Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Now do you think I'm crazy?

It is this time of the year when the colors start to change that I find myself becoming a little more introspective. I was born in the fall and this has always been my favorite time of the year. While I don’t necessarily think I am a morose person, I do have a quiet, contemplative relationship with human mortality, perhaps stemming from so many of my close family members dying while I was in my formative years. I’m not afraid of death and in the Buddhist tradition; it is always walking beside me. None of us are getting out of this life alive and once you embrace that idea, your daily life becomes far richer.

This translates into a few idiosyncratic tendencies on my part. Anytime I leave my family, I never assume that I will see them again. I don’t treat this realization as a reason for anxiety, but rather as a reason to always let my family know that I love them. When I listened to some of the last cell phone conversations from 9/11 and how people tried to say good-bye, I wondered what I would say if I were in that position. Probably something along the lines of “You know that I love you and you know that I’ll always be with you, and if I can give you a sign that I’m still with you, I will." I don’t think I would drag it out, I think I would be rather matter of fact about it. I would hope that it wouldn’t hurt my loved one’s feelings but they probably are used to me by now.

Another quirk is my addiction to the obituaries. I used to work in hospice and I started to read them everyday because I would know quite a few people listed there but I find that even if I am traveling and have a chance to grab a paper somewhere, I am compelled to read the obituaries. I think it is our duty to remember the dead, even if we have no connection to them.

One of my favorite quotes, and I’m paraphrasing here, is from the book “The Disappearance” by Genevieve Jurgensen. “I love the living in all their miasma, I love the dead for their temerity. There is nothing in between.” There are excerpts of this book on This American Life and it is some of the most heart wrenching listening I have ever heard. I’ve listened to it often. It is something I use when I need to plumb the depths of my sadness and to allow myself to understand why I might be feeling a little down on a particular day. It will break down your defenses in a hurry.

All of these meanderings on the mortal coil also bring up my previous extreme skepticism on all those who claim to communicate with the spirits and exploit the emotions and bank accounts of the living. I suppose I figured that since my dead relatives had never come knocking on my door, the dead must never come knocking on anyone’s door since, as I must have felt back then, I was the wing nut that held the very universe together.

But then I became a merchant mariner. And I sailed on a haunted ship.

This isn’t something I tell just anyone as this is a topic that I think is far more personal than religion, politics, or sexual indiscretions. It is the one bombshell that when you drop it, there is a high probability that the majority of the people in your audience will immediately write you off as a nut job, as I would have done myself before sailing on the LNG Taurus.

Now one thing you have to realize it that when you are the only female on a ship, you are being constantly tested. Your strength is always in question, your intelligence, your hutzpah, your sexuality, everything is under attack by your co-workers. It is a situation that will either make you hard as nails or completely insane. I believe I fall under the former, but perhaps after this story you will disagree.

So, when we were taking on stores off Singapore in the middle of the night and the bos'n told me not to take the port side tunnel when I returned to my cabin, I was immediately suspicious. The ships were 1000 foot and had a port and starboard tunnel that ran the length of the ship. This allowed you to go from the bow to the stern in the tunnel and avoid inclement weather. The tunnels followed the shape of the ship and thus you could only see a few yards ahead at any one time. They were lighted intermittently with hanging fixtures but there were always small pools of darkness to contend with.

Now, what no one on the ship knew at the time was that I had been in the port tunnel a few days earlier. I had been traveling from the bow at the end of the day and mid-way I stopped dead in my tracks. The only way to describe the feeling that was following me that day was to think back to any Hollywood action flick that has a huge ball of fire chasing the hero up an elevator shaft or through a tunnel or cave. It is big, it is bad, and it is coming for you.

There were no footsteps. There wasn’t a single crew member in the tunnel at the time. There was, however, a horrible malevolent presence that grabbed me by the gut. I have never been more afraid for my life and I have no idea why. All I could do was to run. I couldn’t turn back, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t scream, all I could do was run.

I hit the final steps up to the hatch leading to the deck and almost lost my mind opening the dogs on the door. I stumbled out onto the deck and slammed the heavy door behind me. Looking around, I was alone. I was leaning on the door, shaking so much that I couldn’t even raise my hands to dog the door again for a few minutes. Then I asked myself, “What in the hell just happened?”

I didn’t dare bring this up to anyone. It is a very isolating experience to be in the middle of the ocean and to have such a terrifying experience and not have anyone (read “female” here) to talk to. If I would have told any of the guys they would have either laughed their heads off or they would have wanted to go down there to investigate. Neither of which I was interested in.

So, I asked the bos’n why I shouldn’t use the port tunnel and he told me very mater-of-factly that it was haunted.

Now, as any casual observer of the human animal can tell you, there is no more vehement denier than one who knows in their heart that what they are denying is, in fact, the truth. I gave him my best skeptical look and sputtered some sort of condescending noise, all the while realizing that I was in danger of shitting my pants.

The bos’n then called over the chief mate who I held in considerably higher regard. The bos’n asked the chief mate to tell me about the port tunnel.

The chief then regaled me with the tale of the former captain of the ship of whom the chief mate served under. The captain had a nasty little incident where he ran the ship aground. The Japanese coast guard were called in to investigate the incident and the captain told them everything they needed to know and all of the papers were filed and the I’s dotted. The captain then proceeded to go up to his cabin and shoot himself in the head.

Well, at least he waited until the paperwork was done…

It was the chief mate that found him and was left to, metaphorically, clean up afterwards. After that incident, there had been reports from many different crew members about places on the ship that held an incredible presence, most reports were that it was a malevolent presence. The chief mate had experienced quite a few incidences where he went up to the wheelhouse in the middle of the night when the ship was docked only to find the captain standing by the wheel. When he stopped and did a double take, the captain was gone.

“And I never, ever, go through the port tunnel…I did it once and that was enough…”He concluded.

It’s kind of funny how well I remember that conversation with the bos’n and the chief mate. I remember the lights of Singapore in the background, the smell on the air, the sound of the supply boat motoring off toward shore, and the earnestness on the face of the chief mate. I would have never believed it if I hadn’t gone through it myself but I felt my universe shift a little that night and I’ve felt the duty to remember and respect the dead from that point on.

"Rattle my bones
Over the stones
I'm only a pauper
That nobody owns."

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