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How Cold? Icebreaker Cold

by Don Robishaw           

It was the dark of the evening and temperatures were below freezing. With an unlit Marlboro between his teeth, the able-bodied seaman turned, bent over, and cupped his hands to block out the wind and seawater.

There were twenty-four seconds between the last spray that came across the bow into his face and the next wave. Nothing like facing windward and caressing the wind and the salt water spray to start a four-hour lookout watch on an ice breaker.

He wiped his face, tightened his fists, lifted his shoulders, and crossed his arms. With calloused fingers he removed a Zippo from his peacoat and quickly lit a new butt, and turned away from the wind.

What was Jessie supposed to be looking for? It was too bloody chilly out there, even for Moby Dick. Jessie saw nothing but shades of darkness and whiteness on the horizon.

It was part of his job to stand watch four hours per day, twice a day, every day the ship was out to sea. Four years was enough of this BS. Never again, Jessie thought.

How cold? You ain’t felt cold till you’ve experienced ice breaker cold on the Endurance in the North Atlantic. If you were aboard the Endurance on the last cruise you would have felt it, like Jessie’s girlfriend, Bonny Anne, felt it.

Jessie took a vodka flask out of his ditty bag. He knew it wasn’t a good idea to drink alcohol when it was this raw. He didn’t give a penguin squat, for it was the only shit on board that was still liquid!

Jessie James Ryan reduced from Ensign to able-bodied seaman — all for conduct unbecoming an officer. He was getting out with a general discharge. It could have been a lot worse. Reenlist for four more years and he could get an honorable one. Jessie asked the reenlistment adviser, “Are you serious? I’d rather be keel-hauled.” Since his demotion he can’t even afford to buy a beer. As far as Jessie was concerned, they didn’t want him anymore.

He had one more weekend of shore leave, a few bucks from his separation pay, and he was out. This was his last chance to celebrate — like a real sailor.

Two days later he crossed the quarterdeck and saluted the Officer of the Deck. “Request permission to go ashore, SIR!”

The OOD returned Jessie’s salute. “Permission granted.” Jessie peeked back to see him shake his head and frown. Jessie remembered when he served as the OOD every fourth day.           

Coming across the gangplank behind Jessie was First Class Petty Officer Sheridan. He’d been in for twelve years and this was his first duty on an icebreaker. “I tell ya mate, six months of this bullshit and I’m ready for shore leave,” he said as he turned his head back towards Jessie.

“Where ya going, Boats?”

“There are flights between Portland and Beantown. Half off for servicemen this weekend. Gotta hurry, though. Let’s take a powder.”

“I’m easy.” They head to the airport by taxi. A few cold ones at the airport bar and the next thing Jessie knows, he’s at The Littlest Bar.

It’s six steps below ground near the old city hall. A tight fit for its legal capacity of thirty-five. An Irish Pub in Boston, with a lot of great history, going back to World War Two. Its customers, like Sheridan, made the place.

Sheridan was a regular at one time and said, “Sad thing is, this is the last weekend.”

“What do ya mean?”

“It’s closing due to gentrification.”

“Not a regular, but been here a few times. It still saddens me, mate.”

“Hey, what are you gonna do?”

“Have a couple of beers…if we can get seats?”

Sheridan was a little on the crazy side, even when sober, and yelled out, “INS!” A couple of red-headed lads downed their drinks and beat feet. Jessie and Sheridan sat down and ordered two Newcastle drafts.

Conan, owner and bartender said, “Sheridan, how many times have I told ya not to do that. Do you know how much I’ve lost, ya bastard?”

“Good to see you too.” Sheridan pointed left with his thumb. “Remember Jessie James?”

“Jessie, you still an Admiral?”

“Conan, I was never a fuckin Admiral. They almost threw my ass out. Took a demotion instead.”

“Sorry to hear that. What do ya mean?”

“Long story short…tried to hide my Bonny Anne aboard ship. They had to send in a rescue mission just a snowball toss south of the North Pole to get her back to port. It was so cold the helicopter almost stalled in mid-air.…and a couple of other mild indiscretions.”

“Ahh, don’t they use saltpeter in the chow anymore?”

“Shit didn’t work on me, mate.”

Sheridan said, “A couple of shots of Jameson,” and they kept coming and coming and coming….

They pulled an all-nighter and flew back to Portland in the morning. The early bird special served up Bloody Marys.

After stopping at local gin mills along the harbor they headed back to the ship around noon. Jessie stood at a crossroad — looked up, shook his head and thought, Never again.

They staggered on board and saluted the OOD. “Permission to come aboard, sir?”

“Permission granted.”

There was a full-dress ceremony for the fleet on the quarterdeck of the USCG Endurance. Several family members of the crew and other vessels were seated in front of a lectern. The captain was about to speak. He raised his hand.

Rather than crossing the quarterdeck and interrupt whatever event was going on, they chose to sit down. After five minutes they began to nod off.

It was only high noon and they were already two sheets to the wind. They ended up reenlisting for six more years, and didn’t realize it for another twelve hours!

Don Robishaw has a doctorate from U-Mass at Amherst. He was a sailor from 1964-67. He worked for the US Army at Camp Hialeah in S. Korea from 1980-81. He worked for the VA hospital in North Hampton, MA from 1988-89. He’s retired and writes in the morning. He’s had three stories published in Flash Fiction Magazine.


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