Exit Strategies

by The Cowl Editor on September 21, 2017


ship's bunk
Photo courtesy of wikimedia.com

by Jonathan Coppe ’18


Basel was tired of spending all his weekends drunk and depressed. He had resolved to do something about it.

It was midnight. The dock was misty, and the cold, damp air got underneath Basel’s clothes, right onto his skin. He shivered, cinching up his scarf. He thought he had arrived more or less at the time he had been told to, and he had brought only a moderately sized suitcase, as he had likewise been told, wherein were a few changes of clothes, some toiletries, a couple of books, and a Bible.

He had been given the Bible on his sixteenth birthday by his mother. He wasn’t sure he had ever opened it, almost certain he had never read from it. But it was the sort of thing that was supposed to help you to have a moral conversion, and he had resolved it would live faithfully on his nightstand.

If it has not been surmised, Basel had decided to go to sea, working as a crewman on a large commercial freighter, under the impression that this would be sufficient to transform his life. He would spend at least six months in this endeavor, perhaps longer, if it seemed right to him.

After about 15 minutes, Basel faintly perceived the outline of a ship not far from the pier. He had to squint to be sure, since the dock was bright with insomniac, bluish flood lighting on all sides. But a few minutes’ time were sufficient to verify his impression, and he soon knew that it was his very ship which was drifting into port. “Thank God,” he sighed.

Aboard the ship, he soon saw his quarters were cramped and windowless, about the size of a prison cell, if that. The walls were steel, painted a sort of tired shade of beige. He was to share the room with a bunkmate. He unpacked his clothes into a dresser but—alas—no nightstand. He decided he would leave his Bible atop the dresser.

About a week on, he started to get a handle on the work. He was one of only a few native English-speakers on board. Most of the crew was Scandinavian—Danish, he thought. They were iron-browed, leathery men, and they looked down on his newcomer’s ignorance and his sensitivity. The work was uninteresting and demanding. “Perhaps it is penance,” he thought. He judged this is what a religious person was supposed to believe.

The degree of isolation he felt from them did eventually cause him to begin reading his Bible, if perhaps partially out of boredom. The book did not interest him greatly, since he began with one of the letters of St. Paul, which are judged even by another New Testament author to be difficult to decipher.

About two months on, a slight friendship began to form between Basel and one of the older Scandinavian crewmen. (The other American crewmen avoided Basel out of fear his poor reputation would bring down their already tenuous standing amongst the Danes.) Basel had distinguished himself to the old man by spotting an oil container’s faulty sealing and preventing a spill. They had spoken briefly during a couple night shifts, and lately the old man had invited Basel to eat with him at meal times. Basel generally remained rather quiet, but he appreciated the almost fatherly connection he had found.

Aksel, as the man was called, clued Basel in to some of the finer social rules on board, which greatly improved Basel’s social standing amongst the crew. Aksel, in no need of greater wealth or reputation in his old age, often found additional work for Basel around the ship, which made Basel useful in both his own eyes and in the estimation of the swarthy Danes he so feared.

In spite of his slowly rising spirits, Basel felt some guilt for his disinterest in the sacred text he had brought on board. As the weeks rolled on, he felt more and more that the book was mocking him as it sat unopened on his dresser.

He asked Aksel, one evening when they were docked in Amsterdam, whether the old man had ever found religion. He replied that as a young man he had not cared for it, but the approach of death had placed it back on his mind.

“Do you think it’s worth it for a young man?”

“Why? Do you want it? Someone told me you keep a Bible on your dresser.”

“That’s true about the Bible. I don’t know what I want.”

“Why did come out to sea?”

“I was afraid I was becoming an alcoholic.”

The old man roared with laughter. “So you joined a lot of sailors? Religion may be worthwhile. I don’t know. But you want it like you want a diet. People lose weight, they stop dieting. You stop drinking, you make some friends maybe, and there goes your religion, too.”