Copyright © 2008, John F. Raffensperger
This story is from a dream, the night of 29 March 2006. Some bits were inspired by a now lost page on the Skipjack. Updated 29 June 2006, 5 Oct 2020.
“Man oh man oh man, take me home to Omaha, mama.” The helmsman stared at the computer screen, showing the North Atlantic sea bed. “This has been the all-time most boring tour I’ve ever done.”
Captain William Behrens replied, “Well, Ollie, the cold war is over, and nothing much happens in the North Atlantic in December. Somebody’s got to man the subs on patrol out here.”
They were silent, staring at their monitors.
A little bit of crackling came through the radioman’s ear phones. Then silence. Then a voice with a strong Scottish brogue.
“Eh, anyone oot therr? ‘Elp, mayday, whateverr.”
“Captain, I’m getting a distress signal.”
The captain turned to his radar man. “You got anything on screen, Simpson?”
“Aye, cap’n. Looks like a little fishing trawler a quarter mile ahead. I’d say he’s far from home.”
“Put it on speaker, Max.”
“’Elp, I say ‘elp. Anyone oot therr?” came the voice again.
“Roger, we hear you. This is the U.S.S. Skipjack. Please identify yourself.”
“Eh, Skipjack! What good fortune! What great luck! Hurray!”
“Roger, please identify yourself.”
“Well, this be Robert MacPherson on the fishing trawler Muckle Skerry. I was fishin’ for the good Atlantic cod, but caught nothin’, and now I’ve run meself out of fuel and tucker. Me dogs are so hungry, some ‘ave died, and I confess I’ve started t’ feedin’ one t’ the other. And oooy, I’m so cold! Can ya spare a bit of diesel and a bit of food?”
The captain rubbed his chin. “Tell him we’ll see him in thirty minutes.”
“Roger, Muckle Skerry, we can assist you. We will see you in thirty minutes.”
“Thirty minutes? Now I don’t see anythin’ fer miles! How could that be?”
The captain rang his XO, as the radioman turned off the speaker and chatted with the fisherman via earphone.
When the boat had surfaced, the young ship’s mate was thrilled to open the top hatch in open sea, a chore he had trained for, but had never done until now. The captain climbed up and saw twilight, which was the best the near-polar region could offer at midday, and an utterly calm sea. Bits of slushy ice floated on the surface. Behrens thought of the Skipjack’s Key West home port, and his favorite bar there. He imagined that an iceberg had been put through the margarita blender, and dumped out on the North Sea. The fishing vessel was becalmed in mist just a few hundred yards to the northwest. It looked tiny, perhaps forty feet long. Behrens pulled his parka tighter around his neck.
The captain, a lieutenant, and two mates clambered into the inflatable dinghy, and motored over to the Muckle Skerry, a rust bucket with its name in green letters on the stern. After they had cut the motor, Behrens called out brightly, “Ahoy.” They were greeted with silence, then they heard a low whimpering.
“That’s odd.” He called again, and again heard nothing but a whimper.
The captain and lieutenant boarded. The deck was a heavy jumble of ice, rope, buckets, cloth, and blood. A gray and white husky cowered behind a large tub, whining. Behrens looked in the tub and saw the remains of another dog. “Hey, puppy, in tough times you gotta eat whatever you have available.”
He called again, “Ahoy, MacPherson!” He sensed no one.
He looked at the deck again, and realized that part of the jumble included a man’s body, just head and torso, frozen solid. White ice stuck to the hair poking out from under a blue stocking cap. Frozen eyes stared past him.
“Jeffrey, how long do you think he’s been lying there?”
“Captain, from the layers of ice, I would say at least a week. Maybe several weeks. Looks like the dog got to him after he died.”
“Check the cabin.”
The lieutenant glanced around the small compartment. “Nothing, captain. No lights on the panel. Batteries must be flat.”
“So how did we get a call, then?”
The lieutenant shrugged.
The captain put his gloved hand to his chin, and slowly scanned the small vessel from stem to stern, his eyes lingering briefly again on the frozen body.
“Jeffrey, let me see your side arm,” he spoke at last. The lieutenant handed the pistol to Behrens, who carefully checked it, and methodically loaded a single round. He took a step toward the husky. He slowly raised his arms, one hand holding the gun, the other supporting his wrist. He patiently aimed the weapon between the dog’s eyes, and gradually squeezed the trigger until the weapon fired.
“We’re done here.”
When they returned to the Skipjack, the radioman reported that the fisherman had abruptly broken off communication just as the captain had opened the hatch to leave. “So how is he?”
“Dunno,” Behrens replied. “He was dead, frozen solid to the deck, and his dog had chewed his arms and legs off.”
“Then who was talking to me?”
“Dunno. It was a ghost ship. Ollie, notify the Scots and resume course.”