Part 2 of 2
“Here we are, senhor,” said the executive officer of the Bella Flor. He pulled a hatch aside, admitting them into an enclosed space amidships. It was a wide compartment that opened on either side to the paddle wheel enclosures. From below came the sounds of the water lapping against the ship and the motionless paddles. The men could hear a quiet creaking as the ship rocked gently with the Atlantic’s low swells.
“We are next to the engine room,” continued the officer. “These shafts and gears can be engaged to propel the ship forward, to let the paddles idle in free-wheeling mode, or to back water and slow or reverse the ship’s motion. It is a British design that was adapted and implemented in a shipyard in Oporto when the Flor was refitted fifteen-maybe sixteen-years ago.”
António Francisco cast his eyes over the gears, gap-toothed with their shattered wooden cogs. As much as he liked wood as a building material, António questioned the wisdom of making it the principal component of the ship’s drive mechanism. Steel was used sparingly and economically to reinforce the gears. No doubt the owners of the Bella Flor had saved money, but now their cargo and their passengers would be late in making port at Rio. If they arrived at all.
The executive officer watched António closely as the islander peered through the mechanism and examined the gears from different angles, occasionally rocking them back and forth. He waited patiently until António finished his inspection and stood up straight, turning toward the officer.
“What do you think, Mestre Francisco? Can you fix it?”
“Of course,” said António. “I can fix it. I will get my tools. Please to have your men remove the broken cogs. I will be able to use some of the fragments. Also have them bring up the wood remaining in ship’s stores and lay the pieces out for my inspection. I will begin immediately.”
“Very well,” said the executive officer. “Once I report to the captain, I am certain it will be as you say, mestre.”
Never before in his young life had Candido Paulo Francisco worn shoes for so many consecutive days. At his mother’s insistence, all of the children were in boots or shoes and bundled up with multiple layers of clothing. All the rest of their worldly belongings were packed in two steamer trunks in the ship’s hold.
Now at last Candido Paulo had a good excuse to set his shoes aside and employ all twenty digits in his father’s service. He sat on the deck with a length of cargo net stretched between his toes while his nimble fingers wove cord through the interstices to tighten the mesh. Generations of Candido Paulo’s forebears had similarly worked on their fishing nets on the beaches of Portugal and its islands. The boy was fashioning a mesh bag for his father’s use in the ship’s drive chamber. António would need something in which to hold some tools and materials while he worked. When nothing more suitable came to hand, he had set his son working on a swatch of cargo net. The boy was pleased to do it and it would serve.
His father was nearby, the remaining lumber from the ship’s stores arrayed about him. António sorted out the short wooden blocks intended for use as gear cogs and grouped them into sets for the gears that drove the ship’s paddle wheels. He also had a collection of splintered wood consisting of the remains of the shattered cogs that the crew had pried out of the shorn gears. He picked out some of the more substantial chunks and went to work with his one-handed splitting maul, reducing them to a pile of sharp-edged shims of varying lengths and thicknesses.
Candido Paulo brought his handiwork over to his father. He had added the finishing touch of weaving a cord through the perimeter of the netting for use as a drawstring. António placed a stack of his newly created shims in the center of Candido Paulo’s tightly-woven mesh, added the maul, and pulled on the drawstring, gathering up the net into a bundle. He fastened it to his belt with a short length of cord. The bundle dangled at his side from his waist to his knee.
“Bem feito,” he told his son. Well done. The boy beamed.
“Put your shoes back on, son. There are splinters everywhere.”
Candido Paulo sat down on the deck and reluctantly did as he was told. He brightened, however, at his father’s next words.
“Come with me. You will be my helper, yes?”
“Sim, senhor!” Yes, sir!
The cylindrical steel power shaft had been decoupled from the drive mechanism of the paddle wheels. The shaft would start turning if the engineer in the boiler room engaged the clutch, but paddle-wheel gears would remain idle while António was working on them. The wooden gears were banded with steel reinforcements, gaping holes in their circumferences showing where their broken teeth had been extracted. The whole assembly looked like a scaled-up version of a clock’s inner workings.
António shrugged off his suspenders and unbuttoned his shirt. He pulled it off and handed the shirt to Candido Paulo. He pushed the sleeves of his long-johns back to his elbows and pulled the suspenders back over his shoulders.
“Look at this, boy.”
António slapped his hand several times against the gear that would normally have engaged the power shaft. It spun freely and rapidly on its axle.
Candido Paulo was standing to one side. From his vantage point, the empty holes for the gear’s teeth began to blur together, making a darker band in the middle of the gear’s circumference. The dark band wobbled back and forth with a slow oscillation that was almost hypnotic. The boy peered at it, wondering what he was supposed to see. Then his eyes widened and he jerked his head, looking toward his father.
“It’s moving, Pai,” he said. “I mean, the holes. They wobble back and forth.”
“Exactly,” said António. “It’s out of true. The wooden gears on this old tub are warped with age and use. You see them wandering-just a bit-from left to right and back again as the wheel spins. I suspect it is the same for all of the gears. If they are all out of true, there will be a twisting of the teeth when they mesh and try to turn. If it’s too much, they break. That is what I must repair.”
“How will you do that, Pai? You can’t work the steel parts, can you?”
“No, son. But I can remount the cogs and adjust them so that they are nevertheless in alignment.”
António patted the mesh bag dangling from his hip.
“My tools are here. These tools and a good eye will suffice. Go fetch the first set of replacement cogs. We will fix this first one together as a test. Then I will climb inside and see what I can do with the others.”
It took almost two days. António lived among the gears for the entire time. He would unship each gear in its turn so that it revolved freely. One by one he replaced the missing cogs and spun the gear to check the alignment. Periodically he reached into his bag for a thin wooden shim. He’d place it carefully next to an errant cog and use the flat end of his maul to tap it into place. Then another spin to see if the alignment had been corrected. More tapping, if necessary. More spinning. When the spinning wooden cogs blurred into a steady and unwavering band under his watchful eye, he’d remount the gear and move on to the next. Candido Paulo hovered nearby, fetching materials as his father requested them. Crewmen brought lanterns as the day gave way to evening.
A plank and some ropes provided a crude scaffold that enabled António to dangle in the open spaces above the water as he worked the ends of
the drive train closer to the paddle wheels. Diolinda periodically appeared with a basket of provisions, which Candido Paulo would deliver to his father, who ate sparingly.
António’s body was trembling with exhaustion and his eyes were rimmed with red when he climbed out of the congeries of gears and reconnected the power shaft. Anxious crewmen were watching. The executive officer was among them.
“I am done, senhor,” said António. “Please to tell the captain.”
Candido Paulo gave his father the shirt he had discarded the day before. Instead of putting it back on, António wiped his face with it, the thick fabric rasping against his growth of beard.
They waited, sitting on the deck, looking at the power shaft from the engine room. Most of the loitering crewmen were gone, presumably reporting to their posts. A couple remained, though, their eyes on the drive mechanism.
A whistle sounded. It sounded again. A loud mechanical clash was heard from below decks. The engineer had engaged the clutch.
The shaft was slowly beginning to turn, applying power to the gears. The gears were moving. António appeared relaxed, but Candido Paulo was holding his breath.
They heard the slapping of the paddle wheels against the water. The Bella Flor was starting to move. Candido Paulo started to breath again.
Father and son looked at each other and smiled.
Anthony Barcellos was born in California, but his first language and original culture came from Terceira, the birthplace of all four of his grandparents. He grew up on his grandfather’s dairy farm on the outskirts of Porterville (Tulare County), a small town in the San Joaquin Valley. He soon learned English and eventually became a math teacher and writer. Barcellos has worked as a science journalist (Albuquerque Journal), computer columnist (PC Magazine), legislative aide (California state senate), and civil servant (California state treasurer’s office). He is currently professor of mathematics and department chair at American River College in Sacramento.