Trip of a Lifetime
Shooting the Sun
A Note to the Reader
day on the Battenkill hit Ed, Brenna and the rest of the gang
pretty hard, but it's not the end of the trail. This week Jack takes
the lead and gives our heroes a priceless gift.
February 6, 2001
As late as it wasthey hadn't
gotten to bed until after twoand as tired as she was, Brenna
couldn't sleep. "Shakedown trip!" she thought, silently forming the
words. "Shake-up, more like!" And she had been shaken up. No
doubt about that. Willy-nilly, she relived the day's terrible scenes.
A little girl horribly maimed. Fenris dead. Linda swinging wildly
between ungovernable rage and inconsolable grief. The grim trip back
to town, with Brick driving the Wagoneer, tight-lipped and angry,
while Linda curled up in a fetal position in the back seat, sobbing.
Brenna, riding up front ("Just in case," Ed had cautioned, thinking of
Reverend MacGregor), unable to do more than reach back to stroke her
And Ed, driving home alone in the Ford, his old poncho wrapped
around Fenris' rapidly stiffening body, sprawled lifeless across the
pickup's bed. And then the ghastly nighttime burial scene in Linda's
"God, what an awful day!" said Brenna, whispering her words into
the silent, enveloping dark. Ed stirred and groaned, but he didn't
wake. If anything, he'd been a little too quiet since the
exactly? "Accident?" Brenna asked herself. "More like some sort of
Blue Light Special Greek tragedy." Well, however you described the
day, Ed had been a little too self-contained, especially when
he wrapped Fenris in the worn poncho and placed her in the pickup.
The water pipes sighed and pinged, echoing Ed's occasional groans.
Brenna wondered if the toilet seal had failed again. She was still
wondering when sleep finally claimed her.
Downstairs, in his apartment behind the book shop, Jack Van Dorn
was also awake. But he wasn't troubled by disturbing memories. He was
getting ready to take a bath. In the middle of the night, no less. Or
whenever he damned well wanted one, he thought. What luxury!
The tub was full. Jack turned off the taps, hung his tattered robe
on a hook behind the bathroom door, and tested the steaming water with
a big, knobby toe. Satisfied, he lowered himself gingerly into the
clawfoot tub, easing in little by little to allow his skin to get used
to the heat. He leaned back. All the long years in cramped fo'c's'les
and single-room occupancy hotels slipped away. Gone were the days of
washing in a bucket or showering by the clock, waiting for a couple of
gallons of tepid water to slip out of some miserly landlord's
Jack let out a contented sigh. Seeing a mouse poke his nose out
from under the radiator, Jack wished him good morning. "Don't mind me,
boy," he said, addressing the quivering creature in a voice little
louder than a whisper. "I'm gettin' on a bit. Got to make the most of
my opportunities, ya un'erstan'?" The mouse had nothing to say,
apparently, but Jack thought he might be nodding in agreement.
The old man slid down and let his head sink into the warm,
welcoming water. His thick, white hair floated free around him. Then,
when the need to breathe became overwhelming, he shoved back through
the surface, gasping for air. He grinned and turned the Hot tap on
with his foot. Scalding water poured into the tub. Steam swirled in
the room and fogged the mirror. Every muscle in Jack's body relaxed.
"Comin' up in the world, I am," Jack added for the mouse's benefit,
even though he'd vanished from view. Then he thought of Molly
Saunders. Mighty pleasant thoughts, indeed. "Did ya see that?" he
asked the mouse a few minutes later. "Life in this old man, yet," he
crowed. But the mouse still had nothing to say.
When the water cooled to merely warm, Jack pulled the plug and
stepped carefully out of the tub. He rubbing himself vigorously with a
thick towel. He'd made up his mind.
He slipped flannel pajamas over his glowing body and combed his
hair. Shuffling into his kitchen, he turned on the gas under a small
pan of milk, then shook some sunflower seeds from a glass jar onto a
paper plate. He carried the plate back into the bathroom and put it
down next to the radiator before returning to the kitchen. No reason
not to share his good fortune, was there? Certainly not. Charity
begins at home.
When tiny bubbles formed around the rim of the pan, Jack poured the
milk into a heavy mug, rinsed the pot, and turned off the light. He
walked into his bedroom, setting the mug on the bedside table beside a
dog-eared copy of Jonathan Raban's Old Glory. Then he opened
the middle drawer of the oak dresser and removed a dark mahogany box
from under a neatly folded pair of long johns. Jack laid the box on
top of the dresser, moving with the same reverent care that the old
priests in the Seaman's Mission used to take when they handled the
gold dish with the hosts.
The rich wood glowed in the muted light. Taking a miniature key
from a thong around his neck, Jack unlocked the box and opened the
lid. Then he reached down, grasped the sextant by its frame, and
lifted it gently from its cradle.
He took the handle in his right hand and felt the familiar weight.
Squeezing the quick-release between the thumb and middle finger of his
left hand, Jack unlocked the clamp and moved the index bar along the
arc, forefinger just touching the limb, feeling the firm, frictionless
glide of metal on polished metal. Next, he released the quick-release
and turned the micrometer head. Lastly, he brought the eyepiece of the
telescope up to his face.
All felt exactly as it should. The sextant was Jack's most prized
possession and his only treasure. He'd kept it with him
had it been, now? Fifty years! Fifty years he'd guarded it. At one
time or another, he'd sold or pawned everything he'd ever owned.
Everything but one thing. This sextant.
Hard to know why, exactly. He'd been an engineer. "Black gang,"
they called the engineers then. Working down in the bowels of the
ship, in the engine room, always filthy, always covered with oil and
grease, temperature over 120 degrees, waiting to have the skin
stripped off their backs by a jet of high-pressure steam. "Black
gang." Engineers didn't need a sextant. They didn't stand deck watch.
But he had. On the schooners, on the Labrador. Sometimes even on
convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Too many died too quickly for
captains not to welcome a likely lad who wanted to learn. Too many
So he'd gotten a sextant. And learned to use it. And he'd been
right glad he had. But now he'd never need it again. He knew that. It
was time to hand it on.
He felt a pain from somewhere near his heart. Not much of a pain,
to be sure. Not serious pain. Just a slight, tentative flexing of the
fist that sometimes visited him in the night, clenching hard in his
chest. Real pain, though, and not some twinge of sentiment. A little
reminder of mortality, of the inevitable end of old age. Nothing lasts
forever. Jack had known that for a long, long time.
But his sextant would outlast him, that much was certain. And it
could still be useful in someone else's hands. Time to hand it on.
Carefully, Jack returned it to its box, closed and locked the lid, and
then placed it back in the drawer, under his long johns.
Late the next day, just before closing time, with Brenna watching
the shop, Jack asked Ed to come with him. He led the way into his
apartment and then vanished into his bedroom, leaving Ed standing by
the kitchen table. When he emerged, he was carrying the sextant case.
Jack didn't often waste words. He didn't do so now, but he found he
had some trouble getting them out. "Ed," he began. Then he stopped. He
began again. "Ed
." He paused, and when he spoke once more, the
words came out in a rush. "Iwantyoutohavethis." And then he put the
warm mahogany box in Ed's hands.
Ed's face expressed his puzzlement. The worst behind him, Jack's
words slowed down. "Remember when you were writin' up your gear lists,
a couple weeks back? Remember I told you that if you're goin' to the
Bay you want to take a sextant? And you agreed, right? But lately I'm
guessin' you've been thinkin' maybe they cost too much, ain't
that right?" Ed nodded, reluctantly. "Well," Jack continued,
"you don't need to worry about what a sextant costs no more. You got
one now. Right here." And Jack rested his hand gently on the box in a
gesture that was both a benediction and a farewell.
Ed stood speechless, not knowing what to say. Jack took the box out
of his hands and placed it on the table. He removed the thong with the
tiny key from around his neck and gave it to Ed. "Take this," he said.
"Open the case."
And Ed, still at a loss for words, did as he was told, staring down
at the unfamiliar instrument, his eyes taking in the beauty of its
stark, functional simplicity. "It's a Husun," Jack said, in the same
tone that a father uses when he introduces his first-born child to the
world. "Admiralty pattern. Class A certificate. Finest made."
Ed found his voice at last. "I can't take your sextant to the Bay,
Jack. A canoe's not a schooner, let alone a Liberty ship. Everything
gets wet. Everything gets banged about. I'm not going to risk leaving
your sextant on the bottom of some northern river."
"Now you listen up, laddie," Jack replied, impatience slurring his
speech. "This here's my decision. I thought about it long an'
hard. I ain't goin' to sea again. I don't need a sextant no more. It's
yours. You take care of it as best you can, an' it'll take care of
you. A Labrador schooner ain't no Carnival cruise ship. Many's the day
I've stood watches with green water and slob ice washin' right across
t'deck, an'assumin' I was lucky enough to get any sleep
't'allmore'n likely I slept in a pipe berth under a weepin'
seam. This here sextant's your sextant, now, Edan' it's
seen a good deal wors'n anythin' you're likely to come across on your
little summer holiday. You hear what I'm sayin'?"
Jack paused for breath, his face red. Then he spoke more slowly. He
rested his right hand on Ed's shoulder, "I want you an' that girl a'
yours to have this sextant. It's a tool. It wants usin'. It's not some
goddam' paperweight! And if you take it up North, it'd be like me
goin' with ya. Up there. To the Bay. Can't you understan' that, boy?"
His final question hung in the air. For long seconds, the two of
them faced each other silently across the gulf of years. Then Ed
nodded, unable to speak, his eyes glistening. Jack smiled. He, too,
was having a hard time keeping his waterworks in check. "We un'erstan'
each other now, right?" he said, just to make the contract binding.
And then he added, "Don't suppose you got a copy of this year's
Nautical Almanac in the shop, have you? Better get one, if'n
you want me to show you how to use your new sextant."
And that was all he said.
Four days later, a package from Celestaire arrived in the mail. In
it was a single, spiral-bound volume entitled 2001 Nautical
Almanac, Commercial Edition. For six hours that day and six the
next, Ed and Brenna struggled to learn a new language under Jack's
patient but often profane tutelage: Greenwich Hour Angle and
Declination, Increments and Corrections, even the arcane mysteries of
the Equation of Time.
By Friday, Ed was certain he'd never be a navigator. Jack, however,
had other ideas.
"Beautiful day," he said, glancing out the shop window at the
cloudless sky. "And only 'bout an hour to go before the sun's at his
highest. Time you got your sextant and you and me took a walk over to
Ed looked at the Chauncey Jerome clock behind the counter. Ten
o'clock. "Still a little early, isn't it, Jack?" he asked.
"I hope you're gonna remember better when you get up to the Bay,"
Jack replied, grinning. "The sun, he don't know nothin' about this
here Daylight Savings Time, does he? Damn silly idea, too, if you ask
." Suddenly he was all business. "Hear me. Don't fart about
now. You get your sextant and that new Nautical
Almanacand you pick up a cake pan from the kitchen while
you're at it. An' bring that big 2-quart canteen full of water, too."
Ed, who was beginning to feel like he was back in Fort Dix, did as
he was told for the second time that week, leaving Brenna to mind the
store. He and Jack walked slowly over to the park. The sun shone
brilliantly, its light filtering through the branches of the budding
maples. Jack pointed out an open area with an unobstructed view of the
southern sky. It was still early. No office workers were eating lunch
on the benches yet, but some kids were playing on the swings and
knocking a softball around without much evident enthusiasm. Spring
break was obviously under way.
At Jack's direction, Ed put the cake pan on the ground and filled
it almost to the top with water. It was a calm day. The sun's
reflection in the tiny pool of water was steady. Then Ed opened the
sextant case and took the instrument in hand. Guided by Jack, he sat
on the ground, facing south, with the pan in front of him. Just before
he put the telescope to his eye, Jack reminded him to flip down both
sets of shades.
"Find the sun, now!" commanded Jack, with a disarming chuckle. "Go
on, find 'im!"
"Piece of cake," Ed replied. He soon regretted his words. "Just
where the hell is the damned sun?" he muttered to himself, working the
index arm back and forth along the arc. Jack looked on in growing
amusement. When Ed took his eye away from the scope for a second, he
noticed that the kids had stopped playing softball. They were drifting
"Try again," Jack urged. "Set the arm at the 'proximate
altitudeyou remember that, don'tcha?"
Ed racked his brain. "Fifty-odd degrees, right?"
"Good 'nuff," Jack replied. "But you gotta double it when you're
using an artificial horizon. So you better make it around a hundred."
"Double it?" asked Ed, completely bewildered. "Why, for Chrissake?"
"Cause I say so!" Jack came back immediately. "I'll tell ya why
later. Right now, you gotta get a move on!"
Ed heard giggles from the kids. They'd moved a lot closer. "Great!"
he thought. "I get to make an ass of myself in front of a lot of kids.
Outstanding. Out-goddamn-standing." But he kept his thoughts to
With a hundred degrees now on the arc, Ed swept a narrow segment of
the southern sky, keeping the sun's reflected disk from the cake pan
in the left half of the horizon glass. Suddenly, he had it! A dull
yellow orb hung suspended high in the right half of the glass, its
dazzling brilliance tamed by the shadesthe sun's disk, brought
down almost to the level of the artificial horizon by the sextant's
Ed squeezed the quick-release on the clamp and tried to nudge the
index arm forward. Too far! Lost it! He unlocked it again and eased
the arm back carefully. There it was! But even as he watched, the
sun's disk climbed toward the top of the glass. Ed rotated the tangent
screw clockwise, checking the disk's steady rise and bringing it down
till its bottom limb just touched the top of the other reflected disk.
But the right-hand disk kept on climbing. Ed eased the micrometer
screw forward, closing the gap as quickly as it formed. Then,
suddenly, the disk stopped rising and began to fall. A tiny overlap
formed between the two reflected solar globes. The sun had reached its
highest altitude of the day.
"Got it!" Ed exclaimed, then, remembering something he'd read in a
book somewhere, he added with mock formality, "Make it noon, Mr. Van
Jack grinned. The kids, not understanding what was going on but
sure that something important had happened, broke into a chorus of
hoots and yells. Ed read the angle off the arc, "One hundred and six
degrees," he called out to Jack, adding, "and nineteen minutes,
fifteen seconds on the micrometer."
"Right," Jack replied, settling his new reading glasses on his nose
and glancing quickly at the arc and tangent screw. "Double altitude by
sextant, one hundred and six degrees, nineteen minutes, and fifteen
seconds. OKwhat's the index error?"
Ed rifled the compartments of his memory, trying to remember
yesterday's tutorial in the shop. "Five seconds on the arc?"
"Add or subtract?"
"Let's see, now
if it's on, take it off
"And the apparent double meridian altitude?" Jack asked,
"One hundred and six degrees, nineteen minutes, and ten seconds."
"Right you are. One more step, now. Apparent meridian altitude?"
Ed, thinking out loud, "Let's see, now
fifty-three degrees, nine minutes and fiveno, sorry,
thirty-five seconds, right?"
"I think you're gonna make it to the Bay, Ed," replied Jack,
grinning from ear to ear. A short silence followed. Then, suddenly,
"Hold hard, there! You've forgotten dip. What's the dip?"
Totally confused now, Ed thought furiously. "Dip. Look it up
in the table. Need to know the height of my eye above the water. But
I'm not on the water. I'm in a park. The only water around here is the
water in this cake pan
." His mind reeled. He stood speechless.
Jack couldn't take it any longer. "Don't burn your bearings,
laddie. Artificial horizon. No dip correction." Then he paused for
effect before continuing: "Gotcha! Good goin'. But you ain't done yet.
You got your apparent altitude. You still got ta finish the job."
Ed handed the sextant to Jack, and set about his work. He opened
the Nautical Almanac, removed the Altitude Correction Table and
found the lower limb correction for the April sun at an apparent
altitude of fifty-three degrees: +15.3 minutes. "Make that fifteen
minutes and eighteen seconds," he muttered. That gave a corrected
altitude of fifty-three degrees, twenty-four minutes, and fifty-three
Next, he found the declination: North six degrees, twenty-seven
minutes and thirty-six seconds. The rest was easy. He could hear
Jack's voice in his head: "If declination and latitude have the same
name, subtract your meridian altitude from ninety degreesthat's
your Zenith Distance, laddieand add the declination. That's all
there is to it. You got your latitude."
So, yet again, Ed did just what he was told. Latitude forty-three
degrees, two minutes, and forty-three seconds North. Make it
forty-three degrees and three minutes. That seemed about right. He'd
have to check the quad when he got back to the shop, but Ed thought he
was within a mile. Not bad for his first noon sight!
He looked up. The kids had formed a circle around Jack, who was
showing them the sextant and explaining what it was for. One kid, a
skinny seven- or eight-year-old boy whose face was the same rich
mahogany as the sextant case, seemed particularly interested.
"Yo' really shootin' the sun, man? That don't look like no kind of
gun to me!"
Jack squatted down, looked over at Ed in a tacit request for
permission, and then gave the sextant to the boy, folding the kid's
small hands in his own and guiding the movements of his fingers. Soon
the boy was working the index arm. Jack checked that all the shades
were in place. Then he helped the kid find the sun in the telescope
and bring it down.
When he succeeded, the kid handed the sextant back to Jack and ran
over to his friends. "I jes' shot the sun!" he shouted to the world. A
large, shambling, three-legged mutt of a dog had been lapping up the
water from the cake pan. Now he pressed his nose into the kid's palm,
his tail wagging furiously. "I shot the sun!" the kid repeated,
scratching the dog's ears.
Just then a woman stuck her head out a window on the second floor
of the apartment house next to the park. "Sammmm!" she yelled. "It's
time for yo' lunch, honey!"
"Comin', Mom!" the boy shouted back. Then he turned to Jack and
said, "Thanks for lettin' me shoot that ol' sun, mister!"
"My pleasure, son," Jack replied, smiling. "Now you get along home
and have your lunch. It don't do to miss a meal 'less you hafta!"
Sam ran toward home, the three-legged dog following hard on his
heels, moving amazingly fast. The circle of kids around Jack started
to melt away.
Jack walked over to Ed. "Think you know where you are, now?" he
joked, slapping Ed's shoulder.
"You know, Jack, I think I just might, at that," Ed replied.
"Thanks to you." And the two friends started walking back toward The
To be continued
Copyright © 2001 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights