Off Course

The driver cautiously inched his old Buick through the slush toward the entrance to McDonalds, but the operator of a battered black Neon, himself just one of an impatient crowd slouched inside it, made a wild pass and cut off the old rug-brown Park Avenue.   I watched as the elderly driver veered into the plowed snowbank and accepted a jolt to his alignment over the option of scraping his bumper on the side of the passing Neon.  The carload of young people, not teenagers but of that under-30 crowd without apparent purpose or prospects, charged into the parking lot and swerved threateningly toward the drive-through.

From where I sat, waiting for a light to change, I had time both to identify the couple in the brown Buick and to watch them pause to collect themselves.  The old man had to back up to approach the restaurant entrance once more, and as he did so, more cars, operated by today’s youthful and busy populace, were forced to pause or rush around him if they dared.  This time he steered the Buick into a parking space, and I moved on with traffic.

I know who they were, in that big old pokey car: just some over-aged people like all the others who are continually getting in the way.  The elderly seem to be taking up too much valuable space nowadays.  But I know more than that, as well.

It was January of 1947, summertime in the southern hemisphere and a year and a half after World War II ended.  Frank Ukers had joined his native Royal Australian Navy late in 1944, and two years later, a freshly-discharged twenty-year-old, he was serving as a crew member aboard the merchant freighter, Ev Trogairgoith.  The war was over and the seas were safe.  The Ev Trogairgoith, pronounced roughly as F Troga-goy, had navigated the 310 nautical miles eastward through the Strait of Magellan at the southern tip of South America and was entering the Argentine Sea abreast of Punta Dungeness.  Bound for South Africa with a load of grain and expecting to return with a load of mechanized equipment, it would be another 300 miles, all in open ocean waters, before they would come upon the Falkland Islands.

The ship was no longer in sight of land, but all on board were aware of their precise location, because it also marked the vessel’s entry into the Atlantic Ocean, a first for many of its crew.  As Frank and a pair of other sailors stood in the shelter of the cabin on the chilly port-side deck under a freshening southeast wind, they were brought the news that a mayday distress call had come in from a pleasure boat some six or eight miles off their port bow.  Theirs was the nearest ship of any size and speed, and they were turning now toward the direction of the call.

The three crewmen had just been remarking on the darkening skies to their northeast, in the direction of the mayday call.  They were already in seven- to ten-foot seas, so the pleasure boat was bound to be in a good bit of difficulty.

The Ev Trogairgoith approached the site at twelve knots, but its captain had much to consider.  A six-hundred-foot ship running at twelve knots needed about two nautical miles to stop.  The slight headwind from starboard would help its deceleration but would also make it necessary to come upon the site obliquely.  And if a rescue were attempted, the big ship, if not under way, could easily be driven sideways by the wind into the remains of the distressed vessel, crushing it and its survivors.

In the hour it took, both to reach the site and maneuver into position, the Ev Trogairgoith received further word from the Argentine authorities that the boat in distress had been identified as a 86-foot private motor cruiser, the Spice of India, built in Germany in 1933.  As they would later learn, it had been purchased by a retired U.S. naval officer after the war and had been fitted out for private cruising.  The reports from the Argentines said the cruiser’s engines had failed and she was foundering and taking on water in the worsening waves.  The reports had no information on the boat’s current status, afloat or sunk, nor about the number of passengers.

The ship’s mate selected from the crew four teams of three men, two on each team who would take turns going over the forward port rail on lines and cables as rescuers, if needed, and one who would be the spotter for each team.  Frank Ukers, whose recent naval training included distress rescue, would be one of the rescuers on the line furthest back from the bow.

Frank’s crew of three had barely secured their lines and suited up for the dangerous mission when the sinking boat was spotted, its hull almost completely under water and its bow beginning to turn toward the deep.  First one yellow life vest was visible, then another and another as the Ev Trogairgoith bore down upon it.

Twenty minutes may have passed from the time the disappearing Spice of India was spotted until Frank found himself belaying twenty-five feet from the rail to the water line.  He recalls that the hulk of the big ship at least shielded the survivors from the wind and the breakers.  He also recalls that the captain had to begin rotating the ship in an arc, to keep the stern moving aside from the sinking boat.  This kept the ship from sliding right overtop of the smaller vessel, but it also kept putting more and more distance between the rescuers and the floating survivors, and even more dangerously, it threatened to bring the stern of the ship, and its propellers, alongside the site.

Frank could see at least ten life vests in the water.  The forwardmost team on the Ev Trogairgoith had already hoisted one rescuer, with a Spice of India passenger clinging to him, to the rail, before they were near enough at Frank’s post for him to go down.

When his legs reached the water line and his body felt the first spray from the ocean’s icy surface, Frank withstood a momentary, breath-taking shock at its temperature.  His handler at the rail fetched him up by his cable once he had gone waist-deep.  A swell of the ocean brought the surface of the water to his very chin, but it also brought a gasping, gray-faced man to his side.  The man’s eyes met Frank’s, and they embraced.  Secure in his sling, Frank wrapped a cord around the man and together they were hoisted aloft.

On the next plunge, Frank quickly plucked a small body from the frothy water, a young boy.  As he signaled to be pulled up, he glanced back to see another young person thrashing toward him, clearly a girl, and clearly she had lost most if not all her clothes in the churning sea.

At the rail, Frank literally threw the boy to an awaiting crewman.  Where was his companion, he then wondered, the one who was to alternate with him and go down next?  It turned out that the man had injured his hand in the cable as Frank was being hoisted the first time, not seriously but enough so that he was no longer in play.  Frank would have to go down a third time.  With a gesture, he bade one of the men toss him a folded woolen blanket from a stack of them lying on the deck nearby, for the survivors.  He stuffed the blanket into his harness, then braced against the top rail and shoved outward with his feet and belayed down the hull one more time.

Holding onto a ring attached to the vertical cable that was draped alongside the ship, Frank dropped as quickly as he dared.  The girl had drifted toward the stern of the ship, nearly out of reach.  Frank let himself further down the cable, effectively plunging himself under water, so he could scramble in an arc along the hull toward her.  He caught a length of line trailing from her life vest and with that he dragged her through the water toward him.  His teammate above adjusted the length of the cable, to keep Frank above water, and as she began to clutch at him, Frank swung the blanket over her shoulders, then reached under water and seized her around the waist.  She weighed little, as he hugged her to him, and to save precious, chilling moments, he risked taking her up without binding a cord around her.

Once aboard the ship with her, Frank watched a crewmate toss another blanket over the girl and he turned to go over the rail once more.  But no one on board was making a move to return to the water.  He followed everyone’s gaze and saw the antenna of the Spice of India linger for one long second before it went under.  The outline of her hull was a fading oval several feet beneath the waves.  A limp body in a life vest floated some fifty yards further out to sea and astern of the Ev Trogairgoith.  There was no one else in the water to be rescued.

The passengers and crew who had been saved, twelve in all, were being hustled into the relative warmth of the ship’s cabin, and from the cries and shouts, and from later debriefing, Frank learned several things.  Lawrence Cheaver, a decorated lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during the war, had commandeered the Spice of India during a skirmish off the coast of Italy and had been given first option to obtain her during an auction after a year’s wait.  Inspected, refitted, and supplied in Newport News, Virginia, the Spice of India had set forth some five weeks earlier under the command of Captain Cheaver of Savannah, Georgia, with a crew of four, plus eight additional passengers who were all family members and relatives and friends of the captain, the men aboard learning to serve as spare crewmen.  They had the luxury to take an extended voyage and they had the vessel to do it in.  After leaving Rio de Janeiro in December, the Spice of India had ventured nearly a hundred miles from the coast of Argentina, farther than at any other time during the voyage.

Well before they were approaching Punta Dungeness on the day before the disaster, one engine had begun to falter.  The engineer had suspected bad fuel ever since refilling in Brazil and had first changed fuel filters, then by-passed them altogether.   When the second engine choked on the same diet, several hours before the mayday call, but while the sea was still deceptively calm, they recruited all able men on board to disassemble the fuel lines as quickly as possible in a valiant attempt to clear them and restore a flow of liquid fuel rather than sludge.  The effort failed, the wind came up, and the seas began rolling the stalled, narrow-hulled yacht.

His relatives believe Captain Cheaver had stayed with his ship until he had seen that all twelve of the people in his charge were rescued, then he had let go and submitted himself for rescue, but too late.  Exhausted, he had likely succumbed in the icy, near-Antarctic waters.  The Ev Trogairgoith did indeed have to come around and make a second pass in order to reach his body.  Frank, still wearing his wet clothing and gear, volunteered to go down and make the final recovery.

The twelve survivors were tended by the ship’s officers, and on the following morning all were transferred to a vessel of the U.S. Navy, which met them on the high seas.  Frank and the others who had gone over the side were asked to line up and accept the thanks of the rescued Americans as they departed the merchant ship.  A very pretty, but very pale and distressed girl of, Frank guessed, about seventeen, was the only one among them who could have been the one he had so gallantly carried aboard.  Dressed in an ill-fitting, gray seaman’s outfit, she filed past the ship’s crew without looking at any of them directly, while the women and men among the rescued made gracious gestures of gratitude.

After the voyage to South Africa and back, then a month off and a shorter trip to some South Seas islands, Frank had saved enough money to do what he had long before then decided he must do.  In that time he had also done some research, aided by a Queensland, Australia newspaper.  The Brisbane Courier & Mail was anxious to interview Frank, after the South Africa trip, because the Australian sailors on the Ev Trogairgoith had become a source of national pride.  Their return after several weeks at sea made the news stories a bit anti-climactic, but they were heroes nevertheless.

From the newspaper staff Frank obtained a complete list of the survivors from the Spice of India, and the girl he had rescued was actually his own age at the time: twenty-year-old Diana Desmedes, niece of the deceased Captain Cheaver, and at last account a student at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia.  He cannot say why he never simply wrote a letter and asked the obvious questions.  It just never seemed the way to approach it.  Instead, he obtained the needed documentation and bought the tickets to fly from Australia to the United States.

As it happens, it was July, 1947, when he reached Georgia, but Frank did not prepare himself for the opposite seasons, and stepped from the airplane into an Atlanta rainstorm in awe of the heat and humidity.  He found the college campus easily enough, just outside Atlanta, located an office, and introduced himself, but had to be informed by the administrative staff that school was out for the season.  The secretary who greeted him, upon hearing his accent and the nature of his inquiry, though, immediately sized up the situation.  The wreck of the Spice of India had been major news when it happened, and Diana Desmedes was well-known on campus for her part in it.  The secretary told Frank exactly how to find her, at home in Savannah.  And, apparently bursting with excitement afterward, she sent a telegram ahead to apprise the girl of the man who had appeared that day looking for her.

When Frank, freshly shaved and carrying a bouquet of just-picked wildflowers, rang the doorbell at the home of Charles and Faith Desmedes the next morning, he looked into the eyes of the man he had pulled from the Atlantic Ocean six months earlier.

Frank and Diana’s story, although much embellished, was the subject of a 1951 MGM movie, “Off Course Of Course”, starring Todd Bridges and Sandra Leer.  In the movie, the Spice of India was struck by a passing freighter, whose captain acknowledged the accident only after one sailor (presumably Frank Ukers), who witnessed it, risked the captain’s wrath in trying to convince him of the collision.  Frank’s subsequent arrival in Georgia was depicted in the movie as a surprise to the Desmedes household, with the father holding forth suspiciously and disapprovingly.

As Frank tells it, it was in fact a Sunday, and the family was overjoyed to see him.  Faith Desmedes, Diana’s mother, had not made the voyage on the yacht owned by her brother, Captain Cheaver.  Once she was reunited with her husband and daughter in Savannah, she had made inquiries through official channels to learn the identity of Charles’s and Diana’s rescuer, but had never been given a name, or even a list of the crew members of the Ev Trogairgoith.  The Saturday afternoon telegram from the college was the answer to a prayer Faith had offered up only moments before the Western Union runner had rung their doorbell.

Upon answering the door Sunday morning, Charles took one look at Frank, both grinned and extended a hand, but ended up hugging once more without exchanging a word.  Then Diana appeared in a doorway beyond her father’s shoulder.

As it was, the family was just about to leave for church, so Frank rode along, seated with Diana in the car, and in church, and at dinner that afternoon.  And for the rest of their lives, so far.

Frank was not aware that he had even spoken to the people he rescued from the ocean, but both Charles and Diana repeated everything he had said to them as he pulled them to safety.  To Charles, as they were being pulled up alongside the ship’s hull, he had said it was too bad they had missed the chance to see the Strait of Megellan, such a pretty passage, and once he had deposited the man on deck, Frank had said he was sorry he couldn’t stay and chat but there were other bobbers in the water needing to be saved.

To Diana he had apologized for getting the blanket wet and all like that, but she would find that wool would warm her up soon enough, and next time she decides to tread water she should consider some sort of swimwear.

As for the boy he had rescued, he was Captain Cheaver’s ten-year-old son.  He was as well as could be expected, Frank was told, and was safe at home with his mother in Virginia.

Frank Ukers stayed in Georgia.  He and Diana were married on the first anniversary of their meeting in the icy seas off Argentina.  She finished college and became an English teacher.  Frank, without formal education but with the desire to see America, became an over-the-road truck driver, eventually owning his own small trucking company, known originally as, simply, Ukers Express.  To this day, no one can tell by his accent quite where he came from.  His lyrical Aussie lilt has been overlaid with a Georgia twang as well as with the hues of every place he has been since he came to America, including Maine.

Since the couple was unable to have children, Frank would drive to the farthest points his job could take him throughout the country while Diana stayed in Savannah, surrounded by her extended family.  When Frank returned from far-away places, he and Diana would add destinations to their itineraries for their own summer travels, and by the 1980s they had been to 49 states and most of Canada.  When they both retired in 1992, after 44 years each in their respective careers, Frank and Diana Ukers moved to their favorite place in all their travels: Maine.

They own a condominium on the coast now, and they have a log camp not far from here, which they visit once or twice each winter for the thrill of hearing the frosty wind against the windowpanes and so they can enjoy a few private evenings beside a blazing fireplace, a luxury not allowed in the condo.

But the world of their youth, which certainly had its perils, was blessedly peaceful compared to the world they must navigate today, where their cautious approach to a restaurant is thwarted by something seldom seen when they were first starting out: carloads of hooligans who roam without reproach or remorse.

It’s happening all too often nowadays.  Frank and Diana Ukers: just an annoying, boring old couple who ought to know enough to get off the road and let today’s proud youth have it to themselves.  Who do they think they are, anyway?


The first paragraph of this story is true.  The rest is just a fable.

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