Driving with Whales and Zeppelins
That was how eight-year-old Louis Butler describes visiting Grandpa Charlie’s cottage on the isle of Jersey. The man did not have Nintendo or Cable TV. His telly was an old piece of furniture with plants and books atop it. Visits always consisted of sitting around drinking tea in the kitchen and talking about people he’d never heard of. The house smelled old, it had no yard, and Grandpa covered the walls with creepy photos of dead whales, rusted out ships, and blimps.
Weird meets boring. That’s Grandpa.
“Our bathroom is more interesting than Grandpa’s whole house,” Louis complains to his mother as they park in front of a small yellow cottage.
“You know Grandpa built this house when he came over from America,” Mom tells him.
“Shoulda made it bigger,” Louis says. “A lot bigger.”
“You know, Louis,” Mom begins as she takes out a suitcase, “when you’re a kid, everything seems like forever, but nothing lasts forever, including Grandpa. He’s got some wonderful stories, you know.”
“You’ll see.” Before Mom can knock on the door, it opens, and Grandpa’s waiting. He’s in his nineties and still has lots of boyish energy.
“Get in here, lad.” His English accent is offset by a bit of New Jersey. “Care for a cuppa?”
“No thanks,” Louis says. The last thing he wants on a hot day is hot tea.
Mom takes the luggage to the bedroom to unpack, leaving the boy with his grandpa.
“How’s school?” Grandpa asks.
“Got a girlfriend?”
“Playing sports? Games?”
There’s a long pause. Louis spots a photo on the wall. It’s a black and white photo of a young man standing next to an old car. There are mountains in the background and a shark laying across the car’s hood.
“How’d you get a shark on your car?” Louis asks. “Where is that even?”
Grandpa Charlie smiles. “I had help. If you’re interested, I can tell you the whole story.”
“Yeah, I’m interested.”
“Alright then, let’s go for a walk.” Grandpa shuffles out of the house with Louis on his heels. “That car is how I came to be in England. I borrowed it from my aunt in New Jersey and drove it here.”
“I just said New Jersey, keep up, kid,” Grandpa laughs.
Louis looks at him, crooked. “You can’t drive a car from New Jersey to old Jersey; there’s an ocean in the middle.”
“Well, sure, now there is, but for a week many years ago, there wasn’t,” Grandpa answers.
Louis and Grandpa stroll off his property. Mom gives a wave from the door. The neighborhood is built high on the hill, and as they move towards the ocean, Charlie leans on his grandson for occasional support.
“It was the summer of 1937—ancient times for you. Back then, I was spending the summer at my Aunt Millie’s seaside house across the pond in New Jersey, USA. That’s why I sound funny sometimes. I spent my days working at a gas station, and at night I’d go to the boardwalk with friends.
“The ocean breezes and the magical sound of waves crashing on the shore made for a great night’s rest, but I was not a sound sleeper. Before TVs or video games, kids never wanted to be home. Never. Our minds were filled with dreams of exotic lands. I graduated high school with no college plans, and the army did not appeal to my rebellious nature.
“Some nights I slept nearly not at all, as was the case on that vital night in July when I left America. Despite the sound of the waves right outside my window, nothing could calm my spirits. My thoughts grew wild and with sunrise a couple of hours away, and a long day at the gas pump, I was in a panic.”
Charlie and Louis continue their walk. Grandpa greets passing neighbors. Seagulls litter the air, but their continuous calls dissolve into background noise.
“The hours passed quickly that night. I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling, when suddenly I saw, felt, and heard something hum near the house, brightening the room before quickly shifting back to darkness. The sky was black, but I felt a difference. Something was missing. The waves became silent. Even in the mildest seas, I could hear the lapping waves from my room.
“I jumped to the window. The beach was there, but I quickly learned why I heard no waves. There was no water. An optical illusion, I thought, but as my eyes adjusted, the dark, glistering water was replaced by sand as far as the eye could see.
“Quickly, I changed my clothes and ran out the front door. My aunt’s dog Spanky followed at my heels. When I reached the dunes, I found the most peculiar thing. It was no optical illusion; the ocean was dry. I looked around for water or for someone to share this experience with, but it was only Spanky and me in the dark blue sky of the early morning.
“This was my moment. This was the adventure keeping me awake. Was I going to find the ocean and bring it back? Maybe. All I knew was that there was an untravelled path for me to explore. I ran into the house and packed clothes and food, figuring I’d be gone a day or two.
“I tossed all the gear into the back of Aunt Millie’s ’36 Ford Woody. Not knowing how long it would take, I filled the tank with fuel and then borrowed portable containers, filled them with gasoline, and stowed them in the trunk. I grabbed Spanky and a camera, leaving only a brief note for Millie: Finding Water. Have Spanky. Return soon.
The sun was rising, and I didn’t have time to waste or risk someone telling me ‘no.’ We launched down the road and right over the dune. The car handled the fine sand without so much as a hiccup, and it drove better as the sand grew firm. Spanky next to me seemed confused, but eager. He knew the ocean was gone; after all, he was a dog, but he wasn’t stupid.
“The ground was now covered with shells, dead fish, and seaweed. I did my best to avoid anything I thought would hurt the car. For the first hour or so, the thrill of driving on this alien terrain kept the adrenaline flowing, but the excitement wore off as the sun rose. There was nothing natural about the ride. Imagine moving across America before there were roads, with all the obstacles still there.
“I came across the first shipwreck a few hours into the drive. There was an object cutting a hulking shadow on the horizon. I pulled up to the rusty vessel. Painted on its side was SS Carolina. I remembered reading about it as a kid. A German U-boat sank it. I parked the car to stretch my legs and let Spanky run around a bit. I shot a photo of the dog standing by the ship’s stern. The picture’s in my bathroom.
“I refueled the tank and headed on. After driving a few hours, we came upon a mountain range. We were well under sea level and had been this entire trip. These mountains were grander than any range we have on the east coast. They were unlike anything I have ever seen, but getting around them would cost us a half a day’s drive, despite their beauty. I snapped a picture documenting this range of mountains no human had ever seen while Spanky sat bored in the passenger seat. By now, my aunt had probably sent a search party, but no one would find us.
“Later the sun set behind us, the mountain range in our rearview. I never considered heading back, but I was too tired to continue. I made a sandwich and created a bed in the backseat. Maybe it’s a mistake to rest on the ocean floor was my last thought before closing my eyes.
“The next morning I awoke, and the ocean hadn’t returned. I didn’t bring water and was feeling dehydrated. I had a couple of days of fuel. Common sense would say go home, but my heroes Charles Lindberg and Amelia Earhart never listened to common sense, and I wasn’t going to start now.
“Day two would be more eventful. Only a half-hour after heading out, I didn’t notice a significant cliff cut into the ocean floor until I almost drove off it with only a foot or two to spare. Spanky had no idea how close we came to a swift end. He just thought I was a lousy driver.
“I drove around the canyon, which was quite a detour as it was as big as the grand canyon to my mind. We lost a day, and I was beginning to see things on the horizon that weren’t there. Without water and refueling, I’d soon be stranded, but fortune smiled on me, and I avoided certain doom.
“After noon on the third day, I came upon a large sailboat lying grounded on its side. Next to the boat, someone had set up a table with an umbrella and a chair. I pulled the car alongside, and when I honked the horn, a man popped his head out of the boat. This man introduced himself as William Beebe, a famous deep-sea explorer.
“Mr. Beebe provided me with water and showed me his bathysphere, an underwater vessel shaped like a sphere. Without water, he told me it was as useless as a chocolate teapot.
“He didn’t have any answers to the missing ocean. He was asleep and only awoke when the land came up to meet his boat. He said usually there would be a mile of water over our heads, something I didn’t want to consider at the moment.
“Mr. Beebe cooked some fish he had found around his boat and rehydrated Spanky.
“I told the explorer about our fuel problem, and he suggested we drive to Bermuda, which was only a few hours away. His home was there, along with all the food and fuel to complete our journey. He collected some things and jumped into the car with us. We were now driving to Bermuda.
“Over the next couple of hours, I got to know William Beebe well. He defined and mapped my mission. I was to be the first person to cross the Atlantic by car. When we reached Bermuda, there were scores of folks on the beach watching us. After a hero’s welcome, I refueled and packed enough gas to get us to England. Although my car smelled of gasoline, it was comforting to know I could drive without worry.
“Bermuda was unbearably hot. Since it was nearing evening and I needed rest, Mr. Beebe said I could use his guest room. It seemed we had become quite the talk of the town. We had dinner at a nearby restaurant. The waitress, Noni, was about the same age as me. She was a beautiful Bermuda girl who had never left the island and was filled with questions about our trip. With Mr. Beebe staying in Bermuda, there was room for another passenger, so I invited Noni. I told her she’d need to be at the car by six in the morning. That was as smooth as I could get, but I didn’t need to be smooth because she was like me, waiting for adventure.
“The grocery store allowed us to fill the car with food. I stocked up on chips, jerky, and anything else I could find to last through long hot days, not to mention a few gallons of water. It was nearly six; I received some last-minute navigational tips from Mr. Beebe and glanced around for Noni. Bermuda went from being a tropical island to a way station on the Atlantic Outback.
“Spanky jumped into the car. A few Bahamians came to send us off. I snapped a picture of them with the camera, which you’ll find in the hallway outside your room. As I began to drive away, I saw Noni in the rearview mirror standing with a suitcase in hand. I halted, loaded her luggage, and opened the door for her. We exchanged no words, only smiles.
“The ride was loud, and we talked very little. Noni took in the sights, mouth wide open in amazement. Her first shipwreck was an old tall ship covered in seaweed, a pirate ship I hoped, but we found no doubloons or booty.
“Noni was equally thrilled to be moving to England. We became fast friends. I knew her well enough to know that this was the woman I would spend my life with.”
Charlie and Louis reach the beach, finding a seat on a bench overlooking the ocean.
“Sunken ships. Pirates. Mountains. This adventure had everything a kid or comic book could imagine, but our upbeat mood soured when we came upon the sad sight of a beached humpback whale. The beautiful beast, the size of a building, was completely lifeless and expelled a most repugnant odor. It was unlike anything I had ever seen outside drawings in books. I had Noni stand next to the creature to give it scale for a photo. In the picture, she’s holding her nose. You’ll find the image in the kitchen now.
“We continued driving through cliffs and canyons. According to the map our diver friend Mr. Beebe gave us, we were just a day’s drive from England. We passed a silvery zeppelin parked on the ocean floor. Its passengers explored and strolled around some reefs, a sunken ship, and a pink giant squid. With rain clouds on the horizon, we gave a wave and continued.
“ When the rain did come, I feared it wouldn’t stop, and we’d be submerged, but my fears were unfounded, as after an hour, the clouds moved on. Nearing England only increased my concern. The water was coming back soon. Noni shared this fear while Spanky just looked bored. We followed the navigational tools Beebe gave us and knew we were close, but as the sun set over the distant mountains, the car needed a break as much as we did. So we set up camp, cooked our remaining food, and took pictures. Noni and I laid on the roof of the woody hand in hand, talking about the future. Lights from coastal England shone bright enough to be seen.
“Just before sunrise, Noni woke me up with a warning. There was a group of men on horses running in our direction. They carried lanterns and were approaching quickly. Thieves. The line of lights bounced up and down with each stride.
“We packed the car in double time. When the lanterns turned dark, we could hear the frightening sound of hooves growing louder, but the sound of the Ford engine saved us. We sped off, leaving the pirates in our dust.
“I was desperate to get out of the car. My back ached, and my neck was flaming hot. As we neared the European continent, the ride grew increasingly rugged, and I feared the car’s suspension would fail or a tire would blow.
“With Spanky on her lap, Noni took photos through a dirty windshield. We drove North to find a path to find an accessible beach and came upon a small seaside village. Unlike Bermuda, there was no one to greet us. No one even noticed our automobile driving up the coast. Then seeing my aunt’s car parked amongst the others was a strange sight. The salt and sand had lightened its color. Even the New Jersey license plate made the car look out of place.
We went to a pub called the King’s Castle for a warm meal, keeping our adventure to ourselves, until the pub’s owner, a merry fellow named Alistar, asked about our accents. We explained how we’d arrived, and he couldn’t help but laugh. Some of the other patrons noticed this and joined the conversation. Each man and woman in the room would simply not believe we had driven from the United States. It became a bit uncomfortable, and I wanted a quick exit. I came to remember I only had American money, but fortunately, Noni had British coins used in Bermuda.
Leaving the pub, we discovered why the patrons were so doubtful; we could see the ocean, water and all. Noni and I passed a confused glance and ran down to the car. Spanky was asleep in the seat. We agreed that the isle of Jersey, even with its circle of skeptics, was the place for us, and we’ve lived here every day since.”
Louis looks at his grandpa for a few moments blankly. “Didn’t your Aunt Millie want her car back?”
“Of course. It took years to pay her back on a postman’s wage.”
“Spanky too?” Louis questions.
“I always loved Spanky more than she did,” he says.
Louis, staring out at the ocean, thinks about all the photos on the walls of Grandpa’s house, the deserts, mountains, sunken ships, and zeppelins parked on the ocean floor, and it all makes sense.
A car pulls up behind them and blasts its loud horn. They spin around. It’s Grandma, sitting in the driver’s seat of a 1936 Ford Woody.
“Grandma!” Louis exclaims, jumping off the bench. He gives her a big hug. “Grandpa just told me about your trip.”
“All of it is true.” She hands him a paper bag. “Cornish pasties. Get in.”
“My favorite,” Louis says, climbing in the back seat.
Charlie walks gingerly towards the car. “No turnip pasties, I hope, Noni.”
Noni smiles, “Never.”
“Brilliant,” Charlie says, getting into the car. “I’ve almost made it a century without a turnip pasty and plan on not having one for the next century as well.”
For a man who drove across the ocean, living to two hundred doesn’t seem like a stretch. Grandma starts the car, and Louis watches the sea as they head up and over the hill to their cottage until the water disappears from view once more.