A Loony Bin with Homework

The winter sun, bright but no warmth, was setting over the neighbor’s rooftop as Grandpa Fulton rose to light the logs in the stove. Grandson Joe Fulton murmured a cuss under his breath, struggling with another pile of homework.

“Tough assignment again Joe – anything I can do to help?”

“Maybe Grandpa, History essay this time. How did explorers like Columbus and Magellan navigate the world? You were in the Navy weren’t you Grandpa? How does the captain know where the ship is?”

Grandpa struck a match, put it to the tinder and as the fire rose sat back in his armchair.

“Well son, Columbus had to dead-reckon his way across the ocean. Drop some wood in the sea at the bow, count how long it takes to reach the stern, take a compass reading. Keep a log book of readings for each hour. Problem is to find yourself in space, first you have to find yourself in time. Latitude was easy but longitude impossible without a chronometer. He hit Cuba, thought it was the land of the great Khan.

“For an A-ganger like me in the submarine service it was worse even than that. Nineteen-fifty-eight, first time on USS Nautilus, my job was maintaining the high pressure air lines. Navigation was the sole domain of the navigator and the captain. A new top secret Sperry Rand gyro compass had been fitted, and they tended to it like it was a new-born baby. Transistor circuits, space-stabilised gyros, those spinning tops orientate to the stars not earth. Air-lubricated bearings, meaning it was totally disconnected from mother earth. The ultimate product of German rocket research, keeping us deep below ocean thermoclines, invisible to all but Ahab’s whale.

“We soon knew this was a special mission. Captain and the navigator took it in turns to sit in the SINS compartment, always one in the room, always with the door locked. When water shallowed, the Doppler shift of snapping shrimp on the bottom gave us an idea of speed. Magnetic compass don’t work in a steel hull, but Kellicks who’d been in the navy long enough could tell latitude to a couple of degrees from the temperature of the hull. After two weeks at full steam the crew figured it out. Nautilus was heading for the North Pole, straight under the ice. In those days the ice was massive, too thick for us to surface.

“Cook started going crazy. Recipes like Tundra Chowder, Beluga Bolognaise, Polaris Pastrami, slapped onto plates like a Camden County hash slinger. Mutterings about gimbal lock and singularities echoed round the mess. One day Cook took a meat cleaver and held it to the navigator’s throat.

“Cool as a cucumber that navigator pushed the cleaver aside. “I’m cooking with quaternions,” was all he said, grabbed some Bering Sea Sausages and locked himself in the SINS compartment.

“Captain was scared too. Took to blasting Ornette Colman out over the intercom system. Freddie Hubbard squawking like a chicken for days on end. Ratings stated getting sea sick, dizzy below the waves. It got worse, till suddenly we were all thrown against the hull. That tin turtle was spinning anticlockwise like a baby down a plughole. We’d reached the pole, the singularity, nuclear engines were powerless as the boat was sucked across the event horizon.

“We passed right through the centre of the earth, took months of searching before we caught a current. Passed out back to the surface though an unknown passage into some of the roughest seas any sailor has ever seen. Locals call it the Shambles, weird people, too superstitious to say the word rabbit. Portlanders they called themselves. Didn’t matter to us, we were back on the surface. Whole crew were sworn to secrecy. But they say submarines have been building secret bases in the center of the earth ever since.”

Now late for his afternoon snooze Grandad pulled up his fireside blanket and dropped off to sleep. Frantically Joe began writing it all down while he still remembered. Maybe this time his parents wouldn’t get that phone call from the principal, whispering about Asperger’s and ADHD. Like they thought he couldn’t hear them.