The Captain of the Saldanha
The Almirante Saldanha , a side wheel steamer, served towns on the Corrente river that the boats on the main river could not reach . It was old, 98 years. And it was decrepit, held together largely by paint and force of habit. And it was slow; its wheels flailed the water to so little effect that only the pilot’s skill in finding the slow side of the river let it make headway upstream. It was small, too, small enough to navigate the tight bends in the Corrente that defended its market from the large boats on the Sao Francisco..
We first class passengers, of which there were some half dozen, had cabins on the upper deck. In keeping with the scale of the boat, my feet and head both pressed against a bulkhead when I tried to stretch out on the bunk. “His” and “Hers” were closets over the paddles, each with an unpainted wooden bench with a hole. Experienced travelers brought their own paper, usually torn from newspapers forehandedly saved for the purpose. Another closet built out over the stern with an open pipe, no shower head, served as the shower.
The upper deck was covered but open along the sides letting the breeze blow through. Monkeys scattered, chittering indignantly, when we brushed the overhanging trees. At times I lounged in a ragged deck chair, feeling ompletely contented and occasionally dozed. It couldn’t have been better on an ocean liner.
Captain Wrahafnick, portly and graying, was as cheerfully solicitous for our comfort as circumstances permitted. I wondered how, with his barely intelligible Portuguese, he had managed to get this job. Even with his language failings his crew was respectful and deferential, a tribute to his personality
We took our meals with the captain at a table on the upper deck. The meals were delightful if one had, as I did, a taste for the local fare and believed that what didn’t kill the locals wouldn’t kill me either.
After supper on the last night, we sat around the table sipping coffee and chatting. The other passengers drifted away but the captain and I stayed on. He had seen some similarity in our names, possibly because in Norwegian names ‘V’ is sometimes written and pronounced ‘W”. that suggested we might possibly be distantly related. As the steward cleared the table, the captain invited me to continue the conversation in his cabin. I doubted a relationship but accepted anyway.
We sat side by side at the table in his cabin sipping coffee while he showed me his family album, stiffly posed photos of his mother and father and several siblings all robust and looking prosperous. Pictures of the family estate showed an impressive house with a stone drive that curved across a vast lawn and led to a pair of staircases that curved up from the ground level to the family quarters. There were also pictures of the servants, all in livery, and magnificent horses, called by name, and carriages. He had been born into the minor Polish nobility. As the oldest son, under the rule of primogeniture, he was heir to the family title and estates.
We talked for more than an hour. He would name the people in the pictures and recount the family’s trips to Paris, Vienna and Rome, where he saw the Pope. They were all gone, killed in the German invasion of Poland. He, the sole survivor, escaped to England on a fishing boat. After the war, he made his way to his new country, of which he was now a citizen.
The promises of his youth had evaporated, stranding him on a worn-out antique plying a minor tropical river. He told his story quietly and matter-of-factly with no railing against the cards that fate had dealt him and no trace of sorrow or longing for his lost family or his lost birthright. It was no wonder that, although less than fifteen years my senior, he was already graying. I couldn’t imagine how one could bear the losses he had borne. I thought that I felt his pain, though of course, I could not.
Reflecting on our conversation in my bunk, I realized that the Captain, faced with living in the present or in the past, had chosen to live in the present. Although he could not forget his past, it did not rule him. I admired his choice and I still do.
The next morning we reached the Sao Francisco. He stood on the deck and we waved to each other as I left. I looked back when I turned a corner. The Captain was still standing in the bright sun, waving.