The Landing at Little Diomede Island
The cushions were pulled from me in the middle of the night. A night that was not a night, aboard a cruise ship that wasn’t a cruise ship. I reacted badly. As the cushions were being jerked from me, I slipped under them, and then slid onto the deck on all fours, springing to my feet in a low crouch, sideways to my aggressor, in a long-practiced Aikido maneuver. I ended up facing an astonished Filipino. Around his neck hung the strangest looking clock I had ever seen. It was the size of a dinner plate but surrounded by a thick rubber bumper. Its huge numbers were nearly effervescently white. The clock swung from the Filipino’s neck like a pendulum. Thoughts of Lewis Carroll returned.
“What do you want?” I demanded irately. “And who are you?” Then I relaxed my posture and reached for my bag. I looked around the Lido deck. The Filipino and I were alone. He finally clarified matters, after finding his voice.
“I’m the night deck watch. The Purser requires the honor of your presence.” He mumbled, with half of what he said in a singsong Tagalog variation. I understood enough, particularly his pointing finger. I looked at my Breguet chronometer. It told me that it was four. I followed the Filipino, checking the sea behind us fluming off the fantail. It was still running high, but it was down from when I had fallen asleep.
The Purser’s door was open. The deck watch pointed at the opening, then walked silently away. A short fat man, in ship’s uniform, stood with his back to his desk, facing me. I liked the uniform. My Marine days were far behind me. About all I had left were wonderful memories of my uniform. His pressed short sleeve shirt had black epaulets. Epaulets that were clipped on, not the kind some shirts were made with. A black name-tag stood out on the left side of his rotund torso. It read “Hathoot.” I squinted to make it out.
“Mr. Hathoot?” I ventured, dropping my bag on the floor, as I greeted him.
“I’m the Purser. It’s Commander Hathoot.” He beamed broadly, however, when he spoke the words. I liked him immediately.
“Botany Bay has taken a new roommate,” he remarked. “It isn’t entirely fair that you should be forced to enjoy the Lido deck’s rather public attractions because of his good fortune.” He licked his lips, making me wonder if he was talking about the couches or Marlys when he spoke of the Lido deck. I didn’t answer, just continued to stand while maintaining a deadpan expression. I was mad as hell at ‘Botany Bay,’ but I was not about to show it.
“Here is the key to a suite,” he went on. “You may enjoy it alone until such time as you take a roommate.” He thrust out his hand with a brass key in it. I took it, turned the key and noted the ‘Cabin 27’ designation, and then pocketed it. “Why?” I asked, stalling because my mind could not get over the unlikely appearance of another large coincidence. I was leaving Cabin 36, Edmond Danes’ cell number in The Count of Monte Cristo, and I was being moved to Cabin 27, which, in the Dumas novel, was the cell that belonged to the Abby Faria. The coincidence was simply too improbable.
My mind was bouncing about like a rubber ball in a handball court. I only half-listened as Hathoot served up some mitigating circumstances: “Botany Bay has found a woman. He has been searching for three voyages. He is fifty, like me. I must reward his persistence and his success.” My jaw dropped. I couldn’t care less about other people’s sex lives.
“Where’s the cabin?” I pressed the commander, noting his resemblance to Jabba the Hutt. Even more bizarreness.
“Same deck you were on. All the way forward. It’s the cabin that butts up against the chain locker. No passenger will stay in it.” I was already walking out of his cabin before he finished. I didn’t say thank you, only wondered why no passengers would have the room. But I didn’t really care. I just needed a bunk on which to collapse.
I awoke in a panic and leaped right out of the bunk. The bulkhead was vibrating. The sound was so thunderous coming from it, in fact, that I had to put my hands over my ears. Then it stopped. All was silent. The ship was only gently moving. I stepped over to my single porthole and looked out. The glass was thick. It was not one of those portholes that opened. Under heavy seas, it spent most of its time underwater.
Through the thick glass, I saw a mountain rising up out of the sea. A small town could be seen on what I knew to be its southern rim. The sound had been the anchor chain pouring out of the chain locker, located on the other side of the wall. Both bunks were attached to the side of that metal wall. No wonder the Lebanese Purser had chuckled as I walked away. I checked my watch.
“Good grief,” I whispered to myself, tearing open the loaner bag Don had given me. I shaved as quickly as I could, dragged out my work boots and Dunhill coat. Before turning to the door, I threw on a Holland sweater under the coat, before turning to the door. As my hand touched the handle there was a loud knock. I scowled, opening the door fully. Don brushed right by me and inserted himself into the middle of the cabin. I backed up, surprised.
“Here,” he said, roughly, thrusting a pair of boots at me. “What are you, about a size nine?” he asked. Then he added: “You gotta have Wellingtons for the Zodiacs, otherwise your feet will freeze. It’s wet inside the boats, all the time. And here’s a proper down coat, and your life preserver.” He threw the stuff onto the lower bunk and went back through the door. He stopped outside awkwardly. “Sorry about last night. I had no choice. She’s an innocent, and she needed my help.” I studied him, my eyes round in amazement. Did she need his help? Instead of commenting on that rather preposterous excuse, I moved the conversation elsewhere.
“I thought you were supposed to do whatever I told you? From your note? You know, Medjugorje?” That rocked him. I watched him twist and turn over my riposte before he answered.
“I didn’t know you were the guy. You said you weren’t. Now that I know, well, that’s different. I’ll do what you say from now on.” By the way, he spoke the words I knew he was not kidding, and a bad feeling welled up, again, in my stomach. “What trouble are we going to get in?” he half-joked, his expression indicating that he was positively looking forward to whatever trouble might overtake us.
“Good Christ, get out,” I yelled, moving to close the door.
“Aye aye,” he yelled back, receding down the hall at a lope. “We only got ten minutes to get to the boats or Benito will have our ass.” I changed into my new boots and the heavier coat. I looked at the diminutive life vest. “What the hell do I need with a life vest?” I questioned the empty cabin. I tossed the thing onto my bunk, and then made for the corridor outside.
I followed the descending passengers down. At the end of the bottom berthing deck, a crowd had backed up into the hall. I eased my way through the packed mass, smiling and saying “Anthro Professor,” not having a clue as to why I was saying anything at all. A nucleus of staff crew stood near an open steel door. The water was visible just below the level of the door’s bottom. I could see Zodiac inflatables running in circles. Most of the opening was blocked by the bulk of our cruise director’s stout body, however.
“You,” her commanding voice echoed around the small area. Benito was pointing at me. “Ah,” was all I got out, my index finger pointing at my own chest, like an errant school child.
“You’re late. You’re on the first boat out. Don’t screw it up. You get twenty passengers. Orbit ‘til you see how some of the other boats do it, and then get your charges ashore. Your driver’s Felipe. He doesn’t speak English.” She grabbed me by the arm, and then almost tossed me over the side of the waiting Zodiac’s rubber pontoon hull.
“Where the hell is your life jacket,” she bellowed down at me, but Felipe had already gunned the outboard.
Soon, we were out riding across the tops of the waves. It was exhilarating. Twenty passengers stared at me as I got to my feet in the center of the boat. It was hard to stand. The floor was made of flexible wooden slats. The entire body of the boat twisted like the rubber it was made from. I didn’t know whether to go to the stern of the craft or the prow. I looked at Felipe. His Filipino face was dark, flat and expressionless. No clues there, I thought. I pointed to a spot near him, and then at the bow, then shrugged expressively. A great toothy white smile came over his features. He pointed at the prow, so I worked my way there, grabbing a line hanging overboard to steady myself when I arrived. I stood as best I could, rocking back and forth with the movement of the boat through the water, wondering in the back of my mind how a
Filipino might come to have the name, Felipe.
We circled aimlessly, while the other boats headed for the imposing shore. The sea was not raging like it had been beyond the protection afforded by the two close islands. We entered as the fifth boat in a line toward the shore. When we crested the swells, a small village was readily apparent ahead. Its structures were makeshift clapboard structures on stilts. Substantial enough, but also peeling and rickety. The town’s most remarkable feature, a huge water tank, sat near the base of a small stone jetty.
We orbited again, as the first Zodiac landed through the surf. Two huge flat angled stones, next to the jetty, acted like a wet dock for the landings. The Zodiacs rammed over a bed of stones, then on into a natural ‘V’ formed by the rocks. The pilot of each boat gunned the motor to hold it fast up against the piles of shore rocks. After passengers offloaded over the bow, they backed directly out into the surf, taking wave after wave over the stern. Once out of the ‘V,’ pilots swiveled their boats around, then ran hard back to the ship, sea water pouring out of the boat over the stern boards.
It was our turn. I looked back at Felipe. It had seemed easy when watching from offshore. Up close it wasn’t the same. Waves were breaking at a good four to five-foot height. There was to be no gentle approach. Felipe did not wait for my direction. He aimed the bow into the ‘V,’ then hit the throttle hard. We wedged in over the top of a breaking wave and slammed into the rocks. We all recoiled and then began scrambling over the rubber pontoon of the bow.
I stood to assist, which was unneeded until the last passenger. She was an older woman. She came over the rubber bow then plunged straight down onto the rocks. The boat lifted and dropped with each wave. I looked behind but all I saw was the disappearing backs of the other passengers. The surf and wind were too loud for yelling. I grabbed the woman by the shoulders, twisted her around and lifted. When I got her up I pushed hard from behind. She went up over the rocks and I went down, sliding under the hull of the boat.
I slid completely down into the ‘V’ and the boat came down on top of me. I tried to rise but only moved further under the pounding boat, its weight substantially lightened by having no one but the pilot aboard. I realized that if the boat had been a rigid hull inflatable I would already be dead. The boat continued to rise and fall with the passing of each wave. The water was icy cold, and I was in terror.
I could feel the propeller beating in the water at the end of the boat. The pilot could not see me. I also knew that I could last under such conditions for only seconds, yet there was nothing to be done. I was so far under the boat’s hull that I could no longer get any air. The water was icy cold, but my survival options were more chilling; either I was going to be ground up by the propeller or I would drown.
Suddenly the boat was gone. I was underwater, staring upward. I could see sunlight again. I felt relieved to know that I would die to see the sunlight.
Hands reached down and pulled me up. I struggled to help. Strong hands pulled and then turned me onto my hands and knees on the rocks. I crawled out of the beating sea. Strong hands let me go. I looked up from all fours to see Don and Dutch holding ropes attached to the sides of the Zodiac. One stood on each side, both laughing as they waved and signaled Felipe. Then they came trudging through the water to check me out. I gasped, sitting on sharp edges of the upturned stone. I could not talk. They grabbed my arms to support me, as we made our way toward the only large building on the island.
“Thanks for saving me,” I gasped out of my barely open throat.
“Saving you? Hell, we didn’t know where the hell you’d gone. We didn’t save you. It was her.” Dutch pointed up to the stairs, switch-backed against the end of the building. The only person climbing the stairs was Marlys. She didn’t turn or wave.
“She pulled me out?” I gasped again, this time in awe. Marlys could not have weighed more than a hundred pounds. The hands that had closed over me, and dragged me from beneath the boat, had been talons of steel, driven by muscles of stone. I stood on my own, waving them off, dripping wet and shivering with the cold. I stared the twenty-five feet up toward her as she reached the landing and turned back. Our eyes met. I nodded. She did not nod back. When she turned, I said “Yemaya,” loud enough for her to hear. She went through the door acknowledging nothing.
In the bathroom of the facility, I took my clothes off and squeezed them out. I stood before the full-length mirror next to the sink. I frowned, ruefully, in reviewing my condition. I was only battered a little by the near drowning. But I had old scars all over my legs and torso. I had been shot, knifed, poisoned and stung by venomous snakes and spiders, but I had survived. With clothes on, I looked unassuming. It was one of my greatest strengths. “No, not him,” was what came to other men’s minds when they looked at me. I did not appear threatening or macho at all, but I had been served Hell for breakfast many days of my life. And here I was, standing weakly in a cold bathroom on Little Diomede Island, as naked and helpless as a baby. “Screw you, James Bond,” I said, mocking my own reflection.