Fiction

The Old Man and the Radar

The Captain had a low opinion of new gadgets and young sailors. It took a thick fog to blot out his old prejudices

JOHN RHODES STURDY December 1 1947
Fiction

The Old Man and the Radar

The Captain had a low opinion of new gadgets and young sailors. It took a thick fog to blot out his old prejudices

JOHN RHODES STURDY December 1 1947

The Old Man and the Radar

JOHN RHODES STURDY

CAPTAIN WILLIAM BUCHAN was very glad to be home. The trip across country had left him tired and a little restless. It was a relief to get settled down in his own cabin with all the old familiar fixtures around him and the ship’s noises under him. A relief to get out his pipe and stretch his legs and relax.

Smithers, the temporary master, came to the door and looked in, surprised.

“Oh—back?”

Captain Bill chuckled secretly before he replied. “Ah, yes, back,” he said.

“Well,” Smithers said, with some hesitation. “Did you have a good trip?”

“Ah, yes, delightful.”

“How were things at headquarters?”

“Very busy.”

“Well—I’ll send a man for my gear. You’re looking tine.”

“I’m feeling great.”

“Well,” said Smithers, “things are the same here. The ship’s been running top rate. I’ll turn over formally to you in the morning.”

“Thanks, old boy,” said Captain Bill. He watched Smithers leave the cabin and he chuckled again. He did not intend to tell Smithers anyt hing, simply because Smithers was bursting to know. All of them would be like that, wanting to know if he had retired, talking about him at the club tonight—“That old Bill Buchan, hanging on to his command by the seat of his pants. Due for retirement a year ago, and look at him. What chance has a younger man?”

Captain Bill patted the bowl of his pipe. He would never tell them what had happened at headquarters. A year ago he had waited for the notice of his retirement and it had failed to arrive. But this year he had packed his bag and gone East to put it squarely up to the president.

The president, looking at him across a big black desk, had said, “I wish you’d stay on for a little longer, Bill.”

“I’m overdue,” Captain Bill had replied bluntly. “I want my pension. I’ve earned it. So give it to me.”

“We’re putting new officers on your ship.”

“Well?”

“They’re mostly back from the war and don’t know that tricky West-Coast run. We want you to stand by them for a while. They need youi guidance and they’ll be happy to serve with you foi the experience you can give them. They’ll be eagei for the chance.”

“And if I do—”

“I promise, Bill. Your pension and a bonus.” Reluctantly he had agreed. If the company needed him that badly, he did not mind too much

The Captain had a low opinion of new gadgets and young sailors. It took a thick fog to blot out his old prejudices

A KNOCK on the door interrupted hia thoughts and hia smoking. A young man in a third officer’s uniform stepped into the cabin and looked surprised. He had fair hair and a lot of ribbons on his chest.

“Oh, pardon me! I was looking for Captain Smithers.”

“I think he just stepped ashore,” said Captain Bill. “I was making myself at home.”

“That’s quite all right. Anything I can get you?” “No, thanks.”

“I’m Evans, third officer.”

“Glad to know you,” said Captain Bill. “Nice little cabin, this.”

“Yes,” said Evans uncertainly. “Needs a bit of modernizing, though. Captain Smithers has some ideas of his own. But he has to wait until he gets the official word on the former Old Man.”

“What’s happened to him?” asked Captain Bill. “Gone East for his final orders. You know, the axe—pension, putter around the old garden.” “Oh, sure,” said Captain Bill grimly. “Nice for him.”

“Well, I heard he got a year’s extension last year. But when your time’s up, it’s up. We’re changing a lot of things in this fleet. Getting more efficient, throwing out a lot of the old stuff,” the young man said affably. “They gave us radar last week. We’re the first ship in this coast fleet to get it. Radar was my specialty in the navy.”

Captain Bill looked genuinely startled. “Radar? What for?”

“Indispensable,” said Evans. “Can’t run a ship efficiently these days without it. For one thing, you need it for navigation.”

“Rot!”

The young man laughed agreeably. “There you go, sir. You’d think you were one of those old skippers who won’t learn anything modern. You’d think—”

He stopped. His eyes were on the suitcase at the foot of the bunk.

“I’m Captain Buchan,” said Captain Bill. “And the axe, as you call it, hasn’t fallen yet.”

“I’m sorry, I—”

“This ship has navigated for a long time, in and out of the worst fogs the Good Lord ever made, and she never needed any radar gadget to keep her on course. Remember that, young man.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Good night, Mister Evans.”

“Good night, sir.”

Captain Bill went back to his pipe. He had taken advantage of the young man, but he had learned something too. He was not too sure thai, he was going to enjoy teaching young officers how to operate a West-Coast ship. Not if they all held the same opinions as Third Officer Evans.

He recalled what the president had said to him. “They’ll be happy to serve with you for the experience you can give them. They’ll be eager for the chance.”

He was not so sure about that, either.

In the morning Captain Smithers collected his gear and went ashore. The other officers, waiting a reasonable length of time, came to Captain Bill’s cabin and paid their respects to him. Looking at them he decided they were calling him an old codger; a stubborn old fool who was holding back their promotions. At that he chuckled.

“Another thing,” the president had said, “keep your eye on the young men for any of them we can push ahead. I’ll want a report from you. We’ll rely on your judgment.”

They didn’t know that—the young twerps. “Where’s Evans?” Captain Bill asked Jackson, the mate.

“Evans, sir? Why, I believe he’s dickering with the radar.”

Captain Bill got up suddenly from his desk. “Radar! We’re preparing a ship for sea and he’s— send for him.”

Evans came on the ruh. The young man looked nervous when he entered the cabin. He stood almost at attention.

“What were you doing?” asked Captain Bill, staring out the porthole.

“We’ve been having a little trouble with calibration, sir, and I—”

Captain Bill turned. It was said that there was no storm on the Pacific Ocean like the wrath of Captain William Buchan when he was aroused. By the time he was finished the young man’s face was white as a sheet and he was standing even more at attention.

“That’s all,” said Captain Bill finally.

The young man’s Adam’s apple protruded suddenly. “That’s not quite all, sir,” he declared stubbornly. “Radar was installed for the safety of this ship and I’m the only officer qualified right now to look after it. You may have to depend on radar one of these days, sir.”

“That is all!” Captain Bill almost shouted.

After the third officer had left he took a small notebook from his desk and opened it grimly. On one page he had written the name of every officer in the ship. This was the record that, would be 1 he basis of his report to the president.

He took a pencil and placed a thick black mark beside the name of Third Officer Evans.

THEY were to sail that week and on Wednesday they moved into the harbor to swing compass. During that long, monotonous business of running slowly up and down the harbor, Captain Bill watched his officers at their routine jobs. They seemed to know their business all right and he was somewhat pleased. He did not interfere, even when he learned that Evans had sneaked—sneaked was the word Captain Bill used—into the radar cabin to check ranges. He made certain, however, that the third officer was on the bridge with him when the compass swinging was finished and they headed back to the pier.

The Malabar was a 3,000-ton passenger-cargo ship with a single screw and not an easy vessel to handle. As they approached the pier the 1 ide was running fast. In the outside berth lay one of the company’s large passenger ships. To dock they had to slip past this veasel and edge into a narrow space ahead of her.

Fifty yards off the end of the pier Captain Bill turned and said: “Take her in, Mister Evans.”

The young officer had not expected the order. He hesitated a moment and Captain Bill repeated his words. Evan’s face was pale as he stepped up to the binnacle and his lips were pressed tight together. Captain Bill watched him like a hawk.

“Dead slow ahead.”

The Malabar moved closer to the high white side of the passenger ship.

“Port twenty.”

The young man’s voice sounded nervous and strained.

“Stop her! Hard-a-port!”

The voice was almost cracking.

“Steady! Slow ahead.”

Evans gripped the binnacle and his face was twisted. He was beginning to shout when Captain Rill walked up and waved him aside with an impatient motion of his hand. Captain Bill’s orders came unhurried from his lips. The Malabar, as though happy at the sound of a familiar voice, steadied herself and slipped cleanly and easily into the inside berth and her mooring lines went out to the pier.

Evans’ cheeks were flushed now. “You took me hy surprise, sir,” he said to Captain Bill. “I haven’t been allowed to handle—”

Captain Bill hardly glanced at him. He rang down “Finished with engines” and went below to his cabin where he took out his little book and added another black mark against the third officer’s name.

There were more black marks by the time they sailed north and after two days of steady steaming Captain Bill had reached the conclusion that, in order to save the company from complete ruin, he would have to forget retirement for the rest of his life.

The young fellows were willing enough and, with the exception of Evans, they were pleasant company to have around. But he had to admit that he couldn’t trust one of them to handle the ship. Perhaps in the open sea, with a good wide ocean to play in, but not on the tricky, rock-indented northern coast.

He noted that he had completely subdued Third Officer Evans. The young man who had talked too much and too conceitedly in t he beginning was now the most silent man aboard ship. He seldom spoke, when he was on t he bridge, and never, if he could help it, to his captain. Most of t he time he seemed lost in thought.

“Sulking,” said Captain Bill to himself. “That’s t he worst yet.”

He was on the bridge, looking down at the forecastlehead. The Malabar was as steady as a rock in the calm sea. her

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hows cutting the blue water sweet and clean. After a time he looked at the skies and he turned to windward and sniffed. He sniffed again, like an old hound dog.

“Fog,” he said. “In an hour.”

He had spent half his life in fog up here and he still hated it,. He knew he could smell his way through it,, even if youngsters like Evans wouldn’t believe the truth of that; and he could land his ship in fog by some sense that he bad developed down the years. But. he still cursed the murky stuff and detested it.

He was correct this time as always. He did not even have to check his watch. 'The fog came in an hour, almost on the minute, low and greyish, swirling in to the sides of the Malabar, cloaking the sea as it carne and wiping out the sun. A strange, eerie silence descended over the ship. The

swishing sound of the water clipping rlown her hull became accentuated. Captain Bill buttoned up the collar of his coat, rested his arms on the forward dodger and settled down to a long vigil of.staring into nothing.

rpWO hours later he w'as still standing there, shrouded in fog, when a voice belonging to t he wireless operator interrupted his thoughts.

“I’ve just been talking to the Mary Frances a yacht, sir. She’s inside the 'Ten Mile Rocks, in the same sort of fog we’re getting. She can’t get out.”

Captain Bill snorted. “The fool! Only a yachtsman would get himself in there. Well, he can hang on until t he fog clears.”

“Yes, sir. Only they’re pretty desperate. They’re under reduced speed anyway, on account of engine trouble, and they have a sick man aboard. They report lie’s seriously ill. They were hoping they could get. outside the rocks and transfer the patient to us and we could take him on to hospital at the next port.”

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“Don’t be asinine,” said Captain Bill. “I can’t go in there and lead her out in this stuff.”

“I know, sir. It’s impossible, of course. They really don’t expect any help. They were just talking to me.” The wireless operator went away and Captain Bill scowled into the fog. He didn’t like hearing reports like that when he was powerless to help. He cursed savagely at the dense wall of grey ahead of him. It was not going to let up, even to save a man’s life.

“Pardon me, sir,” said a voice suddenly.

“Well?” He was annoyed at Evans, of all people, interrupting him.

“I heard what Sparks said,” the third officer continued. “Look, sir, I know you think we’re washouts, both me and my radar. But if you want to try and save that man’s life, we can help you do it.”

“Oh, you can?”

“Yes, sir,” Evans said definitely. “If you put us on a course to those rocks and get within a few miles of them, I can pick up the yacht on the radar, in relation to the rocks and the land, and give her a course to steer that will get her into open water. Then I can bring our ship close enough to launch a boat and get the sick man.”

“And what will that yacht be on that thingumajig of yours—a blob of light?” “Yes, sir.”

“And what happens if you mistake one blob for another blob—say a big rock—and start giving the rock steering directions?”

“I’m pretty good, sir. At radar.” Captain Bill’s eyes turned quickly. The sound of the voice surprised him. He had heard a lot of young men like Evans boast about themselves, but this had not sounded like a boast but like a deliberate statement of fact. Almost, hang it, like a seaman would make a statement.

“Oh, go ahead,” said Captain Bill suddenly, with a grunt. “Get the thing running. I’ll be off those rocks in an hour and a quarter. Well, don’t stand there.”

The young man almost tripped over himself getting off the bridge, and Captain Bill grunted again. He was making a fool of himself, letting that youngster have a free hand. He was taking his ship off her course and making her late at the next port of call, and he had no more faith in this gadget called radar than he had in the ability of Third Officer Evans.

He gave the helmsman an alteration of course and settled down again to sniff at the fog. His nose, he argued, was more reliable than any electronic contraption.

Half an hour later the bridge telephone rang and Captain Bill answered it.

“Mr. Evans says,” a voice told him, “to alter ten degrees to starboard.” “What’s that?”

“Mr. Evans says to alter immediately.”

“Now, look here—”

“Mr. Evans says fifteen degrees starboard now. Then steady as she goes.” •

“Damnation!” roared Captain Bill. “Who’s master of this ship?”

But the telephone had gone dead. He stared into the wall of fog and the veins of his temple expanded dangerously. A deep, angry growl rose from the bottom of his throat.

“Starboard fifteen,” he told the quartermaster, and felt a wave of disgust at himself for doing it.

In the next fifteen minutes he received orders to alter course again, to drop to half speed, to eventually stop engines. At this point he was beginning to bite his fingernails. He could see

nothing but the fog around him and he could hear nothing. Yet the voice at the other end of that telephone sounded as though everything was clear and simple.

Bah! He wasn’t interested. He would let them fool around with their gadget for a while and then order the ship back on her course.

A little later he began to perspire. “Mister Jackson ! ” he suddenly shouted for the mate. There was no answer.

“Mister Phillips!”

The second officer failed to reply.

He picked up the telephone. If his officers deserted him, he had a right to find them. That, he told himself, was the only reason he was calling the radar compartment.

“Is the mate there?” he asked, offhandedly.

“That you, sir?” Jackson replied. “Say, everything’s going fine, sir. We can pick out the yacht quite plainly, sir, and Evans is charting a course for her. Look! She’s starting to move! You should see this business!”

“Evans!” Captain Bill shook the receiver. “Jackson, keep on this phone.”

“Oh, sorry, sir. But this is really exciting.”

“Is the second officer there? Send him up here.”

“What’s that, sir? Oh—Phillips? Right away, sir.”

Captain Bill was striding back and forth across the bridge when Second Officer Phillips appeared, looking disappointed and somewhat hurt.

“Take over,” said Captain Bill gruffly. “I—I have to get something from my cabin. Anyway, why weren’t you on the bridge in the first place? Looking at that silly radar, I suppose?”

CAPTAIN BILL started for the ladder at the stern of the bridge. He was in a hurry, and he did not want to appear in a hurry, and for that reason he walked awkwardly. Ordinarily his footing would have been as sure as a cat’s. But his mind was so occupied that he failed to take enough time stepping over the edge of the bridge. He put his right foot down and it missed the first steel step. He tried to grab the side rails, but his hands never connected. The next thing he was falling, then the back of his head and his body struck steel at the same time and he ceased to think about anything at all.

The fog he saw was not a real fog and when it lifted he was in his bunk and Second Officer Phillips was standing beside him.

“You got a nasty crack, sir,” said Phillips.

Captain Bill tried to lift his head, failed because of the pain and lay back again.

“What’s happening?” he groaned. “Evans has just taken the boat away, sir. For the sick man from the yacht.”

“Why Evans?”

“He’s pretty good at boats. It’s not an easy job in this fog.”

“Don’t stand there,” said Captain Bill. “Find out what’s going on.”

The mate was the next person to make his appearance in the cabin.

“We’ve got the man aboard, sir. He looks pretty bad. I should say it was touch and go with him. Shall I tell the chief to give us all possible speed, sir?” “Speed?” Captain Bill jerked his neck around so quickly he winced. “Speed, did you say? In fog like this?” “Well, sir,” said the mate, “we’ve got Evans to take us through. He’s pretty good at radar.”

“Get out!” shouted Captain Bill, in a tone he had never used to an officer or a seaman in his life. “I mean,” he added, “tell the chief to whip her up

j and keep me posted. It seems I can’t move.”

He lay back and stared at the bulki head. Third Officer Evans was pretty . good at radar. Third Officer Evans was pretty good at boats. And Third j Officer Evans undoubtedly knew it. j But there were one or two things that j Captain William Buchan knew about I Third Officer Evans and there were black marks in a little book to prove them. Like trying to take the ship into dock, for instance. A knowledge of radar and boats didn’t do a man any good in a spot like that. Only experience and courage could handle ships and make a master out of a man.

He closed his eyes. He was really tired, he figured, really ready to retire. He wondered, after all, if he was too old and too tired to teach anyone anything.

He was wakened by the pitching and rolling of the ship. The door of the medicine cabinet on the far bulkhead was swinging open and shut with a hang, and the furniture was shifting. The porthole was partly open and he could see that it was night out and could hear the sound of a rising sea. The log, he knew, had vanished.

He managed to prop himself up on one elbow. At that moment a figure came through the doorway and stood swaying in the centre of the cabin. Water dripped from clothes that were soaked.

Captain Bill looked into Evans’ tired, bloodshot eyes. He looked into them long and deeply.

“We’re in weather, Mister,” said Captain Bill.

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t look as if you’ve had much rest.”

“No less than anyone else, sir.”

“Where are we?”

“Close to port, sir.”

“What can you pick out on your radar?”

The young man’s lips were thin. “The radar has broken down, sir. I’ve come to report it.”

Somewhere back in his mind Captain Bill had waited for this moment. He had pictured it—Evans in a fix, Evans without his radar, coming with head hung low, begging for help. And he had pictured the triumph of Captain William Buchan, the old sea captain who wasn’t modern, but whom they all depended on when the fancy gadgets failed.

And now—-he didn’t feel triumphant at all. He wanted to be, he supposed, but there was something in the young man’s face, something in his dripping clothes, something in those tired eyes that gave him an altogether different feeling.

“Get me a couple of seamen,” Captain Bill said.

“I’m not asking for assistance,” Evans said, bitterly. “I’m just reporting. I suppose you’re laughing at me, like t he day you laughed when I made a mess of bringing the ship alongside. If you hadn’t been there, looking at me and waiting for me to make a mistake, I would have done all right, maybe. 1 ; needed confidence, not a laugh. I’m j not asking for anything now. I’m just i reporting.

“1 know it,” said Captain Bill quietly. “But the ship is my responsibility. Get me the seamen.”

The young man turned on his heel and walked out. Captain Bill waited for the two sailors and when they came he instructed them to lift, him from the bunk and into a chair. It was slow and painful against the motion of the ship. His forehead was damp and his face was white by the time they got him into the chair. The captain gripped the arms of the chair hard; lie motioned with an impatient hand.

THE journey to the bridge was a nightmare of pain. The seas were running high and white. The night was black and the skies wiped clean of stars.

Breathing heavily the seamen managed to get Captain Bill and his chair up the bridge and placed him on the forward boards, close to the binnacle. Behind the binnacle stood Evans, his face outlined by the pale light that shone up from it.

Captain Bill got his arms on the dodger. “Have you picked , up the headland light?” he asked Evans.

“Yes, sir. Twenty degrees on the starboard bow.”

“Alter ten degrees to starboard by compass.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

Captain Bill looked at the profile of the young man’s face. The head was high, the neck was taut.

Off the bow of the Malabar shone a steady white light, marking the headland that thejr would have to round in order to make port. If it could be called port. It was merely one of the many little calling places along the coast with a wharf just big enough to handle the Malabar with no more than inches to spare. It was in a bay and the channel from the headland inshore was narrow and twisting and flanked by submerged rocks. In good weather it was a fairly tricky piece of navigation. In bad weather it was a sailor’s nightmare.

“Mr. Phillips,” Captain Bill called the second officer. “How is .the patient?”

“Just so, sir,” came Phillips’ voice in the darkness. “We’ve contacted the lumber company doctor. He’ll be waiting on the wharf.”

“Stand by the patient, Mr. Phillips. Mr. Jackson?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get ready to come alongside.” “Aye, aye, sir.”

The light on the headland grew larger and brighter. The Malabar plunged toward it, dipping deep into the troubled sea and tossing water back over her white superstructure. Captain Bill put his hand against his forehead and gripped the dodger tightly

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with his other hand. He was taking a chance docking the ship in this weather. Without the sick man below, he would have stood off the mouth of the channel and waited, at least until dawn.

The Malabar rolled toward the light and the rock-flanked shore. They could hear the pounding of the sea against the land, above the wind and the groan of the ship.

Captain Bill put both hands to his forehead and pressed his eyes with the thumbs. He looked toward Evans, at the white face in the binnacle light, at the sharp line of the lips.

“Take her in, Mister Evans,” Captain Bill said.

The head turned and the bloodshot eyes stared at Captain Bill.

“Take her in,” he repeated.

The light came up over their heads and the ship was flirting drunkenly with the rocks. In a moment they

would open their jagged arms to her.

“Port thirty!”

That was Evans speaking. That was Radar Evans with his blond hair and his row of ribbons.

“F’ull ahead!”

You could count the seconds . . . one, two, three . . . against the roar of the sea against the rocks. Ten seconds to clear the tip of the land. Only ten seconds, he knew, and the ship’s head had to be perfect or they would end up on the rocks. He could sense their presence, feed the immobile danger of them.

The seconds passed slowly. The Malabar reacted violently against the turbulence around the rocks. The last second was dying and he waited like a man in a dream.

“Hard-a-starhoard ! Half ahead!”

Evans’ voice. Strained now, but very clear, coming out of the darkness to his ears, telling him that they were around the headland and into the channel. The lights of the small wharf were ahead, twinkling in the night. Easy now, it would have to be, down to a crawl, and quick on the wheel.

The Malabar was righting herself, slipping into the waters of the tricky channel.

He heard the orders from the binnacle. They were good orders. The ship slackened her speed, straightened into the last part of the channel. She responded well, with confidence now in the voice that was driving her. She came round in a half turn, broadside to the wet little wharf where dark figures stood waiting.

If she overshot, she was done for again. There were other rocks to batter her if she missed the wharf.

The steel side of the ship nudged the timbers, bounced a little, came hack and held. Motion stopped. The Malabar settled quietly at her berth, her lines out and made fast, and the I hrob of her engines was silenced.

“Finished with engines.”

11 seemed a long time after that order was given before Evans stood beside him. Captain Bill had raised bis head. He sat slumped in his chair, looking up into the eyes of the young man. It took Captain Bill quite a while to speak.

“You did a nice job, Mister Evans,” he said in a low voice. “A very handy bit of ship handling.”

There was a new expression in the young man’s eyes.

“Thanks for trying me out again, sir,” he said.

Captain Bill half smiled. “You’re pretty good, Mister Evans. Without radar.”

“Thank you, sir. But I had you beside me.”

Two seamen arrived to carry Captain Bill below. He waved them back a moment while he continued to look into Evans’ eyes.

“Old men like to take credit, Mister Evans,” he said softly. “But I won’t, this time. 1 didn’t try you out again, as you say. I had no alternative. 1 couldn’t have brought this ship in, because, out there, I collapsed. J was only half conscious. But there was one thing about it, Mister, that to an old sailor like me is very important. When I had to tell you to take her in, I had an idea suddenly that everything was going to be all right.” He turned to the seamen. “Take me below now.”

He felt Evans’ hand touch his shoulder as he was lifted in the chair. And back in his cabin he asked for the little book in his desk and a pencil. When the seamen left he drew a thick line through the marks opposite the name of Third Officer Evans.

He felt happy doing it. A man had to retire some t ime. ^