hard lot in the days of sail, eh, mate?" I commented to the sick berth "tiffy," an Irish lad who ran our ward.
"Yeah, and sure the bloody seas was rougher, too, auld son."
I laughed. He was right. They'd gone back to sea from here in the old days, with God only knows what limbs and other spare bits missing. They'd gone back to sea to sail the great, swiftly lumbering wooden walls of England, and by the living Jesus, so would I. And if I couldn't go in their navy, then I would go in my bloody own! The die was cast. I hobbled around, but faster now, with rising ambition and the star of Cymru -- Wales -- the brightest star that ever the sea shone under, racing in my blood, and the song of Madoc and Morgan in my mind, willing my body to repair itself all the faster.
But how? And then I remembered all the sailing lore I'd learned from my old master, Tansy Lee, and I thought of all the surplus war boats and materials lying rotting in Her Majesty's Dockyards, and I suddenly saw it all clearly. I sat down on the nearest bed and grinned: I knew how. I would shortly be discharged with a pension of ten dollars a week, and a paying-off gratuity of fifteen hundred dollars. I would somehow get hold of one of those craft and put all the knowledge and care I had left into her. I would lay hands on good galvanized wire and canvas, rope and fittings. I would cherish and put all I had into her. God would do the rest, and the Devil, who had done his bloody best to hobble me, could go and get stuffed. Once I was back at sea, nothing, nothing in the whole world, could touch me!
Sure it would take time, maybe years. It would also take a lot of patience, courage, and determination. I wasn't at all certain about the time, the patience, or the courage, but by Jesus, I knew I had the fourth attribute. The fifth -- luck -- was in God's hands, but I couldn't expect him to do much without a great deal of help from me.
I hit one fist into the other: I'd do it! The game was afoot!
I don't want to join the army, I don't want to go to war, I'd rather sit around Piccadilly Underground, Living off the earnings of a high-paid lady. I don't want to join the army, I don't want me bollocks shot away, I'd rather be in London, lovely dear old London, Fuckin' all me bleedin' life away!
First World War British Army song. This was not an antiwar song, it was the soldier's sardonic comment on the shirkers and profiteers at home.
Copyright © 1978 by Tristan Jones
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