Friday, April 04, 2003


- J. C. Whittaker -

Chapter Ten

In our days of drifting along the equator we had had our share of the rains and sudden squalls that mark that section of the Pacific. And on the morning of the 14th day we went into the doldrums. There was no breeze at dawn nor did any arise during the day.

It was to be the worst period of the entire three weeks for more reasons than thirst and hunger. About me was suffering such as I had never seen before. Of the seven survivors I was the only one whose lower body was not a mass of ulcers.

And now our clothing was disintegrating. The violent sun rays were beginning to inflict serious burns. My socks had gone to pieces and my shirt was splitting down the back, the sleeves, and the front. I had left my shoes in the plane.

We had water, but the tiny daily dole in the bottom of the flare shell only made us thirstier. Hunger had so weakened us that the slightest effort was exhausting. We hadn't eaten in days, because the slat air had rotted the fish lines, enabling the sharks to snap them and carry off the hooks. Anyway, we had no bait. None of us could have stood a flight physical; or a Boy Scout physical for that matter.

This was our situation when our rafts drifted into the doldrums. It is not strange that all of us now had touches of delirium. It was while going through one of those balmy periods that I had my fantastic meeting with Davy Jones and his genial assistance, Jim Blood. Though this meeting was a product of delirium it is one of my most vivid memories, oddly enough. But more of that later.

In the doldrums there was no breath of wind to refresh us. The ocean was glassy and glaring as far as we could see. Our eyes ached in the merciless, blinding light.

One or two stanza from Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" came back to me then and I thought it fitted our situation pretty well. I have reread it since, and except that we had no mast or deck boards, there are four verses that might have been written about our party. They tell it so graphically it puts me back in that raft to read them. These are the stanzas:

Down dropt the breeze, the sails dropt down -

"Twas sad as sad could be;

And we did speak only to break

The silence of the sea.

All in a hot and copper sky,

The bloody sun, at noon,

Right up above the mast did stand,

No bigger than the moon.

Day after day, day after day,

We stuck, nor breath nor motion;

As idle as a painted ship

Upon a painted ocean.

Water, water everywhere

And all the boards did shrink;

Water, water everywhere,

Nor any drop to drink.

It was during this period that Eddie Rickenbacker worked hardest at keeping up morale. How he would light into those who sagged! He kept the boys so furious at him they vowed they'd live just to spite him. This was especially true of two of the party.

Rickenbacker's keen ears seemed to catch every remark. If it was a discouraging one, he would jump right down the throat of the man who had uttered it.

"What's that? What's that?" he would yell. "So YOU'RE off again, are you? Why you blankety blank blank quitter! When we get out of this you'd better crawl home to the women where you belong. How did you ever get into the army anyway?"

One man who had provoked a particularly scathing call-down from Rick asked later to shake hands. Rick told him:

"I'm glad to shake hands with any MAN. When you've proved to me that you're one, I'll be tickled to death to put it there."

In those four days, he slung some mighty powerful plain and fancy cussing. I'm not much of a cusser, myself. I got out of the habit while my son was growing up. But I think Rick was using his vocabulary in a good cause. It certainly got results. And, I must say, it helped pass the time which was going so slowly I though once or twice my watch finally had stopped. All the rest had quit long ago.

Our prayer service ended the 14th day, which was of course the end of a fortnight adrift along the equator. This night we had a new prayer to present to the Lord; a pleas for wind to blow us out of the doldrums. We were being held helpless in one spot while our strength ebbed.

When the 15th morning dawned without wind, Bill Cherry announced he was cutting loose in the hope the three rafts would spread out and one of them would get into the wind and be blown toward help. He dropped our line, but nothing happened. The rafts stayed together. Eventually we tied up again.

It was that afternoon that Cherry had his bout with a 10 foot shark - and lost the decision. The big fellow was nosing around, at intervals scooting under our raft to scrape off his barnacles. Each time the shark went under he smacked the bottom of the boat with his tail, jolting Jimmy Reynolds, who lay there. Jimmy had been feeling very low.

Cherry started telling off that shark. He told him what he thought of him individually, his relatives, his ancestors, and sharks generally. When he had tired himself out, he dropped into a doze on the gunwale of the raft. Suddenly there was a terrific jolt and a roar of pain.

"My nose is broken!" Cherry yelled.

I looked around and was inclined to agree with him. The insulted shark had let go a might wallop with his tail, catching Cherry squarely in the face and knocking him into the bottom of the boat on top of Reynolds. Blood was gushing from bill's nose. I thought we would never get it stopped. A month later it was still sore and he was afraid a cartilage had been broken.

I will say to the reader no just what I told Bill Cherry then. If you have anything insulting to say to a shark, wait until you are safely back in San Francisco, then write him a letter.

There is no entry in my diary for the 16th day adrift and only one for the 17th. This reads:

"Still in doldrums. Water low. Hopes low."

It was during this period that I thought I met Davy Jones, the mythical keeper of lost sailors' souls. I am told it is unusual for a man to remember the creatures of his delirium. I know only this: That the things I relate now are more vivid in my mind than many that actually happened, even though these were delusions of a mind set off kilter by thirst, hunger, and suffering.

On one of those nights - it could have been either the 16th or the 17th - it seemed I heard a voice:

"This is Davy Jones, Jim. Come on down; down to my locker. I want to see you."

I remember thinking I had nothing to lose. So, it seemed in my delirium, I slid over the side of the raft, being careful Rick didn't see me go, and slipped down and down through the warm water. On the bottom I came face to face with Davy, a powerfully built man with a white mustache that curled down over the corners of his mouth. With him was his assistant, Jim Blood.

"Are you ready to come down here for good?" Davy asked.

I told him no. Jim Blood then began talking to me. I liked Jim better than Davy. He wasn't so austere. he was powerfully built also, but clean shaven. He was suave and genial and treated me about like the sales manager of an aircraft corporation would treat his best customer.

"Jim, we're all ready for down here," Blood told me. "You'd better stay. You don't belong on land. You belong with us. You're a sailor and all sailors should stay here. (I had been in the Navy from 1919 to 1922.) How about it?"

I thanked Jim, but I told him I wasn't ready yet; that I had things to do back in San Francisco and elsewhere. Jim laughed and said I'd be welcome any time.

In my delirious fancy I went back to the raft. Voices would call "Hello" to me across the stern. I answered and asked their names. These they always gave me.

I called several times for Jim Blood to come up to the raft and talk. He never failed me. Each time, though, he wanted to know if I was ready to back with him to Davy Jones' locker. I like that fellow.

On the 17th night, I think it was, it seemed to me that the raft was an open automobile and that we were traveling down a lane with night clubs and roadhouse on either side.

There was one handsome club at which I had thought we would stop. When we didn't I turned petulantly to Cherry, who I believed was driving the car. I said sharply:

"Bill, why didn't you stop at that big roadhouse with the neon signs:"

"There's a better one a little farther on, Jim," he said soothingly. here Jimmy Reynolds joined the conversation.

"He wouldn't have dared stop on that island anyway, Jim," he said. "I don't know whether I should tell you fellows or not, but they are drilling secretly for oil there. I saw the big condensers they use to get water from the sea."

"What's that? What's that?" This was Rick yelling over from the other raft.

"The oil is a secret," Jimmy went on, "but I think bill Cherry knows all about it."

"He's nuts," Cherry commented. "he . . ."

"Just a minute, now," Rick interrupted. "Let's get to the bottom of this. What island are you talking about? I want to know all about this!"

Later, in Samoa, Rick and I had a good laugh over it.

"I must have been balmy, too," he told me. "But I wasn't overlooking any bets that concerned islands with water condensers on them."

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