by Chuck Gundersen
You Never Can Tell
I’ve been born in Plymouth, England every single time since 1608. That may be a record. Very unusual, I think, to be born in the same place time after time. Before that, I was often born in Plymouth, but not always. I’m not an expert, mind you, but most of the people I know who remember earlier lives report having been born purely at random as far as location is concerned. Rarely in the same place twice in a row. Unusual, also, that I’ve followed the sea in nearly every life.
In only one life I can think of off the top of my head that I didn’t follow the sea was the time I was born in 1782 and my Pa apprenticed me to a cooper. I didn’t like it and I run off, but I met a girl in a roundabout way, and, well, it’s a long story but I followed her home from market and she hid me in the byre for a few days until we could figure out what we would do. She brought me food and it was very pleasant. We ended up in the haymow together and we wasn’t paying attention and we fell out of the mow to the hard packed earth floor below and I broke my neck and that was the end of that life. Only sixteen, I was. A short life. But I remember that the last few days was, as I said, very pleasant, and the last few minutes was glorious.
An interesting thing happened the time I was born in 1466. A couple of interesting things. One is that I was born in Cadiz, not Plymouth. The other interesting thing, or what led to the interesting thing, is that, being a sailor, as always, I found myself a member of an expedition to find a way to the Indies by sailing west.That’s an interesting thing in itself, because the Indies was to the east, and the notion of getting there by sailing west was ridiculous. What would happen if you sail too far to the west, or any direction, for that matter, is that you fall off the edge of the world. That’s what the old sailors always said.
Like everybody else, I knew of ships that had gone out and never come back. There could be many reasons for that, but more than likely, since they was never heard of again, and no reports from anywhere of them foundering or running aground or fetching up on a lee shore, more than likely they’d fallen off the edge of the world. Now my own idea of the edge of the world was a little different than most, and if you follow my reasoning, I think you’ll find some merit in it. I didn’t think the world was perfectly flat. If it was, you see, the seas would run off the edges like a waterfall, and pretty soon there’d be no water left. It would all have run off and the edge of the world would be just a sort of flat desert with a little water dripping off it. My idea was that the world is more like a big platter. It has a kind of lip around it, that’s what keeps the oceans from falling off. So, if you were a good seaman, and handled a ship well, you might be able to sail right up to the edge; maybe send out a boat and pull right up and look over. That’s if the sea was calm and the breeze was favorable. So you see, it would be possible to sail off the edge of the world. If your lookout had fallen asleep or you had foul weather and was running before the wind you might just crash right into that lip around the edge of the world and pitch over. You need a good lookout.
That’s why I took my lookout duties very seriously. Especially since on this voyage we’d been gone a long long time and we were tempting fate. We had to be getting close to the edge. Also, we’d been told that the first man to sight land would get a pension for life from Isabella and that fellow she’d married, that foreigner, Ferdinand. So either way, I figured, it was a good idea to keep a very sharp eye. Either I’d save us from going off the edge, or if by some miracle we actually did find the Indies, I’d be the first one to see them, and I’d return home to my pension for life and never go back to sea again. Never shear a sheep nor plow a field, nor anything else I didn’t want to do.
So there I am up in the crows nest in the old Pinta. There was three ships in our expedition: The Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria, which was the flagship of our leader, this fellow from Genoa, Cristoforo Colombo. I hadn’t met him, but I figured he had to be a pretty fast talker, because he’d talked Isabella and her guy Ferdinand, into giving him these ships and a bunch of money to go away and sail off the edge of the world because of some crackpot notion of his.
Anyway, there I am, and it’s a moonlit night. The sea is quiet, there’s phosphorescence in the water and a perfect breeze, easy sailing. If I wasn‘t so nervous about getting too close to the edge, I’d be really enjoying it up here, But, like I said, I was nervous. I kept scanning the horizon, and suddenly, just after four bells, I thought I saw something. Something solid way off against the horizon. I knew it was the edge of the world. I leaned over and was just about to call out at the top of my lungs “The edge of the world! the edge of the world,” when I had a thought. There’s that pension. If I claim credit for being the first man to see the edge of the world, goodbye to that. If I’m the first man to sight land, I’m set for life. Either way, we’re going to heave to out here and send a party to explore. If it’s the edge of the world, I saved our asses. If it’s land, I’m rich. I thought all that in a flash and I leaned out and yelled “Land Ho!”
Well, down below, everybody picks up the cry. Captain Pinzon comes scrambliing up the ratlines, tumbles into the crow’s nest and fixes his glass on the dark mass I point out to him. He looks and looks and then after a minute he nods and says “Land,” and my heart leaps for joy. “Send up a rocket,” he calls down to the deck. A rocket soars up into the sky and everybody knows we’ve sighted land. By tomorrow everyone will know that I, Juan Bermeo, was the first to sight land.
Daylight found all three ships at anchor in a small bay surrounded by low hills and palm trees. It also found our leader, Colombo, being rowed ashore in a ship’s boat. We all watched as the boat beached and Colombo jumped out thigh deep into the water and waded ashore, a bunch of guys following him, one carrying the banner of Isabella and Ferdinand. They all waded up onto the beach. Colombo takes the flag from the guy carrying it and then he turns and we can’t hear him, but we can tell he’s making a speech. He stands there holding the banner and making sweeping arm gestures. Then he picks up the banner, jabs the pole into the sand and drops to one knee and crosses himself. The banner falls over. Well, almost falls over. One of the guys behind Colombo catches it just in time. A couple of the other guys drop to their knees and start digging in the sand with their hands. They make a hole. Colombo takes the banner again, jabs it into the hole and with his foot pushes the sand back into the hole and tamps it down. I felt proud.
It was just after the noon observation that the Admiral sent for me. Captain Pinzon clapped me on the back and congratulated me. The boat crew rowed the two of us over to the Santa Maria and we boarded her. Captain Pinzon introduced me to the Admiral and the Admiral said “Ah, Bermeo. An honor to meet the man who confirmed my sighting of land.” “Sir?” said Captain Pinzon. “Confirmed your sighting?” “Yes,” he said. “I had sighted land a couple of hours before we saw your rocket.” The members of the Santa Maria’s crew who were gathered around us shifted uncomfortably. One of them had a fit of coughing. Colombo looked at him and he was suddenly cured.
“Well,” said Captain Pinzon. “I congratulate you on your wonderful eyesight. A marvelous thing to have been able to see that landfall several hours before anyone else, and from several miles farther distant.” Another fit of coughing from the crew, cured instantly again by a look from Colombo. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve always been blessed with wonderful eyesight.” “Signor Colombo,” I thought, “I obscenity in the milk of thy eyesight.”
So I didn’t get my pension. Signor Colombo did, I guess. I was angry, of course, and I resented it for the rest of that life. I’m over it now though, and I’m not even Juan Bermeo any more. Haven’t been for five hundred years. Signor Colombo hasn’t been Signor Colombo for the last five hundred years, either. I don‘t know who he’s been but sometimes I have this pleasant little fantasy that in one of his lives, his lookout fell asleep and he sailed off the edge of the world.
Chuck is the owner of the Teago General Store in South Pomfret. Find more of his stories, poems and other writing at www.chuckgundersen.com
This article first appeared in the October 13th print edition of the Vermont Standard.