Saturday, August 6, 2011

A Reunion in Yorkshire

At the end of July, Diane and I spent three days with Peter and Elizabeth Davies at their cozy, garden-caressed home in the Yorkshire village of Sleights, just up from the North Sea harbor of Whitby. One afternoon, as Peter and I walked along the busy quay, he looked out to sea with his practiced mariner’s eye and said, “There’s a box boat.”

Ten years ago, my unlikely haven was his box boat, a 60,000-ton container ship called the Colombo Bay that I boarded two days after 9/11. The terrorist attacks had taken place while I was high above the Pacific, en route from New York City to Hong Kong, where I unwittingly plunged to sleep in my hotel room high above Victoria Harbor. I awoke to an email from Diane back in Manhattan; the subject line read, “Don’t worry I’m safe.”

So, in Brooklyn, were my daughter, Amanda, and her future husband, Gustav. Yet it seemed absurd to go larking about the ocean to write a book about container shipping as the search began for the hundreds of mangled bodies in the debris of the collapsed twin towers, and my city steeled itself for who-knew-what follow-up punch Al Qaeda planned.

Go, said Diane and Amanda: hard as it may be, we all have to get on with our work; besides, you’ll be safe at sea. Reluctantly, I dragged my baggage up the gangway of the Colombo Bay on September 13, and that evening we inched out of the harbor for a five-week voyage via Suez back to New York, Captain Davies in command.

Peter saw immediately how undone I was by the catastrophe in New York, as we sat through awkward silences at our first meals in the officers dining room. Both he and Elizabeth, who often sailed with her husband and who had joined the ship with me in Hong Kong, clearly sensed how conflicted I was about not returning home.

On our second or third night out, Peter gathered the ship’s seven other officers in the lounge and asked for two minutes of silence to commemorate the dead. Condolence and anger filled the room as these British seamen bowed their heads, some in obvious prayer, and I fought back tears.

As we pushed through the South China Sea that first week, the short-wave radio on the bridge poured out the grim news from the BBC World Service: the mounting dead, which eventually would total almost 3,000; the anti-Muslim hysteria in the United States and elsewhere in the west; the U.S. threats to avenge the attack by invading Afghanistan.

I had decided to jump ship when we called at Singapore and fly home, but Peter and Elizabeth saw how pointless this impulse was. Stay the course, they urged, their encouragement repeated by the rest of the officers and many members of the 13-man Filipino crew. I sailed on and wrote the book.

The Colombo Bay was literally a vessel of compassion, the sympathy for my plight a microcosm of the support the United States was receiving from all corners of the globe. I was naïve enough to think it might last, that my country would seize on all this goodwill and turn it into a cooperative police action to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden.

But even before the voyage ended, George W. Bush was thundering ominously: “We will not waver, we will not tire, we will not falter, we will not fail.” This Churchillian rhetoric led not to a focused international manhunt but to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that, ten years on, have left thousands more dead than perished on 9/11 and the United States wavering, tiring, faltering and failing, take your pick.

Peter and I shook our heads over this history, but didn’t dwell on it. The dramatic seascapes and undulating North York Moors, where sheep move slowly through the heather like cotton balls tumbling in the mildest breeze, discourage talk of war and death, like a Turner landscape hiding the cracks and dirt on the wall behind.

Peter is retired now, still the jovial Yorkshireman and more relaxed than he was on the bridge of the Colombo Bay. But he continues to exude the quiet command and efficiency that served him on ships as he organized our first outing, a walk along a rail-to-trail in the Esk Valley, our strides accompanied by the chuff and whistle of a steam train nearby.

On the trail with Peter and Elizabeth.
Photo: Diane

It was the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, carrying tourists on the short run from Grosmont to Pickering and back. I could not see it for the foliage, but the sounds alone took me happily deep into the 20th century. The tea and scones we had outside the Birch Hall pub in Beck Hole only reinforced this wishful imagining of a simpler, better time.

The next morning, we drove up the coast to Staithes Harbor, where Peter first went to sea on fishing expeditions. The tide was out, leaving boats tilted and angled on the bottom like toys in an empty bathtub. As we walked the narrow, cobbled streets, Peter reminisced about a back-then that, I sensed, he, too sometimes sees through the rosy filter of age.

We returned via the town of Hinderwell, where the annual scarecrow contest was underway. A nun in a black habit with a giant cross around her neck looked at us sternly as we passed, a betoqued chef seemed ready to serve us lunch, a life-size policewoman positioned by the side of the road appeared sufficiently official to suggest that we exceeded the speed limit at our peril.

At Runswick Bay we just missed a cricket match on the flats created by the ebb tide. But we did manage oatmeal cookies and other refreshments at the Sandside Café high above the water, where a solitary dog and a few brave children frolicked in the chilly waves. These were gentle at the beach, but rougher further out, where two kayakers struggling with their paddles looked as if they might soon need the attention of a rescue boat, the kind Peter now volunteers on in Whitby.

Elizabeth, too, is retired, a former caterer who has by no means lost her touch. Out of her kitchen one evening came a classic English dinner: roast beef and gravy, roast potatoes, broccoli and string beans, all perfectly cooked. Jim White, a golfing friend of Peter’s, and his wife Dorothy, joined us, having brought with them great good humor as well as a cherry crumble and a mountainous trifle with chocolate chips on its slopes and at the summit.

Before I could indulge in this welcome excess, Peter required that I pass a test. Could I  roll my napkin tightly enough to thread it through my napkin ring?  I fumbled this challenge several times on the Colombo Bay, much to the merriment of my shipmates, who charged their greenhorn to keep at it until I got it right.

It was at that moment, I think, that I realized how lucky I was, half a world away from the disaster at home, to be among people like Peter and Elizabeth, and the twenty other strangers aboard the giant ship. Ten years later, their healing laughter echoed at table as, with a ceremonial flourish, I deftly slipped my napkin through the ring.