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The Stinger

Mila Strictzer

Joey was an Irish American, a recent émigré to Boston. As he gazed across the ocean spray, a few feet in front of him, from the huge waves that were hitting the bow of the ship, he thought of his home and his family back in Ireland. This had been one of the longest trips he had ever been on and now they were caught in a heavy squall. The only reassuring thing was that the storm was moving past them directly on their port side and if they could just follow it along, then the storm would guide them back to port and safety.

           They had gone too far out and everyone on board knew it. Their haul was massive and it had almost been worth it. Only Joey had complained to the captain that it was not worth the risk of taking on the storm coming their way. He was the first officer and it was his job to nay-say. Joey was cursing himself now for not being vocal enough. He knew he had been right and he wished that he had trusted his instincts. Now, they were in real trouble.

           "e;Ma'an O'erboooaard!!! Maaaaannnn--- "e; the cry faded as another wave crashed into the ship.

           The captain pulled the throttle sticks back, centered upright, turned and stared into Joey's eyes with a dark look. The captain did not immediately turn the ship around; he already presumed the man to be lost.

           Joey ran out the cabin door and grabbed the railing as he made his way to the stern of the boat, where the yell had came from. He saw two men, just figures dressed in bright orange in the mist, pointing in the direction where the man had fallen over. Straining his eyes, Joey thought he could just make out the man's orange suit bobbing up and down in the freezing waters, at least fifty meters out.

           One of the crew threw a life preserver out and the ship idled in the rough waters for a few minutes. No one moved. The white life preserver bobbed up and down over the huge waves. The two men held the rope and Joey held the rail and they all waited. Suddenly, a tall wave hit the port side of the boat head on with all its force, catching everyone off guard. It was all they could do to just hold on and not get washed overboard. Then, Joey felt a slight vibration at his feet and realized that the captain had powered up the two massive diesel engines underneath. The man was gone. Joey yelled for the other two men to pull in the float and go below. When they had closed the hull door behind them, he went back up to the cabin.

           "e;Bloody fucking hell,"e; the captain cursed in a thick English accent.

           Joey could not help but feel a twinge of anger at the foreigner. He was not mad at him for leaving the drowning man. The captain, Joey, the two men on the deck, even the dying man himself, all knew he was as good as dead in the freezing waters and the high waves and there was nothing any of them could do about it. No, Joey was mad at the captain for taking his tuna boat out so far. And now that had now resulted in one death.

           "e;He was on deck, strapping down the fucking net!"e; Joey said, anger in his voice.

           "e;Next time cut the fucking net, haul and all!"e;

           Joey stared straight ahead, through the dark mist.

           It was dark because the storm clouds blocked out the stars and the moon. The waves appeared to be getting bigger, at about twenty meters or so now. The ship would lull upwards as a wave drove toward it, then smash through the top portion of the wave and water would belt the deck before the ship would drop fast down again on the other side of the wave.

           Joey thought of his girlfriend back in Boston. If they made it back with this haul he would take a vacation with her, but not a cruise.

           Then a huge wave crashed into the port side of the ship. The crew was already wearing their protective suits, the tops pulled down around their waists. The orange, survival rafts were inflated and waiting below. The force from the massive wave instantly smashed the windows out in the cabin and almost completely broke off the netting gear in the stern of the ship.

           Joey was thrown and he hit his head on something but he wasn't knocked out, not even close. He desperately tried to stand back up and get oriented and he was successful enough. He saw the precariously hanging netting gear. It completely snapped off, as if it were a popsicle stick breaking in two, and fall into the ocean. And now huge holes in the ship's stern were fast filling with freezing salt water. Joey realized in an instant that the ship would drop like a stone in perhaps as soon as one minute. As he stood looking out the broken window of cabin at the stern of the ship he could see dark water pouring into the holes created by the ripped-off netting gear and he saw the ship itself now begin to list backward into the sea, ever so slightly.

           He did not see anyone on the deck. There was only the captain on the floor, knocked out cold, his head bleeding badly. So he flew down the steps in the rear of the cabin and grabbed one of the already inflated survival rafts and then climbed back up the ladder, carrying the raft. He threw open the cabin door and dropped the raft down at the walkway and then ran back inside of the cabin and lifted up the captain and carried him over to the edge, the only thing left of the railing, a few pieces, and threw him overboard. Then he went back and grabbed the raft and in three giant strides, something like a triple-jumper might do, he ran down the walkway and leapt over the side of the fast sinking ship, hanging onto the inflatable raft with all his strength.

           He hit the water and it felt like ice. He scrambled to get inside the tent-like, orange raft. He managed to crawl inside and then he threw his legs in and hung his upper torso out of the entrance and started paddling back toward the ship. The ship was about half sunk now, bobbing a little in the heavy waves. Joey did not know where his captain was but he had a general idea and that was the direction he was paddling towards.

           After a few minutes of fierce flailing with his arms, he saw a figure in the water ahead of him, just a hump above the water, the rest beneath. He paddled harder now and when he got close enough, he jumped out of his raft, still holding onto it with one hand, reached out and grabbed the unmoving body by the hair, and lifted the head back out of the water.

           It was the captain. Joey pulled as hard as he could and threw the body of his captain back into the raft and then climbed in also. Then he zipped the raft closed. The captain was bleeding slightly from a cut in his head, but not too bad. The salt water had put a halt to that. He was still lifting and dropping his chest ever so slightly. So there was nothing to be done -- the man was breathing, had a pulse and his bleeding had stopped. Joey cracked open a small section of the inflatable raft's doorway and watched the captain's tuna boat majestically roll over on its starboard side like a huge dying whale, hover there for about fifteen seconds, and then sink below the waves. He zipped his raft back up.

           The waves were tossing the tiny raft around like a roller coaster. Most of it was tolerable, except for when a wave slammed directly on top of the raft and crushed them. But the raft would always right itself. Joey and his half-alive captain just rode out the next six or so hours as best they could until the storm finally abated to the point where the waves were not mountains anymore, falling over them, but just low, rolling hills. It was light out now. The captain stirred finally and Joey watched him for a few minutes as he slowly regained consciousness. Inside the inflatable raft the blocked sunlight made everything dark orange.


           "e;Well, well, the bloke lives."e;

           The captain lifted his head up, rubbed his forehead carefully, where his cut was, with the butt of his open palm. He looked around the inside of the raft for a minute and then said, "e;Why are we here, Joey, is this for real? Who has the ship?"e;

           "e;Who has the ship? Who has your ship? The fucking bottom of the ocean has your goddamn ship and your fucking haul of tuna, too!"e;

           "e;Son-of-a-bitch,"e; the captain slowly groaned and then laid his head back down and closed his eyes.

           "e;I only have one question for you,"e; Joey said, paused and then continued, "e;When was the last Mayday?"e;

           The captain opened his eyes and looked up at the top of the orange raft, thinking.

           "e;About ten thirty."e;

           "e;Consider yourself lucky, then."e;

           "e;Why's that?"e;

           "e;That I don't throw you out right now."e;

           "e;You've got me over a barrel, sure you do, fucking Irish yank. You better watch your back, too."e;

           "e;You think so, you fuck? Somehow, I don't think I need to watch anything. Somehow, I think you better tone it down and like real fucking fast or consider yourself shark food with that open head o' yours."e;

           The captain did not say anything. He did not look at Joey as Joey was talking but instead kept looking up at the top of the orange raft. They floated along in silence for a while over the low waves, Joey still staring at the captain. There was potable water stowed in the side pocket of the raft. Not a lot, but enough for about two days for two people, four days for one. Then there would be nothing.

           The two men did not say anything to each other for the next several hours of the morning.

           Finally, Joey broke the monotony of the low waves splashing against the inflatable raft, and said in a low, slow voice, "e;My father was killed in the war."e;

           "e;Oh, for Christ's sake, Joey, is that what we're going to do, argue about the war?"e;

           "e;You don't want to talk about it? Huh?"e;

           "e;No, I don't want to bloody talk about it!"e;

           "e;Well, we're going to talk about it anyway."e;

           "e;You're being like a bitch, Joey."e;

           "e;I realized while you were talking your nap that we just might die. I figure we've got about fifty-fifty, and that's looking on the bright side. So I have a perfect opportunity to either agree with you or dump your ass in with the sharks and hope for the best. So, I ask you again, do you want to talk about the war?"e;

           The captain did not say anything.

           "e;Do you think you belong in our country?"e;

           There was a long pause and then the captain, choosing his words carefully now, answered, "e;I think we have been there a long time, Joey. I think even the Scotch are more Irish than the English, and the bloody Northern Irish are just plain Irish. That is what I think. I am a fisherman, Joey, and you know that."e;

           "e;You tell me, who in your family was involved in the war? Tell me."e;

           "e;My uncle was stationed there."e;

           "e;Did he ever shoot anybody?"e;

           "e;I think he might've. But I'm not really sure, Joey."e;

           "e;You still did not answer my question. Do you belong in our country?"e;

           The captain again thought long about his answer before he spoke.

           "e;I do, Joey. I won't lie to you, here. I really believe the Irish are causing The Troubles. It's not even the real Irish; you know that, only the ones up north. Down south, they don't care. We're just one big country, Joey. One big country of smaller countries. Let me ask you, why not let there just be peace?"e;

           Joey suddenly got very angry. He felt his captain would never understand that the British did not belong in Ireland. But for now, he kept his cool and answered, "e;There can be peace, but only without the bloody English there. And they're ones down south that care, too. Not as many, I'll grant you that. It is one country -- our country. Why can't the English just leave?"e;

           "e;How can we leave? The bloody country is Northern Ireland, not Ireland!"e; the captain paused at his last word, wanting to continue but realizing he had spoken too soon, given his present situation. He continued a little slower, "e;…a lot of people have died, Joey, on both sides. I don't know. I just don't know."e;

           Joey did not say anything. The sun was high in the sky now and shining down hard on the orange raft, making the inside a dark, strange, luminescent color. Joey reached over and unzipped the pocket stowing the water. He pulled out one of the orange, plastic containers and undid the top.

           Joey could feel the freezing, potable water, cold from resting close to the ocean. Both men were wearing their floatation suits, zipped up, even over their heads now. A thin layer of water that their body had heated up on the inside of the suits was keeping them warm and insulated them, like a wet suit for diving, against the cold ocean water that was lapping up against the side of the raft and that made the bottom of the raft freezing.

           Joey took a long draft from the container. The captain leaned up his head and watched. Joey stared back at him for a moment and then said, "e;I am going to give you water long enough to figure out what to do with you."e;

           The captain did not answer. He reached over and grabbed the container and took a long drink also and then resealed it and put it down on the bottom of the plastic raft. The two men did not say anything for the next several hours. Night fell and they shared the rest of the water until it was gone.

           Then they both slept. Joey knew there was nothing the captain could do to him. The captain's head was bad, he had no strength and there was nothing, nothing inside of the raft he could use to hurt him with. To try and throw him out, the captain would have to unzip the raft and that was a chore. He might get in one hit but only one. Joey had always been a very light sleeper, anyway.

           Joey, on the other hand, was feeling strong. He even felt a little angry and that made him feel even stronger. He had eaten a big dinner only a few hours before the ship sunk. For some reason, which he now thanked God for, he had been particularly hungry and he had stuffed himself full at that meal. As he thought, he remembered the captain had not eaten at all on that night. He probably would have later, the cook always saved him a portion but during the storm he'd had no time.

           Joey thought about his father. His family had lived in Belfast growing up. There was a routine to follow, sure, but it did not seem out of the ordinary since he had lived it. His father had been just a fisherman, too, just like the captain said. He had worked on the big boats when they left for months to catch their hauls. They always had enough money growing up. His father was not a part of the IRA, from what Joey could remember as a child, but as he became a man, he saw that he might not have known.

           All he knew was one day his mother had picked him up from school early. She took him home, sat him down at the kitchen table, almost forcing him into his seat, and she told him that his father had been killed by English soldiers. She had not even paused a second, she had just told him point blank. That was all that she had said.

           Joey woke up, uncertain of his surroundings for a moment, and then sat up and saw the captain was still asleep, snoring loudly. He smacked his head with the back of his hand, right on his open cut.

           "e;Aaahhhh!"e; The captain groaned in pain as he bolted up, holding his cut with both open palms. Then he said, "e;Why did ya do that to me, Joey?"e;

           "e;We're not done talking."e;

           The captain rested back down, against the plastic holding him above the waves, still holding his head wound with his hands.

           "e;If you saw who you knew to be a patriot, and you could get away with killing him, would you shoot him dead?"e; Joey asked straightforward.

           "e;I'd probably would kill the bastard,"e; the captain answered, amazed at his bluntness but then he saw it was probably from being in pain. He paused and then countered, "e;Would you shoot an English terrorist? What about an English soldier, if you could get away with it?"e;

           Joey thought that he probably would and he answered, "e;All right, you win, you fucker, I got no answers."e;

           "e;Thank God, Joey,"e; the captain said and breathed a sigh of relief.

           Then the captain lifted his head up by propping his elbow down against the bottom of the raft and he said in a clear, strong voice, "e;Now let me tell you something Joey and you listen to me! I may not know a lot about politics, Joey, but I know I really don't care about politics, either. But I sure as hell care about those men at the bottom of the sea like they're my own brothers. Hell, they are my brothers! Just like you do and I care that we lost ‘em to the sea. You and I both lost ‘em and you know it too. But that is what happens on the sea, Joey, and I know you know that, too. Just like every other wreak that's ever happened, if we're lucky then we're the next ones that'll live on to tell other fishermen what happened to us so that maybe in the next squall, they'll not go too far out for their haul. Maybe one first mate will tell his captain a little louder to not be too greedy and to turn back to home. I am just a fisherman, Joey, just like you. That is what we are, that is what we do, and you know it clear as the sun shining over Belfast on a bright Sunday morning."e;

           There was a pause and then Joey answered, "e;My dad, he was a fisherman, too."e;

           "e;And so was my own dad, Joey, and his too. My own father, he died in a wreak. Shouldn't that be my fate now?"e;

           The two fishermen shared the last container of water together and then they lay down and slept, more tired now from a lack of energy. They both started to fade now, into that realm of semi-consciousness where they did not understand all that was going on around them. Their supply of water was gone and about all they did was drift closer to death.

           Then Joey slipped into a full delirium, his dreams violent and clear in his head. He thought about his girlfriend toward the end. She was so pretty, what was she doing now? She was a good girl, she always waited for him when he went away for months at a time, she understood that this was his job, that he would never change because his father had done the same thing and it was all that he knew. She never gave him hell when he came home, she would just be glad to see him again. If he could only see her again, then everything would be all right.

           In his near-death dreams, the captain recalled when he had been in middle school back in England. He had been on the rugby team and when he finally made it as a starter there was an initiation that he had to go through. The rest of the starters had held him down on a table and removed his rugby shirt and then every single starting player walked by, like a gauntlet, and smacked his stomach as hard as they could with an open palm. When it was over, he had a pink belly. The rite of passage was called "e;The Stinger"e;.

           Neither of them heard the US Coast Guard chopper that hovered over them. The helicopter had taken off from a cutter only a few miles away. Neither of them were conscious when the midshipmen made their rescue and hoisted them up to the chopper from the raft, one at a time, the captain first, since he had a bad head wound.

           Back in the infirmary on the ship, they were still unconscious, but alive. Eventually, they both recovered and they stayed fishermen, like each of their fathers had and their fathers also.

           Joey slowly opened his eyes. The room was white and he was uncertain of his surroundings. But he was certain of one thing and smiled broadly. His girlfriend was looking down into his eyes, smiling, and crying too. Then she leaned down and kissed him gently as she put her arms around his neck.

           They would take a vacation, Joey thought, but not a cruise.

About the Author (click here) © 2001 Mike Strozier, all rights reserved
 appears here by permission

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