Charlton, Josh, and I move stealthily across the deck. It’s after nine o’clock, but it’s still light. Daylight’s been stretching longer and longer the farther east, farther north we go. Charlton lights up a cigarette and leads us toward Crane 3. I glance back over my shoulder and wonder if the third officer is watching us from the bridge.
We’re disobeying not a direct order but a strong suggestion. Guilt taps me on the arm and reminds me of the deep seeded need I had, especially as a child, to please authority. To be the best one. A goody two shoes. It’s a need that I’ve chipped layers off of as I’ve learned more of who I am and what I want. It’s a need I’ve taught myself to question.
Go away guilt, I think, you’re not allowed up in the cranes.
Charlton opens up the door and we go into the crane’s shaft. Cream colored walls and green painted ladders greet me. It’s a long way up and I’m ready for it. I’ve got to give it to Josh, even though he’s afraid of heights he’s game enough to climb.
“When you climb up,” Charlton instructs us, “the weight is in the hands. Pull yourself up, okay?”
He sends Josh first. “Wait for me at the platform. Don’t go up without me.”
We take the ladders platform by platform. Near the top, Charlton opens up a side door that looks out to the bow of the ship. I move up close, lean out to see. “You want to see?” Charlton asks Josh.
“We won’t go into this crane,” Charlton says. “Because it faces the bridge. But we’ll go into another one.” We’re still being sneaky.
There are giant oily coils of wire, heating and cooling systems, and ladders, always the ladders. I don’t know how many rungs there are, how many steps—if I had to give a number, I’d say “a lot”. On each level there’s something different. Charlton explains things to us and I get lost in the details.
“When you go down the weight is on your feet,” Charlton says.
I take up the rear.
It’s darker when we come back out into the open air. I don’t use the flash on my camera so as not to give away our position.
We clamber over some equipment, cross around a boundary rope and come to Crane 1.
Charlton turns the door’s wheel and we’re inside.
By now Josh and I both know the routine. Up we go.
In the crane’s control center, Charlton shows us which lever moves the crane forward, down, and side to side. He lets us sit in the chair. “Sometimes I come sit up here,” Charlton says, “when I want to be alone.” I can see the appeal. It’s dark. Silent. High up.
Above us a few brave stars peak through the thinning clouds.
We step back out of the main brunt of the wind and sit down on a wooden container behind a viewing barrier. We squeeze in close to each other. The feel of Charlton’s shoulder touching mine is a brotherly comfort.
He tells us of his fourteen year old daughter that he hasn’t seen in years—maybe’s never seen but in pictures--of how he’d like to go to L.A. to try and see her. But he’s worried she won’t like him, that her mother won’t let him see her, that the years he’s been away at sea saving money for her to have later won’t be enough to patch the distance, the time.
“If you want to see her you should at least try,” I say. Josh agrees. “You won’t know what will happen unless you do.”
Maybe the dream of that meeting is better, more secure, more reassuring than what would actually happen. Maybe that dream of his daughter is what keeps Charlton sane as he travels the world in what he calls “a floating prison.”
“Do you even think about doing something else?” I ask or maybe Josh does.
“What would I do?” Charlton says.
“Whatever you want,” I say.
But time, money, training, ability, fear of the unknown, security of the known are valid and usual excuses.
“You could operate a crane on a dock,” Josh suggests.
But I’m thinking of much bigger changes; farmer, comedian, base jumper, astronaut. So I get up and go stand under the now clear sky and stare up at the constellations. I find the North Star, the Big Dipper, the Little Dipper, Cassiopeia and think that I’ve seen the Southern Hemisphere’s sky, loved the Southern Cross and left it behind me in order to keep my memories moving from horizon to horizon.
With an unspoken common consensus we get up and start back to the living area of the ship. Our tour isn’t quite over though, Charlton takes us down into the hold and shows us everything. The paint storage area, the giant ropes, the straps, the rings and the collection of bikes that Josh gets fascinated by.
We walk down the port side, up the stairs and into the hallway at the poop deck level where we started from. Just as we come in the stairway door opens and out comes Jake.
“The second is worried about you,” he says.
Uh Oh, I think. Now we’re in for it.
“The guys were cleaning the floors and saw your door was open. So the second sent me to look for you.”
Oops. I’d not anticipated that. The guys wax the floors after bedtime hours to keep foot traffic to a minimum. I hadn’t thought anyone would be down that way to see I wasn’t in my room. I hadn’t thought they’d relate that information upward. But that’s how words travel on this boat. Faster than lightning.
“We’re okay,” I say. “We were up at the bow of the ship.”
Jake wants to take me up to the bridge as proof to Second that I’m safe. He wants me to come up and hang out with them since he’s on duty with Domin. I let myself get directed upstairs. “Thanks,” I say back to Charlton. He and Josh go their ways and I go to report to the officer on duty.
Better to ask for forgiveness? I wonder to myself.
I breeze up onto the bridge looking as innocent as possible. Domin doesn’t ask me straight out if I’ve been up in a crane, so I don’t lie and I don’t offer the information either.
And it seems I’ve gotten away with it. Until Jake takes my camera and starts flipping through the pictures.
“You went in the crane?” he asks. Too loud. Out loud.
Sshhhh. I want to hiss at him. But it’s too late. The second officer is right there.
“We were really careful,” I say quietly.
Domin gives me a piercing, almost disapproving glance and that’s that. It seems all is forgiven and perhaps forgotten. I breathe a little easier. I brush the remaining grains of guilt off my shoulder and think maybe I’ll be a better person tomorrow. Maybe.
Jake escorts me to my room with the excuse of making sure I get there safely. He wants to linger, but I shoo him on his way after only some minor chitchat.
Now that I’m done sneaky about, I fall wearily into bed thinking that it’s hard work being a passenger on a freighter. There are just too many watches to be a part of, too many seamen to hear stories from, too many waves to watch crest and fall, too many drinks to share and too many cranes to climb.