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Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Best Memorial of All Time

The Proper Way to Honor a Man

Chippy jjbjorkman.blogspot.com
Mrs. Chippy

Harry was a cantankerous old sort. Actually, he wasn't all that old, but he was 40, and imagine a 40-year-old playing center for your local football team, and you kind of get the idea. He was looking for work, so he signed on to some fool's expedition to some frozen wasteland just to get away from things. It wasn't at all atypical for Harry to do that sort of thing - in fact, he did it regularly. He did the same thing again years later, simply leaving a wife and all his possessions behind to move to a new country halfway around the world without a job or a prospect. Harry wasn't tied down by anything, and certainly not a bad sort - he just didn't believe in all that bother of playing by society's rules.

Anyway, so Harry went on the expedition, which was to the South Pole, though the where and why wasn't really all that important to him. It was a job, and it was different, and it would keep Harry fed and busy for a few years. One never knew when the ordinary labor jobs upon which Harry relied would dry up, and he didn't have all that much to live for anyway, so what the hey. Harry was lucky enough to have a skill that the Big Shot in charge needed: he was good working with wood, what we would call carpentry. Most carpenters had more sense than to go gallivanting around the world at Harry's age, but it was just the thing for him. The Big Shot chose him.

But it turned out that Harry did have one thing to live for, and it was the only thing he apparently cared for in his whole life, at least judging by his actions. That thing was his cat, known by everyone as "Mrs. Chippy." Chippy was the slang of the time for a carpenter like Harry. Harry loved that cat so much that everybody jokingly called it his wife, hence the name. Harry didn't mind the nickname for his cat one bit, and when they eventually found out that it was a boy cat and not a girl one, he decided to keep the nickname for it anyway. An easygoing sort, that's our Harry.

The expedition ran into trouble, of course, as every one of the fool leader's expeditions had before and, indeed, would do so in the future. But the Big Shot was considered a Great Man, and Harry knew his place. Those were days when knowing your place was a Very Good Idea. Besides, the Big Shot was the guy paying and feeding Harry, and that was enough for Harry to put up with just about everything that came from him. So, while everyone else on the expedition took things easy as they sailed onward toward catastrophe, Harry kept himself busy. He built cabinets, he added parts to the ship. He built screens to protect the helmsman from the bitter winds, he created semaphore signalling to make navigation safer when the lookouts in the bow spotted a safe direction. He was constantly busy, but Harry liked it that way. It made him feel useful. And he was probably the biggest asset the crazy expedition had, old 'Arry and his cat.

One day the ship, as ordinary wooden ships in icy Hells tend to do, developed some problems. In fact, it sprung a number of leaks from ice pressing against it on both sides. The Big Shot's plan all along, in fact, had been to encase the ship in ice, which just goes to show what kind of judgment he had in the first place. The water was freezing - literally - and working in it or even falling in it and getting clothes or boots wet could have killed several sailors. Harry ingeniously figured out a way to dam off the inrushing water into partitioned pools - "cofferdams," they're called, though old 'Arry didn't go in for such fancy terms - which water then was pumped out. This kept everyone dry and also, incidentally, kept the ship from sinking. Harry was just doing his job and didn't ask for any special credit. After all, if the ship sank, it was a long swim home. The Big Shot, of course, took it all for granted. After all, he was feeding and even paying the poor slob that was his carpenter, wasn't that enough?

Endurance Shackleton randommusings.filminspector.com
There's your only way home. Good luck.

Eventually, the ship got squeezed in the ice big time - when you sail into ice floes, and just keep going, that's pretty much what always happens. We're not talking simply trapped in the ice, more like being caught in a car crusher. The pressure built and built on the stout timbers until the ice squeezed the ship's sides open like a man squeezing a coke can together. The water came rushing in, and no coffer dams were going to stop it. Clearly, even the Big Shot had to accept that it was time to leave. However, Harry the carpenter organized a party that opened a hole in the sinking ship just long enough for the men to carry out some food. It would come in quite handy, considering there was nothing else to eat for a thousand miles except what they might catch if they were lucky, such as penguins or fish. Within a few minutes after the last man left, it was goodbye ship.

Now, the little troupe was stuck on the ice with nowhere to go. The remnants of the ship were still stuck in the ice that had squeezed together, though now full of freezing water, so Harry took some of the splintered wood and erected some football (soccer) goalposts. Thus, at least the guys could have a little fun while they waited to die of starvation and exposure. An amazing piece of initiative, but old 'Arry, he was always the clever one, aye?

Eventually, the Big Shot decided that they should haul the main ship's three horribly heavy lifeboats over the ice to try to find some open water. The only inconvenient fact to be overcome from this brilliant plan was that open water was several miles away. You may think that dragging things over ice and snow is easy - it isn't, not when the thing you're dragging is insanely heavy, not smooth on the bottom, and there are regular pressure ridges to cross. Everybody took turns on the straps, pulling the heavy objects up and down over ice blocks and grinding huge trails in the ice. Harry helped like everyone else, but, quite frankly, his joints were killing him - he'd had enough. Finally, he had it out with the Big Shot, telling him to his face what a fool he was and how he didn't know what he was doing. The whole expedition was a farce, Harry told him, and working the men to death in this pointless exercise was only something a damn fool could think up.

The Big Shot told Harry to shut up or find a way home on his own. No more food for anyone with such an attitude, he said. In fact, if Harry kept mouthing off in front of the others, the Big Shot strongly implied that he might just shoot Harry as an act of mercy to everyone else, to put them out of Harry's misery.

Harry shut up.

They now were running low on food despite Harry's valiant salvage efforts, and the Big Shot figured there should be one less mouth to feed in any event. He knew just how to solve that problem. He took out his pistol and went to look for his target, which he soon found.

And he shot Mrs. Chippy dead.

That did it for Harry. He fell into line, but he hated the Big Shot. Every time he looked at the man who had killed the only thing he ever had loved in his life, he wanted to kill him. However, Harry knew that nobody would ever understand and he would at best serve out the rest of his days in a work farm if he did anything, so he buckled down and just did what he was told. Soon after, Harry almost got stranded on an ice floe that started drifting away into open water, which would have meant certain death - you don't just swim back through frigid water in heavy clothing with no shelter on the other side and live to tell about it. At the last second, by pure chance, someone saw him floating away and threw him a rope, enabling Harry to escape. Harry kept his mouth shut about this, and only mentioned it in passing the next day as if it were nothing special. He knew better than to expect any sympathy from the Big Shot for his brush with death, and he wasn't about to seek sympathy from the man who had shot Mrs. Chippy. He didn't get any.

Coming to an epiphany, after many pointless days of brutal struggle, the Big Shot finally decided that Harry had been right after all about the lifeboats. He told the men to stop killing themselves trying to haul the heavy boats toward the sea - the drifting ice was taking them there slowly but surely anyway. However, his being wrong and Harry being right just made the Big Shot hate Harry all the more.

You know how that goes.

When the drifting ice finally brought them to the ocean, the only way to reach help was to sail for it. That's easier in theory than in practice, sailing a small boat hundreds of miles over open ocean full of ice and foul weather and starting off in an exhausted state with no food is, shall we say, tricky.

The first problem was that the lifeboat itself wasn't up to an ocean journey. Harry was the answer to that. Once again, he buckled down and strengthened it. This made the boat somewhat seaworthy, when otherwise it would never had lasted for the journey. Even the Big Shot later admitted that Harry's work on the open boat was the only thing that enabled them to make it. That didn't make the Big Shot like Harry any more, of course, because he was done with Harry.

The Big Shot held grudges. Big time.

In one of the greatest feats in maritime history, they - Harry and only the most able went along, the rest remained behind to be rescued later - somehow made the 800 or so odd miles over open water to the island. Just like "the cover-up is worse than the crime," the flight for life was more legendary than the actual expedition. Harry didn't complain during the trip, but he did mention matter-of-factly at one point that his feet were swelling inside his boots, a dangerous condition. This made the Big Shot realize that they all might die if he didn't do something, so he ordered all the men to all take off their boots. Turned out, everyone had the same condition, which could have killed them if nothing had been done. Harry saved everyone's life once again. Did the Big Shot appreciate it and perhaps make a mental note to honor Harry? What do you think?

Once on the island, just a speck of nothing in the middle of nowhere, several miles of nothingness, it still was necessary to cross a mountain range to get to the other side. That was where the only town in the entire hemisphere was located. Harry wanted to walk there himself, having come this far, but he couldn't because his feet were too badly off. He did hobble as far as he could with the ones who could still walk, escorting them out of camp. He shook their hands goodbye. He was the only one of the ones left behind who did. You never knew, the ones setting out might never make it, and their bodies might never be found. After that, Harry went back with the others.

Old 'Arry, he always had a lot of class like that.

Harry and the others had to wait for weeks as the three men picked their way over the mountain to get help in an epic adventure all its own. During this time, Harry once again showed his handiness with wood, designing and helping to construct a lean-to using the boat. This gave the men, who were in real danger of freezing to death, some primitive shelter. Even so, with little food and the howling winds and the bitter cold, they barely survived long enough to be rescued. The Big Shot, who arrived on the rescue ship, noted matter-of-factly in his diary that they had arrived barely in time, singling out Harry (with satisfaction?) as being particularly emaciated and on death's door.

Eventually, they all made it home to the mother land. The Big Shot was feted as one of the great heroes of the day, having, as the press put it, personally saved the lives of his entire crew. There was a war on, don't you know, and the country could stand a "hero" or two. Harry, meanwhile, was completely forgotten by everyone - except by the Big Shot. There being a need for heroes, the Big Shot was given authority to award medals to those who were deserving. It was at this point that he remembered Harry, oh, how he remembered him and their little "discussion" on the ice. The Big Shot made it a point to award just about everyone in the expedition except Harry a medal for their service during the failed expedition. Others in the expedition, aware of what really had happened, remarked quietly at what an injustice it was, while the public was oblivious. Harry, for his part, couldn't have cared less. Mrs. Chippy hadn't made it back with him, and that was all that mattered.

The years went by, and Harry continued on from one menial job to another. Society was very class-based, and simply being classy didn't get you anywhere. He got tired of the wife he had picked up somewhere along the line, so he hitched on with a freighter and went Down Under, never to return to England. Always footloose and fancy free, that 'Arry.

After working for years as a longshoreman on a forgotten dockyard, Harry's aching legs, which had hurt since the failed expedition, finally gave out for good. Harry spent his last, miserable days living in a makeshift shack on the waterfront, finding whatever food he could, exposed to the elements in a frigid climate. He soon died despite attempts by fellow workers, who respected him, to help. "Anything for our 'Arry," you know how close hard workers can be, as close as brothers. This effort to help truly was extraordinary because it was a time when everyone was experiencing legendary Hard Times, but despite their genuine attempts to help, they could only do so much.

Harry was buried in an unmarked grave that quickly was forgotten. It was a pauper's grave, common for the era, which basically meant dig a hole and dump in the body. When he died, Harry had owned nothing but the clothes on his back, which in fact were rags but they at least kept him decent. The burial ceremony of the largely forgotten explorer was honored briefly by a warship that just happened to be passing through that day, though Harry was beyond caring.

Years passed, and wars came and went. People began to look back at Harry's time as being something special, a time when true heroes still lived, men who just did things and didn't expect anything at all from anybody. Someone looked at the records of the failed expedition and did a little checking on who this mysterious carpenter had been who had held things together for everyone else but had been passed over for any kind of recognition for it. A few old farts of a historical bent actually went to some trouble to find and mark the grave, and they even managed to get a tiny island in the middle of nowhere named for Harry. Well, that's that, the world said, and turned away again. Old 'arry and the grave were forgotten again for another forty years.

Finally, some more historians, a little more connected and with access to deep pockets, once again checked in on the old carpenter and his fate. They found the new grave, which, despite having been marked, now was overgrown with weeds and rubbish and basically was falling apart. This group was a little more understanding of what the old man had been through. In fact, they really wanted to reward Harry somehow. But how?

They wanted to build a magnificent marker, but they were at a loss for how to properly honor the man who had saved so many lives but been left to die alone, a forgotten, homeless wreck. What would Harry himself appreciate? Some ordinary memorial? Perhaps issue some kind of belated medal? Maybe a statue of him somewhere in front of some forgotten park in some hidden section of nowhere? It just wasn't clear how to make right what had been made wrong for such petty reasons so long before. Someone did some checking, they thought about it, and they read the record over and over.

Now, this was an interesting question, which merited very careful thought. Do we properly honor Harry by building something that we think properly honors him, or do we honor Harry by building something that he would think honors him. Or, do we properly honor Harry by sort of "summing up his life" regardless of what we or Harry himself might think? These would all lead to different memorials.

Perhaps there is even another answer: honoring the man by showing what was important to him and showed what was in the crusty old carpenter's heart, regardless of what we think is a "proper monument."

Finally, they figured it out. There was only one way to properly honor old 'arry in a way that he, himself, would have appreciated, and how should be crystal clear from the above narrative. They got it just right.

The result is below.

Harry McNish Wellington New Zealand jjbjorkman.blogspot.com
Harry's gravesite