A Man of Three Names
Lake Michigan, February, 1957
It was a fine bright morning with little white clouds scudding high over the lake. On the surface, with white-caps just beginning to form, a cargo ship, the PAXTON MERCHANT, led a trail of black smoke through the sky. Salt-streaked from the Atlantic, she had just come through the newly opened St. Lawrence Seaway, and was now steaming parallel to the opulent northern suburbs of Chicago.
Despite a temperature in the low thirties, it was a scene which might have inspired an attitude of placidity and serenity, with perhaps even a modicum of good will toward all and sundry. Captain Gundvun Narveson, standing mountainously on the wing of his bridge, was looking for someone to curse. Seeing no one but the steward on the deck below, he let go a few preliminary oaths. He then called into question the relation between the steward and his mother, and was proceeding to that between the steward and selected goats, when he decided that it wasn't worth the trouble. Surprising and alarming the steward with his sudden silence, the captain stared with great hostility at the towns of Winnetka, Glenview, and Evanston. When Northwestern University intruded itself into his view, he took it to be an institution for the criminally insane. In fact, the whole shoreline was a low tedious affair that looked as if it might be infested with yellow fever or bubonic plague.
Having spent his life on the great oceans, Captain Narveson now found himself in the last of a series of elongated bath tubs. Suspicious of fresh water to begin with, he noticed with unease the lack of natural harbors. Even worse, there was no deep water in which to ride out a gale. He suspected that the seas broke clear to the bottom, and, on this winter day, he was anxious to get his ship docked before any such thing happened.
As they left Chicago on the starboard beam, steaming at ten knots, it seemed to the captain that it hardly looked like a port at all. There was no tidal estuary, and there were no protecting harbor islands. Instead of a port area replete with everything from giant cranes to whore houses, there appeared to be only office buildings and apartment houses.
On the approach to Gary, Indiana, Captain Narveson let the pilot do all the work, occasionally standing close to him and towering over him to make him feel uncomfortable. Things did begin to look a little more normal. There was, at least, all the heavy industry that anyone could want. As they slowed to a few knots and crept over the sand bars, a strange and horrid-looking little tug came out. The tugboat captain, his face up-turned at the bridge, looked like an escaped alfalfa farmer. Not even wanting to watch the docking, the captain stumped down to his cabin. He was seventy one and very tired.
For the first time in a long time, he cast his mind back and dredged up from the mud bottom of his memory a few boyhood images of the stark black mountains of Iceland. The volcanic black soil, a mass of gritty little pebbles, didn't provide much food or comfort, and he was sent out in the fishing boats when he was very young. But the life was so hard that he took the first opportunity to escape. That came when an old English barque, her sails ripped by a gale and her yards askew, sought the uncertain shelter of Hvalfjordur. Ice coated the standing rigging, and it was soon learned that three seaman had been swept overboard.
The winds funelling down the long mountain-lined fjord seemed determined to smash what the ocean had left of the ship against the rocks. However, swinging and surging awkwardly at her only remaining anchor, the barque was slowly repaired and made almost seaworthy. Captain Narveson, then a boy named Leif Thostolfson, watched closely. On the wild night before her departure, he rowed out and asked for a berth. He was signed on with no fuss and no thought of telling anyone on shore. The half swamped rowboat in which he had come was simply cast adrift.
These events had occurred so long ago that they now seemed to concern another person. Indeed, the fact that even his name was different accentuated the captain's sense of remoteness from his boyhood. Still, while he could remember only the occasional detail, and very few persons, he could name and describe all the ships he had sailed in.
They beat their way against the westerlies with a cargo of salt fish for Boston, and, although the others complained of cold and discomfort, the boy Leif found himself warm and comfortable. They didn't have to haul nets on board from a half submerged deck, and the fo'c'sul, unlike those of the fishing boats, remained dry.
There was one memory, when they were a week out, that had stuck with him. He was on the fore t'gallant yard, taking in sail in the fog, when the seaman next to him pointed. A clear patch revealed, hardly a quarter mile away, the southern tip of Greenland. It was Cape Farewell, named with good reason, and it was the first of the famous capes which had marked the captain's life. Those particular white ice cliffs, looming out of the black depths with great breakers snarling at their base, had been altogether too close for comfort and safety. But the boy on the yard was transfixed and fascinated.
Captain Narveson had a vague memory of entering Boston Harbor in a snow storm. It was the first city he had seen, and he remembered wandering and getting lost. His first woman might have been there, perhaps a prostitute in Scollay Square. Or had he still been too young? Perhaps it was later in Valparaiso.
They left Boston in a fresh gale. As he stood at the wheel, helping one of the A. B.'s hold the vessel against the seas, the mizzen topmast was carried away, almost landing on him. He remembered that, and then later, it must have been in a different ship, his first experience of the Southern Ocean. Crossing the equator with no fanfare in a ship that didn't bother with the traditional ceremonies, he had nevertheless been struck by that great dreamy treacherous expanse in which he was to spend so much of his life.
It seemed to the captain that he should be able to remember his first passage around Cape Horn, the greatest and most dangerous of all the capes, but, like that first woman, it was gone. Then came the two wars. The less said about them, the better.
In his long sea life Captain Narveson had never acquired more than could be put into his chest. Now, scaling down to what would fit in a kit bag, he unceremoniously thrust through the open port-hole things that he had owned for decades. He glanced briefly at some medals and citations awarded for gallantry in war-time, and then ejected them as well. The alfalfa farmer on the tug might wonder what was going on, but let him fuck himself.
Captain Narveson then wrote out a brief letter of resignation, addressed it to the owners, and left it on the desk for the steward to mail. He had no love for his first mate, and didn't wish to see the pleased expression on the latter's face when he found that he was, at least temporarily, in command.
When they were docked, and the captain judged that the gangway would be rigged, he finished his Coke and went ashore. Without ever looking back, he asked an idler on the dock to direct him to the bus station.
Gundvun Narveson had heard of the Chicago loop, and he found it good. Taxis almost killed him, and the brawling crashing elevated railway made hideous sounds as it negotiated right-angled turns at speed. On Wabash Avenue, he recalled hearing a song about a train called 'The Wabash Cannonball.' Looking into the angry twisted traffic, he saw no cannonballs.
Carrying the kit-bag easily over the shoulder of his blue serge watch coat, the captain was no longer tired. He walked to the Wrigley building, which stood out like a white blanched corpse in the light snowfall, and then along Wacker Drive. The word 'Wacker' also pleased him, and he repeated it several times, avoiding saying 'Vacker.'
It seemed likely that Al Capone had once taken the air along Wacker Drive, but no sign of him remained. On the other hand, there were a good many sleazy characters who, in the captain's imagination, carried heavy weaponry underneath their shapeless jackets. Satisfied on that score, he stopped for lunch in a German restaurant that reminded him slightly of Hamburg. After eating, he took a satisfactory piss that boded well for his enlarged prostate gland. He then consulted the well-worn telephone book in the booth next to the men's room. Having made a few calls, he boarded a train for the north-west suburbs.
The Green Valley Retirement Home did not lie in a valley, and it was green only by virtue of two little pine trees in front of the door. However, it was almost as anonymous as some little islet off an obscure coast on the other side of the world. If a man had an awkward past, it wouldn't be likely to catch up with him there.