WorldTeach volunteer Chuck McKeever provides insight to his North Pacific experience in his recent blog post from the Marshall Islands.
During our program orientation in July, a group of us swam just about every day in the Ajeltake lagoon, a short walk from the elementary school we were staying in, across the street and down a path at the house of a very nice local family. It was a great place to bust out our snorkel equipment and explore the reef communities underfoot–the lagoon was teeming with graceful angelfish, shy eels, those neon-colored fish that sell for 5 cents at pet stores, zebra-striped wrasse, and myriad other kinds that I know no names for. We would wade out to shoulder depth and alternate between snorkeling and floating, getting to know our fellow volunteers as we whiled away our free time in the electric blue water.
Maybe a mile down from our swimming spot, we could see the bulk of a sizeable fishing boat. We assumed it was anchored and waiting to depart, but the first two weeks of orientation came and went without the ship ever changing position. Eventually we realized what an odd angle it rested at in the water, and concluded that it was more than likely beached on a sandbar, abandoned. A number of us made a pact that we would swim out to it before the end of orientation, when we would part ways for four-and-a-half months as we headed to our placements.
Eleven of us set out on a Sunday morning after breakfast and walked down the road towards our launching point. (It is worth noting that on Majuro, the capital island and site of our orientation, it is not necessary to specify a road. There is literally only one, and it runs the entire length of the island.) We caused a minor uproar along the way, because large groups of white people are always an object of curiosity in the RMI, and our little band fared no differently. True to my Boy Scouting roots, I bore a length of forest-colored nylon rope tied around my waist, just in case. I had glorious visions of lassoing a cleat at the edge of the ship’s deck and hauling myself hand over hand up the hull, to the wonder of my companions. Naturally, they would be full of gratitude for my timely solution to what I assumed would be our chief logistical problem.
After receiving permission from the family whose land we needed to cross to enter this new stretch of water, we entered the lagoon. The eleven of us fanned out at various speeds as we struck out for the ship, which we now saw was a good deal farther out than we had anticipated. I was the second person in line for the duration of the journey. This is not a reflection on my swimming prowess–I am competent at best, and not exactly resilient–rather, I just wanted to get the boring part of the adventure over with, and arrive at that towering red and white sentinel of the lagoon. Plus, I didn’t want anyone to be able to claim they had to wait up for me.
As we worked our way out into the water, I periodically looked behind me to check the progress of my companions. The number appeared to be dwindling–eleven, nine, seven, five…I was spared from any sentimental revels about comrades lost at sea in the brazen pursuit of the unknown when I saw them in the distance hauling themselves back ashore, tired and soaking.
I arrived at the ship just behind another volunteer, a girl by the name of Julia. Julia gets points in my book for having frequented Manlius during her four year tenure at Colgate, and she is the oldest of five girls. Her father gets points in my book for living through that. Anyway, the ship was severely tilted on the sand bar, with the high side facing us. I have no idea how to estimate the length of a ship like that. I just know that it appeared massive–the hull and deck painted red and rusting; a white cabin and upper deck/control room rising above these. From the bow end, a formidable anchoring chain dropped some thirty feet into the water. The bow was pointed towards shore, but we had had to come up on the side to have a place to stand. It was calm inbetween waves, with waist-high water and level ground, but the slow swells came in at around seven feet, and it was quite an exercise to jump up and crest the waves each time a new one hit.
The upside to these saline battering rams was that they provided me a way onto the ship that didn’t involve utilizing expert knot-tying skills, deadly accuracy, or mermaid-seduction techniques. I simply sat in the ship’s shadow and rode the natural elevator high enough to grab onto the outside of a now-windowless porthole. The next wave lifted my legs high enough to plant them inside a good-sized gap that had been rusted into the hull just below the deck rail. From there, I could maneuver myself through the hole, and did. Gentleman that I am, I went first for safety purposes, silently praying that my tetanus shot was up-to-date. Thankfully, I alit without incident.
I helped Julia up through the gap and we took stock of our surroundings. I know pretty much zero about nautical terms, so please forgive any forthcoming errors of nomenclature. Directly in front of us was a door, and the cabin rose behind it, looming ominously, its paint peeling. The deck was upturned to such a degree that attempting any kind of movement without a railing would have been foolish, so we stayed off the main section of the deck. By this time, three other volunteers had made it to the ship–Michael, Jules, and Jessica. Five of us had made it from shore to ship, ready to explore the unknown.
For most of my life, I assumed and applied an incorrect definition of the word “sublime.” I had always believed it to mean wonderful, excellent, pleasant. But that’s not it, not really. I was fortunate enough in my last quarter at OSU to take a fantastic lit. class with “The Mad Dr. T”, Les Tannenbaum. In this class we explored the depths of Gothic narrative, and focused especially on the impact of the sublime in these works. More correctly, the term refers to things of such magnitude, aesthetic, or power as to render them beyond the scope of human reason or comprehension. Standing on board what we had dubbed “The Ghost Ship” was, by its correct definition, one of the first utterly sublime moments of my life. The ship’s builder might well have been Ozymandias himself–“Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
I’ve never been a fan of wanton destruction, but decay has always fascinated me. Creaking, abandoned barns; crumbling, centuries-old bridges; rusting shells of once-proud ships–these things have a certain haunting aesthetic to them that I cannot explain but never tire of. I guess there’s something comforting in the slow march of the ages, the continued success of entropy. Remember, all those horse-and-buggies were new once, too.
So there we were, five relative strangers, standing on the edge of something resonant with that wonderful quality of being beyond mere words. It was then, as we were clapping each other on the back and congratulating ourselves on doing what we had set out to do, that we realized the only member of our expedition with a camera had been among the first to turn back. Oops. My initial thought was that this was a huge blow to the experience. How could I capture a triumph like this without a camera? I am a child and disciple of the Facebook age, and I enjoy (too much) being in front of the lens. This was among the traits that earned me the nickname “Hollywood” from some of my college friends.
But I came to realize that no matter how many pictures we might have taken that day–as we worked our way around the deck, into the haunting engine room, through the disastrous cabin–I could not make you see it the way we had. Even if we had managed to fit ourselves and the whole length of her into the frame, frozen and unchanging, it would not tell the ship’s whole story. Trivial or not, that moment felt so much bigger than a paragraph. To paraphrase Kerouac, we were on the roof of the world and all we could do was yell, I guess. And yell we did, whooping it up as we clambered down ringing metal stairways, clanging chains and tugging mooring lines as we scrambled like drunken sailors across the unmoving vessel.
At no time was the other-worldly quality that possessed the Ghost Ship more apparent than when I came around a corner to mount the cargo hold and found, beyond all reckoning, a three-foot tall tree growing out of the deck, surrounded by a small square plate of new grass. A mile from shore, in the midst of abandonment and the harshest conditions imaginable–salt, wind, heat–life had found a way. And I found that fact to be just as incomprehensible, just as sublime, as the massive decaying ship creaking beneath my feet.