5 0th




1 9 6 2

The Phantom Ship

Greg Culpepper, a Coast Guard lieutenant, forgetting his flashlight, floundered around in the dark. He fell off the path into a tangle of Sitka spruce, Oregon grape, wild blackberry, and wild cucumber and scrambled for footing on the steep slopes. It wasn’t a storm assailing him, it was the nightmare he had just witnessed that sent him running like a wild man into the night.

He had left the North Head lighthouse, falling most of the steps in his haste to get out. Outside, it was a mere slip or two and he would have gone over the cliff, but at least he headed instinctively in the right direction and was able to get clear of the headland. Beyond that lay the lighthouse keeper’s quarters, two large houses with a garage and other outbuildings—deserted, of course, since the lighthouse was turned over to an automatic lighting system no longer requiring three-in residence lighthouse keepers.

Frank Story, the last keeper on record, had left in 1961 after 12 years of faithful service. What remarkable things he had told Greg and his men when they came to be shown around the site before it was boarded up and vacated! Winds in the area had been clocked in excess of 150 mph. Something the keepers had come to dread, mallard ducks and also commorants regularly rode those hurricane-force winds up from the beach below and made many near misses of the lighthouse. But Frank told how he had come to tend the light one evening and found the window shattered. The remains of a mallard were plastered all over the light itself, and its glass was chipped! Only the velocity of a rifle could have done that kind of damage!

Greg had always known the North Head lighthouse site on Long Beach Peninsula was one of the most interesting on the whole West Coast. The mouth of the Columbia lay to the left, perfectly visible on clear, sunny days. Just to the north of the mouth lay what was called the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Over two thousand ships were said to be sunk there, either caught in storms or losing sight of Cape Disappointment’s light as they were just about to cross the bar of the Columbia-—a stretch of sea and river where treacherous sandy shoals lay waiting to ground any incoming vessel.

Ships that came from the north were particularly disadvantaged, since Cape Disappointment’s light lay inside the mouth of the river, just far enough away that it couldn’t be seen from the north. Once mired in the sandy bar off shore, the big ocean rollers striking the massive surge of the river’s current sweeping out to sea made short work of grounded vessels.

He had known it was an "interesting site", but yet, not until tonight, he hadn’t guessed it could be his death too. That was why he was running. He was running for his very life.

Lt. Culpepper Runs to Town

Lt. Culpepper, more by accident than anything he did, reached safety, the village of Ilwaco that lay a mile below North Head and hugged a tiny port that handled some (but not enough to boast of) of the fishing boat trade along the tidal rivershore.

Port of Ilwaco

His white uniform torn and muddy, his face scratched, hatless, even shoeless, his appearance caused a sensation even with limited clientele when he burst into the saloon, the only establishment still open at that late hour in the morning.

“What?” the bartender said. He moved quickly to shut the door as his remaining two patrons gathered quickly their remaining wits together and tried to figure out what terrific calamity the Coast Guard could have sustained.

“Your boat went down at the river mouth, sir?” cried one man in a white man’s shirt but with a brown complexion that showed his Indian blood.

“No! No!” Greg howled, then realized he was back in society again, and he tried to calm down enough to speak sensibly. “I mean, it isn’t that at all. It’s something I saw up there—“

The three men looked at him and then back to each other with a knowing look, as if he had become a lunatic.

Seeing this, the lieutenant threw up his hands and pushed them away. “So you think I’m crazy! Well, get away from me then! I’ve got to get back to my men on the boat. Who will take me there?”

Normally, the Coast Guard had their pickup times well scheduled and never had to employ civilians. But he had come back earlier, and wanted to return at once.

No one wanted to leave town with him in that state, not just yet, until they had his story. The bartender spoke for them all. “Now, sir. If you’ll just let me give you something to help pull yourself together a bit, maybe you can tell us gentlemen just what you saw, as you said, up there, okay? We don’t mean you any harm if we delay you a minute or two, while you tell us what happened. Well, sir?”

The lieutenant gave a great sigh, and resigned himself. “He collapsed into a chair at a table, and the bartender hurried to bring him a bottle and glass. He poured, the lieutenant grabbed whatever it was, drank, choked, then drank again. Finally, he relaxed, looked out at the astonished faces of the three men, and began.

“I went to the duty station as usual, you know, the one at the lighthouse. I usually check on the site’s condition, and the buildings, then go up the steps and check finally on the light. I found nothing out of order at that point. I had my log with me, naturally, and my own lantern and flashlight, in case the system had somehow failed or been destroyed by vandals. I also had a small kit of tools in my bag for minor repairs. I sat down on the chair and waited for the timed light to turn on, and it turned on just as it was set. I still had a couple hours to do of observation before I could sign off. Well, about 1:20 all hell broke loose. I was looking out the window at water, seeing that the river mouth was storm-capped, while to the north all was clear as a bell, when I saw something nose up from the water. I thought it had to be a whale—-a very big one too. I got my glasses on it, and saw it was no whale. It was far too big for that. The moonlight was very bright, there couldn’t be any mistake what I saw: the TITANIC—-none other than the TITANIC!--you know, the one that hit an iceberg and went down in the North Atlantic forty-fifty years ago with the White Star owner and Colonel Astor and Captain Smith aboard!”

All the lieutenant’s listeners must have made the same sound, for Greg’s face grew red as he looked at them. “I mean exactly what I said, it was the TITANIC! I know what it looked like. I saw all the pictures of it, went to the movie too right with--well, I forget who was in it--but plenty people saw it at the time. We'd all think it was the same ship, seeing what I saw! It couldn't be any other--it was so huge, lit up bow to stern, and shooting off those white rockets, with boats already int he water half-filled with people...and that Indian standing on the ridge to the right of the light, he musta been two hundred feet tall, colored all blue and silver, holding up some kind of big net, with feathers hanging down from the bottom of it, like eagle feathers maybe..."

Culpepper's desperate, strained voice drained away as he looked around at nothing but skeptics who couldn't believe a word of what they were hearing.

"'Eagle feathers maybe,' he says," the bartender echoed. "'A two hundred foot tall Indian, colored blue and silver'..." He rolled his eyes and turned away, and one man snickered. The third man shook his head and headed out the door. "Gotta see to my cow, she's calving," he said, though they knew he had no such animal.

When he was gone, with only two possible rides left to the port, the lieutenant turned to them. “Well, don’t believe me! Stick with your ignorance. But I need a ride. I’ll pay anything you want! Just get me back to my boat so I can report this sighting!”

The bartender, after a wink at the barfly next to him, slipped off his apron. The barfly hurried off, giving Greg a pitying last glance as if he were looking at a mental asylyum prospect.

Culpepper could see nothing more he could do or say to convince anybody. The sight of the doomed ship was still so vivid in his mind, he couldn't think of anything else. How in the world was he going to communicate what he saw? How?

The Sinking of the TITANIC

It was a dismal ride together in the pickup down to the port, with Greg explaining the whole misadventure to a poker-faced, skeptical tavern-keeper who had falsely assumed he had heard them all in his profession.

“You see, I was just as surprised as any man would be, seeing that vast ship, supposedly sunk forever, come bursting up to the surface, lights all going down the whole length of her, and even the sound of a band playing coming up to me on top of North Head. I couldn’t think what to do. I had my log, but what could I write? All I could think to do was scribble down a lot of question marks. What else could I write? What else?”

The lieutenant’s totally bewildered face, scratched by wild blackberries and smudged with dirt, looked over at the tavern-keeper’s as he kept his mouth shut and his hands clenched on the wheel.

The pickup skidded to a halt. It was the port, and just beyond lay the lights of the small marina, and a little offshore lay anchored a Coast Guard cutter.

The lieutenant reached for his wallet, but suddenly searched his pockets. He looked sheeplishly at the tavern-keeper. “Sorry, I lost my wallet with all my money. Could you wait? I can get payment for you from the boat.”

The tavern-keeper shook his head. “This one’s on me, sir! Now you get a good rest. You’ve had a nasty fall on your old noggin up there, and all you need is a good doc and some rest, and you’ll be just fine.”

“No, that’s not what—“

The tavern-keeper reached over and slammed the door in the lieutenant’s face. The poor man didn’t get to repeat his offer as the pickup roared off into the dark down the single lane road that led through the port and back to the village.

Later, the lieutenant, bandaged and put to bed as a victim of a possible fall into a ravine, slept soundly under sedation while his superior officer read the lieutenant’s log, trying to make sense of the strange remarks and crazy behavior of this normally trustworthy officer whose record was sterling, with absolutely nothing in his previous performance that could explain the present problems he was having relating to reality.

For April 15, he had written only: ?????? and then a hurriedly scribbled subtraction of 1912 from 1962 leaving the sum of fifty. What could these notations mean? He had tried to ask Lt. Culpepper about them, but got only gibberish about there being some great anniversary afoot.

Anniversary? What could an anniversary have to do with his supposed sighting of a ghost ship? Yes, the Graveyard of the Pacific, as that stretch beneath North Head was called by everyone, held no end of ghost ships, but how many people ever saw them rise up as Culpepper claimed to see one rise up?

Could he be believed? Yes, to a point. He saw something, no doubt, but it must have been a combination of storm clouds and waves combining with some weird lighting effects.

Conditions like that could confuse any man, he knew, into thinking he saw something like a ship when it was nothing but wind, cloud, and water--elements they knew could very well conjure up all sorts of strange shapes in the right conditions of stormy weather at sea.

In the morning, when the commanding officer went to find out how the lieutenant was doing, he found Culpepper sitting up, looking terrified.

He shot up to attention as if he were facing an inspecting general. “Sir!”

“At ease!” the major said irritably. “What’s got into you, lieutenant? Do I terrify you? What have you done that you act this way on board? All you had was a bad fall in the dark. It upset your head a bit. I can understand that. Now don’t make it worse than it is by thinking we’re going to court martial you!"

Culpepper, standing awkwardly for a moment in his pajamas, sat down on the edge of the bed, then his gripped his head with his hands. “No, I fell, but not on my head. I will swear on oath, sir! What I saw was a ship--a very big passenger liner. It was the TITANIC as sure as I'm standing here with you! I—“

The major, with a smile and somewhat glazed eyes, let him go on a bit more in this vein, then smiled gently, and eased out the door, while stationing a guard to make sure the patient didn’t try to throw himself overboard before they could get him to a proper infirmary in the nearest port city.

The early discharge, of course, was a “medical”—a convenient, catch-all term used by the military and the navy to designate the “mentally impaired.” At first, his problem was thought to be too much alcohol, but when he persisted in his symptoms, they had to cross out that explanation.

Greg, stripped of his career, living on disability, lost his wife too, and to the last years of his life thirty years later solidly maintained his sanity, though no one believed his tale of what he had seen at North Head on April 15, 1961. In all that wasted time, he found ample opportunity to ask why, of course. Why the TITANIC?

And why him? What connection could they possibly have, other than that he had been unfortunate enough to be in the wrong spot on that fatal date?

He knew perfectly well that the TITANIC hit an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic, thousands of miles from North Head. So how was it he had seen her rising up from the shoal water just north of the Columbia? It had to be a phantom he had seen—not the real thing—he decided.

But what sense did it make then? And what was that Indian doing on the ridge above Cape Head, holding up something that looked like a net decorated with feathers?

The Sinking Great Canoe

Unable to get a job with his medical discharge papers hanging over him like a “Dangerous Materials” sign, Culpepper took to spending a lot of time in the local libraries of various Seattle neighborhoods. He read everything he could on the events round the time of his sighting.

Could any of them, he reasoned, have triggered this phantom ship to appear as it did to him on the night of April 15?

Not for twenty years did he arrive at the answer to his question. By then society had been transformed, by radical changes he could not have guessed back in 1962.

The changes all came about due to decisions of the Supreme Court. This discovery, of course, propelled Culpepper into a conservative mode of thinking that set him far apart from the thinking of most people in Seattle. He didn’t fit in, once he realized what the TITANIC phantom ship had come up from the sea bottom to warn the world about.

Having sunk in the North Atlantic, the message had gone forth to the East Coast. Now it was the West Coast’s turn.

But was the West Coast listening any better than the East Coast? Apparently, not! Everybody he tried to warn called him a crazy conservative and an extremist.

“But we are heading toward a disaster, a total breakup of this nation, if we keep on this course!” he tried to tell them as his listeners turned laughingly away toward a corner espresso stand for Starbucks Coffee lattes.

As Bible prophets in the past had found, Culpepper was not accepted in his own Northwest country. He knew it was the truth, since the statistics of the Congressional Record upheld his explanation for what was destroying American society root and branch, but the wrapping he himself made for the message put people completely off.

But God’s prophets are truly a peculiar bunch! When all the holes in society are cut round, they come as square pegs. Who will listen when He sends broken-down navy lieutenants who were given medical discharges? It is as if God wants to make it hard for people to grasp the truth when they have already chosen to disregard the obvious.

It didn’t help one bit when Culpepper made a final discovery. He hadn’t really seen an iceberg along with the phantom ship. What he had seen was far different.

A sort of fiery, red star had flown down around the ship, before shooting rays into the bow. It was this flaming, little star that had sunk the ship once again before his horrified eyes.

Why wasn’t anybody listening to him when he tried to describe the alien star and the havoc it would wreak on not only this planet but the whole universe?

It would also annihilate civilizations, whole cities, and what it would do in deep space it would replicate on Earth!

Why did they all laugh when he argued that it wasn’t really an iceberg that sank the world’s greatest ship but the evil star from space? Why wouldn’t they listen to him? He had seen it with his own eyes. He was an eye-witness, even if fifty years had passed since the first sinking.

Did he have any idea what this attacker was? It came as a star, but was it one? What he thought he saw in a dream was something not very starlike--a sort of worm or snake--crackling in waves of what looked like electricity and lightning.

Culpepper might as well have climbed into a barrel suit and cried “The End of the World is Coming” to jaded New Yorkers at Broadway and 42nd Street as to try to equate American society with the TITANIC arrogantly steaming ahead into utter destruction.

Americans just couldn’t put the two together, even though movie after movie came out about the TITANIC, each making tons of money for the producers and writers and theaters, and book after book to fill whole libraries, not to mention the videos. Was it because they couldn’t understand the connection? He wondered. Or was it because they wouldn’t?

He turned to the power of the pen, which had reached millions for various causes. Why not reach Seattle that way? Somehow he got his poem, "City of Destruction" printed and copied in sufficient numbers to give out to several hundred people downtown, but when he was through distributing them, he found most every copy was stashed into waste containers or crumpled up and thrown along the sidewalks for blocks each direction.

Gathering the copies, he smoothed them out, then put them carefully away in his shirt. At least they could help keep him warm at night that way.

Seattle, ever since it was founded on the tide-swept mud flats of the bay as a hodgepodge of sawmills. It should have never been built into a city when its original location was impossible for one; and so, if the truth be told, this improbable "city" had always had more than its share of eccentrics, misfits, and outright crazies (yet many of these "nut cases" made it to prominent positions in time, becoming newspaper editors and columnists, university presidents, mayors, corporation heads, leaders of mainline denomination churches, and the like, though an equal number never achieved anything society thought worth noting). This explains why Culpepper the Prophet of the Doom-Star was added to the long list of worthless "nut cases" and nothing more was thought about him.

Wandering the old downtown districts, he hadn’t been home for days when the police found the old man lying on a park bench in Pioneer Square early one Saturday morning.

He had a poster in hand covering his face from the damp, cold wind off the bay that swept up through the canyoned city streets.

Thinking he was just another homeless bum to get moving again, whose names didn’t matter to society and whose destinies mattered even less to the authorities, the officer prodded his shoulder with his stick.

The museum announcement rolled off, caught by the wind, turning bits and pieces of the picture of a ship and its name to view as it sped off: “ TI—“ “ –hibit” “art—acts”

“Hey, wake up, time to move along,” said the office, getting annoyed. But he was wrong, he soon found. Culpepper, Prophet and TITANIC Eye-Witness, had already moved on to a far better place than the self-styled paradise called the "Emerald City."

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