Steve Vernon Sea
STARK RAVEN PRESS
SMASHWORDS EDITION 2016
To the sea that
all of us...
I am a storyteller, first and foremost.
My natural habitat is close to the campfire
and I breathe words the way that some men smoke.
I have lived by the ocean for nearly four
decades. I have listened to the waves talking to the shoreline. I
have heard the old ghost stories told around a thousand campfires.
I have listened to the sea gulls complaining about the
This is the first of what will be a series
of stories based around the sea.
You don’t have to read every one, any more
than you have to count every wave that rolls up to slap itself upon
Come here and give a listen.
I’ve got a tale for the telling.
Yours in storytelling,
In The Dark and the Deep
It happened that fast.
A torpedo track, furrowing
the water, passed straight abaft of our corvette, theThistle. There was a
muffled crump of impact. A mere seventy-five yards away from us,
the tankerCassandrasettled and tilted, taking on water fast.
“Man the depth charges,” our captain sang
The order was instinctive and unnecessary.
Men already stood by, ready to roll the fat deadly barrels from the
stern rail. The crews of the port and starboard throwers launched
another pair of depth charges into their high carved arcs. We
spread the charges out as widely as possible, knowing that the
U-boat would already be on the move, trying to evade our certain
The depth charges were a blind luck measure.
They sank slowly, giving the U-boat a lot of time to escape. It was
almost impossible to aim them, and the hulls of the U-boats were so
solid that only a near-direct hit would have any effect, but they
panicked the U-boat crew, and more importantly, they gave our crew
the much-needed feeling of accomplishment.
The asdic crew hunkered beneath their
headsets, knowing full well that the rough water and the impact
from the depth charges’ undersea explosions rendered their
listening gear nearly useless.
We were aiming blind, as usual.
Fumes of petrol coiled up
from the tanker like slow blue snakes curling hypnotically through
the air. I saw the captain frozen at the helm for less than half of
a second, his mind warring between trying to save the crew of
else hunting the U-boat.
A fragment of a second.
That’s how long a war can last,
TheCassandrawent up in a ball of fire.
Men screamed in the flames, their lungs filling with oil, flame and
sea water. The tanker - gutted and twisted into a dozen strange
angles, slowly slid a little farther beneath the calm gulp of the
cold gray Atlantic water.
Silhouetted by the lantern of the rising
flames of the sinking tanker we saw the the U-boat, its deck crew
frantically training their gun towards us.
He might have surfaced to finish the tanker
off, or perhaps our depth charges had driven him up to the surface.
We didn’t know, and it didn’t really matter. We hit them with
everything we had. We pounded them with our 4-inch cannon, the
steady 2-pounder pom-pom, the 40mm Oerlikons, and the big .50
caliber machine guns. Those who had pistols and rifles stood at the
deck railing firing away like we had come to a pigeon shoot.
The gods of war smiled on the U-boat gun
crew. They got off a single lucky round that neatly snapped our
radio mast. That was their last good shot. We closed in on them,
raking their deck mercilessly. A point-blank blast of our 4-inch
cannon demolished the U-boat’s conning tower.
The U-boat was helpless. We could have
ordered their surrender, but we weren’t in the mood for any kind of
War will do that to you.
At this point of the game it was nothing but
simple retaliation. They had hurt us and now it was our turn to
We moved in closer and began banging away in
And then the flames reached
theCassandra’ssecondary tanks and the resulting explosion blasted the
U-boat to the lowest region of hell. The blast rocked theThistle, charring the
port side of our vessel and damned near sinking us.
We cheered like a boatload of blood-crazed
barbarians. Hurrah, blood had been spilt.
Hurrah, victory was ours.
It was our third day at sea, and we had
suffered our first casualties.
Our luck was beginning to turn.
I volunteered for duty during the first year
of the war.
I had originally wanted to fly for the RCAF,
but my reflexes refused to test quite fast enough.
“Well,” I said, “if I am not good enough for
the Air Force, then the Navy can have me.”
As far as I was concerned, it was the RCAF’s
loss and the RCN’s gain.
I served my first day at sea on the
twentieth anniversary of my birth. There were younger men on board
than I. In fact, most of our crew was youngsters. The oldest sailor
on the deck crew was barely thirty years of age, and we called him
We had shipped out of Halifax, escorting an
HX class convoy, bound from Halifax and headed towards Britain. It
looked easy on the map, just a happy two-week jaunt from here to
Or rather a two-week jaunt through
U-boat-infested waters. And as we got closer to the English
Channel, we’d have the Luftwaffe Condors and the dive-bombing
Stukas and patrols of German E-boats to watch out for.
It was as easy as falling overboard, and a
little more dangerous.
Still, we made out fine.
We had a good crew.
Our captain was in his late forties, I would
guess. We called him the old man when he wasn’t listening. He had
the lean weathered look of a man who had spent most of his life
upon the open sea and the rest of it impatiently waiting for his
Just as soon as I laid eyes on him, I
decided that he was a man that I could trust with my life, yet
there was one other whom I would come to rely upon in a far deeper
fashion than mere trust.
I met Big Jimmy Noonan the first day I
boarded, bumping into him as I stepped off of the gangplank. It was
a little like banging face first into a solid brick wall, only not
half as gentle.
“Well, I take it that ‘Grace’ is not your
middle name,” he rumbled.
I stepped back. Big Jimmy Noonan was one of
the biggest men I’d ever seen, his shoulders bowed like bow staves,
his arms the thickness of hawser cable, with fists that could
easily serve double duty as caulking mallets.
He fixed me with a once-over sweep of a
stare, like a captain might eye an uncharted shoal that he was
trying hard to fathom. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
I looked to see a rank, but the fold of his
sleeve seemed to obscure any sign of insignia or station. I didn’t
know it yet, but that air of mystery was a style that Big Jimmy
Noonan wore as easily as some men wear a hat.
“Don’t ‘sir’ me, boy. I work for a living,
and you would do well to remember that. What’s your name?”
“William, sir. I mean—just William. William
“McTavish, is it?” he asked. “Well, you’re
‘Taffy’ from here on out, d’ya understand?”
“Keep a weather eye forward and the bean
farts abaft of you, and you’ll make out just fine.”
He grinned and slapped me on the shoulder. I
felt as if I had been issued a temporary stay of execution.
Two days had passed since
the sinking of theCassandra.
The sky was clear and the sea was calm and
you scarcely would have known that there was a war going on.
“Look at that sun up there, shining away as
blissful and blithe as care-you-not<” Big Jimmy Noonan said.
“What d’ya think of that, Taffy my boy?”
I looked up and shrugged.
I guess that I didn’t get what he was going
on about, but I reckoned that he would tell me soon enough.
Big Jimmy Noonan was a man built for
“It’s a sun, Jimmy,” I said. “Nothing more
than a light in the sky. Means the weather’s good, I guess.”
“Not in the sky, young Taffy me lad. That
there’s a light in heaven. God peeking down, having himself a
squint. And d’ya think he sees us down there?”
I thought about that.
“God sees everything, I expect.”
“Wrong. That there God sees nothing. The old
gaffer is as blind as Saul and twice as ill-tempered. Especially
out here, in the dark of the deep water.” Jimmy went on. “Yes sir,
the ocean is a kind of blind spot to the man. There are things out
here that have been wandering lost and forgotten for a very long
He scratched his head.
“And as for good weather, enjoy it while it
“do you think it’s going to turn?” I
Big Jimmy Noonan looked out to the sea, his
eyes lonely thoughtful bullet holes, his cheeks puckering in and
out like soft billowing sails. He nodded slowly, thinking things
“Rooster one day, feather duster the next,”
Noonan said. “Take a look at that sky. See them clouds, piled and
rolling like the waves? That there’s called a mackerel sky. It
means that the weather is turning. Fronts are moving in. Take a
long look at that sun, Taffy me lad. You won’t be seeing much of it
any longer. A mackerel sky runs to rain and then maybe fog, out in
these here parts.”
Big Jimmy Noonan shook his head softly,
chewing on his thoughts and savoring them.
He was a big man, all angles and joints,
like he had been cobbled together out of cold steel and rivets. He
had a quiet way of looming, like he was waiting for something.
There was a thickness about his neck and shoulders that spoke of a
lifetime of toil. His head was haloed with an unruly shag of soft
gray hair, tousled like the wind-tossed waves.
I watched a black backed gull wheeling and
shouting high overhead.
“Now there’s a pretty sight,” Big Jimmy
Noonan said, eyeing the capering gull. “We calls them coffin birds
or preacher wings, on account of the black backed soot they wears
on their wingtips. Flew too close to the sun, he did.”
Noonan was right. What a wondrous thing the
gull was to watch. Soaring and sailing effortlessly through the
Big Jimmy Noonan smiled the kind of smile
that the Creator might have worn on the morning after he’d finally
finished his creating.
“No ship could sail as smooth or sweet as
that bird eagling through that forever blue ocean of a sky.”
All at once, the bird exploded in a burst of
feathers and meat. I looked and saw the cause of it. A sailor,
bored with the calmness of the day, stood beside the 4-inch gun, a
smoking rifle in his hand.
Big Jimmy Noonan did not waste a heartbeat.
He loped across the deck, reached up and grabbed the top rail of
the gun mount and pole-vaulted himself up and over the railing just
as quick as the world’s largest flea. Then, before the
target-shooter could utter so much as a word of protest, Big Jimmy
Noonan snatched the rifle clear away and handed the sailor a clout
that laid him out colder than a frozen mackerel.
Then Noonan whirled about, facing down the
rest of the crew and the captain as well with a hard winter of a
“Any man-jack that thinks it good sport to
pop away at seagulls is flirting with their tombstone on this
No one said a thing. Out of the corner of my
eye, I watched what was left of the gull plummet from the sky to
hit the waves with fat wet splash. Something in the water grabbed
it, and it was gone. Our luck went bad from then on out.
Our job as convoy escorts wasn’t
particularly glamorous. We were nothing more than glorified lorry
men, seeing that the wood and the steel and the gasoline were
delivered on time.
Quite simply, we were the lifeline.
Our own convoy consisted of
twenty-one merchant ships lined and rowed up seven ships wide and
three ships deep. Our escort consisted of one old lend-lease
destroyer and three flower class corvettes, theThistlebeing one of
The flower class
corvetteThistlewas a sturdy little tub of a vessel, scruffed together from
the basic blueprints of a small whaler. Broad in beam with a blunt
rounded stern, she certainly wasn’t fit for ocean travel, but the
Navy needed us out there, so that’s where we went.
“She’s a wet ship, indeed,” Jimmy Noonan
said. “Her arse end will tip up like a mud-sucking duck. She’ll
roll on wet grass and turn you biscuits over gravy as quick as you
can say puke.”
Then he fixed me with a stare as merciless
as a gun sight.
“But count on her, Taffy me
lad,” he went on. “She’s hell for stout when it comes to blow. Yes
sir, when the water is high and the wind blows hard, you can count
on the ladyThistleuntil the very end.”
It had been six days since we’d left
Six days out to sea, and the sky started to
Actually, “rain” was an understatement. It
pelted, it drenched and it pissed straight down. What my old dad
would have called “horizontal weather”—nothing but wet as far as
the eye could see.
In weather like that, a man did well to stay
indoors. Those who couldn’t clung grimly to the lifelines, to the
railings, and to anything else God would give their hands strength
enough to latch onto.
I was crouched in the doorway, officially on
duty, but taking shelter along with Big Jimmy Noonan, who was
holding forth as usual.
“Now there’s a rare blast, Taffy my lad.
God’s great garden hose turned on full bore. That’s what rain is
for, y’know. The washing away of old memories and long-forgotten
sins. Cleans all, forgives all. No sir, I don’t believe in the
confessional or the passing of verdicts. If you want to be truly
shriven, just stand yourself out in the heart of a driving
At that, he stepped out into the downpour,
feet planted and head turned upwards into the raging deluge.
I think that’s a picture I’ll always
remember. The image of that great old ship hand, standing and
grinning like a small boy in the hardest rain that fell since Noah
donned gum rubbers.
“Oh, sweet swimming Christ,” Big Jimmy
I looked past him, just in time to see a
figure caught in the wash of a high stepping wave, sliding towards
Big Jimmy Noonan ran across the deck, taking
his own life in his hands as he tried to save another. I saw the
figure slipping over and through the lower railing, catching hold
of the pipe rail and hanging on for dear life.
Big Jimmy Noonan acted without hesitation,
throwing himself belly-down and sliding like a baseball player
headed hell-for-leather for a hard third base. He could have just
as easily slid off the deck himself, but he reached his big hand
out forward and snagged the fallen man.
“Come on, Taffy!”
I couldn’t move. I was frozen to the
doorway, held by fear and the unscrupulous instinctive sense of
He was calling for me. There was no one else
in sight, and his big voice was drowned out by the wind and the
rain and the roar of the ocean.
I stepped out towards him.
The ship reeled, and I fell to the
And then I rallied.
“I’m coming, Jimmy!”
I might as well have been sending a telegram
to hell. My voice was carried away with the wind.
I inched forward, trying to dig my
fingernails through my sea mittens, hanging on to the salt
encrusted deck, keeping my gaze squarely focused on Big Jimmy
The Lord is my shepherd, I prayed to
Inching closer. I could see them now, in the
wild ocean torrent.
Big Jimmy Noonan lay spread-eagled on the
deck, his big clamp of a hand wrapped around the smaller hand of
the fallen man.
I turtle-crawled a little closer.