Thursday, December 9, 2010

Down to the Sea Again

I've always been interested in the merchant marine, as a romantic kid and, later, as an adult admiring practice and skill. Reading World War II history, I found myself in unusual sympathy with the guys who sailed the Lend Lease ships to Murmansk as much as the usual suspects. One of my favorite books, John McPhee's 'Looking for a Ship', is about the merchant marine, and, in his subtle manner, a lot more besides. Did surgery for 25 years or so: routine, endless hard work and detail, occasionally terrifying, and seen by those without utterly differently from the way I saw it. A freighter captain or engineer might know something about that...

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

John Masefield, 'Cargoes'

I know where that's at, intimately, as a surgeon, and I'd guess anyone who's ever seen reality intrude itself on a daydream too. I wonder how a merchant seaman would see it. Meanwhile, I myself saw that dirty British coaster romantically, and, a little, still do, turning Masefield on his head a bit...


Ruth said...

Funny you should mention cargo, yesterday I was talking about the Atocha shipwreck treasure off Florida. The richest treasure ever found and recovered, it lay in the deeps until recent years. I can imagine the feeling of having undreamed of treasures in hand, and feeling yourself sinking. I hope they laughed.

ProfWombat said...

Classic situation. Even Indiana Jones had to let the Grail cup go. And some fear treasure: they might not find it and die disappointed, or find it, and, if it isn't enough, find their entire life a lie...

Some men are sailors, but most are just dreamers,
Held fast by the anchors they forge in their mind,
Who in their hearts know they'll never sail over deep waters,
In search of the treasures they're afraid they won't find

So in sheltered harbors they cling to their anchors
Bank down the boilers and shut down the steam,
And wait for the sailors to return with their treasures
That will fan their dull embers and fire up their dreams

Eric Bogle, from 'Safe in the Harbour'