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The El Nil By Anthony Pacioni

Rumor had it that the El Nil once belonged to Egyptian Royalty who used it for pleasure boat trips on the Nile. It had been purchased by the British government and remodeled into a hospital ship to be used to transport patients and hospital personal. The time was February 1944. World War II was in progress.

The El Nil left New York and was taking personnel from the 34th Evacuation Hospital to England. I was on that ship. A thick red line intercepted by three red crosses equally spaced was painted from stem to stern on both sides of the ship. At night the ship was brilliantly lit. On deck, a huge spotlight illuminated a big red cross on white canvas. I assumed this lighting arrangement was proper protocol set up by the Geneva Convention and therefore should protect us from any enemy attack. Nevertheless, I felt some fear traveling on a ship screaming for attention.

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At night, standing on the deck surrounded by all that light, you could only see the water close to the ship. Beyond that point was total darkness. The stillness of the night was broken by the constant crashing of waves against the sides of the ship, producing a monotonous thud sound as the ship struggled through the resisting mass of freezing water. I felt that the ship was a perfect target for attack. I thought, what if some enemy commander decided to bring us down? In no time the ship with all its passengers would be history. Who would know what really happened?

The royalty story amused me. Here I was a commoner, walking in the steps of royalty. I wondered what my friends at home would think of me now? This thought and other speculations helped bolster my spirits. By engaging in a fantasy, I distracted myself from my inner uncomfortable feelings.

I was a lonely and frightened young man on board the El Nil. I sought ways to keep these feelings at bay. I did have friends on board who provided some support and comfort, but I really missed my family. It had been only a year since I left home. The spirit of my tribe was calling me back and the Gods of War were dragging me further away, leaving me tormented.

The cooks were British and the food they prepared reflected their customs. I ate grilled mackerel for breakfast for the first time in my life and also first tasted Brussels sprouts. I wrote home to tell them how delicious the mackerel tasted and how much I liked the Brussels sprouts. I referred to them as “Those little cabbage heads.” I’m sure that if I had been introduced to these items when I was home, I would not have been so enthusiastic to describe them, but on board that ship I looked for ways to distract myself from the fear I felt.

Many people on board got seasick. I never suffered from the malady. Seeing others tossing their cookies over the railing helped me to feel less vulnerable and gave me a sense that I had more control over my life and that was comforting.

I also thought a lot about my relationship with my father. I had the time and it too kept me from feeling that I was in a dangerous situation.

Father was a very stern man. I don't recall that he ever smiled or showed me any affection. He was constantly telling me I was no good. Yet, again and again he told me to go to school, to keep good company, not to get into trouble and so on. I guess he felt that by giving me advice I would learn to be a responsible human being. At the time I believed he was trying to harass me for the enjoyment it gave him. His treatment of me instilled in my mind the idea that I was alone in the world and that I must learn to take care of my self if I were to survive.

Thus if I were to get seasick, I would have had a double penalty. There would have been the discomfort of being sick and the feeling that my father would disapprove of it, that I was perhaps weak. This feeling would manifest itself as a general uneasy feeling that I did not understand at the time and made me feel that if I were to become seasick, something could be wrong with me.

It was important for me to remain physically fit. It gave me confidence. Whenever insecurity got the best of me I became moody. My thoughts would turn inward, searching for something that was constantly eluding me. Try as I might, I could not find it. Now I know I was looking for peace of mind that could only come when I came to terms with my feelings towards father. That occurred many years later.

On board ship I had a favorite pastime. I enjoyed going to the pilothouse to watch the scenery as the pilot guided the ship on its journey. A wide swell of the sea would swing the ship up on one side and down on the other thus putting it in a steep slant position to the surface of the ocean. Another swell would drive the prow down and the stern up. This rocking and seesawing action of the ship was one lazy synchronous movement when the weather was reasonably calm.

On stormy days the roll of the boat was steeper and excited the senses more. The ship would ride the crest of a wave for a distance of what I guessed to be at least one hundred feet high. When the ship went up the sea would pass out of sight, and all that was visible was the vast expanse of the sky. It felt like being suspended in air. The line of ascension appeared to be almost straight up. It gave me the feeling that the ship would fall over backward. Before reaching the critical point for the event to happen the wave of water supporting the ship would start to collapse. The prow would point downward and now the stern would start reaching for the sky. The prow of the ship would continue this course until the sky disappeared from view and the ship was deep within an ocean swell. I was now surrounded by dark dirty looking water. I was fascinated by this deep dive into the ocean and protected only by a window of glass. Standing there, my feet spread apart and pressed against the deck, my hands grasping some object firmly so that I would not fall, I don’t quite recall my feelings but I do remember thinking when I was suspended in that deep pocket of water that somehow I would learn some deep mystery of the sea. However, I never saw anything unusual to confirm that thought. Another idea that occupied my mind was the plate glass window in the pilothouse. It was our only protection from the sea. What if it broke? Yet I was reasonably certain that it was safe. Whoever remodeled the ship would know how to put in a window strong enough to withstand the onslaught of an angry sea.

At the midpoint of the up and down roll of the ship, when it was almost horizontal with the surface of the sea, the view was awesome. Facing me was a vast expanse of water extending into infinity. It was a world of emptiness and I had the impression of looking at the world in the beginning of time. Everywhere huge waves sprang into action. Each would begin by shooting straight up at a great height into the air and then collapse on itself with a great splash in what appeared to be a display of the raw energy and power of nature. I had the feeling of being at a point in space where nothing could touch or harm me. In some strange way it gave me a feeling of peace.

One morning I got up and as usual, went on deck. Something was wrong. I sensed it immediately. The crewmembers were huddled in small groups. They were speaking low and appeared agitated. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but later learned that during the night the pumps stopped working. The sailors had to use buckets to collect the water and throw it back into the sea. This was demanding work and try as hard as they could they were losing the battle. Slowly the water was creeping, like a wild animal stalking its prey, towards the furnaces that powered the ship. I did not know what would happen if the water reached the danger level and was not about to ask. Judging from the anxiety of the seamen, it was obviously a most undesirable event. I assumed the control of the ship would be lost and it would sink. Fortunately someone managed to get the pumps working again and all the water that could have been a source of danger to the ship was removed.

One of the seamen turned to me as if expecting me to say something. That’s when I made a fool of myself. “We could have sunk,” I said. I meant it as a joke. Suddenly everyone stopped talking and were now staring at me. I didn’t like the look of fear on their faces. Given the seriousness of the situation, I realized later that my remark was inappropriate. Someone took me aside and now, some fifty years later, I still remember his exact words. “Many a truth is spoken in jest,” he said. I really didn’t understand and asked him to explain. “The English seaman is very superstitious,” he said. “To say that the ship might have sunk is to jinx the ship and thus increase the chance of that happening.” My words must have added to the anxiety they felt. How I wished that I hadn’t made that silly joke! For the rest of the trip my remarks about the ship were guarded. I didn’t understand the life of the British seamen but I knew I had to respect their thinking.

It was a dark night when we finally landed at Liverpool. Visibility was poor. We saw everything through a mist. What remains with me now after these many years is an image of a group of enlisted men and officers, some of whom were doctors and nurses, huddled quietly together and being slowly led towards a building. A dimly lit room with a cot became my refuge for the night. No other furniture, not even a chair, was in the room. A black cloth covered the window. Time and space as I was accustomed to no longer existed for me. I sat on the bed feeling like a toy soldier put there by a child who had fallen asleep and perhaps now dreaming of a new game to play tomorrow.

The hour of reckoning had arrived for the personnel of the 34th Evacuation Hospital. The war drums began to beat incessantly. Louder and louder, they called to us, the young, the scared, the innocent, and the brave, to come forward and fulfill our mission. Soon we would be struggling with the dismal task of trying to mend a large number of bodies and tormented minds. For over fifty years, I’ve carried those brutal and haunting images, memories of madness against humanity that was the Second World War.

Originally Posted (Jul 02, 2002)

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