A short story from a book I scanned the table of contents from earlier. It was worth the trouble just so I could get the following excerpt online, but the introductory paragraph is a gem that I’m going to post on my quotes page:
“I was weak as a baby when I was born, and indeed it was several weeks at sea before I was able to hoist a sail as well as the rest of the crew.
I LEARN SOMETHING ABOUT SEX
By Corey Ford
“You see this here fish, June?” old Britches asked me one afternoon. “This here fish is called a sucker. It’s called sucker because it will swallow almost anything. There’s hundreds of thousands of these suckers, June, and most of them read travel books.”
I never forgot the lesson that he taught me.
My life at sea started at a very tender age. In fact my first impression upon opening my eyes on the world was of being dangled unceremoniously upside down by the heels, while the family doctor spanked me repeatedly with his open palm. It seemed to me even then that this spanking business was starting pretty early, and I objected in my childish treble.
“Hey, what the hell?” I piped.
“Rockaby, baby,” replied the doctor kindly, seizing my ankles and slamming me against the mattress until I was red in the face.
“Listen, no damned son of a — can get away with that!” I gasped, my father’s blood roaring in my veins. “Rockaby, baby, eh!” and wrenching loose a slat from the cradle I swung on him with all my strength. Two hours later I reported aboard the Ethel M. Dell with my duffle wrapped up in a triangular piece of white linen.
I was weak as a baby when I was born, and indeed it was several weeks at sea before I was able to hoist a sail as well as the rest of the crew. In the meantime my father turned me over to the care of old Britches. Britches was the sail-maker on our boat—that is, when the wind fell off and we were becalmed, it was old Britches that Father called on to make sail—and from the time he first took charge of me until he perished in the fatal fire that finally destroyed our boat, he devoted his life to my care. For fourteen years he taught me the mysteries of the sea; and although I abused him and pestered him and embarrassed him as only a child can, yet everything that I am today I owe to him. Poor old Britches!
I recall Britches as the only man who was older than Father. His life was just one more of those mysteries of the sea. Nobody knew where he came from—some said he was a descendant of Robert Britches, the poet—but when he and his brother came aboard to sign on the Ship’s Articles, he fiddled with the pen for a moment and then said : “Our father’s name was Britches, Skipper, and if you don’t mind we’ll just sign on the same way.”
“Just a couple of sons of Britches,” answered Father, who knew a good joke when he saw one.
So the old sailor signed the Articles just “Britches,”1 and for fifteen years he went by no other name. In appearance he was unlike any other sailor I ever saw, an effect which was partially caused by the fact that he always wore a derby hat and carried a riding-crop. To discreet inquiries as to the purpose of these articles, he would only reply: “You never can tell when you might find a horse,” but it was generally believed that they referred to some romance of his buried past, and that in his youth he might have been thrown by a favorite mount. Whatever was his secret, Britches never told. He had a pleasant face surrounded by a fringe of red hair, and a wide comfortable lap, which did not disappear when he stood up, as most laps do, but merely ran around behind him and showed up under an assumed name. I spent many happy hours in that lap, learning some of the mysteries of the sea.
The first mystery which had to be solved was the question of feeding and clothing me during that initial trip. Fortunately the question of clothes was settled with promptness and dispatch. Britches had a pair of yellow oilskins and an old sou’ wester, which he had worn, man and boy, for fifty years and by which he set great store; but when the question of clothing me arose, he did not let any sentimental attachment deter him for a moment in his decision. Without hesitation the loyal old sailor grasped his scissors and with trembling fingers cut out the seat of a pair of father’s best pants. Soon I was clothed as shipshape and tidy as Britches and all the rest of the crew, except Father. For fourteen years old Britches was my guardian, nurse and severest critic, and no sacrifice was ever too great for his faithful old heart to make.
Although the question of clothing me was easily settled, the puzzle of how to feed me did not prove such an easy matter. Father’s friends had warned him that he was crazy to take a baby to sea; and their dire predictions seemed about to be borne out. Even old Britches was baffled. To be sure, he manufactured me a very handy milk-bottle out of an old gin bottle that Father had lying around in his bunk, half full; and he also designed a workable nipple out of the first mate’s galoshes. But when it came to filling the bottle, his ingenuity gave out.
Three days out of Frisco the supply of milk which Father had put aboard for me was exhausted, and we were forced to turn back and get more. This supply in turn was exhausted three days out, and Father had to turn back once more. The third time he got as far as four days out, but inasmuch as it took him just that much longer to get back to Frisco again, it really didn’t help much. After this state of affairs had continued for a month or so, Father grew pretty discouraged. It began to look as though we would never get more than three days out of Frisco until I was weaned.
“We’ve got to do something pretty soon,” he said disconsolately to Britches. “We’re way behind schedule, and our milk bill is getting something fierce.”
“Can’t we get milk from the ship?” suggested Britches. “A ship is she,” he added philosophically.
Father shook his head.
“We could milk her rudder,” urged Britches.
“How do you know?”
“I heard a farmer say so once.”
There was a long silence.
“If we had some cream,” said Britches, “we could add some water, and make milk out of that.”
There was another long silence. When Britches opened his eyes again, Father had left.
The following morning I was crying with hunger, and in desperation Father turned in at Norfolk Island to see if he could buy something for me to eat. He sent Britches in one direction down the island, and he went another, seeking to solve this feeding problem. His search was in vain. The native women refused to accompany him back to the ship—after all, they said, if he was so darned anxious for them he could come ashore—and after combing the island all day Father returned that night discouraged and empty-handed. Britches met him at the gangplank with a broad smile on his round face.
“Cap’n, I settled the feed problem fer the kid!”
“Where is it?” shouted Father.
With a sly grin Britches laid his finger astride his nose, tiptoed aft to the fo’c’stle, and pointed proudly to his prize. Father peered through the shadows, and saw a terrified goat tied to one of the bunks, balancing dizzily on its legs and bleating feebly.
“Cap’n, I hada helluva time gettin’ it,” said Britches, “but I finally traded your compass, sextant, and chronometer for this here dairy.”
It was the best trade Britches ever made. Father was so grateful for the goat that he gave Britches the special privilege of cleaning up after it, as long as it stayed on the ship. The happy sailors named the goat “Sweetheart,” and it soon became the pet of the fo’c’stle.
Unfortunately I was not destined to have my bottle of milk that night, nor for many nights to come. The moment we put to sea “Sweetheart” became violently seasick, and meantime I grew hungrier and hungrier. Father knew that seasickness, like a broken leg, was purely mental; but unfortunately neither the goat nor I fully appreciated this advice. For weeks it lay in its bunk in the fo’c’stle, moaning and groaning and hoping to itself that the boat would sink; and for weeks I lay in my bunk, starving to death. The crew tended the goat day and night, bringing it appetizing tidbits and magazines to read; but despite their efforts “Sweet‑heart” steadily refused to give milk. After a month had passed, Father’s suspicions began to be aroused. He decided to go aft to investigate.
That night he approached my bunk with a steaming platter of goat-meat.
“I’m afraid there’s no use waiting any longer for that milk,” he said sadly.
“Why not?” I demanded in surprise.
” ‘Sweetheart’ will never give milk, June, little girl.”
“What’s the big idea?”
By way of answer Father sat down quietly on the bunk beside me; and while I devoured my first square meal he opened his worn old Bible and turned its pages till he found a certain chapter in the Old Testament called the “Songs of Solomon.” And then in a gentle voice, while the ship creaked and the waves hissed under our bow, he read to me the explanation of the question that I had asked.
That was the first time I ever realized there was such a thing as Sex.
1 His brother left the ship immediately afterwards, having come aboard, in fact, just for the sake of the gag.
A product of New York by birth and education, he has not limited his range of living and writing. His latest book “War Below Zero,” coauthored with Bernt Balchen, tells the story of Greenland. He also wrote “Short Cut to Tokyo.” It is amazing that the same man can write such incredibly ridiculous themes as the one we selected here. Sometimes he uses the pen name of John Riddell.
Corey Ford is widely known for fiction and satire which he contributes to magazines, and for his books such as “The Gazelle’s Ears.” He can give you serious reading which makes you think, or the most delicious nonsense which makes you chuckle. The latter applies to “1 Learn Something About Sex.”
His wikipedia page is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corey_Ford