Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Story of the Wreck of the 'Argent Eagle'

By Dr. Thursday

[In previous posts we featured The Story of 'Driftwood', as well as The Story of 'Serendipity', both of which precede the present story in the order of their telling.]

"Thanks, Jeff, for telling me about 'Serendipity'," Mary Weaver said. "Maybe someday I'll be able to see it."
"Likely sometime next year," Jeff Smargada replied, putting his empty coffee mug down on the counter. "Seems like it appears every other year or so."
"Yes, it comes in odd-numbered years as I recall," Angela Biddell said, "though I'd want to check my diary about that."
"I was born in an odd-numbered year," Mary mused.
"And that third story, the Adventure, the wreck of the Argent Eagle, when did that happen?" asked Ray Ludlow.
"Oh, you can't be telling that story too!" moaned Jeff Smargada, checking his watch again. "I gotta go catch some fish! You don't know how Mabel gets when she don't get her fresh fish on a Friday!"
"No, Jeff - go ahead. We'll do it another time," Mary assured him.
"It is getting late for me too," said Gloria Adamantine, who had worked the third shift at the hospital.
"And I have some business I must attend to," Ray added. "But I'm curious... El, didn't you say this has something to do with the local music scene?"
"I should say," Elwood Porter smiled broadly. His deep voice, always gentle and slow, was even more warm. "That huge instrument up the hill in St. Ambrose's. The excellent refurbished instrument in the Town Hall. The chamber orchestra. The Town Choir..."
"What about your jazz group, El?" Lisa Richards hinted.
"No, ma'am; that's come about at Rudy Weller's urging. Martin Appleton wasn't much into jazz, but I'm not faulting him! He's made music an important part of our town, and jazz benefits from it as much as the classical forms do. Even rock."
"But..." Mary's eyes were closed as she thought. "Martin Appleton. You know, I was at Benny's for it, but I don't think I can remember what he looked like."
Jeff Smargada shook his head, and unzipped his coat. "All right! If you're gonna go into that story, I'd better hang around. But if I don't catch some fish and have to go to the fish market - and then Mabel finds out..." He shrugged, then rubbed his hands together. "Let's just do it."
"Go right ahead, Jeff," Angela Biddell said.
The others stared at him, but he scratched his head with hesitation. "Yes, but... er... there's parts I don't know about."
"Jeff, maybe you should start with the Coast Guard banquet the night before?" suggested Nick Soffia, eying him with curiosity.
"Oh, that's right!" Mary said. "That banquet - I remember how everyone talked about it. There was some sort of food poisoning. Mom wouldn't get mushrooms for years afterwards!"
Nick Soffia nodded. "Right. They had someone visiting from Washington, one of the Naval secretaries, as I recall, and they put on a big banquet. Just about everyone from the base was there, except for the lighthouse crew and those who were on duty at the port."
"Don't they keep a boat on patrol round the clock?"
"Yeah - and that crew wasn't at the banquet - but I'll get to that in a moment. Anyway, the whole bunch came down with acute stomach pains... Out of respect for Gloria, I won't go into the symptoms, but thank God it wasn't serious. However, it was certainly enough to incapacitate everyone for the next day or so." He smirked. "Except of course for their guest, who never eats any sort of mushroom. But he left before the wreck."
Ray Ludlow was wondering why Jeff seemed so uncomfortable as Nick told the tale. "When was this, Nick?"
"Back in 1993, uh... Wasn't it in November, Angela?"
"I think that's right, but I can't recall the date... I think the wreck was on a Tuesday in the middle of the month."
A view of the Port Authority and Coast Guard headquarters, near the western end of the south side, just below the Bay Bridge. One can vaguely make out the little cemetery through the trees, and even the old "Haunted House" (the Scotia mansion). You can also see a little of "Valley Road" going through the rocks and under the bridge. The round area to the north of the building is the helicopter landing pad for the Coast Guard. If you are wondering where the chopper is, this view was taken from it.
Mary had pulled out an almanac with a universal calendar. "Maybe the ninth? Or the 16th?"
"The ninth - I think that's right, yes..." Nick nodded. "It was getting into that sort of late-fall early-winter mess that we get here sometimes - freezing rain had been falling on and off that whole night. Nobody thought very much of the fact that just about the whole local contingent of the Coast Guard was out of action until their patrol boat came in late Monday night. The captain went into the base and didn't find anybody there except the guard and the radio man - they told him what had happened. He turned to go back out to the boat to tell the crew, and he slipped and fell, and broke his arm."
"Knocked himself out, too," Lisa added. "That was what the paper said."
"In any case," Nick went on, "he wasn't fit to go back out anyway, and the crew was still in training - that's why they got the active duty during the banquet. Again, nobody thought much of this - for the time being, the Coast Guard was effectively off duty for Quayment and vicinity."
"Oh my," Mary said. "It sounds horrifying."
"It's not as bad as that, Mary," Nick said. "For one, there was still someone listening for emergency calls, and they could call for help if they needed it. For another, the sea traffic was light just then, and most local people don't deal with sea travel in bad weather unless they're used to it."
"This sounds like a classic example of Murphy's law," Ray Ludlow said.
"Murphy? Oh, yes - the worst thing happens at the worst time. Yeah, that's about right, Ray. Tuesday the weather continued to get worse - a stiff east wind, gouts of hail and ice and all that sort of mess. The bay had an odd look - almost like a hurricane was expected." Nick Soffia closed his eyes, recalling the eerie sights of that day. "I happened to go up to the observation tower around noon... it was unsettling, and I didn't eat my lunch. The only guardsman there was Hal Pinot. He was on edge, since he was new - he had gone in right after high school - a fine young man - he's gone on, of course, he's somewhere on the west coast these days. But he had to hold down the place by himself, everyone else being incapacitated. He was glad to see me, but I reminded him I was with the Port Authority, not the Coast Guard. I let him show me around and it was clear he was doing fine anyway. We peered out the window - I tried their big binoculars - and even he said how strange the bay looked. Choppy and that odd yellow-gray tone... It was one of those times when the water looks lighter than the sky..." He stopped and took a deep breath. "And then, of course, came the call."
The ladies trembled, the older ones gasping faintly - and even the men's faces took on a certain tense look.
"The radio crackled, and a nervous voice said, 'Mayday! Mayday! This is Argent Eagle, we've hit a rock, got water coming in...' Immediately Pinot jumped for the radio and got their location. 'They're on the shoals!' he told me, and he hit the base alert signal. Of course, all that did was get the handful of others in the place all nervous. A couple guys ran in, but neither of them were ready to take the cruiser out in such weather. I told him they had to set off the other signal, the marine emergency, to alert the town."
Mary shook then. "The one on top of this store..."
"Yes. It's the same system as used by the town Fire Department," Nick explained for Ray's benefit, "just a different kind of signal. Long before there was a Coast Guard, Quayment had perfected a certain heroic virtue in responding to maritime emergencies - you all know about the shoals, and since this was a sea-going community, every mariner was prepared to go to the assistance of another. Even those who would not set foot in a boat were there for support, either by physical work, by supplies of food and drink and warmth, or shelter for the victims - or the even more essential spiritual support by prayer. They used to ring the bells in special patterns... Mary, your grandfather - or perhaps great-grandfather - had a booklet about this, very rare these days." She nodded and he went on. "Nowadays, the Coast Guard handles most emergencies, and all too often nobody hears about their heroic work. But every so often, when the situation grows beyond their abilities, they set off the alert, and then the good people of Quayment do what they can."
"Yeah. Everyone cooks up pots of stew and chowder, or buys boxes of donuts at Gail's, and they all go over to Benny's to talk and eat - while a few local heroes dare the elements to rescue the poor unfortunates out on the shoals," Jeff groaned, his eyes downcast.
The others stared at him curiously, but Nick only nodded. "Exactly, Jeff. That's how it was two or more centuries ago, and that's how it still is. It's just a lot less frequent since we have good lighthouses and radios - and we have the Coast Guard."
"But that day, back in 1993, the Coast Guard was all but out of commission," Elwood Porter said. "I was working at Benny's then... I heard the signal." He sighed. "That was back when Rob Felsen was still alive... Of course he was the first one to show up."
Angela bit her lip, holding a handkerchief to her eyes, and Lisa sobbed audibly.
"Yes, yes," Nick said, trying to hold himself in control. He noticed Ray's eyes also flickering strangely. "Ray, you need to know that Felsen's keeps a marine radio in their store, powered up, tuned in... they're always alert to what's happening in our area, and Rob Felsen had an emergency light for his car - he shot down to Benny's as soon as he knew the situation."
"Who went out?" Mary asked. "We came later... after school. I had to help Mom watch the triplets, they were only seven."
"Stan Allgauer took his father's - Karol's - boat. And Tim Tilsiter went with him - that was before he was Fire Chief. And..." Jeff Smargada cleared his throat, and Nick Soffia glanced at him before he continued, "And... uh, also, Phil Fenster took his own boat."
"Fenster..." Mary repeated uncertainly.
"He died back in 2004. His daughter Lucy married John Outis," Angela Biddell stated. "They have a son about your age, I think."
"Oh certainly. I know Joe, he's just a year younger than me. He went out for the Phosploion."
"That's right; he's in television now, or something, but Phil trained him well. Phil was in the Navy," Nick explained, "and just about the closest thing the town has to a war hero - but if I started in on those stories, we'd be here for weeks - right, Jeff?"
Jeff cleared his throat again, but his voice sounded strange. "You said it, Nick. He used to tell us the most hair-raising tales over at Felsen's - but you best get on with this tale, Nick, the morning is flying by!"
"Didn't anybody go with Phil Fenster?" Mary asked, looking curiously at Jeff.
"Certainly," Nick replied. "Rob Felsen."
"I wondered what he was doing," Mary nodded. "So let me see if I have the whole picture. Stan and Tim were in one boat. Phil and Rob were in the other. You, Nick, were over at the Coast Guard base, up in the observation tower. El, you were at Benny's..."
"Making coffee, keeping people from getting lost, important things like that."
"Lisa and I had gone to the chapel by the hospital - it was too messy to go very far," Angela Biddell added. "Besides, they had closed the Bay Bridge because of icing."
"I was in high school then, and worked part-time at the hospital," Gloria said, "and when I heard the signal, I hoped they would send me down to the Emergency Room, but no such luck."
"And Jeff? Where were you?" Mary asked, turning towards him.
But he turned away from the group, trembling.
"Jeff went with Stan," Nick said softly and with reverence.
"Then you ought to be telling this, Jeff!" Mary said - but he shook his head without turning around.
"It wasn't an easy task, Mary," Nick said, trying to divert her admiring stare away from Jeff, but knowing he was only bound to make things worse. "They were out there for a long time. We heard them over the base radio, as the two rescue boats kept talking with the Argent Eagle and with each other - and Benny had a marine radio tuned in over in their office."
"I remember hearing a little," Mary said, "but I was with the triplets and other kids in another room, and they made a lot of noise."
"Wherever you were, it was hard to hear - and hard to listen to," Nick said with some emotion. "I won't try to give you all the details now. The Argent Eagle was a good-size private boat - a 'gutsy craft' as Phil Fenster put it: well-built, and with all the modern equipment - but she had managed to get herself stuck on a rock nearly a third of the way into the dangerous area. Phil figured she must have been carried over the outermost rocks on a heavy swell, and gotten dropped into the middle of the worst bit. The wind made it very hard to do anything, and even Phil's little boat couldn't risk getting too close - with the crazy waves, you could see the rocks every so often. It was a very nasty time."
Mary came out from behind the counter and put her arms around Jeff Smargada. He smiled at her and nodded, then she went and got him another mug of coffee.
"So what happened?" she asked as she returned to her place behind the counter.
Nick replied, "It took 'em a while, but finally they were able to rescue the people on the Argent Eagle."
"They won't talk, but my guess is that Stan sent somebody out in a small boat with a line... and somehow they managed to bring everyone off. There were five - three men, a woman, and a girl of about nine. The captain was Martin Appleton; the others were his nephew Mike Appleton, Mike's wife Bernadette, their daughter Ann, and Bernadette's brother John Lolek. John was in the Navy, but on leave; somehow he managed to trick Martin into going across before him, so that he (John) was the last one off the sinking ship."
"Phil told me later..." Jeff said after a deep sigh, "Phil told me that John blamed himself... because he had the wheel when they hit the shoals. It took all Phil's persuasive talents to convince him otherwise."
"But they all got back to land?" Ray Ludlow asked.
"Certainly. The Argent Eagle was reduced to bits by the storm, of course, but all arrived back at Benny's later that evening, to a great sound of rejoicing. There was plenty of good things to eat, and a nice representation of people there to welcome them. They stayed a day or two to recuperate, then took the train up to North Belloc where they lived."
Ray nodded. "But Nick - where does the music fit in?"
"Martin Appleton is one of those very popular musicians whose works are very well known, but his connection with those works is almost totally unknown. He writes dittys for television commercials, sitcom theme songs and their incidental music - all kinds of popular stuff. He died back in 2003, out in California. He had a marvellous talent, but he was a bit of a character too, and he had plenty of money. But there was something else, connected with our story, which links his music to our town. You see, when his boat wrecked with his entire family on board, Martin Appleton swore a vow."
"No one knows exactly what he swore, but we can guess from what resulted. The old Stern organ in St. Ambrose's was removed, and a huge new one built by Starkenholz was installed. The other local big Stern instrument - the one in the town hall - was refurbished, using some of the salvageable parts from the St. Ambrose instrument. There were endowments of scholarships and concerts - the Town Choir was organized, and the Chamber Orchestra - there was a lot of cultural activity in town... and, strange to say, he ended up having even more money once he was all finished with these projects. I'm not sure what has happened since then - I think his nephew inherited it and has made a few careful investments; he's an engineer and very wise. Someone told me he owns the old Ottavina quarry now..."

Again came the chime of the front door. The young man was dressed in the deep blue uniform of the Ferens overnight delivery company. He doffed his deep blue hat as he approached the counter, snow cascading from it. His face was red from the cold, and he smiled nervously as he held out an electronic clipboard. "Hi, Mary... it's for you." He put a package down on the counter next to his hat. "Sure is cold out there."
"Good morning, Paul," she smiled as she signed her name. "Why not help yourself to some coffee and donuts?"
"Thanks... nice and warm in here. I'll have to tell Dad."
Mary handed back the clipboard. "His father works for Kaminos - they take care of our heating system," she explained to the regulars. She examined the package. "Something from Milan..." She got out the scissors again and opened the package. She smirked. "A box of chocolates... and a card from Matt."
Paul's eyes narrowed with emotion. Carefully he set the coffee cup down. "Excuse me... thanks for the coffee, Mary." He grabbed his hat, checked his clipboard, then hurried out of the bookstore.
Mary shook her head, smiling wryly.
"I feel that I've just missed something," Ray Ludlow murmured.
Angela Biddell said, "Ray, let's just call it - ah - the natural collision of rivals seeking attention."
"Call it what you will," Mary chuckled. "I may just get another box of chocolates out of it. It's not the first time Paul has forgotten I have three brothers who send me gifts on my birthday, and gotten jealous about being forced to deliver what he thought was a rival's gift."
The others chuckled at that, but Angela Biddell murmured, "Young love is never easy."
Jeff Smargada looked at his watch. "Well, if we're done discussing local history, I'll say good-bye and get out on the bay..."
"It was fascinating," Mary said. "Thanks, everyone!"

Copyright © 2010 by Dr. Thursday

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