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Trip of a Lifetime

Shooting the Sun

By Tamia Nelson and Farwell Forrest

A Note to the Reader

Their bad day on the Battenkill hit Ed, Brenna and the rest of the gang pretty hard, but it's not the end of the trail. This week Jack takes the lead and gives our heroes a priceless gift.

February 6, 2001

Chapter Ten

As late as it was—they hadn't gotten to bed until after two—and as tired as she was, Brenna couldn't sleep. "Shakedown trip!" she thought, silently forming the words. "Shake-up, more like!" And she had been shaken up. No doubt about that. Willy-nilly, she relived the day's terrible scenes. A little girl horribly maimed. Fenris dead. Linda swinging wildly between ungovernable rage and inconsolable grief. The grim trip back to town, with Brick driving the Wagoneer, tight-lipped and angry, while Linda curled up in a fetal position in the back seat, sobbing. Brenna, riding up front ("Just in case," Ed had cautioned, thinking of Reverend MacGregor), unable to do more than reach back to stroke her head.

And Ed, driving home alone in the Ford, his old poncho wrapped around Fenris' rapidly stiffening body, sprawled lifeless across the pickup's bed. And then the ghastly nighttime burial scene in Linda's backyard.

"God, what an awful day!" said Brenna, whispering her words into the silent, enveloping dark. Ed stirred and groaned, but he didn't wake. If anything, he'd been a little too quiet since the…what, exactly? "Accident?" Brenna asked herself. "More like some sort of Blue Light Special Greek tragedy." Well, however you described the day, Ed had been a little too self-contained, especially when he wrapped Fenris in the worn poncho and placed her in the pickup.

The water pipes sighed and pinged, echoing Ed's occasional groans. Brenna wondered if the toilet seal had failed again. She was still wondering when sleep finally claimed her.

Downstairs, in his apartment behind the book shop, Jack Van Dorn was also awake. But he wasn't troubled by disturbing memories. He was getting ready to take a bath. In the middle of the night, no less. Or whenever he damned well wanted one, he thought. What luxury!

The tub was full. Jack turned off the taps, hung his tattered robe on a hook behind the bathroom door, and tested the steaming water with a big, knobby toe. Satisfied, he lowered himself gingerly into the clawfoot tub, easing in little by little to allow his skin to get used to the heat. He leaned back. All the long years in cramped fo'c's'les and single-room occupancy hotels slipped away. Gone were the days of washing in a bucket or showering by the clock, waiting for a couple of gallons of tepid water to slip out of some miserly landlord's clutches.

Jack let out a contented sigh. Seeing a mouse poke his nose out from under the radiator, Jack wished him good morning. "Don't mind me, boy," he said, addressing the quivering creature in a voice little louder than a whisper. "I'm gettin' on a bit. Got to make the most of my opportunities, ya un'erstan'?" The mouse had nothing to say, apparently, but Jack thought he might be nodding in agreement.

The old man slid down and let his head sink into the warm, welcoming water. His thick, white hair floated free around him. Then, when the need to breathe became overwhelming, he shoved back through the surface, gasping for air. He grinned and turned the Hot tap on with his foot. Scalding water poured into the tub. Steam swirled in the room and fogged the mirror. Every muscle in Jack's body relaxed.

"Comin' up in the world, I am," Jack added for the mouse's benefit, even though he'd vanished from view. Then he thought of Molly Saunders. Mighty pleasant thoughts, indeed. "Did ya see that?" he asked the mouse a few minutes later. "Life in this old man, yet," he crowed. But the mouse still had nothing to say.

When the water cooled to merely warm, Jack pulled the plug and stepped carefully out of the tub. He rubbing himself vigorously with a thick towel. He'd made up his mind.

He slipped flannel pajamas over his glowing body and combed his hair. Shuffling into his kitchen, he turned on the gas under a small pan of milk, then shook some sunflower seeds from a glass jar onto a paper plate. He carried the plate back into the bathroom and put it down next to the radiator before returning to the kitchen. No reason not to share his good fortune, was there? Certainly not. Charity begins at home.

When tiny bubbles formed around the rim of the pan, Jack poured the milk into a heavy mug, rinsed the pot, and turned off the light. He walked into his bedroom, setting the mug on the bedside table beside a dog-eared copy of Jonathan Raban's Old Glory. Then he opened the middle drawer of the oak dresser and removed a dark mahogany box from under a neatly folded pair of long johns. Jack laid the box on top of the dresser, moving with the same reverent care that the old priests in the Seaman's Mission used to take when they handled the gold dish with the hosts.

The rich wood glowed in the muted light. Taking a miniature key from a thong around his neck, Jack unlocked the box and opened the lid. Then he reached down, grasped the sextant by its frame, and lifted it gently from its cradle.

He took the handle in his right hand and felt the familiar weight. Squeezing the quick-release between the thumb and middle finger of his left hand, Jack unlocked the clamp and moved the index bar along the arc, forefinger just touching the limb, feeling the firm, frictionless glide of metal on polished metal. Next, he released the quick-release and turned the micrometer head. Lastly, he brought the eyepiece of the telescope up to his face.

All felt exactly as it should. The sextant was Jack's most prized possession and his only treasure. He'd kept it with him…how long had it been, now? Fifty years! Fifty years he'd guarded it. At one time or another, he'd sold or pawned everything he'd ever owned. Everything but one thing. This sextant.

Hard to know why, exactly. He'd been an engineer. "Black gang," they called the engineers then. Working down in the bowels of the ship, in the engine room, always filthy, always covered with oil and grease, temperature over 120 degrees, waiting to have the skin stripped off their backs by a jet of high-pressure steam. "Black gang." Engineers didn't need a sextant. They didn't stand deck watch. But he had. On the schooners, on the Labrador. Sometimes even on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Too many died too quickly for captains not to welcome a likely lad who wanted to learn. Too many died, period.

So he'd gotten a sextant. And learned to use it. And he'd been right glad he had. But now he'd never need it again. He knew that. It was time to hand it on.

He felt a pain from somewhere near his heart. Not much of a pain, to be sure. Not serious pain. Just a slight, tentative flexing of the fist that sometimes visited him in the night, clenching hard in his chest. Real pain, though, and not some twinge of sentiment. A little reminder of mortality, of the inevitable end of old age. Nothing lasts forever. Jack had known that for a long, long time.

But his sextant would outlast him, that much was certain. And it could still be useful in someone else's hands. Time to hand it on. Carefully, Jack returned it to its box, closed and locked the lid, and then placed it back in the drawer, under his long johns.

Late the next day, just before closing time, with Brenna watching the shop, Jack asked Ed to come with him. He led the way into his apartment and then vanished into his bedroom, leaving Ed standing by the kitchen table. When he emerged, he was carrying the sextant case.

Jack didn't often waste words. He didn't do so now, but he found he had some trouble getting them out. "Ed," he began. Then he stopped. He began again. "Ed…." He paused, and when he spoke once more, the words came out in a rush. "Iwantyoutohavethis." And then he put the warm mahogany box in Ed's hands.

Ed's face expressed his puzzlement. The worst behind him, Jack's words slowed down. "Remember when you were writin' up your gear lists, a couple weeks back? Remember I told you that if you're goin' to the Bay you want to take a sextant? And you agreed, right? But lately I'm guessin' you've been thinkin' maybe they cost too much, ain't that right?" Ed nodded, reluctantly. "Well," Jack continued, "you don't need to worry about what a sextant costs no more. You got one now. Right here." And Jack rested his hand gently on the box in a gesture that was both a benediction and a farewell.

Ed stood speechless, not knowing what to say. Jack took the box out of his hands and placed it on the table. He removed the thong with the tiny key from around his neck and gave it to Ed. "Take this," he said. "Open the case."

And Ed, still at a loss for words, did as he was told, staring down at the unfamiliar instrument, his eyes taking in the beauty of its stark, functional simplicity. "It's a Husun," Jack said, in the same tone that a father uses when he introduces his first-born child to the world. "Admiralty pattern. Class A certificate. Finest made."

Ed found his voice at last. "I can't take your sextant to the Bay, Jack. A canoe's not a schooner, let alone a Liberty ship. Everything gets wet. Everything gets banged about. I'm not going to risk leaving your sextant on the bottom of some northern river."

"Now you listen up, laddie," Jack replied, impatience slurring his speech. "This here's my decision. I thought about it long an' hard. I ain't goin' to sea again. I don't need a sextant no more. It's yours. You take care of it as best you can, an' it'll take care of you. A Labrador schooner ain't no Carnival cruise ship. Many's the day I've stood watches with green water and slob ice washin' right across t'deck, an'—assumin' I was lucky enough to get any sleep 't'all—more'n likely I slept in a pipe berth under a weepin' seam. This here sextant's your sextant, now, Ed—an' it's seen a good deal wors'n anythin' you're likely to come across on your little summer holiday. You hear what I'm sayin'?"

Jack paused for breath, his face red. Then he spoke more slowly. He rested his right hand on Ed's shoulder, "I want you an' that girl a' yours to have this sextant. It's a tool. It wants usin'. It's not some goddam' paperweight! And if you take it up North, it'd be like me goin' with ya. Up there. To the Bay. Can't you understan' that, boy?"

His final question hung in the air. For long seconds, the two of them faced each other silently across the gulf of years. Then Ed nodded, unable to speak, his eyes glistening. Jack smiled. He, too, was having a hard time keeping his waterworks in check. "We un'erstan' each other now, right?" he said, just to make the contract binding. And then he added, "Don't suppose you got a copy of this year's Nautical Almanac in the shop, have you? Better get one, if'n you want me to show you how to use your new sextant."

And that was all he said.

Four days later, a package from Celestaire arrived in the mail. In it was a single, spiral-bound volume entitled 2001 Nautical Almanac, Commercial Edition. For six hours that day and six the next, Ed and Brenna struggled to learn a new language under Jack's patient but often profane tutelage: Greenwich Hour Angle and Declination, Increments and Corrections, even the arcane mysteries of the Equation of Time.

By Friday, Ed was certain he'd never be a navigator. Jack, however, had other ideas.

"Beautiful day," he said, glancing out the shop window at the cloudless sky. "And only 'bout an hour to go before the sun's at his highest. Time you got your sextant and you and me took a walk over to the park."

Ed looked at the Chauncey Jerome clock behind the counter. Ten o'clock. "Still a little early, isn't it, Jack?" he asked.

"I hope you're gonna remember better when you get up to the Bay," Jack replied, grinning. "The sun, he don't know nothin' about this here Daylight Savings Time, does he? Damn silly idea, too, if you ask me…." Suddenly he was all business. "Hear me. Don't fart about now. You get your sextant and that new Nautical Almanac—and you pick up a cake pan from the kitchen while you're at it. An' bring that big 2-quart canteen full of water, too."

Ed, who was beginning to feel like he was back in Fort Dix, did as he was told for the second time that week, leaving Brenna to mind the store. He and Jack walked slowly over to the park. The sun shone brilliantly, its light filtering through the branches of the budding maples. Jack pointed out an open area with an unobstructed view of the southern sky. It was still early. No office workers were eating lunch on the benches yet, but some kids were playing on the swings and knocking a softball around without much evident enthusiasm. Spring break was obviously under way.

At Jack's direction, Ed put the cake pan on the ground and filled it almost to the top with water. It was a calm day. The sun's reflection in the tiny pool of water was steady. Then Ed opened the sextant case and took the instrument in hand. Guided by Jack, he sat on the ground, facing south, with the pan in front of him. Just before he put the telescope to his eye, Jack reminded him to flip down both sets of shades.

"Find the sun, now!" commanded Jack, with a disarming chuckle. "Go on, find 'im!"

"Piece of cake," Ed replied. He soon regretted his words. "Just where the hell is the damned sun?" he muttered to himself, working the index arm back and forth along the arc. Jack looked on in growing amusement. When Ed took his eye away from the scope for a second, he noticed that the kids had stopped playing softball. They were drifting closer.

"Try again," Jack urged. "Set the arm at the 'proximate altitude—you remember that, don'tcha?"

Ed racked his brain. "Fifty-odd degrees, right?"

"Good 'nuff," Jack replied. "But you gotta double it when you're using an artificial horizon. So you better make it around a hundred."

"Double it?" asked Ed, completely bewildered. "Why, for Chrissake?"

"Cause I say so!" Jack came back immediately. "I'll tell ya why later. Right now, you gotta get a move on!"

Ed heard giggles from the kids. They'd moved a lot closer. "Great!" he thought. "I get to make an ass of myself in front of a lot of kids. Outstanding. Out-goddamn-standing." But he kept his thoughts to himself.

With a hundred degrees now on the arc, Ed swept a narrow segment of the southern sky, keeping the sun's reflected disk from the cake pan in the left half of the horizon glass. Suddenly, he had it! A dull yellow orb hung suspended high in the right half of the glass, its dazzling brilliance tamed by the shades—the sun's disk, brought down almost to the level of the artificial horizon by the sextant's index mirror.

Ed squeezed the quick-release on the clamp and tried to nudge the index arm forward. Too far! Lost it! He unlocked it again and eased the arm back carefully. There it was! But even as he watched, the sun's disk climbed toward the top of the glass. Ed rotated the tangent screw clockwise, checking the disk's steady rise and bringing it down till its bottom limb just touched the top of the other reflected disk.

But the right-hand disk kept on climbing. Ed eased the micrometer screw forward, closing the gap as quickly as it formed. Then, suddenly, the disk stopped rising and began to fall. A tiny overlap formed between the two reflected solar globes. The sun had reached its highest altitude of the day.

"Got it!" Ed exclaimed, then, remembering something he'd read in a book somewhere, he added with mock formality, "Make it noon, Mr. Van Dorn."

Jack grinned. The kids, not understanding what was going on but sure that something important had happened, broke into a chorus of hoots and yells. Ed read the angle off the arc, "One hundred and six degrees," he called out to Jack, adding, "and nineteen minutes, fifteen seconds on the micrometer."

"Right," Jack replied, settling his new reading glasses on his nose and glancing quickly at the arc and tangent screw. "Double altitude by sextant, one hundred and six degrees, nineteen minutes, and fifteen seconds. OK—what's the index error?"

Ed rifled the compartments of his memory, trying to remember yesterday's tutorial in the shop. "Five seconds on the arc?"

"Add or subtract?"

"Let's see, now…if it's on, take it off…subtract!"

"And the apparent double meridian altitude?" Jack asked, relentless.

"One hundred and six degrees, nineteen minutes, and ten seconds."

"Right you are. One more step, now. Apparent meridian altitude?"

Ed, thinking out loud, "Let's see, now…halve the angle…fifty-three degrees, nine minutes and five—no, sorry, thirty-five seconds, right?"

"I think you're gonna make it to the Bay, Ed," replied Jack, grinning from ear to ear. A short silence followed. Then, suddenly, "Hold hard, there! You've forgotten dip. What's the dip?"

Totally confused now, Ed thought furiously. "Dip. Look it up in the table. Need to know the height of my eye above the water. But I'm not on the water. I'm in a park. The only water around here is the water in this cake pan…." His mind reeled. He stood speechless.

Jack couldn't take it any longer. "Don't burn your bearings, laddie. Artificial horizon. No dip correction." Then he paused for effect before continuing: "Gotcha! Good goin'. But you ain't done yet. You got your apparent altitude. You still got ta finish the job."

Ed handed the sextant to Jack, and set about his work. He opened the Nautical Almanac, removed the Altitude Correction Table and found the lower limb correction for the April sun at an apparent altitude of fifty-three degrees: +15.3 minutes. "Make that fifteen minutes and eighteen seconds," he muttered. That gave a corrected altitude of fifty-three degrees, twenty-four minutes, and fifty-three seconds.

Next, he found the declination: North six degrees, twenty-seven minutes and thirty-six seconds. The rest was easy. He could hear Jack's voice in his head: "If declination and latitude have the same name, subtract your meridian altitude from ninety degrees—that's your Zenith Distance, laddie—and add the declination. That's all there is to it. You got your latitude."

So, yet again, Ed did just what he was told. Latitude forty-three degrees, two minutes, and forty-three seconds North. Make it forty-three degrees and three minutes. That seemed about right. He'd have to check the quad when he got back to the shop, but Ed thought he was within a mile. Not bad for his first noon sight!

He looked up. The kids had formed a circle around Jack, who was showing them the sextant and explaining what it was for. One kid, a skinny seven- or eight-year-old boy whose face was the same rich mahogany as the sextant case, seemed particularly interested.

"Yo' really shootin' the sun, man? That don't look like no kind of gun to me!"

Jack squatted down, looked over at Ed in a tacit request for permission, and then gave the sextant to the boy, folding the kid's small hands in his own and guiding the movements of his fingers. Soon the boy was working the index arm. Jack checked that all the shades were in place. Then he helped the kid find the sun in the telescope and bring it down.

When he succeeded, the kid handed the sextant back to Jack and ran over to his friends. "I jes' shot the sun!" he shouted to the world. A large, shambling, three-legged mutt of a dog had been lapping up the water from the cake pan. Now he pressed his nose into the kid's palm, his tail wagging furiously. "I shot the sun!" the kid repeated, scratching the dog's ears.

Just then a woman stuck her head out a window on the second floor of the apartment house next to the park. "Sammmm!" she yelled. "It's time for yo' lunch, honey!"

"Comin', Mom!" the boy shouted back. Then he turned to Jack and said, "Thanks for lettin' me shoot that ol' sun, mister!"

"My pleasure, son," Jack replied, smiling. "Now you get along home and have your lunch. It don't do to miss a meal 'less you hafta!"

Sam ran toward home, the three-legged dog following hard on his heels, moving amazingly fast. The circle of kids around Jack started to melt away.

Jack walked over to Ed. "Think you know where you are, now?" he joked, slapping Ed's shoulder.

"You know, Jack, I think I just might, at that," Ed replied. "Thanks to you." And the two friends started walking back toward The Book Locker.

To be continued…

Eight Bells

Copyright 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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