Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page
 Chapter 42

More Starvation

While Willy often participated in the track laying, he still had a great deal of excess energy. He discharged some of it by going out rowing in the ocean, and, if he happened to be going out, he often relieved Cadet Jonsson of his responsibility of meeting the coastal steamer.

After the episode of my rapid descent of the mountain, Willy evidently decided that I was all right. At any rate, he invited me to go out rowing with him, and I was quick to accept. I had rowed as a child, but only sporadically. At this time, it became a major activity.

Willy was pleased to see that I had acceptable technique. It was, he said, just a question of developing the muscles and the endurance. He seemed to think that that was a small thing. I smiled. Willy thought that, if one had the right spirit, and a very small amount of technique, all other problems could be overcome. It was a good thing, I thought, that he knew so little about my spirit.

Willy's boat, like Cadet Jonsson's, was a fourteen footer with two rowing positions. We both rowed most of the time, but I sometimes rowed gently while he fished. Sometimes, he would strip off his clothes and jump into the freezing water, trusting me to keep near him. When he was about to go into terminal hypothermia, he would grab the transom and hurdle over it toward me in a shower of water like some huge amphibian from the time of the dinosaurs. He would then wrap himself in a blanket he kept for that purpose and thank me for making it possible for him to swim without having to tow the heavy boat with a rope around his waist.

I had heard that Willy went out in the worst weather, and did other unwise things. I was thus not entirely at ease, that first time, when we went well offshore. It was a bright pretty day with only a light breeze, but things could change quickly. Knowing what the right spirit entailed, I didn't voice my concern. Still, perhaps sensing my hesitation, he said, reassuringly,

"Examine the boat closely."

I had already noticed that the boat had an unusual interior configuration. I now discovered that there was a ring of kapok, the material used in life preservers, fastened securely to the gunwales all the way around. Willy explained,

"The waves can come aboard and the bottom of the boat can fill, but there'e enough bouyancy up high to keep the rails above water and allow the boat to be rown. In fact, in a gale, it's better to have the boat lower in the water. The seas roll over her instead of tossing her about. You get wet, but most of the body stays above water level most of the time. Some time, we'll swamp the boat and you'll see."

I was, indeed, reassured, but still happy that he didn't seem intent on swamping the boat then and there. We continued to row offshore for some time, the boat slipping over the swells with a minimum of effort and the sea birds circling easily overhead. Among them were some arctic terns, the little birds that migrate from arctic to antarctic, often without being seen in between.

For such prodigious long-range navigators, the terns had a particularly undignified cry, one which was both plaintive and bad-tempered. I later found that they became rather threatening, diving and squawking, if one approached their nesting grounds.

When we turned back, the sun was setting low over the water. It cast a peculiar but glorious light I had never seen before, more white than gold, but full of strange shades of indigo and maroon where it shone through clouds. In that gentle but always threatening arctic evening with a soft following wind, I was almost overcome with a sense of, I suppose, joy. I was facing the dimming sun, and, as each wave lifted us gently and pushed us onward, it felt as if nature, in all its vastness, had concentrated the maximum amount of beauty in the exact perspective which I occupied.

I was in the habit of pricking such balloons of euphoria as came my way with sharp unpleasant Kierkegaardian thoughts. It was my way of not letting my guard down, and thus avoiding pitfalls. On this occasion, my thoughts were as far removed from Kierkegaard, or any sort of philosophy, as anyone in Iceland's "uniquely unphilosophical society" could have wished.

Neither did I think of opportunities for the dropping of trousers, or even of Sidonie or Vignis. It was enough to pull smoothly and lose myself in that gentle pitching motion as I kept my eyes on the darkening and ever more extraordinary western horizon.

I was sure that Willy felt the same way. It might have been a common experience for him, but, even so, I could tell from the softness of his stroke that he was now free from the harsh and demanding spirits that so often drove him. Insofar as I thought at all, it did occur to me that Willy, unbalanced as he might be, had managed to get for himself an unsually large share of the best things in life.

I was still deep in my reverie when I suddenly heard the thunder of breakers, dead ahead. When I turned to look, Willy stopped rowing and rested lazily on his oars. We had apparently travelled miles between sunset and the present near darkness without my noticing it, but Willy didn't appear to be alarmed. In truth, I realized that we weren't dangerously near the black cliffs. The foam, still white in the gathering night, might mark the spot where ocean surged against rock, but it was an ancient contest, one which had nothing to do with mere mortals. Willy spoke conversationally,

"Inexperienced seamen are often afraid of cliffs and breakers. What they forget is that, if the shore is steep, the waves bouncing off will keep a boat out of the breakers. If we wanted, we could back the stern in close enough to touch rock with an oar, and still get off."

I did realize that the dangerous kind of surf is that which runs over shallows, and which will drag and smash a boat on the rocks. Still, as we approached the cliffs, the sheer magnitude of the force of the waves was somewhat daunting.

Willy's method of instruction was oddly comforting. I felt that he knew what he was doing as we rowed under the cliffs. Since there was now not much wind, the spray bounced back over us, but the boat, broadside to the cliffs, rose and fell in place, never getting any closer. I even began to get a feeling of comfort and safety as we nestled there, sheltered under those big black volcanos.

We rowed easily along the line of the cliffs, and then diverged offshore to round a submerged point. Willy remarked equably,

"This doesn't look dangerous, but it is. At this tide, the rocks are far enough down not to break most of the time, but an unusually big sea will get you."

As it happened, his point was quickly illustrated. A previously smooth patch of water thirty yards off to port suddenly burst into a curling angry breaker. Had we been closer, it would have rolled us over, and probably worse.

When we approached the gate, it was high tide. We had the unusual luxury of being able to row unimpeded right into the harbor. Willy might have to wait to get out again, but he said,

"On a night like this, it's not so bad to tie up right beneath one's home."

The very next day, I bought my own rowboat, a twelve footer with two rowing seats, from an old man who had kept it beautifully but no longer used it. It was much like Willy's boat with a round bottom, a pleasing sheer, and a tapered transom. Willy modified it himself with kapok under the seats and a thin ring all the way around, just under the rail. As he said,

"It doesn't take so very much if it's placed so as to ensure stability."

I did what I could to assist Willy, and, when we were done, he had me swamp the boat at the edge of the harbor. The sun was fortunately out, and the temperature was in the fifties. The only way I could get the rail under was to balance precariously with one foot on it. Finally, the cold water began to slosh in over my foot. At first slowly, and then more quickly, the water filled up the bottom of the boat. Willy, ten yards away on the shore, told me to sit down and row. I did so, with water sloshing over the seat. While very cold below the waist, my heavy sweater kept me reasonably warm above it, particularly when I started to row.

At first, the boat, with its heavy load of water, felt moored to the bottom. But then, when I did get it moving, it went surprisingly fast. Turns were difficult to execute, but the boat was stable in the water, even more so than in its usual condition. I found, by tipping and turning it, that it was impossible to fill the boat completely with water. A wave that came over the side or bow simply knocked other water out of the boat. Whatever I did, the rails tended to remain above the water.

Willy, casting a giant angular shadow from the rock on which he was standing, surveyed me solemnly as I rowed back and forth. When he finally waved me ashore, he said,

"Pretty good, but we'll add just a touch more bouyancy in the bow. When the big seas come down, you want them to sweep over the boat instead of picking it up and tossing it. But, still, you want the bow to rise to them just a little."

"What happens to the rower when the seas sweep over the boat?"

"You tie yourself securely to the seat, in addition to the usual life line. You also tie down the oars so that they won't be lifted up out of the oarlocks."

I was also assured that, with the boat in "hull-down" position and a sea anchor out, one wouldn't be swept so very far by a gale. Willy always kept a large supply of fresh water and dog biscuits in the boat, and advised me to do the same. I asked,

"Why dog biscuits?"

"They're cheap, nutricious, and last well. Once in a while, I give them to the dogs and buy new ones for the boat."

Getting the water out was much more difficult than getting it in. Even with Willy's strength, we couldn't pull the enormously heavy boat any distance up on shore, and, even when the tide was going out, the water in the harbor dropped only a foot in six hours. Eventually, by alternately pulling and using a bucket, we got the boat out on shore, dumped it, and refloated it. Tied up at a small wharf, the boat sat upon the water like a swan. It was the first boat I had ever owned, and, apart from my railway car, it was the only thing I had ever really taken pride in. Soaked and cold as I was, I would have set out there and then if it hadn't been low tide.

That evening, I discovered that the others had been watching my activities in the harbor. Mac boomed out,

"You'll make yourself into a submariner yet, son. Jes row a little harder and you'll go right under."

Sidonie was amused by the image of my rowing across the harbor with only my head sticking up, but Vignis wasn't amused at all. She asked,

"What on earth are you and Willy up to?"

I explained that the whole experiment was in the interests of safety, and that Willy was really a sensible and cautious fellow. She rejoined,

"Willy's kind of caution is no good to anyone who hasn't first undertaken to do something utterly crazy."

Just then, Willy himself turned up, and Vignis started in on him as if he were a boy intent on leading his little brother astray. Willy, for his part, was quite contrite and promised not to drown me. Quite surprisingly, he had the tact not to explain to Vignis how safe it was to row offshore in a gale or almost into the breakers at the base of a cliff.

I was a little surprised that Mac didn't seem to worry about Willy. While no one could have been less likely to take advantage of his position financially, it would have been extremely awkward for Mac if Willy had fallen off a mountain, or gotten himself drowned. God knew who Willy's heirs might have been, or what they might have been like.

I discovered later that Mac, and to some extent Vignis, believed that Willy operated under a charm as long as he remained in Iceland. Vignis worried only that the charm might not apply to people who attempted to follow him.

The Starvation game that evening was more relaxed, at least on the part of the others. I, having finally gotten warm and dry, played like a tiger. It seemed to amuse the others in a way that I didn't understand. Sidonie, having no caution at all, always seemed to engage in reckless adventures with her warships. When they were sunk, she would remove the markers from the board with a pout and a flourish and attack anew. One almost expected her to call out,

"I have not yet begun to fight."

With the dark flush that became her so well, it was, really, a fascinating performance. Vignis, on that occasion, looked slightly uneasy. She then asked me laughingly if I weren't going to offer to help finance Sidonie's bankrupt country. I had been too absorbed in the game to think of doing so, but made a gallant gesture to the extent of the price of a merchant ship or two. Sidonie looked oddly at me and thanked me shyly.

I continued to play well, and, before long, I had one of Vignis' convoys trapped. Despite her laughter and high spirits, I could tell that she really wanted me to let her ships go. On the other hand, I could sense from the others that such things hadn't been done. After all, one could hardly have a serious game if people were going to be let off whenever they got in trouble. I was about to sink her ships when she put a hand to her ear, removed the earring, and offered it to me with a smile. I steamed away and set to work destroying Mac and Willy.

Mac's battleships fell victim to my torpedoes surprisingly quickly. Willy, faced with adversity, took to cheating during the battle phases. I, convinced of his utter probity in such matters, didn't notice it. However, when Vignis confronted him, he laughed enormously, looking hardly older than a teen-ager as he did so.

After I won and the game was put away, we remained in the cafe, drinking a variety of innocent and exotic beverages dreamed up by Vignis. There were a number of other customers on this evening, and, as the fire blazed and reflected all over the glass roof, Cadet Jonsson and his young lady assistant went back and forth from the cottage with drinks and food. I was talking with Willy, a little apart from the others, and I asked him how long he had been playing Starvation with our group. He made a curious self-deprecatory gesture with his hand as he replied,

"Not so long. Perhaps a month or two before Vignis went to America to meet you. I enjoy it, but I haven't the patience to play as long as they do."

At that moment, it was Willy who seemed the adult, the one who recognized that Starvation was only a game, and who didn't wish to lose sleep over it.

The ordinary daily activity consisted of supervising the construction of the narrow guage line as it twisted up into the mountains. That was rather fun. The former field marshal was exercising the functions of a captain, and I was his lieutenant. The Icelandic workmen, while clever, had never seen a railway. There were also young men from almost everywhere who seemed to know very little about anything. We had to show them everything, and I knew a good deal more than Mac did about the niceties of track laying.

The line ran from the harbor along a small river that fed into it. In that direction, the river had created its own plain, and the mountains rose from it as somewhat isolated cones of rock and volcanic gravel. The line could have been kept level by curving it around and between them, but it had been necessary to gain altitude. Mac had consequently curved the line up the lower slopes of the mountains and filled between them. In some places it was necessary to dig through the gravel to find rock, and then to erect a trestle which allowed falling gravel to pass under the line without clogging it.

A good deal of the heavy cutting and filling had already been accomplished by the time of my arrival in Iceland, but there was plenty left for me. I also got to supervise the enjoyable part, the actual laying of the track. However, when we reached the point, near the mines, where the stream was fed by one of Iceland's thousands of waterfalls, we were faced with a cliff of moderate proportions. We had gained enough elevation so that only a modest cutting through the cliff was needed, but dynamite was nevertheless required. It was a good thing that the Icelanders were used to explosives. Neither Mac nor I had ever blasted, and we would probably have blown ourselves up in the attempt.

There were satisfying booms and fine showers of rock. The resulting slice through the cliff was rough, and not very pretty, but it looked as if we could run the line through it.

A narrow guage line, with its steep grades and sharp curves was perfect for a mine run. On the other hand, the Icelandic politicians needed passenger cars and engines which wouldn't look dinky when they arrived behind the latter and were photographed descending from the former. That required standard guage, and one couldn't very well have a humiliating switch from standard guage to narrow guage on the other side of the mountain from the capital, where standard guage had already been laid. The standard guage line would thus have to run all the way to Buthir, Olafsvik, and, ultimately, Akureyri, the principal town of the north.

The main problem was that, as Mac put it,

"This line is being built for vanity, not economic necessity. There can be a change of government any time in a parliamentary system, and a new government might easily disown the railway, and its increasing expense, as a folly of the old government."

To combat this possibility, Mac was laying discontinuous stretches of standard guage line in various places, and was also bridging a couple of fjords. If a lot of work and money had been expended on something that couldn't yet run, there would be a strong temptation to complete it.

It also wouldn't hurt to have some standard guage locomotives marooned far from Reykjavik, and Mac had ordered a couple, a Pacific and a Mikado, to be delivered at Buthir. They arrived aboard a freighter at the end of April. The freighter was too big to get into the harbor, but, expecting that, we had laid tracks on the decks of two old sailing ships which had, some years earlier, been cut down for barges.

In an extremely dodgy operation, in which a locomotive might easily have been dropped through the deck and bottom of a barge, we got a locomotive on the deck of each barge and towed them into the harbor. The sea-going locomotives looked odd as they rocked in the gentle swell, and, once into the harbor, we let them remain on the barges for the time being.

It took us a little while to dual gauage some of the narrow guage trackage to get the new engines to the standard guage track. Then, by chopping judiciously at the bulwarks of the barges which we had carefully positioned, we were able to lay temporary track right from the wharf on to the deck.

Having steamed the Mikado up in advance, we completed the link to the track on which it was standing at dead high tide. The engine swayed dangerously on the uneven track, but, as we held our breath, it arrived safely on the wharf. Having learned a few things, we improved the process at the next high tide and got the Pacific ashore with no fuss at all. We then had at least a few hundred yards of operating standard guage railway at Buthir.

At one point, we had no fewer than two thousand men working on the two railways, most of them sleeping in the open at night. Our wages were high for Iceland, and, before we realized it, Salka Valka had resigned as our cook and gone to work on the railway. We did think of trying to hire her back, but Sidonie said that she would have a try at cooking herself.

The narrow guage operation was much simplified by the fact that it was a steady grade all the way up to the mine, with no dips and rises. We ran our first train in mid-May, and discovered that our two narrow guage Mikados could easily pull a short string of empty ore cars all the way up without pause. Coming back, it was just a matter of hanging on the brakes all the way and using the the short stretch of flat track by the wharves to stop. While the processing plant was far from completed, we did manage to process and ship our first mercury by the first of June.

In order to transport men to the mine and back, we hung a couple of old passenger cars on the uphill end of one of the trains, next to the engine. When it arrived at the end of the work day, the men and women would swarm off happily, some of them even patronizing Vignis' cafes.

At just about that time, when the town was already bustling, we began what was, for us, a large project. The spur of the mountain range that came down to the sea effectively blocked us, and the rest of the Snaefellsness peninsula, off from the old port of Buthir and the rest of Iceland. The only way out for the standard guage was to tunnel under the foothill immediately east of the town in order to reach the flat coastal strip that we could follow most of the way to Reykjavik. The only other major engineering works were two bridges over fjords that were already under construction.

In order to dig the tunnel, we used most of the men who had built the narrow gauge line. The atmosphere suddenly became that of a boom town, seemingly with every roughneck in Iceland sleeping in tents or on the bare ground. It differed from the boom towns of the old Wild West mainly because no one had guns. Thus, while no one was killed, other differences were minimal. The men drank and fought, and the camp followers came in significant numbers. Since all the housing was taken, they, too, slept in the open under bits of tarpaulin.

Once, when I was out walking with Vignis and Sidonie in the evening sun, I noticed a piece of canvas on the ground which was moving in a curious way. I remarked,

"I wonder what's moving that canvas up and down. There's no wind."

Sidonie replied,

"I can't understand it either, James. You'd better look under it."

I was about to do so when Vignis stopped me. Only then did I hear the sounds of a couple making love.

That same late sun also illuminated the rowdiness in the few streets, with people surging and lurching back and forth, and made the town picturesque in a bizarre way.

Ours was the first tunnel of any kind ever dug in Iceland. Mac brought in a Swiss engineer to supervise it, but none of the rest, including myself, had any real idea of the procedure. We began by landing a good deal of heavy equipment from a ship and laying track in a short cut leading to what would become the west portal of the tunnel.

According to the Swiss gentleman, it wasn't a tricky or difficult bore, but that came from a man whose countrymen had dug a spiral tunnel from both ends and met in the middle with an error of a few inches. We began tunnelling in full confidence that he would bring us out in the right place.

In any part of Iceland outside of Reykjavik, and perhaps even there, the ultimate enemy was always boredom. In that summer of 1938, however, there was scarcely a dull moment in Buthir. Indeed, in our separate ways, the five of us participated in the fringes of the rowdiness. Both Mac and Willy banged a few heads and busted a few noses for the unusually obnoxious, and I got busted in the mouth in the course of defending a lady's honor. The lady was actually one of the camp followers who decided that she had had enough for the evening. I defended her right to call it a night, and, in the event, I was fortunate not to lose any teeth.

Vignis floated through it all untouched and unsullied. She was so obviously the Queen of Buthir that men would break off in mid-oath to apologize if she happened to appear.

On Sundays, when no one worked, many recovered from the previous evening. The Salvation Army managed to keep the bars closed, and, while there was always some drink available, there was a good deal of fairly peaceful gayety. We managed to swim a little in the shallow end of the harbor, where there was a small black beach which absorbed some heat from the sun. Vignis and Sidonie there struck up acquaintances with some of our female visitors who turned out to be, not really prostitutes, but girls intent on a summer's fun far from family. The water seemed warm to no one but Willy, and the rest of us dashed in only briefly, afterwards laying in the sun. I could communicate to some degree with most Icelanders by then, and I thoroughly enjoyed the people, most of them quite open and humorous.

In September, we were almost half-way from the time of almost endless daylight to the time when there are only a few hours of strange arctic twilight. The tunnel was half dug, and we had got far enough so that a reduced crew could work all winter if necessary. After all, the temperature underground is above fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and, with a genarator providing electric light, the working conditions were quite comfortable for a limited number of men. We let go a good many of the diggers, particularly the rowdiest elements, and the end of summer thus brought with it the disappearance of a good deal of the revelry in the streets.

Even Vignis' non-alcoholic cafes had been crowded during the summer, sometimes by people who hadn't realized that there is such a thing as a drink without alcohol, and, in the chaos, we had left off playing Starvation. We now resumed with a new intensity. I continued to do well, and, in fact, I won more games than anyone else. It was just after I had reduced everyone else to eating rats and cockroaches one night that someone remarked that Sam Hanks was coming to Iceland. He had been in Paris and London for some time, ever since he had originally accompanied the others to Europe. There were perpetual crises in Europe, which were to lead to war in less than a year's time, and I said,

"I imagine Sam'll be able to tell us about everything that's going on in Europe."

Vignis said that, yes, he would undoubtedly be able to do that. But she didn't seem to be very happy about it. In fact, in all the looks the others exchanged and the things they said, there seemed to be no real enthusiasm.

In the week before Sam arrived, Vignis arranged for him to stay with Willy, who had an extra room. The combination of the two, Sam so handsome and urbane and Willy so truly wild, didn't appear to me to be at all promising, but Vignis told me that she thought it would be all right. As she said,

"When I suggested it to Willy, he said he wouldn't mind. They do know each other, and, besides, Willy lives in his own world most of the time. I can't imagine that it would upset his household rituals."

I hadn't known that Sam had ever been in Iceland, but I could only agree.

At one point during the week, Willy spoke to me in a way that I hardly understood. The net upshot seemed to be that everything would be all right, and that he, Willy, would look after things. He had evidently been talking with Vignis, and they had apparently arranged matters to their satisfaction.

Bill Todd -- An Uneasy Utopia
Table of Contents  Last Chapter  Next Chapter  Home Page